How China is invoking Sun Yat-sen to denounce 'splittism'

November 21, 2016 16:09
Sun had a special connection with Hong Kong, where in 1892 he became one of the first graduates of the Hong Kong College of Medicine for Chinese. Photo:

This month marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of Dr. Sun Yat-sen, who is revered throughout the Chinese-speaking world as the father of modern China.

Stamps in his honor were issued in mainland China, Hong Kong and Macao. In Taiwan, which is still known as the Republic of China, he is known as the Founder of the Republic. In the mainland, the Communist Party honors him as the "great forerunner of the revolution".

Sun had a special connection with Hong Kong, where in 1892 he became one of the first graduates of the Hong Kong College of Medicine for Chinese. He also has a connection with Macao, where he established a practice before moving to Canton (Guangzhou) on the mainland and, subsequently, abandoned medicine for politics.

After many failures, he finally brought down China's last imperial dynasty, the Qing of the Manchus, in 1911. Asia's first republic was then proclaimed and Sun became its interim president.

The physician-turned-politician also had a special connection with overseas Chinese in the United States, Japan and Southeast Asia. He raised funds for his revolutionary activities among those communities and used to say that overseas Chinese were the Mother of the revolution.

Although Sun was never a communist, the Communist Party honors him twice a year by putting a huge portrait of him in Tiananmen Square facing that of Chairman Mao Zedong on October 1, National Day, and on May 1, International Labor Day.

This month, to mark the 150th anniversary of his birth, Chinese leader Xi Jinping gave a speech in which he said: "The best way we commemorate Sun Yat-sen is to carry forward his invaluable spirit, to unite all that can be united and mobilize all that can be mobilized to carry on the pursuit for a rejuvenated China that he had dreamed of."

"Sun Yat-sen unequivocally opposed any remarks or actions that attempted to split the country or the nation," Xi added.

"I call on all Chinese who revere Mr. Sun Yat-sen, including compatriots from Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan as well as overseas Chinese, to unite, no matter their political affiliations," Xi said.

His remarks clearly were an attempt to use the influence of Sun Yat-sen to further Beijing’s current political goals, primarily its attempt to take over Taiwan and to stamp out an incipient independence movement in Hong Kong.

However, a look at the historical record shows that far from wanting to expel the British and unite Hong Kong with the mainland, Dr. Sun was full of admiration for what the British had done in Hong Kong.

In a speech at Hong Kong University in 1923, Sun said: "I saw the outside world and I began to wonder how it was that foreigners, that Englishmen could do such things as they had done, for example, with the barren rock of Hong Kong, within 70 or 80 years, while China in 4,000 years had no places like Hong Kong."

As for Taiwan, nothing in Sun's writings until his death in 1925 indicate a burning desire to unite Taiwan and the Chinese mainland.

This is not surprising. After all, even Mao Zedong, a founder of the Communist Party, evidently also lacked any strong feelings about unification with Taiwan up to at least the mid-1930s. In fact, in an interview with Edgar Snow in 1936, Mao specifically excluded Taiwan from the list of lost territories that China needed to regain.

Instead, Mao put Taiwan and Korea in the same column, saying: "If the Koreans wish to break away from the chains of Japanese imperialism, we will extend them our enthusiastic help in their struggle for independence. The same thing applies for Taiwan.”

Of course, Mao later on changed his mind about Taiwan, especially after Chiang Kai-shek moved the Republic of China government there after his defeat in the Chinese civil war. Then Mao insisted on the "liberation" of Taiwan.

The uncertainty that Sun and Mao exhibited over Taiwan contrasts sharply with Beijing's current line that Taiwan has been a part of China "since ancient times". Even in the Qing dynasty, the Kangxi emperor vacillated as to Taiwan's value to the Manchu empire.

As the words of Sun and Mao show, history is a two-edged sword. That is why the communists – previously in the Soviet Union and now very much so in China – work so hard to control history to make it serve their purposes.

To cite a Soviet-era joke: "The future is certain; it is only the past that is unpredictable."

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.