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Dr. Thomas Weyrauch
China´s Political Party Landscape since 1894
2nd World Conference of Chinese Studies
Witten University Aug. 19th/20th, 2018
Today, almost all political systems are based on parties, that is, on organized groups with common ideas of exercising political power. The word “party” is common in western languages and of Latin origin. “partire” means to divide. Therefore, for centuries the reputation of the word was negative and connoted as “factionalism”.
The Chinese equivalent “dang” (黨/党) shares this fate since the philosopher Confucius warned honest men to join a dang. The meaning of dang in this time was “clique”. However, the morpheme underwent an improvement until the 19th century.
Today, “China” is defined as a nation consisting the territories of the People’s Republic of China in mainland China and the Republic of China on Taiwan. But in Imperial China of the Qing Dynasty, Mongolia and parts of present-day Russia were components of that entity, too.
As a result of China’s weakness during the late Qing era the first political party was founded in 1894 as Xingzhonghui or Revive China Society. Sun Yatsen, the leader of Xingzhonghui, did not trust in the reformability of the monarchy and decided on a revolutionary struggle against imperial rule, which was to culminate in the founding of a modern republic.
Sun competed with monarchists around Kang Youwei, who, like him, were persecuted by a reactionary group in the imperial court. Kang tried to bring the imprisoned reform emperor Guangxu back to power by founding the Baohuanghui, Protect the Emperor Society, in 1899. Each of those two antagonistic groups, the revolutionary republicans and the reformist monarchists, became nuclei of various types of political parties.
On the other hand the monarchist Baohuanghui gave birth to new constitutionalist, nationalistic, militaristic, democratic and social-democratic parties. Between 1894 and 1911 ten different parties emerged. Their number increased continuously, so in addition 21 parties were founded in the early Republic of China from 1912 to 1927. The heirs of the Xingzhonghui, the Tongmenghui or United Allegiance Society, founded the Republic of China and became the winner of China’s first national elections in 1913 under the name Zhongguo Guomindang (Nationalist Party, GMD). The GMD-ideology based on the so-called Three Principles of the People, national independence, social justice and democracy.
At the instigation of the Comintern the Zhongguo Gongchandang, Chinese Communist Party (CCP), was created in 1921. That party had a soviet style ideology. After Sun Yatsen´s death, a conflict between his successor Jiang Jieshi (Chiang Kaishek) and the CCP led to a divide between GMD and CCP, just before Jiang tried to unify China after a long civil war with powerful warlords. Other meaningful parties of the time before 1928 were dependent on the warlords, or represented nationalist, socialist or democratic positions.
When Jiang defeated the warlords in 1928 and successfully unified China under the GMD ideology, his party had only 97,000 members. The Communist Party grew steadily from 57 members in 1921 to 1.2 million in 1945, while the Chinese society originated 14 new parties. Some of them were in affiliation to the GMD or the CCP, others tried to find a third way, independent from the two mighty adversaries. Most of them were brought into being as the result of Japans invasion of China and wanted to resist the aggression. But the GMD politician Wang Jingwei split his own party in occupied China to create a Japan-friendly fascist organization for his puppet regime.
When Japan lost the war in 1945, the island of Taiwan was ceded to China after 50 years of colonial rule. But China continued to suffer from the war damage and it was difficult to rebuild state structures. However, it succeeded in enacting a modern constitution in 1946, holding national elections for parliamentary bodies in 1947 and reviving all constitutional organs, offices, as well as courts in 1948. In this time the GMD had already 4 million members.
China slipped into a new civil war between the GMD-led government and the CCP. Another event darkened the fate of the nation, when violence in the new province of Taiwan broke out between the native people and their military administration. Two parties were born as a result of these conflicts, and they joined in an alliance with the CCP. The Communist Party ultimately won the Civil War in 1949 and became the predominant force of a new state, the People’s Republic of China.
After the Republic of China lost the mainland, only the GMD and two minor parties were permitted to act in state affairs in Taiwan.
The situation on Taiwan of restricting the number of parties continued until 1986, when the new oppositional Minzhu Jinbudang (Democratic Progressive Party, DPP) was founded. This Taiwan-nativist and separatist party succeeded in becoming the ruling party twice with the presidents Chen Shuibian between 2000 and 2008 and Cai Yingwen since 2016.
Starting in 1986, Taiwan’s political system was able to represent the society by a spectrum of up to 337 parties in 2017. Meanwhile the DPP-Government registered party No. 338 in 2018, but forbade many other parties at the same time.
In the People’s Republic of China, the CCP remained the leading power of the system, permitting only eight minor parties, which were allies of the CCP before 1949. Meanwhile the CCP became the largest political party in the world with more than 90 million members.
Political life in Hong Kong and Macau – once colonies of Great Britain and Portugal – is different. Both entities became Special Administration Zones of the People’s Republic without restrictions in founding political parties, but with limited rights in the voting system.
In total, Chinese history since 1894 gives a record of more than 500 political parties. Their main priorities were or are nationalist, communist, socialist, democratic, fascist or liberal ideas. Some parties fight for independence from China, others for a unified country, for religious believes, for women’s rights, young people, or minorities, as well as for environmental protection. Their diversity proves that party history in China is a fascinating issue.