Lessons from China's Revolution, 100 Years Later

By Jeremiah Jenne

BEIJING, China -- A century ago this year, a group of revolutionaries accidentally blew up the bombs they were supposed to be making -- oh, the perils of insurrection planning -- and rather than be rounded up and executed, they decided to carry out an armed insurrection in the city of Wuchang.*  Having declared themselves in rebellion, the mutineers took the local armory and convinced (reportedly at gunpoint) one of their former army commanders to lead the revolution. While this might sound less like a turning point in Chinese history and more like the plot of a really bad Jack Black/Jet Li buddy comedy, the crazy thing is...it actually worked.  A wave of secessions began sweeping the provinces of the Qing Empire, and three months later the Qing court abdicated, bringing to a close nearly two millennia of imperial rule in China.**

Last month Caixin Online, part of a media group known for pushing boundaries, published an article about the 1911 Wuchang Uprising discussing how "princelings," in this case privileged members of the Manchu elite who took charge after the death of the Empress Dowager Cixi in 1908, had stubbornly clung to power while helping their networks of toadies and supplicants enrich themselves at the expense of infrastructure projects and through a system of "officially supervised, merchant managed" enterprises. 

And just in case that was too subtle, the article concludes: "As then, a large part of the elite now realize the system is ineffective. Finding disturbing parallels 100 years ago only deepens their anxiety. History is not a feel-good business."

It's tempting as a historian to play around with this kind of parallel: the corruption of local officials who ignore the authority of the center, creating mini-fiefdoms in the provinces and stirring up the anger of the people; the ability of those with connections to power to turn those connections into ill-gotten gains; a feeling that not enough is being done to rectify social and economic inequalities between rich and poor or between urban and rural areas; even the recent scandal involving corruption at the Ministry of Railways recalls the early 20th century shenanigans surrounding the building of China's rail network which seriously undermined support for the Qing government. And of course there is an entrenched leadership, well aware of the problems of society and yet seemingly too insecure to make the bold choices necessary to solve them. 

The Qing Dynasty lost its mandate when demands for reform began to outpace the willingness of the court to deliver.  As the calls for an elected national assembly and a constitution which delineated the sharing of power between the people and the sovereign grew louder, the Qing princes dragged their feet, fearful that even the smallest concession would ultimately consign them to the dustbin of history. The court knew what the people wanted, but they were prescient enough to see how these reforms might ultimately threaten their power, position, and privilege.

The similarities are interesting, but these sorts of parallels only go so far and ultimately fail to account for equally significant differences which make direct comparisons between then and now quite difficult.

First of all, China today is a much more prosperous, optimistic, and stable society than a century ago. The current government is credited with lifting millions out of poverty and creating the conditions for China's rapid development over the last three decades.  As a result, the CCP is in a decidedly stronger position than the Qing court was in 1911.***

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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