China: Her Relationship to the War

By John C. Ferguson

[The Atlantic Monthly, November 1918]

The Provisional Constitution of the Republic of China was prepared in haste, to meet the immediate urgency of the adoption of some form of government which should replace the overthrown rule of the Manchus in the central and southern provinces. The Manchu government was functioning in Peking as usual when this Provisional Constitution was adopted by Sun Yat-sen and the band of young patriots whom he gathered about him in the historic city of Nanking, which had been captured from its former rulers. The haste with which this document was prepared accounts for many of its glaring deficiencies; but in one respect, and that the most important, this provisional constitution is clear and emphatic.

The first two articles of Chapter One read as follows: Article I. The Republic of China is composed of the Chinese people. Article II. The sovereignty of the Chinese Republic is vested in the people.

Here was democracy, unadulterated and aggressive, bidding defiance to the ruling, autocratic Manchu dynasty. It is by no means certain that the young men who were responsible for the writing of this remarkable document agreed as to the form of democracy which should be introduced into their country. Doctor Sun was well known to favor a type of government in which power should be directly exercised by the assembled people. Other leaders favored a representative system of government, in which parliament should act under delegated authority. Both classes were, however, sincerely desirous of substituting democracy for autocracy, and of making this form of government permanent in China.

The rule of the Manchus for two and a half centuries had not been oppressive when considered as a whole, in comparison with the rule of former dynasties. It revised the severe laws of the preceding Ming dynasty, and kept strictly its promise of not increasing taxation. It had yielded to the demand of the people by promising a constitution in which parliamentary rights should be recognized. It gave wide powers of local government to the provinces, and it refrained from using the national army as a means of wresting power from the provinces.

If China were to have any form of monarchical government, there can be no doubt that it would have been content to remain under the Manchu control, and would have set itself to the task of eliminating the corruption which had grown rampant under the degenerate rule, of the Empress Dowager and her successor, the Prince Regent. But China's young manhood wanted no form, however progressive, of monarchical government. It had determined for itself a future in which the sovereignty of the nation should rest solely in the people.

Along with the autocracy of the ruling dynasty, there had survived in China a form of intellectual feudalism in which the successful candidates in the literary subjects provided for civil-service examination were recognized as the leaders of the people. Among the four 'classes,' scholars, farmers, laborers, and merchants, scholars stood at the head. These scholars were the direct successors of the feudal knights, and were known by the same name as their military predecessors. In the Central Government at Peking, noted scholars always occupied the chief places of honor and influence. In the provinces, these intellectuals were able to control local legislative acts. The viceroys and governors of every province sought to conciliate this class and to bring it to their aid in difficult questions of administration. In the establishment of the Provisional Constitution, the prestige of this scholarly class was swept away by the same current which destroyed autocracy. Young China would have none of governmental or intellectual over-rule. The power over mind and body should, according to the new order, be vested solely in the people.

The Provisional Constitution, which was to do duty for a few months only, until a permanent constitution could be adopted, has now been in force for more than six years. It has survived the onslaughts made against it by Yuan Shikai, has proved itself more desirable than 'the Constitutional Compact' drafted by Dr. Frank J. Goodnow, and came back into operation after the abortive restoration of the Manchus in July, 1917. The inherent strength of this document must be a surprise even to the men who drafted it, most of whom are still living. In its provisions for legislative and administrative methods, it must be considered inefficient, if not, indeed, confusing; but as a statement of human rights, it contains the noblest sentiments which have ever been expressed in the Chinese language.

The most disastrous weakness of the Provisional Constitution is the provision in Article 54 that 'the Constitution of the Republic of China shall be adopted by the National Assembly. This has been interpreted in the narrow sense that it is the exclusive duty of the provisional National Council to draft, as well as to adopt, the permanent constitution. The first Constitutional Drafting Committee, which met in the Temple of Heaven, Peking, refused to admit delegates sent to it by the President of the Republic, Yuan Shi-kai, and claimed that he had no right to interfere with, or suggest plans to, a committee of the National Council which was charged by the Provisional Constitution with the sole right of preparing the permanent constitution.

There is some palliation for this extreme view in the fact that it was known to the National Council that Yuan Shi-kai was an ambitious man, determined to secure for himself as much personal power as possible. The temporary advantage of scoring a point against a powerful antagonist beclouded the minds of the members of the first National Council, and led them to neglect the more important provisions for the relations between Provincial and Central Government upon the stabilizing of which depended the future peace and good order of the country.

The result has been that the Central Government at Peking, consisting of a president, cabinet, national council (or parliament), and judiciary, has carried on for the last six years, with varying degrees of success in the four branches of government. There have been three presidents, a dozen or more premiers, and several legislatures under the name of council or parliament. The most permanent branch has been the judiciary, the personnel of which has remained fairly stationary.

The real government of the country has gradually but surely drifted into the hands of the military governors of the provinces. In some instances these have been men who had previous administrative experience, but they either have been hold-overs from the military regime of the Manchus, or are men who came into prominence as leaders of the victorious Republican troops in the revolution of 1911—12. Some of them have been men with good education and with sound military training; there are other conspicuous instances of men who have attained this responsible position without education, without administrative experience, and without any sound military training. Their control over large bodies of soldiers has enabled them to terrorize and dominate the provinces. The worst condemnation of their administration as a whole is found in two facts: first, there is almost no instance of any constructive work for the good of the people which has been undertaken and carried to completion by any one of these men; second, practically every one of them has succeeded in accumulating a large fortune. During a long residence in China of thirty years, I have seen no administration so inefficient or corrupt as that supplied by these military governors. They have been allowed to continue in office and augment their powers on account of the failure of the Central Government in Peking to provide a permanent constitution.

Only one article of the permanent constitution has been passed by a National Assembly. This was the "Presidential Election Law,' adopted October 4, 1914, and promulgated on the following day by the provisional president. It provided for the election, term of office, oath, and duties of the President of the Republic. Under this law, Yuan Shi-kai was duly elected as President, with Li Yuan-hung as Vice President. Under its provisions, Li Yuan-hung succeeded to the presidency on the death of Yuan Shi-kai, and Feng Kuo-chang was elected Vice President. Similarly, under its provisions, Feng Kuo-chang became Acting President on the retirement of Li Yuan-hung in July, 1917. It is thus clear that the offices of president and vice president have been filled in strict conformity to existing constitutional requirements up to the present time.

According to the provisions of this election law, a new president must be elected during this year, 1918. There are several aspirants for these high offices of president and vice president. Many of the troubles which have disturbed the provinces during the last few months can be accounted for as attempts to gain power and notoriety on the part of possible presidential candidates. Without hazarding a guess as to the name of the next president, it is safe to conjecture that it is not that of one of the disturbing military leaders who have fattened upon the provinces.

The most obvious duty of the leaders of China, of all factions, is to go on with the drafting of the Permanent Constitution. It has seemed to me unwise for the National Council to arrogate to itself the sole responsibility of drafting the new constitution, though there is no doubt of its full legal right and responsibility for the final adoption of this important document. The work of drafting should be carried on by a committee representative as largely as possible of all branches of the government. Under the Provisional Constitution, these are said to be four: the National Council, the President, the Cabinet, and the Judiciary. If a new Constitutional Drafting Committee could be appointed, in which each of these four branches should be equally represented, the best wisdom of the country would be employed. The draft constitution completed by such a committee would then be presented to the National Council for final adoption, and the basis for the future stable government of China would be permanently laid. Such a committee would provide a due balance of power between the executive, the legislative, and the judiciary in the Central Government, and would also establish workable relations between Provincial and Central administrations.

Although having no permanent constitution, the Republic of China has been called upon to face more difficult problems of foreign policy than had been experienced since the beginning of foreign intercourse. The outbreak of the European war resulted in an armed conflict between German and Japanese forces on Chinese soil, with the object of gaining control of the port of Kiaochau, which China believed to have been wrongfully wrested from her in 1898. In the Japanese attack upon Kiaochau, China protested against the violation of the neutrality of her soil and the landing of the troops at Lungkow, even though this place might be the best strategically for an attack on the German fortresses. Protestations being in vain, China compromised, and consented, against her wishes, to the fixing of a thirty-mile zone of military operations.

The cessation of military operations in Shantung Province which followed the capture of Kiaochau was soon succeeded by the presentation of the famous Twenty-One Demands. During last year, a new and delicate problem was created by the adoption of a system of civil rule for Kiaochau and the railway zone of Shantung Province. In all these intricate and embarrassing relations with Japan, China was handicapped by the lack of coordination between her Central and Provincial administrations.

Laudable actions of the American government have also accentuated China's difficulty. After the protest of that government against the policy of submarine warfare inaugurated by Germany, a formal invitation to take similar action was extended by the United States to China. When the United States declared war against Germany on April 6, 1917, China was again urged to follow her example. On account of the acute crisis which had arisen between the military governors of the provinces, assembled in a conference at Tientsin, on the one hand, and the President and Parliament on the other hand, an immediate reply could not be given to America's invitation. It was not until after the attempt to restore the monarchy had been frustrated and an understanding had been concluded between President Peng and Premier Tuan, that it was possible for the Peking government to follow America's lead, with the result that on August 14, 1917, a presidential mandate was issued declaring war against Germany and Austria-Hungary. It was issued on the authority of the President and Cabinet, without reference to Parliament, which had been previously dissolved by President Li Yuan-hung, after a period of inaction during which most of the members had left Peking.

The strict sect of the parliamentarians, which has sought to maintain the rights of the Provisional Constitution, still protest that the act of the President and the Cabinet in declaring war was ultra vires. Considering the wholehearted support which has been given by the country to this hostile declaration against Germany, these doctrinaire objections need not be considered as a serious factor in the situation. They emphasize, rather, the urgent need of the early adoption of a permanent constitution.

America's position in China is unique. It has not been exposed to the suspicion of selfish aggrandizement, for America has never seized one foot of Chinese territory. America has also had the credit of leadership in the promulgation and adoption of the theory of the territorial integrity of China, and of an equal opportunity for all nations in commercial development. Its position was rendered still more honorable by the return of a portion of the Boxer indemnity, following a careful revision of the expenses incurred by the American government for military and naval operations during the Boxer outbreak of 1900. Other nations, up to the present time, have failed to publish the exact amount of their necessary expenditures for expeditions during that year, and have contented themselves with receiving from China the full amount of the lump sum provided by the Protocol of 1901.

America has the further prestige of being the model after which China has determined to plan her form of government. The Republic of China has natural and incontestable affinities with the American Republic. It looks to the United States, not only as a model for its system of government, but also for continuous and friendly support of the republican institutions which it is seeking to develop. Up to the present time, it is the only republic on the continent of Asia, and, as such, its eyes are turned to America for substantial, sympathetic support.

The permanence of a republican form of government in China must now be taken for granted, even though for the moment the dominance of military leadership must also be recognized. The disturbances in the provinces show that this military usurpation cannot be permanent, and that China cannot be governed, either by her own people or from without, by any form of military despotism. The consent of the governed is a principle thoroughly ingrained in the past history and present aspirations of the Chinese people. This is a fact to be reckoned with by the contending elements in China, as well as by all foreign nations which have dealings with her. There is but little danger of such mob-rule as that of Bolshevism. The present danger is confined solely to a monopoly of power on the part of military leaders.

To offset and prevent such a consummation, several things are needed. In the first place, there must be the immediate adoption of a permanent constitution which will give due recognition to the rights of the various branches of the Central government, while at the same time it provides for a just distribution of authority between Central and Provincial administrations. In addition to this, there should be a hearty coöperation of the powers which are especially interested in the welfare and development of China. Fortunately these powers are now allies in the common cause against Germany. If Great Britain, France; Italy, Japan, and the United States can come to a common understanding as to the part China shall play in the war, and if each of these powers will disavow any desire for selfish aggrandizement, while all agree to the disinterested development of China's resources in helping to win the war, a new stimulus to the unification of China will be supplied.

The third necessity is the recognition of the inherent permanency and strength of the new republican life of China. With such an understanding, there would follow an entire elimination of the present latent distrust of Japan in her relations with China. A common understanding among all the Allied powers as to China's participation in the war would allow any one of them to assume the leadership of China during the continuance of the war, without pestiferous suspicion that such leadership conceals the invidious purpose of future domination of this new Republic.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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