September 27, 2011


China 1911: The Birth of China's Tragedy: As China celebrates the centenary of the 1911 revolution this October Jonathan Fenby reappraises the uprising and argues that its failings heralded decades of civil conflict, occupation and suffering for the Chinese people. (Jonathan Fenby , October 2011,History Today)

As he renounced his presidency Sun hailed Yuan as 'the friend of the Republic, the devoted and valued servant of the cause'. Yuan certainly saw the need to modernise China and centralise power after the dislocation that had followed the rising in October 1911. But he was far from the model republican, alienating Sun who founded the Guomindang Party in August 1912 to oppose him. When Song Jiaoren led the opposition to victory in legislative elections Yuan's agents assassinated him at Shanghai station in March 1913 as he boarded a train to Beijing to claim the position of prime minister.

Yuan banned 'secret organisations', which could mean any groups he did not like, and had himself proclaimed as a new emperor, a step he was forced to annul because of the opposition it aroused. He faced regional revolts. Short of money and needing support he also got into dangerous negotiations with the Japanese, which threatened to hand effective control of much of China's administration to Tokyo.

When Yuan died of blood poisoning in 1916 he was not mourned and his lack of a clear successor set off ten years of warlord anarchy on a national scale. Sun campaigned ceaselessly for national unity, proposing a Northern Expedition from his base in Canton (now Guangzhou) in southern China but failing to make an impression before his death of liver cancer in Beijing in 1925. The following year, however, Chiang Kai-shek, Sun's successor as head of the Guomindang, led his forces out of the south to conquer or buy over the main warlords and founded a nationalist regime based in Nanjing in 1927 that endured, with many travails, until it was defeated by the Communists in 1949 and decamped to Taiwan.

The revolution that began in October 1911 did not, therefore, bring the changes its more ardent proponents had hoped for. Very few of the country's people took part in it. Local power holders - the gentry and army men - remained in place. Instead of the people whose livelihood Sun proclaimed as one of his main concerns, it was the foreign rulers and the local power holders that benefited most from the fall of the Manchus. This was a shift of regime, not a social sea change. The foreigners held on to their concessions and China was unable to keep up with Japan, the rising Asian power.

The institutions of the new republic were feeble from the start - Yuan referred to it as 'a very young baby'. That weakness undermined the fresh attempt in 1927 to launch a functioning national republic. Though there was some progress, Chiang faced recurrent regional revolts and invasion by Japan leading to full-scale war from 1937 to 1945, creating the inherent fragility of the Nationalist administration. It was not until 1949 that real revolution came to China and, when it did, it opened the path to the increasingly deranged schemes of Mao Zedong (1893-1976), leading to the Great Leap Forward of the late 1950s, the Great Famine which may have taken more than 40 million lives and then the ten years of the Cultural Revolution. Only since Deng Xiaoping (1904-97) set the country on the course of economic reform in the 1980s has China regained a degree of normality and even then it has been marked by continuing political repression.

The basic question remains unanswered of whether a nation as big as China and with the democratic deficit from which the country has always suffered can be ruled other than by a top-down regime. What is clear is that, for all the celebrations in the mainland and Taiwan this autumn, the revolution of 1911-12 brought no real solution and left China facing decades of suffering.

...but then, neither is China a nation.

Posted by at September 27, 2011 7:17 AM

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