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WANG Gungwu




WANG Gungwu

Doctor of Letters
honoris causa

Reflections on Leadership and Vision

It always gives my wife and me a warm feeling to be back on HKU campus. On this occasion, the honour bestowed on me makes the return memorable, even more so when I am sharing the honour with such a distinguished cohort of fellow honorary graduates. Also special for me is that this congregation coincides with the 90th anniversary of the university. I came here last December to share in the celebrations and they confirmed my belief that HKU has learnt well how to blend a splendid past with an exciting future. It was particularly moving to see our alumni and current students commit themselves to their alma mater in such an enthusiastic way.

Talking about the anniversary reminds me of how our university took its first steps and pioneered the fine tradition of higher education in Hong Kong. Thus the origins of our excellent Medical Faculty, when it was called the Chinese College of Medicine. The college took its first batch of students in 1887 and, as we all know, had among its first students, Sun Yat-sen.

So much has been written about Sun Yat-sen that it would be difficult to find something new to say about him. But the fact that one of our fellow graduates today may be seen by many as the Father of the new South Africa allows me use this occasion to take us back to HKU's roots and try and place Sun Yat-sen in the context of 21st century history as well as of HKU's future. I am sorry that President Mandela is not here with us today for I would have liked to tell him personally how much I admire him and why I am using an earlier graduate of HKU to show my admiration of his kind of leadership.

Sun Yat-sen was born in 1866 and died in March 1925, 77 years ago this month. When he died, there was much grief expressed throughout China and tens of thousands of poems were written for the occasion, and more every year whenever that date was commemorated. He was a 19th century man who saw the needs of the 20th century ahead of most of his compatriots. Now that we have moved into the 21st century, is there anything about him that can tell us something about what lies ahead? For myself, I would like to suggest that there are three issues associated with his life and thought that can be usefully brought into the 21st century. All three, despite some significant differences in outcomes, could apply to President Mandela and I am sure my fellow graduates today would allow me to use this link to lead us to one of HKU's most distinguished alumni.

The greater victory

The first issue may, on the surface, be peculiarly Chinese. I am convinced, however, that it is more universal than that. This refers to a leader's place in history. Sun Yat-sen's story is well-known. He had been good at inspiring people to support his cause. But all his efforts to organise rebellion against the Manchu Qing dynasty turned out to be failures and many of his friends had to sacrifice themselves for that cause. Even after the fall of the imperial system, he was prevented from leading the country by ambitious military men like Yuan Shikai and the whole generation of warlords his death had spawned. Sun Yat-sen was forced to seek foreign assistance on several occasions either simply to survive or in order to fund various local armies who were prepared to come to his side. The last ten years of his life were frustrating because he experienced both loyalty and betrayal without being able to achieve his goals. His dream of unifying the country and bringing modern economic development to all Chinese people was still nowhere in sight at the time of his death. Yet today he is the only political leader who is recognised as China's great modern leader on both sides of the Taiwan Straits, and also by the most Chinese outside China.

Such a phenomenon may be not regarded as strange among modern historians in the West. For them, the fact of failure does not preclude a leader from being widely acknowledged as a great and noble person, even as a great leader who was a tragic figure or was just plain unlucky. This was not true of imperial China. For the past two thousand years since China's unification, history was strongly guided by the principle, 'the victorious are kings, the defeated are bandits'. By that criterion, Sun Yat-sen, who had failed more often than succeeded throughout his life, could well have been classified among the bandits in official histories. This has not happened. He was revered not only by his loyalist followers but also by the deadliest enemies of his followers, and even by some who were never his supporters both inside and outside the country.

This is exceptional for Chinese scholars and bureaucratic elites. It symbolises how much they have rejected the tradition that had dictated the writings of their predecessors which designated winners as kings and losers as bandits. A new sense of history, a more critical and sophisticated spirit in judging achievement has come among the Chinese. What is more important is not simply to respect only those who had won ultimate power but to weigh also what that person stood for, the ideals, the principles, the personal qualities that earned both respect and affection. When the Chinese can discern such qualities and give priority to these over ideology and narrow party interests, the people have indeed changed and taken a big step towards the modern world. Here President Mandela may mark a different facet of the same phenomenon. His early failures ended in a long and cruel imprisonment. All he needed, one might say, was one victory. And that he achieved. But what really mattered was not the victory of power alone, but of the greater readiness to forgive his enemies and rebuild his country with their help. It is his humanness (his ren as the Chinese would see it) and his compassion that trump all other symbols of success.

A many-peopled republic

The second issue arises from Sun Yat-sen's use of the concept of guomin, and other similar terms (that is, people of a country, or citizens) as opposed to chenmin (that is, subjects of one dynasty or another). Another that became popular when he emerged as a political leader was minzu, for race or nation. These words were derived from modern terms used in Western nation-states. For a nationalist revolutionary of his time, this was not exceptional. They were most appropriate for the idea of republic that he introduced to his followers. And, early in 1912, this goal was achieved, something truly remarkable for a population that had little idea of what the word republic meant.

But what was equally interesting was the idea of wuzu gonghe (five-races or peoples republic) that he introduced at the same time. What was significant about this was that, for decades, Sun Yat-sen was the leader of an anti-Manchu nationalist movement that flew the flag of a China under Han Chinese rule. His greatest popularity had come from the secret societies within and outside China that were dedicated to the overthrow of the Manchus. On the eve of that overthrow, Sun Yat-sen saw that China was not only the country of the Han but also of at least four other major peoples, the Manchu, the Mongol, the Hui Muslims and the Tibetans. By adopting the idea of a five-peoples republic, he had enunciated a simple form of a multi-national or what we commonly call a multi-cultural state. When he did this, this was in the face of the model of the nation-state that the European powers offered to the modern world. There have been many even today who have tried to use that model to classify China as an empire that still has to be broken down to its national bits and pieces. These are people who reject the idea that countries that are multicultural could safely remain so. But as the world learns to live with globalisation, the idea should not be alien for much longer.

Indeed, the way the Chinese people accepted Sun Yat-sen's use of wuzu gonghe suggests that they were taking a step beyond the idea of empire by recognising that China could not be the narrowly conceived nation-state that the West represented. It is true that most Chinese people still do not appreciate the subtle distinctions here. But, by moving from a narrow anti-Manchu nationalism to this multi-national republic, Sun Yat-sen had actually offered his peoples a vision of the future, a future that is still evolving as the whole world has sooner or later also to face up to. President Mandela, of course, is personally closer to that future. But his place with Sun Yat-sen is not merely because they are both Fathers of their modern country, but because they both embody the spirit of a multi-national republic that will become the better model for the world in the 21st century.

Action and Knowledge

The third issue has deeper philosophical roots in the Chinese tradition but is no less valid for the future. It stems from Sun Yat-sen's idea of action and knowledge. He often said, 'Act and then you will know'. This is a subject much debated among Chinese philosophers for many centuries. There were two main Confucian interpretations. The dominant view was that knowing should come first. It would be rash to act before you know. The second equivocated, giving equal importance to acting and knowing and seeing them as one inseparable cognitive act. When I first came across Sun Yat-sen's statement when I was still a young student, it struck me as radical and unorthodox. It seemed foolish even dangerous to act without first knowing the consequences of action. Like most people, the old idea of discretion being the better part of valour seemed more practical.

After I became a student of history and could place the idea in the context of Sun Yat-sen's life and career, I began to see the statement differently. Here was a revolutionary leader acting against an ancient power system. In terms of both his leadership and his revolutionary vision, he was doubly required to act. He could never have had the leisure to know enough before acting. Opportunities could never wait for him to arm himself with adequate knowledge before making a move. While still living in Hong Kong, I found an echo of Sun Yat-sen's saying in the famous dictum of Deng Xiaoping about having to cross the river by feeling for the stones under one's feet. I thought that 'feeling for the stones' was the acting that Sun Yat-sen was talking about. As you felt, you knew whether the stones were there or not. This is a similar view of leadership in the face of the unknown. It is a creative act, a mark of courage and vision. Both Sun Yat-sen and Deng Xiaoping were practitioners in their revolutionary youth. The only difference was that Sun Yat-sen enunciated the principle when he was in his thirties while Deng Xiaoping only made his famous statement when twice Sun Yat-sen's age.

All three issues raised here are relevant to how Hong Kong sees its future. The people of Hong Kong think of Sun Yat-sen as great even though he failed more often that he succeeded. They will not go back to the time when only the winner is acknowledged as king and losers are declared as bandits. Their historical mindset has been changed. Thus they will respect leaders not by success alone, but for their ideas, vision and personal qualities. Also Hong Kong people are citizens of a large and culturally diverse multi-national republic. This, coupled with their experience of a global cosmopolitan world, has prepared them well for the 21st century where narrow nation-state structures will be symbols of weakness and multicultural societies recognised as powerfully enriched. As for action being the source of knowledge, Deng Xiaoping's leadership principles have shaped Hong Kong's recent past. Future Hong Kong leaders may ponder on how they too might act boldly and creatively. When they do, they could do worse than look at Sun Yat-sen's example. For us at HKU, we are privileged to have the man firmly locked into the university's history. By using the three aspects of his life and thought above, it is my hope that we do not keep him there in the past but often bring him and his spirit out into the open, and into the 21st century, for all to see and think upon.

1 Soyinka, Wole. Mandela's Earth and Other Poems. (New York: Random House, 1988), p.4

2 Legge, J. The Chinese Classics, with a translation, critical and exegetical notes, prolegomena, and copious indexes (Part IV The She King, or The Book of Poetry), 2nd ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1893), p.91.

3 Legge, J. The Chinese Classics, with a translation, critical and exegetical notes, prolegomena, and copious indexes (Part I Confucian Analects, The Great Learning and The Doctrine of the Mean), 2nd ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1893), p.194.

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