How to Stop Reactionaries From Derailing Reform in China

In 1898, leading proponents of political reform in China were killed or exiled. One, Liang Qichao, came to -- of all places -- my own country, Australia. He witnessed the founding of the Australian Commonwealth and wrote to his Chinese readers that China should become a constitutional monarchy with a federal government like Australia's new government. Who would have thought that a highly educated Chinese intellectual would see in far-away Australia a political model for the decadent Middle Kingdom? Yet he did.

The Democracy Report

In 1911-12, he helped overthrow the Qing and a found a Chinese republic. He led one of several parties in democratic elections in China, in December 1912. Some 40 million male, propertied citizens elected a 596-member National Assembly. It convened in Beijing to deliberate over and create a new republican constitution. This was to be the beginning of a modern, democratic China, inspired by the West, not oppressed or plundered by it. That was exactly 100 years ago next month.

Then, traditional dragon culture kicked in. On March 20, 1913, at the Shanghai railway station about to board a train for Beijing to lead the largest of the parties in the National Assembly, the young Chinese statesman Song Jiaoren was assassinated by agents of an old imperial general, Yuan Shikai. Yuan disbanded the new National Assembly and tried to return China to authoritarian government.

China fragmented into warlord-dominated fiefdoms and for the following 36 years, internal war, brutal factional struggles and Japanese invasion afflicted China. Appalled by all this, Chinese writer Lu Xun concluded that China's ills were "wholly of its own making and could not, in good conscience, be laid at the door of any foreigner." As Chiang Kai-shek consolidated a dictatorship in the late 1920s and early 1930s, Lu Xun and others insisted that the country needed human rights and democracy, not dictatorship.

Another who did so was Hu Shih, but he was marginalized by Chiang Kai-shek and fled the Communists in 1949. Had he not, he would have fallen victim to Mao's purges. He would surely have been among those who spoke out in the 1957 Hundred Flowers Movement, in which Mao had called upon China's intellectuals to tell the party frankly what their concerns were, triggering an outpouring of criticisms of the party's abuse of power, inefficiency, violence, propaganda and philistinism.

A furious Mao launched a vicious campaign of repression. Hundreds of thousands of intellectuals were arrested and imprisoned. No one knows how many were killed. He boasted that the First Emperor, in the third century BCE, had had hundreds of scholars buried alive, but that he had had hundreds of thousands of them buried alive, at least metaphorically speaking. This is the man whose portrait still stands over Tiananmen Square. It needs to be removed and buried. It is the very emblem of the dragon culture.

Political reform was rejected by the Qing court in 1898 and its leading proponents beheaded or exiled. It resurfaced in 1908-12. It was suppressed again by Yuan Shikai, in 1913-1916, but resurfaced with the May Fourth Movement in 1919. It was suppressed by Chiang Kaishek in 1927-31, but resurfaced in the principled advocacy of Lu Xun, Hu Shih and others. It was suppressed by the Communist Party after 1949, but rose to the surface in the Hundred Flowers Movement, only to be crushed again. It was persecuted during the Cultural Revolution, yet rose to the surface yet again in the late 1970s. It was crushed in 1989, but the need for it is now acknowledged at the highest levels in China.

It took centuries to create liberal democratic institutions even in England and America, to say nothing of continental Europe. The West, too, had an imperial culture to overcome: the culture of Rome, of Caesar and of Papism. Whether we look back to Greece or only to Gutenberg, to Luther and Tyndale, or Bruno and Galileo; to Milton and the religious non-conformists, or Locke and the separation of church and state; to "Wilkes and liberty" or John Stuart Mill's On Liberty, we know that our struggle, also, was long and painful.

So we shouldn't feel self-righteous about the enormous struggle China has fought to overcome its dragon culture. Nonetheless, it now needs to take decisive steps. We cannot make reform happen in China. It may not happen. China may go over a precipice, with traumatic consequences for its own people and for our interests. But we need to understand, better than our 19th-century ancestors, both the pressures for reform and the sources of resistance to it.

We need to understand both the pressures for reform in China and the sources of resistance to it.

There is, of course, a deep fear of political disintegration in China. The horrors of the Taiping era, the anarchy of the warlord era, the miseries of the Cultural Revolution, all feed this fear in political and folk memory. And political reform is always and everywhere a matter of the "slow boring of hard wood," in Max Weber's phrase. But we need to be clear that "bold political and social reform" in China in this decade is in our interest so that China can become not the rival of America, with a dragon culture's hauteur and growing military clout, but the brother of the West in taking science, economic innovation and democratic governance to new levels.

In the West, we used to look back to the fifth century BCE in classical Greece as the most glorious era of Western civilization. Hu Shih looked back to the fifth century BCE in China: with its many schools of thought and many different kingdoms, before the King of Qin suppressed both. Hu, in exile, lived in a simple house in Taipei, now a museum. If you visit it, you can purchase a small volume of his reflections: Tolerance and Freedom. In looking back, he was no reactionary antiquarian or inward-looking romantic. He was a cosmopolitan intellectual, educated in the United States, who longed to see China's dragon culture become modern and liberal.

China now needs leaders fired by this vision and with the political courage to bring it into being. With a China striving in that direction, we could communicate on equitable and unconstrained terms. If Hu Shih was our interlocutor, there would be nothing we could not discuss in a civilized manner. If Liang Qichao was an agreed reference point, there would be nothing we could not intelligently explore. While the sinister and overblown figure of Mao Zedong stands between us and looms over Tiananmen Square and while the failures of the Qing dynasty to govern competently are blamed on the West by an aggrieved Chinese nationalism, such dialogue is inevitably awkward.

To this end, we need a new, more honest approach to Chinese historiography than that which has dominated discourse since Edgar Snow lionized Mao Zedong in Red Star Over China, in the 1930s. This is perfectly possible and doesn't arise from a presumptuous Western "Orientalism." It arises simply from pulling aside the curtain of propaganda and secrecy that the Communist Party has for too long held over the stage of modern Chinese history and thought. Many patient and patriotic Chinese thinkers have laboured against great odds to make this possible over the past 30 years and more. It's time now to embrace that hidden history, precisely for the reasons the editors of Seeking Truth cite.

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Paul Monk is the founder and director of Austhink Consulting and the author of Thunder from the Silent Zone: Rethinking China.

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