The last dynasty in China, the Qing dynasty, ruled from 1644 to 1911, and there is argument to say that their failures, especially those towards the end of their rule, created the underlying tension and ideologies behind the Communist victory in China and the consequential establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). These failures can be subdivided into military failures, weaknesses of the leadership, financial disarray, political troubles, and the Qing dynasty’s failure to implement lasting, effective reforms. It can easily be argued that the Qing dynasty didn’t recognise the importance of the military until it was too late and they suffered for neglecting it. The dismissal of a key general, Yuan Shikai in 1908 can be seen as a turning point for the military in this period. The dismissal wasn’t for valid reasons, but purely a chance for Regent Prince Chun to assert his authority. However, this had disastrous consequences the Qing dynasty, as they had lost their only loyal general, leaving them without military protection, an issue which had already been exacerbated by the Boxer Rising in 1900-1901.
The Qing dynasty then made a further mistake in putting too much trust in him when he (reluctantly) returned. This resulted in Yuan Shikai using his unarguable military strength to gain political power. In all, this left the Qing dynasty with little, if any military strength. Their army wasn’t loyal, nor was it organised and there was much internal strife. Therefore the Chinese people were left yearning for a government that was strong enough to command military as well as political power, planting the ideas of revolution in their heads. The Qing dynasty also had a lot of problems with leadership. During the “100 Days” period of attempted reform, obvious internal power struggles arose which further weakened the dynasty. Here there was the struggle between the reactionaries of the government, those that wanted China to remain traditional and to uphold the ideas of Confucian living, and progressives who were in support of bringing in reform and change to modify China. With hindsight, it can be argued that, perhaps if the progressives had won the debate over reform, there might not have even been a need for a revolution.
However, at the time it is important to note that the ideas of Confucian living and social harmony were a core part of Chinese society, and because most of the Chinese public had not known any different, something as radical as what the progressives were suggesting was seen as alien and threatening. The reactionaries outweighed the progressives in court, and led by Dowager Empress Cixi, they forced themselves into power. For a while, although Cixi was in no way a perfect leader, at least there was a constant leader who was reliable. However in 1908, upon the death of Emperor Guangxu and Dowager Empress Cixi, Pu Yi came to be emperor. However emperor Pu Yi was only a very small child at the time, so Prince Chun acted as regent. He lacked authority, and so 3 further years of inconsistent leadership followed. The Chinese public started looking for someone who was confident to lead them into a revolution and give them what they need in way of reform, opening up and opportunity for a new leader to step in.
From the end of the Opium Wars, the Qing government had been plunged into a state of bankruptcy, leaving them without enough money to impose an industrial modernisation programme that China so desperately needed. This was made worse by the crippling penalties imposed after the Boxer Rising in 1900-01. The effect of this is most obviously highlighted with the railways crisis from 18958-1911. During this time the railway boom in China meant a great opportunity for provinces to thrive, bringing in trade and new jobs. However, the Qing government chose to nationalise the railway, and to be able to afford to do so, that meant that they had to raise taxes and rely on foreign loans. Naturally, the Chinese people in these provinces weren’t happy with the fact that not only have the government taken away a huge possibility for local investment, but were then imposing taxes on the very people who were missing out.
This led to open opposition of the government for the first time in China, as well as a damaged sense of pride because they were relying on foreign investment. The Qing dynasty was widely regarded among the Chinese as old-fashioned and redundant. First of all, this was down to the simple fact that they originated from Manchuria, which wasn’t even part of China, meaning that they were out of touch with the growing popularity of nationalism. Also, their authoritarian tradition made them incapable of responding to the demands of the revolutionaries, who were inspired by Japanese and Western models of democracy. This is because, among the people, there was fear of the punishments associated with “disrupting the social harmony” (defying the government).
Combined with the government’s fear of change, it can be argued that this is why it took until 1949 for China to have a revolution, compared to America or France. Finally, and most importantly, was the Qing dynasty’s blatant disregard for the crucial need for reforms. The closest that they got to reform was during the “100 Days” in 1905, when reforms based on western models were proposed but completely ignored in courts and so therefore didn’t go through. Part of this was to do with Dowager Empress Cixi leading a strong opposition against the reform. However, she later went on to introduce some reform, for example she brought an end to tests in Confucianism for government positions and she created provincial assemblies.
Many historians have argued, however, that this was just an attempt to win over the revolutionaries who were turning against the idea of an “establishment” all together. Generally, by the time of the formal abdication of the Qing dynasty in 1912, the revolutionaries within China were ready for change. They were fed up with having a corrupt, inconsistent central government that weren’t in touch with the modern concepts behind revolutionary thoughts. This lay the foundations for the Chinese revolution and the eventual establishment of the PRC in 1949.
University/College: University of California
Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter
Date: 26 October 2016
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