Revisiting Chinese History

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"It is difficult for China to produce and develop democratic thinkers or politicians. This is a result of the oppression and devastation of its dictatorial system and an expression of the selfishness and lust for power of Chinese."

So reads a controversial book which has become the talking point of the Chinese intellectual community since its publication in Hong Kong last September.

Chinese History Revisited, written in Chinese, has sold more than 11,000 copies – a large number for such a serious subject – many to mainlanders who have taken it home, where it is banned. The book challenges the conventional wisdom – supported by Emperors, Chiang Kai-shek and the Communists alike -- that China is at its best under a highly centralized government and a powerful ruler.

The opposite is true, argues Xiao Jiansheng. The golden ages of Chinese civilization were the Song dynasty (960-1269 AD) and the Spring & Autumn Period (770-476 BC), where a weak central government allowed a high degree of local autonomy and for civil, intellectual and commercial society to flourish.

The centralized and violent imperial system introduced by Emperor Qin Shi Huang when he unified China in 221 BC and followed by most dynasties since, including the Communists, has been a curse for China, Xiao says. It has stifled civil rights, intellectual development and human diversity.

The lack of religious faith, especially Protestantism, has also been a great misfortune because it left China's rulers with no moral compass or restraint and exposed individuals to their greed and caprice, he charges.

These are the controversial conclusions of a tightly argued book of 450 pages by a previously unknown author that was first published in January 2007 by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing. Copies were on their way to a book exhibition when the Ministry of Propaganda stepped in and banned it. Xiao has worked as a reporter and editor at the Hunan Daily in Changsha for over 30 years, mainly covering economic news.

Last August, Bao Pu, the son of Bao Tong, the highest-ranking government official to be imprisoned after the Tiananmen Square massacre, and the publisher of New Century Press in Hong Kong, read a copy of the book and decided to publish it.

"I don't know how the Public Security Bureau found out that I was about to publish Xiao's book, but they visited the management of the Hunan Daily and told them that I planned to disrupt the celebrations for the 60th anniversary of the PRC. How would I be able to do such a thing? The managers were very nervous," Bao Pu said.

Xiao turned in a copy of the book and a resignation letter to the chief editor. Having read the book, the editor could find no good reason which it should be banned and decided to back Xiao. He gave him back the letter and said that if people objected to the opinions it contained, they could write a book refuting them.

In January, after receiving official approval, Xiao came to Hong Kong for five days and bought dozens of history books. To keep a low profile, Bao arranged no meetings with the media, Chinese or English.

"During his visit, Xiao commented that he was able to say in Hong Kong things he could not say in the mainland. This was proof of the benefits of devolution of power," Bao said.

Born of the Tujia minority in 1955 in Fenghuang, a remote county in Hunan, Xiao wrote his first treatise at the age of 19, 'The Destiny and Future of China', which he sent to the People's Daily in Beijing. It sent it back and ordered the police to interrogate him.

Although senior officials in Hunan ultimately protected him from arrest, Xiao was put on a blacklist. As a result, although he received exceptionally high grades in the national university entrance exam of 1977, he could not gain admission into a major university. He then joined Hunan Daily.

He wrote a biography of Xiong Xiling (1867-1937), like him a native of Fenghuang, a high official of the Qing dynasty who became Prime Minister and Finance Minister of the Republic of China from June 1913 to February 1914. Xiong's dramatic life included senior posts in charitable organizations. The government also banned this book. Xiao has also written books on stocks and other economic topics, which were published.

Chinese History Revisited covers a period of 3,000 years. For Xiao, its apex is the Song dynasty.

"It protected private property, aggressively promoted industry and commerce, was open to the outside world and promoted urbanization. This led to unprecedented growth in the market economy and made it the most advanced country in the world, 200 years ahead of the west," he said.

"It implemented peaceful development and protected human rights and showed many characteristics of modern civilization. It nurtured diversity, creativity and the development of thinking, culture, science, religion and education. Half of the great Chinese inventions in history occurred during the Song dynasty – including gunpowder, printing, paper money and the compass. Shipbuilding, sea transport, pharmaceuticals and agriculture developed in an unprecedented way," he said.

The Song was overthrown by the Mongol Yuan dynasty in 1260. "From the start of the Yuan dynasty, the rulers of China started a reversal of history." The dynasties that followed were characterized by despotic rulers, highly centralized power, widespread use of violence and disregard for personal freedom and property.

"Since the imposition of imperial absolutism and centralized government in the Qin dynasty, China has not produced the democratic politicians of ancient times, nor the great thinkers like Laozi, Confucius and Mencius. Quite the opposite – totalitarian society has produced many despotic and violent rulers and corrupt officials and brought China into a great dark age."

In the modern era, China had opportunities to break this mould and form a federal state with more respect for individual liberties, he said.

Xiao praises Chen Jiongming (1878-1933), a revolutionary leader from Guangdong who advocated a multi-party federal state, with Guangdong as the model province.

"A system of federal autonomy does not mean dividing the country but uniting it on the basis of peace, freedom and federalism. It opposes using violence to achieve unification and the setting up of a central, dictatorial government."

Xiao argues that the movement for federalism in the second two decades of the 20th century represented a unique opportunity to transform the political culture of China. The model for the federalists was the United States, to divide power between the center and the provinces, set up three separate branches of the government, hold democratic elections and separate the party from the government and the army.

"On this basis, the country could have been peacefully reunited and set up a permanent federal system. But opponents wrongly branded it as 'separatist'. Sun Yat-sen and the Nationalist party, together with the foreign powers, launched a war to unite the country by violence."

The Northern Expedition of 1926-1928 led to the unification of most of China in 1928.

A former ally of Sun, Chen fled to Hong Kong in 1925. He was reviled by both the Nationalists and the Communists as a 'warlord' and 'counter-revolutionary', before he died from typhus in September, 1933.

Xiao argues that China missed another golden opportunity in 1946 when representatives from the Nationalist, Communist and other political parties gathered in Chongqing for a political consultative conference, just after the end of World War Two.

It proposed a constitutional and democratic government, with two elected chambers, a cabinet, autonomy for provinces and the army under government, not party control. "By guaranteeing the human rights of Chinese, it moved toward the foundations of modern civilization.

"Unfortunately, the Kuomintang and Nationalists decided to use violence to settle the issue, throwing away the last opportunity in the 20th century for China to move toward a democratic government and changing its civilization. No matter who won, it was only a victory for individuals and a party, not the citizens of the country. The civil war that followed World War Two was the greatest tragedy in the history of the Chinese nation."