Legacy debate as Republic of China marks 100 years

A Chinese woman takes a photo in front of a portrait of Sun Yat-sen in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, on 27 September 2006
Image caption One hundred years on, the Republic of China will be marking its founder, Sun Yat-sen

One of the most important events of the 20th Century was the overthrow of China's last imperial dynasty, the Qing, and the founding of the Republic of China (ROC).

But on the 100th anniversary of the 10 October 1911 rebellion that sprang from the Xinhai Revolution, which ended 2,000 years of imperial rule and ushered Chinese people into a modern era, mention of the ROC is rare - except in Taiwan.

In mainland China, the anniversary will be marked by mostly official activities that focus on the revolution and Sun Yat-sen, who inspired it, not the founding of the republic or Sun's principles of democracy.

That is because the Communist Party, which had nothing to do with the revolution, does not want to give much credit to the ROC and its founders, the Nationalists (or Kuomintang, KMT).

The two sides later fought a bloody civil war that ended with the Kuomintang fleeing to Taiwan in the late 1940s and re-establishing the republic there.

But in Taiwan, the government - currently led by the Kuomintang - is sparing no efforts to make sure the world does not forget the 100th birthday of the republic.

"It was the biggest event in China's 5,000-year history and a major change in political system which established the first republic in Asia," said the Kuomintang's historical archives director Shao Ming-huang.

"That planted the seeds of rebellion in Asia against foreign forces' control," he said, saying one of the reasons why Sun wanted to overthrow the Qing was because it was too weak to fend off foreign invasions.

Image caption The day will be marked with fireworks, shows, speeches and celebrations

On the island, the anniversary is being celebrated with much fanfare on Monday. A 40-minute fireworks show is planned in central Taiwan. Fireworks will also light up the skies in other areas, including Taipei.

Many ordinary people watched the flag-raising ceremony in the morning and the subsequent activities, including a military parade involving more than 1,000 military personnel, 71 aircraft and 168 vehicles.

Numerous couples got married in a mass wedding, and President Ma Ying-jeou made a speech. Even tourists were reminded - those arriving on Monday were presented with a centennial souvenir gift.

Chequered history

But on the eve of the anniversary, the legacy of the ROC is inevitably debated.

Some people blame it for corruption and incompetence which led to it losing mainland China to the Communists in the civil war.

And in Taiwan, a still significant segment of the population views the KMT and ROC with resentment because of suppressive rule after relocating to Taiwan in the 1940s.

It is blamed for the 2/28 Incident in 1947 (an uprising sparked by the beating of a female vendor that lead to deadly riots) and a subsequent crackdown against dissidents known as the White Terror, which led to thousands of people being arrested, tortured, killed or persecuted. Martial law was not lifted until 1987.

"The ROC is a Chinese government exiled in Taipei. It should be out of Taiwan," said Tsay Ting-kuei, who is one of a group of people who believe that when Japan lost WWII, Taiwan technically should not have been handed over to the ROC because that was not specified in the treaties signed between Japan and the Western victors in the war.

Yeh Tsai-chu, a business woman, said she and her family will not be celebrating the anniversary - also known as Double Ten National Day.

"The ROC's 100th anniversary has nothing to do with Taiwan. Besides, what is there to celebrate? The ROC is not even recognised as a country by the rest of the world," Ms Yeh said.

She is referring to the fact that the ROC lost its seat in the United Nations in 1971 to the People's Republic of China.

Taiwan's government and most people, however, strongly believe the ROC is a legitimate, sovereign country, despite claims to the contrary by China and only about 20 mostly small countries officially recognising it as such.

Image caption The Xinhai revolution forced the last emperor, Pu Yi, from power

Ahead of the anniversary, passers-by expressed genuine pride in not only Taiwan but also the ROC. Many of them were descendants of long-time Taiwanese, not Chinese immigrants who came here after the war in the 1940s.

"It's done some good and bad, but it's mostly good. It raised Taiwan's living standards and the best thing is, it allowed Taiwan to become an open and free society," said Kevin Wun, 26, a financial risk manager.

Many people also credit the ROC with saving Taiwan from a Communist takeover and helping the island become a prosperous economy and thriving democracy.

"What happened in the past has passed. Taiwan is the ROC, we've sung our national anthem for so many years. We're made up of longtime Taiwanese, more recent immigrants from China and South East Asian brides. We have such a free society today," said Chai-yun Lee, who is in her 60s.

Pressed for an answer, a Chinese tourist visiting Taiwan also agreed that perhaps the ROC's legacy may be more good than bad.

"We recognise Sun Yat-sen. We recognise the Xinhai Revolution, but not Double Ten National Day and not the ROC, but the ROC did more good than bad; it overthrew the emperors," said a Chinese woman who declined to be named.

'Still relevant'

Despite the dark chapters in its history of rule in Taiwan, many Taiwanese people recognise the ROC as Taiwan, although they might define it differently from the ruling party.

"The ROC is Taiwan. It doesn't include the mainland," said Sidney Cheng.

"We're very proud of ourselves. Our country has a lot of great things, such as democracy, its high-tech industry, its economy and its friendly people."

The relevance of the ROC, however, could face threats in the future.

Mr Cheng and others noted when they travel abroad, people including customs officers are confused by what the ROC stands for, thinking it is China.

"When I went to Brazil, they stamped on my visa that I was Chinese," said Mr Cheng.

Most people overseas know Taiwan as Taiwan, not the Republic of China.

But the KMT's chief historian Mr Shao insists the ROC's relevance will not diminish with time.

"The ROC not only achieved Dr Sun's ideals of nationalism, democracy and livelihood for the Chinese race [in Taiwan], things that have not been achieved by China, it will also play a very important role in eventually resolving the differences between Taiwan and mainland China," Mr Shao said.

"Even China has some feelings for it, because it was created by Sun Yat-sen and they respect Sun Yat-sen."

But the ROC's road to democracy is not complete.

On the eve of the centennial, an indigenous tribe in Taiwan vowed to carry out a symbolic headhunt of the ROC - to express frustration at its history of not respecting indigenous people's rights.

But such an activity would not be tolerated in mainland China, and such is the legacy of the ROC.

More on this story