Modern China

Sun Yat-sen


   In Chinese history he is known as "The Father of the Revolution" or "The Father of the Republic." In the West he is considered the most important figure of Chinese history in the twentieth century. As a revolutionary, he lived most of his life in disappointment. For over twenty years he struggled to bring a nationalist and democratic revolution to China and when he finally triumphed with the establishment of the Chinese Republic in 1912 with him as president, he had it cruelly snatched from him by the dictatorial and ambitious Yüan Shih-kai. He died in 1924, with China in ruins, torn by the anarchy and violence of competing warlords. His ideas, however, fueled the revolutionary fervor of the early twentieth century and became the basis of the Nationalist government established by Chiang Kai-shek in 1928.

   Sun Yat-sen based his idea of revolution on three principles: nationalism, democracy, and equalization. These three principles, in fact, were elevated to the status of basic principles: the Three People's Principles. The first of these held that Chinese government should be in the hands of the Chinese rather than a foreign imperial house. Government should be republican and democratically elected. Finally, disparities in land ownership should be equalized among the people, wealth more evenly distributed, and the social effects of unbridled capitalism and commerce should be mitigated by government. The latter principle involved the nationalization of land; Sun believed that land ownership allows too much power to accrue to the hands of landlords. In his nationalization theory, people would be deprived of the right to own land, but they could still retain other rights over the land by permission of the state.

   In Sun's theory of democracy, government would be divided into five separate branches: the executive, legislative, judicial, the censorate, and the civil service system. The latter two branches primarily functioned as a check on the first three, which are the more familiar branches of government to Westerners. The latter two were also traditional branches of the Chinese government and functioned indepedently. The civil service had been around since the Han period and the censorae had been created by the Hong Wu emperor at the beginning of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). This form of government, however, was never really instituted in Nationalist China.

   In addition, his theory of democracy itself, that is, "rule by the people," was based on the "four powers of the people." These four powers were: a.) the right to vote; b.) the right to recall; c.) the power of initiative (the power to initiate legislation); d.) the power of referendum (the power to amend an old law).

   It was evident to Sun that the people of China were not ready to exercise their power to vote, especially in matters of initiative and referendum. He believed that the people of China would require a period of time in which they were trained to exercise democracy. He called this period of training, the "Three Stages of Revolution." In the first stage, a period of military rule would be established in order to dismantle completely the old form of imperial government. This early stage would be nothing less than a dictatorship. After the dismantling of the old system, the revolution would enter its second stage, that of "political tutelage." The state would still be a military autocracy, but the people would be trained in democracy by allowing them a certain amount of regional autonomy. The third stage would see the abandonment of the military autocracy in favor of an all out democracy. Sun's stages of revolution were the first theories of "guided democracy" to emerge in Asia and became a powerful tool under the Communists.

   Various aspects of Sun's thoughts were adopted by the Nationalists after their rise to power in 1928. His theory of political tutelage, however, remained the most hotly debated all throughout the Nationalist period. Chiang Kai-shek fervently believed in political tutelage and used it to justify what amounted to a military dictatorship first in China and then in Taiwan. The Kuomintang, however, was divided over political tutelage. Many in the party believed that China was ready for a democracy and that delay only threatened the integrity of the new republic. In many ways, this debate is what tore down Nationalist power, for the advocates of democracy were allowed to voice their criticisms just enough to impair Nationalist policies aimed at unification.

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1997, Richard Hooker
Updated 3-9-97