Cross-Currents e-Journal (No. 7)
Law, Politics, and Society in Republican China
In 2011, the centennial of the 1911 Revolution, the Institute of Modern History of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences released a set of publications that includes a narrative history of the Republic of China (Zhonghua minguo shi, 12 volumes), a chronology (Dashiji, 12 volumes), and a collection of Republican biographies (Renwuzhuan, 8 volumes). The result of decades of work since the founding of the Institute’s History of the Republic of China unit in 1956, this monumental set pays tribute to the foundational research of multiple cohorts of Chinese historians on the subject of the revolution. Now that many previously accepted “facts” have been more or less tamed, the moment has come, in China as well as elsewhere, for the field to take up the issue of how best to approach the history of the Republic of China from various perspectives.
Beginning in 1909, mainland Chinese governments routinely held elections, and lawmakers devoted considerable resources to writing and revising election laws. The earliest elections, held under the late Qing and the early Republic, utilized laws based on restricted electorates and indirect voting. By contrast, election laws designed during the provincial autonomy movement of the 1920s and the post-1927 Nationalist government featured direct voting in elections with (near-)universal adult suffrage. Each of these two systems of electoral law incorporated different elements of foreign electoral practice with concerns and ideas that arose from the experiences and ideals of late imperial Chinese political thought. The transition between these two systems highlights the surprising influence of the short-lived provincial autonomy movement on the legal structures of the centralized one-party states that followed.
Chiang Kai-shek launched the New Life Movement in Nanchang in February 1934 to revive traditional morality by reforming people’s daily behavior. In response to civil leader Wang Jingwei’s challenge, Chiang agreed to deploy moral suasion to urge the Chinese people to observe the New Life directives, but he still integrated the movement into government routine and relied on government agents, especially policemen, to implement it. Contemporary politicians and commentators understood this movement as an effective way to cultivate qualified citizens and to maintain social order in the power void caused by the retreat of the traditional rule of morality and the deficiency of the rule of law, so the New Life Movement was located in a new domain of state control between morality and law. Although this new domain was similar to the Western state apparatus of disciplining the population to produce “docile bodies” in the Foucauldian sense, it was actually an integral part of China’s own modernizing process, in which the state redefined its moral and legal role in people’s everyday lives in order to build a modern nation-state.
During most of the period from 1912 to 1936, Guangdong Province was independent from the central government. The local authorities there were facing a dilemma regarding opium, as others were elsewhere in China. On the one hand, opium was considered the symbol of China’s weakness, and its suppression was a top priority; on the other hand, opium taxes represented an indispensable source of fiscal income. Some Guangdong power holders were truly committed to a suppression agenda, especially from 1913 to 1924. During this period, with the exception of a brief interlude from 1915 to 1916, opium laws were prohibition laws. Even if these laws were not always enforced with full vigor, the drug remained illegal in Guangdong. After 1924, opium was legalized, and the authorities openly ruled an opium monopoly. They came out with increasingly comprehensive regulations, which proved successful in increasing opium revenues. Yet, as this article makes clear, there was nothing like direct government control: traditional tax-farming arrangements with local opium merchants (though under stricter supervision) remained the backbone of the monopoly. The article also pays attention to the influence of the Six-Year Plan (1935–1940) launched by the Nanking government. As a credible set of suppression laws, it appealed to the Guangdong progressive elites who were hostile to opium. They urged the local autocrat Chen Jitang to take similar action. Chen made attempts to launch his own plans for suppressing opium, but they were unconvincing and nothing concrete came out of them. This article suggests that, in order to obtain a better understanding of how easily Chen Jitang was driven out of power in the summer of 1936, it is necessary to take into account the significant contribution of the Six-Year Plan in undermining his legitimacy.
Commentators have long treated the Republican and People’s Republic of China (PRC) judicial systems in nearly hermetic isolation from each other. Yet it is impossible to grasp fully the history of the PRC judicial system independent of its Republican heritage, and to decouple the two is therefore to foreclose critical avenues of understanding. As a step toward repairing that rupture, this paper specifies the configurations and distributions of courts, as well as the discourses of judicial malaise and reform that the Republican period deposited on the doorstep of the PRC. It establishes the necessary empirical foundation from which to appreciate the institutional deficits and imbalances, developmental dilemmas, and normative discourses that confronted Chinese Communist Party (CCP) judicial planners in 1949, and it equips the reader to understand the planners’ responses—not just through the lens of ideology but also as reasoned reactions to concrete, practical problems. Additionally, this paper suggests that memory of the Republican judicial system served as a repository of value from which to shape, assess, and comprehend law’s fate in the PRC.