China’s Recall Of 1911: Implications for India

Implications of recent Chinese history on Chinese-Indian relations.

A hundred years may be a brief temporal punctuation for an ancient civilisation like China or India but the commemoration of the 1911 Xinhai revolution that overthrew the Qing dynasty in China may be deemed an event of tectonic proportion for Asia, in particular  and the world by extension. 

Two millennia of imperial rule had come to an end – and Asia's first republic was born. The 1911 Revolution began as an armed uprising on the evening of October 10, 1911, when Xiong Bingjun, a soldier in the New Army engineering battalion fired the first shot in Wuhan that signalled the start of the 1911 Revolution. Thus ended one of the most enduring autocratic regimes in the world, established by Emperor Qinshihuang in 221 BC. Successive emperors held the Chinese people in thrall for centuries and the last imperial dynasty was the Qing Dynasty, which came to power in 1644 AD and which the 1911 Revolution displaced . 

However ownership of the 1911 revolution is bitterly contested between Beijing, capital of the People's Republic of China and Taipei that represents the Republic of China. In Beijing, President Hu Jintao extolled the 1911 Revolution and described it as "a thoroughly modern, national and democratic revolution." He also recalled the contribution of Sun Yat-sen, the leader of the revolution, as "a great national hero, a great patriot and a great leader of the Chinese democratic revolution." 

President Hu noted that the 1911 Revolution had shook the world and ushered in unprecedented social changes in China. While the last assertion is accurate – that China rocked the global boat and has ushered in extraordinary socio-economic changes in a milieu that that had kept its people in servitude or deprivation of different type – Beijing's claims on 1911 and the reference to 'democracy' are untenable. 

The Chinese Communist Party had little to do with 1911 and its credentials to being democratic are invalid. As the parallel celebrations in Taiwan have demonstrated, it was the Sun Yat-sen and Chiang-kaishek team that laid the foundations of the Republic of China and the transition from imperial rule to democracy – or a semblance of it that Asia's deeply entrenched feudal DNA has differently nurtured. 

The Republic of China itself under the Chinese Nationalist Party was hardly the model democracy that 1911 had envisioned. Mainland China and ROC adopted different paths after the vicissitudes of World War-II, culminating in the triumph of Mao's Long March in 1949.

Ever since, Taipei and PRC have staked their exclusive claim to both Chinese nationalism and normative political identity. 

A hundred years later, the two Chinas have evolved on different trajectories and clearly Beijing has impressive numbers on its side and the global endorsement of its brand. Diminutive Taipei is the more vibrant democracy – after the lifting of martial law in 1987 – and remains the intractable 'other' that Beijing has not been able to subsume or ignore. 

Whether Beijing is celebrating 1911 and the birth of the democratic impulse in Asia, or 1949 – wherein the Communist Party morphed into the new imperial dynasty is moot and this is the point of relevance for India. 

Anniversaries have their own import in the collective psyche of a society and states recall and embellish them in the pursuit of the abiding objective of monopolising power. 

For India, this October will mark the run up to the 50th anniversary of the humiliating defeat of the 1962 border war with China. It is fortuitous that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh addressed the combined military commanders on Tuesday – October 11 – and while there was no explicit reference to China in the PM's remarks as available in the public domain – the narrative and self-image that is being burnished in Beijing as part of the 1911 centennial commemoration is of abiding relevance to the Indian national security and military apex. 

PRC has a self-image and historical national narrative that is predicated on selective exclusion of facts and history and carefully nurtured collective amnesia. Thus in PRC's recall of the last 100 years since 1911 – the excesses of Mao's Cultural Revolution and the Great Leap Forward when millions died or were displaced finds no mention. Tiananmen of 1989, which had a Gandhian democratic texture to it has been totally obliterated in the main exhibition at the UN in New York and this is the characteristic of PRC and by extension the PLA that Delhi will have to decipher and manage. 

Like Taiwan being an intractable 'other' – democratic India that is now also exuding signs of sustained economic growth is an existential challenge to the idea of China conceived by Mao in 1949. Managing this entity which oscillates from benign panda to belligerent dragon is the challenge for the Indian political apex. 

This can be better done if India exudes both tangible military capacity and the political determination to maintain a non-provocative but equitable posture in its bi-lateral dealings with Beijing. This can only happen if the current dissonance within the Indian fauj and its policy neutral, subaltern institutional status receives the undivided and unmediated attention of the PM. 

This article first appeared in The Economic Times on October 11, 2011.

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