Revolutionary Chinese hero inspired by an obscure dentist

The Political Thought of Sun Yat-Sen
May 23, 2003

Sun Yat-Sen is celebrated in mainland China and Taiwan as the leader of the 1911 revolution that overthrew the Qing dynasty and founded the Republic of China. Both communists and nationalists pay tribute to him as a political leader, laying claim to different aspects of his career. His reputation as a revolutionary thinker and political theorist, however, has been problematic, especially among western critics. In this well-crafted study, Audrey Wells restores his reputation, demonstrating the importance and influence of his political thought.

Sun's writings represent a synthesis of western and Chinese political thought but are clearly more than western political theory with Chinese characteristics. His most important work was The Three Principles of the People (nationalism, democracy and livelihood), developed between 1905 and 1924. Particularly interesting is Wells' account of how The American Social Interpretation of History by an obscure dentist, Maurice Williams, influenced the principle of livelihood. The three principles have always been a part of Guomindang ideology, formed the basis of Taiwan's political system and are taught in its high schools. Yet, as Wells argues, only a diluted version of them has been implemented in Taiwan.

On the mainland, Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin have shared with Sun Yat-Sen the priorities of stability, cohesion and avoidance of chaos over political reform. But for the most part, the communists' treatment of Sun's ideas has been opportunistic. Both the authorities and the protesters cited Sun during the 1989 pro-democracy demonstrations, while the grass roots political reforms in Taiwan and on the mainland can find theoretical support in Sun's advocacy of democratising from the grass roots upwards.

Sun's lasting contribution may well be to Chinese constitutional development. There were seven constitutions and constitutional drafts between 1908 and 1949 and there have been four more since the founding of the People's Republic. Whatever interpretation may be put upon their value and viability, the cumulative effect is a constitutional culture.

The present (1982) constitution draws fundamentally on the 1954 constitution. It has been amended more than 20 times, significantly to reflect and legitimate the development of a market-oriented economy.

Taiwan's constitution was heavily influenced by Sun's constitutional blueprint but in a version that embedded the Guomindang and remained so until 2000.

Sun in The Three Principles and The Fundamentals of National Reconstruction advocated an extended system of the separation of powers, which included an executive, legislative and judiciary but also separate powers for examination and control. All five were to be independent, thereby enshrining checks and balances. Politicians as well as civil servants would sit examinations in order to ensure their ability. A control mechanism would be established to investigate and guard against corruption. Both the examination and control systems are rooted in China's past. In addition, Sun proposed systems of direct and indirect participation and democracy. Missing is a concept of the rule of law.

Wells' deft analysis demonstrates how Sun's project reveals "the problems of grafting a new flexible political system on to a previous oppressive old one". At the same time, there is a vision of an alternative to authoritarian regimes and liberal democracies that may have relevance for the developing world.

Robert Benewick is research professor of politics, University of Sussex.

The Political Thought of Sun Yat-Sen

Author - Audrey Wells
ISBN - 0 333 77787 5
Publisher - Palgrave
Price - £50.00
Pages - 233

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