How 19th Century History Explains Present-Day China

Faced with necessary reforms, Beijing must make bold choices—just like during the Qing Dynasty.
Establishment of the Republic of China with display of two flags of the Wuchang Uprising. (Wikimedia Commons)

Orville Schell:

It is true that China is no longer beset by threats of foreign incursion nor is it a laggard in the world of economic development and trade. But being there and being steeped in an atmosphere of seemingly endless political and economic tension where questions of how far the leadership is willing (able?) to go in making reforms does make one think back to the end of the Qing, China's last dynasty, during its waning years at the end of the 19th century. While the analogy is not perfect, one is left to ponder whether Party General Secretary Xi Jinping might end up being the Empress Dowager Cixi of the Communist era, a victim of the same wager: Fail to reform rapidly enough and risk stasis. Reform too rapidly and risk instability and even upheaval.

It’s interesting to reflect on Cixi's ambivalence toward reform, not to say her indignation at the way foreigners hectored and bullied China and then to compare that to the reluctance (so far) of China's current leaders to take risks and push toward a bold reform agenda.  It's also interesting to recall that by the time Cixi actually embraced constitutional monarchy after the Boxer rebellion in 1900, China's traditional system of leadership was already so enfeebled that it was too late to reformat it. Indeed, in dynastic history the question of when major reforms happen is a critical one in any "mid-dynastic revival"—zhōngxìng—or in what Xi Jinping now calls "rejuvenation"—fùxīng.

We now speak of "the end of the Qing,"  Qīng mò, when speaking of the waning years of the last imperial dynasty. If reforms again fail, might we some day find ourselves speaking of this interim as "the end of the People's Republic," Rénmín Gònghéguó mò?

John Delury:

By the turn of the last century, the Qing Dynasty was like a once great and fierce prize bull that was gushing blood from every limb, having been lanced, stabbed and barbed since the 1830s—when the trouble really became obvious—and was, by the early 1900s, just waiting for the matador to do him in once and for all. The scale and intensity of the Qing’s afflictions in the 19th century are staggering to think back upon: civil disorders such as the Boxers coming after full-scale civil war during the mid-century Taiping rebellion; defeat at sea and on land to the British, French, Japanese, and finally, in 1900, to an eight-nation allied force, resulting in treaties that obliged the Qing to cede territory and pay hundreds of millions in indemnities to its vanquishers; all this, while the economy stagnated, the environment deteriorated, and bureaucracy resisted reform and was riddled with corruption.

Many topics on such a list will ring bells of familiarity with observers of contemporary China, and the renewed interest in the late Qing is of a more than antiquarian nature. But still, the depth of the problems faced by the Qing 100 years ago would seem to outstrip even the more dire diagnoses of today, and the Communist Party under Xi Jinping would appear to have much more formidable resources at its disposal than those the Qing state with Empress Dowager Cixi at the helm could muster. To offer just one example—succession of a paramount ruler was a crippling problem for the Qing from 1860 onwards. The series of weak boy emperors left a vacuum at the top that Cixi could not fill. But the CCP has been moving toward increasingly orderly successions of power, as demonstrated by the relatively smooth ascents of Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping, and the strong consensus with the Party now around Xi.

Orville is right that the CCP would be wise to study not only the fate of the Soviet Union, which, from a PRC perspective, reformed too fast under Gorbachev, but also the fate of the Qing, which reformed too slow. But they also can take some solace in the likelihood that at this stage at least, given China’s decades of economic dynamism and growing international stature, they are much better placed to take “reform and opening-up” to the next level than were their Qing forebears a century ago.

Jeffrey Wasserstrom:

In recent years, many events in China—and elsewhere—have brought to mind, sometimes in unexpected ways, Chinese events of a century or so ago. For example, even though when Mubarak first fell at the start of the Arab Spring, the obvious China-Egypt analogy seemed to only involve the recent past (Tahrir Square protests seeming similar in some ways to the Tiananmen Square ones of 1989), recent moves by Cairo’s generals have been reminiscent of Chinese events of the start rather than end of the twentieth century. What has been happening in Egypt lately parallels Qing military-official-turned-revolution-backer Yuan Shikai's moves in 1912 to put an end to Sun Yatsen’s very short term as China’s first President.

There are many Qing era echoes in current Chinese political discourse, especially in criticism of current leaders acting, in effect, like part of an extended and corrupt ruling family whose members live privileged lives far removed from those of ordinary people. One contrast, though, has to do with the notion of the fate China needs to avoid. Late in the Qing, the scenario that caused the most anxiety involved China becoming a wangguo (a “lost country,” a term that inspired visions of a government losing sovereignty or a people being enslaved). Reformers and Qing cliques alike called for action to prevent this, while arguing over how exactly China could be protected from suffering the fate of India, say, yet retain the imperial system. Revolutionaries, meanwhile, began to refer—as Taiping insurgents had before them—to the country already being in the hands of foreigners, the Manchus, and of Han Chinese needing cast off the shackles of enslavement.

Today’s government makes plenty of use of notions of real and imaginary foreign pressure, of course, stressing China’s need to defend its sovereignty in dangerous times. And yet, a different fate to be avoided is often invoked: the recurrence of the self-inflicted traumas and turmoil of the Cultural Revolution. Defenders of Party rule point fingers at individuals or groups, saying that a particular faction’s rise or the unraveling of the status quo would lead to spiraling in that dreaded direction. Others counter that the Cultural Revolution was a result of Communist Party rule, so fear of a repeat will only disappear when it loses its monopoly on power.

Peter C. Perdue:

China in 2013 on the face of it shows little resemblance to the dying empire of 1900-1910. Xi Jinping is no Empress dowager; the economy is still growing, and foreign powers have no desire to alter China’s domestic regime.

And yet ... the suppression of dissent, the instigation of patriotic defensiveness, the rampant corruption, and the inadequate response of the ruling elite to rapidly changing global conditions calls to mind some curious parallels. The five million Manchus attacked by Chinese nationalists in the 1900s were less than 2 percent of the total population; the Communist Party now has 80 million members, still less than 6 percent of the total population. Both elites lost confidence in their ideological supremacy. The Manchus lost their ethic of military austerity as they adopted Han Chinese norms of civil culture, decadent leisure, and commercial profit. At the same time they set themselves off from the majority of the country by clinging to their outworn privileges, making them targets for radical Han nationalists. Just as late Qing Manchus had no serious military skills, and based their legitimacy to rule purely on descent from conquering families, Communist Party members today have no serious commitment to socialism or the austere virtues of Yan’an. They induct new members for material and political benefit, and do their best to protect inherited privileges. Clearly, for both groups, family values are alive and well, although today the elites invest in Harvard educations instead of grandiose palaces for their children.

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ChinaFile is an online magazine published by Asia Society's Center on U.S.-China Relations. 

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