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10-08-2015, 16:19

The Collapse of the Old Order

During the next few years, the old dynasty tried desperately to reform itself. The empress dowager, who had long resisted change, now embraced a number of reforms in education, administration, and the legal system. The venerable civil service examination system was replaced by a new educational system based on the Western model. In 1905, a commission was formed to study constitutional changes, and over the next few years, legislative assemblies were established at the provincial level. Elections for a national assembly were held in 1910. Such moves helped shore up the dynasty temporarily, but history shows that the most dangerous period for an authoritarian system is when it begins to reform itself because change breeds instability and performance rarely matches rising expectations. Such was the case in China. The emerging new provincial elite, composed of merchants, professionals, and reform-minded gentry, soon became impatient with the slow pace of political change and were disillusioned to find that the new assemblies were intended to be primarily advisory rather than legislative. The government also alienated influential elements by financing railway development projects through lucrative contracts to foreign firms rather than by turning to local investors. The reforms also had little meaning for peasants, artisans, miners, and transportation workers, whose living conditions were being eroded by rising taxes and official venality. Rising rural unrest, as yet poorly organized and often centered on secret societies such as the Boxers, was an ominous sign of deep-seated resentment to which the dynasty would not, or could not, respond. To Chinaís reformist elite, such signs of social unrest were a threat to be avoided; to its tiny revolutionary movement, they were a harbinger of promise. The first physical manifestations of future revolution appeared during the last decade of the nineteenth century with the formation of the Revive China Society by the young radical Sun Yat-sen (1866 Ė1925). Born to a peasant family in a village south of Canton, Sun was educated in Hawaii and returned to China to practice medicine. Soon he turned his full attention to the ills of Chinese society, leading bands of radicals in small-scale insurrections to attract attention. At first, Sunís efforts yielded few positive results other than creating a symbol of resistance and the new centuryís first revolutionary martyrs. But at a convention in Tokyo in 1905, Sun managed to unite radical groups from across China in the so-called Revolutionary Alliance (Tongmenghui). The new organizationís program was based on Sunís Three Peopleís Principles: nationalism (meaning primarily the destruction of Manchu rule over China), democracy, and ďpeopleís livelihoodĒ (a program to improve social and economic conditions; see the box on page 52). Although the new organization was small and relatively inexperienced, it benefited from rising popular discontent with the failure of Manchu reforms to improve conditions in China. In October 1911, followers of Sun Yat-sen launched an uprising in the industrial center of Wuhan, in central China. With Sun traveling in the United States, the insurrection lacked leadership, but the decrepit governmentís inability to react quickly encouraged political forces at the provincial level to take measures into their own hands. The dynasty was now in a state of virtual collapse: the dowager empress had died in 1908, one day after her nephew Guangxu; the throne was now occupied by the infant Puyi, the son of Guangxuís younger brother. Sunís party, however, had neither the military strength nor the political base necessary to seize the initiative and was forced to turn to a representative of the old order, General Yuan Shikai. A prominent figure in military circles since the beginning of the century, Yuan had been placed in charge of the imperial forces sent to suppress the rebellion, but now he abandoned the Manchus and acted on his own behalf. In negotiations with representatives of Sun Yat-senís party (Sun himself had arrived in China in January 1912), he agreed to serve as president of a new Chinese republic. The old dynasty and the age-old system it had attempted to preserve were no more. Propagandists for Sun Yat-senís party have often portrayed the events of 1911 as a glorious revolution that brought two thousand years of imperial tradition to an end. But a true revolution does not just destroy an old order; it also brings new political and social forces into power and creates new institutions and values that provide a new framework for a changing society. In this sense, the 1911 revolution did not live up to its name. Sun and his followers were unable to consolidate their gains. The Revolutionary Alliance found the bulk of its support in an emerging urban middle class and set forth a program based generally on Western liberal democratic principles. That class and that program had provided the foundation for the capitalist democratic revolutions in western Europe and North America in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but the bourgeois class in China was too small to form the basis for a new post- Confucian political order. The vast majority of the Chinese people still lived on the land. Sun had hoped to win their support with a land reform program that relied on fiscal incentives to persuade landlords to sell excess lands to their tenants, but few peasants had participated in the 1911 revolution. In effect, then, the events of 1911 were less a revolution than a collapse of the old order. Undermined by imperialism and its own internal weaknesses, the old dynasty had come to an abrupt end before new political and social forces were ready to fill the vacuum. What China had experienced was part of a historical process that was bringing down traditional empires across the globe, both in regions threatened by Western imperialism and in Europe itself, where tsarist Russia, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the Ottoman Empire all came to an end within a few years of the collapse of the Qing (see Chapter 4). The circumstances of their demise were not all the same, but all four regimes shared the responsibility for their common fate because they had failed to meet the challenges posed by the times. All had responded to the forces of industrialization and popular participation in the political process with hesitation and reluctance, and their attempts at reform were too little and too late. All paid the supreme price for their folly.

 

 

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