For China, a century of stagnant thinking

Chinese intellectuals have often praised Western concepts such as democracy, but their failure to understand the basis of such ideas has led to impotent failure

By Cao Chang-Ching
The Taipei Times
Jan.1, 2000

Most countries in the world have become democracies this century but China, the most populous nation, remains a dictatorship, just as it was a hundred years ago.

In the past century, several generations of Chinese intellectuals have fought for democracy.

Unfortunately, they traveled a long and difficult path only to find themselves back where they started. In fact, modern Chinese now face a harsher state system than that during the Qing dynasty. What went wrong for the Chinese on the road to democracy?

Despite a number of other factors, I believe that Chinese intellectuals have played a significant part in the failure of democratic reform efforts by fostering three key concepts.

First, Chinese intellectuals have always emphasized that the masses in China are inferior and do not deserve democracy.

Second, they have espoused a most singular slogan which is, to them, most righteous and justified, but in fact misleading: "Be patriotic and respect the power of the nation."

Third, scholars have constantly resisted Western-style democracy, claiming it is unsuited to conditions in China.

Through a brief review of opinions and propositions of the most open-minded and most distinguished Chinese intellectuals, those who have been at the forefront of sociopolitical thinking, one can clearly see how these concepts influence a great many Chinese.

New Citizen: Prerequisite to Democracy

Liang Qichao (梁启超), known for his sharp mind and trenchant pen, led the Reform Movement of 1898 with Kang Youwei (康有为). His perception was that the desultory and undisciplined Chinese people did not deserve a democratic system. The only path China could take was to depend on centralized state power to invigorate the economy and vitalize education, he believed.

Only after new citizens (新民) were cultivated, would it be possible to form a republic, so he advocated constitutional monarchy, or, perhaps more correctly, an "enlightened" dictatorship.

Liang lived in Japan for 14 years and visited the US three times. But his impression of American-style democracy was negative: elections were too frequent and politicians were paying too much attention to voters' short-term interests.

In addition, Chinese immigrants in America further intensified Liang's perception of the faulty traits of the Chinese: selfish, dissociative, dissemblers, indifferent to politics, and having a tendency to work against each other.

He concluded that: "Were we now to resort to rule by this majority, it would be the same as committing national suicide. Chinese should forget about Rousseau and Washington and remember our own ancient, harsh but efficient Legalist (法家) tradition."

Liang's opinion was shared by many of his contemporaries. Lu Xun (鲁迅), who also had a sharp, critical tongue for the masses, echoed Liang's sentiments and opposed a representative system of government.

The best known advocate of complete Westernization, Hu Shih (胡适), also stated in the inaugural issue of Independent Review, a magazine he edited in 1932, that: "To advocate the natural rights of man in China now is not only pointless, but harmful."

Intellectuals like Liang, Hu and Lu Xun were not opposing democracy. But obviously, they did not truly comprehend the foundations of democracy which Western thinkers ardently upheld. The "new citizen" hypothesis boldly disregarded the doctrine of natural rights -- that no ruler could use any pretext to deprive a person of intrinsic human rights, regardless of race, sex or level of education. Such rights can only be considered as a precondition to the political rights of the citizenry.

The "new citizen" theory also ignored a crucial fact: if rulers take away the political rights of the people, it is nearly impossible for those rights to be returned, which is exactly what has been happening in China during the last 100 years.

Though perhaps done unintentionally, intellectuals put themselves on the rulers' side by advocating the "new citizen" theory. This justifies the power of the dictator and eventually the "enlightened" dictator simply becomes a despot.

Sun Yet-sun (孙中山), the man who led the overthrown of the Qing dynasty, put forward another hypothesis concerning the three stages of government development: military government (军政), civil dictatorship (训政) and constitutional democracy (宪政). However, he was not explicit as to when and how a civil dictatorship could replace a military government and eventually be replaced by a democratic system. The result of Sun's theory is obvious: his successor, Chiang Kai-shek (蒋介石) exercised dictatorship till the end of his life, and then handed power to his son, exactly like an emperor.

The fact that Taiwan has become a democracy is not because Chiang's "new citizen" concept eventually matured into something that could be recognized as a democracy, quite the opposite. The fact is that the freedoms that people in Taiwan enjoy today are due to the constant resistance to the constrictive mentality of the Chiang regime.

When Liang advocated the "new citizen" theory at the beginning of the 20th century, the illiteracy rate in China was 85 percent. Today the rate has dropped to 17 percent. But Chinese intellectuals still make the same claim: the Chinese people are intrinsically unqualified to deserve democracy.

For a hundred years, dictators have used power, and intellectuals have used opinions and ideas to achieve the very same aim: to deprive people of their political rights. So those who were once powerless have gained absolutely nothing.

Power to the Nation: the First and Foremost Goal

After the overturn of the Qing dynasty, Chinese intellectuals turned their eyes to Western countries and sought new ideas. One of the most important figures of that period is Yan Fu (严复). Coming back to China from England, Yan devoted himself to introducing Western ideas and translated eight major Western works, such as T.H. Huxley's Evolution and Ethics, Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations, John Mill's On Liberty and Montesquieu's The Spirit of the Law.

Nevertheless, in contrast to Western thinkers, whose ultimate concern and goal has been to enhance the individual's rights and human freedoms, Yan's purpose of introducing these works was to urge China to become a strong nation.

Yan's passion for empowering the nation struck a responsive chord in many well-known intellectuals of the time, such as Qian Ruisheng (钱瑞升), Ding Wengjiang (丁文江), and Jiang Tingfu (蒋廷黻). They all believed that strengthening the country was a top priority. And they proposed implementation of a German-style dictatorship, assuming that only a highly-centralized state power could quickly build up a strong country.

A good example of this vision was a multiple-choice question given on an elementary school exam: "The best system is: monarchy, democracy, dictatorship." And the correct answer was, not surprisingly, "dictatorship."

During the May 4th Movement (五四运动), there emerged a fresh batch of young and bright intellectuals, such as Chen Duxiu (陈独秀) and Hu Shih. They mercilessly castigated feudal traditional Chinese culture and campaigned for "science" and "democracy." But similarly, democracy was emphasized not as a means of empowering the people but of empowering the Chinese state. Consequently, demands for democracy were soon replaced by appeals for a dictatorship when they discovered that democracy was not effective in strengthening the nation.

As a matter of course, the vigorous and hopeful May 4th Movement, which held high the patriotic banner, failed completely. It did not save the country, and certainly did not liberate individual human beings.

Afterwards, communism, built up on collectivism and integrated perfectly with traditional Chinese culture, brought the notions of "empower the nation," and "the highest interest is that of the state" to their apotheosis. It completely annihilated individual values and individual freedoms. Human beings became complete servants and slaves of the state.

The policy of sacrificing individual freedoms in order to strengthen the state is still quite marketable today. Witness the ubiquity of the slogan "economic development first and individual freedom later."

The motif of the 1989 Tiananmen movement was also "patriotism." This slogan had many times nipped Chinese democracy in the bud. History was clear: any movement would be doomed to fail if the departure point and ultimate concern was not individual freedom.

Western-style democracy: unsuited to conditions in China

In modern Chinese history, cries for democracy and Westernization were all inundated by a monstrous wave of nationalism and grandiloquent rhetoric about Eastern uniqueness or exceptionalism.

So-called Westernization is, indeed, nothing more than building up a system that protects freedoms and human rights, and breeds a culture that respects and regards highly individual value.

After all, Westernization is humanization. The claim that Chinese were not fit for Westernization is no different from saying that Chinese do not deserve to be human.

Unfortunately, those who at times yearned for Westernization would be the first to raise doubts about the system whenever it appeared to conflict with the interests of the nation.

Hu Shih was the sole representative of the cry for Westernization, but even he wavered from time to time. Under pressure, he changed his notion of "complete Westernization (全盘西化)" to "full universalization (充分世界化)." He also once promoted the idea of "socialism to save China" after visiting collective farms in the Soviet Union in the 1920s.

Culturally, Hu also wobbled between East and West. A victim of an arranged marriage, Hu published an English article in a Cornell University magazine entitled "Marriage Customs in China," which waxed at length about the advantages of parents arranging early marriages and reprimanded the Western style of love matches, saying it was "unbearable."

During his second year in the US, Hu also prepared to write a book in English entitled In Defense of the Chinese Social System.

Another similar example is the modern poet Xu Zhimo (徐志摩). While appearing to ardently cherish the West, Xu, while studying at Columbia University, also rigorously defended the degraded status of women in feudal China in his Master's degree graduation thesis: "On Chinese Women's Status." He explained that concubines were not an insult to women, and Chinese women were always equal in standing to men. He even justified foot-binding, saying, "which is better? The Western custom of lacing a girdle to produce an unnaturally small waist or Chinese women's bound feet?"

Apparently, discussions of East and West ceased completely in Mao's China. After Deng's open door policy, many Western works were either selectively reprinted or freshly introduced into China. Consequently, another wave of idolization of the West swept Chinese intellectual circles in the middle 1980s. The "blue ocean civilization" once again became a fashionable topic for discussion.

And once again, the yearning for Western democracy and Western civilization were gradually replaced by talks on "Eastern character," "unique national conditions," and "nationalism."

What has made Chinese intellectuals' attitudes towards the West shift so easily from pro to con? I think the following reasons should be considered:

First, Chinese intellectuals' longing for things Western was only a sense of perception, an impulse, not an acceptance out of a true heartfelt sense of understanding. Although this kind of response to feeling is easily teamed with enthusiasm, the tide of conviction -- which depends on intellectual understanding -- is easily swayed and a single setback can be enough to kill even the most ardent proponent of Westernization.

Second, also due to the lack of true understanding of Western democracy, Chinese intellectuals tend to idealize the Western system. If they perceive that there is a flaw in the system, they recoil and try to find a way to back out, looking for a so-called "third way."

Third, the Chinese tend to mix up the attitudes and actions of certain Westerners, organizations and governments with the whole democratic system of the West and the civilized world as a whole.

A typical example was the nationwide anti-America protest in China after NATO's accidental bombing of the Chinese embassy in Yugoslavia. Even if the bombing was done on purpose, it was only an action of this one administration, and should not be looked upon as an indictment of the democratic West in its entirety. It is idiotic to oppose the whole Western system only because certain actions were unfavorable to the Chinese government (but not, mark, the people).

Fourth, once living in the West, Chinese intellectuals slowly end up being supporters of their Chinese cultural roots.

Afraid of being looked down upon by Westerners, many Chinese intellectuals who once sharply criticized Chinese culture in China turn to defend it after they have lived in the West.

While endorsing Chinese culture, their resentment towards Western civilization grows stronger. Gradually defending Chinese culture transforms itself to defending the Chinese government.

Fifth, hardships that Chinese immigrants encountered in the West have also generated anti-Western sentiments.

The obstacles of language became the biggest problem for Chinese intellectuals living in the West. The inability of entering Western intellectual society made them feel dejected and depressed. This further distanced them from the civilization they once adored.

The last reason is that those who truly appreciated Western systems and were capable of presenting them to China did not utilize their energy to do so.

For example, Hu Shih dissipated 20 years of his life annotating The Thirteen Confucian Classics, a treadmill many others could have worked better.

Lu Xun, who taught Chinese not to pore over thread-bound Chinese books but to read only foreign books, also went on reviewing ancient Chinese studies in his later years.

During the past hundred years, Chinese intellectuals seem to have been cursed by the mantras of "producing the new citizen," "strengthening the nation," and "resisting the West."

No matter how hard they struggle, the Chinese can only mark time and await the day that greater men throw off these useless pieces of cultural baggage.

Cao Chang-Ching is a New York-based writer and journalist.


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