The Founding of a Republic: Rewriting the Epic Story of China

By Pablo de Orellana

The Founding of a Republic, a Chinese state-sponsored film celebrating the founding of the People's Republic of China and the victory of communism over the Kuomintang, is a rather spectacular production. Jackie Chan as well as every nationally and internationally renowned Chinese actor and actress was recruited to raise its profile through minor cameos. Its greatest achievements, however, are firstly the beautifully texturised accuracy of the historical rendition, and most importantly how it avoids discussing the essence of communism.

Not only is China's leadership about to change this year, but China (and especially Taiwan) celebrates the centenary of the founding of the Republic of China and the deposition of the last emperor Puyi, by Sun Yat-Sen. Whilst the rump of the People's Republic of China in Taiwan celebrates the centenary by ennobling its Republican heritage, the film The Founding of a Republic seeks to claim Mao's victory as the real beginning of modern China - yet celebrated on the centenary of Sun Yat-Sen's 1911-1912 revolution. So far so good; the message is clear.

What is most definitely unclear is what exactly communism is and why it was desirable. This is revealing of the contemporary struggle to conceptualise communism in China. We can see this struggle for the soul of Chinese communism in the struggles of left wingers such as Bo Xilai, who, leaving aside the Heywood-inspired corruption cacophony, stands accused of extreme left-wing ideology and bringing back Maoist and anti-capitalist “red songs”. The film itself heroically manages to avoid any mention whatsoever of what communism entails besides Mao's saintly leadership. The Internationale is sung, red flags are waved, and the imperialists are derided; but the film extraordinarily manages not to discuss the very distinct economic socialism that Mao had by then devised and which was the raison d'être of the Communist Party. The only economic discussion concludes with Mao's resigned assertion that capitalism must not be dismantled, for this would be “smashing our own rice bowls”. On the other hand, Chiang Kai-Shek's evil appears to consist of squabbles between Chiang and his corrupt capitalist relatives. Presumably corrupt capitalist relatives entail replacing Chiang - rather than capitalism itself. This is clearly not about history; certainly not about 1949. This is about China in 2012.

Although the comparison is facile, China's contemporary social relations are more akin to the Tories' longed-for nineteenth century and its highly profitable welfareless exploitation of labour, than any socialist utopia Mao has ever written about. Unsurprisingly, the Communist Party must now explain to its people why Mao's detailed collectivised, nationalised, welfare, fairness, equality, and communist economy, have not been realised. Or, as is the case with the movie, that it was never intended to replace capitalism. It is fascinating to see how a regime that claims communism thus struggles to explain why China has none of the basic attributes of socialism other than dictatorship. This also relates to the post-1989 unspoken covenant: wealth for the people in return for Communist Party leadership. Recent policies, however, have only increased inequality, concentrated wealth, and continue to fail to provide national-level rights to free healthcare, housing, minimal working conditions, and other fundamental (let alone socialist) rights. Essentially, Chinese communism can no longer claim socialism and protection of the weak as its ontology and justification for continued rule.

The Founding of a Republicresolves this not insignificant problem by appealing to legendary history. Mao was better than Chiang Kai-Shek. The film elevates Mao to godlike levels and after a bit of politically correct humility, at the climax of the movie Mao's supporters cry Mao wan sui, “may Mao live 10 000 years”, the majestic address of emperors - not unlike God save the Queen. Outdoing the emperors in cult of personality, Mao's face dominates Tiananmen Square for the proclamation of the People's Republic of China that concludes the epic movie.

We might take this opportunity to set aside the jingoism the West reserves for relations with China, or our leaders' quest to benefit from its wealth, to look at its most contradictory internal dilemma. It is not just that the Communist Party dictatorship has ruled the country since 1949, or that minorities such as Tibetans, Muslims, or Mongolians are being ruthlessly repressed. The Communist Party is finding it difficult to justify its power when it effectively rules a society so capitalist that the socialist, Marxist, and Maoist principles of its inception must be buried deep beyond the reach of memory. The Communist Party is attempting to reinvent and re-inscribe communism itself. As Mao teaches in the movie, “we need the capitalists”. Should any poor Chinese ask why communism is creating inequality, celluloid Mao answers “we cannot smash our own rice bowls”. To fans of communism, this amounts to justifying not only why communism in China is not communist, but also why the Communist Party, the heirs of the Prophet Mao, are still necessary for China.


Pablo de Orellana is currently researching for a doctorate at King's College London on the theoretical and empirical dynamics of the diplomatic phenomenon he identified as international sponsorship. Other research interests include nationalism, part-taking in democracy and contemporary fine art.


23 June 2012