You have to expect things of yourself before you can do them”
- Michael Jordan
According to Chinese historian Te-Kong Tong, the Chinese modernization movement began after the Opium War in 1842 and culminated in the 1911 revolution that established the Republic of China, the first democracy in Asia. It was later replaced in 1949 by the communist People’s Republic of China, the Chinese government we know today.
According to Tong, these political and social movements are the continuation of the modernization effort that began in 1842. The main driver is simple: Chinese people no longer wish to live in their traditional ways. The 1919 May Fourth Movement called for “total westernization” (later changed to “total modernization”) and rejected every aspect of traditional Chinese customs and values. The movement had a spectacular success that Chinese people in the 21th century today would certainly be considered “westerners” by the 19th century standards - Chinese men no longer practice polygamy, Chinese women no longer bound their feet or accept arranged marriages and there are few ancestor-worships. There is now nothing truly “Chinese” about modern Chinese way of living, except the food culture and and language.
Unlike the other aspects of the Chinese modernization, the political modernizations was comprised of a series of failures. The 1911 democracy degenerated into warlord-ism. The 1949 socialist government brought three decades of disasters that killed more than 70 million people (Great Leap Forward 1958-1961, Culture Revolution 1966-1976) . In Tong’s view, the 1911 democrats and the 1949 socialists were doomed to fail because it was impossible to build a modern government out of the 19th century Chinese men. Most of the founding fathers of the 1911 republic were polygamists. The first democratically elected president of China in 1912 declared himself the emperor 3 years later. Most of the 1911 and 1949 founders were either assassinated or had ordered the assassination of others. Tong believed the failure in the political reforms mean that the culture transformation is still incomplete, and culture transformations could take a long time. For example, Japan’s modernization efforts took almost 100 years (it began in 1853 when Perry sailed into Tokyo Bay and ended in 1945 when MacArthur built a new democracy). European modernization took a few centuries, from the Renaissance period in 14th century to the modern parliamentary system beginning in the 18th century. Tong speculated that China’s modernization movement would take 200 years. As the movement started around 1840, according to Tong it should culminate in 2040 when China become truly democratic.
Then is the Chinese modernization on track? Since the 1990s, the Chinese government has been following the Singapore model - in exchange for economic progress, people have come to accept living under an authoritarian regime. Two decades of spectacular economic growth has raised 300 million Chinese to the middle class. Yet every coin has two sides. The economic boom has belied the rampant corruptions and the drastic inequalities. In spite of the successful democratic transformation in Taiwan and the more limited one in Hong Kong, Chinese people do not fervently pursue democracy. Why is this so?
In the hindsight, the Chinese modernization movement that began in 1850 had never answered a critical question but rushed to its conclusions, and the omission of critical reflection has been the root of all its problems every since. The critical question is: What does it mean to be (modern) Chinese?
The U.S. Declaration of Independence in 1776 first defined what being an American means: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,…with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”. Only after the definition did the Declaration proceed to lay out its expectations of government, that it should “...secure these rights, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”. The Declaration of Independence was drafted in 1776, followed by the Constitution in 1787. In other words, Americans first decided what they wanted to be like before they decided what their government should be like.
By the time China’s 1911 revolution took place, those founding fathers must have been aware of the 1776 Declaration in the U.S. They neglected the definition process and only focused on nation building because most of them clung to Chinese traditions and wanted to keep “Chinese learning as the essence, western learning as a utility” (中学为体, 西学为用). The slogan of the 1911 revolution was “Get rid of the Manchus, establish China, build a people’s republic, and equally distribute land properties”. The 1949 revolution slogan was “The Chinese people have stood up!”. But how do we define Chinese people? Adding to the confusions, the word “rights(权利)” and “power(权力)” have the same pronunciation in the Chinese language.The China Constitution stated that “All powers belong to the people (一切权力属于人民)” but made no mention about individual rights(权利). Mao himself was famous for the confusion about “rights” and “power” in his statement “... no such thing as God-given power (read: rights), since power can only be given by the people”.
150 years into the modernization movement, now it’s still not too late for Chinese people to answer the question about their identity. Today’s China is no longer hindered by foreign aggressions or poverty. It has the biggest middle class in Asia, if not in the world. Nothing stands between Chinese people and who they want to be. The only question is: do they know what it means to be Chinese? The answers to this question will hold the key to China’s final (and hopefully, peaceful) transformation to democracy.