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Edmund S. K. Fung, In Search of Chinese Democracy. Civil Opposition in Nationalist China 1929-1949
Edmund S.K. Fungs work examines the thought of liberal Chinese intellectuals and their gradual involvement in political action from 1929 to 1949. He seeks thereby to fill what he perceives to be a gap in contemporary Chinese historiography, which has paid more attention to the emergence of the liberal democratic trend at the very end of the nineteenth century and to its blossoming during the May 4th movement of 1919, than to its repercussions under the dictatorial regime of Chiang Kai-shek, during the decade of Nanking, and at the time of the war of resistance against Japan and the civil war.
In 1929, the starting point of this study, China was already living under the threat of Japanese aggression, which was to increase until the outbreak of open war in 1937. This atmosphere of national crisis seems hardly favourable to the birth of the liberal and democratic values (qimeng) advocated by the heirs of the May 4th movement. But the author attacks the received idea that the then dominant preoccupation with National Salvation (jiuwang) led liberal intellectuals to sacrifice their aspirations and to line up, however unwillingly, behind Chiang Kai-shek, in order not to detract from the effectiveness of government action or compromise the countrys chances of survival.
The qimeng/jiuwang dialectic is more complex than that, according to Fung. National Salvation and liberalism appeared to a number of intellectuals to be complementary rather contradictory goals, and Japanese aggression posed not only the problem of armed resistance but also of the democratisation of the regime. In contrast with their predecessors of May 4th, the liberal intellectuals of the years 1930-40 conceived qimeng less in terms of cultural iconoclasm and struggle against the Confucian tradition than in terms of constitutional reform.
Fung seeks therefore to rehabilitate a school of thought and a political involvement which, because of their failurethe penalty for which was the 1949 revolutionwere deemed insignificant in the eyes of the history and the historians of the second half of the twentieth century, but to which the recent and relative relaxation of the Communist dictatorship in China calls attention once again.
The book falls within the province of intellectual history in the classical sense of the term. It analyses the thinking of a number of authorsHu Shi, Luo Longji, Zhang Junmai, and othersthrough their writings. At the same time it seeks to describe the varying success of attempts by these liberals to enter the political fray, describing the institutions within which they pleaded the cause of democracy, and the parties and groups in which their aspirations took form. This narrative part takes up certain episodeswhich are already familiar and have been dealt with elsewherebut it supports the authors thesis, which seeks to show that these liberals were not the sensitive intellectuals sometimes described but were, on the contrary, capable of entering the field and confronting the dangers of political involvement.
For the purposes of his narrative, Fung distinguishes four chronological stages. From 1929 to 1937, the struggle was above all one of ideas, marked by two great debates, one from 1929 to 1931 on human rights, during which Hu Shi and Luo Longji attacked the one-party system set up by the Nationalist government, another from 1931 to 1935, on democracy and dictatorship, which pitted the liberals, Hu Shi, Chen Zimai, Zhang Dongxun and Zhang Junmai, against the modernising technocrats who favoured a neodictatorship as being in their view the only possibility of speeding up the building of the nation and the transformation of the economy.
During the years 1937 to 1940 the quest for democracy took a less intellectual and more political turn. The danger facing China produced pressure for national union. On the margins of the United Front policy implemented with the Communists, the establishment in 1938 of a Popular Political Council, within which were represented minority groups and parties, as well as prominent members of civil society, made possible the development of some co-operation between government and opposition. This wartime Parliament, as it was known at the time, was not the result of elections but was nonetheless representative of (urban) public opinion and, while it fell short of power sharing, provided a framework for dialogue. The meagre outcome and swift cancellation of the experiment may suggest that it represented nothing more than a public relations exercise, a bone tossed to the opposition, or a mere safety valve for the regime. In Fungs eyes, however, the experiment had value in the prestige of the delegates, the high quality of the debates and the real vigilance exercised over certain government initiatives.
During the years 1941 to 1945, when the Sino-Japanese War had become but one facet of the Second World War, democracy remained on the agenda.
In its neodemocratic version it represented an essential aspect of the United Front strategy implemented by the Communist Party, and the Kuomintang held out the prospect of a democratisation of the regime in order to mollify its American allies and rally the Chinese elites. In Chongqing and in Kunming, to where the major northern universities had withdrawn, teachers and students kept alive the hope that victory over Japan would also be the triumph of democracy.
The foundation of the Democratic League dates from this period. Born in 1941 of the alliance of minority groups and parties, it sought to close the yawning gaps in the United Front and explored the possibility of a Third Way between the Kuomintang and the Communists. With the creation of the League the social opposition completed its transformation into a political force: but the narrowness of its social base, the inexperience of its leaders, and the pervasive militarisation of Chinese political life reduced this force to impotence. The penalty for its inability to act was the failure of the Consultative Political Conference in January 1946, and the return to civil war.
The final chapter, devoted to the period between 1947 and 1949, examines the last movements of liberal thought and describes the painful choicebetween going over to Communism or going into exile which confronted liberal intellectuals.
Alternating between analysis of texts and a chronicle of events, the book sometimes lacks unity and direction, despite the main theme provided by the quest for democracy. It is nonetheless reliable and informative. The author raises worthwhile questions and, without explicitly asserting the existence of Chinese concepts of democracy, he makes us take into account the efforts of a whole generation of Chinese intellectuals to define concepts of democracy and human rights, and to harmonise them with the culture and the real needs of their country.
Translated from the French original by Michael Black