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Late Qing Reformers and Today’s Chinese Communists View America: Plus ça change?

I had occasion recently to do some reading in Chinese history, and had the pleasure of coming across Andrew Nathan’s Chinese Democracy and David Arkush and Leo Lee’s anthology of translations, Land Without Ghosts: Chinese Impressions of America from the Mid-Nineteenth Century to the Present.

These are two very different books, and there is much of interest in both of them.  What most struck me, however, is the degree to which it appears that important themes in how some late Qing Dynasty Chinese viewed the America of their day still resonate today in the worldview of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and the official People’s Republic of China (PRC) propaganda narrative of what the United States is and what it represents.   On one level it is strange to see such continuity – or rather such a reoccurrence, for such attitudes did not necessarily persist during the intervening century – since the America they seek to describe and explain changed immeasurably over the period in question.

If one remembers, however, that such narratives of America are the intellectual work product of their Chinese articulators – and thus to some extent reflect what they, in a sense, need the United States to be in order to justify their own political agenda for China – the similarities between the views of late Qing reformers and today’s CCP are perhaps not so startling.  Let’s take a walk down history’s path and pull up some impressions of America from the end of China’s last Imperial Dynasty, against which the reader can compare the narratives one often hears from the CCP Party-State today.

I.          Early Political Currents of the Qing America-Watchers

Andrew Nathan has noted how Kang Youwei and other Chinese reformers in the late 19th Century seem to have seen much Western strength as lying in democracy – but also to have assumed that this strength came not from pluralist competition between diverse interests but from the ability of democratic forms to harmonize interests, making of the country a single unit bound to a collective purpose. Democracy, thus viewed, was both a good thing and even an essential thing for a Chinese polity the overriding political imperative of which – the Chinese national telos, if you will – was to recover from humiliating weakness.  As Nathan recounts, many amongst the Chinese Confucian elite seem to have accepted “the notion that the nation is the political unit of concern and that the nation’s survival is the prime problem for politics.” Democracy was seen, and was to be evaluated, through the prism of Chinese recovery.

Fascinatingly, however, many Chinese reformers seem to have seen in democracy not an ethic of pluralism and diversity but rather an invocation of the ideal of harmony and unity.  To be sure, the people may have had some role in supervising government, and government some responsibility for being responsive to the needs of the people.  This was, however, not a model in which the people would choose or have the opportunity to replace their rulers: it was an ethic of the rulers’ consultation with the ruled and benevolent attentiveness to the people’s interests, all for the greater good of the nation.

For such thinkers, America seems to have existed simultaneously as a model of somehow “democratic” strength and as an anti-model of disharmony and disorder – and perhaps even a threat to a China then struggling to keep its head above water in a brutishly competitive world.  Early Chinese visitors to the United States admired American technology and efficiency, but seem frequently to have recoiled from the hurly-burly of pluralistic political competition.

Zhang Deyi, for instance, who visited in 1868 as interpreter for Anson Burlingame’s diplomatic mission on behalf of the Qing, seems to have been deeply distressed by the two-party system he observed in the United States, describing it as an example of disharmony and selfishness: “each party has its selfish interests,” he lamented, “and they are not in harmony.”

Similarly, Huang Zunxian, consul-general in San Francisco in early 1880s seems to have feared that individual liberty and egalitarianism would lead to selfishness and disorder.  He was uncertain whether democracy really worked in America, but he certainly didn’t like the idea for China.  In poetry he wrote about his experiences in America, he depicted the U.S. election of 1884 as a travesty, pitting two parties against each other that each invoked grand ideals of unity behind a presidential “father to us all” but whose divisive competition precluded any real achievement of a longed-for “Age of Grand Harmony on Earth.”  In other poetry, he decried how far the America he saw was from “the Age of Great Unity,” and the fact that around the world nations – and not just political parties – compete for power.  All of this made him fear for his weak country’s future: “When,” he asked “will China’s territory expand again?”

Lin Shu, a famous translator of Western works into Chinese, also had a grim view of such international competition for China, comparing the modern world of “dominating and being dominated” to the situation that obtained between Chinese states in antiquity.  Lin sorrowed that China’s prestige has been wounded, and asked bitterly about whether China, in its then weakness, really had a nation or not. Views of America were deeply colored by feelings of their own national weakness, and China’s need for survival and recovery.

II.         Liang Qichao Views America

The recurring themes come through most clearly, perhaps, in the writings of Liang Qichao, a seminal and enormously influential scholar and reformist of the late Qing whose views helped shape the subsequent May 4th movement and even the early CCP.  He saw democracy, in Nathan’s words, “chiefly [as] a means of communication between government and people,” using “consultative bodies” in order to help create “unity of will and effort.”  (As Liang phrased it, there would be “ten thousand ears with one hearing, ten thousand powers with only one purpose in life.”)  The government and the people were fundamentally of one interest, not diverging ones, and consultation would help power-holders advance this interest.

Liang’s views after visiting the United States reflected these hopes and concerns for China.  Having met President Theodore Roosevelt – and apparently found much to his liking in the Progressive-era aspirations toward greater federal government authority and regulation – Liang felt that even American democracy needed greater political centralization, this being the trend of the age.  Indeed, Liang seems to have felt the main reason that Americans formed a cohesive nation at all was that this had been largely imposed upon them by political elites.

As for how American democracy worked, Liang seems to have been uncomfortable with the raucous, competitive, U.S. political scene he encountered.  His accounts of America describe a notable degree of crime and disorder, particularly associated with large cities such as New York.  In Liang’s description, American democracy was corrupt, manipulated by selfish interests, inconsistent in policy, and quite unable consistently to produce leaders of talent.   He also saw it as being in some sense hypocritical, entranced by rights and liberty but characterized in practice by derogation from these ideals – including anti-Asian racism and Jim Crow lynchings.

Whether or not it really worked in America, moreover, Liang Qichao felt that the American approach to democracy was entirely inappropriate as a model for China – a view in which his visit to San Francisco’s Chinese-American community particularly convinced him. For Liang, the Chinese were suited only for despotism, not freedom.  As he put it, “[f]reedom, constitutionalism, and republicanism would be like hempen clothes in winter or furs in summer; it is not that they are not beautiful, they are just not suitable for us.”  China was unready for democracy, under which he feared his home country would degenerate into mob rule, corruption, and incompetence.

Instead, Liang felt that China needed strong rule – autocracy, in fact – which was necessary in order help forge China into a county.  If ever it could be a democracy, this would have to come later: “After that we can give them the books of Rousseau and tell them about the deeds of Washington.”  China’s recovery demanded the efficiency, singleness of purpose, steady hand, and firm guidance of a political system that did not look like pluralist Western liberty – and would not look like it, if ever, for a very long time.   After visiting America, in fact, Liang professed sympathy for constitutional monarchy, which he said “has fewer flaws and functions more efficiently.”

Indeed, Liang saw in America a threat to China’s recovery – and a threat that went beyond simply providing an unsuitable model for political organization.  He believed he saw sinister forces at work behind American politics, imbibing the trust-busting politics of the time and describing U.S. politics as being manipulated by shadowy financial trusts operating behind the scenes.  He saw in these trusts, and in Roosevelt’s talk of a global “role” and “mission,” a threat to China, and to its all-important national recovery, as an economically acquisitive and ideologically messianic America entrenched itself in the Pacific.

III.       Plus c’est la même chose …

What was striking to me, in reading various accounts of Chinese observations of America during the late Qing, is how oddly modern many of these themes still sound.  Notwithstanding a century of change, and with a vastly different modern China now counterpoised vis-à-vis a vastly different modern United States, these turn-of-the-19th Century views of American democracy are intriguingly echoed in the CCP’s discourse of self-justification in the post-Mao era of reform and development, and on through to the present day.   Let me summarize some of the main themes I think I’ve seen in late-Qing views:

  • Few Chinese observers seem to have come to the interpretation of America to Chinese with what one might describe as objective intentions: they were not social scientists aspiring merely to describe and analyze.  They were participants in China’s modern saga keen to draw lessons for China from abroad, and this colored every aspect of what they did.  Their descriptions of the United States were thus only partly actually “about” the United States: they were in important ways about China as well.  Accordingly, their explanations of the United States reflected much about these participants’ own hopes and fears for their homeland, and thus these narratives of America played – or at last seem to have been intended to play – roles in Chinese politics reflecting the agenda of those who articulated them.  One can therefore see Chinese politics, priorities, issues, and concerns reflected back in what they saw in or said about the United States.
  • In coming to their task of interpreting America to China, many of these observers – setting about this task at a time of their once-proud empire’s perceived humiliation and degradation vis-à-vis the great powers of the world  – seem to have taken as axiomatic that the overriding concern for China was the issue of how to build up its national power and take back its rightful place in the world.  The teleology of national rise suffuses many of the accounts of America’s power and vibrancy.
  • For many Chinese observers, Western pluralist democracy was a source of much fascination, but also much ambivalence and even hostility.  It was seen to be a system of disharmony, disorder, and inefficiency, and to do a poor job of cultivating leaders of talent and virtue.  It thus provided an “anti-model” for China: in its American form, democracy was something to be avoided.
  • Some Chinese accounts of America seemed to illustrate the proposition that Western democracy wasn’t what it purported to be, either.  U.S. politics claimed to be about liberty and high principles, but observers frequently noted defects and behaviors that seemed to indicate that this American narrative was to some degree a false one.  Racism and corrupt politics, for instance, seemed to suggest that even if democracy were not inherently an anti-model for China, its American version was fraudulent in practice, being unfaithful to its own ideals.
  • In an additional level of critique, some Chinese observers went further – seeming to conclude that even if democracy were not inherently undesirable and the American form did not represent a kind of fraudulent freedom, it was nonetheless a form of government unsuitable for China, however good it might prove elsewhere.  China was not seen as being ready for such freedom, instead needing a steady guiding central hand in order to lead it back to glory.  Real democracy, if it could come at all, would have to be postponed until some indefinite but quite distant point in the future.
  • Chinese observers did find things to admire in the United States and other Western powers, particularly their strength in science and technology, and – by some accounts – their ability to mobilize people behind national goals.  Something reminiscent of “democracy” could thus boost national power and help China recover from perceived humiliation and rise in the world.
  • It also seems to have been felt by Chinese America-watchers, however, that America presented a threat to China, because the United States was ruled behind the scenes by aggressively acquisitive private – that is, selfish, non-harmonious, and non-virtuous – interests, and ideologically bent upon establishing itself in the Pacific.  As a result, the United States might present an obstacle to China’s trajectory of recovery and rise.
  • Wrapping these strands together, Chinese observers seem to have felt that while China should use democratically-inspired forms as tools to pursue the teleological imperative of national rise, this should not take the form of Western-style pluralist democratic rule.  Rather, such forms should be used as consultative tools, to inform and support the power of a benevolent central leadership, enabling it to implement policy based upon a harmonious unity of interests in society as a whole, to the greater aim of China’s recovery.

I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to see all of these eight factors as persisting in important ways in the Party-State’s contemporary narrative of itself and of the United States, and in underpinning CCP claims to political legitimacy and a continued monopoly on power.   (I’ll leave this to the reader, but I don’t think one has to search too long to see such things coming out in the output of the CCP’s propaganda machine and its coverage of American issues.)

Chinese narratives of the “Other,” in other words, may sometimes say as much about China as they do about the actual America that they supposedly describe, and despite the otherwise enormous differences between their eras and circumstances, nationalist reformers in China’s last imperial dynasty would appear to have certain objectives in common with modern-day officials in its first ideological one.  If one is committed to the development of China along a trajectory from relative weakness to the status of a first-rank global power, and to accomplishing this without allowing the Chinese people to exercise meaningful political rights and freedoms – including the right to replace their governing elite if and when dissatisfied with it – there may be things about Western democracy that one simply must believe if one’s political program is to retain any coherence.

I do not necessarily mean to argue, of course, that the only roots of these Chinese perceptions of the United States lie in such internal factors, or that such views are, in effect, entirely unrelated to the American reality they purport to describe.  This, after all, would be quite improbable, particularly now that Chinese have more access than ever before to information about the outside world, and have developed an extensive and sophisticated cadre of scholarly “America watchers.”  It is no longer possible, if indeed ever it were, for explanatory narratives to be woven entirely of fantasy.

That said, I think it is useful to draw attention to the ways in which such narratives, as expressed and encouraged within the still officially-constrained and -managed “information space” of Chinese public discourse, may be at least partly the products of the domestic agenda and imperatives of the PRC’s hegemonic ruling party, and thus at least imperfectly related to their object of description.  Both in China and abroad, there seems to be no shortage of accounts that stress the exogenous roots of Chinese perceptions, seeing them either as being faithfully accurate descriptions of the U.S. reality, or at least as understandable reactions to American policy or politics.  Accordingly, it can be a valuable analytical corrective to remember that narratives of a foreign Other always say at least something about their narrators – and sometimes even more than they accurately recount about that Other itself.

-- Christopher Ford


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