Xinhai Revolution

Rights from wrong

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 15 October, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 15 October, 2011, 12:00am


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Colluding with foreign powers to topple the government is a crime regularly denounced by government propaganda in China. This is seen as such a heinous transgression in people's mind that an offender is despised by all. But, every time we commemorate this or that event in our revolutionary past, we can't help but see that the great revolutionaries we honour today did exactly that.

The high-profile celebrations of the 1911 revolution especially embarrassed the central government. From the available information about the historic event, it was clear that Chinese people in the late Qing and early republican era were free to form political parties, publish newspapers and take part in rallies and strikes. These activities are banned today.

Some people who tried to mark the 1911 revolution their way - by visiting a memorial or placing a bouquet before a statue of Sun Yat-sen - found out that even these actions were not allowed. Frustrated, people went on the internet to ridicule the reality of Chinese politics today - the same way they did after watching the officially sanctioned film on the founding of the Chinese Communist Party, released earlier this year, that similarly made the gap between past and present painfully clear.

And, on this occasion, some scholars shared their thoughtful reflections on the notion of revolution. Inevitably, their insights are read by others in the context of our predicament today.

Philosopher Li Zehou spoke of a 'farewell to the 1911 revolution' in a recent interview, expanding on the idea he first raised in an essay he co-authored, 'Farewell to Revolution'. In his view, the Qing court would have eventually implemented political improvements and successfully turned China into a constitutional monarchy, while avoiding any social instability. Revolution is a poor choice because it results in bloodshed, and using might to defeat might only leaves society caught in a vicious cycle of violence. He argued that the regime in power should have been given more time, and 'as long as [the empress dowager Cixi] could be assured that her interests would be protected, things would slowly improve'.

To many people, this line of argument interprets history to the advantage of the central government, no different in substance to official slogans today, in the face of popular discontent, urging people to prize 'stability above all else' and 'believe in the government'. Other scholars have also responded to Li's observations about revolution, including historian Qin Hui and law professor Xiao Han.

Qin pointed out that that revolutions do not always lead to bloodshed, as seen in the 1911 revolution, while reform may not always be a peaceful process, as proven by the Hundred Days' Reform that ended in a coup. Xiao said he believed 'China has entered a revolutionary era, and a revolution is inevitable'. He also said: 'I do not expect a revolution without violence, but I want to know how unjust violence can be avoided in a revolution.' I am intrigued by their attempts to redefine revolution.

Textbooks produced by the Communist Party define a revolution as political power that comes from a gun barrel; in other words, it is the use of force to overthrow a ruler and seize political power. There is in fact nothing revolutionary about this definition; it is no more than the cycle of tyranny that scholars such as Li and economist Yang Xiaokai had warned of.

But if a revolution refers to a vigorous social movement that aims to effect changes in the power structure or social system, then this revolution is much needed in China and some other parts of the world, and in fact is already taking place.

Social movements are usually not seen as a revolution because they do not seek to overthrow governments. But these movements are also not the same as the type of self-improvement programmes advocated by scholars such as Li. Political improvements initiated by the authority are a top-down process of change controlled by the authority, while social movements are cries for change from the bottom - the people.

According to the logic of the communist government, allowing people to take to the streets would surely trigger social unrest, which in turn would lead to revolution. This is why it is exerting itself to suppress any and all social movements, with a zeal that surpassed even that of the late Qing government.

The violent revolutions of the past can never again take place in today's society, no matter how unjust the social system is, how arrogant privilege and wealth becomes, and how often government-business collusion forces people out of their home and drives them to set themselves on fire. The government's security forces would keep a lid on such a revolt.

But revolutionary social movements can and will continue to take place; they cannot be suppressed. 'Foreign powers' will continue to exert an influence, but not in the sense of the anti-Chinese campaign that Beijing suspects the West of mounting. Rather, influence comes in the form of a 'jasmine revolution' or an 'Occupy Wall Street' movement. This is a modern type of movement that will revolutionise the power structure in society. And it will do so not in secret, through a conspiracy that aims to wrest power from government; it is an open advocacy of rights for the individual.

Chang Ping is a current affairs commentator writing on politics, society and culture. This commentary is translated from Chinese