Advocating independence and full autonomy has nothing to do with high treason. Quite the contrary, some eminent figures during the era of Republican China were ardent torchbearers of such thoughts.
I mentioned in previous columns that an independent Taiwan was first envisaged by some members of the Taiwan Communist Party in its founding manifesto. Led by Hsieh Hsueh-hung (謝雪紅), many of the earliest communists on the island were indeed members of the Chinese Communist Party.
Now we know that these people sowed the seeds of Taiwan separatism but the influence of even today’s pro-independence activists in Taiwan fail to hold a candle to that of Mao Zedong, who once claimed that Hunan, his home province in central China, must become an independent republic.
Historical facts and articles about Mao’s “Republic of Hunan” can be found in the book Collected Works of Mao Zedong in His Early Times compiled by the Party Literature Research Office and published by the Hunan Provincial People’s Press in 2008. His thoughts and comments back then are still applicable to today’s Hong Kong.
In 1915, after the abdication of the last Qing Emperor in 1912, Yuan Shikai (袁世凱) restored the monarchy and made himself the Emperor of China. Not a few regional authorities rejected Yuan’s authority and warlords in southwestern provinces launched military rebels that forced Yuan to abolish his accession to the throne.
Prominent revolutionaries and thinkers like Liang Qichao (梁啟超) and Zhang Taiyan (章太炎) then concluded that the top-down approach to introduce democracy in China could be unrealistic and thus they proposed a “Chinese federation”, to be formed after the democratization of each and every province and county.
Liang became the first intellectual to raise the concept of self-autonomy at all local levels in 1919, suggesting the powers of the central authorities must be reduced to nothing more than knitting the federation together and all provinces and counties can enact their own constitutions and the federation must recognize these documents.
Sun Yat-sen didn’t endorse such autonomy, nor did his Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek. Following the victory of Sun and Chiang’s Northern Expedition in 1928 that unified China under the control of the Kuomintang, advocates of the Chinese federation lost their voice. The divergence between the centralization of authority and a federation based on local autonomy is just the result of different explorations about which constitutional arrangement could foster democracy in China.
But Mao’s theories about the Republic of Hunan belong to an entirely different sphere.
Mao had a strong background on Marxism and Leninism and thus he was less of a nationalist when it comes to autonomy and separatism. Back then, though he cared about the well-being of the 400 million Chinese as a whole, Mao thought that as long as people’s livelihood could be improved, whether a united China could continue to exist was irrelevant. He even went on to suggest that places with more civilized and advanced culture like Hunan would be justified to go independent if other provinces had become a drag on its development.
Ironically, a publication called Hunan Review (湘江評論) — which Mao as its chief editor used as a platform to spread his thoughts — was closed down by Hunan military authorities in a media crackdown, and right after the May Fourth Movement in 1919, Mao led a campaign that ousted the military governor.
Elites such as Hu Shih supported Mao’s vision of a Hunan republic and around the same time, Ta Kung Pao carried Mao’s proclamation, which was so radical and explicit that even the cover story about “Hong Kong people deciding their own fate” in the Hong Kong University Students Union publication Undergrad or former Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui’s pro-independence remarks would pale in comparison.
Mao noted that “why Hunan’s governance is in a mess is because its people cannot stand on their own and voice out their thoughts. Hunan people must decide their own fate in their own place without meddling from other provinces”. These words share exactly the same aspirations with Hong Kong youngsters.
In the article, Mao explained his reasons for a Hunan republic: “The common fallacy is that only great powers can survive in the future but this notion is just about imperialism. China now calls itself a republic but its people have no idea about how a genuine republic is run and how to be a citizen in such a system. Places like Hunan, Sichuan, Guangdong, Fujian, Zhejiang and Hubei are all conquered and bullied by militants and these are all the sins of being a great power and crimes to the people. Calls for independence and self-autonomy are now loud and clear amid the rapidly evolving global landscape and one must disillusion himself the belief that provinces should stay unified to form a great power.
“Separatism is the best solution. Each province should be allowed to explore its own path and decide its own fate. There are altogether 27 provincial administrative divisions in China, and the goal is to have 27 independent republics. For Hunan, the only answer is the Republic of Hunan and unless we have our resolution and mettle towards this goal, Hunan is hopeless.”
Taiwan’s Lee once said China should be divided into seven nations for better governance and his remarks earned stern reproach from Beijing. Now we know that Mao was once more radical in seeking to split China.
A young Mao Zedong was just like today’s Hong Kong youngsters. His ideal of an independent Hunan was envisioned to save the country as a whole and was for the interests of Hunan people and all Chinese.
When Mao is portrayed as a symbol of progress, revolution and patriotism, why do we smear Hong Kong’s call for localism and independence? Shouldn’t those in power cherish young separatists in Hong Kong just like the way they honor and revere Mao?
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on May 7.
Translation by Frank Chen
[Chinese version 中文版]
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