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Why Do China's Reforms All Fail? This Has Happened Throughout Her Long History. Why?
The Diplomat ^ | 06/03 | By Yang Hengjun

Posted on 06/03/2014 8:47:20 AM PDT by SeekAndFind

Compared with the “revolutions” (peasant uprisings, armed rebellions, palace coups, etc.) that toppled dynasties in Chinese history, the goal of “reform” has been the exact opposite: to perpetuate the dynasty. Ordinary people have roughly the same impression of “revolution” and “reform” as instruments of “change.” But actually, in the 2000-year history of China, there has been one purpose for reform: avoiding change. Reform is used to keep the existing system in place. In Chinese history, “reform” and “revolution” alternated over time. Revolutions often succeeded, and so China became the country with the most peasant uprisings and dynastic changes in the world. But few reforms were successful.

From a modern perspective, almost all reforms in Chinese history can be classified as “failures”: from Shang Yang’s reforms in the state of Qin to the rule of Emperors Wen and Jing in the Han dynasty; from Wang Mang seizing power to Wang Anshi’s Song dynasty reforms; from the Ming and Qing dynasty decision to shut China off from foreign contact to the Westernization movement during the late Qing… None of these movements can really be called successful. Worse, the reformers themselves generally met tragic ends.

Why is this? To simplify, there are three common factors. First, as opposed to other reforms recorded in world history, almost all of China’s reforms were done purely for the benefit of the ruler (the emperor). The reforms adjusted the ruler’s policies on how to control the people, how to manage the four classes (scholars, peasants, artisans and merchants), how to exploit the peasants’ land, and how to fill the treasury with taxes. None of the reforms touched on philosophies of holding power, or the methods of governance, much less centered around public interests.

China’s reformers saw the interests of the common people as objects of reform, rather than reforming the regime in order to benefit the people. As a result, these reforms never touched the ruling dynasty, but only caused power struggles between the interest groups involved. Compared to revolutions (which are either loved or feared), the people were generally indifferent to “reform.” And reforms without public support fail utterly once they encounter counterattacks from interest groups and opposition parties. For the common people, the failure of the reforms was nothing to mourn.

Second, many vigorous reforms in Chinese history had one thing in common: The reformers were not the highest ruler (the emperor). Many had been (provisionally) selected by the emperor to act as pioneers for the reforms — and as scapegoats when reforms failed. Reformers like Shang Yang, Wang Anshi and the late Qing Westernization school all suffered this fate. The people who held supreme power were usually governing from behind the scenes. They maintained a certain distance from the reform, which left plenty of room to maneuver. If the reforms succeed, those in charge will take the credit; if the reforms fail, they will sacrifice the reformers. Under these circumstances, the reforms would be half-hearted from the beginning — so much for “top-down” reforms. By contrast, the series of reforms conducted directly by Emperor Wu in the Han dynasty and by Tang dynasty emperors were more effective.

Third, all the reforms in Chinese history aimed to perpetuate the current system, rather than changing the existing regime. Some reforms failed, and the reformers were dismembered (like Shang Yang) or died in disgrace (Wang Anshi). But even then, leaders kept the parts of the reform policies that could help maintain the existing system, turning the reforms into cogs in the authoritarian machine.

Those reform measures that served to consolidate centralized authority often succeeded. For example, the state monopolies on salt and iron created by Guan Zhong in the 7th century BCE have a parallel today in the state oil monopoly. However, ideas like the separation of powers and equal distribution of wealth (which the common people cared more about) were often hijacked by interest groups or abruptly halted by the emperor. As a result, vigorous reform movements in China, no matter how significant their policies were at the start, withered away. After a few decades, the reforms had been reduced to nothing but tools to help exploit the people and control the opinions of citizens.

Of course, the biggest problem encountered by Chinese reform movements is that there’s no way to change the system itself, which has lasted for 2,000 years. All you can do is make it more perfect, more refined — and more evil. In this sense, all reforms in China’s 2,000-year history had no chance of succeeding, and we should be thankful they failed.

Today, many scholars say that if Sun Yat-sen had not been in such a hurry to create a revolution, then the Qing dynasty’s constitutional reform could have succeeded. They have a rich scholarly imagination, but lack literary imagination: Can you imagine a scenario where, from the Qin to the Qing, institutional reforms succeeded? Everyone in China would have a “Manchu queue” and would kowtow every morning, yelling “Long live the Aisin Gioro clan!”

Whether reforms can be successful is related to whether the system can change, and whether the authorities are willing to change the system to pursue a higher goal… Looking at China’s current reforms from the perspective of Chinese history, there’s good reason to be pessimistic. But we shouldn’t say that there’s no hope or no way forward. The reformers should learn from China’s history. Reform needs to be “top-down” and backed by the strong determination of the core leadership. At the same time, the reformers should begin by placing the people’s interests, the future of the nation, and national security as their highest goals. They should avoid only caring about the interests of those in power or the concerns of interest groups.

These things are precisely what China’s historical reformers did not do, and were not willing to do. If in the 21st century, rulers still hold the same thoughts and ideas as those reformers in history. If they do not boldly seek to reform the system for the benefit of the nation and the people but try to maintain the existing system, then they shouldn’t even try to reform. Otherwise, even if the reforms don’t fail, they will bring chaos, and could hasten the arrival of revolution.

This piece originally appeared in Chinese on Yang Hengjun’s blog. The original post can be found here.

Yang Hengjun is a Chinese independent scholar, novelist, and blogger. He once worked in the Chinese Foreign Ministry and as a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington, DC. Yang received his Ph.D. from the University of Technology, Sydney in Australia. His Chinese language blog is featured on major Chinese current affairs and international relations portals and his pieces receive millions of hits. Yang’s blog can be accessed at


TOPICS: History; Society
KEYWORDS: china; reforms

1 posted on 06/03/2014 8:47:20 AM PDT by SeekAndFind
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To: SeekAndFind
Top-down never works.

Bottom-up is the only thing that works.

But there's no power over other people in bottom-up.

2 posted on 06/03/2014 8:52:16 AM PDT by E. Pluribus Unum ("The more numerous the laws, the more corrupt the government." --Tacitus)
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To: SeekAndFind

3 posted on 06/03/2014 8:53:38 AM PDT by BenLurkin (This is not a statement of fact. It is either opinion or satire; or both.)
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To: E. Pluribus Unum

It works OK in small countries, but not in giant ones.

4 posted on 06/03/2014 8:57:19 AM PDT by proxy_user
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To: SeekAndFind

This would appear to be the chink in China’s armor.

5 posted on 06/03/2014 9:02:00 AM PDT by MIchaelTArchangel (Have a wonderful day!)
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To: MIchaelTArchangel

“...the chink in China’s armor....”

You know... that was REALLY funny....!

6 posted on 06/03/2014 9:06:10 AM PDT by NFHale (The Second Amendment - By Any Means Necessary.)
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To: TigersEye


7 posted on 06/03/2014 9:10:27 AM PDT by Army Air Corps (Four Fried Chickens and a Coke)
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To: proxy_user

Maybe there should be no giant countries.

8 posted on 06/03/2014 9:19:19 AM PDT by E. Pluribus Unum ("The more numerous the laws, the more corrupt the government." --Tacitus)
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To: Army Air Corps


9 posted on 06/03/2014 9:31:57 AM PDT by SeekAndFind
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To: MIchaelTArchangel

Dude. Rude.

10 posted on 06/03/2014 9:33:25 AM PDT by Black Agnes
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To: SeekAndFind

There is another explanation. While traditional Chinese thought revolved around the five elements; the emperors were associated at birth and raised with the idea of the four symbols.

These four, the Azure Dragon, the Vermilion Bird, the White Tiger, and the Black Turtle, also represented the four seasons. Spring was a time of renewal, summer was of the ripening of the new, fall represented the decay, and winter was associated with flooding and death.

Raised with their particular season in mind, emperors were guided to exhibit the seasonal cycles in their behavior. If they did, their orders were promptly carried out, but if they went against their programming, their orders would be ignored of carried out poorly.

So the purpose of the spring emperor would be to rebuild China from scratch. Everything brand new. His successor, the summer emperor, would fine tune everything so that it was working efficiently.

The third emperor in the cycle was the ‘degenerate’ emperor, who would draw the government into Peking, and let the country fall apart through neglect. And his successor was the winter, water emperor, who would tear down everything, usually at the cost of many lives, so to again make China a ‘blank slate’ for his successor, the new spring emperor.

The last emperor was a degenerate emperor, and everyone expected Mao to behave like a murderous water emperor, and eventually he did.

But what does “reform” mean in this context?

The Confucian mindset was so rigid that every physical object in the winter palace was not just numbered, but had an indicator on it for the direction it was to face.

From their point of view, everything was fine as long as everything was in its place. Reform was just to keep everything the same.

11 posted on 06/03/2014 10:12:05 AM PDT by yefragetuwrabrumuy ("Don't compare me to the almighty, compare me to the alternative." -Obama, 09-24-11)
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To: E. Pluribus Unum
You are correct, but China's tragedy is that the premises of its culture are profoundly authoritarian.

China's sense of itself is that it is not just a country but is a complete civilization, the world's oldest and most distinguished at that. The primary means by which that civilization is transmitted, China's written language, is deeply authoritarian, based as it is on long and intense study of a complex, non-alphabetic system.

This fosters authoritarian cultural and political attitudes at a deep level. Consequently, even in academic settings and among democracy activists, the Chinese demonstrate strong authoritarian tendencies. For a decisively large number of Chinese, democracy instinctively means disorder, not the expression of innate rights and humane values.

Notably, China's history shows periods of chaos and regress due to internal divisions, which are only remedied by a strong imperial system or, in the modern era, by the rise of the strong unitary political system based on the Chinese Communist Party. The only independent Chinese democracy that has ever been is Taiwan, which the mainland regards as a renegade province awaiting its rightful eventual subjugation and absorption back into China proper.

In contrast, modern Western civilization arose out of disorder due to a complex mixing of languages, cultures, nationalities, and religious ideas. Democracy and free markets developed and spread as means by which profound differences can be reconciled in practice instead of made the basis for civil wars and national wars.

Moreover, in the Western system, until the 20th century, Europe's wars between its constituent nation states were mostly limited in scope. At bearable material and human cost, such limited wars spurred national development for the sake of competitive advantage. Europe's military skills and technologies gradually became potent enough to dominate the world, even to the point of bending China to the West's will.

In the end, genuine reform in China will require the development of democratic values and institutions in spite of their tension with China's deepest cultural values. As in other Asian nations, for the Chinese, the growth of democracy may require reinforcement by a simplified written language system that reduces innate authoritarian tendencies.

12 posted on 06/03/2014 10:46:02 AM PDT by Rockingham
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To: Rockingham
Great synopsis! Thanks for that. Gives me some perspective.

I will admit, though, that I look forward to the day when the Butchers of Beijing get butchered.

13 posted on 06/03/2014 10:48:48 AM PDT by E. Pluribus Unum ("The more numerous the laws, the more corrupt the government." --Tacitus)
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To: SeekAndFind

And hence sprang the expression: “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

14 posted on 06/03/2014 11:04:53 AM PDT by mc5cents (Pray for America)
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To: SeekAndFind

pretty simple,


15 posted on 06/03/2014 1:31:26 PM PDT by Joe Boucher ((FUBO) obammy lied and lied and lied)
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To: E. Pluribus Unum
I believe that is in the cards because the Chinese regime is far less secure than it seems, with its legitimacy dependent on a high rate of economic growth that is unlikely to continue.

China faces many challenges: rising wages and costs; new competition from regional low wage producers; a demographic imbalance; excessive and badly placed real estate and infrastructure developments; a massive load of bad lending; systemic corruption and the lack of an honest judiciary and the rule of law; high levels of pollution; and the 'middle income trap' and the limits of export led industrialization.

The deepest fear of the Chinese regime is that popular discontent and frequent riots and demonstrations will reach a critical mass that can no longer be contained. The most likely scenario is for such a moment to arrive as the East European revolutions and Arab Spring did, with brutalized and unhappy populaces suddenly shaking off their fears and overwhelming the state's mechanisms of control.

Thus many of the Chinese elite continue to send billions in cash outside of China every year, and they scramble to obtain foreign citizenship and passports. Such conduct does not indicate confidence in the future of the Chinese regime.

16 posted on 06/03/2014 1:47:07 PM PDT by Rockingham
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To: Rockingham
I don't like what they did to the Uighurs (yeah, I know, they're Muslims) and what they're doing in Africa.

I am sure they're buying up huge swaths of land in the US. What they did to the Uighurs and in Africa is in store for us.

17 posted on 06/03/2014 2:10:31 PM PDT by E. Pluribus Unum ("The more numerous the laws, the more corrupt the government." --Tacitus)
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To: E. Pluribus Unum
Whenever possible, the Chinese seem inclined to adopt exploitative, imperial attitudes toward others. In the long run, that does not serve them well because it inspires resentment and opposition, making enemies unnecessarily.
18 posted on 06/03/2014 5:29:34 PM PDT by Rockingham
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