“Fear of Dragons”

The NYT has a great piece by Yu Hua on the Xinhai Revolution anniversary:

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.

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.

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.

Exactly right. Even the random-numbered anniversaries were given bigger play this year than the 100th of Xinhai seems to be getting.

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Filed under history, Xinhai Revolution

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