This past October 10 marked the centennial anniversary of the Xinhai Revolution (辛亥革命). Exactly a hundred years ago, rebels led a successful uprising against the Qing Court and toppled millennia of imperial rule in China. It was arguably the most pivotal moment in all of Chinese history. But pivotal as it was, the 100th anniversary went by in Hong Kong just like any other day. I asked some of my gweilo friends about it and none of them had heard of Xinhai. Even among the local Chinese, the word was little more than a vapid factoid they once memorized for history class but bears no relevance to their lives. Worse, the anniversary was upstaged by Apple CEO Steve Jobs, who had died just a few days earlier. When it comes to vying for attention, our Founding Fathers, for all the sacrifices they made and all the blood spilled, were no match against a gadget wizard in a black turtleneck.
To set things right, we start with a quick refresher on modern Chinese history. We go back to the turn of the 20th Century, a time when Qing Dynasty was dying a slow death from a double dose of domestic decline and foreign invasions, resulting in a series of humiliating and extremely costly military defeats. Across China, rebels and patriots in the likes of Dr. Sun Yat-sen (孫中山) turned their frustration into action and organized underground militias against the Manchurian establishment. After a dozen failed campaigns in Canton and Sichuan, the revolutionaries recovered and regrouped, and the movement began to gain traction. On October 10, 1911 (the Year of Xinhai under the lunar calendar), while Dr. Sun was still in exile in Denver, Colorado, rebels successfully overran the Qing army in Wuchang (武昌). A few weeks later on Christmas Day, Dr. Sun returned to China and was elected provisional president of the Republic of China. As is the case for all revolutions, toppling the corrupt regime was the easy part, while that far more critical question of “what happens the day after?” loomed large. Surely enough, the fledgling republic quickly plunged into an era of bloody warlord struggles, followed by an even bloodier civil war between the two dominant parties: the Communists and the Kuomintang (KMT). The Reds eventually prevailed and founded the People’s Republic on the Mainland in 1949, sending the KMT fleeing to Taiwan. Although Xinhai was every bit as momentous as the French Revolution and the American War of Independence, it wasn’t nearly as successful in establishing a new, sustainable regime. Ultimately Xinhai failed to deliver what Dr. Sun had intended for the New China: democracy and constitutional reform.
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I spent this past weekend in Taipei, a city where the red-and-blue republic flag still flies high and the portrait of Dr. Sun hangs proudly in every classroom and government office. Taiwan might have been a renegade island in the eyes of communist China, but the country saw its first democratically elected president some 27 years ago and enjoyed decades of political modernization and economic prosperity. The island state is as close as it gets to the kind of republic envisaged by the Founding Fathers, albeit on a much smaller scale. Being in the capital city in October 2011, exactly a century after the birth of the republic, and seeing street signs with such names as Minzu (民族; nationalism), Minquan (民權; democracy) and Minsheng (民生; welfare) – pillars of Dr. Sun’s famous Three Principle of the People (三民主義) political philosophy – ignited a sort of renaissance in me and compelled me to raid the history section of the enormous Eslite Bookstore (誠品書店) with revolutionary fervor. It also inspired a few personal thoughts along the way.
First off, I was struck by how prominently Hong Kong figured during the revolution. Our city, geographically miniscule and historically insignificant, played an indispensible role in everything from fund-raising for firearms to recruitment of new members and harboring fugitives wanted by Qing police. Dr. Sun, a native Cantonese speaker himself, attended the Hong Kong College of Medicine on Hollywood Road and held secret meetings in SoHo and Sheung Wan with fellow revolutionaries. The faraway British colony provided a kind of catalyst for the movement no other Chinese city could provide. I realized that every day I get to walk on the same streets and climb up and down the same slopes once frequented by heroes and martyrs, as Hong Kong took its place in history as the Cradle of Xinhai. It made me very proud.
But my pride for Hong Kong was quickly replaced by a deep sense of bewilderment. On the evening news, I saw all levels of the Mainland government putting on great fanfare to celebrate the centennial anniversary. The city of Wuhan (武漢) alone reportedly spent RMB130 million (USD14 million) to build a brand new museum to commemorate the Wuchang Uprising. Why China would go through all that trouble, when everything that Dr. Sun and the revolution stood for – political reform, civil disobedience and popular uprisings – is precisely what authorities are busy snuffing out today. Perhaps Beijing too recognized the irony and in an attempt to cure the contradiction, they did what any autocrat would have done: rewrite history to suit their need. Overnight, Dr. Sun was rebranded as the avatar of economic growth and social harmony, a cult figure somewhere between Deng Xiao-ping and Confucius. His distinctly Western political values were stripped and handily replaced with the usual Communist refrain. Dr. Sun would have rolled over in his grave. It made me very sad.
Then there is Taiwan, poor Taiwan. 60 years after the KMT’s defeat, the island state is still denied its sovereign status, joining Palestine and Vatican City as countries perennially snubbed by the United Nations. Plans for China and Taiwan to organize joint celebration of the anniversary were scrapped last minute because officials on both sides failed to agree on one simple fact: does the Republic of China still exist today? The Mainlanders argue that the republic died in 1949 when the renegades retreated to Taiwan, while the Taiwanese insist that it is alive and kicking (and hence the initials R.O.C. in the country’s long form name). Both states now claim Dr. Sun to be their founding father and both consider themselves the rightful successors to the Xinhai Revolution. So who is right and who is the schoolyard bully? All we need to do is ask ourselves, were Dr. Sun to be around today, which side of the strait would he have picked to represent his vision of the New China? And the answer is pretty obvious. But just the same, the bully stumps his feet and waves his fist, for reasoned debate is not his thing. And so Taiwan's identity crisis continues. It made me feel very sorry for them.
A lot has happened this October. Muammar Gaddafi, the man who wrote the instruction manual on how to rule with an iron fist, was killed by his subjects emboldened by the Arab Spring. The 69-year-old dictator was captured like a common cur and died the death of a street rat. As history is being written in the Middle East, half way around the world the “Occupy Wall Street” movement against the growing wealth gap in America took the nation by surprise and sparked similar protests in over 900 cities worldwide. In Hong Kong, the “Occupy Central” campaign provided the post-80s generation with a welcome outlet to vent their frustration toward corporatocracy and social injustice. Revolutions are in vogue, and the people’s power is on the rise. In his will, Dr. Sun wrote his famous last words: the revolution has yet to succeed, there’s still work to be done. A century after the day that changed China forever, the twin political goals of democracy and constitutional reform still elude our country. In this global climate ripe with revolutionary zeal, I have a dream that when history calls, Hong Kong will answer it the same way it did a hundred years ago and do us proud once again.