A different reading of China’s recent history

In the run up to the Party’s 90th anniversary the People’s Daily said that history “is the precious wealth of the party”, which we saw yesterday when we looked at the Party’s narrative of history. Today I thought we should take another look, and consider the implications of a slightly different perspective (links in the post refer to current events, not sources).

A New History

In the 1700’s China had managed to export millions of pounds of silver worth of silk, tea, and porcelain. The Qing dynasty had managed to convince the Chinese people that the west had little of interest, and China was becoming incredibly wealthy. By 1730 the British East India Company was desperately trying to find a way to get the flow of wealth to turn back in their direction, they accomplished this by importing massive quantities of opium (which had been available in China prior to this, but the British traders made it cheap and plentiful). The problem quickly became apparent, and the emperor banned its import. However local officials used the ban to extract bribes from foreign merchants and enriched themselves. When Lin Zexu arrived and actually enforced the ban on opium by seizing the drug from British merchants, it was such a surprise that the East India Company did not even have a plan how to respond. They had fully expected to be able to bribe every official that tried to stop them, and for nearly 120 years, they had.

The resulting Opium War forced China to open to foreign goods, foreign ideas, and foreign settlements. The Chinese empire found it difficult to believe that the British had been able to defeat their navy so quickly. They were then blindsided by the Taiping Rebellion, which was a cult inspired by Biblical teachings (more accurately a poorly translated pamphlet). Hong Xiuquan, was able to conquer a huge tract of land not just because he was promising land reform, but also due to the fact that the Qing gov’t was widely unpopular due to its lack of concern for the common people (this can be seen in a number of other revolts at the end of the 19th century).

These two major events provided the push needed for China to attempt to modernize its military, and reform its gov’t.  Kang Youwei, who headed this effort, was convinced that China needed change on the scale of the Meiji restoration. He advocated a constitutional monarchy with democracy, moving away from Confucian exams for choosing leaders, focusing education on science and math instead of classic texts, limiting gov’t bureaucracy by eliminating positions that paid well but provided little public benefit, and modernizing China’s military.

However conservatives disliked change, and argued that the reforms were backed by foreign forces and didn’t fit with China’s history. The Empress Dowager was one of these conservatives, and helped derail the reforms by wasting huge sums of money that had been earmarked for the Navy on her lavish marble boat in the Summer Palace (inspired by the quote: “The waters that float the boat can also sink it”). Her corruption left China vulnerable, and Japan quickly destroyed China’s navy, which further highlighted how China’s self-imposed isolation had allowed the rest of the world to surpass it.

It wasn’t until 1905 that the Qing dyansty realized that massive reforms were necessary, but they came too late. Many revolutionaries thought that it would be easier to overthrow the gov’t and start anew, than to advocate change from within. In 1911 the Qing dynasty collapsed due to frustration with corruption, and their inability to effectively limit foreign power within the country (ineffective legislation).


Given this narrative, we could say that the Party was clearly not the solution to China’s problems, and could be facing serious problems in the near future. At this moment I regularly hear complaints about gov’t corruption, and the central gov’t struggles to enforce its laws when they conflict with the interests of local officials. The Party has also sought to keep China isolated, during Mao it was literal isolation, and under the current leadership we see it in the control of China’s internet.

Change is also seen as a threat to the gov’t, instead of a way to adapt to new circumstances, while democracy is still demonized as a tool of the Western powers.

7 responses to “A different reading of China’s recent history”

  1. Baobo says:

    There is a really good portrayal of the Empress gutting the Qing navy in “Li Lianying, the Imperial Eunuch”, a film from 1991 or ’92.

    Wen Jiang is a great actor.

  2. anonymous says:

    The governors all through the Chinese history generally have two goals,the first one is try to maintain their power,the second is to achieve personal goal(creature comfort). with the two premises, you can understand why Dowager 慈禧 played such a stupid role during 1st sino-jap war,why PRC concentrate on creating such a gorgeous censoring system on the internet while many aspects of China are not gorgeous enough.

  3. Baobo says:

    Support for the Party may reflect wariness of revolution. How many elders must think “Here we go again…” when they see student protests and demands for reform?

    Also, what democracy doesn’t have some citizens demanding “real democracy”? Many are people who haven’t succeeded and want to blame others for their failures. A lot of them actually have succeeded, but it’s still not enough… they are just foolish attention seekers…

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  5. BILL RICH says:

    Who is 慈禧 of the PRC ? Is CPC the Manchurian in China today trying to protect their own vested interests over the interest of the people using their table scraps as carrots and chengguan, PSB, armed police and PLA as sticks ? Who will play the part of the Japanese navy which was victorious inspite of inferiority in numbers as well as fire power ?

  6. Nice post , i heard too many complaints about corruption event he chinese think they over spend in public infrastructure . About the internet censorship keep isolated china its not , just because there’s no Facebook and twitter means they are isolated besides the question is: if they have any interest outside , my suppliers go abroad to many countries like France , the States , Japan or Mexico and in france they only care about LV boutiques and similar high brands , in the states ipads and iphones if you ask them about their opinion of the culture or the impressions of the country they just just tell you good shopping .

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