David Pilling: China Fears the Spirit of 1911





David Pilling is the Asia editor of the Financial Times.

The Japanese organisers of an academic conference to celebrate China’s 1911 revolution were taken aback a few days ago when, after months of preparation, the event was abruptly cancelled. They were not the only ones to be caught by surprise. The Beijing world premiere of an opera depicting the life of Sun Yat-sen, the first president of the Chinese republic, was also suddenly stopped for “logistical reasons”. Though many events commemorating the revolution of 100 years ago have proceeded as planned and though a giant portrait of Sun was erected in Tiananmen Square in October, several other celebrations associated with 1911 have been mysteriously curtailed.

China’s Communist party has a difficult relationship with history. The party represents an awkward, one could say irreconcilable, confluence of change and continuity. On the one hand it wants to be seen as the guardian of the revolution that began in October 1911 and ended with the abdication of Puyi, the last emperor of China, in February 1912. On the other, it stresses its own permanence, and continuity with thousands of years of imperial rule. Having come to power by virtue of two revolutions, the republican one of 1911 and the Communist one of 1949, the party now wants to consign the idea of overthrowing governments to the dustbin of history.

The circumstances of the 1911 revolution raise awkward questions for today’s leaders at the best of times. These are no doubt amplified as the Communist party begins the delicate process of transitioning power to a new set of leaders next year. The 1911 revolution was not entirely democratic. Sun rejected the idea of a parliament and his term as president lasted just a few months before power was wrested from him and a period of warlordism ensued. But talk of democracy was in the air. “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,” Chang Ping, a former senior editor of the Southern Metropolis Group in Guangzhou, writes in the South China Morning Post. Such forms of social protest are now not tolerated “no matter how unjust the social system is [or] how arrogant privilege and wealth becomes”. Today’s Communist party is thus the inheritor of a revolutionary tradition in an era in which revolution is banned.

Sun also had a complex relationship with foreign powers that does not sit easily with today’s narrative... 




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