100 Years of Revolution in China
Image Credit: Francisco Diez

100 Years of Revolution in China


On Sunday, China celebrated the 100th anniversary of the Xinhai Revolution. A century is just a flash in the perpetual flow of history, but an age for individual human beings. When the republican revolution swept across China in 1911, overthrowing the Qing dynasty, the country had been in a miserable condition of mass starvation, internal rebellion and foreign invasion for much of the previous century.

Optimism accompanied the abolition of the 2,000-year-old imperial system. Sun Yat-sen, who led the revolution and the Nationalist party, set out three grand national goals: achieving independent nationhood through expelling foreign occupiers, establishing a democratic republic and restoring China to prosperity by nurturing the people’s welfare.

But the Chinese people had to struggle for generations more to realize elements of these dreams. Local warlords and their rivalries replaced the young republic weeks after the fall of the imperial system; foreign powers took advantage of the internal turmoil and strengthened their spheres of influence; Japan, the only Asian country to succeed in modernizing itself quickly, steadily and brutally occupied China and much of Asia in its own quest for empire. Sun passed away in 1925 with his dreams dashed. And one of the world’s oldest civilizations faced a pivotal crisis of survival.

As it turned out, it wouldn’t be the Western democratic model admired by Sun and his followers but Leninism, born out of the Russian Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, which inspired Mao Zedong and his fellow young Communists. Established with only a few dozen members in 1921, 10 years after the Xinhai Revolution, the Chinese Communist Party went on to fight off the Nationalists and the Japanese invaders, eventually taking power in 1949.

The Xinhai Revolution’s only real success was to end the prolonged death spiral of the impotent and corrupt Qing court; true independent nationhood came with the establishment of the People’s Republic in 1949.

Yet the ‘New China,’ with all its promise and enthusiasm, experienced two vital failures in its first three decades. The first was Mao’s radical political activism of ‘continuous revolution.’ Endless political movements, peaking with the notorious ‘Cultural Revolution’ in the late 1960s, which pitted party members, government officials as well as the masses against each other, tore the country apart.

The earlier ‘Great Leap Forward,’ Mao’s political mobilization in 1958 to catch up with the United States and Great Britain economically, ended in disaster. Over the next four years, policy blunders and crop failures caused massive famine, leading to some 20 million to 30 million deaths, one of the worst tragedies in human history and still the darkest page in China’s history.

The second failure was implementation of the ‘Soviet model,’ an economic and social system that emphasized central planning, direct state control, denial of private ownership and free market mechanisms. As a result, the Chinese economy, although growing at a respectable pace among Third World countries, lagged far behind its East Asian neighbours such as Japan and South Korea.

It took Mao’s death and the coming to power of Deng Xiaoping in the late 1970s to end such ideological extremism, to begin the reforms that would eventually discard the Soviet model, and launch China on the road to economic modernization.

Over the past three decades, China has maintained the fastest and the most sustained pace of economic growth of any major power in history, lifting the greatest number of people out of poverty within the shortest period of time. Life expectancy has doubled since 1949. The Chinese have built cities, skyscrapers, highways and high-speed railways on a scale unprecedented in human history. The urbanization process is accelerating with emerging middle class consumers numbering in the hundreds of millions.

Today’s China is the world’s second largest economy, and the largest trading and manufacturing nation. It will soon overtake the United States as the largest economy. Another of Sun’s goals — the people’s welfare and national prosperity — have been achieved for most Chinese through their own hard work and endurance.

But China faces formidable challenges ahead. Its high growth model, although superior to the Soviet model, is no longer sustainable. The lack of energy and natural resources, the pressure of a rapidly aging population, the increasing gap between the rich and poor, and the deteriorating environment all require visionary and innovative political leadership.

Such political leadership is in short supply in China today, largely due to the fact that the Chinese mainland’s struggle to achieve national independence and economic prosperity hasn’t been accompanied by bold democratic reforms, as happened in Taiwan, where the Nationalist party holds power through democratic elections.

Yet, there are signs of progress. We should remember that in looking back over the past 100 years of modern China’s violent and turbulent history, the transfer of power from president Jiang Zemin to Hu Jintao in 2002-03 was the first and only time a peaceful, institutional and orderly transition of power from one leader to another was carried out. And the Chinese Communist Party is moving cautiously to the next power transition next year.

In celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Xinhai Revolution, let’s hope that the Chinese people will soon realize Sun’s last goal: to establish a true democratic society in China.

Wenran Jiang is an associate professor of political science at the University of Alberta and a senior fellow at the Asia-Pacific Foundation of Canada.

Reyaz Parrey
October 27, 2011 at 21:15

Good piece of writing by W. Jiang. Good luck to chinese bro’s for 100th anniversary. I was knowing little about China’s past 100 years. ThanX to such an article.

Danny Agoos
October 23, 2011 at 11:46

Pls notice that Sun Yatsen’s Double Ten Revolution as it is commonly called is the midwife of the Republic of China (ROC). After communist victory in 1949, the ROC evacuated to Taiwan, until today

October 16, 2011 at 07:27

@aaron – The third-to-last paragraph clearly gives ROC credit for its democratic system. Did you even read the article? Unbelievable.

October 15, 2011 at 11:30

This article should have been titled, “100 Year of Revolution in Mainland China”. Why no mention of the remarkable democratic revolution which has occurred in the ROC??? Isn’t Tawain/ROC part of China??? These Mainland authors go around screaming that Taiwan is a part of China but when do they ever give attention or respect to the social and democratic achievements of people in Taiwan???

October 13, 2011 at 14:59

@Cam. Why don’t you organise a navy SEAL team to free, rescue him from Chinese jail ?

October 13, 2011 at 01:05

@Ochlocracy. Thank you for sharing. I see you have a number of very valid, strong points.

October 12, 2011 at 10:03

Mr.Zhao’s ordeal was No doult difficult and hard for him personally. To be fair to the man and the other people, any attempts to use his sacrifices or sufferings to advance some people or government’s intended purposes of demonizing China or the current CCP is immoral and dis-respectful to the man himself. Similarly, some people like to draw the connections or similarities of his ordeals with those of the so-called activists(sure! they are active. The problem is that they are actively doing the wrong for their country-China). In fact, many of the Nobel prize winners from China turned out to be people whose ideas or beliefs are detrimental to the Chinese nation and hence highly praised in the West–fortunate NOT in China.
If anyone in China or the World for that matter,deserving the Nobel prize it should be the late Comrade Deng XiaoPing who was instrumental in lifting the largest number of people out of poverty never before seen in human history.
Don’t forget Mr.Deng himself was also a victim during the cultural Revolution. Not only did he NOT holding any grievances against the nation, he persisted and was able to re-emerge to fulfil his dream of making positive contributions to his “motherland”.
P.S. ” I am a son of the Chinese people, I am deeply and whole heartedly love and cherish my motherland” said,Deng XiaoPing.

October 12, 2011 at 04:21

Blanket prescription of “democracy” to cure all ills in all societies is simply dishonest. First of all, the United States, “democracy’s” foremost prosthelytizer, is not a democracy. It is technically not even a representative democracy — But a constitutional republic. There is a not-so-subtle difference between the two, even though that distinction is conveniently ignored by most politicians in this country and most people in this country doesn’t know the difference. But it is a fact. Simply put, the founders did not create a democracy because they wanted to put law before men — Anyways I digress.

China needs evolutionary political reform. But I am not sure that “democracy” is the right way to go either. Dr Sun Yet-Sen did not advocate democracy. The 3-people principles spoke of 民族主義、民權主義, 民生主義. As you who read Chinese will clearly see – NO democracy there. But the middle principle of the 3 — does speak of civil rights as in liberty. But as you who took high-school poli-sci perhaps can remember, liberty can not be guaranteed by democracy, liberty can only be guaranteed by the rule of law.

To get to my point — Is that, in any society. Good governance has to come before democracy. And democracy can only be effective with an educated populace that respects the rule of law. China does not have the prerequisite of these, yet. Revolutions do no provide these prerequisites alone either. Evolution does. And even then, republicanism is preferable to democracy in many large countries — including the United States, because it provides checks and balance against tyranny of the ONE and the MANY. China will evolve into a more representative republic. There is no doubt about that. But to say that “democracy” is the solution and the ONLY solution for all of its many troubles at home is (with all due respect) perhaps a common self-delusion.

yang zi
October 12, 2011 at 00:55

nirvana, I am not passing judgment of who is right or wrong, I am saying how you treat your political enemy. the first step of achieving democracy is the tolerance of your enemy. if a country’s culture can’t do that, don’t practice democracy, otherwise you are in trouble.

yang zi
October 12, 2011 at 00:52


I hear what you are saying. I think Chinese system is good for the last 30 years, but as the economy changes, China need to innovate, a democratic society is better for that. or may be more accurate, a free society is better. As long as it is free. China is freeer but not enough.

John Chan
October 11, 2011 at 21:55

Liu XiaoBo is a lackey of western imperialism; he is the tool for the predatory western imperialism to interfere China’s internal affairs and to break up China. He did such a fantastic job for the western imperialists, they gave him a big bundle of money called Nobel Peace Price in disguise.

Share your thoughts

Your Name
Your Email
required, but not published
Your Comment

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief