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Chinese Democracy Movements - Sample Historical Analysis Term Paper

This example East Asian History term paper looks at the evolution of democracy movements in Modern China. This final course essay uses historical research to build a persuasive argument that the Chinese vision of "democracy" is far different from how Westerners approach the term. The essay uses a strong organizational structure to methodically build its case and persuade the reader why the Chinese consider their form of government a "democratic" system. It would be a useful reference for a student who wants to examine a historical theme and apply it in a manner that the reader will enjoy.

The People's fight - The struggle for democratic ideals in the 20th Century

Most people do not associate "democracy" with Communist China. Instead, they think of Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution and the 1989 quelling of student protestors in Tiananmen Square. But while China does not have a republican system like the United States, its citizens have continually struggled for democratic ideals like the freedom of speech, press and assembly. Throughout the 20th century, the Chinese have fought for democratic freedoms in the face of oppression, stressed the importance of equality in society and politics and argued that China's government is a true democracy that respects the people's rights.

In the early 20th century, Chinese revolutionaries struggled against oppressive regimes that restricted democratic principles like freedom of the speech and assembly. The 1919 May Fourth Movement was one of the first examples of such struggle. According to Deng Yingchao's "The Spirit of the May Fourth Movement," students "emphatically refused to become slaves to foreign powers" (360) but were "denied expressing their patriotic views" by the "reactionary Northern warlord government" (361). This protest was one of the first instances in which people took to the street en masse. Because students were exposed to "new European ideas and culture" as well as Marxist-Leninist theories after World War I (361), they were not going to put up with an oppressive government. When the warlords began to silence protestors, the students began to fight for their essential rights as well. Deng explains that by resisting, students struggled for "freedom of assembly and association; the right to express one's political views; and freedom of the press" (361). When they realized that the warlord government refused to let them speak out, students realized that "freedom and democratic rights could not be gained without a fierce struggle" (362) and continued to demonstrate against the warlords' policies. While the government eventually cracked down on the protests, the May Fourth Movement was the catalyst for further Chinese resistance against oppressive regimes.

Several years later, the Shanghai General Labor Union used similar reasoning to strike. Its leaders believed that the masses were oppressed by "the rule of feudal warlords," (379) who denied workers rights like the freedom to assemble and a fair wage. According to the "The General Strike" article, the leaders of the General Labor Union believed the Shanghai government should establish "a government that truly protects the welfare of the people" and allow workers to "hold meetings, to form associations, and to strike, as well as freedom of speech and freedom of the press" (380). While the warlords thought that "the workers of Shanghai [wanted] to form a labor government" the union leaders insisted they wanted a "citizens' government, a democratic government under the Republic" (383). This desire for better rights illustrated how "the working class was determined to revolt against imperialism" (379) and was ready to fight for "freedom and liberation" (380). By struggling for better working conditions, the workers demonstrated "the strength of the revolutionary masses" and reinforced "the common people's fight for political power" (378). Though the strikes eventually ended, the leaders believed that their "call for returning to work [was] not a retreat, but a preparation for a greater struggle" (384). Indeed, the union leaders' words would foreshadow China's fight for survival a decade later.

In the midst of a war with Imperial Japan, China's leaders called on the people to fight for the country's democratic identity. In a 1939 speech to Guomindang committees, Chiang Kai-Shek insisted that China was "fighting this war for our national existence and for freedom to follow the course of national revolution" (401). To Chiang, the war with Japan was not simply about territorial conquest - it was a fight between imperialism and republicanism. China was fighting against a power that threatened a society in which "concord between the government and people" (403) existed. Unlike previous regimes which were not concerned with the "the happiness and welfare of the common people," China's latest government - "republican in form and revolutionary in spirit" according to Chiang - was "fully aware of its responsibilities" (402) to protect the lives of its citizens. Chiang's government would not fall like previous regimes which were brought down by "the weaknesses of a few officials" (402). Instead, the Republic of China, led by the Guomindang, "had no fear of bullying aggressors" (402) and would not fall to Japan's "mongrel civilization" (403). By appealing to the people's nationalism, Chiang hoped that their "unity and determination will increase with every day of the struggle" (404) and that Japan would eventually be defeated by republican China's "new and fervent national spirit" (402). China's struggle for survival during the war years would serve as a model for protests near the end of the 20th century.

In 1989, students once again rose up and demanded that the government respect their natural rights. Elements of the Communist government, like the warlords and Japanese before them, were portrayed as an oppressive force that stifled the people's right to speak out against government policy. Students believed that the government's decision to take control of the media was a "shameless warlord manner" (498) that had to be resisted. Protestors were outraged that the government was trying to "deceive and poison people's minds" and "not [allowing] the people to speak the truth" (498). However, much like the Shanghai Workers' revolt several decades earlier, the student protestors only wanted to reform the government, not replace it. Students were frustrated that rights like freedom of demonstration while "granted by the Constitution" had to be "approved by some aristocrats" (499). They explained that they did not "desire to plunge the world into chaos" but instead "push forward the process of reform and democratization to try and obtain for the people the most practical benefits possible" (497). Members of the Communist Party agreed with the students. Students party members explained that ""the honor of the Communist party . . . has been sullied today by their [opposition to] democratization and to [the installation of a] rule of law" (499). The student protestors believed that if the government pushed forward with reforms, the "privileged class" (496) of "bureaucrats" (497) would be more accountable to the people. The resistance struck a nerve - much like the May Fourth Movement, the government decided to use force to end the protests. But while the government triumphed, the students that were killed achieved martyr-like status - they gave their lives for freedom.

In addition to fighting for personal freedoms, the Chinese also struggled for social equality. Deng Yingchao's writings on the May Fourth Movement of 1919 explain that "at first, we women did not dare give speeches on the street due to the feudal attitudes that then existed in China" (361). Women were long considered subservient to men in matters outside the home. However, the "women's liberation movement was greatly enhanced by the May Fourth Movement," (363) according to Deng. As people struggled against the oppressive warlord regime for democratic freedoms, women realized they too could struggle for better rights. Women demanded sexual equality, freedom of marriage and job opportunities as they fought for a new China (363). But the fight for equality was not easy. Deng explains that "some of the women were hesitant" about joining the women's liberation movement at first because they were afraid that "public opinion would be against it" (363). However, the desire to fight for a stronger China allowed women and men to work together as equals. Male and female student unions merged, which let students of both genders to work together and "overcome all obstacles" (363) to equality. Women were especially proud of their work - "we knew we were pioneers among Chinese women to show that women are not inferior to men," (363) Deng writes. These early equality movements helped pave the way for greater women's rights in the latter half of the 20th century.

After the Japanese were defeated in World War II, China promoted political equality with Korea and ethnic minorities. Chiang Kai-Shek hoped that "the Chinese government and people should resolve with noble, sincere, and firm determination never to imitate the way of Japan towards Korea" (405). Chiang believed that China's struggle against Japan would have been worthless if China did not let Korea have its freedom. "All talk of national independence and freedom would be useless" (405) if China mirrored Japan's imperialist policies, Chiang said. After all, "China had been strong for several thousand years without affecting the existence of Korea" and "China's traditional policy has been to aid the weak and to support the falling, to live and to let live" (404). Chiang believed that China should promote equality with other states and ethnic groups instead of subjugating them. He explained that China should "help [these groups] achieve national independence through self-determination, freedom, and equality on the Asian continent in the bright light of total victory" (405). If China wants to become stronger, Chiang explained that it "should accord the large and small ethnic groups inside the provinces legal and political equality" (406). To this effect, Chiang addressed the ethnic minorities in Outer Mongolia and Tibet. Chiang granted the Mongolians independence, because to do otherwise would "tend to increase friction between ethnic groups and jeopardize our entire program of national reconstruction" (405). While Chiang did not give Tibet independence, he expressed hope that if the Tibetans "fulfill the economic requirement for independence" the government would "help them to gain that status" so long as Tibet can "give proof that it can consolidate its independent position and protect its continuity" (406). In the meantime, Tibet was granted "a very high degree of autonomy, to aid its political advancement and improve the living conditions of Tibetans" (406). Such policies remained intact even when Chiang's government was overthrown; the Communist Party has tried to give ethnic minorities equal status, at the very least for maintaining an image of socialism in action.

But while the Chinese have fought for democratic equality and individual freedoms, they remain skeptical of "Western-style" democracy. In the article "Defending China's Socialist Democracy," the People's Daily newspaper in 1990 denounced the idea that "the capitalist system is more democratic than the socialist system instead of the other way around" (501). The newspaper explains that American elections are "elections of money" and that "only the rich can afford such huge expenditures" needed to run for office (502). The People's Daily explains that elections are run this way so that "the fundamental interests of the possessing class should be protected or left unharmed" (501). In addition, the article notes that America's "bourgeois democracy" (501) has "trampled upon human rights at home" and "frequently acted as the world military police" (502). Such actions hardly make America "the beacon of the world" (501). The writers most likely drew their negative perceptions of Western democracy and culture from prior Chinese visits to America. For instance, Liang Qichao described the extreme "unequal distribution of wealth" (336) that existed in New York when he visited it in 1903. Such unequal distribution was personified by the "monster" (337) trusts like Rockefeller's Standard Oil. Liang was astounded that "less than half of the world's total capital is now in the hands of this tiny number of trust barons" (337). Liang also abhorred America's lynching of blacks - a phenomenon "unimaginable among civilized countries" (337) Liang said - and the wanton stealing of library books, a sign of America's "general level of public morality" (338). While Americans may have superficial freedom, Liang warned that "adopting a democratic system of government now . . . would be nothing less than committing national suicide" (339). For Chinese writers, the adoption of capitalism and Western-style democracy would lead to a corruption of public and national values.

But while the Chinese have fought for democratic equality and individual freedoms, they remain skeptical of "Western-style" democracy. In the article "Defending China's Socialist Democracy," the People's Daily newspaper in 1990 denounced the idea that "the capitalist system is more democratic than the socialist system instead of the other way around" (501). The newspaper explains that American elections are "elections of money" and that "only the rich can afford such huge expenditures" needed to run for office (502). The People's Daily explains that elections are run this way so that "the fundamental interests of the possessing class should be protected or left unharmed" (501). In addition, the article notes that America's "bourgeois democracy" (501) has "trampled upon human rights at home" and "frequently acted as the world military police" (502). Such actions hardly make America "the beacon of the world" (501). The writers most likely drew their negative perceptions of Western democracy and culture from prior Chinese visits to America. For instance, Liang Qichao described the extreme "unequal distribution of wealth" (336) that existed in New York when he visited it in 1903. Such unequal distribution was personified by the "monster" (337) trusts like Rockefeller's Standard Oil. Liang was astounded that "less than half of the world's total capital is now in the hands of this tiny number of trust barons" (337). Liang also abhorred America's lynching of blacks - a phenomenon "unimaginable among civilized countries" (337) Liang said - and the wanton stealing of library books, a sign of America's "general level of public morality" (338). While Americans may have superficial freedom, Liang warned that "adopting a democratic system of government now . . . would be nothing less than committing national suicide" (339). For Chinese writers, the adoption of capitalism and Western-style democracy would lead to a corruption of public and national values.

Nearly 60 years after the Communist Revolution, China is now a force to be reckoned with on the world scene. But while some people may look down on China because it is not a liberal state, Western nations should examine how China continually struggled for democratic ideals throughout the 20th century. Doing so proves that China and the West share common ideals - a fact that could lead to a more peaceful world.

Works Cited
"Liang Qichao On His Trip To America." Chinese Civilization, A Sourcebook Ed.  Patricia Buckley Ebrey. New York: The Free Press, 1993. 335-340.
 
"The Spirit of the May Fourth Movement." Chinese Civilization, A Sourcebook Ed.  Patricia Buckley Ebrey. New York: The Free Press, 1993. 360-363.
 
"The General Strike." Chinese Civilization, A Sourcebook Ed. Patricia Buckley Ebrey.  New York: The Free Press, 1993. 378-384.
 
"Generalissimo Jiang on National Identity." Chinese Civilization, A Sourcebook Ed.  Patricia Buckley Ebrey. New York: The Free Press, 1993. 401-406.
 
"Posters Calling for Democracy." Chinese Civilization, A Sourcebook Ed. Patricia  Buckley Ebrey. New York: The Free Press, 1993. 496-500.
 
"Defending China's Socialist Democracy." Chinese Civilization, A Sourcebook Ed.  Patricia Buckley Ebrey. New York: The Free Press, 1993. 501-504.
 
2,331 words, 9 pages
 

 
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