AAS Annual Meeting

China and Inner Asia Session 758

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Session 758: Politics After the Emperors: Reexamining Democratic Politics in the Late Qing-Early Republican China

Organizer: Xiaowei Zheng, University of California, Santa Barbara, USA

Chair: Joseph W. Esherick, University of California, San Diego, USA

Discussants: Joseph W. Esherick, University of California, San Diego, USA; Kaiyuan Zhang, Independent Scholar, China

Because the 1911 Revolution marked the end of dynastic China, scholars have long viewed the late Qing-early Republican era as the dawn of a new political age. However, what did this era bring to Chinese people politically? What is the nature of the late Qing-early Republican political transformation? How do scholars view the legacies of this transformation? Using newly-available historical sources, this panel seeks to reexamine issues of democratic politics and practices during this pivotal period. First, in her study of the Sichuan Railway Protection Movement, Zheng investigate the creation, concretization, and propagandization of democratic political culture on the eve of the revolution. Then, Hill analyzes the discourse of “campaigning for office” both before and after 1911, arguing that popular discussion of elections was characterized by a tension between an embrace of democracy as a concept and disgust at democracy as a practice. Finally, Fitzgerald assesses changes in local administration from the late Qing to the early Republic and notes the impact of new political ideals in the selection of county magistrates. Joseph Esherick, a scholar of Chinese revolutions, will provide a comparative perspective on the papers. Prominent Chinese historian Zhang Kaiyuan will also comment on the papers, bringing a perspective based on recent Chinese-language historiography. Taken as a whole, the scholarship represented on this panel marks a new trend in rethinking the significance of China’s early twentieth century experiment with limited democracy.

Democratic Political Culture and Its Practice in the Sichuan Railway Protection Movement
Xiaowei Zheng, University of California, Santa Barbara, USA

From May to December in 1911, a mass movement took place in Sichuan, an inland province of China. After the court announced the policy of nationalizing the privately-owned Chuan-Han Railway Company and the decision to incur foreign loans to pay for it, the entire province was in action. Drawing upon archival sources, dairies, memoirs, transcripts of meetings, propaganda pamphlets and newspapers, I argue that at the core of this revolutionary experience was the emergence of a new democratic political culture, despite its failures and weakness. What I see in this movement is the invention of a new rhetoric and new political repertoires (mass media, demonstrations, public meetings, speeches and revolutionary pamphlets). The rhetoric centered on the issue of “quan,” which included both political rights and economic rights. The new democratic political culture was made possible by contradictions in the old regime’s political culture, but it only took definitive shape in the midst of revolution, when it was given voice and form by a new political class, which itself was molded by its responses to new ideas and new symbols. After 1911, the old, bureaucratic imperial political culture was abandoned in favor of a popular republicanism in which elected assemblymen, students, intellectuals, and other local elites collaborated and competed in creating a new polity and a new understanding of the Chinese nation. I finish by analyzing the impact of this new democratic political culture on China’s subsequent political development.

Chinese Elections and the Discourse of “Campaigning for Office,” 1909-1913
Joshua B. Hill, Ohio University, USA

Between 1909 and 1927, Chinese governments hoped to demonstrate their own popular legitimacy by holding frequent elections for local, provincial, and national legislatures. Although the institutions produced by these elections proved too fragile to govern effectively, the elections themselves had a profound impact on the Chinese public’s political consciousness. By analyzing early twentieth century Chinese elections as intellectual and cultural phenomena, my paper moves beyond earlier scholarly treatments of Chinese elections, which have focused mainly on the social composition and political behavior of those elected to office. My paper argues that popular discussion of elections was characterized by a tension between an embrace of democracy as a concept and disgust at democracy as a practice. Drawing on little-used editorials, political cartoons, and serialized fiction published in a variety of major and minor newspapers in Jiangsu province, I contend that the dominant popular expectation was that elections could act as catalysts for community consensus and harmony. This expectation, however, was undermined by the spectacle of candidates openly “campaigning [yundong]” for office; newspaper editorialists blamed “campaigning”—which referred to a hodgepodge of different practices intended to manipulate public opinion—for rendering community consensus impossible and thus undermining the will of the people. My paper analyzes the creation and spread of the discourse of “campaigning” during the Qing-sponsored elections in 1909 and the new Republic of China’s elections in 1912-13. I conclude by examining this discourse’s legacy for elections held under the subsequent Nationalist and Communist governments.

County Government in the Imperial-Republican Transition: the Case of Guangdong
John Fitzgerald, Ford Foundation, USA

The publication of revised county gazetteers in the 1990s has expanded the possibilities for research into local administration during the Qing-Republic transition. One subject deserving particular attention is the selection and role of county magistrates. County Magistrates or Heads (xianzhang) of the Republican era have received little attention relative to their counterparts (zhixian) in the late imperial period. This paper offers a discursive account of developments in the role and character of county governments from the late imperial to republican eras, along with statistical charts of appointments and dismissals of county magistrates in republican Guangdong, and a provisional analysis linking the political history of Guangdong to patterns of appointment and dismissal of local government officials.