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.***

Second, the early 20th century was the heyday of European imperialism in China. And while the hysterical rhetoric of various Party hacks might sometimes suggest otherwise, China no longer faces the threat of being carved up by the imperialist predations of hostile outsiders.**** 

Finally, the idea of China -- as a nation -- is widely held and deeply ingrained today.  Revolutionary writers like Sun Yat-sen yearned for China's people to put aside differences of clan and region (Sun once compared the Chinese people to "a heap of loose sand") and see themselves first and foremost as part of a greater Chinese nation. That's been accomplished, and though there are certainly areas where Chinese nationhood is in fierce competition with other forms of self-identification (most especially in Tibet and Xinjiang), most people living in China today believe that there ought to exist a Chinese nation embodied by a Chinese state, though how that nation and state are defined is a point of some debate.

China's leaders face serious problems of corruption, environmental degradation, economic disparities and they are also starting to feel the pressure of a public increasingly anxious for greater protections of their property and their rights. At some point, like the last princes of the Qing, this government will also be forced to make some hard choices. The question is: When that time comes, will Party leaders have the political courage to take action on behalf of the state in the best interest of the nation, or will they seek to maintain their power, position, and privilege rather than share the fate of their Qing predecessors?

Jeremiah Jenne is a PhD candidate in Chinese history, living and working in Beijing. He is the author of the blog Jottings from the Granite Studio.


*Every year when I lecture on the Wuchang Uprising, I try to also provide my students with career advice at no additional cost, e.g.: "In the future, if you are plotting to overthrow a mid- to large-sized dynasty a) do not build bombs near where you live, they tend to explode; b) If they do explode -- and you must flee the scene -- be sure to take the membership lists of your secret revolutionary organization with you; c) better yet, don't write down the names of the members of your organization at all...etc., etc."

**If you subscribe to Quora and want to learn more about the events of 1911, be sure to check out this excellent response to the question: "What were the causes of the 1911 Revolution?"

***And yes, it tends to help if you can tell people what they can and can't write and, when that doesn't work, you have the ability to simply throw the dissenting voices into prison. The Qing tried to do that too, they just weren't as good at it and the foreigners kept getting in the way.

****At the same time, contemporary China's military strength relative to 100 years ago, coupled with a growing sense of nationalism, raises the unlikely but ugly possibility that in the midst of a serious domestic crisis, popular sentiment and attention could be deflected or distracted through military adventurism, an outlet that by 1911 was all but unavailable to the Qing state.