“1911: The Failed Institutional Revolution”

Yet more pondering on the Xinhai Centenary- this time a good one from ChinaBeat:

The 1911 revolution, whether because of the initial weakness of its proponents or through a series of unlucky historical coincidences, rapidly led to the restoration of Yuan Shikai to the imperial throne. The long-anticipated democratic system and the greater social and civic equality that was to result from it remained elusive, prompting a decade of soul-searching among China’s intellectuals. The most famous product of these reflections was without doubt Lu Xun’s Ah Q, the epitome of a revolutionary who is unequipped and unable to become a citizen. How were China’s Ah Qs to be made into citizens? This became the foremost preoccupation of the country’s intellectual elite for many years, setting them apart from the world of power politics. The New Culture movement, with its emphasis on education and individual autonomy, was followed by cultural agendas that became increasingly utopian as politics became more cynical and polarized. When Duan Qirui sent his troops into Beijing, Lu Xun’s brother Zhou Zuoren took his Beijing University students to study in the countryside, emulating the Japanese “New Village movement.” As Chiang Kai-shek massacred supposed communist sympathizers, Liang Shuming set up utopian rural schools in China’s remote backwaters. “Real” democracy was always seen as outside the corrupt institutions of party politics; however, the utopian vision of “fostering citizens” never led to the desired changes in the political system. Similarly to Weimar Germany, the Republic of China was a time of great freedom and intellectual ferment, but also a Republic without republicans, a regime whose institutions no one was prepared to invest in.

In this manner, mistrust of institutions remained strong among critical Chinese intellectuals for most of the century, and was notably instrumentalized to great effect by Mao during the Cultural Revolution – which is not to say that “organic” intellectuals did not crave recognition from the state when the opportunity arose. However, it was only after the beginning of Reform and Opening up (改革開放 gaige kaifang) that the Chinese elite again warmed to the theme of institution building: throughout the 1980s – a decade of intellectual ferment and political reform in many ways similar to the 1900s – the feeling dominated that an institutional compromise was possible between inner-Party reformers and idealistic intellectuals. After the violent crackdown of the 1989 student movement, a similar pattern emerged: rather than embarking on an uncertain long march through the institutions, many of China’s foremost critical thinkers once again took refuge in other realms: academia, legal activism, grassroots civil society organizations, personal investigations of recent history, documentary films, or emigration. Only Liu Xiaobo, loyal to the spirit of the 1980s, reaffirmed his commitment to formulating an institutional alternative, demonstrated most clearly in the Charter 08 he co-authored. On the whole, however, institutional reform was seen as both hopeless and useless (a point tragically demonstrated by Liu’s arrest) and the real battles were elsewhere.

It took almost one century from the fall of the Bastille until French citizens of all political stripes could to come together at the funeral of Republican icon Victor Hugo, a sign, according to historian François Furet’s famous pronouncement, that “Revolution had entered port.” This has not happened in China. To the contrary, the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics in 2008, with its carefully crafted historical narrative, took great pains to avoid sketching out a possible political consensus on how to define the nation in the 20th century, closely confining itself to the cultural bric-a-brac of its “5,000-year history.” This absence of even a minimal consensus on the nature of the Chinese polity speaks eloquently to the open legacy of 1911. One hundred years on, the divide between an institutional apparatus that seems less and less amenable to reform and an aspirational form of democracy that has not yet found a satisfactory institutional translation on the Chinese mainland remains as deep as ever.

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Filed under history, Xinhai Revolution

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