China's Historical Grasp on Centralization

Last year at a business forum in the southern Chinese province of Hainan, famous Chinese actor, martial artist, and singer Jackie Chan expressed these comments on the possibility of a free society in China: "I'm not sure if it's good to have freedom or not. I'm gradually beginning to feel that we Chinese need to be controlled.”[1] While these controversial remarks were heavily criticized and debated in Hong Kong and Taiwan, they never passed mainland China’s Great Firewall and were largely ignore there. Whether spoken casually or not, Chan’s remarks bring up an intriguing theme of modern Chinese history. To establish and maintain centralized control over a country as vast and diverse as modern China is no small feat. Yet the Chinese Communist Party was not the only one to have attempted and done so in the past century. A run-through of China’s recent history reveals a Sisyphean pattern of immediate policy reversals following brief endeavors into political liberalization. Sun Yat-sen’s coalition established China’s first republican government only to be reversed by a rogue general; Mao Zedong let “a hundred flowers bloom” only to stampede upon them later; Deng Xiaoping opened China’s floodgate for economic progress only to leave the political one firmly closed. These multiple examples point to an intrinsic argument for centralization. Why China has not been able to decentralize in the past century primarily lies within its cultural political philosophy.

China’s centralization cannot be accredited to cultural values alone. Many of China’s responses to foreign aggression or interference involved nationalism, militarism, and power consolidation. Following the second Opium War (1856-1860), China signed many unfair treaties with Western countries. These treaties allowed foreign powers to own large amounts of land and investments in China. A Chinese flag from the time contained five different colored stripes representing the five main ethnic groups.[2] Although throughout history ethnic minorities never had an alliance relationship with the dominant Han Chinese, the new national flag portrayed strength to the outside world. USSR leader Joseph Stalin recognized China’s strength from its occupation of ethnic lands and forced Mao to relinquish Outer Mongolia during Mao’s state visit to Moscow in 1949. Consolidating power among ethnic minorities helped China maintain itself as an Asian superpower. Similarly, China’s Communist Party (CCP) and the Kuomintang (KMT) party presented a united front towards Japan for the second Sino-Japanese war (1937-1945). This allowed the Chinese to deal with foreign invasion with strength through unity.

Increased militarization in response to foreign aggression was also a nationalistic endeavor to portray strength and centralized power. The imperial government responded to its losses to Great Britain and Japan in the late 1800s with military strengthening and governmental reforms. Only when the reforms threatened Empress Cixi’s power did they stop. China used its first explosion of a nuclear device in October of 1964 to oppose both the Soviet Union and the United States. The United States had surrounded China from its influence over South Korean and Japanese politics. Meanwhile, tensions between the Soviet Union and China had just culminated in an ideological Sino-Soviet split. The detonation also gave prestige and consolidated power to People’s Liberation Army (PLA) leader Lin Biao,[3] who would spearhead many Cultural Revolution activities. Ultimately, international threats pressured China to modernize; only a centralized government could achieve modernization at the pace the world and the Chinese required.

While dictatorial power allowed China to modernize rapidly, it brought the problem of controlling China’s large population. The People’s Republic of China’s first Chairman Mao Zedong successfully harnessed the power of the people in mass movements to consolidate power for himself and the CCP. Mao’s mass movements, such as the Great Leap Forward (1958-1961), gave common Chinese the sense that they could make an impact on politics. In reality, the central government was in tight control. During the Great Leap Forward, every Chinese person took part in industrializing China’s agrarian economy; the entire country was swept up in the fever for socialist modernization. The movie To Live portrays village cadres during the Great Leap Forward collecting metal from villagers to meld into weapons. They collected even little pieces of metal, adhering to the idea that two bullets could make a difference between liberating Taiwan or not.[4] While regular villagers in China believed they were participating in history, top leaders such as Mao held a firm hand over events. Following the USSR’s lead, China had outlined its economic development in Five-Year Plans. These, like their Soviet counterparts, issued stern and often unreal quotas for grain and steel production throughout the country. Many regional leaders inflated their food production numbers, ultimately resulting in a great famine. At the time, however, the positive results from the Great Leap Forward seemed to place a stamp of approval from the Chinese people on Mao’s power. This tactic is not new to Mao. He used peasant movements to establish power at the Jiangxi Soviet (1931-1935) in the earlier days of the CCP and used a student movement during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) to consolidate power in his later years.

Ironically, Mao’s mass movements involved political participation, a democratic value, under authoritarianism. The political irony resulted more from China’s traditional political philosophy clashing with the modern West than from foreign aggression and militarization. The 1920s introduced the first time in China’s history in which citizens were encouraged to participate in politics. The literary and feminist movements of the New Culture Movement opened the door for traditionally undermined women and the poor to understand their social and political arenas. Regardless of modernization's inevitable pull, thousands of years of Confucian influence does not readily release its grasp. The Confucian tradition emphasizes five social relationships, such as the relationship between ruler and subject, or father and son. All of these are linear and direct. Instead of the checks and balances in Western political thought, Confucius appeals to morality to maintain a ruler’s integrity. The subject, on the other hand, participates little in governance. These ideals formed the cultural foundation for China’s government centralization.

Controlling China’s population through direct Confucian leadership was the framework of thousands of years of imperial rule. In the late Qing dynasty, the emperor issued Sacred Edicts to maintained power over his vast empire. Representatives of the government spread Confucian principles and authoritarian order throughout the empire to preserve peace, harmony, and bureaucracy. Although the Qing government could not control every little aspect of Chinese life, the Sacred Edict represented governmental supervision. Integral to the rule of the Sacred Edict was non-participation. The Chinese could only passively accept the laws imposed upon them. Even government officials who passed civil service examinations only participated in the rule of law, and not the creation of the law itself. This system essentially merges power towards the dictator, in this case the Emperor. Similar Confucian rule was also central to Deng Xiaoping’s leadership. While loosening economic administration, Deng furthered governmental supervision. Deng’s Four Basic Principles called to uphold “the leadership of the Communist Party,”[5] essentially replacing the emperor as China’s dictator. Even though a period of political liberalization during the Beijing Spring (1978) existed under Deng, he was quick to suppress the movement when it demanded democracy. The violent suppression of student demonstrations in Tiananmen Square in June of 1989 at the end of Deng’s reign further contributed to his legacy of distrust in political movements. The political environment in China today is one of fierce censorship and political apathy among the people combined with, not surprisingly, a return to traditional Confucian values.

Political non-participation in China, however, has not always been dominant in the 20th century, as Mao’s mass movements indicated. Mao himself explained the complex interplay between direct leadership and mass movement in his concept of democratic dictatorship. The term seems oxymoronic, but Mao’s intended meaning was that the proletariat may live under a democracy while imposing a dictatorship over “the lackeys of imperialism.”[6] Mao calls upon the “working class, the peasant class, the petty bourgeoisie, and the national bourgeoisie”[7] to exercise political participation under essentially a working democracy. Yet he emphasized that state authority, the purpose of which is to help the people oppress hostile reactionaries, cannot be tossed away. Hence, under firm centralized leadership the Chinese can be trained to become free responsible socialists. The founder of China’s first republic, Sun Yat-sen proposed a similar process. Despite moving away from imperial rule, Sun shied away from democracy without first having a period of political tutelage. Sun argued that the Chinese are unused to democratic rule, and “must have a farsighted revolutionary government for their training…Without this,” Sun wrote in A Program of National Reconstruction, “disorder would be unavoidable.”[8] Both Mao and Sun had a Confucian attitude towards leadership to bring political progress to the Chinese. The people must passively agree to be led. They, however, adapted political participation into the traditional framework to combine Western and Chinese political philosophy.

In the past century China’s leaders chose to deal with its unique problems under centralized power. With such a large population and landmass, consolidating power allowed the government to modernize rapidly. Despite China’s rise to modernity, controlling its people by the traditional Confucian tactic of direct leadership and non-participation remains imprinted in China’s political fabric. Modernity, however, favors communication and participation, making mass political movements easy. Balancing the people’s need to participate and the government’s authoritarianism within a central power remains a theme in Chinese politics. Chinese leaders Mao Zedong and Sun Yat-sen both proposed ways to balance these forces. Sun’s political tutelage and Mao’s democratic dictatorship encouraged political participation under authoritarian rule. Yet in a return to Confucian principles, Deng’s legacy of economic progress under firm political control currently stands, countering the same problems of socializing the peasants, modernizing the country, and responding to foreign aggression as leaders throughout the 20th century faced. How China can free itself from its cultural shackles and unpromising historical precedents to achieve political liberalization is the question for the coming decade.

-- Rosie Li (C'11)

Works Cited:

[1] BBC, “Chan’s Remarks Criticised”,
[2] Dr. Siyen Fei's lecture remarks, Hist 097, Spring 2009
[3] Spence, Jonathan. The search for modern China. W W Norton & Co Inc, 1999. Pg. 567
[4] To Live, director Zhang Yi-Mo
[5] Deng Xiaoping in De Bary, Sources of Chinese Tradition. Columbia University Press, 2001. Pg. 492
[6] Mao Zedong in De bary, 424
[7] Ibid. 424
[8] Sun Yat-sen in De bary, 330