china's path to democracy -- 2/02/15

Today's selection - from The Deluge by Adam Tooze. After the Chinese revolution of 1911-1912, China was on the path to democracy, and looked hopefully to America. Even Mao Zedong advocated Sino-American friendship. The United States was less than receptive, concerned about the reaction from China's arch enemy, Japan, and further concerned about China's capacity and readiness:

"On 21 July 1917, ... the liberal American journalist and China-hand Thomas Franklin Fairfax Millard, whose weekly Review of the Far East was published in Shanghai, laid down a remarkable challenge to Washington ...

Action to hearten, encourage, and support China in her effort to maintain a Republic ought to be devised and undertaken without delay.

"By the 1940s we are used to seeing Chinese and Soviet Russian history as conjoined under the sign of Communism. But in 1917 for a fleeting moment, a different kind of connection seemed possible. China ... would join the United States in a democratic coalition. What seemed to beckon, if only the will could be found to grasp the opportunity, was the intoxicating prospect of a liberal future for Eurasia. ...

"The crisis in Beijing that prompted Millard to his startling call for action was precipitated in February 1917 by Woodrow Wilson's decision to break off diplomatic relations with Germany and his invitation to the other neutral powers to join him in doing so. ... [Since Germany had long occupied territory within China], was Beijing not under the same obligation as Washington to protect its citizens against German aggression? Not to have joined Washington in taking a stand ... would have been to miss out on a heaven-sent opportunity to align the fledgling Chinese Republic with the United States and thus to complete the political transformation that began with the Chinese revolution in the winter of 1911-1912.

"The fact that the centuries-old Ch'ing dynasty finally collapsed in January 1912 to be replaced by a republic marks one of the true turning points in modern history. Republicanism had arrived in Asia. It caused consternation amongst conservatives in China. ... After thousands of years of dynastic rule China might not seem to be propitious soil for a republic. It was easy then, as now, for Chinese strongmen to find Western academics happy to confirm that Asian values 'required' authoritarian leadership. But throughout decades of turmoil China's transition from monarchy to republic was to prove remarkably durable. The first Chinese general election of 1913 was held under a franchise restricted to men over the age of 21 with elementary education. But by the standards of the day that was hardly ungenerous. Even allowing for the failure of the majority of the Chinese electorate to turn out, the 20 million votes cast made this one of the largest democratic events on record. Furthermore, despite rampant corruption, the leading party of the revolution, the Guomindang, achieved a clear majority for its republican and parliamentary programme.

"Before they could exploit their victory, however, the Guomindang's parliamentary leader was gunned down by an assassin linked to President General Yuan Shi-kai. After a short-lived rebellion, concentrated mainly in the southern provinces, Sun Yat-sen and the rest of the Guomindang leadership fled into exile. Yuan prorogued the parliament and suspended the provisional constitution drafted by the revolutionaries. Backed by a foreign loan brokered by London and Japan, but boycotted by Wilson's administration in Washington, Yuan attempted to initiate a fresh authoritarian turn. Yuan, who had come to national prominence in the last years of the empire as the commander of the New Model Army in North-Central China, was a military modernizer who had no faith in new-fangled constitutions. But what he did not reckon with was the opposition of the majority of the Chinese political class. When over the winter of 1915-16 Yuan made a bid to install himself as monarch, the result was nationwide revolt. By the spring of 1916 the southern provinces, the traditional counter-weight to Beijing, abetted by Japanese agents provocateurs, were in open opposition, demanding a federalist constitution. More threateningly, the younger leaders of Yuan's own militarist grouping, General Duan Qirui of Anhui province and General Feng of Zhili, declared against their former patron. China's energetic new press mounted a furious nationalist clamour against Yuan's bid for absolute power. Realizing that he was risking national disintegration and thereby opening the door to Japanese and Russian intervention, Yuan humiliatingly renounced any monarchical ambition and appointed General Duan as his Prime Minister. Duan was certainly no liberal. He had received his military training in Germany and was loyal to Yuan's vision of authoritarian consolidation. But he was what the Germans would later dub a Vernunftrepublikaner, a republican out of realism.

Yuan Shikai sworn as the Provisional president in Beijing

"When the discredited Yuan died suddenly in June 1916, he was succeeded as President by Li Yuanhong, one of the figureheads of the original uprising of 1911 and the Guomindang's preferred candidate for president back in 1913. Li's first move was to restore the constitution of 1912 and to recall the parliament that Yuan had disbanded with its substantial majority of Guomindang MPs. Under the leadership of the Vice Chairman of the Senate, the Yale-educated C. T. Wang, the parliament set to work drafting a new constitution. In February 1917 the parliament voted to disestablish Confucianism as an official religion. A new generation of Western-influenced intellectuals took charge of Beijing University, including the first generation of Chinese Marxists. Briefly, it seemed as though Chinese politics might be entering a period of constructive reform. A foreign policy that aligned the Chinese Republic with President Wilson seemed the ideal complement to this policy of republican consolidation.

"Against Japan and the European imperialists, America had emerged as the great hope of many Chinese. As the youthful nationalist student Mao Zedong wrote to a friend in early 1917: 'Japan is our country's strong enemy.' Within 'twenty years', Mao was convinced, 'China would have to fight Japan, or go under'. Sino-American friendship, by contrast, was fundamental to the nation's future. 'The two Republics East and West will draw close in friendship and cheerfully act as reciprocal economic and trade partners.' This alliance was 'the great endeavour of a thousand years'. America's ambassador in Beijing, the progressive political scientist Paul Reinsch, was only too happy to encourage such talk. Though he was temporarily without telegraph connection to Washington, in early February 1917 Reinsch on his own initiative offered China a loan of $10 million to enable it to make war preparations and follow America in breaking off relations with Germany. ...

"By contrast with the enthusiasm of the American Embassy in Beijing, the mood in Washington was cautious. On 10 February 1917, having read the cables from Reinsch, Wilson commented to Lansing: 'these and earlier telegrams about the possible action of China make my conscience uneasy. We may be leading China to risk her doom.' '... (I)f we suffer China to follow us in what we are now doing,' the President went on, 'we ought to be ready to assist and stand by her in every possible way ... can we count on the Senate and on our bankers to fulfil any expectations we may arouse in China?' Secretary of State Lansing concurred. Any move to strengthen China's own military capacity was bound to be considered a 'menace that would justify Japan in demanding control'. If Washington were to encourage an independent Chinese effort, Lansing cautioned, they would have to be 'prepared to meet Japanese opposition.'

"For liberal China Hands such as Ambassador Reinsch or Millard, a confrontation with Japan was not unwelcome. But as we have seen, Wilson harboured deep fears about the global racial balance. In his vain struggle to preserve American neutrality, he felt himself to be the guardian of 'white civilization'. With Europe divided this was not the moment for confrontation in the East."


Adam Tooze


The Deluge: The Great War, America and the Remaking of the Global Order, 1916-1931


Viking Adult


Copyright 2014 by Adam Tooze


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