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Flying the Pan-Blue Flag Over Red China

A symbol from the past is making an unlikely comeback.

On June 22, 2006, authorities in the southwest city of Chongqing arrested a 23-year-old student for marking the 17th anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre by publicly flying the flags of the Republic of China (ROC), which was the pre-communist Chinese state, and the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT), which ruled China before losing the mainland to the communists in a bloody civil war and retreating to the island of Taiwan in 1949. The student, named Zhang Qi, was detained for 20 days for "illegally organizing activities."

It is hardly surprising for China’s communist authorities to keep an unruly student behind bars for a few weeks. But unexpectedly, this incident caused an uproar in mainland’s cyberspace and attracted a lot of media attention in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and overseas Chinese communities.

Symbols from the Past

Though the detention itself was little more than a routine exercise of a repressive regime, the action that led to the detention was by no means ordinary. The symbolism and audacity of this rare act of flag-waving on the regime’s most sensitive date caught people’s attention and provoked imagination.

The detained student, Zhang Qi, is a member of an increasingly influential Internet-based community—China Pan-Blue Alliance—which brings together hundreds of young people who call themselves "spiritual members of the KMT" and aspire to restore the Republic of China to the mainland.

Before Chongqing, other members of the alliance had publicly shown the ROC and KMT flags in Wuhan. Digital pictures of both events were widely circulated on the Internet both in China and overseas.

Similar stunts had been performed before. Last year, when then Taiwan KMT Chairman Lien Chan visited Beijing University to give a speech, one person in the welcoming crowd unfurled a ROC flag and started waving it. He was quickly snatched and whisked away from the scene. It was unclear if he belonged to the same group.

Waving the flags from a past government was not just an act of open defiance against the one-party rule of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) but also a bold challenge to the legitimacy of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), which the communists founded after overthrowing the ROC.

As discontent with the communist regime grows, the political and national symbols from a past era seem to have gotten a new lease on life. For many people, these old symbols can evoke nostalgia and intensify their yearnings for change.{mospagebreak}

Such symbolism could gain momentum and become a powerful influence, as the history of Eastern Europe testifies.

The Return of the Republic

Since the Republic of China government retreated to Taiwan in 1949, the PRC has ruled over the Chinese mainland without any serious challenge to its power. In the communists’ eyes, the ROC is just a historical term.

Indeed, even on the small island of Taiwan, the last patch of land under its name, the ROC is not faring well. Since the KMT lost the 2000 election to the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), the new administration has seen the national title, which includes the word "China," as an eyesore that should eventually be ditched to make way for an independent "Republic of Taiwan."

For many, the ROC is an anachronism left over from a confusing historical period, and has become a laughable misfit for what it actually represents. Surely, it can no longer pose any threat to Beijing, which controls vast territories with an iron hand.

But destiny works in mysterious ways. Now some unsettling signs have emerged that the ROC is coming back to haunt the CCP, not from across the Taiwan Strait, but from within people’s minds.

Ironically, it was the communist government itself that started it.

True History of the War Against Japan

In the CCP’s orthodox history textbooks, though the KMT’s founder Sun Yat-sen was credited with overthrowing the imperial Qing Dynasty, the KMT was demonized in almost every possible way, and its most important leader—Chiang Kai-shek—depicted as a stereotypical bad guy.

But in the mid-1980s, buoyed by the initial success of the economic reforms and improved ties with the West, a confident CCP decided to tackle its long-term rival-the KMT in Taiwan—with a new strategy. In a bid to lure the KMT administration into a political settlement toward reunification, the CCP, on the 40th anniversary of the end of World War II, recognized 85 KMT generals who were killed during the war as "martyrs," and admitted that the KMT did play a role in the war, even though not as important as that of the CCP itself.{mospagebreak}

The CCP had always held that it single-handedly defeated the Japanese. The role of the allied forces was deliberately downplayed, and any talk of the KMT’s war effort had been taboo. But Beijing’s new "united front" ploy opened a crack in the tight restrictions on studies of China’s contemporary history, and led to an explosion of academic and literary works on the KMT forces’ heroic resistance against Japanese aggression in the 1930s and 1940s.

It soon became clear to many Chinese people, especially intellectuals, that it was the KMT who did most of the fighting in the war, and that what the CCP did was not much more than hiding in a corner, preserving and developing its strength, and waiting for the Japanese to weaken the KMT so that it could overthrow the KMT government in the end.

These revelations were extremely damaging to the CCP. As the communist ideology became completely bankrupt after the Cultural Revolution, the CCP had to use nationalism to legitimize its continued rule and rally the population around it. However, when it was exposed that the CCP not only failed to defend the country during its most perilous times but also took advantage of the Japanese invasion to grab power, the very nationalistic feelings it had encouraged to its own advantage now turned against it.

Who Is the New China?

Throughout the late 1980s and the 1990s, many academic papers and novels about China’s Republican era were published. As more and more historical facts were revealed, veiled calls for a reassessment of the KMT and the ROC began to emerge.

Of course, a complete overhaul of the official version of history can never be allowed to happen as long as the CCP remains in power, as the KMT’s gain would unavoidably mean the CCP’s loss. A thorough reassessment of history could only be done from outside China.

And so it happened. In 1999, an important book entitled Who is the New China (in Chinese) was published in the United States. The author of the book, Mr. Xin Haonian, is a distinguished Chinese historian now living in the United States. He wrote the book after more than a decade of painstaking and risky research in China.

Mr. Xin rejects the CCP’s assertion that it founded a "New China." According to his book, the CCP was responsible for rebelling against the Republic of China at the instruction of the Soviet Union, refusing to defend the country against Japanese invasion in order to preserve its own strength, starting a civil war immediately after China’s victory over Japan to overthrow the Chinese government with Soviet support, and setting up a totalitarian regime in mainland China that led to an unprecedented calamity to the Chinese nation-costing 80 million Chinese lives.{mospagebreak}

So, if the PRC is not the "New China," then who is? According to Mr. Xin, it is none other than the Republic of China founded by the KMT, which replaced the imperial Manchu Court with a Chinese republic based on democratic institutions, brought the warlord-held provinces under central control, defended China against Japanese aggression, abolished all the unequal treaties imposed on China by Western imperialist powers, and won China a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council. Even after its defeat in the civil war, the Republic of China thrived in Taiwan, resulting in a democratic and prosperous society unprecedented in Chinese history.

In Mr. Xin’s view, the way forward is to go back to Sun Yat-sen’s Three Principles of the People (which can be roughly translated as nationalism, democracy, and people’s welfare) and rebuild a democratic and unified Republic of China.

As Mr. Xin made clear in his book, he did his thinking on the back of a vast amount of research conducted by mainland scholars over the past decade. He simply built upon all the preceding work and said what many in China had wanted to say but could not.

Not surprisingly, Mr. Xin’s book had a ready readership. Though it cannot be published or sold in China, its electronic version is easily circulated over the Internet. Its impact cannot be overestimated.

Unexpected Change in Taiwan’s Political Landscape

Shortly after Mr. Xin published his book, the political situation in Taiwan took an abrupt turn. In the spring of 2000, the KMT lost the election to the pro-independence DPP, and Chen Shui-bian, a hardline advocate of "Taiwan independence," became the president. On the surface, it was a huge setback for the Republic of China, which appeared to be losing its last foothold.

But things are never as simple as they look. Worried that Taiwan was drifting away from the mainland, Beijing began courting Taiwan’s pro-unification opposition in a bid to curb the pro-independence Chen administration. As a result, the KMT and its sister parties, collectively known as the "Pan-Blue Coalition" (a name derived from the KMT’s party color), suddenly became the good guys in the CCP’s book. Even the "Republic of China" became less of a taboo because it was seen as a connection between the mainland and Taiwan, which the pro-independence forces wanted to sever.

In mainland China, most people genuinely dislike the idea of "Taiwan independence," mainly because of an inbred sense of national pride and patriotism. And their patriotic feelings naturally make them like the KMT and the "pan-blues" in general, who are on the front line fighting against the pro-independence forces.{mospagebreak}

But their patriotism is toward China, not necessarily the PRC, though the communists have been trying to mix the two different concepts for the last six decades. If the ROC means national unification and Taiwan-style prosperity and democracy, most mainlanders will probably find it hard to resist.

In other words, as a result of the rise of "Taiwan independence" forces, the KMT, the "pan-blues" and the ROC have not only become less unacceptable to the communist regime but have also gained popularity among many mainland Chinese people.

China Pan-Blue Alliance

It was against this background that the China Pan-Blue Alliance was established on the Internet in August 2004. It borrowed its name from the Pan-Blue Coalition in Taiwan. But, while the pan-blues in Taiwan seem to be falling into the CCP’s "united front" trap, the mainland Pan-Blue members, many of whom were inspired by Mr. Xin Haonian’s book, have stuck to the KMT’s traditional anti-communist principles.

On its homepage, the China Pan-Blue Alliance clearly states its agenda: "Oppose communism, agree with the Three Principles of the People, and work together with the Chinese Nationalist Party for national unification." In their view, a unified China will not be an enlarged PRC, but will have to be a revived Republic of China-which is democratic and free.

Recently, the China Pan-Blue Alliance has become increasingly active. At present, hundreds of people regularly go to the Alliance’s online forum for discussion. The Alliance also holds meetings in Beijing, Wuhan, Chongqing, and Chengdu.

Last year, immediately before the 60th anniversary of Japan’s surrender at the end of World War II, the group’s convener Sun Buer was detained for 15 days for organizing activities in honor of the KMT’s resistance during the war.

Apart from nationalism, the China Pan-Blue Alliance has also supported democracy and human rights. It took part in the labor rights movement of Chongqing Special Steel Group workers, and has published articles in support of the human rights of Falun Gong. It also lent its support to the spread of the book Nine Commentaries on the Communist Party published by an overseas media, The Epoch Times, and the movement to quit the CCP.{mospagebreak}

Although the China Pan-Blue Alliance still exists largely in cyberspace, the communist authorities have seen it as a grave threat. It was labeled an "illegal organization," and many members have been called by the police for interrogation.

These young people appear undaunted. Now, many members of the Alliance are planning to participate in the local elections in their personal capacities for seats in the "People’s Congress," in a bid to change these rubberstamps toward genuinely representative assemblies.

Different Shades of Blue

The mainland-based "spiritual KMT members" did try to get in touch with the "real" KMT in Taiwan. Chen Rongli, a member who fled from the mainland to Taiwan, even met with the current KMT leader Ma Ying-jeou in May. But the KMT, whose priority is understandably Taiwan’s domestic politics, has looked very much baffled by the whole thing and doesn’t seem to know how to deal with its eager "spiritual members" on the mainland.

Unlike his predecessor Lien Chan, Ma Ying-jeou seems to be genuinely concerned about democracy and human rights in mainland China. He attends memorials of the June 4th Tiananmen Massacre every year, and has repeatedly said that unification is not possible if the mainland fails to redress the Tiananmen Square tradegy.

Mr. Ma is also ambitious about the KMT’s future on the mainland. In a call-in program with the BBC’s Chinese Service in February, several callers from the mainland asked how they could join the KMT. Ma responded by saying, "If one day the mainland lifts its restrictions on political parties, the KMT will definitely go there."

However, as the KMT’s current political platform is based on making peace and developing economic ties with the mainland, Ma Ying-jeou’s attitude toward the mainland-based pan-blues is lukewarm at best.

When Chen Rongli, a mainland Pan-Blue member now living in Taiwan, applied for formal KMT membership in February, his application was politely turned down on the grounds of his not being a ROC citizen.

When Zhang Qi was detained, in spite of calls from pro-democracy and human rights activists for the Taiwan KMT to use its influence to rescue him, Ma Ying-jeou kept his silence. This greatly disappointed the mainland-based Pan-Blue members.{mospagebreak}

Taiwan’s ruling DPP seized this opportunity to score political points. Lai Yi-chung, director of the DPP’s Department of China Affairs, openly called on the CCP authorities to release Zhang Qi. Taiwan’s pro-independence media also used this incident to accuse Ma of being hypocritical.

Disproportionate Impact

Zhang Qi was released on July 13, after 20 days of detention. For a regime known for its merciless and brutal treatment of dissidents, this appeared to be a particularly feeble punishment for what it sees as an organized subversive act. In contrast, members of the China Democracy Party could be sentenced to 10 to 20 years in prison for a much lesser offense.

The mainland pan-blues, unlike traditional pro-democracy activists, have put the CCP in an awkward situation. As the CCP is actively developing its relations with the KMT, it probably fears that a severe crackdown on the mainland-based pan-blues could rattle the pan-blues in Taiwan, or at least provide ammunition to the pro-independence forces.

Though the pan-blues have not paid too high a price for their activities, they could potentially make a disproportionately big dent in the CCP’s armor.

Successive generations of Chinese pro-democracy activists have spent most of their time criticizing the regime, but have failed to come up with meaningful alternatives. As a result, their criticisms often sound as if they were targeting China, rather than just the CCP. Understandably, such "China-bashing" does not always go down well with the Chinese people. The regime has found it easy to simply dismiss them as "anti-China."

But the pan-blues are different. Proudly waving the ROC flag, they are at a vantage point from which they can show themselves as real patriots and real democrats at the same time. Also, the ROC and the KMT are old, tested brand names and can be presented as credible alternatives to the status quo.

On the key issue of Taiwan, few traditional activists have been consistently vocal in opposing "Taiwan independence," because most of them are sympathetic to democratic Taiwan and do not want to be seen as saying the same thing as the CCP. With most Chinese people favoring unification, such ambivalence cannot win them points.{mospagebreak}

But the pan-blues, again, are in a good position. Recognizing the ROC as the only legitimate government of China, they can easily be anti-communist and against "Taiwan independence" at the same time without sounding self-contradictory. Their opposition to Taiwan’s pro-independence forces is a matter of principle, but their criticisms have been rather polite and rational because they recognize the DPP as a force for democracy.

A "Pan-Blue Revolution"?

It is hard to estimate how strong this "Pan-Blue" movement on the mainland is at present. That is one of the reasons why the Taiwan KMT has been so cautious in its dealings with the mainland pan-blues.

However, recent happenings appear to suggest that more and more mainlanders are accepting the pan-blues’ ideas. When a large section of the society is looking for political alternatives, a relatively known quantity like the ROC could prevail over other proposals. And when one political alternative gains momentum, it could gradually evolve into a rallying point.

It is not hard to find precedents. After the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, most countries there reverted to their pre-communist national titles and national flags. For people living in communist countries, going forward seemed to mean going back and undoing what communism had done to their country.

Everyone knows China needs change, and most believe the country eventually will change. In the last few years, there have been a number of largely peaceful "revolutions" around the world, each associated with a specific color. When the moment inevitably comes for China, it could well turn out to be a "pan-blue revolution."

Yue Wei is a U.K.-based journalist.