The shot that killed Song Jiaoren was not heard around the world. But it might have changed Chinese history
AT 10.40pm on March 20th 1913 a young man who represented one possible future for China stood on the platform at Shanghai railway station, waiting with friends to board a train to Beijing. Song Jiaoren—30 years old, sporting a Western suit and a wisp of a moustache—had just brilliantly led his new political party, the Nationalists, to overwhelming success in parliamentary elections, the country’s first attempt at democracy after two millennia of imperial rule. He was in line to become China’s first democratically elected prime minister, and to help draft a new constitution for the Republic of China.
Song (above, centre) was exultant. A fortune-teller had told him—when he was a fugitive in Japan, plotting a violent end to the Qing dynasty—that he would serve as prime minister for 30 peaceful years. With his Jeffersonian ideals and admiration for Britain’s Parliament, he was ready to change his country’s fate.
But an assassin’s bullet prevented him from trying. Armed with a Browning revolver, an unemployed ex-soldier in black military garb fired a single slug into his back and fled. Song was taken to a nearby hospital, where a bullet was removed from his abdomen. He knew death was near, and in the last political act of his life he dictated a telegram to his chief adversary, President Yuan Shikai (pictured bottom right): “I die with deep regret. I humbly hope that your Excellency will champion honesty, propagate justice, and promote democracy…”
Song died on March 22nd. China’s best chance of democracy may have died with him.
Who ordered his death? The official inquiry eventually ran cold. The ex-soldier who pulled the trigger and the men identified as hiring him, including the acting prime minister in Yuan’s cabinet, all mysteriously died or went missing within a year. Two were poisoned, another slain by a pair of swordsmen aboard a train.
There was no shortage of people who might have wished Song gone. Ardent and self-assured, he had made many enemies both in the opposition and his own party. Liang Qichao (pictured left), the pre-eminent Chinese intellectual of the era, an erstwhile monarchist and at that moment a close ally of Yuan’s, was forced to deny a rumour that he was behind the assassination (according to sources dug up by John Delury, a historian). The Nationalist Party’s co-founder, Sun Yat-sen (top right), had been Song’s bitter rival for years; he opportunistically seized on the killing to foment a failed second revolution in a bid to regain control of the party.
The man whom most historians blame, and who benefited most directly from the hit, was the recipient of Song’s dying plea for democracy. President Yuan had no interest in granting that wish. A career soldier who had served the Qing government and negotiated its abdication (to him), Yuan is the cartoon villain of this tale, with the bushy moustache, round open face and slightly overfed build of an indulged monarch.
He was also canny, ruthless and megalomaniacal. Yuan did not want a strong prime minister, nor did he want the Nationalist Party to write a constitution that would limit his own power. He most certainly did not want democracy—and snuffed it out. In 1915 he tried to restore imperial rule and have himself made emperor. His death in 1916 left a divided country, fought over by warlords and bandits.
But what if Song had lived? How close did China come to forging a democracy 100 years ago? Was Song’s dream of a liberal revolution doomed? How far did an assassin’s bullet change China’s destiny—just as the killing of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo soon afterwards changed Europe’s?
Exile in Tokyo
It is often said, even by some of the harshest critics of Communist rule, that China is not ready for democracy. Not quite yet. This was already a familiar refrain in Song’s lifetime. The scholar Liang visited America in 1903, looked scornfully at the “disorderly” life of the Chinese in San Francisco, and reached a harsh conclusion: “If we were to adopt a democratic system of government now, it would be nothing less than national suicide,” he wrote. “The Chinese people can only be governed autocratically; they cannot enjoy freedom.” Perhaps after 50 years, he suggested, “we can give them the books of [Jean-Jacques] Rousseau and tell them about the deeds of [George] Washington.”
The Chinese people, long yoked by Confucian tradition and insulated from Western influences, may have been unprepared for the radical terminology of liberty. But it arrived nevertheless. Rousseau’s “Social Contract”, an ideological precursor of the French revolution, appeared in translation in 1898; young Chinese were beginning to read about the deeds of Washington, too. Yan Fu, the era’s most important translator of Western thought, introduced Chinese readers to Darwin’s theory of natural selection in 1898, to John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty” in 1899, Adam Smith’s “The Wealth of Nations” the following year, and Montesquieu’s “The Spirit of Laws”—which, more than a century earlier, had influenced the drafters of the American constitution—in 1905.
Until then China had been largely ignorant of three centuries of new thinking by the “barbarians” of the West. In the case of industrial technology, the effects of this disregard were parlous. The Qing emperor Qianlong had turned away the British emissary, Lord Macartney, in 1793, saying he had no use for British products, “ingenious” as they might be. Britain came later with modern ships and weapons instead, to force China to buy opium. Together the Western powers (and, in 1895, Japan) began carving up China and raiding its treasury with a series of unfair treaties.
Lord Macartney is rebuffed
By the end of the 19th century these humiliations had given rise to nationalism and anti-foreign sentiment that posed a threat to the Qing rulers, who as Manchus were already considered foreign by Han Chinese. In 1898 the Qing began reforming the hopelessly antiquated Confucian education system, allowing the introduction of some “useful” Western concepts. Peasants and landed gentry alike were forming political societies, some secretive, some subversive, some progressive, including several devoted to ending the practice of binding women’s feet. The telegraph was coming into use, bringing news of international events; meanwhile, some imperial edicts were still being delivered by horse post.
The contrast between a slow-hoofed regime and a world hurtling into modernity could be felt in rural Hunan province, in China’s interior, where Song was a boy in the 1890s. He clamoured to hear of current events, especially military matters, and he enjoyed playing at war. Wu Xiangxiang, a biographer of Song, writes that he would call together the children of the neighbourhood in the hills around his village and, flag in hand, climb atop a rock and take charge. Song, like many of his generation, found bitter confirmation of Manchu weakness in the news of China’s embarrassing defeat to Japan in 1895. Then 13 years old, he ran off from his family “to wail under a Kusamaki tree”.
He excelled at school and earned a degree that entitled him and his family to a relatively comfortable life in the Confucian scholar-gentry class. But he was attracted to Western teachings, and, unusually, he was encouraged even by his family to stray somewhat from his Confucian obligation to serve his kin. Kit Siong Liew, another biographer of Song, writes that his mother told him to “work toward the interests of all people under heaven”. At a provincial academy in neighbouring Hubei province, Mr Liew writes, classmates said Song “revealed his ambition to change and purify the world,” and talked of plots and revolution.
He did not have to wait long for an opportunity. In 1904, at the age of 22, he fell in with a revolutionary group’s plan to bomb a municipal building in Changsha, capital of Hunan, and prepared to foment rebellion in his home province. But the plot was discovered—failed revolutionary gambits were to become a regular feature of the decade—and Song was forced into hiding. He fled to Tokyo, the destination of thousands of young Chinese reformers and radicals, taking advantage of another significant Qing reform at the turn of the century: allowing Chinese to study in Japan.
His nearly six years in Japan transformed Song from a disciple of revolution to a leader. Japan’s Meiji Restoration had introduced Enlightenment thinking and constitutional government to that society decades earlier. It was there that substantial numbers of Chinese students learned the language of democracy (the Chinese words for “democracy” and “freedom” were created by Japanese writers using Chinese characters). Tokyo became a testing ground for Chinese political debate; Liang and Sun—and Song—first fought their proxy wars of ideas in Chinese-language newspapers there. It was not long before the new rhetoric became seditious, with powerful echoes of America’s Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights.
Song would become the constitutional brain of the revolution. In 1905 he met Sun in Tokyo, becoming a founding member of the Revolutionary Alliance (a forerunner of the Nationalist Party), and took on the roles of political newspaperman, organiser, fund-raiser and strategist. But it was as a student of post-revolutionary governments that he distinguished himself. He became immersed in the constitutions of the world by translating several—including the American and French—to help pay the bills. He was persistently short of money and took succour in booze and opium.
But he was clear-eyed enough to distinguish between the documents of the great liberal democracies and those of autocracies such as Prussia and Russia, which he also translated for a visiting Qing delegation in 1906. With her realm teetering, the Empress Dowager Cixi had taken a belated liking to constitutional monarchy. Song’s verdict on the Qing was laced with an exasperation that still resonates a century later: “Those of us who hope day and night for the Manchu government to effect peaceful reform, may they not now cease hoping?”
Song was convinced that the Qing dynasty would fall, and that if the revolutionaries were not prepared, the next government would be worse. He was prescient on both counts. Despite serious rifts among the rebels—including between Sun and Song—and a string of blunders in their plots, the revolution was successful virtually by accident. A prematurely exploded bomb in the city of Wuchang in Hubei province sparked the Xinhai revolution of October 1911. A series of provinces declared independence, and on January 1st 1912 a republic was formed, with Sun as president; Song set about designing the institutions of a new democracy.
But it was a weak revolution. Many provinces maintained back channels to Beijing, where Yuan, leader of a well-organised army, negotiated the abdication of the Manchus and his own ascension to the presidency in Sun’s place.
Not yet 30 years old, Song believed that the institutions he had crafted, based on the principles of devout republicans such as Jefferson and Madison, could rein in a strong man. But this was not the American revolution, and Yuan was no George Washington. While the Republic prepared for its first elections at the end of 1912 Yuan ran roughshod over the new government.
A taste of democracy
Song put his remaining faith in the polls. In the elections of December 1912 to early 1913 more than 10% of the Chinese population would be eligible to cast votes, an elite but still large group of 40m male taxpayers who owned some property and had a primary-school education. (Women had not won the right to vote; one suffragist slapped Song in the face for not taking up their cause.) China’s first real democratic campaign had begun.
What did this first go at democracy look like? Partisans roughed up opposing candidates and activists, carried guns near polling stations to intimidate voters, bought votes with cash, meals and prostitutes (some lamented selling too early, as prices went up closer to election day), and stuffed ballot boxes. At least one victorious candidate was falsely accused of being an opium-taker.
In a word, it looked like democracy. Some historians discount these reports as scattered abuses in a fairly clean election. In any case, Song could not be thought naive: his Nationalists were accused of the preponderance of the election shenanigans, and they won in a rout, in effect taking half the seats in the legislature.
Jonathan Spence, a historian, writes that Liang, who had come back to China to help organise a pro-Yuan party, took this defeat for the authoritarians terribly, writing to his daughter just two days before Song’s assassination, “What can one do with a society like this one? I’m really sorry I ever returned.” Disgusted, and believing his opponents had cheated, Liang would temporarily throw in his lot with Yuan’s rule, even as evidence suggested the president had assassinated his chief political rival. Ever the operator, Yuan worked to reverse the Nationalist victory at the polls by buying off elected officials, later banning the party altogether.
Song, meanwhile, was rumoured to have turned down a huge bribe from Yuan. He spent his last days making victory speeches around the country, attacking the would-be dictator and promising to curb the power of the presidency. He may have been too ready to believe a fortune-teller’s prophesy.
Dead before his time
Might Song have saved the Republic by living? If he had not been assassinated, some scholars believe, Sun would not have attempted his second revolution, and Yuan would have continued as an incorrigible president with too much power—a disappointing outcome, but not as catastrophic as the country’s slide into anarchy proved to be. In this alternative history, China might have followed the path that Taiwan later did, with a militarised, authoritarian government slowly evolving into a liberal republic.
The crucial question was whether Yuan could ever have been persuaded to tolerate Song. Could Liang have overcome his own bitterness about the election result to negotiate a peace between them? Could Song have patiently worked to build a government that would live longer than its president?
China will never know. But without Song, the Republic was doomed. The Chinese people had taken enthusiastically to their new power to elect their leaders, but Yuan would disenfranchise them; they had begun to devour a thriving popular press, unleashed from imperial censorship, but Yuan would bring back the censors. His insatiable appetite for power alienated some of his old allies, including Liang, and his final bid to restore the monarchy was widely unpopular. But he did manage to manipulate an American constitutional adviser, Frank Goodnow, into endorsing his imperial ambitions. Goodnow had arrived in Beijing six weeks after Song’s murder, in May 1913, and saw only turmoil. He too declared the Chinese people unready for democracy.
There were other turning points to come that might have sealed democracy’s fate, whether or not Song had lived. The Japanese invasion and occupation of China would have wrought havoc in the country under any government, creating an opportunity for, among others, Communist rebels. Japanese writers had given the Chinese language not only the words “democracy” and “freedom”, but also another Western concept, “socialism”.
Eventually Chinese communists, led by Mao Zedong—another young revolutionary from Hunan, born 11 years after Song—would win a civil war and, in 1949, “liberate” China. The chaos of the Republic had played into Mao’s belief that dissent must be mercilessly repressed. Nearly three decades of his totalitarian rule followed. This year, as the Communist Party’s leaders again installed their own successors without public input, they declared, not for the first time, that “Western” democracy is not appropriate for the Chinese people. The Economist