Beijing’s underground system, hastily expanded for the 2008 Olympics, is spacious and modern. Its trains move so quietly that the ringing of mobile phones and the shouted conversations that ensue almost drown them out. Peremptory public announcements order passengers to Stand Back! Board the Train! Prepare for Arrival at the next Staion! Get off! As they wait for a train, passengers can gaze at the many screens that display frenetic advertisements, which seem there to ensure that Beijing’s workers do not forget how to shop during their daily commute.

On 1 July, every screen in the underground was tuned to the Chinese Communist Party’s celebration of its own ninetieth birthday: a cast of several hundred waving gigantic red flags on the gargantuan stage of the Great Hall of People, the main theatre of government ritual in Tiananmen Square into which the people, in fact, are rarely invited. An equally monumental orchestra and chorus came to a climax of synthetic joy in praise of the Party. The leaders smiled wanly, as though native modesty forbade a greater display of emotion.

There were two historic anniversaries this year in China. The first was celebrated in pompous ceremonial and portentous speeches. The second, the overthrow of the imperial system in 1911, seems doomed to slip by, noted without fanfare in a few museum exhibitions. Anniversaries, of course, can be a two-edged sword: they invite historical reappraisal. In China, revisionism, other than the Party’s own, is not encouraged.

The Chinese Communist Party was founded in a small building in the then French Concession in Shanghai in 1921. Its ninetieth birthday party – one decade short of a century – seemed oddly anxious. A human ninetieth birthday is both a salute to endurance and a tacit recognition that it could be the last big milestone. Better to have the party while we can. But why strain so hard to celebrate the ninetieth birthday of a political party that intends to be in power for the foreseeable future? And why not celebrate the 2011’s authentic centenary, one that marks an epoch-making moment in China’s progress from political stasis to modernity? Could it be that revisiting 1911 risks reminding Chinese citizens of a time when pre-Communist revolutionaries planned for a plural, democratic future?

The Qing Dynasty was overthrown ten years before the Party came into existence. Aixinjueluo Puyi, the emperor Xuantong, was a five-year-old child who had been put on the throne in 1908. His ancestor, Nurhaci, a minor Jurchen chieftain, had risen to prominence north of the Great Wall through an effective mix of warfare and diplomacy with his Mongol neighbours. From this power base his descendants invaded China in 1644 as the Ming Dynasty was collapsing. Xuantong was the tenth of the Manchu clan that had ruled China ever since. They had doubled the territory of any previous empire and pushed the dynasty’s boundaries far beyond the Great Wall to claim suzerainty over Mongolia, Tibet and Xinjiang, as well as retaining control of their native Manchuria. But by 1911, the Qing’s golden years were over: after decades of decline, foreign incursion and internal rebellion and despite belated moves towards a constitutional monarchy, the empire collapsed in an almost accidental revolution.

The uprising began in a military barracks in Wuhan on 10 October 1911, though nobody quite intended it to start then. The man who had struggled for years to make a revolution, Sun Yat-sen, was abroad. The military officers in Wuhan had been plotting and it was the discovery of their plot that forced them to act. Perhaps to their surprise, their premature revolt fell like a heavy stone in a stagnant pond, its widening ripples eventually reaching almost every part of the febrile empire. Within weeks, the majority of China’s provinces were in revolt and by the end of the following year the child emperor had abdicated.

With the emperor no longer at the apex of power, there emerged a messy kaleidoscope of players and a cacophony of political ideas. Many aspired to establish a modern political system, a national republic with elections, modern law courts and a constitution. After two thousand years in which the country had been synonymous with the imperial dynasty du jour, China would belong to its people; its people eagerly debated everything from the backwardness of China’s hierarchical culture to the emancipation of women. Elections were held and provincial assemblies set up. But the ambitions of 1911 were to fail over the next forty years under the weight of warlordism, the Japanese invasion, famine and civil war. Instead, in 1949, China got the Communist Party.


The passengers on the Beijing underground that morning seemed unmoved by the celebrations, glancing away from the screens with what seemed like indifference or even contempt. The public’s real feelings about the Party were visible less than a month later, when thirty-nine people died in a crash on a hastily built and badly run high-speed rail line. Public anger at the Party’s corruption and untouchability exploded across the country.

Once, the Party’s celebrations would have been enacted in every workplace, with obligatory attendance at long political meetings and glum official concerts. Today, it no longer pretends to inspire or to include: its rituals recall the gigantic choruses of Soviet state occasions or North Korea’s mass games, but the masses have long since left the auditorium. The more they are reminded of the early Party, with its ethos of sacrifice and struggle, the sharper the contrast with today’s millionaire bureaucrats, with their oppressive taxes and their overweening security services.

The Party operates behind closed doors, its struggles hidden from public view, its moral decay the subject of tittle-tattle over dinner among the well connected. Within those circles, it is no secret which leader’s wife or son owns which Beijing office building, which holds billions of dollars of stock in New York-listed companies. Inside the charmed circle everybody knows; outside, it is wiser not to.

Corruption loomed large in President Hu Jintao’s birthday speech, as it has in every leader’s speech for nearly three decades. From time to time, a prominent official will lose his job or be executed for embezzling large sums from the public purse. But picking off individual officials, as everybody knows, is no substitute for a systemic clean up and the repeated promises are as empty of meaning as the parade of red flags and other symbols of a shrivelled revolutionary age.

The people disconnected some time ago from a narrative that casts Communist ideology as the single engine that has carried China from feudal oppression and foreign occupation to independence, social justice and now capitalist prosperity. In the closing years of the Cultural Revolution, officials would lecture me on the centrality of class struggle, the starting point for everything, they insisted, from family life to culture. Last year, in Shanghai, I heard a party theorist read a tortuous paper which argued that Karl Marx’s central idea was not class struggle but social harmony, in support of the Party’s most recent policy turn. However distant its practice now is from anything Marx or Mao would have approved of, the old compulsion to rehearse the Leninist pedigree of successive positions persists. It was like watching the reflexive twitching of a chicken whose head had been cut off.

Harmony is a code for political stasis, for the right of China’s present rulers to stay in power. The evils that revolutionaries of 1911 had identified: bureaucracy, corruption and a suffocating Confucian conservatism, are thriving and the Party’s appeal has shrunk to the warning that without their firm hand there would be chaos. It is not a good moment to remind the Chinese people of the revolution that bred a ferment of ideas ten years before the Communist Party was born.

Official references to 1911, so far, have been perfunctory. In October last year of 2010, the state news agency Xinhua announced that the Standing Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, one of the country’s several powerless talking shops, had decided to commemorate the centenary. ‘The 1911 Revolution,’ the report said, was ‘led by Dr. Sun Yat-sen,’ and had ended ‘thousands of years of Chinese feudalism.’

But as the tinsel from the Party’s ninetieth birthday party was swept away, the only prominent commemoration of the moment when China embarked on its complex experiment in democracy and modernity has not been in Wuhan, where it began, nor in Beijing. It has been in Hong Kong, a place that can claim to have contributed to the ideas that fed the 1911 revolution and which still survive there. For the current imperial machine, behind the high red walls of the Forbidden City, it all seems increasingly complicated.


Photo by Gregory Jordan.