Magazine article New Internationalist

A Short History of Free Speech in China

Magazine article New Internationalist

A Short History of Free Speech in China

Article excerpt

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200 BC

The legacy of Confucius

From 200 BC to the beginning of the 20th century, Chinese statecraft was based on the ideas of Confucius, a political thinker who had lived in the 5th century BC. Confucian thinking stressed ethics. It regarded order and stability as essential to enable people to behave in a moral way. Despising violence and force, it also looked down upon profit and commerce. China did not develop an idea of rights that were inherent and natural to the individual as had arisen in Western Europe. However, the ideally organized Confucian society was supposed to provide social welfare and just treatment. People were expected to know their place - kings ruled over subjects, fathers over children, husbands over wives. The powerful were expected to behave with benevolence and failure to do so could result in forfeiture of power. Of course, the reality was often different. Novertheless, for much of the first two millennia AD, this system allowed a civilization to flourish and a variety of thinkers of many persuasions to debate ideas.

1842

Imperialism and new thinking

China's relations with the outside world changed profoundly in the 19th century as European empires expanded. Britain and China clashed in the Opium War, culminating in the Treaty of Nanjing in 1842 - a humiliating agreement forcing China to open up territory and trading rights to the West. These 'unequal treaties' have not been forgotten even today, and shape debates about free trade and globalization. For most of the next century, portions of Chinese territory were under foreign control. It was often in the imperialist-controlled areas where China's dissidents hid from their own governments and published their radical thoughts.

Imperialism had a profound effect on political thinkers in late 19th and early 20th century China as they encountered liberalism, social Darwinism and Christianity. Yan Fu drew on ideas of evolution to argue that China was a nation struggling against others for survival. Thinkers argued for a greater role for individual rights than in pre-modern China, but also valued collective action. The Qing (pronounced 'ching') dynasty - initially ambivalent about these reforms - swiftly changed tack after various military defeats between 1895 and 1900, and tried to carve out a new role for China as one sovereign state among many. Popular discontent was too great to save the dynasty, and it was swept away in the revolution of 1911. China was officially reconstituted as a modern republic at the start of 1912.

1919

The May Fourth Movement

On 4 May 1919, 3,000 students demonstrated at the Tian'anmen, the gate at the front of the Forbidden City in Beijing (the palace complex of the Ming and Qing dynasties). Incensed at the news that the Treaty of Versailles was not going to hand back former German colonies on Chinese soil, but award them to Japan instead, they burnt down the house of a pro-Japanese government minister. This one demonstration, lasting only a few hours, remains legendary. Called the 'May Fourth Movement', it became shorthand for perhaps the most liberal and fruitful period in modern Chinese history.

Between 1915 and the early 1930s reform-minded Chinese looked in every possible direction for solutions to the twin problems of militarism and imperialism that they felt needed to be overcome to 'save the nation'. The most radical - including members of the fledgling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) - argued that Confucianism was at the root of China's problems and must be utterly rejected. Overall, the era was shaped by a shared agenda among reformers for 'science and democracy'. But the promise of the May Fourth era was dealt a crushing blow by the horrifying Japanese war against China (1937-45), which killed more than 20 million Chinese and hardened political attitudes against pluralism. …

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