Chasing the Chinese Dream

By: Jin ChongjiFrom:English Edition of Qiushi Journal April-June 2017|Vol.9,No.2,Issue No.31 | Updated: 2017-Jul-17 10:34
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As General Secretary Xi Jinping once remarked, “The great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation has been the greatest dream of the Chinese people since modern times. Ever since Dr. Sun Yat-sen first gave voice to the slogan ‘Revive China,’ the Chinese nation and the Chinese people have struggled relentlessly and made enormous efforts and sacrifices to attain that goal.” 

Xi’s remarks retrace the historic journey that the Chinese people have embarked upon in pursuit of the Chinese dream of national rejuvenation. At the same time, they also show us how deeply the memory of Sun Yat-sen is cherished. 

I. The first person to use the slogan “Revive China”

Why has the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation been the greatest dream of the Chinese people since modern times? This is because of the harsh realities the Chinese people have endured. As the creators of a magnificent ancient civilization, the Chinese nation made an enormous contribution to the advancement of human civilization over the course of many centuries. By modern times, however, the Chinese nation had fallen behind. Western powers, relying on the economic and military strength they had built up after the Industrial Revolution and French Revolution, launched frequent wars of aggression against China. Bearing down on China as if they were its masters, they brazenly treated the Chinese people as an “inferior people” that could be trampled on at will. Meanwhile, the corrupt and inept Qing Dynasty continued to rule over China as its people struggled for their very survival. In a bid to put an end to this humiliation, the Chinese people rose to fight back. Progressive thinkers also began to emerge in China at this time. It was at this historic moment, when the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95 was being fought, that Sun Yat-sen, then residing in Honolulu, Hawaii, used the slogan “Revive China” in the Articles of the Revive China Society. He used strong words to expose the ambitions of the Western powers to divide and destroy China: “One after another they nibble away at China or attempt to swallow it whole, seemingly mimicking each other. This carving up of China into pieces is a great worry that now confronts us. And so those with conscience cannot help but let out a desperate cry: save the people from misery and stop our country from collapsing without delay.” Striking the hearts of the Chinese people, these words were a rousing call to action.

Sun Yat-sen was a great revolutionary fighter. Despite exposing the deep crisis that China faced, he never showed even the slightest hint of dejection. Instead, he always demonstrated the courage and passion of a true fighter. In 1897, he wrote in a British newspaper: “Everyone admits that the current situation and future trends in China are hardly satisfactory. However, I dare to assume that Europeans have not fully recognized the extent of the international humiliation and danger caused to China by corrupt forces, nor have they fully recognized China’s potential for recovery or various possibilities for self-reliance.” He followed with a resounding declaration: “The Chinese people are preparing to welcome a change.”

A gathering to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Sun Yat-sen’s birth is held in Beijing, November 11, 2016. PHOTO BY XINHUA REPORTER ZHANG DUO

II. A man with global perspective

Sun Yat-sen was a man with global perspective, as can be seen from his now famous remark: “The tide of world events is mighty. Those who follow it prosper, whereas those who resist it perish.” It was this ability to view China’s problems from the perspective of global trends that set him apart from his predecessors and contemporaries. While this was due in part to Sun’s environment and his personal experiences, it had more to do with his diligence and capacity for deep thought.  

Sun Yat-sen championed three major principles: national independence, democracy, and the people’s wellbeing. In his view, national independence, democracy, and the wellbeing of the people were not only the most urgent issues facing China, but a global trend of development that could not be stopped by anyone. Sun cited numerous historical examples from around the world to prove the inevitability of these three principles. Revolutions, he believed, were also decided by the tide of the world. 

Of course, even events that conformed to the tide of the world would not necessarily be plain sailing. On the way there would be setbacks, even serious failures. However, this would not affect the overall direction of the tide of the world. Sun Yat-sen described this in metaphorical terms: “The tide of history is much like the waters of the Yangtze or the Yellow River: there may be many twists and turns, running north or south, but ultimately the direction in which the waters flow is always east, and there is absolutely nothing that can stop that.”

In a revolutionary career that saw countless serious setbacks and failures, and that saw him become the subject of mockery and insult, why was Sun Yat-sen able to maintain his confidence and unbending resolve, never once losing heart or shrinking back? The answer is that he had an unbreakable sense of mission, the product of his own deep thought, which was guided by his belief in the tide of the world. Sun believed that everything he was doing “conformed to the course of nature, the ways of the people, and the tide of the world,” and thus would “certainly succeed.” For this reason, temporary setbacks, rumors, and even threats to his life were of little concern to him. This indeed was the character of a “great figure that stood at the forefront of the times.”

III. The forerunner of China’s democratic revolution

Sun Yat-sen was a great forerunner of China’s democratic revolution. He was also a great forerunner of the country’s modernization. China’s modernization was a dream for which Sun fought, and it was also a prerequisite for the country’s revival. He believed that development was the sole purpose of revolution; if there was no will to develop, there would be no need for sabotage and even less for revolution. After overthrowing the Qing Dynasty and establishing the republican government (1911-1912), Sun Yat-sen originally believed that China could focus its energies on development. He devoted most of his energy in the next year or so to forming a specific vision for China’s modernization. 

Why then, given that Sun Yat-sen was so passionate about China’s modernization, did he devote most of his life to revolution and not development? This is not a difficult question to answer. Sun was a peace-loving man. If China’s modernization could have been realized peacefully, that is what he would have wanted. It was only when this path proved to be totally unviable that Sun committed to the path of revolution. The forces of imperialism and feudalism were the biggest obstacles to progress in modern China. In a bid to preserve reactionary rule in China, they used every barbaric and brutal means at their disposal to crush and stamp out social progress and popular resistance. Without overthrowing the rule of these forces in China, there would be no possibility of national independence or the liberation of the Chinese people. This meant that revolution had to become the central theme of modern Chinese history. Sun Yat-sen’s personal experiences were enough to prove this. In 1894, before he committed to revolution, Sun wrote to Li Hongzhang (1823-1901), a leading official of the Qing court, calling on him to implement reform in China. But Li was not willing to even meet with Sun. It was only after this that Sun travelled to Honolulu, where he founded the Revive China Society (1894) and devoted himself to revolution. The Xinhai Revolution (also known as the Revolution of 1911) that Sun Yat-sen led toppled the Qing Dynasty and put an end to the absolute feudal monarchy that had ruled China for thousands of years, thus opening the doors for progress in China. However, the path forward after the Xinhai Revolution was by no means a smooth one. After the founding of the Republic of China in 1912, Sun handed his provisional presidency over to Yuan Shikai (1859-1916) and accepted an appointment as head of China’s railways. Just as Sun was conducting a tour of Japan’s railways, Yuan Shikai secretly ordered the assassination of Song Jiaoren, acting president of the Kuomintang (KMT), and sent his Beiyang Army south to suppress KMT-governed provinces. This left Sun Yat-sen with no choice but to stage a “Second Revolution” to overthrow Yuan in 1913. After the failure of the “Second Revolution,” Yuan Shikai declared himself emperor of China and Zhang Xun later attempted to restore the Qing Dynasty, forcing Sun Yat-sen to take part in the National Protection Movement (1915-1916) and Constitutional Protection Movement (1917-1918). 

Not long after the May Fourth Movement of 1919, Sun Yat-sen delivered a speech in Shanghai entitled “The First Step to Changing China.” In the speech, Sun said, “To change China, we need to build a magnificent and noble Republic of China. And like an engineer who constructs a magnificent building, we need to construct our building using new techniques. The taller this new building is, the deeper its foundations must be, and the earth we dig from beneath must be moved as far away as possible.” What did Sun Yat-sen mean by “earth?” He was actually referring to old bureaucrats, army men, and politicians. Several years later, with the support of the Communist Party of China, Sun once again voiced his opposition to imperialism and feudal warlords. History has proven that revolution and modernization do not contradict each other. This is because the former can clear away the obstacles that block the latter, creating the necessary conditions for its success.    

IV. A close friend of socialism 

Sun Yat-sen was born into a poor farmer’s family in Guangdong Province. From a young age he felt deep sympathy for the plight of China’s impoverished farmers. His elder brother travelled overseas in search of work, eventually becoming a farm owner in Hawaii. This made it possible for Sun to travel abroad at the age of 12 and receive a systematic modern education, which would lay down a solid foundation for his revolutionary endeavors. 

After the failure of his first armed uprising against the Qing Dynasty, Sun Yat-sen was forced to flee abroad. He later recalled his experiences: “After escaping capture in London, I decided to stay in Europe to observe its political culture and foster acquaintances with people of virtue and stature in government and society. My experiences in those two years gave me a great deal of insight. I finally realized that prosperity, strength, and democracy alone were not enough to turn the European powers into places of paradise for their people, which is why men of vision in Europe still sought social change through revolutionary movements. A permanent solution would be to address the problem of the people’s livelihood whilst seeking national independence and democracy. This is how the Three Principles of the People will be accomplished.” Sun Yat-sen genuinely regarded his principle of the people’s livelihood as socialism. In a letter to a friend in 1903, he wrote: “Socialism is something that I cannot forget for even a moment.” “Given the inequality in Europe and America today, one can certainly foresee a major conflict taking place at a future time for greater equality.” Evidently, Sun Yat-sen had great sympathy for socialism and hoped to expel the “criminality” of “inequality between rich and poor.” In the early years of the Republic of China, he made the “socialist policy of the state” the focus of his principle of the people’s livelihood, believing that it was primarily the strength of the state that should be relied upon to develop industry. In the years that followed, Sun Yat-sen found himself embroiled in bitter struggles: The Beiyang warlords led by Yuan Shikai replaced the Qing government; Sun Yat-sen responded by launching a “Second Revolution” and two constitutional protection movements (1917-1918 and 1921-1922), all of which failed. In particular, the betrayal of Chen Jiongming came as a heavy blow to Sun Yat-sen, dampening his spirit. But at this time the October Revolution in Russia, led by Lenin, and a series of subsequent victories gave Sun Yat-sen a great deal of encouragement. The Chinese Communist Li Dazhao (1889-1927), one of the main founders of the Communist Party of China, met with Sun Yat-sen on numerous occasions to discuss “reviving China by reviving the KMT.” Sun Yat-sen was delighted with Li Dazhao’s proposal and recommended him as a member of the KMT. Under Sun Yat-sen’s supervision, the KMT was subsequently reorganized and began its first period of cooperation with the CPC. In January 1924, the KMT convened its first national congress, during which the Three Principles of the People were reinterpreted. Unfortunately, just as China’s revolution was gaining momentum, Sun Yat-sen passed away due to illness on March 12, 1925 at the age of just 58. 

Today, as China is moving forward on the path of socialism with Chinese characteristics, we find ourselves compelled to cherish the memory of Sun Yat-sen and have true gratitude for the great contributions this great forerunner of China’s rejuvenation made to our country.     

Jin Chongji is former Deputy Director of the Party Literature Research Office of the CPC Central Committee.

(Originally appeared in Qiushi Journal, Chinese edition, No.22, 2016)