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Friday, 14 October 2011

The 1911 Xinhai Revolution, a defining moment for China

Midweek By Bunn Nagara

The 1911 Xinhai Revolution’s 100th anniversary, more than any other event in China’s long history, marks its modern coming of age.

GIVEN their shared history of war, few events marked by both Beijing and Taipei are happy occasions with common aspirations.

The 1911 Xinhai Revolution and its anniversaries are perhaps the greatest of these exceptions.

The 100th anniversary of this historical event, marked on Monday, shows the mainland and the outlying island at their closest point politically.

Chinese on both sides of the Taiwan Straits hail the Xinhai Revolution for throwing off 2,000 years of oppressive dynastic rule. The event 100 years ago practically created modern China.

In contrast, the 1949 communist revolution is only 62 years old, and merely characterised contemporary China.

Characterisations of a nation, particularly of a large country with a rich history and culture, tend to be more limited in scope and impact.

Besides, the birth of Mao Zedong’s communist movement is celebrated only on the mainland, and even then by a diminishing circle of the party faithful.

It is almost universally rued in Taiwan.

The Xinhai Revolution however, as a defining moment for the Chinese nation, has also become a unifying factor for Chinese history and culture.

Its 100th anniversary in particular shows the event to be the biggest political occasion for both sides of the straits, while acting as a bridge between them.

It also serves as fertile ground for nurturing modern Chinese nationalism. This year’s anniversary pays great tribute to Dr Sun Yat-sen, a leading pioneer of the Xinhai Revolution.

Beijing stressed two key goals for the Chinese nation: rejuvenation and reunification. President Hu Jintao traced the pursuit of national rejuvenation to Dr Sun’s struggle, while his emphasis on peaceful reunification drew from an aspect of China’s “peaceful rise”.

In swift response, Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-jeou identified the Xinhai Revolution as the common heritage of Chinese on both sides of the straits.

Besides endorsing Hu’s call for more cooperation to ensure peace and development, Ma also touched on the common concern that no party should disrupt the status quo.

This accords with Beijing’s two major priorities: that both sides abide by the “1992 consensus”, and that there should be no “Taiwan independence”. These themes are well accepted in Taipei.

Ma’s presidency over the past three years has seen steadily improving relations across the straits. His Kuomintang party is nationalistic, which gels with the mainland’s current tendencies.

Communist ideology is a “product” with declining popularity on the mainland, particularly as a capitalist-based economy continues to make giant strides.

It is a “sunset industry” despite the best efforts of the Communist Party of China, and few others know it better than party leaders themselves.

Hu and his colleagues, more as national than party leaders, realise that the structural integrity of the nation is an even greater priority than the viability of the party.

The main priorities are therefore political stability and national unity, whether this means reviewing some traditional controls or asserting a firmer grip on specific issues.

This has meant party hardliners like former premier Li Peng receding into the background, in terms of both public visibility and government posts.

It also means that leadership style has changed in the context of modernisation.

Deng Xiaoping was a landmark leader who ushered in a new, pragmatic, post-Mao China.

Then post-Deng, China no longer has any charismatic, ideologically domineering “paramount leader”.

Chinese leaders today are professional technocrats tasked with national administration.

Former president Jiang Zemin and former prime minister Zhu Rongji were both engineers, the latter with a good practical knowledge of economics.

Current President Hu and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao are also both engineers, the latter with a working knowledge of geology.

Their successors, respectively Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang, are a chemical engineer and a lawyer-economist.

Next year’s succession also makes the 100th anniversary more significant.

That is why Jiang has appeared publicly with Hu at this week’s anniversary, to emphasise a sense of continuity.

In politics as in cross-straits relations in particular, continuity is crucial because it signifies stability and growth.

They are both cause and effect of improving ties between Beijing and Taipei.