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Why Do China’s Reforms All Fail?

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Why Do China’s Reforms All Fail?

Throughout history, Chinese reformers have fallen short and met grisly ends. Why did they always fail?

Why Do China’s Reforms All Fail?

Wang Anshi (1021 – 1086)

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Compared with the “revolutions” (peasant uprisings, armed rebellions, palace coups, etc.) that toppled dynasties in Chinese history, the goal of “reform” has been the exact opposite: to perpetuate the dynasty. Ordinary people have roughly the same impression of “revolution” and “reform” as instruments of “change.” But actually, in the 2000-year history of China, there has been one purpose for reform: avoiding change. Reform is used to keep the existing system in place. In Chinese history, “reform” and “revolution” alternated over time. Revolutions often succeeded, and so China became the country with the most peasant uprisings and dynastic changes in the world. But few reforms were successful.

From a modern perspective, almost all reforms in Chinese history can be classified as “failures”: from Shang Yang’s reforms in the state of Qin to the rule of Emperors Wen and Jing in the Han dynasty; from Wang Mang seizing power to Wang Anshi’s Song dynasty reforms; from the Ming and Qing dynasty decision to shut China off from foreign contact to the Westernization movement during the late Qing… None of these movements can really be called successful. Worse, the reformers themselves generally met tragic ends.

Why is this? To simplify, there are three common factors. First, as opposed to other reforms recorded in world history, almost all of China’s reforms were done purely for the benefit of the ruler (the emperor). The reforms adjusted the ruler’s policies on how to control the people, how to manage the four classes (scholars, peasants, artisans and merchants), how to exploit the peasants’ land, and how to fill the treasury with taxes. None of the reforms touched on philosophies of holding power, or the methods of governance, much less centered around public interests.

China’s reformers saw the interests of the common people as objects of reform, rather than reforming the regime in order to benefit the people. As a result, these reforms never touched the ruling dynasty, but only caused power struggles between the interest groups involved. Compared to revolutions (which are either loved or feared), the people were generally indifferent to “reform.” And reforms without public support fail utterly once they encounter counterattacks from interest groups and opposition parties. For the common people, the failure of the reforms was nothing to mourn.

Second, many vigorous reforms in Chinese history had one thing in common: The reformers were not the highest ruler (the emperor). Many had been (provisionally) selected by the emperor to act as pioneers for the reforms — and as scapegoats when reforms failed. Reformers like Shang Yang, Wang Anshi and the late Qing Westernization school all suffered this fate. The people who held supreme power were usually governing from behind the scenes. They maintained a certain distance from the reform, which left plenty of room to maneuver. If the reforms succeed, those in charge will take the credit; if the reforms fail, they will sacrifice the reformers. Under these circumstances, the reforms would be half-hearted from the beginning — so much for “top-down” reforms. By contrast, the series of reforms conducted directly by Emperor Wu in the Han dynasty and by Tang dynasty emperors were more effective.

Third, all the reforms in Chinese history aimed to perpetuate the current system, rather than changing the existing regime. Some reforms failed, and the reformers were dismembered (like Shang Yang) or died in disgrace (Wang Anshi). But even then, leaders kept the parts of the reform policies that could help maintain the existing system, turning the reforms into cogs in the authoritarian machine.

Those reform measures that served to consolidate centralized authority often succeeded. For example, the state monopolies on salt and iron created by Guan Zhong in the 7th century BCE have a parallel today in the state oil monopoly. However, ideas like the separation of powers and equal distribution of wealth (which the common people cared more about) were often hijacked by  interest groups or abruptly halted by the emperor. As a result, vigorous reform movements in China, no matter how significant their policies were at the start, withered away. After a few decades, the reforms had been reduced to nothing but tools to help exploit the people and control the opinions of citizens.

Of course, the biggest problem encountered by Chinese reform movements is that there’s no way to change the system itself, which has lasted for 2,000 years. All you can do is make it more perfect, more refined — and more evil. In this sense, all reforms in China’s 2,000-year history had no chance of succeeding, and we should be thankful they failed.

Today, many scholars say that if Sun Yat-sen had not been in such a hurry to create a revolution, then the Qing dynasty’s constitutional reform could have succeeded. They have a rich scholarly imagination, but lack literary imagination: Can you imagine a scenario where, from the Qin to the Qing, institutional reforms succeeded? Everyone in China would have a “Manchu queue” and would kowtow every morning, yelling “Long live the Aisin Gioro clan!”

Whether reforms can be successful is related to whether the system can change, and whether the authorities are willing to change the system to pursue a higher goal… Looking at China’s current reforms from the perspective of Chinese history, there’s good reason to be pessimistic. But we shouldn’t say that there’s no hope or no way forward. The reformers should learn from China’s history. Reform needs to be “top-down” and backed by the strong determination of the core leadership. At the same time, the reformers should begin by placing the people’s interests, the future of the nation, and national security as their highest goals. They should avoid only caring about the interests of those in power or the concerns of interest groups.

These things are precisely what China’s historical reformers did not do, and were not willing to do. If in the 21st century, rulers still hold the same thoughts and ideas as those reformers in history. If they do not boldly seek to reform the system for the benefit of the nation and the people but try to maintain the existing system, then they shouldn’t even try to reform. Otherwise, even if the reforms don’t fail, they will bring chaos, and could hasten the arrival of revolution.

This piece originally appeared in Chinese on Yang Hengjun’s blog. The original post can be found here.

Yang Hengjun is a Chinese independent scholar, novelist, and blogger. He once worked in the Chinese Foreign Ministry and as a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington, DC. Yang received his Ph.D. from the University of Technology, Sydney in Australia. His Chinese language blog is featured on major Chinese current affairs and international relations portals and his pieces receive millions of hits. Yang’s blog can be accessed at