Shaping history

PUBLISHED : Monday, 10 October, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 10 October, 2011, 12:00am


Today marks the 100th anniversary of the revolution led by Sun Yat-sen to overthrow the Qing dynasty and establish the first democratic republic in Asia. This should be a great opportunity to unify Chinese worldwide as Sun and the revolution are revered by Chinese from different backgrounds. There are statues and streets named after him in Taipei and Tianjin, Chiayi and Jiangmen.

Instead, the celebration of this momentous event has been shaped by politics, ideology and other social considerations. The government on each side of the Taiwan Strait is narrating the revolution in a way that favours them.

Beijing emphasises only one of Sun's famous Three Principles of the People - nationalism (minzu zhuyi). It does not mention livelihood (minsheng zhuyi) or democracy (minquan zhuyi). In Taiwan, the Kuomintang-led government is celebrating the anniversary with an eye on the presidential election in January. In Hong Kong and Macau, the anniversary is being celebrated in a more neutral way, allowing history to be presented as it was. These two cities have been able to capture the spirit of the revolution and pay due respect to its heroes. The exhibitions, plays and other events in both cities show that Sun's thinking remains relevant in China today.

His understanding of livelihood made him a social democrat. He saw the industrial and technological advances of Europe and the US and said China should learn from them - as it has done with great success. But he also saw their wide wealth gap, deep social inequalities and the exploitation of working people by the business class; he advocated active social welfare. In this respect, China has been too good a student of the United States and should follow Sun's advice to spend more on its poor, sick and elderly.

His theory of democracy included both the Western idea of checks and balances, with three separate branches of government, and two elements from Chinese tradition - an Examination Yuan and a Control Yuan. These are designed to ensure the fairness of the civil service exam and attack corruption in the public service, an issue as pressing today as it was in his time.

Many mainlanders would like to see such a system in today's China, rife with corruption. That is why Beijing has not allowed Sun's ideas to be promoted.

It has discouraged or banned unofficial events related to Sun, like an inter-university debate hosted by the Beijing Institute of Technology in April. The city's Communist Youth League reportedly opposed the event and had it banned.

It also cancelled a performance by Opera Hong Kong about the love story between Sun and Song Qingling, his second wife, that was supposed to have its world premiere at the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Beijing on September 30.

At the last minute, this was cancelled 'for logistical reasons'. The premiere will be held instead in Hong Kong this month. For an event that has been four years in the making and does not appear to contain sensitive material, the official reason is hard to believe.

Sun was a revolutionary who advocated the overthrow of a corrupt government by violence. Beijing faces intense social conflicts and a widening gap between rich and poor; social stability is its priority. The last thing it wants is a modern-day Sun or wide discussion of the issues he raised. Nor does it want people to talk of his proposals for separation of powers or public participation in government.

So Beijing has steered the celebration to safer ground - nationalism - and has organised events with this theme, like those held on September 18 to remember the Japanese invasion of Manchuria; it banned unofficial gatherings.

The emphasis is on events before 1911, how Sun organised and funded the revolution and how it took 10 failed uprisings before it succeeded. Little is said about the Republic of China that the revolution founded.

The government in Taipei presents itself as the successor of Sun, which has gone a long way to implementing his three principles: the KMT argues that the high living standards and democratic freedoms its people enjoy are only possible thanks to Sun's success 100 years ago.

The anniversary is good for the campaign of President Ma Ying-jeou, who faces a re-election battle, since it celebrates the achievements of the Kuomintang, which has been in power in Taiwan for all but eight years since the government moved there in 1949.

People in Hong Kong and Macau, meanwhile, have an opportunity to read uncensored material about the 1911 revolution. An exhibition that opened last month in the Macau Museum shows a proposal Sun sent in 1894 to Li Hongzhang, the highest-ranking reformist in the Qing government, with detailed proposals on how to modernise the country. Li did not respond - a major reason why Sun turned to violence and revolution.

Historical details like this can be viewed and interpreted freely in Hong Kong and Macau. Such freedom is a tribute to the heroes of the revolution who fought to secure, among other ideals, exactly such liberty for ordinary Chinese.

Mark O'Neill worked as a Post correspondent in Beijing and Shanghai from 1997 to 2006 and is now an author, lecturer and journalist based in Hong Kong