A Parliament for China

"Though in theory the Chinese government is absolute, its representatives and agents have never been able to disregard the public opinion of the community in which they were working."

By Paul S. Reinsch

Though history repeats itself, it does so only in the great outlines of events. There is no iteration of concrete facts, and as the pageant of history passes, we behold an unending variety of incident. Thus, while the events which have happened in the political world of China during the last three years may be expressed in the general form of ideas with which we are abundantly familiar, such as political agitation and constitutional reform, the actual facts of the situation in China in detail are unprecedented. They constitute an entirely novel eventuality in the history of the world.

The change which China is undergoing at present may be expressed by saying that Chinese society is becoming political. Hitherto it has lived from generation to generation by custom, with no consciousness of political aims or purposes; nor has the government itself been influenced in its action by definite policies. Secure in its authority, it has selected its servants on the basis of examination tests, reinforced by such favor as promising candidates might be able to obtain through douceurs of various kinds. Now, all of a sudden, the political impulse is strongly awakening in the breast of the Chinese people. They see before them the nations which are consciously guiding their policy from the point of view of national life and national interests. It will no longer do to drift, to let customs take care of themselves, to deal with foreign nations from day to day in compromises, which never go to the root of a policy, but simply gloss over the difficulties of the moment. The intellectual and responsible among the Chinese people are feeling a deep need for a conscious expression of national policy, and for the use of careful reason and long-headed foresight, as well as calm firmness, in the management of their national affairs.

The impulse came from without. Chinese self-complacency suffered a rude shock in the Japanese War of 1894. On account of the lack of centralization and of a common patriotism, this shock would probably have remained without a deep influence upon Chinese life had it not been followed by other and more serious catastrophes. It was, however, the signal for inroads upon China by all sorts of political and economic influences from without. The division of China impended. The masses of the people, at first vaguely restless, were soon deeply moved by fears and passions akin to panic, unrestrained yes, even assisted, by high officials who were themselves not clear in their political aims. So they rushed headlong into new trouble by attacking the foreigners and their legations. Again China was to receive a poignant impression of her own weakness. This warning was accentuated when Russia made herself at home in Manchuria, and refused to listen to Chinese demands. The militant and political genius of Japan evinced itself; by contrast with Japanese victories and diplomatic successes, the Chinese at last came to perceive the depth of inefficiency to which their national life had sunk. Most touchingly this feeling expressed itself in the formation of "national humiliation societies." Hundreds of thousands became members, and women gave up the wearing of rings, with the exception of one upon which were engraved the words "national humiliation." Thus was China shocked into a feeling of her own weakness, and of the dangers that beset her on account of the absence of a strong national political spirit.

The question was how to escape from this humiliating condition. That some change was necessary was recognized even by the most conservative, but the remedies suggested went all the way to the revolutionary proposal of the establishment of a republic. The government was fully impressed with the seriousness of the situation. It tried to find its path to a policy of national reform. It abolished the artificial system of education under which the officials of China had hitherto been trained, established public schools, and provided for instruction in science, law, history, and politics. It sent study-commissions to foreign countries to gather accurate information suitable to Chinese conditions, from all the countries of the world. The reports of these embassies were published in large editions, and were eagerly read by the educated throughout China, forming a basis for political information.

The task of reform before the government was, indeed, an appalling one. To transform the easy-going system of administration, under which the Empire had lived for centuries in time of peace and in the absence of all foreign competition, into a centralized, modern engine of national action, is in itself an undertaking that calls for the greatest originality and statesmanship. But the educated people of China were not satisfied to have the government concern itself with the administration alone. They instinctively centred all their demands about the cry for a national parliament. How could the nation be one before there had been created an organ to express its national public opinion? It was argued that, as all efficient countries are provided with parliaments, as Japan had strengthened herself by creating such an institution, the establishment of a national assembly must be the first step of actual reform. Thus reasoned reformers of all degrees of radicalism.

The government recognized the justice of these demands. It understood that in the great movement for public efficiency which it had undertaken, it ought to be able to count upon the cooperation of the Chinese people and of the natural leaders of Chinese society. What better institution could be conceived for gathering up all this powerful social support than a deliberative assembly? But the government was as yet by no means decided as to the character and form which should be given to this institution. By the highly important decree of September 1, 1900 it, however, put itself on record as favoring a constitution and the participation of the people in matters of government.

The last three years have been full of nervous action and reaction. Attempts to arrive at clear ideas with respect to great questions of policy have been interrupted again and again by personal controversy, court intrigues, and the panicky fear of revolutionary movements. The forces which the government has to deal with are complex in the extreme. The imperial clan itself, being non-Chinese, must avoid the appearance of following a mere family or clan policy. The privileged position occupied by Manchu officials had long been irksome to the influential Chinese. The mitigation of these jealousies, the unification of these two elements in the official world, or at all events the adjustment of their mutual claims, was therefore one of the first problems to be faced. The Empress Dowager always had reason to fear that the great national renaissance in China might take an anti-dynastic direction. The efforts of high Manchu officials to avoid such a result led them, in 1900, to make common cause with the Boxers. From the point of view of the imperial house, it is a most serious question how far the nationalist enthusiasm and tendencies can be harmonized with continuance of Manchu domination. That the true solution lies in the absorption of the Manchus by the mass of the Chinese people, and in the suppression of artificial privileges, is recognized by the government, many of whose recent measures have been based upon such a policy.

The government, acting through its high Chinese and Manchu officials, has to deal, further, with all the interests, desires, and tendencies among the four hundred million people of the eighteen provinces and of the dependencies. That the desire for a unified national life and for an effective expression thereof has become so strong that resistance to it would invite revolution, is fully recognized; but, as elsewhere, the people is composed of many elements, discordant and confused in their aims and ideas. The masses of the people, the peasants, tradesmen, and coolie laborers, have not as yet come into political consciousness. They are simple-minded, easily guided this way or that by their leaders, but also apt to run into sudden frenzies of anger or panics which, when once unloosened, have all the force of an earthquake or typhoon. The intellectual class, on the other hand, composed of men of education and of commercial and industrial importance, is, as that class usually has been, desirous of placing the institutions of the country upon a basis less broad than that of a pure democracy. Only the most radical reformers clamor for universal suffrage. The middle class is merely demanding parliamentary institutions through which the intellect of the nation may manifest itself in politics. On account of the constitution of Chinese society, the influence of these men on their own neighborhoods, is greater even than that of the middle class in other countries. It is they who do the political thinking, and whose ideas are willingly followed and supported by the less educated. If the government could appeal directly to the masses of the people it might ignore the middle class; but it seems impossible to organize the Chinese state on an efficient basis, to concentrate all the vast human energy which it contains, without taking into account the desires of these natural leaders in the various communities.

The government has definitely embarked upon the policy of parliamentary institutions. Foreign as this conception is to the inherent character of Oriental authority, the exigencies of political life have prevailed, and the great counselors of the empire have placed the institution of a parliament among the leading reforms which are to give China a new vitality. By imperial edict in September, 1907, it was decreed that the constitutional government of the state should rest upon the principle of mutual counsel. Two houses of Parliament are held the necessary foundation of government; and, though the time is not yet ripe for the creation of both, as a basis for the future institution the decree established a council of government to be known as Chih Cheng Yuan, or the Department of Constitutional Study and Investigation. The Manchu prince, Pulun, and a high Chinese official, were appointed respectively president and vice-president. Other members were from time to time appointed by the throne. This department, in the beginning, is to be concerned with the work of investigating foreign institutions, and the conditions and needs in the provincial and national life of China. On the basis of its findings, it is to make suggestions to the throne with respect to fundamental laws which it may deem advisable to have promulgated. Its character at the present time combines, therefore, the functions of a commission of inquiry, and those of a legislative body. It is intended that gradually this body shall grow into what will be the upper house of the Chinese national parliament.

The majority of the present members of the council consist of high Chinese officials, whom the government has long known and trusted. But in the spring of 1908, an appointment was made which influenced the desire of the government to have a representation of the more advanced views among the reformers. The appointment was that of Yang Tau, a man who had lived abroad as a student, and a follower of Kang Yeu Wei, the original reform leader of China. While loyal to the dynasty, he represents most advanced views on institutional reform. His firm attitude in political matters was preserved by him in his official position. Shortly after his appointment, he delivered an address of five hours before the council in which he discussed twenty measures of constitutional legislation which had been suggested. In his peroration, he declared that he had come up to the capital not for office nor for honor, but for the settlement of this life-and-death question for China. If he could not assist the government in forming the assembly, he would rather leave and help the people in various provinces to obtain it, regardless of whatever danger he might himself incur. He is firm in his unqualified belief that the assembly is the condition of all other reforms. In May, 1908, a vote was taken in the council as to how soon a constitution should be granted. Yang Tau and three others voted for the shortest period -- two years. Seven counselors favored a period of five years, eight a period of seven years, twelve a period of ten years, and one believed it wise to defer the grant of parliamentary institutions for twenty years. It is interesting to note that the members who voted for the shortest period had been educated according to the old school, or in Japanese institutions, while those who had an American or a European education generally voted for a longer term, in most cases that of ten years.

As was to be foreseen, the government sided with the more conservative view, and in its edict of August 27, 1908, it decreed that during the next nine years reforms should be undertaken step by step which would prepare for the granting of a constitution by the year 1917. The edict proceeds: "The Constitutional Laws will then be definitely decided upon by us, and the date for the opening of the parliament will also be announced by that time." A detailed scheme for the reforms referred to in the decree had been worked out by the Council of Constitutional Study, and was promulgated at the same time. It indicates, with considerable definiteness, the parts of the reform which are to be accomplished every year. Thus the work is to begin, in the current year, with the promulgation of regulations concerning the local self government in cities, towns, and districts, and of regulations for a census; the Ministry of Finance is to reform methods of taxation and accounting; citizens' readers on government are to be published; codes of civil, commercial, and criminal law are to be edited.

The work of administrative reform is to go on gradually, until, during the last of the nine years, there are to be promulgated the Constitution itself, the laws of the imperial household, and the rules and regulations of the Parliament and of elections. There is likewise to be created a special council of imperial advisers, probably suggested by the Japanese Privy Council (composed of the Genro), and a national budget is to be prepared. It is therefore to be expected that when parliament comes into being, the new administrative machinery will already be in running order, and the government will have the political situation well in hand. In the preparation of the various measures of reform, the administrative departments are to cooperate with the Council of Constitutional Study. The latter body thus becomes the central organ for a great amount of legislative activity of a constitutive character. When the parliament at last assembles, most of the important questions of organization will already have been settled. Throughout the preparatory era, special attention is to be given to public education, to the end that, by 1917, one-half of the male population of China shall be able to read and write. The government has always insisted that representative institutions should not be granted before the people had acquired sufficient knowledge to understand their nature and to use them properly. Education is evidently looked upon as a conservative, as well as enlightening, influence.

The decree of 1907 with respect to the Central Council of Constitutional Study was followed within a month, by an edict establishing in the various provinces similar bodies, which were to deal with all proposals for provincial legislation. These bodies were to be appointed by the provincial governors, from among the notables and heavy taxpayers of the provinces. It was also indicated that the members of the national council might be selected from these provincial bodies. The policy of this edict was reaffirmed and made more definite by an edict issued in July, 1908, which also introduced the elective principle. The decree runs in part as follows: "The consultative council is an institution in which public opinion will be ascertained, and from which the members of the central council may be recruited. Let our people point out clearly through the councils what are the evils that should be abolished in their respective provinces and what are the reforms that they desire. But let them also remember the duty which they owe to the court and to the country. Violent discussion should be prevented, lest the order and safety of society might be disturbed."

The plan worked out by the Council of Institutional Study determines with considerable detail the qualifications which must be possessed by members of the provincial council -- such as official and scholastic status, property, etc. The councils will be consultative merely, and will be largely under the influence of the provincial officials. The electorate is limited to those who possess the qualification of experience in public office, a high-school degree, or the ownership of property worth five thousand dollars silver. The first provincial elections took place in the spring of this year: they did not, of course, elicit so much popular interest as would have been shown in the case of national elections. But the very fact that the principle of elective representation has thus been introduced into Chinese political life in a quiet and orderly manner is of supreme importance.

In order to advance the cause of parliamentary institutions in China, there have been formed a number of political associations. Such are the Association for Preparing Constitutional Citizenship, the Association for the Study of the Constitution, the Constitutional Discussion Society, etc. The expression of public opinion in China has been facilitated through these associations. They started a movement as a result of which sixteen of the provinces sent representatives to Peking during the summer of 1908, for the purpose of presenting memorials to the throne favoring the establishment of a national parliament. These associations devote themselves to the discussion of public policies, both foreign and domestic. Political problems are considered, and proposals are worked out for legislative action. This activity is merely one of the indications of the aptitude of the Chinese people for public discussion. They have, indeed, in the past not been without training for this purpose; and in creating a national assembly and provincial councils, the government is not building in the air.

Though in theory the Chinese government is absolute, its representatives and agents have never been able to disregard the public opinion of the community in which they were working. It is practically impossible to impose any new tax without conciliating the opinion of the leading men of the neighborhood. Should any official neglect to put himself in touch with these forces, his decrees would be disregarded. The Chinese have always been accustomed to take communal action. Rather than pay a tax to which they had not consented, they would close their business houses and engage in a boycott or strike, until their grievances had been listened to, and the matter in controversy had been adjusted in accordance with their own sense of equity. The Chinese people are grouped in various guilds and associations. The affairs of these bodies are managed by discussion in the meetings of the guild officials and members. The demand for a national assembly is therefore the natural outgrowth of a practice which is deeply ingrained in Chinese social life. The political associations which have been mentioned would readily grow into political groups and parties, were a parliament once established. It is of course a question how far party action could be made a valuable and potent political force in China. Bitter struggles may be expected before the true functions of political parties have been determined, and permanent groupings established. The experience of Japan teaches us how difficult it is to adapt party action to a system of highly centralized authority.

When the people of a Chinese neighborhood resist the imposition of a new tax until certain grievances have been adjusted, they are exercising the essential function of parliamentary government. The powers of the "Mother of Parliaments" grew up in this manner, and the financial functions of parliamentary assemblies are always the centre of their action. It is here that the whole question of Chinese partiamentarism hinges. In order to carry through the vast reforms planned in the administration, in the school system, in the construction of railways and roads, in the maintenance of a modern army and navy, the Chinese government needs money in quantities that increase in a geometrical progression. The burdens of a foreign debt imposed upon China in 1894 and 1900 must also be considered. Altogether it is plain that, even with effective fiscal reforms, the present sources of public income in China are inadequate. Compared with the taxes in such countries as Japan, India, or the Philippines, these levied in China are very moderate indeed. Sir Robert Hart expressed his belief that it need not cause any particular difficulty to increase the income of the Chinese government tenfold. But no matter how rapidly the Chinese people may be developing a strong and devoted patriotism, they will continue to resist as much as ever the arbitrary imposition of new taxes. In order to provide itself with the necessary funds, the Chinese government must reconcile the opinion of the nation to its policies. If this is to be done through the multitude of local officials distributed over the Empire, the results will be inadequate, and official action will be constantly embarrassed by great friction and outbreaks of violence. Altogether the simplest and safest method of dealing with the nation in this matter would be through a body of representatives. As the kings of England commanded the knights of the shires to come together for the purpose of adjusting taxation, so the Chinese government could well afford to command the provinces and prefectures to send their representatives, in order that mutual arrangements might be made for adequately supplying the ever-increasing financial needs of the empire.

The Chinese government is evidently determined to solve the problem of institutional change on the basis of the ascertained needs of China and in relation to the existing institutions of the empire. Among the constitutions of modern civilized states, that of Japan has most of suggestiveness for the Chinese legislators. The dignity and importance of the imperial office is there maintained. The Japanese parliament is given a great latitude of discussion and cooperation, but the real power of government is in the hands of the council of the elder statesmen. The parliament, indeed, has the sole right of authorizing new levies of taxation; but while at times the government has been seriously embarrassed by the lack of funds, in the long run it has been able to obtain a vast increase of taxation. With all the bickerings in the Japanese parliament, it has on the whole assisted in binding the national loyalty to the government, and it has certainly brought about a stronger national feeling. But China differs from Japan in being a federal state. The Chinese provinces, vast nations in themselves, could never be reduced to the level of mere administrative circumscriptions, like the Japanese fu, or the French prefecture. In this matter the constitutions of such countries as the United States, Germany, and India, have much to teach the Chinese. It is indeed one of the major problems in Chinese legislation to-day how to adjust the relations of the provinces to the strong central authority which is being created. So far very little headway has been made in working out a definite and clear system of the relations between the provinces and the central government. The constitution of Germany is much admired in China. What makes it attractive is the importance of the imperial office, as well as the fact that the federal relation is effectively elaborated, and that the popular element in the state is reconciled with the demands of a powerful central administration.

One of the special problems much discussed in China relates to the best basis upon which the representation in a national parliament may be founded. We have already seen that the introduction of universal suffrage is not contemplated at present. The government originally favored councils appointed from among representative men, somewhat in the manner in which the councils of the Indian government are made up. The idea of representation of interests has also been strongly put forward by Chinese publicists. The government ordered a special study to be made of the Austrian system, under which special representation in the Reichsrath is accorded to urban and rural communes, to industrial and commercial associations, and to universities. It is possible that some such plan may ultimately be adopted in working out the details of the Chinese constitution. This would take account of the communal feeling existing in such districts as the fu and hsien, as well as the associative relations of the guilds and of industrial companies. If the system is not directly founded on this basis, a similar result will probably be obtained by an adjustment of the qualifications for electors.

So far as the general policy of the Chinese government at the present time may be determined, stripped of temporary vacillations and of the merely hortatory elements so common in Chinese documents, it may be expressed in the following rough outline. Governmental authority must be maintained, but the officials must govern in accord with public opinion, though not in detail dependent upon it. The character and morale of official methods must be improved. The tests for appointment to office must be based upon modern science and practical efficiency, while the character and personality of the candidate too must be taken into account in making selections. Salaries will be increased in order that the officers of the government may not depend upon illegal fees and exactions. The general efficiency of the system is to be improved through the enforcement of stricter responsibility, and through scientific accounting. In all this work, the people should assist the government and give it their confidence. Such representation as will be accorded them ought to strengthen the state by enlisting popular sympathy and cooperation. But a constitution cannot be imported from without, it must build upon the living forces in the nation and utilize them for the general ends of the state. The government, therefore, must be allowed to take time to feel its way, in order that the institutions, once introduced, may actually fit into the political and social life of China.

The Chinese government would, of course, be reluctant to give up the substance of power to representative assembly. This fact is made the basis of the argument advanced by the ultra-revolutionary forces that China can be endowed with true national institutions only through a revolution in which the dynasty would be utterly overthrown and a purely elective government established. But it would seem that in the Chinese situation at the present time, Burke is rather a safer guide than Rousseau. The government would, indeed, defeat its own purposes, and might bring on even sadder catastrophes than China has already suffered, if it should attempt to dam up the great forces of public opinion that are now seeking to express themselves. A national parliament must be created; and it must, moreover, be a body truly representative of the intelligence and energy of the nation. We ought of course not to expect too much of such an institution, as parliaments are not ideal in any part of the world. But when public opinion has thus been enlisted, there will have been created an inquest of the nation, through which the government may readily ascertain the feeling of its subjects throughout the empire. New imposts of taxation will be given authority by acceptance through representatives, and the financial administration of the empire will benefit through parliamentary control.

But all this is only a beginning. An institution like a parliament brings with it new difficulties, party controversies, the introduction into political life of personal ambitions, although on a far higher plane than that of court intrigue. So the difficulties of China will not vanish by the creation of this organ. China will, indeed, have endowed herself with an instrument that may be used toward bettering her general condition. But the real work of reform must be done in the administration. There the confidence of the people must be won. The corrupt methods which have obtained in the past must give way to strict accountability, and to the maintenance of just and legal charges. The great public works which the government is undertaking call for unusual capacity and devotion in the public service. Should there be over-centralization, the development of the provinces would suffer; and yet these great units will have to submit to a more direct, centralized control than they have felt in the past, in order that the nation may act as one body and bring to bear its concentrated energies. Thus it is clear that, with the achievement of parliamentary institutions, the real work of China will have just begun. But if these institutions can be so adjusted that they will constitute the expression of a true union between the government and the people, the solution of the other difficulties and problems will have been rendered far easier than it would have been in the hands of an administration working at cross purposes with an independent public opinion.

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