Charter 08’s Qing Dynasty Precursor





Jane Leung Larson is an independent scholar in Goshen, MA and New York, NY; blog: Baohuanghui Scholarship. Her article, “Articulating China's First Mass Movement: Kang Youwei, Liang Qichao, the Baohuanghui, and the 1905 Anti-American Boycott,” was published in Twentieth-Century China, November 2007.

Feng Chongyi is Associate Professor in China Studies at the University of Technology, Sydney, and adjunct Professor of History, Nankai University, Tianjin. His numerous books in English and Chinese include Peasant Consciousness and China; From Sinification to Globalisation; The Wisdom of Reconciliation: China’s Road to Liberal Democracyand Liberalism within the CCP: From Chen Duxiu to Lishenzhi. He is also the editor of China; and Constitutional Democracy and Harmonious Society.

This is a shortened version of an article originally published at JapanFocus.

Over the gulf of one century and two revolutions, two groups of Chinese petitioners drafted remarkably similar blueprints for political reform.  Both groups sought civil rights and political responsibilities for Chinese citizens and a Western-influenced form of constitutional government to replace rule by autocracy.  Today, China’s autocratic government is ruled by the Chinese Communist Party, and in the waning years of the Chinese empire, it was ruled by the Qing dynasty.   The striking differences between these petition movements are as instructive as their similarities, reflecting not only the qualities of the movements themselves but the radically different political environments—inside and outside China—from which they emerged. 

In 2008, Charter 08 declared that “freedom, equality, and human rights are universal values of humankind, and democracy and constitutional government are the fundamental framework for protecting these values.”  Charter 08’s drafters, of whom the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo is the most prominent, describe themselves as inheriting China’s historical legacy of political reform.  They called for a citizens’ movement “so that we can bring to reality the goals and ideals our people have incessantly been seeking for more than a hundred years.”  They credit the 1898 Hundred Days of Reform led by the Guangxu Emperor to transform China into a constitutional monarchy with being China’s “first attempt at modern political change,” and the first sentence of their petition reads, “A hundred years have passed since the writing of China‘s first constitution.”

Indeed, this decade, 1898 to 1908, foreshadowed what has been more than a century-long sporadic, often marginal, and as yet unfulfilled movement to eliminate China’s autocratic system and give Chinese people the right to take part in national affairs.  As Charter 08 acerbically notes, with “the revolution of 1911, which inaugurated Asia’s first republic, the authoritarian imperial system that had lasted for centuries was finally supposed to have been laid to rest.”  All too soon, “the new republic became a fleeting dream.”  And, finally, “the ’new China’ that emerged in 1949 proclaimed that ‘the people are sovereign’ but in fact set up a system in which ‘the Party is all-powerful’. . . .  Unfortunately, we stand today as the only country among the major nations that remains mired in authoritarian politics.”

The 1898 Hundred Days edicts spanned education, technology, the economy, government administration, ethnic relations, and, most critically, would have begun the transformation of the autocratic monarchy to a system governed by a constitution, with various elements of democratic participation and a balance of power.  But, as Charter 08, describes, “the ill-fated summer of reforms . . . were cruelly crushed by ultraconservatives at China‘s imperial court.”  After only 103 days, Empress Dowager Cixi staged a coup, the young Emperor was put under house arrest, and the reformers who advised him were executed, fled into exile, or banned from organizing associations. 

But the urge for reform was not staunched by the coup at the Qing court.  Although the brutal suppression of the coup radicalized some members of the intelligentsia, particularly Chinese students in Japan, who became revolutionaries, a much larger number of reformers began to organize inside and outside of China to gather support for a constitutional system.  By 1908, this decade-long movement had grown through a worldwide network of voluntary associations, reform newspapers, and strong leaders, largely located outside of China distant from Qing government control.  Most critical, their political message of constitutional reform reverberated with certain local gentry, urban elite and Qing officials inside China.  It was this group that kicked off the constitutional petition movement in 1907 and prompted the Qing court to issue its draft constitution a year later.

Impelled by these external and internal currents supporting constitutional reform, and seeking to forestall further calamity to the nation after China was humiliated by the eight-nation alliance that put down the disastrous Boxer uprising, occupied Beijing, and then forced China to pay huge indemnities as reparation, the Empress Dowager herself began to implement elements of the Emperor’s failed 1898 reform program.  In 1901, she announced that the court would begin to study the good points of foreign statecraft and adopt those that could help China become rich and powerful.  The victory of Japan, a constitutional monarchy, over autocratic imperial Russia, in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905 fought on Chinese territory, again jolted the Qing court.  Meiji Japan stood as an even more potent model for China, as the only Asian country with the strength to hold its own with Western powers (and one of the eight-country alliance that invaded Beijing in 1900 to fight the Boxers).  Following the political example of Meiji Japan, the Qing began to prepare in earnest for China’s gradual transition to a constitutional monarchy, with constitutional study missions abroad, a census, financial analysis and budgeting, writing a legal code, and reorganization of the government before “granting” a constitution and forming a parliament.

Correction: An earlier version of this article did not identify Jane Leung Larson as coauthor. HNN regrets the error.



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