China Emergent

In the midst of World War II, as China's Nationalist leader, Chiang Kai-shek, struggled against Japanese invaders from without and the Communist movement from within, his Wellesley College–educated wife decried the exploitation of China by the West and delineated a vision for a more democratic future.

Madame Chiang Kai-shek addresses the U.S. House of Representatives on February 18, 1943 (George R. Skadding / AP)


It may not seem to be the best of good sense to prepare plans for architectural improvements while the house is still afire and one is having hard work to extinguish the flames. Yet the United Nations realize that after the war is won new problems will automatically arise which will demand for their solution as much thought, devotion, and practical application of idealism as winning the war itself. While it is true that in the midst of life there is death, it is equally true that in the midst of death there is life.

We in China, though we have been harried for years by death and destruction, have been giving careful thought toward the perfection of a political and social system that will ensure in the future the greatest good for the greatest number. All the existing systems of government in the world—and this applies non-aggressive as well as to the aggressive nations—are being. weighed in the remorseless balance of war. Some we are sure will not survive the test, but all have shown weaknesses that call for drastic alterations. ‘It is only the very wisest and the very stupidest who never change,’ observed one of our sages.

We have chosen the path that we shall tread in the future. We are determined that there shall be no more exploitation of China. I have no wish to harp on old grievances, but realism demands that I should mention the ruthless and shameless exploitation of our country by the West in the past and hard-dying illusion that the best way to win our hearts was to kick us in the ribs. Such asinine stupidities must never be repeated, as much for your own sake as for ours. America and Britain have already shown their consciousness of error by voluntarily offering to abrogate the iniquitous system of extraterritoriality that denied China her inherent right to equality with other nations.

While as a nation we are resolved that we will not tolerate foreign exploitation we are equally determined that within our country there be no exploitation of any section of society by any other section or even by the state itself. The possession of wealth does not confer upon the wealthy the right to take unfair advantage of the less fortunate. But neither, as a nation, does China believe in communism or wish to obtain it in our land. We have no use for most isms which pose as panaceas for all the ills of the human race. In fact all forms of authoritarianism adopted by some European countries, Japan, and certain Latin American republics (which in late years have flirted a little, discreetly perhaps, with dictatorship) leave the Chinese people cold. We are disposed to be politely skeptical of sweeping claims such as are made by Henry George's single-taxers, who believe that all that is wrong with the world could be righted by a tax on land values.

In post-war China, although we shall not countenance exploitation, international or national, we shall grant private capital its rightful place, for it implements individual initiative, and we Chinese, being realists, fully recognize basic facts. Our age-old civilization has been developed through harmonizing conditions as they existed and as they ideally should be. But no individual will be permitted to wax rich at the expense of others. The rights of the people will be protected by progressive taxation. I maintain that when incomes exceed legitimate needs and a reasonable margin to ensure freedom from want the excess should belong to humanity. On the other hand, private capital must be given every encouragement to develop the resources and industry of the country—but only in cooperation with labor. All public utilities should be state-owned.

Any governmental policy in China ought to take cognizance of the all-important fact that we are an agricultural nation. Over 90 per cent of our people are dependent directly or indirectly upon the land—the overwhelming proportion directly. It follows that the nation cannot flourish unless the farmers are prosperous. At present they are enjoying a degree of prosperity undreamed of since the Golden Age. As a by-product of war, prices for all that comes from the land have increased so much that the standard of living of the rural population has reached a height that did not seem possible. Children are attending school who formerly would never have had a chance of education; homes that have been perforce mere inadequate protection from the elements are being made hygienic and comfortable. This is as it should be.

We want these gains held and consolidated. This vision of a better life that has been given to the backbone of our nation must not be dimmed by the policy bequeathed us by the conservative past. There has been one fly in the ointment—there always is: while those who live on and by the land have prospered, government employees and men and women classed as intellectuals have been having a hard time to make ends meet. But they represent a very small percentage of our people; when victory is won, a permanent solution of their difficulties will be arrived at. It is significant, however, that the masses of our people are now following the path of progress and happiness, from which I hope they will never swerve, certainly not as a consequence of any act of omission or commission by our government.

We are striving to institute a flexible system of political and economic development that will serve the future as well as the present. This attempt started directly China became a republic, thirty-one years ago, and has continued even throughout the war years. In order to give our people fuller and better opportunities for a well-rounded and happier life, a new kind of Chinese socialism, based on democratic principles, is evolving. It is no mere pale reflection of Western socialism. China colors all seas that wash her shores. We do not necessarily reject everything the West has to offer; to views of modern socialists we lend a willing ear, more especially as most of their ideas find their counterpart in the third of the three principles envisaged by our late leader, Dr. Sun Yat-sen, upon which our whole ideology is based. These three principles are: first, Nationalism; second, the People's Rights; third, the People’s Livelihood. Nationalism means that there should be equality among all peoples and races, and that all peoples and races should respect each other and live in peace and harmony. The People’s Rights means that the people should have these four rights: election, recall, initiative, and referendum. The People’s Livelihood means that people are entitled to proper clothing, food, housing, and communications.


Westerners may be surprised to learn that China is the Columbus of democracy. Twenty-four centuries before the Christian era, Emperors Yau, Shun, and Yü succeeded each other by their subjects’ wish instead of by hereditary right. Over a thousand years before Confucius an articulate political platform proclaimed, ‘The people’s views are heaven’s voice,’ anticipating by centuries the Western adage: ‘Vox populi vox Dei.’ From earliest times a system of local government prevailed in our country, based upon subdivisions of the hen, or county, which, as I shall explain later, is the foundation upon which we now are framing—even in wartime—our constitutional government. Mencius, in the fourth century before Christ, enunciated the theory that the people rank first, the state second, the ruler last. Jean Jacques Rousseau’s Social Contract, published in 1762, rings like an echo of The Essays published by Huang Lichow in 1663. Huang, in discussing political theories, severely criticized the monarchial form of government. In a chapter on ‘The Origin of Rulers’ he dwelt at length on differences among ancient rulers and the autocrats who followed them; the former regarded their country as the hub of the universe while the latter held themselves to be of primary importance. Logically Huang urged the overthrow of such rulers in order to establish the people's government. This subject might be pursued further, but enough has been said to substantiate the observation that China, long before the West, embraced democratic ideals.

I have already referred to Chinese socialism, for our political compass shows our ship of state ploughing in that direction. Nevertheless, some people are alarmed at the very word ‘socialism,’ much as a timid horse shies away from its own shadow. Actually, though not called by that name, socialism has influenced national thought in China for decades, even amid the confusion caused by civil unrest and the present war. But it does not have any affiliation with communism. The Chinese do not accept the much-mooted theory of enriching the poor by dispossessing present owners of their wealth, nor do they believe such a step would give any prospect of an enduring alleviation of poverty and human misery. We prefer leveling up to leveling down. Before the present war started, the political tutelage which Dr. Sun Yat-sen decreed should precede full constitutional government had been put into practice for the purpose of laying sound and lasting democratic foundations for the people to build upon. Some progress had already been made when Japan forced us to take up arms to fight for freedom on July 7, 1937.

In the midst of war in 1938 the People’s Political Council was established as the precursor of a National Parliament. This body of 240 members includes not only regional representatives, some of whom are women, elected by provincial and municipal popular assemblies, but also scholars and experts appointed by the National Government. It has the power of revision and recommendation and has become an important element of our national life. One of its outstanding achievements was the adoption of a proposal to constitute the county (hsien) as a unit of self-government. As I write, greater scope of action and further popular representation have been given to the Council.

This new hsien system aims to enable people to manage the affairs of their home districts by electing their own representatives to local governing organizations. When this program for local self-government is carried out, they will be free to elect their chief magistrate. Furthermore, these assemblies, composed entirely of elected representatives, will choose delegates to a national convention for the purpose of adopting and promulgating a permanent national constitution and for the election of the president of China.

From the base to the apex the political structure will be erected by the people themselves. Thus the rules and regulations of the new hsien system are much more than a mere step toward local self-government. They are a political move forward in the direction of national democracy.

Some of our time-honored institutions such as our trade guilds will usefully complement this new pattern of national political growth. For centuries they have been a valuable feature of our social and commercial life. The provincial guilds in our large cities relieve fellow provincials in distress, settle disputes among members, thus preventing costly litigation, and help in numerous other ways. We propose to give these organizations more executive power and to obtain for the government the benefit of their experience.

Regarding civil administration, I have often expressed strong views about our civil service. I hold no brief for a system of political patronage. In our country, after the war, civil service appointments must be made on merit alone. Fitness to hold a position should in the future be the criterion for government service, not friendship or the favor of those in high and influential places. Nepotism must be completely jettisoned. This is a reform that I, for one, have always advocated, and it has been started on its way.

Their agelong experience has taught the Chinese people that all mundane things change, and even social and political systems are subject to transmutation. Chinese thinkers today are therefore content if they can so fashion the framework that the political fabric of the future can be woven and expanded in the best interests of the nation.

Chinese socialism, if you like to call it that, seeks above all else to preserve the birthrights of the individual. No state can be great and prosperous unless the people are contented. They can only be content if their dignity and rights as human beings are kept inviolate. To cherish the worth of the human personality is what we seek, and we are therefore giving the individual ever-increasing power to decide his own and the nation’s future.


One of our national characteristics is not to do things without careful deliberation. Those who are privileged to direct the aspirations of a quarter of the world’s population have a wonderful opportunity but a fearful responsibility. This responsibility has grown weightier, now that China has become the leader of Asia. If their program for social and political development is carelessly planned, they will imperil the happiness of hundreds of millions of their fellow countrymen and jeopardize the very core of world society. No instrument devised by human brains can be absolutely perfect. We, however, are recruiting the wisest intelligence available amongst our people in order to ensure that the political and economic machinery which will swing into full operation in China after the war will be as nearly perfect as possible and susceptible of readjustment without causing civil unrest. To my mind democracy means representative government, and by ‘representative’ I mean representative of the steadfast and settled will of the people as opposed to the irresponsible and spellbinding slogans of political hawkers. Furthermore, in a true democracy the minority parties should not be left out of consideration. I am opposed to any system which permanently gives absolute power to a single party. That is the negation of real democracy, to which freedom of thought and progress are essential. A one-party system denies both. Freedom of thought and action should be given to minorities as long as the activities of such groups are not incompatible with the interests and security of the state.

There is no necessity, moreover, for the systems of democracy in our respective countries to be slavish replicas of each other. They must adhere to the fundamental principle, of course, but each democracy should have an order that fits truly its own peculiar requirements. Therefore, our Chinese democracy will not be a colorless imitation of your American democracy, although it will undoubtedly be influenced by the Jeffersonian views of equality of opportunity and the rights of the individual. It will be redolent of our soil and expressive of the native genius of our people. It must meet China’s own needs and be in harmony with our present environment, which is inevitably linked to the best traditions of our past.

Considering what China has already accomplished in the face of heartbreaking obstacles, we confront the future with calmness and confidence. The difficulties before us are stupendous; but with the help, from our sister democracies, of technique and capital, which we have proved we deserve, we have no doubt we can solve our problems. The fortune of war has brought China for the first time abreast of the great powers. We have won our place in the front rank by our prolonged and unyielding resistance to violence. We shall keep it by playing a major part in building a better world.

In the old world that is crumbling to pieces as I write, nations strove with each other to win supremacy in the means of destruction. The defunct League of Nations, whatever its shortcomings, had in its conception of world peace an area of thought which we should do well to cultivate. While lip-service to international equality and justice was not found wanting, signatories of the League Covenant did not have the courage actively to implement the principles enunciated so piously by their representatives round the conference table. China, Abyssinia, Spain, Poland, and other militarily weak nations became the victims of aggression, and the democracies, which should have seen their own fate from the writing on the wall, did little more than make futile protests. It is my hope, therefore, that when victory is ours we shall have learned the lesson that ‘the substance of wisdom is made out of the substance of folly,’ and profit thereby. Cannot we, in the new day whose dawn is nearing, strive together to gain supremacy in the peaceful arts of government and administration that will secure lasting happiness for the people of all races and thus create a world vitalized by new hopes and worshiping a more Christlike ideal?