May 12, 2006
China Past, Present & Future
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
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
c. Democratization (first emerged around 1895)
Arguably, there also exists a third tradition, ‘Maoism’.
Most importantly, though, is the widespread exclusion of the second
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
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
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.
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