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.