Children of the revolution, grown older and apart

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


A visitor to Shantou in eastern Guangdong, glancing at the street names in the city centre, might imagine himself or herself in an earlier age.

The main east-west road is named after Sun Yat-sen, the founder of modern China, and the three main north-south streets are named Minzu (nationalism), Minquan (democracy) and Minsheng (people's livelihood) - the three pillars of the late revolutionary leader's political philosophy.

It is a pattern followed in many other southern cities, such as Guangzhou, where revolutionary activities were launched 100 years ago - and across the straits (see next page) - with main roads and parks named after Sun and streets named after his Three Principles of the People.

These names were given shortly after the 1911 revolution overthrew the Qing dynasty and established the first republic, and they have survived under communist rule after the Kuomintang founded by Sun fled to Taiwan at the end of the civil war in 1949.

There are 187 Sun Yat-sen roads in mainland cities and many more streets, parks, museums and public places named in his memory.

They are geographic proof that the communist leadership has recognised the impact of Sun and his revolution on modern Chinese history.

They also show its willingness to inherit, albeit selectively, some of his legacy, even though the party has been ideologically committed to the eradication of the bourgeoisie, who were at the centre of that revolution.

The revolution began with the Wuchang uprising in Hubei on October 10, 1911, and ended with the abdication of emperor Pu Yi on February 12, 1912.

Despite their bitter ideological differences and a rivalry stretching back 90 years, both the ruling Communist Party on the mainland and Taiwan's KMT regard the revolution as a hugely important milestone on China's road to modernisation.

The Three Principles were the core of Sun's political philosophy in his efforts to make China a free, prosperous and powerful nation.

It was a legacy claimed wholesale as the basis for the ideology of the KMT under Chiang Kai-shek and one also tacitly accepted by the early communists, including Mao Zedong, and all the party's leaders since. Calling Sun a 'great patriot' and 'a great pioneer of the Chinese democratic revolution', communist leaders have sought to depict themselves as loyal successors to the revolutionary cause he initiated.

The Communist Party's hesitancy in recognising what it calls 'bourgeois revolutionary doctrine' stems from Marxist theory, which says that a proper communist revolution can only be led by the urban proletariat after a bourgeois revolution puts an end to feudalism. Mao changed that strategy and positioned the party to lead a successful, rural-based revolution to eventually overthrow the KMT government.

Today, both parties largely agree on the meaning of nationalism but differ sharply on the meaning of democracy and people's livelihood. The KMT sees them in Western, social democratic terms, while the Communist Party interprets them from a Marxist perspective.

In his book Sun Yat-sen's Three Principles, American historian Stan Rubenstein said that because Sun's ideas were partly influenced by American political economist Henry George and partly by Karl Marx, his political philosophy cut across political lines and was designed to be 'altered or revised as the revolution took various turns'.

The mainland has upheld the importance of nationalism and people's livelihood amid three decades of capitalist economic reform and integration with the global economy.

Its nominally Marxist ruling party now claims that its rule is legitimised by its ability to deliver national strength and prosperity. However, the Western-style democracy advocated by revolutionaries a century ago remains taboo.

The Communist Party can claim to have fulfilled the nationalism principle - Sun wanted a unified nation and an end to foreign colonialism and rule by warlords - with the founding of the People's Republic in 1949. China is now a world power, no longer subject to bullying by Western forces. And nationalist sentiment is on the rise, with many critics accusing the leadership of stirring it up to consolidate its rule.

As for the people's livelihood, the party is now credited with managing an economy that has averaged double-digit growth for three decades, although that was preceded by three decades of misrule and misery under Mao's extreme, Stalinist-style central planning.

But in terms of democracy, the mainland remains under one-party authoritarian rule that tolerates no political dissent.

Professor Steve Tsang, director of the China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham and Emeritus Fellow of St Antony's College at Oxford University, says there are big differences in the claims by the Communist Party and the KMT to be the heirs of Sun's legacy.

'I don't think the Chinese Communist Party has inherited the Three Principles from Sun Yat-sen,' he said.

'Taiwan under Chiang Kai-shek did, and eventually developed, as required under the three principles, into a genuine democracy, where social inequality is relatively modest for a state at its stage of development, and its people proud of who they are.'

After the death of Deng Xiaoping, the Communist Party forged a model for governing that was drawn from elements of Sun's republican revolution and lessons from China's own imperial history, Tsang said. It also studied strategies for control, organisation and propaganda used elsewhere in the world.

'The political model and guiding principles of the government in China today are not those of Sun's Three Principles,' he said.

Tsang said the choice of nationalism and people's livelihood as the new, though informal, state ideology was meant to enhance the party's capacity to stay in power in two mutually reinforcing ways.

'It is to provide a new ideological basis for legitimacy on one hand and to serve as a new rallying force to develop a national aspiration around the leadership of the party on the other,' he said.

As for the people's livelihood, Tsang said social inequality on the mainland had never been greater in the past century than now.

Only in the realm of nationalism could the Communist Party claim to have upheld Sun's legacy, he said, but the nationalism of Sun and of the Communist Party were not the same.

He said Sun's nationalism was mostly about removing imperialism and promoting the development of China as a nation proud of itself for what it is.

'The Chinese Communist Party was not responsible for ending most of the imperial legacies Sun had in mind,' Tsang said. 'Which 'unequal treaty' was abolished by the authority and diplomacy of the Chinese Communist Party government? None - unless one includes the retrocession of Hong Kong and Macau.

'The other 'unequal treaties' from the Qing period were all abolished in the republican period, particularly when Chiang Kai-shek was in power on the mainland.'

Zhang Ming, a political at Renmin University, said the Communist Party had not openly advocated or rejected the Three Principles of the People, even though it portrayed itself as a successor to Sun's revolutionary cause.

'The Communist Party has only selectively inherited some of Dr Sun's doctrines in a pragmatic manner,' Zhang said.

He explains his ideas in his recently published book Xinhai - Shaking China (xinhai being the year of the revolution in the traditional 60-year calendrical cycle).

Tsang acknowledged China had made huge changes and very impressive progress under the leadership of the Communist Party after the madness of the Maoist era, but that was not the result of an adherence to Sun's Three Principles.

'The Chinese Communist Party has chosen its own way forward,' he said. 'Its current approach is very nationalistic, anti-democratic and not focused on narrowing social inequality. It is development-oriented and efficiency-focused.'

Hopes that the party might finally edge towards the Western-style democratic reform advocated by Sun - 30 years after experimenting with open market forces - have gathered steam in the past year following frequent calls for meaningful change by reform-minded Premier Wen Jiabao.

The awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to jailed dissident Liu Xiaobo last year brought more calls from within and outside the establishment for political reform.

But it now seems clear that neither Wen nor President Hu Jintao have any plan to carry out even modest political reform, with the communist security apparatus stepping up a crackdown on dissent amid widespread social discontent and a rising number of protests.

Tsang said that despite the real and significant changes in the political arena on the mainland in past decades, the Communist Party still vehemently rejected democracy.

''Chinese democracy', as interpreted and implemented under the Communist Party, does not accept any scope for it to lose power,' Tsang said.