Home » 9th Season (2021-2022) » 2021-2022 v.03 (May) » Democracy’s Dawn and Dusk: The Early Years of The Republic of China

Democracy’s Dawn and Dusk: The Early Years of The Republic of China

By Zimo Tang, VI Form

Democracy’s Dawn and Dusk: The Early Years of The Republic of China

On October 9, 2021, the Chairman of the People’s Republic of China, Xi Jinping, gave a speech in front of the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. After the applause faded, Xi began to speak: 

One hundred and ten years ago, Chinese revolutionaries represented by Dr. Sun Yat-sen stunned the world when they launched the Revolution of 1911… This year marks the 110th anniversary of the Revolution of 1911 and the centenary of the Communist Party of China (CPC)… We gather here to commemorate the historic exploits of revolutionary pioneers like Dr. Sun Yat-sen, to emulate and carry forward their lofty spirit of working with unshakable resolve to revitalize China, and to inspire and rally the sons and daughters of the Chinese nation at home and abroad to work together to realize the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.

 Jinping Xi, “Full Text of President XI’s Speech at Meeting Marking 1911 Revolution,” The National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (Institute of Party History and Literature of the CPC Central Committee, October 13, 2021)

In this speech, Xi Jinping honored the works of Dr. Sun Yat-sen, the revolutionary leader who ended China’s last imperial dynasty. Xi emphasized the phrase “rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” which he had adopted as his primary political motto during his term as the Chairman.

More specifically, Xi believes that the Chinese people have been moving beyond the humiliations China suffered at the hands of colonial powers during the late nineteenth century and Japanese invaders during WWII. Xi aims to continue China’s rapid economic development of the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries because it is a sign of China’s revitalization from the past centuries’ humiliations. On this specific occasion, Xi drew inspiration from the Revolution of 1911 to inspire his colleagues as well as the Chinese people to reflect on past revolutions and connect them to the Communist Party’s contemporary mission of “building China into a great modern socialist country.” 

However, the reality of the events in the Revolution of 1911 was less idealistic than Xi’s speech had conveyed. This paper explores the events surrounding the Revolution of 1911 from 1840 to 1920. In doing so, this paper discusses the rise of democratic ideas and efforts to establish a democratic China through the government of the Republic of China and the eventual fall of the Republican government in 1916. Democracy in China was short-lived, but thrived as a result of Sun Yat-sen’s political engagement and leadership. However, it quickly collapsed due to China’s unpreparedness in establishing a stable democratic system and countersign the rise of the dictator Yuan Shikai, whom China’s leaders chose. 

The first section of this paper examines the rise of a democratic ideology in China during the late nineteenth century. Democracy arose as a result of the “Self-Strengthening” movement that responded to the Opium Wars and aimed to strengthen China through numerous reforms. Reformists in the Qing court, led by Kang Youwei and Emperor Guangxu, initially wished to establish a constitutional monarchy. However, this movement failed due to conservative backlash from the Empress Dowager Cixi, which gave way to the rise of a competing ideology: Dr. Sun Yat-sen’s democratic model of government. Through his deliberate plotting to overthrow the Qing government by soliciting funds and support overseas while establishing a unique nationalistic anti-Manchurian rationale, Sun was able to gain great strength and support in his ambition to end the Qing dynasty and establish the Republic of China. 

The following section explores the events during the Revolution of 1911. Although typically characterized by numerous uprisings throughout China, the Revolution of 1911 was also the beginning of the new Republic of China. During the Revolution, political leaders emerged and formed the preliminary parliament (National Assembly) while drafting a provisional Constitution of the Provisional Government of the Republic of China, which outlined the political mechanisms of the government, including the incorporation of concepts such as separation of powers and checks and balances. This rapid process of political reform came with the revolution that overthrew the Qing dynasty and marked the formation of the first democratic republic in China. However, the rapid formation of the Republic led to China lacking both experienced statesmen ready to lead the Republic and a national army strong enough to drive the last Emperor out of Beijing. Hoping for stability, the reformists brought in the powerful military leader Yuan Shikai, who had limitless personal ambitions. 

The final section of the paper analyzes how Yuan’s presidency, marked by his personal desire for power, led to the gradual demise of the provisional government of the Republic of China. Through political maneuvers such as libel and taking foreign loans, Yuan attempted to centralize power by first eliminating the revolutionary forces of the Nationalist Party. Afterwards, Yuan freed himself from the checks and balances of the Constitution by disbanding the National Assembly, the nation’s only legislative body. Yuan also proclaimed himself the new Emperor of China. Yuan’s dictatorship movement not only tore down the Republic, it also triggered numerous rounds of repercussions that eventually led to his own downfall. Yuan’s death in 1916 marked the end of the chaotic five years after the Revolution of 1911 and also the end of the only republican democracy in the history of China.

Click HERE to read Zimo’s full Fellowship paper

Zimo Tang is a VI Form boarding student.

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