China's Tortured Century

Chinese around the world today observed the centennial of Double Ten, aka October 10, which commemorates the overthrow of the last Imperial Dynasty and the establishment, 100 years ago, of the first Chinese republic.

Double Ten is the closest thing that many Chinese have to America’s July 4 Independence Day celebration, and this year’s Double Ten, coming 100 years after the events that led to “Last Emperor” Puyi’s abdication, has special meaning.

Sadly, the centennial was not celebrated with equal enthusiasm throughout the Chinese world, which is a reflection of the disunity of the Chinese people and the unfulfilled promise of the Chinese revolution. In recent years Double Ten has been more often observed in Taiwan, where it has essentially become Taiwan’s national day (none dare call it Independence Day).

The communists who run mainland China prefer to celebrate their own particular anniversaries, especially the day on October 1, 1949 when Mao Zedong proclaimed the foundation of the Peoples Republic on from the balcony of the Forbidden City in Beijing, celebrated on the mainland and now in Hong Kong and Macau as China’s National Day.

Nothing this year in either Taiwan or mainland China came close matching the extravaganza that the Chinese communists put on in October 1, 2009, to celebrate the 60th anniversary of “Liberation”, nor for that matter what went on this July for the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party.

Not that the 1911 revolution was ignored. This year China’s top current and past leaders appeared on the stage of the Great Hall of the People, decked with red Chinese flags and a large portrait of the republic’s founding father Sun Yat-sen, to mark the anniversary. Strangely, it was held on Oct 9 perhaps not to step on a day more honored in Taiwan than China.

President Hu Jintao had some conciliatory words urging both sides to “heal the wounds of the past and work together to achieve the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” The words were more than ceremonial boiler plate. They were undoubtedly aimed in part at Taiwan’s upcoming presidential election in January.

China’s leaders would dearly love to see the incumbent President Ma Ying-jeou re-elected for a second term over the independence-minded Democratic Progressive Party candidate Tsai Ing-wen, and are doing their best to win hearts and minds with economic gestures, high level visits and other such conciliatory actions.

Beijing has done a few other things to mark the occasion, such as opening a photo-exhibition at the UN Headquarters in New York entitled “China in Development, 1911-2011.”, and the authorities have endorsed a historical film, the Xinhai Revolution starring Hong Kong superstar Jackie Chan, to be released this year. That is the name – taken from the name for 1911 on the Chinese sixty-year calendar cycle - given to the train of events started in 1911.

So it is not that the communist party leaders in Beijing ban any observance of the Double Ten, but they normally tend to play things down. The communists have a complex relationship with the 1911 and the hero of 1911, Sun Yat-sen, who is seen as being more of a Taiwan father-figure than he is in present-day China.

When I lived in Hong Kong, October was the month when people there showed their true colors. On October 1, China’s National Day, out came the bright red flags of Peoples Republic. They usually graced the front of the Bank of China and its branches and in front of fishing cooperatives subsidized by Beijing.

Ten days later those who sympathized with Taiwan, or at least the old Nationalist Chinese cause, broke out their banners. In the years preceding the handover in 1997, it often seemed as if the flags of the ROC vastly outnumbered those of the PRC. And that was especially true in 1996, the year immediately preceding the handover in 1997.

It was as if to say that by the time the first post-1997 Double Ten rolled around, the flag may not be so visible. Indeed, in present-day Hong Kong the large Taiwan contingent in the territory celebrates the Double Ten quietly in hotel ballrooms, but the police usually confiscate any Nationalist banners that are publicly displayed.

On one level, one could ask: what is there to celebrate on this year’s centennial Double Ten? The century that has passed since the Qing Dynasty was overthrown has been characterized mainly by blood, poverty and oppression. The initial fruits of the Xinhai Revolution were several decades of warlordism, disunity and civil war.

The communist victory in 1949 led directly to the great starvation of the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution that stunted a generation and culminated in the Tiananmen blood-letting in 1989, events that Beijing probably doesn’t highlight in the “China in Development 1911-2011” photographic show or any of the other commemorative events.

Of course, the last century hasn’t been all blood and oppression. The Chinese Communists take pride in finally uniting the country (save for Taiwan) and ending the previous century and a half of humiliation by foreign colonialism, symbolized by Mao Zedong’s famous words in 1949 that China’s 400 million (that was the population then) had finally “stood up”

Deng Xiaoping built on this by successfully negotiating the peaceful return of Hong Kong and Macau to Chinese sovereignty near the end of the century. In the last two decades following Deng’ great opening to the rest of the world and the market reforms, the Chinese have enjoyed a prosperity unheard of in earlier epochs.

Meanwhile, Taiwan held the first democratic change of government through free elections for president in 2000 in the country’s 4,000 years as a civilization albeit about 80 years too late to fulfill the dreams of the early revolutionaries. If China can build on these events, the second 100 years will hopefully be a lot better than the first.