Several years ago, before both sides of the Taiwan Strait marked 100 years since the Xinhai Revolution brought down the Qing empire, a wave of interest in the Republican era swept across China. The Republic of China (ROC) flag and other long-banned symbols began appearing in movies and TV series, and debates and publications giving positive treatment of Republican history, especially the resistance against Japan, became more common. Apart from academia digging up long-banned stories about the ROC and former presidents Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) and Chiang Ching-kuo (蔣經國), many Chinese visitors to Taiwan rushed to learn more about modern cross-strait history.
It seemed as if the Republican period and Confucius (孔子), now treated almost as a foreign historical figure in Taiwan, were brought back to life in authoritarian China.
Of course, removing the ban on information about the Republican period is vastly different from the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) orthodox view of history. The official party line does not stray from the idea that the victor writes history. The best example of this is Beijing’s insistence that the CCP led the war of resistance against Japan. There are three reasons behind this gradual relaxation of restrictions on information about the Republican era.
The first and most obvious reason is, of course, China’s efforts to annex Taiwan. Since Republican ideology, which forms part of the antagonism between Taiwan and China, doesn’t appear to be that strong in Taiwan anymore, China can perhaps remove some of the Taiwanese hostility by giving it more positive treatment.
Second, with its newfound status as a big power, China must follow international norms, and it is therefore basing the protection of its national interests on several positions and legacies from the Republican period. For example, when it comes to sovereignty over the South China Sea, Taiwan and Tibet, Mao Zedong’s (毛澤東) idea of ignoring the existence of the ROC and making a fresh start cannot be used, because if the ROC really did accept the Japanese surrender of the South China Sea and if it was the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) that ratified the status of the 14th Dalai Lama and the 10th Panchen Lama, that would have severe legal implications for China’s claims.
The third and most important reason is that Beijing wants the right to monopolize the agenda at a time when its material strength has grown, but it still seems unable to gain much influence over Chinese culture. As the top CCP leadership is gaining a deeper understanding of Taiwanese studies, they must understand that Taiwan, much more so than Singapore or Hong Kong, is key to linking domestic and overseas Chinese culture. However, the Taiwanese public is struggling to find new spiritual substance and no longer competes with Beijing for the right to set the agenda for the Chinese world.
By relaxing ideology in small measures and gradually restoring the truth about the Republican period and modern history, it would make the World War II-era Chinese Expeditionary Force in Burma, the thinkers of the Republican period and maybe even war criminals at least footnotes in the CCP’s historical view. If that happened, the CCP would naturally become the sole representative of Chinese culture.
However, Beijing’s conciliatory and flexible approach to the Republican issue is essentially a means to an end. Although the Chinese government tries hard to integrate the economic, security and cultural roles it wants to play as a creator of cross-strait prosperity, a protector of regional peace and the leader of Chinese culture, and though the new consensus being forged by the Taiwanese opposition will not challenge the current friendly relations between Taiwan on one hand and the US, Japan and China on the other, there is no such thing as an eternal status quo.
By the same token, the value of using the republic as a means to an end is only temporary. What’s more, the fact that the ROC and the People’s Republic of China cannot coexist given the modern world’s view of sovereignty will sooner or later be revealed for all to see.
If Beijing only uses the Republican period as a short-term means to an end, it will not only strengthen the view that Taipei is using Beijing, it will also miss out on Taiwan’s help and the opportunity to learn from Taiwan.
First, given Beijing’s current status and “core interests,” it can no longer distance itself from the continued existence of the ROC using old socialist terms such as “the new democratic revolution.” In the past, the CCP talked about “the KMT” in an attempt to reject the existence of the ROC, which would effectively mean that China did not exist internationally and there was no legal Chinese government between 1912 and 1949. Just as with the attempt during China’s Cultural Revolution to remove “feudal traditions,” that would have severe legal and cultural consequences for China.
Furthermore, the ROC has since shed its party-state system thanks to a lively opposition. Approaching the Republican system and traditional Chinese culture as a means to an end will only prove that former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping’s (鄧小平) foreign policy of keeping a low profile and hiding China’s ambitions is rife with contradictions and struggle.
On the other hand, if Beijing can use Taiwan’s current laws and documents as mentioned in Chinese President Hu Jintao’s (胡錦濤) “six points” as a point of departure, take a disaffected view of the ROC and the important role it has played in the modernization of China, and then create a creative and constructive status for the ROC Constitution of 1947, it would be possible to develop a surrealistic “utilitarian” cross-strait relationship and approach.
This would allow Taiwan and China to avoid a showdown over the traditional system of sovereignty that Western nations have managed to progressively move beyond.
It is also the only way to ensure that the principles of true democracy, the spirit of independence and freedom of thought Republicans had strived for in both China and Taiwan, and that the leaders in Beijing also advocate, can become a future consensus for China and Taiwan and a core value contributed by Chinese civilization to a new world order.