Two Chinese Rulers Making the Same History?

By Owen, Wu | History Today, February 1993 | Go to article overview

Two Chinese Rulers Making the Same History?


Owen, Wu, History Today


As Chinese rulers 'behind the screens', the Dowager Empress Ci Xi of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) and the present 'Supreme Helmsman', Deng Xiaoping, seem to be poles apart. Ci Xi has gone down in Chinese history as a notorious conservative, while Deng retains a certain reputation for China's current economic reforms. Nevertheless in reality both figures have contributed to the same history. They both permitted two significant advances towards modernisation in Chinese Society, but suppressed the two attendant movements of radical reform and democracy.

The first period of advance, or rather, a movement of Westernisation took place between 1862 and 1894, largely during the period of Ci Xi's dominance. During this time, schools were created for the study of foreign languages, students were sent to study abroad, Western technology and industrialisation were introduced, a modern navy and customs system were set up and the first Chinese foreign service office introduced.

The second period of advance was the reform and opening to the West in the 1980s under Deng's supremacy. During that time China moved towards a market economy and Western technology, management and culture was introduced to a significant extent in a second movement of Westernisation. However, there are other darker parallels - between the fate of the reform of 1898 and the democratic movement of 1989.

In 1895, participants in the imperial examinations at Beijing submitted a written statement to the authority of the Qing, appealing for a politico-social reform. Though their petition was refused, some of the radicals continued to urge upon the rulers the importance of the reform. Soon the young emperor was influenced, being concerned about the nation falling behind the times. Under this impetus reforms got underway in 1898, their main purposes being to adopt Western learning in education, to develop a capitalist economy and to establish a constitutional government.

Unfortunately, the reforms were resisted by hardliners. Ci Xi, stirred by them, undertook operations of suppression with the aid of the Imperial military leaders. With a coup, some of the participants in the reform were killed, some fled the country and some were dismissed from office; and the emperor was confined to his palace until a decade later when he died mysteriously - the day before Ci Xi's own death in November 1908, leading to speculation that he was killed either on her orders or at the hands of hardliners.

Now, the people keep a watchful eye on the fate of the emperor's modern counterpart, Zhao Ziyang, the former premier and a radical reformer, who, since Deng ordered the army to suppress the democratic movement in June of 1989, has been placed under house arrest. Will he be able to survive personally and politically the senile Deng's ultimate demise? Zhao remains a hidden threat to Deng and the hardliners of the Communist Party in particular, not least because of his potential to mobilise world opinion, concerned about his fate. …

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