Lei Yi: “Businessmen and Politics” at the Crossroads of History

In April 1911, the Allied Association planned an uprising in Guangzhou, but it failed with the sacrifice of nearly a hundred men, and Sun Yat-sen and other revolutionary leaders were disheartened. Half a year later, on October 10, Wuchang was fired, and the 200-year-old Qing Dynasty collapsed.

   What happened in these six months that led to this “dramatic” change? The most important and fundamental reason was the fundamental change in the attitude of the gentry and merchants towards the Qing dynasty and the revolutionary party. Their attitudes determined whether the Qing dynasty was to survive or die, and whether the revolution was to succeed or fail.

   The Revolutionary Party was the initiator of the Xinhai Revolution, but it was the gentry who decided whether the revolution would succeed or not.

   After the Opium War, Chinese society began to transform. In the process, the gentry went from not caring about politics to having to care about politics; from supporting the Qing dynasty’s reforms and constitution-making, opposing the revolution, to finally abandoning the Qing dynasty and supporting a radical revolution. The “journey of the heart” of this class is intriguing.

   The rich merchants and eunuchs treated the officials as if they were the emperor.

   The Opium War presented China with the challenge of modernity. The creation of modern enterprises produced by large machines was a major part of modernization, yet modern enterprises had difficulties in the late Qing Dynasty, causing China’s modernization transformation to falter as well.

   The failure of the two opium wars and the impact of the peasant wars at home made a few enlightened factions within the ruling class realize the power of foreign guns and cannons, and local Han officials such as Zeng Guofan, Li Hongzhang and Zuo Zongtang, who had gained some power in the suppression of the Taiping Rebellion, became the main driving force behind the “foreign affairs movement”.

   Then again, Zeng, Zuo and Li are officials, running “government enterprises”, “ownership” belongs to the government, the imperial court can have the right to veto. However, the ownership of private enterprises did not belong to the government, and it was said that they were free to produce in the traditional way or with modern machinery.

   However, the officials had the right to forbid the use of new machines and even to shut down those who violated the order. This means that the merchants have only limited “property rights”, and the power to ban or not, lies with the authorities. Therefore, merchants who wanted to run modern enterprises in certain coastal areas had to work as buyers for foreigners.

   Over time, these merchants have accumulated a lot of wealth, because they can not set up their own business, can only be “dependent” in the name of foreign merchants, such as the U.S. Qichang foreign firm is actually half of the Chinese share capital. The government had banned the establishment of new-style enterprises, coupled with the conservative forces opposed to the production of new machinery is very strong, so Chinese businessmen simply can not establish new-style industrial and commercial enterprises.

   In order to solve this problem, H.E. Ambassador Li came up with the method of “official supervision and business operation”, that is, “the official total its outline. That is, “by the official total of its outline, check its advantages and disadvantages, and listen to the business Dong, etc. to stand on their own, pleasing to the public business. In the hope that the Middle Kingdom would open up such a culture and gradually receive the profit power”.

   That is to say, under the protection of the government, support and obtain a considerable monopoly, the government governor business enterprises to make a lot of money, and in some ways began to compete with foreign investment. The western movement from “military industry” to “civilian”, from “seeking strength” deepened to “seeking wealth”, from “military industry” to “civilian”. The shift from the “government-run” to the “government-governed and commercially-run” enterprises was of extraordinary significance.

   “At first, most businessmen took a wait-and-see attitude, but with the successful operation of several enterprises, businessmen’s confidence in the “government-administered commercial enterprises” was greatly increased, and many buyers withdrew their capital from foreign banks and took stakes in the more lucrative Chinese “government-administered commercial enterprises”.

   The use of government-run enterprises to run modern businesses led to the emergence of China’s first capitalist civilian enterprises, and it was from these investors that China’s first capitalists were transformed.

   Two Routes That Changed China

   China’s defeat in the Sino-Japanese War, the failure of the Meiji Restoration, the Gengzi Rebellion, and Japan’s defeat of the monarchy in Russia, the dramatic changes and personal experiences of the past decade have led more and more people, especially businessmen, to recognize the need for constitutional government in China.

   Another important factor was that the Qing government, after its defeat in the Sino-Japanese War, was forced by the Treaty of Shimonoseki to allow Japan to set up factories at trading ports. As foreign investment in factories in China gained legal status, the Qing government had no reason to prohibit its own people from investing in factories and had to relax its restrictions on private investment in factories.

   There was a boom in private investment in industry in China. However, the choice between a bottom-up constitutional government through violent revolution or a top-down constitutional government through orderly reform was a choice between the two paths. Businessmen wanted to make a constitution, so that their property rights are fundamentally protected, that the previous industrial and commercial sluggishness, is “tired of the authoritarian regime has been long”.

   As a result of advocating constitutionalism, when the Qing government announced in the autumn of 1906 that it was “preparing to make a constitution”, it received high praise and enthusiastic response from chambers of commerce around the world. The chambers of commerce called the central government, “rejoicing and looking forward to the implementation,” or issued proclamations asking local merchants to parade their lanterns in celebration. The Qing court then announced that in order to prepare for the constitution, it was necessary to change the official system. Administrative reform preceded fundamental reform of the political system.

   There was nothing wrong with the “road map,” however, as various vested interests within the imperial court did not want to lose interest in the reform of the bureaucracy, the result was bitter rivalry and scandal. In the end, the Qing court had to announce the “five no-negotiations” in the reform of the bureaucratic system.

   First, the matter of the Military Intelligence Service will not be discussed.

   Secondly, no deliberation on housekeeping matters.

   Third, no discussion of the Eight Banners issue.

   Fourthly, the matter of the Hanlin Academy is not discussed.

   Fifthly, the eunuchs were not discussed.

   In this framework, the court finally ruled that the new official system of the central government only a few of the old ministry was cut and most of them did not move, the military machine division still retains and does not set the responsibility of the cabinet, clerkship, Hanlin Academy, Qintianjian, the Ministry of the Interior and other Manchu departments in charge of all retained. Broke the previous form of “Manchu-Chinese balance”, the Manchu officials of greater power.

   Official reform results were announced, the constitutionalists on the Qing court is really ready to constitutional big doubts, and even denounced it as “pseudo-reform”, “inheritance of skin and the spirit of”.

   participate in the constitutional committee of the Royalist Society formed by Xu Fosu immediately commented: “the political things reactionary reactionary, exhausted months of reform, so far is still the original face. The name of the military machine has not yet changed, the Ministry of rituals still exist and stand, sigh. Politics of the hard to hope, this can be decided …… sincere sad thing also.”

   The Imperial Cabinet: the death knell of the Qing dynasty

   On May 8, 1911, the Qing court, however, was wise enough to introduce an “imperial cabinet”, which monopolized power.

   This cabinet is composed of 13 people, 9 named Manchu (7 of them called the royal family members). This “cabinet” completely contradicts the basic principle that members of the royal family can not be cabinet when the Minister of State, actually announced to the world that the Qing court so-called “constitutional” is only a cover, in fact, not willing to give up a little power of the real face.

   The gentry, the merchant class was furious, and those who had a glimmer of hope also quickly distanced themselves from it, and eventually abandoned it. However, the royal cabinet turned a deaf ear to all suggestions, advice, objections, and warnings, and went ahead with its own agenda. The move was not only unconstitutional, but also detrimental to the interests of the people, especially the gentlemen merchants who invested the most.

   Those who invested more in the railways were among the upper echelons of the merchants, and were mostly active figures in the upper echelons of the constitutionalists. In order to protect their rights, the constitutionalists in Hunan, Hubei, Guangdong, and Sichuan immediately led the masses in a road-protection campaign. Many prominent figures of the constitutionalists became leaders in the pro-logging movement and later played an important role in the Xinhai Revolution.

   From the 1910 parliamentary petition movement to the Qing government’s final refusal to compromise the policy symbols of the “Imperial Cabinet” and “railway state” was the introduction of the constitutionalists quickly towards the revolution, and the revolutionary party “merge” the most direct cause.

   The Qing government was so perverse that the foundations of its own rule were removed from it. It was only a matter of time before a huge building with no foundation crumbled to the ground.

   How can one “stand idly by and watch”?

   On the night of October 10, 1911, a gunshot rang out at Wuchang and the Qing dynasty collapsed.

   The success of the Wuchang Shouyi rested on the support of the “constitutionalists”, who were mainly gentry and merchants, and on October 11, the Hubei revolutionaries occupied the city.

   On October 11, the Hubei revolutionaries occupied Wuchang. The leaders of the revolutionary party were wounded or fled, and they had no one to lead the new regime.

   Li Yuanhong, the Qing military coordinator, was chosen by the revolutionaries to be the governor of Hubei.

   Tang Hualong, who chaired the national Federation of Provincial Consultative Bureaus, was the nationally influential leader of the Hubei constitutionalists, and his gesture prompted other constitutionalists in Hubei to support the revolutionary party with practical actions, fundraising and donations to maintain the region.

   This played an extremely important role in relieving the revolutionary party of its worries, allowing it to concentrate on fighting against the Qing army’s counterattack and providing the new regime with a relatively stable environment.

   The initial victory of the Wuchang Uprising, the gradual consolidation of the new regime and the telegrams from Tang Hualong and others made many provincial consultative bureaus respond quickly to the revolution, which in turn greatly encouraged the people and the constitutionalists in more provinces and pushed more localities to respond to the Wuchang Uprising.

   Zhang Jian also changed from a strong advocate of suppressing the Wuchang uprising and urging the Qing court to establish a constitution immediately to a supporter of the republic in a few dozen days. His change was typical of the changing attitudes of businessmen. Zhang Jian was in Wuhan at the time of the Wuchang Uprising.

   He went to Wuchang on October 4, 1911, to attend the opening ceremony of the Da Wei Yarn Factory, which he had leased as a base from which to greatly expand his business in central China. As far as social classes were concerned, the main body of the constitutionalists were the gentry, and the most important reason for the failure of Sun’s previous armed uprisings was the lack of support from the constitutionalists (gentry).

   The revolutionary nature of the constitutionalists was fundamentally the result of the Qing government’s refusal to reform, compromise, or give up its interests. Even a merchant like Zhang Jian, who had close ties with officials at all levels of the Qing government, from central to local, and who continued to push for repression until after the revolutionary gun was fired, eventually turned to the republic, which speaks volumes about the overall failure of the Qing government’s policies.

   Traditionally, Chinese merchants have adhered to the principle of “business is business”, which means that “wealthy merchants treated officials as if they were emperors”.

   However, in the last days of the Qing dynasty, their political involvement was more intense than ever. It was their orientation that determined the survival of a dynasty.

   Never before in history had Chinese merchants assumed such a heavy responsibility. The basic reason is that, in the transformation of Chinese society into modernity, traditional businessmen are gradually transformed into new modern businessmen.

   The birth and rise of a new social class inevitably led to changes in the social structure, which naturally required the institutions that regulated the previous social structure, including the political system. Compared with traditional business, modern business has a stronger and more complex demand for the rule of law, in which the regulation and limitation of government power is particularly important.

   “For industry to be developed, there must be adequate laws for supervision and protection”. The various industries that have been raised in the mainland rise and fall, and if the law is not prepared, that is, if it is not used properly, it may kill them.”

   This is the basic rules of commerce, but also the late Qing businessmen’s personal feelings. Therefore, they were no longer satisfied with the status of “eunuchs as if they were emperors,” and they became more and more active in the constitutional movement, with the number of people who knew more about it growing from shallow to deep.

   Their ultimate goal, of course, was to defend their basic rights and the fundamental interests of commerce. In other words, in the absence of a constitution, businessmen “talking business in business” will inevitably demand a constitution, and businessmen demanding a constitution, that is, “talking business in business”.

   The Chinese tradition is not to build a better mouse trap, but to obtain official privileges to catch rats.

   Fei Zhengqing, an American scholar who arrived in Beiping in 1932, has spent his life studying China, and the merchant class is certainly one of the groups he has focused on. In China and America, he wrote with bewilderment, “One of the most pressing questions a Westerner would ask about the whole of Chinese history is why the Chinese merchant class could not be freed from its dependence on officialdom and establish an industrial or independent force to run its enterprises.”

   To more vividly describe what he saw, Fei Zhengqing used the metaphor of rat-trapping: “Chinese businessmen have a completely different idea from Western entrepreneurs: the Chinese tradition is not to make a better rat-trapping machine, but to obtain the privilege of rat-trapping from the authorities.”

   The suppression of the industrial and commercial classes by political power was typical of China’s authoritarian society for thousands of years, and historian Lei Yi argues that the heavy reliance of the merchant class, the backbone of the market economy, on the officialdom was the fundamental reason for the failure of the late Qing foreign affairs movement.

   In fact, both Zheng Guanying and Zhang Jian, a Nantong merchant, expressed similar views about the Qing dynasty. However, the Great Qing did not know how to reflect and not only lost itself, but also dragged China into the abyss of revolution and violence. But now, are we reflecting thoroughly enough?