How to Stop Reactionaries From Derailing Reform in China

To get this in perspective, we need to reframe our narrative of modern Chinese history. The standard narrative pivots on the tired cliché that China was pre-eminent in Asia until Western imperialists assaulted the venerable Middle Kingdom, force-fed it opium and inflicted humiliation and poverty on it for a century. According to this story, only the Communist revolution enabled China to "stand up" and now the party is vital to enable the "whole Chinese people" to assume their rightful place as leaders in Asia and the world.

In reality, the Qing dynasty stagnated, rejecting reform and openness, even as social unrest and political dissent built up within the empire. Round-eyed barbarians intruded, but vastly more damage was caused by a series of gigantic civil wars in which the dynasty mercilessly crushed its domestic enemies. The biggest of them was the Taiping rebellion in the 1850s and 1860s. The net population loss was about 100 million - twice the global death toll of the Second World War.

The Taiping wanted to embrace the West, to trade with it, to build railroads, emancipate women, reform education and to Christianise China. They sought and were denied British support. Reform in China was held back for half a century, at enormous cost. In 1909, Ito Hirobumi, four-time prime minister of Japan and chief architect of its 19th-century political and social reforms, told a British reporter:

The greatest mistake which you Western people, and more especially you English people, made in all your dealings with China, was to help the Manchus in putting down the Taiping rebellion.

This should resonate with us all now. The West had much to gain in the nineteenth century from supporting political change in China; but it didn't. The stakes are now higher. This time we need to get it right.

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.

Presented by

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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