A French bastard landing with an armed banditti, and establishing himself king of England against the consent of the natives, is in plain terms a very paltry rascally original. It certainly hath no divinity in it.
Thomas Paine, Common Sense (1776)
History drips with irony – often of the most savage kind – and few histories do so more than that of modern China. One is struck by it at almost every major turning point in the country’s history, from the fate of political reform under the late Qing Dynasty (1885 “1911) to the death of Zhao Ziyang in 2005.
Indeed, the repetitive cycle of historical irony might best be encapsulated by drawing a parallel between the Dowager Empress Cixi placing the Emperor Guangxu under house arrest for attempting political reform in 1898, and the ‘Dowager Emperor’ Deng Xiaoping placing Premier Zhao Ziyang under house arrest in 1989 for essentially the same ‘crime’. What had the intervening 90 years of revolution been for, if not to rid China of tyranny and give it a fully modern constitution?
Of course, on paper, it has a more or less fully modern constitution. But the Communist Party still stands above the constitution in the role of an absolutist monarch. The realisation of democratic freedoms in China is incompatible with it exercising such a role and only the legitimation of political opposition can change this fateful state of affairs.
Although Cixi first crushed the reform movement in 1898, she then saw the need for political reform and, in 1905, initiated moves towards a constitutional monarchy, albeit she still kept the Emperor Guangxu confined for the rest of his life. Ironically, Cixi’s ten-year plan for the political reform of the Chinese empire created provincial constituencies so impatient for more rapid and radical change that they brought down the monarchy altogether in 1911.
The plan that had been intended to give the empire greater flexibility and strength precipitated its fragmentation and consequent weakening. This, by turn, contributed in no small measure -along with the illusion of ‘success’ in Lenin’s Russia from 1917 “21 -to many of the empire’s erstwhile democratic dissidents deciding in the 1920s that the nascent Chinese nation state needed one-party rule to pull it together.
It was Sun Yatsen who led the shift towards one party rule, following a violent betrayal of the fledgling democratic republic by those who should have protected it. Having perceived in early 1912 that the empire was fragmenting and that a republic could not hold things together without military force to back it up, he offered the presidency to the old Qing general, Yuan Shikai. Under Yuan’s supposed protection, democratic elections were held in December 1912 -just as they were to be held five years later in the former Russian empire, under supposed Bolshevik protection.
A National Assembly was elected by forty million voters and Sun’s party (the Guomindang) won 269 of the 596 seats, which was less than an absolute majority, but roughly equivalent to the plurality enjoyed in 2005 by the Democratic Progress Party (DPP) in Taiwan.
Democratic politics had begun in China, but they were almost immediately aborted by men with guns. On 20 March 1913, Song Jiaoren, the thirty-year-old wunderkind of the Guomindang, was on his way to Beijing, to head the new National Assembly and form a Guomindang coalition government, when he was assassinated at Shanghai’s central railway station by agents of Yuan Shikai.
Guomindang in Jiangxi province
The old general then disbanded the National Assembly and arrested many of its elected members. He believed – or so he propagated the story – that the new Chinese state needed strong, centralised government in order to achieve unity and progress. There were those even among the most enlightened of the reformers -chiefly Liang Qichao, whose Progressive Party had won many seats in the National Assembly -who bowed to this assertion and tried to work with the usurper, but their attempts failed. The old empire fragmented and regional generals took power in the absence of any central authority.
The unfortunate conclusion almost all China’s republican revolutionaries drew from this sequence of events was not that democracy should be more vigorously protected, but that the country was not ready for democracy and that the republic would need to establish a centralised government, as Yuan had proposed, with a monopoly of force and power.
Sun Yatsen’s reasoning in this regard was that the new republic, with its immense, impoverished, and largely illiterate population, needed a period of ‘political tutelage’ before it would be ready for democracy. There seems to be no basis for a suspicion that he was being cynical and self-serving in making this claim (though that could not so easily be said of others before and since). Yet it was, surely, an argument based on a counter-intuitive interpretation of the events that had just occurred.
Sun’s judgment was that a citizenry who had just elected a 596 member multi-party National Assembly and then seen it arbitrarily disbanded needed instruction in the workings of democracy, but surely the events of 1912 “1913 demonstrated that it was the men wielding guns who needed such instruction.
In any case, this argument entailed a corollary that should have set strong limits on the exercise of the tutelage, for whatever term of years it persisted. The logical corollary was that the Chinese people would be instructed in the responsible practice of citizenship under the law, with the gradual extension of the franchise as the vital institutional infrastructure was put into place.
Did this process fail to occur because Sun Yatsen died prematurely, aged 59, in March 1925? Perhaps, but he had already set in train both an alliance with Leninists and the creation of a military force, imperiling his uncertain regime from two sides. Within two years of his death, those two sides were at one another’s throats, fighting not over the best principles of tutelage but over the monopoly of raw power. If anyone among his lieutenants could have held the project together, it would likely have been Liao Zhongkai -brilliant, independently wealthy, a fluent English speaker, an outstanding labour organizer, and financier -but Liao’s assassination by conservatives, in August 1925, ended that possibility.
A year after Sun Yatsen’s death in March 1926, Chiang Kaishek asserted control of the Guomindang by military force and set out to achieve a kind of synthesis of the political projects begun by Yuan Shikai and Sun Yatsen: a dictatorship in the name of ‘political tutelage’ and the repression of those on the Left, as well as warlords on the Right, who stood in the way of his plan.
For the following 23 years he pursued the project in the belief that it would make China unified and strong. But, as history shows, it kept China divided and weak, narrowed the talent available to him to develop or mobilise the country, and ended with the thorough corruption and ultimate downfall of his regime.
Had the Chinese people rejected the idea of democracy in allowing Chiang and his corrupted Guomindang to fall? Not at all, for he had denied them democracy. Had they rejected political tutelage by the Guomindang? Not at all, for they had been given repression, corruption, and misrule in place of tutelage in democracy. Had they chosen proletarian dictatorship in preference to bourgeois democracy? Not at all, for the former was imposed on them by the Communist Party, and the latter had long since been denied them by Chiang Kaishek.
The irony of Chiang Kaishek’s downfall, then, was that he failed precisely because of the means he adopted in his determination to succeed. Had the Communist Party come to power determined to make restitution for Chiang Kaishek’s failures and his consequent distortion of the idea of political tutelage, the ‘New China’ they boldly proclaimed might have truly liberated its people, and set them on the path to the freedom that modern constitutions and democratic processes espouse and enshrine.
Of course, in a sense they saw themselves as doing exactly this, but only in a narrow sense, constricted by the same presumption that had twisted Sun Yatsen’s reasoning after the dispersal of the National Assembly by Yuan Shikai. Instead of seeing that their power needed to be circumscribed in order to avoid a descent into tyranny, the party acted on the assumption that so long as it controlled the guns and used them to unify the country, all was well.
This is an edited extract from Thunder from the Silent Zone: Rethinking China, which is published by Scribe, $35.00.
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