ONE hundred years ago on October 10th, a mutiny in the central Chinese city of Wuhan triggered the collapse of China’s last imperial dynasty. In Taiwan, which separated from the mainland in 1949 after a civil war and still claims to be the rightful heir of the republic founded in 1911, the anniversary will be celebrated with a parade, including a display of air power. But in China there are mixed feelings. The country is spending lavishly on festivities, too. But its ruling Communist Party is busily stifling debate about the revolutionaries’ dream of democracy, which has been realised on Taiwan but not on the mainland.
China and Taiwan have long disputed each others’ claims to be the heir of the 1911 revolution. Sun Yat-sen, regarded as the revolution’s leader, is officially revered on both sides of the Taiwan Strait. As usual around the time of the anniversary, a giant portrait of him was erected on October 1st in Tiananmen Square, opposite that of Mao Zedong (both wearing Sun suits, as they were known before their rebranding in Mao’s day). But the Communist Party’s efforts to play up the occasion have revealed its nervousness.
In late September, a film about the revolution, “1911”, starring Jackie Chan, a kung-fu actor from Hong Kong, was released. Officials trumpeted the movie but ticket sales have been lacklustre. The film carefully avoids dwelling on the sweeping political reforms initiated by the final imperial dynasty, the Qing, which precipitated its own overthrow. A popular television series, “Advance toward the Republic”, that focused on those reforms and was aired in 2003, was cut by censors before the series finished, and banned from rebroadcast. One scene showed Sun addressing politicians six years after the 1911 revolution with a lament that “only powerful people have liberty”. Echoes of China today were clearly too unsettling for the censors.
In the past year, officials have tried to stop discussion of the 1911 revolution straying into such realms. In November 2010 the Xiaoxiang Morning Herald, a newspaper in south China’s Hunan Province, got into trouble with the censors after publishing a supplement on the revolution. It quoted from a letter written by Vaclav Havel in 1975, when he was still a Czech dissident, to the country’s communist president, Gustav Husak: “history again demands to be heard”. The newspaper did not explain the context, which was Mr Havel’s lament about the Communist Party’s sanitisation of history. It did not need to. Its clear message was that the democratic demands of 1911 could not be repressed forever.
In recent months, upheaval in the Arab world has made officials even more nervous. In April they banned a symposium on the revolution planned by students at several leading universities in Beijing. A website advertising the event said that it aimed to look not only at “inspirational revolutionary victories” but also at things “hidden deeper” concerning democracy.
Two weeks ago the authorities suddenly cancelled the world premier of an opera, “Dr Sun Yat-sen”, which was due to be performed by a Hong Kong troupe at the National Centre for the Performing Arts close to Tiananmen Square in Beijing. “Logistical reasons” were cited, but Hong Kong media speculated that some of its content—including its portrayal of Sun’s love life—was deemed to be out of line.
But the authorities are not letting their political worries spoil a spending opportunity. In Wuhan, where the revolution began, they announced plans to splurge 20 billion yuan ($3.1 billion) on 1911-related exhibitions and on a makeover for the city. The Manchu emperor abdicated in February 1912, ending over 2,000 years of dynastic rule. Officials in Wuhan, and elsewhere, have been keeping quiet about the orgy of violence against Manchus that accompanied the upheaval (see article).
Some Chinese scholars say the revolution did little for China except to usher in chaotic warlordism, followed by authoritarian government. Such accusations have some merit. China did indeed slide into disarray, warlordism and insurrection after 1911. Any hopes of a democratic republic were overwhelmed by efforts to bring the country under control, which the Communist Party achieved in 1949. Li Zehou, a Chinese intellectual, has stirred debate in recent years by arguing that China should have given the Qing reforms more of a chance.
The Communist Party maintains that the 1911 revolution was justified, but finds itself in a quandary. Another star-studded film released earlier this year to mark its own 90th birthday stirred audiences in an unintended way. The film, covering the period from the revolution of 1911 to the Communist Party’s founding in 1921, prompted numerous comments on Chinese internet forums about the lessons it offered for rebelling against bad government. Interesting idea.