Reform – or talk of it – is in the air, with Premier Wen Jiabao issuing another call in mid-March for political change, “particularly” within the Communist Party and state leadership system. For good measure Wen added that China risked losing the gains of decades of economic reform if it didn’t change politically.
Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose: reform was also in the air over a century ago, at the end of the Qing Dynasty. But if the experiences of the young Emperor Guangxu are anything to go by, would-be reformers had better step carefully.
In the summer of 1898, Guangxu, aged just 24, launched his Hundred Days’ Reform after reading a memorial presented to the imperial court in 1895 by a group of influential scholars led by Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao. It’s thought that the treatise frightened conservative officials, who had blocked the memorial’s progress through the bureaucracy for three years.
For nearly four decades the Qing had been trying to modernise economically, with some success. But politically the empire remained backward. Faced with powerful neighbours like Japan, and Western powers including Britain and Russia, it was clear that China was failing fast.
The Emperor Guangxu, notes historian Jonathan Spence “undoubtedly had a wider view of the options facing China than any of his predecessors”. He had even been studying English, as part of his efforts to assert his independence from the Empress Dowager Cixi, who hovered in the background.
Guangxu decided to “act on the country’s behalf,” Spence writes in his masterly book, The Search for Modern China. From June to September that year he issued a series of edicts touching on many areas of government including the bureaucracy, armed forces, education and the economy. Modernisation and streamlining were the goals, to develop a more flexible and more powerful government.
Yet many officials were unimpressed, seeing the reforms as harmful to “China’s true inner values,” writes Spence.
Cixi also feared that they would weaken the ruling Qing dynasty. Details remain unclear, but amid rumours of a possible coup, on September 21, she issued an edict declaring that the emperor had asked her to resume power. Guangxu was detained and placed under house arrest until his death in 1908. Many of his reformist advisers were executed. Kang and Liang fled the country.
But the forces of change could not be held back. In the decade after Guangxu’s effective deposition, the pressure grew. In 1911 the Qing were overthrown by Sun Yat-sen’s Republican forces in a revolution.
Could Guangxu’s reforms have prevented a similar fate if his government had persevered with implementing them? Wen Jiabao has used similar arguments, seeing reform as a way of preserving the political status quo rather than undermining it.
In fact Wen was warning again of the need for renewal this week, with another reference to corruption in officialdom as “the biggest danger facing the ruling party”. If not dealt with it, the problem could “terminate the political regime” he predicted.
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