CHINA: by Ian H. McDougall (reviewer)News Weekly
One hundred years of republican government in China
, June 11, 2011
On October 10 this year, Chinese communities around the world will celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Xinhai Revolution, the single event that established modern China.
Known as “Double Ten” in Taiwan, the Xinhai Revolution was named after the date in the traditional Chinese calendar on which the revolution fell, marking the end of 5,000 years of imperial rule in China.
Chinahad been in turmoil for a hundred years, under attack from within and without.
The Taiping Rebellion, led by a Chinese Christian with heretical beliefs, killed tens of millions in the 19th century and led to chaos and famine in the countryside.
The Boxer Rebellion in 1898-1901, which the imperial authorities at first tried to suppress and then tried to turn to their advantage, ended in disaster for China when the allied powers, including Britain and the United States, lifted the Boxers’ siege of the foreign legation quarter in Beijing. This was the famous “55 Days in Beijing”.
The Ching (Qing) Dynasty, by the time of the 1911 Xinhai Revolution, was in an advanced state of decay.
The dynastic cycle was well understood in China. The Tale of the Three Kingdoms, one of the four great novels of China, begins with the statement “The empire, long divided, must unite; long united, must divide. Thus it has ever been.”
Han Chinese nationalists had long opposed the Ching Dynasty because the Ching emperors were Manchus from the grasslands to the north of China.
The Hans, who did, and still do, constitute 95 per cent of China’s population, bitterly resented the Manchus’ domination of the court and the army. One long-standing nationalist slogan was “Depose the Ching, restore the Ming”.
Foreign powers had inflicted a series of humiliating defeats on China, beginning with the First Opium War between the Chinese and British during 1839-42, which is generally accepted as being the beginning of modern Chinese history.
Although it is convenient for the Chinese to propagate the myth that the evil foreigners deliberately turned the Chinese into a nation of drug addicts, the truth is rather different.
The true addicts were the British, who had become addicted to tea.
The British government was keen to promote the consumption of tea because it was an alternative to alcohol, which was socially destabilising, just as it is today. The British upper classes were particularly fond of tea and only the most trusted servants had the key to the tea caddy.
The Chinese would accept only silver as payment for tea and would not buy any British manufactured goods, meaning that silver was flowing out of Britain and the British were getting nothing in return, except tea.
The truth is the Opium Wars were about trade. The Chinese were mercantilists who would not trade, and if the choice for the British was between bankrupting the Treasury and turning the Chinese into opium addicts, it wasn’t a hard choice to make, even if it wasn’t a very pretty one.
By the way, it’s still common in border regions to “fly the dragon” (i.e., to smoke opium).
By the 1900s, China was effectively governed by the Dowager Empress, Cixi, one of the most hated figures in Chinese history. No doubt there is much to hate about her, but again most of what is taught about her in China is quite fallacious.
Chinese students are taught that she “sold off the nation to foreigners”. It is true that by the time of the Xinhai Revolution foreign powers held most of coastal China through a series of treaty ports. But it is also true that no one power dominated China.
Unlike India, which had no one central governing power, allowing the British to play one ruler off against another, China had a centralised government which very cleverly played one foreign power off against another.
Chinaeven had a de facto ally, the United States, which, through a mixture of altruism and self-interest, influenced by Christian missionaries, pursued an extremely enlightened policy towards China. China had a very weak hand but it played it very well.
By 1911, the Ching Dynasty was defenceless and tottering, not least because the Dowager Empress spent a loan intended to build a navy on building the New Summer Palace in Beijing instead. It can still be seen to this day.
Other rebellions had failed but the Xinhai Revolution didn’t, more or less by accident. Dr Sun Yat-sen, the leader of the revolutionary movement, wasn’t even in the country. Sun, who was the first president of the Republic of China, of which the Republic of China in Taipei is the direct successor, was president for a short time only and was a very ineffective leader.
Apart from the interregnum between Chiang Kai-shek’s Northern Expedition in the late 1920s and the Marco Polo Bridge Incident in 1937 when the Japanese invaded China’s heartland, China was in chaos until 1949. The civil war in China was ultimately resolved when Mao’s Communists seized power.