The “Arab Spring” of 2011 and the “Chinese Spring” of 1911

The op-ed page of The Lakeville Journal has won the top prize for op-ed pages of 2011 at the New England Newspaper and Press Association (NENPA); I am pleased that one of my columns was at the top of the award-winning page. That one was about the Arab Spring of 2011, and a cautionary antecedent, the Chinese democracy uprising of 1911.


“Well Doctor, what have we got — a monarchy or a republic?” Ben Franklin was asked by a female onlooker on the last day of the American constitutional convention in 1787. “A republic, if you can keep it,” Franklin responded.

Maintaining a republic, of course, is the true problem; and it was on display, recently, as in Warsaw, President Obama pledged, along with some European nations, a substantial sum of money to support the emergence of democratic institutions in the countries that have awakened in the Arab Spring. While in Poland the president also commemorated the “Polish Spring” uprisings of the late 1980s that led to the downfall of Communism in Soviet Union and its satellite states – as though that is the model for what should happen in Tunisia and Egypt, perhaps even in Libya, Syria, and Yemen, should they throw off authoritarianism.

But Poland’s emergence as a democratic republic in the wake of a popular uprising is the exception, not the rule.
Much more relevant and common are historical uprisings that presented a moment of happiness – and of opportunity – for democracy and capitalism, but that soon disappeared. One that has been all but forgotten in the modern world, but whose failure is instructive, is the attempt at instituting democracy in mainland China, begun in 1911.

It would be nice to be able to call it the “Chinese Spring,” but it actually began in the fall, and lasted about eighteen months. In a half-dozen provinces in southern China, revolutionaries led by the American-trained medical doctor, Sun Yat-Sen, and the charismatic newspaper editor, Song Jiaoren, succeeded in a rebellion. It had two bases: one, a pledge to unite China’s five ethnic groups (the majority Hans, and the minority Manchus, Mongols, Tibetans, and Muslims) under one banner, and to let all have a share in ruling. The second base was Sun’s principles, modeled on Abraham Lincoln’s “government of the people, by the people, and for the people.” This promise enthralled a Chinese populace that had been under the dominion of the Qing Empire for nearly three centuries, and under other emperors for 4,000 years prior to that.

In a moment when the Qing were torn between the conservatives loyal to the dowager queen, and the more liberal elements of the regent, there was some space for a genuine revolution. It was led more by Song than by Sun. Song Jiaoren, pledged to representative democracy, set about convincing Beijing to institute it. His main enemy, the Qing’s man Yüan Shi-kai, was a good general and a fierce administrator, but when he realized that the government’s scattered forces could not immediately defeat the rebels, he offered Song a deal: Yüan would become the president of a republic, in exchange for overthrowing the monarchy and for instituting democratic elections for a legislature that would share power with the executive. Song agreed. Sun Yat-Sen was off in America, raising campaign funds.

On February 12, 1912, the last Qing emperor, an under-aged boy, abdicated, the regent went into internal exile, and the Republic of China was declared. Elections were scheduled for the end of the year. Still, Yüan grumbled, “I am a president who presides over nothing and commands nothing,” and chafed under a constitution he found too restrictive. Nonetheless, for the rest of the year, the country was caught up in election fever, with public debates, editorials, and the like. The results astounded everyone when they were announced in February 1913. The Nationalists won 269 out of 596 seats in the lower house, and 123 out of 274 in the upper, and would be in power. It was clear that the 32-year-old Song would become the country’s premier. But on March 20, 1914, Yüan had Song Jiaoren assassinated.

After that, without effective top leadership, the Nationals were quickly run off. Authority was stripped from the legislature. Yüan used money from a five-power foreign consortium to pay warlord armies to best the Nationalists’ forces in battle. By October of 1913, Sun Yat-Sen had retreated to Japan, to begin once more his revolutionary quest. Within another year, Yüan Shi-kai tried to become emperor himself. When he died in 1916, without having accomplished that last goal, warlord control of China returned with a vengeance, and held sway through the 1920s, the 1930s, and until 1949 and the Communists’ victory in the long Chinese civil war.

— Tom Shachtman