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May 12, 2006

China Past, Present & Future
Bill Johnson
May 12, 2006

Over the last 100 – 150 years, China has coped with two major traditions (though some argue the existence of a third tradition) or multiple, competing cultures. The conflicts between these traditions heavily influenced China’s past. Policymakers must wrestle with the question: what events work to tip China towards one tradition or another?

Professor Johnson defined the two major traditions to be 1) State Nationalism and 2) Liberal Nationalism. An important factor, which tips China towards one tradition over the other, is the external or international environment. The choices made in the United States have considerable influence on China’s domestic environment.

The first tradition, often called the Chinese tradition, is composed of the political and social institutions, which remained largely intact from the 10th Century up through 1911. The second tradition, often left out of contemporary analysis on China, is composed of the three elements, or strains, listed below:
a. Revolutionary nationalism
b. State-ism
c. Democratization (first emerged around 1895)
Arguably, there also exists a third tradition, ‘Maoism’. Most importantly, though, is the widespread exclusion of the second tradition.

Key Political and Social Issues in the First Tradition include the importance of the Chinese gentry/scholarly officials. These officials served until 1905, though maintained some importance into the 1930s, as educated managing elite. Officials had to pass a national entrance examination. Position hierarchy corresponded with the levels of degrees corresponding. These certified ruling elite were institutionalized through the government system itself.

Specific characteristics of the gentry/scholar (alignment with state) consisted of a high rate of land ownership -- though landownership was not required (the only official barrier to entry was the official examination). The Chinese gentry did not enjoy the same sense of autonomy vis-à-vis the state that the landed gentry did in England.

The examination system served as a thought control mechanism (or at the very least channeled the thought of the elite in specific ways). This established a political orthodoxy that was certified by the state, a ‘secular theocracy’. Their primary function, to serve as an official in the government, is exemplified by quote #3 in the outline: “Study to be an official” .

From 221 B.C. – 1911 China was essentially a bureaucratic state. All levels of government officials were appointed with approximately 40,000 officials ruling the country. Officials could only serve at a post for 3 years and were never allowed to serve in a medium/high post in their home province.

Emperors were true absolute monarchs in China. No group could modify the will of the emperor. The “Mandate of Heaven” provided the legitimacy needed for the emperor to rule as ‘heaven granted permission’. The Mandate also gave the gentry class a ‘right to judge’ as the gentry determined the mandate (based on Confucian ideals) and claimed the right to determine if the mandate had been withdrawn. The gentry/scholars had a certain loyalty to the emperor and the state signifying ‘truth to power’.

Throughout the first tradition, the external environment, though different in its consequences from the second tradition, was strong and influential. During this first tradition, the external environment was very benign from the Chinese perspective. There were no real threats to China’s power from Asia, and Europe was too far removed to have any real significance. The system itself was never really challenged. Even with foreign domination (Mongols and Manchu rulers), there was no real systemic threat. All foreign domination accepted the examination system and rule of government. The Chinese enjoyed system primacy and system exceptionalism. There was no reason for the institutionalized government to change.

Key Points for Second Tradition included the change in the international environment. The external environment changed significantly in this period becoming hostile, dangerous, threatening and humiliating. A brief overview of events during this period include the China’s defeat in the first Anglo war from 1839-1942. From 1858-1860 Beijing was occupied by both English and French troops. The Japanese war took place from 1894-1895. 1898 and 1899 brought the Cutting of the mellon (?) or ‘foreign territories and the 8 Powers marching through Beijing. All of these events culminated to declare this, “China’s Century of Shame & Humiliation” and served to create a mindset of nationalism, and spurred on the search for wealth and power.

This same mindset shaped every important/drastic development in Chinese history since 1900, including the abolishment of the examinations system, the development of the Nationalist government (Taiwan) and the development of the Communist Party (CCP). This mindset continues to influence Chinese perspectives to this day on such incidents as the Bombing of Belgrade in 1999 and the 2001 spy incident.

There are, however, objections to this line of reasoning which argue that it is not the truly nationalistic feelings of a century of oppression, but rather the manipulation of such nationalistic feelings by the CCP. Perhaps, as Professor Johnson noted, it is time for the Chinese to make efforts to move past these thoughts and feelings and begin anew.

There have been three important events over the last 100 years, which exemplify this second tradition and highlight the causes and consequences of external pressures. The first example is the Republican Revolution of 1911. Taking place from 1895 to 1911, the revolution signaled the transition from the first tradition to the second tradition. China experienced its first period of sustained democratization of its political system carried out primarily by two groups: Chinese military students who had studied in Japan but were returning to China and other Chinese students who had studied in Tokyo where they had opportunities to experience both popular and individual sovereignty. Students were able to write about such things as ‘no taxation without representation’ or elements of the French Revolution. However, the students never got beyond the rhetoric. Though China was on the verge of systemic changes before the revolution, (for example the implementation of provincial elections) by 1914 all provincial assemblies were abolished and the complete disintegration of the state left the country vulnerable to the rise of warlords.

This first experiment with democracy failed because of state-ism (see #7 on the outline). When national elections were held in 1913, China was deciding between a president and a prime minister. The priority then (which continues today) was on first: the power of the State, and second, the power of the individual.

Why State-ism?
The ‘State-ism’ that Professor Johnson spoke of is a product of the continuing threatening international or external environment. When China is internally trying to resolve the issue of individual vs. state power, the external environment works to ‘tip’ China towards state power because they feel threatened. The influence of the First Tradition also serves to ‘tip’ China towards state, rather than individual, power.

The second example which showed characteristics of the second tradition was the May 4 Movement (1919). This movement, equivalent to our July 4, represents the trend of state nationalism. Students carried out demonstrations in reaction to Japan, demanding an end to Japanese imperialism, the preservation of the Chinese culture. At the same time, the development of the ‘New Culture Movement’ led to calls for the destruction of old Confucius values, elements of the ‘old culture’, in an attempt to produce self-thinking, freethinking, critical thinking individuals (See articles by Yu Jie). These twin movements occurred while China was humiliated under the domination of outside powers. An internal attack on Chinese values only served to weaken its defense against the ‘attack’ from Western values.

The Third and final example of the second tradition was the Tiananmen tragedy of 1989 and the decade of events leading up to it. The 1980s saw the disintegration of Marxist/Leninist thought where the Communist party was the vanguard of the proletariat to rise up and create a revolution. Instead, the justification for the CCP was based on Jiang Zemin’s ‘3 represents’: 1) Most advanced economic forces (capitalism) 2) Most advanced cultural forces and 3) Representing the broad masses. The Tiananmen incident, as noted above, should be regarded as a tragedy. There were terrible blunders made by both the party and the students and ultimately set back any possibilities for democracy that had been gained in the 1980s. The two greatest movements towards democracy in China had occurred while there was no centralized government to crush them.

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