Political Development in China

The term ‘political development’ appeared relatively recently, in the twentieth century. Only when the period of modernity was well established it was possible to come to think that political development means a transition from traditional society to modernity. Therefore, in order to understand how China politically has been developing, one should go back to the period when the country began realizing its traditionality and became willing to change tradition for modernity. The moment China encountered the West, political development started. Slowly but surely China came to the moment in history when it rejected the existing ideology and began moving in the direction of technical and scientific innovations after having passed through the T’ung-chih Restoration, the Hundren Days’ Reform of 1898, the Chinese Revolution of 1911, and the May Fourth Movement of 1919.

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In the book Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy, Barrington Moore argues that power relations between aristocracy and bourgeoisie determine political development. Aristocracy should be ready for commercial relations and capitalism while bourgeoisie should be strong. Different combinations of the conditions of aristocracy and bourgeoisie give different modes of political development. China had aristocracy that was not adapted for capitalism and had no bourgeoisie; therefore, it followed the route of Communism emulating the definition of modernity made up by the West during the Enlightenment (TA).

Whereas Chinese philosophers would have a cyclical view of history and believe man and nature are all in one, they eventually came to accept the Western viewpoint of development as conflict. By accepting the Western view of history as linear and dialectic the Chinese agreed to have political development in their country because the previous model of administration could not allow them to catch up with the West in terms of technology, science and overall development.

Seeing the difference in economic development between China and the West peasantry began a series of rebellions in the second part of the nineteenth century. The most prominent was the Taiping Rebellion in 1851, which was quickly repressed by the dynasty Qing but set the stage for the Communist Revolution later. The Taiping Rebellion was not able to implement all the plans but the intention was to reject Confucianism and allow people to choose from different religions and to implement communal agriculture. Perceiving that The Taiping Rebellion was a serious threat the Qing launched the T’ung-chih Restoration in 1862.

Returning back the Confucian philosophy of good government the Restoration movement was led by the same statesmen and literati who put down the Taiping Rebellion: Li Hongzhang (李鸿章), Zhang Zidong (左宗棠), Zeng Guofan (曾国藩) attempted to consolidate the Qing dynasty and revive Confucianism to stand against the un-Chinese values of the West (TA). Even though it was a re-entry to the past, it was a successful attempt and the T’ung-chih Restoration ended corruption, reestablished order, and rebuilt roads and houses. Staying within the formula ‘revival within tradition’ the reforms of the T’ung-chih Restoration were based on the principle of ‘tiyong’ 体用 “Keep the essential” (ti 体) (TA). Even though in the short-run the T’ung-chih Restoration accomplished its purpose and put the Qing in order, it was not, however, an adequate response to the challenges the West put.

China’s defeat in the Sino-Japanese war prompted new changes through a reform. However, new activists did not intend to uproot the old order. Being anti-traditionalists, new reformers radicalized their need to change the country quickly but peacefully. In 1898, the Hundren Days’ Reform was led by Kang Youwei (康有为) with the support of the young emperor Kuang Hsu (TA). A new generation of Confucian scholars were interested in western ideas. For example, Kang’s students Liang Qichao (梁启超) and Yan Fu (严复) who translated Herbert Spencer and other western works wanted to implement the idea of national wealth and power 富强 the way it is viewed in the West. The Reform had its objective in establishing China as one of the internationally important states. The reformers introduced changes in the education system, the army, economy, and administration to promote modernization (TA). However, the old elite found the reforms too radical and the Reform was stopped. Thus, aristocracy or literati were not united enough or unanimous enough to promote changes and at the same time these changes were not supported by lower classes. It meant “China would have no Meiji Restoration”.

In an attempt to hold back the slipping power, the Qing dynasty introduced an immense number of reforms which eventually undermined its rule. The dynasty intended to modernize the army, the economic sphere, the industry if textiles and railroad building, and the Westernized education system. However, the decentralization and education reforms weakened the dynasty and the revolutionaries received their change to overturn the power. In 1905, “the Confucian monopoly on political power [which decided] who would be loyal supporters of the regime abolishment of the civil service exam” ended because the civil service exam was abolished (TA). Now new teachers could teach stundent more loyal to revolutionary ideas rather than to the Emperor. The thriving business sector produced a new class of merchants who would think along different lines rather than officials and literati. Representative assemblies made at the local level made it possible for people to socialize and talk but without real power they began to voice complains. 

 Thus, the reforms created the breeding grounds for a revolutionary mood. The Chinese Revolution is associated with the name of Sun Yat-sen who became the leader and the symbol of the revolution. Several organizations united to form the Revolutionary Alliance which later became the Kuomin-tang with the purpose to overthrow the Manchus. However, the revolutionaries failed to fulfill their goals because of a series of botched plots throughout 1908-1911. When Sun left to the West to raise funds, the revolution broke out on October 11, 1911, as a result of the eleventh unsuccessful plot. Sun became Provisional President of the Republic of China.

Sun was eagerly interested in the ideas of Karl Marx because he could find information on the national question in his works. Marx wrote about historical examples when the borders of powerful nation-states such as Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome “allegedly coincided with people of common ethnic and linguistic heritage”. Sun made an emphasis on nationalism and wanted to remove the Manchus from power. However, Max had ambivalent attitude toward the nation. In the Communist Manifesto, he writes, “The working men have no country” implying that the notion of ‘nation’ is not crucial for the state. However, further they continue that the working class and the bourgeoisie should first of all work out their issues. Therefore, there is “the tension between nationalism and internationalism”.

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The revolutionaries based their changes in the principles of nationalism, democracy, and people's livelihood called Three People Principles (TA). Organizing Kuomintang they promoted single party dictatorship (TA). United by nationalistic sentiment, the revolutionaries opposed imperialism. However, within several years they gave away their power to a man from the Imperial times. Yuan Shih-k’ai was a general who helped the Empress to suppress the reform movement in 1898. As later he was in disfavor with the Empress, with the new government he had a reputation of a “modernist”. Dreaming of returning the Empire Yuan negotiated with the Tsing government for the emperor to give up the mandate of heaven, and in turn asked for Sun Yat-sen to resign (TA). However, the Republic was nbot stable enough and was wrought with “warlordism”, giving Yuan Shikai the opportunity to usurp power from Sun.

Meanwhile, Yuan was a person who almost single-handedly returned the country on its way to modernization to the old ways and imperialism. In 1912, Yuan officially became the head of the state as he “dissolved Kuomintang and cabinet, declared himself to be president for life, then emperor, calling the name of the era “洪宪”(the great constitutional era)” (TA). Thus, the Republicans became opposition and initiated the Second Revolution in 1913 which failed and Yuan stayed in power till his death in 1916. However, the Republic was not able to restore itself. By 1920, it began a series of transformations according to the Russian model. 

However, all the failed initiatives of the revolutionaries, nationalistic moods, and the fact that China is losing on the international arena resulted in a cultural revolution called the May Fourth Movement after a student demonstration at Beijin University. Established on May 4, 1919 it responded to many issues. Among them is the Treaty of Versailles signed June 28, 1919, which signaled that all German interests would be transferred from China to Japan (TA). The May Fourth Movement became the “Chinese Enlightenment” when democracy and science are promoted. Similarly to the European Enlightenment, the May Fourth Movement destabilized the essence of Chinese society – Confucianism. Therefore, it targeted not imperialism or the Qing but the ideology of society, “the ideological underpinning of the Imperial regime”.

In my view, the revolutionaries offered the better solution to the challenges of the West than the leaders of the Tongzhi Restoration and the 1898 Reform Movement. The West required a radical reconsideration of the existing ideology and insignificant reforms or restoration of the Empire could not help. In fact, they slowed down China’s political development. However, even outright failures were then used as the breeding grounds for the May Fourth Movement. Whereas there was a question of whether it is possible for China to remain China, the May Fourth Movement replied no. Confucianism became the core of the Chinese life. Crushing it China rejected its cultural heritage as a guiding norm and became ready to accept modernity in the Western form. 

Beginning its period of modernity from the May Fourth Movement, China proved that it is ready to drop the traditional understanding of circular history and adopt the modern view of history as a linear narrative. By changing traditionality for modernity China announced itself a contender for an important place in the international economy and political arena. China spent several decades simply by getting the aristocracy and the bourgeois agree that not mere reforms but changes were necessary. And then China will become a prosperous country. Starting from the Taiping Revolution all the subsequent events such as the T’ung-chih Restoration, the Hundren Days’ Reform of 1898, the Chinese Revolution of 1911, and the May Fourth Movement of 1919 were stepping stones for the Chinese Revolution of 1949.


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