China marks century-old revolution amid controversy


China’s Communist Party elite yesterday marked a century since the revolution that ended millennia of rule by emperors, a date that has stoked warnings by critics that the party must tackle deeper reforms or also risk losing power.

China’s calendar is speckled with anniversaries heavy with political symbolism, and even the distant events that triggered the fall of the Qing dynasty and birth of a republic in 1911-12 have become a focus for controversy about the country’s future. President Hu Jintao said China’s history since the toppling of the Qing dynasty – and the last emperor, Pu Yi – showed that one-party rule remained vital to the nation’s hopes for economic prosperity and political unity, including reunification with self-ruled Taiwan.
“To achieve the great revival of the Chinese nation, we must certainly firmly uphold the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party,” Hu told hundreds of officials gathered in the cavernous Great Hall of the People in central Beijing in a nationally televised keynote speech celebrating the “Xinhai Revolution.”

But the party’s version of the fall of the dynasty has been challenged by critics who say the chaotic chain of coups and insurrections that toppled the corrupt empire and subsequent violent faction conflicts and invasion by Japan are a reminder of the need for democratic reform in the present.

China again faces a dangerous confluence of official corruption, volatile public discontent and stalled reform, Zhou Ruijin, the former deputy editor-in-chief of the People’s Daily newspaper said in a recent essay about the 1911 revolution. “Grievances, distrust and rancour that have accumulated over many years have reached a period when they break out,” Zhou wrote in a Beijing magazine.

In past months, authorities have shown how sensitive they are about liberal intellectuals using the events of 1911 as a mirror to criticise or cajole the government. Some seminars and debates about the anniversary have been cancelled. “For us, China’s Xinhai Revolution is still not dead history, it still has a strong resonance with present-day realities,” said Lei Yi, an historian at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing.
“A key lesson of the revolution is that the country’s fate depends on whether the rulers make the right choices about advancing reforms. Above all, there’s still the issue that a modern China needs a modern form of government — constitutional government.”

The 1911 revolution has also been celebrated in television dramas and a movie whose stars include Jackie Chan, a martial arts actor better know for high kicks than high politics. President Hu is due to leave office from late next year, when a Communist Party congress will install a new leadership.

The 1911 Revolution gave birth to the Republic of China in early 1912 under President Sun Yat-sen. Taiwan is still formally called the Republic of China after Nationalist forces fled there in 1949 to escape advanced Communist forces. Hu used his anniversary speech to warn Taiwan against ever pursuing outright independence and to call for closer ties with the island, which holds a presidential election in January.

Among the guests in the Great Hall was 85-year-old former president Jiang Zemin, making a rare public appearance after widespread speculation in July that he was in failing health, even near death, after a heart attack.