China's beleaguered rights activists on Tuesday marked the anniversary of the country's pre-communist revolution amid a nationwide political crackdown in the run-up to the ruling Chinese Communist Party's five-yearly congress.
The "Double Tenth" anniversary marks the beginning of the revolution led by nationalist leader Sun Yat-sen that toppled the last Qing dynasty (1644-1911) emperor, and is marked as National Day on the democratic island of Taiwan.
Official celebrations in mainland China are typically more muted, with Oct. 1 celebrated as National Day marking the proclamation of the People's Republic of China by Mao Zedong in 1949.
But activists in China have taken to marking the date spontaneously, in the hope that Beijing will eventually embrace Taiwan-style democracy, human rights and rule of law.
The celebrations aren't without risk, however, as Hunan-based Xie Zhou told RFA on Tuesday at the start of a ceremony with seven other activists.
"They are following us closely," Xie said in a reference to China's state security police. "We are about to begin, and we are gathered together."
"There is one of them following us, and there are plainclothes officers all across the park, which is very small," he said. "There are some of them standing in every corner."
A symbolic date
The 1911 revolution was sparked by an armed uprising in the central city of Wuchang, part of present-day Wuhan, on Oct. 10, resulting in the fall of the Qing dynasty (1644-1912) the following year.
It has also become a symbolic date for China's army of petitioners, ordinary people who seek redress for long-running complaints against officials and government departments, often to no avail and at the cost of beatings, detention, and official harassment.
Petitioner Zhang Chunxia said that while petitioners had held a memorial event last year outside the Museum of the Wuchang Uprising, most of them are currently under surveillance, enforced "vacations," or house arrest ahead of the 19th Party Congress on Oct. 18.
"They have all been placed under monitoring or house arrest because of Chinese government policies towards petitioners, and also because of the 19th Party Congress," Zhang told RFA.
"They have always told us that it's OK if we mark [Oct. 10], but in our separate groups," she said. "But they have banned everyone from gathering together in a big group, because that will have an impact on social stability."
Earlier this month, a group of more than 50 rights activists in Shanghai led by Li Ming marked the controversial "Double Tenth" with a five-day event running on from the Golden Week holiday that started on Oct. 1.
There would be no event on Oct. 10 itself, however, Li said.
"If we tried to do it today, we'd be under very tight surveillance and security," Li said. "In previous years, if we held an event, the state security police would be watching, and they might call me in to 'drink tea'."
"We feel as if our country is the Republic of China. We wave the Republic of China flag and the Republic of China is the only country we recognize," Li said. "That is a true expression of our feelings."
During the centenary year in 2011, Beijing sponsored a series of events to mark the anniversary, including the launch in June of a blockbuster movie celebrating the 90th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party, "The Beginning of the Great Revival."
The movie, starring some of the biggest names in Chinese movies, including Chow Yun-fat and Andy Lau, tells a story based on the 1911 revolution and the founding of the Chinese Communist Party on July 31, 1921.
Dissidents and independent commentators say Beijing's celebrations are purely political, and aimed at shoring up its version of history and thereby its hold on power.
China's Kuomintang (KMT) nationalist government under Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek relocated to Taiwan in 1949 after losing a civil war to Mao Zedong's communists on the mainland.
The island began a transition to democracy following the death of Chiang's son, President Chiang Ching-kuo, in January 1988, starting with direct elections to the legislature in the early 1990s and culminating in the first direct election of a president, Lee Teng-hui, in 1996.
Recent opinion polls indicate that there is broad political support for de facto self-rule in Taiwan, where the majority of voters identify as Taiwanese rather than Chinese.
But while the Chinese Communist Party has never ruled the island, Beijing regards it as part of Chinese territory and has threatened to invade if Taiwan seeks formal independence.
A rallying call
In Taiwan, the KMT, which was roundly trounced by the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in the last presidential and legislative elections, used the celebration as a political rallying call.
Former president Ma Ying-jeou told supporters that his party had presided over more than six decades of peace across the Taiwan Strait before being relegated to the political opposition.
"Back then, nobody was talking about whether mainland China would attack ... that wasn't a problem then," Ma said. "Now, the situation makes everyone very worried indeed."
"There is an ongoing debate here at home, and then we have online opinion in mainland China, which seems to get less and less friendly to Taiwan every day," Ma said. "Even the United States seems to feel that the Taiwan question isn't going the way they would want it to."
But DPP president Tsai Ing-wen vowed in her National Day speech to defend Taiwan’s freedom and democracy amid growing pressure from Beijing.
“We need to remember democracy and freedom were rights obtained through all of Taiwan people’s countless efforts,” Tsai said. “Therefore, we need to use all our power to defend Taiwan’s democratic and freedom values and lifestyle,” she said.
Tsai has refused to endorse a 1992 agreement with Beijing that was signed by the KMT pledging not to seek formal statehood, leading China to ramp up military drills and cut off informal diplomatic channels with Taipei, which it regards as a regional government.
Reported by Gao Feng and Hwang Hsiao-hsia for RFA's Mandarin Service, and by Chung Kuang-cheng for the Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.