Liang Qichao: China's First Democrat

Chinese political history has been significantly different from the political history of Western Europe and the United States. In traditional China, under the influence of Confucian thought, political philosophy focused on the role of the benevolent ruler who, by proper performance of his duties and close attention to the upkeep of dikes and the maintenance of public order, would keep the society peaceful and productive. Little attention was paid to the right of citizens to be "represented."

When traditional China was challenged by Western armies and traders in the late 1800s, Chinese leaders studied Western democracy to see if it provided a clue to the strength of these Western nations. Democracy came to be seen in China as a way to mobilize the population and make China stronger, and Chinese leaders tried to establish democratic government in China. The experience of revolution, political chaos and foreign invasion which ensued from 1900 to 1949, however, convinced many Chinese leaders that democracy must be tightly controlled and channeled by the government in order for China to maintain itself as a unified country.

After 1949, the Chinese Communist Party argued that only under the guidance of the party could the true ideals of democracy, equality and freedom for all, be reached.

Liang Qichao (1873-1929)

"Liang Qichao, who was born in 1873 in a small southern village, not far from the Portuguese colony of Macao, died in 1929 after an intellectually tumultuous life. He wrestled continuously with the problem of how to reform China without destroying what he took to be its cultural essence and without humiliating its people with cultural annihilation. Among Liang's formative political experiences was his participation in China's first student demonstration, in 1895. The Imperial government had just signed a humiliating peace treaty with Japan following China's defeat in the Sino-Japanese War; in response, eight thousand young Chinese scholars, who had come to Beijing to take the national civil service exams, signed a petition expressing their opposition to the treaty. They then formed a line one-third of a mile long in front of Duchayuan, the Censorate of the Qing government, in protest. Their public demonstration proclaimed for the first time that Chinese citizens had the right, indeed the obligation, to regulate those by whom they were governed. Confucius's disciple Mencius had written, "He who restrains his prince, loves his prince." But Liang belonged to the first generation of scholars who, instead of going into voluntary exile when their entreaties were rebuffed by the Imperial government, dared to organize a constituency outside of the government to apply political pressure.

Like other forward-thinking Confucian scholars, Liang came to see "wealth and power" as the only salvation for a beleaguered China living under the threat of national extinction at the hands of Japan and the technologically advanced, rapacious Western powers. Just as intellectuals in the nineteen-eighties were debating the causes of China's backwardness and searching for ways to remedy it through "modernization," so too had Liang and his generation of reform-minded scholars sought to understand the origins of China's dynastic weakness and to suggest remedies.

A brilliant Confucian scholar, Liang came to believe that the source of Western wealth and power lay in democracy. He held that the energy generated by popular participation in the political process was what drove any dynamic society forward. But while he valued the dynamism that free, competing individuals might contribute to the building of a nation, he was vague indeed about how these Promethean, alien forces he wished to see released in China might be reconciled with the interests of the Chinese state. In fact, in optimistically Confucian fashion, he avoided entirely the problem of possible conflict by assuming that the natural order of things was harmony between rulers and the ruled. Whereas Western thinkers such as Hobbes and Rousseau (who recognized how particular interests easily come into conflict with the "general will") had immediately identified this obvious point of discord in any democratic social contract, Liang missed it completely. In holding his new convictions that individuals should and did have "rights" (quan), he never imagined that a state might become tyrannical or that its people might become rebellious."

Excerpted from Orville Schell, Discos & Democracy: China in the Throes of Reform (New York: Pantheon Books, 1988; paperback: Anchor Doubleday, 1989). Reprinted with permission.