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Loving One’s Country Does Not Mean the Same as Loving the Imperial Court

[Editor’s Note: On April 11, 2010, Nanfang Metropolitan, published an article by History Scholar Hong Zhenquai, “Loving One’s Country Does Not Mean the Same as Loving the Imperial Court.” The article suggested that nowadays many people misunderstand the relationship between the people, the country, and the imperial court (in the setting of current China, the imperial court can be understood as a metaphor for the Communist regime). A major reason was that the sitting government misleads people into believing that “loving the court represents loving the country.” Mencius, a philosopher from the fourth century B.C., who defended the teachings of Confucius against other philosophies, publicly discussed the correct relationship: “People are the most important, followed by the country, with the emperor coming last.” The article makes a case for people having oversight and control over the government. [1]

The article received a lot of compliments for its boldness, given the CCP’s media control. An unconfirmed blog message on Aiyuan said that Nanfang Metropolitan Editor Zhu Di was chastised (and lost her job) for publishing the article. The article is no longer available on the website of Nanfang Daily (Nanfang Metropolitan’s parent company), but can be found on many overseas Chinese sites. [2]

Nanfang Metropolitan is a newspaper under the Nanfang Newspaper Media Group, one of the most liberal state-owned newspapers, headquartered in Guangzhou City, Guangdong Province. When President Obama visited China in 2009, he gave an exclusive interview to Nanfang Metropolitan’s sister company Nanfang Weekend.

The article follows.]

Loving One’s Country Does Not Mean the Same as Loving the Imperial Court

By History Scholar Hong Zhenquai

King Louis XIV of the French House of Bourbon once said, “L’Etat c’est moi.” (I am the state.”) [3] Despite the fact that all the emperors in the world are fond of autocracy, very few would make it as obvious and explicit as Louis XIV did. The reign of Louis XIV was 1643-1715. His peer in China in this era was Emperor Kangxi. In Kangxi’s mind it was perhaps also ” I am the state.” But he obviously had more of the wisdom of “Chinese characteristics” than Louis XIV. Through different merciful acts he was able to establish himself as the emperor of China, but at the same time he ran an autocracy in China.

It was not until after Louis XIV that some early French thinkers came up with the idea that national sovereignty belongs to the people; so it should not be “I am the state,” but rather “We are the state,” referring to the French people. Of course, this concept was formed after Louis XIV. In the era of Louis XIV, there were not many people who distinguished between the king, the government, and the country. In China, although as early as the Qin dynasty, Meng Zi (Mencius) had already come up with the idea that the “people are the most important, followed by the country, with the emperor coming last,” in fact, in more than 2000 years since the Qin and Han Dynasties, in people’s minds, being patriotic has meant being loyal to the king, and vice versa. People are generally confused about the two concepts of the king and the country. It was only after the Western ideas were introduced into China that Chinese people gradually began to gain a clearer modern understanding of the country, the government (imperial court), and the king. The first Chinese person to be credited with having this understanding is Liang Qichao. He came to this understanding during his exile overseas, after the failure of the reform movement of 1898.

Liang Qichao pointed out that the root of China’s weakness was that people could not correctly distinguish between the concepts of the country and the imperial government, so that patriotism was not used in the right place. What is country? What is the imperial government? Liang said, “The country is the public property of all the people of the country. The imperial government, on the other hand, is the private property of only a family with one surname. The country lasts for a long time, but the rise of a surname is very short.” According to Liang, in China’s long history, all the dynasties, such as the Qin, Han, Tang, Song, and so on, were indeed only the names of dynasties, but not the name of the country. All these dynasties were the private property of each of the royal families, but not the public property of all the Chinese people. However, the Chinese people have often confused the country with the imperial government. Liang believed that this would be a disaster for Chinese people.

The most adverse consequence of confusing the country with the imperial government is that being patriotic to one’s country becomes being patriotic to the imperial government, and even to the king. Liang Qichao said, “Looking into history, there were many famous officials and generals. However, they were all only helping the imperial government with one surname, and what else did they do? Did they do a bit for the benefit of our people? Yet everyone praised them as national heroes. They were in fact merely slaves of the royal family but were called the heroes of the country. That is the most shameful thing for our country. In thousands of years, there really were few people who deserved to be praised, but our four hundred million Chinese people do not feel ashamed about this because they mistakenly think of the imperial government as the country, and do not at all realize this (misunderstanding) themselves.” In history, those officials and generals killed the enemies of the imperial court for the royal family. This has nothing to do with being patriotic to one’s country, but the imperial government depicted them as national heroes. Since people could not distinguish between the country and the imperial government, they followed them and praised them. This is really sad.

Some time after Liang Qichao, Chen Duxiu wrote an article entitled, “Should We Be Patriotic?” The article stated, “To ask whether we should be patriotic or not, one should first ask what a country is. As a matter of fact, a country is nothing but an organization of a collection of people who get together to resist oppression from outside, and an organization that reconciles disputes among the people inside. Good people can use it to resist outside oppression and to reconcile domestic disputes; wicked people can use it to oppress foreign people outside and also oppress its own people inside.” So, “if asked whether we should be patriotic or not, we might loudly reply: … we love a country that is for the well-being of the people, but not a country that forces its people to make sacrifices for its sake.”

The functions of a country, as Chen said, are to resist oppression from foreign forces, and reconcile domestic disputes. The former is external and the latter is internal. Reconciling domestic disputes is more of a passive aspect of the internal responsibility. The positive aspects also include carrying out certain public duties such as disaster relief and rescue, etc.

The government needs to carry out the realization of the country’s functions. If the government can fulfill these functions, then the country is said to be “a country for the well-being of its people”; if the government cannot fulfill these functions, then the country may become “a country that the people make sacrifices for.” The universal phenomenon in history is that when the government cannot fulfill the functions of the country, or can only poorly fulfill them, then having the government is no different from not having it, or may be even worse than not having it.

The geographical environment has made China a country of frequent floods and droughts. A statistical record indicated that in the 2270 years before the formation of the Republic of China in 1912, 1392 droughts and 1621 floods were reported in official records. This means that there were basically disasters every year. Therefore, in the past, the government’s most crucial public duty was to lead people to fight against natural disasters. This can be said to be one of the foundations of government legitimacy. Abnormal phenomena (that may be used to predict societal changes) were also something that the emperors were most concerned about. In the Qing dynasty, the emperors also required local provincial officials to regularly report rain situations, harvest situations, grain prices, etc., in order to keep track of the disaster conditions as well as the livelihood of the people of all the regions. In case of disasters, the government could provide timely relief materials and reduce or eliminate taxes for the affected areas. However, from historical records, disasters without timely assistance were still very common. When large-scale disasters occurred while the government was unable to fulfill its duties, then victims would be desperate to survive and might stand up to fight against the government. One example was the revolt by Li Zicheng’s group in the late Ming Dynasty. It was mostly in Shaanxi and Henan Provinces. The cause was that the government failed to offer effective relief assistance after a severe drought in those two provinces. Thus the victims of the disasters became refugees and eventually turned into a violent force.

In a society, there are many large scale public affairs that involve a large number of people. These can only be carried out by the government, but not by any other social organizations. Once the government is unable to discharge its functions, society will lose order and the public interest will be jeopardized. For example, public affairs such as food safety, public health and safety, and environmental protection all need to be performed by the government.

In the development of human society, there have been long periods of time when dilemmas could not be resolved. That is, people needed a government, but the government was not able to meet people’s expectations that it would discharge its functions of resisting external oppression and providing internal services. In many cases the government even evolved into an organization that fought with its people for its own interests, and harmed the rights of its people. In order to ensure that a government fulfills its duties, people must have the right to supervise the government. The most effective way to do this is to have the people vote to choose the government. Everyone needs to know a common sense concept — namely, as Liang QiChao said, a country is not the same as an imperial court (government); an imperial government may be replaced, but the country will last forever; and therefore people should be patriotic to their country, not to the imperial government.

[1] Tianya website, April 14, 2010
[2] Aiyuan website, April 17, 2010