Rethinking Constitutionalism in Late 19th and Early 20th Century China

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Rethinking Constitutionalism in Late 19th and Early 20th Century China

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Title: Rethinking Constitutionalism in Late 19th and Early 20th Century China
Author: Zhao, Hui
Citation: Zhao, Hui. 2012. Rethinking Constitutionalism in Late 19th and Early 20th Century China. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University.
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Abstract: In the tenets of Western political science, “limited government” is usually seen as the touchstone of modern constitutionalism. Yet significant issues can arise when one applies this framework to East Asia. By studying the origin of constitutionalism in China and Japan, my dissertation reexamines the idea that “limited government” is the core of modern constitutionalism. I argue that constitutionalism, as it was introduced in Meiji Japan and late Qing China, focused on strengthening the government rather than limiting it. Many might feel this affirms the popular belief in an inherent affinity for authoritarianism in the Chinese mind, but this dissertation disagrees, finding such a conclusion to be unfairly reductive, and dangerous to achieving a true cross-cultural understanding. It argues instead that Chinese constitutionalism’s desire to strengthen the state was not the manifestation of a cultural predisposition toward authoritarianism, but was instead consciously adopted and constructed in response to the chaotic realities of late 19th and early 20th century China. By studying the constitutional thought of Aristotle, Cicero, Machiavelli, Hobbes, the early English constitutionalists, Locke, Montesquieu, the American founding fathers, and others, I shine light on a dilemma that was as critical to late Qing China constitutionalism as it was to Aristotle’s ancient Greece, Machiavelli’s Renaissance Florence, and Lincoln’s splitting 19th century America: to achieve the delicate balance between a strong state and the limiting principles of a Republic. My argument calls for a reevaluation not only of Chinese constitutional thought, but also of current liberal constitutional theory, which tends to define the goal of constitutionalism simply as the limiting of governmental power. My research shows that the essential goal of constitutionalism, whether it takes place in the East or the West, in the present or the past, is not to move closer to one pole of authoritarianism or the other of limited government, but to strike an ideal balance between the two, depending on the specific context of a state’s time and place in history.
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