China has been cleaning up opposition forces in Hong Kong, with 53 opposition figures arrested for attempting to “overthrow” the government and 47 people charged.
Chinese culture does not allow for opposition, which is fundamentally different from Western values. An increasing number of Chinese people — 1.3 billion of them — have confidence in “the system”, and feel that Hong Kong has become an anti-China base, and that China’s system is superior to the West in beating back the pandemic.
So why do the Chinese have a built-in genetic sensitivity to the “opposition camp”?
Historically, the first Western-style opposition party in China was the Donglin movement (东林党, lit. Donglin Party) during the Ming dynasty. At the time, from the late 15th century onwards, the centre of China was the area around Wuxi and Lake Tai, where silk and ceramics were produced and exported all over the world. Since the Tang dynasty, Suzhou and Zhejiang have been the most economically developed areas in the country.
As the economy prospered, more rich people surfaced in Jiangnan. They kept silkworms and lived on land passed down through the generations, which also became sources of wealth.
However, the advent of the Ming dynasty saw heavy taxes levied on agricultural land in Jiangnan, which contributed an enormous proportion of the national income at the time.
When demand for power is downside-up, dissatisfaction with the distribution of economic benefits would mushroom.
Just as it was during the time of Emperor Hongwu (Zhu Yuanzhang, 1368-1398), who founded the Ming dynasty, the income from summer and autumn taxes was nearly 30 million piculs, with Suzhou contributing 2.8 million piculs, Songjiang 1.2 million, and Changzhou 550,000. These three cities in Jiangnan alone contributed 15% of national agricultural tax income.
This made the rich landowners in Jiangnan unhappy. Furthermore, a capitalist production system had been established in Suzhou’s textile industry where “machine owners provided the money and machine operators put in the labour” (机户出资，机工出力), leading to the formation of a tripartite relationship involving the land owners, silk merchants, and the silkworm breeders. This model of a product economy exacerbated the growing wealth gap between Jiangnan and the northern region around the Yellow River, where the people simply tilled the land and often faced droughts and floods.
Intellectuals in the rural fringes
When demand for power is downside-up, dissatisfaction with the distribution of economic benefits mushrooms. As Jiangnan’s landowners became wealthy, intellectuals were nurtured and given space, and not just as accessories and exemplars of good taste. China’s traditional rural squire society was where legal arbitration and intellectual discussions could flourish away from the close supervision of the emperor.
Having landowners employing intellectuals was also in line with the Confucian concept of “ranking” society as “scholars, farmers, craftsmen, and merchants” (士农工商) in that order; society paid respect to scholars while landowners satisfied their needs to educate the younger generation in Confucian rituals, music and other cultural knowledge.
And so, the Donglin movement was gradually established in the Donglin Academy. Its leader and chairperson Gu Xiancheng said, “Half of the nation’s total wealth comes from this area, which is a big deal.” The “big deal” here means “unfair”.
But the emperor Zhu Yuanzhang was suspicious of the Jiangnan area. In the late Yuan dynasty, Zhu’s political enemy Zhang Shicheng was based in the Sanwu area, centred around Suzhou and Songjiang. After Zhu eliminated Zhang’s troops, in order to thoroughly get rid of the opposition threat of Zhang’s camp, Zhu persecuted the wealthy households around Suzhou and Songjiang, such as confiscating the lands held by Zhang’s supporters and claiming it as government land.
Shen Wansan, a legendary Jiangsu tycoon, got worried and offered money and donations to the emperor in order to safeguard his property and life. But Shen was also subsequently removed, while Zhu set a discriminatory rule disallowing people from Suzhou and Jiangnan from holding senior official positions, which lasted until the time of Emperor Wanli (1572-1620) and his minister Zhang Juzheng.
...they objected to nobles and landowners monopolising benefits, and wanted equal participation in politics.
In the early 16th century, the Ming emperors concentrated their power in Beijing and did not value intellectuals. Any slight suspicion resulted in execution, or being sent back to their ancestral hometowns.
But even though those from Suzhou and Jiangnan could not be senior officials, there were junior and mid-level officials. The leaders of the Donglin movement were almost all junior or mid-level officials of the central government who were successful in the imperial exams; they were later demoted. And so they congregated in their hometowns and started teaching in the countryside, and formed the Donglin Academy, where they taught once a month.
Channelling resentment of landowners
The classes at the Donglin Academy became increasingly influential, attracting many frustrated intellectuals, who gradually raised their own demands: they objected to nobles and landowners monopolising benefits, and wanted equal participation in politics.
Gao Panlong, one of the leaders of the Donglin movement, said: “When something benefits the country but hurts its people, the country takes priority if one considers it more important; when something benefits the people but hurts the country, the people take priority if one considers them more important. When something does no harm to the country and benefits its people, a wise person no longer has to mull over a decision, while a benevolent person commits to getting it done.”
This might be called China’s earliest liberal declaration.
While landowners and the Donglin movement sometimes joined forces in tussles with the central government in Beijing, some Donglin members were unwilling to be dependent on the economic groups formed by landowners. From the start, they showed socialist ideas against the hegemony of such landowner-led groupings. Stuck between a rock and a hard place, the Donglin movement also suffered from disagreements among these intellectuals which gradually led to divisions — worsened by factions professing loyalty to one’s hometown — leading to its eventual failure.
Looking at the rise and fall of the Donglin movement, alongside the Chinese people’s fight for so-called democracy and freedom over the past century, as well as the demise of the opposition in Hong Kong, one can see a real clash between so-called freedom and democracy on the one hand and China’s cultural background and DNA on the other.
This article was first published in Chinese on CUP media as “中國歷史上第一道自由主義宣言”.
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