Lord Ye, it is said, loved dragons so much that he had them carved on his wine vessels and personal accessories and even made them the theme of his interior decoration. One day a real dragon came down to check things out, pressing its nose up against Lord Ye’s window while its tail swished about outside. Lord Ye, scared out of his wits, turned around and fled.
I am reminded of the story as I observe the centennial of China’s 1911 revolution, the series of uprisings that brought down the Qing dynasty and established a democratic republic. The government loves the hoopla, which culminates Monday, as long as it can invent it and control it. But when the real thing shows any sign of approaching, it panics.
In the end, the celebration has revealed less about 1911 than about Beijing’s fear of change. Sanctioned commemorative displays tend to be showy distractions that avoid any reference to the transformative effects of the revolution.
One example is the return of the Zhongshan jacket — better known in the West as a “Mao jacket” but introduced by Sun Yat-sen, the hero of 1911. Only this one is 14-feet tall with buttons 5-inches wide. The jacket was designed for display all around the country in the centennial year and will be submitted to the Guinness Book of World Records. Another example is the 80-foot-high stone sculpture of Sun Yat-sen’s wife, Soong Ching-ling, in Zhengzhou. Its base, which covers an area of 8,000 square feet, is intended to serve as a conference hall that can accommodate 600 people.
Then there’s the photo exhibition at the United Nations headquarters in New York titled “China in Development 1911-2011.” The show claims to reflect the course of China’s development over the last 100 years — but there is no Great Leap Forward, no Cultural Revolution, no Tiananmen protests.
Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. Chinese history has never opened its door to democracy. As 1911 demonstrated, democracy enters China only by smashing down the door. The years of intellectual ferment that followed, from 1912 to 1927, marked perhaps the period of greatest freedom in 20th-century China. In that era of social activism and freedom of speech, an immense variety of political parties and organizations played a role in society. Today, the eight so-called “democratic” parties are just helpmates to the Communist Party.
The freedoms of the early Republican period did not last. They were strangled in the cradle, and the guiding principles and separation of powers that Sun Yat-sen espoused perished with his passing. China removed its imperial autocrat’s hat in 1911, but after civil war and war with Japan, it donned the new costume of state dictatorship in 1949.
As the centennial approached, many Chinese people wondered out loud how things might be today if that infant democracy had been allowed to grow up. Thinking back to the corruption at the end of the Qing dynasty and the heightened tensions on the eve of the 1911 revolution, they saw a mirror image of the realities of China today, with its corruption and inequity.
Some went so far as to post such blunt statements on the Internet: “On the 100th anniversary, we await a revolution that will overturn the status quo.”
Realizing the danger, and rattled by a string of social conflicts in recent years, the Beijing government has clamped down on any discussion of democracy or revolution, whether it be references to the liberalizing wave sweeping the Middle East or comments about China itself. When the National People’s Congress and the National Political Consultative Conference met in Beijing this spring, police surveillance was elevated, with round-the-clock patrols at intersections and on major shopping streets. At great expense, three-quarters of a million people were mobilized in community-watch activities.
Liang Qichao, a key reform figure in the late-19th century, once said that the measures taken by the Qing government to guard against popular unrest were infinitely more elaborate than those of advanced countries. Over a hundred years later, China remains the leader in efforts to forestall popular protest.
So it is with only superficial gestures that our officials commemorate 1911. They claim to be celebrating 1911, but in fact they are hailing 1949, when the People’s Republic of China was proclaimed.
In Wuhan, the birthplace of the 1911 uprising, police were directed to reinforce their patrols between Aug. 27 and Oct. 10. Apart from the several thousand officers conducting patrols each day, 100 paramilitary police and 200 special police armed with submachine guns have been assigned to street duty. A quarter of a million surveillance cameras watch every corner 24 hours a day — all in the name of “creating a peaceful environment for the centennial.”
I have no doubt that Lord Ye loved dragons — so long as they were purely ornamental. Nor do I doubt that our government wants to commemorate the 1911 revolution — so long as the tributes are confined to decorative knickknacks, or to flights of fancy in interior design.
Yu Hua, the author of the forthcoming book China in Ten Words. This article was translated from the Chinese by Allan Barr.