Reform is one of the principal topics that has kept Chinese think tanks busy since the late 1970s (when the ‘Reform and Opening’ period began). One reason for the fascination is that reformers rarely enjoyed a happy ending in the nation’s history.
The grim end of the first great reformer
During the Warring States Period (476-221 BC), the Qin started out as militarily the weakest of the seven major kingdoms. Yet around 356 BC the Qin began to attain ‘superpower’ status eventually uniting China under its rule in 221 BC (see Q for Qin Shi Huang).
How? Behind the rise of Qin was Shang Yang, a statesman and thinker with a reputation as one of the greatest political reformers.
Shang’s proposals included compulsory military service and drastic tax reforms. At the heart of his programme was applying common standards to more of China’s administrative and social practices, as well as the principle of ‘equality of all’. His adherence to the rule of law even saw him clash with the Qin’s heir-apparent (it didn’t end well: after taking the throne, the vengeful new king killed Shang by tying him to five separate chariots and tearing him into pieces).
The first ‘socialist reformer’ didn’t die in one piece either
In the timeline of Chinese history, the four-century reign of the Han Dynasty (206BC – 220AD) was divided into ‘Western Han’ and ‘Eastern Han’. The split came when Wang Mang, a member of the family of a Han empress, usurped the throne and set up his own Xin empire in 9 AD.
Wang is often depicted as a villain, although some Western scholars talk about him as China’s first socialist. His economic reforms included seizing private land (mostly owned by Han nobles) and a redistribution of property. He also banned slavery, which was a common practice among richer families at the time.
But Wang didn’t enjoy the ‘mandate of heaven’ that generations of rulers relied on (see D for Dragon Throne). The Yellow River changed course during his reign and a series of disastrous floods provoked uprisings. After being killed by a rebel leader, Wang’s head was cut off and hung outside a market. His Xin Dynasty lasted only 15 years and the Han were restored as absolute rulers.
The first student strike calling for reform
Other famous reformers, such as Wang Anshi (1021-1086) in the Song Dynasty and Zhang Juzheng (1525-1582) in the Ming, were lucky enough to die in their beds. Both were the most powerful officials of their time (second only to the emperor) but lost their positions as their reforms went sour. Wang was imprisoned then demoted, while Zhang’s wealth was confiscated after his death.
One of the most fateful eras of reform in imperial China happened during the Qing as the aging empire struggled to modernise after the Opium War (see U for Unequal Treaties). The initial changes in governing style progressed in a conservative manner but this cautious approach ended up in a disastrous defeat in the First Sino-Japanese War in 1894 (see J for Japan). That led to calls for more aggressive reforms, including an overhaul of many of the country’s traditional values. Events culminated in a massive ‘student protest’ in the same year.
At the time thousands of students were waiting to take the civil service examinations in Beijing. They were enraged by the news that the Qing court had signed the humiliating Treaty of Shimonoseki, which ceded Taiwan to Japan. Kang Youwei, from Guangdong, penned a 10,000-word petition which was co-signed by more than 1,000 students, calling for deep-seated reforms.
The students were then caught up in the interlocking power struggle between the powerful Empress Dowager Cixi and the Emperor Guangxu. The puppet Guangxu was trying to wrestle back authority from Cixi (his aunt). Backed by Guangxu, Kang and his allies promoted the so-called “Hundred Days’ Reform”, a series of measures including the setting up of a central bank and the modernisation of the military. But the 1898 campaign was short-lived as Cixi swiftly quashed the movement. Guangxu was put under house arrest until his death. With the help of foreign diplomats, Kang eventually fled to Sweden, but six of his closest allies were beheaded.
The setback stoked the rise of a more aggressive school of reformers who, led by Sun Yat-sen, would overthrow their imperial rulers in a military revolution in 1911.
Who was the most successful reformer?
That title should probably go to Deng Xiaoping, whose policies after 1978 introduced changes that have allowed China to enjoy decades of rapid economic growth and lift hundreds of millions of people out of poverty.
By the time Deng died in 1997, aged 93, China was on its way to joining the World Trade Organisation and growing into the world’s second largest economy.
Stories of other reformers have shown how they often ran into resistance from vested interests. But in 1978, following the decade-long Cultural Revolution, there was less opposition to Deng’s proposals from existing businesses, because so much commercial activity had been extinguished. Perhaps that was an important factor behind Deng’s success, although economic reformers of the future are less likely to have the same experience.
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