Changing visions of legitimate rule in the republican period
Before we can turn to the events leading up to the convening of the first CPPCC in September 1949, we have to revisit the attempts to form similar advisory bodies during the preceding two decades. Only then can we grasp the historical significance and the symbolic deviations from previous attempts to use consultative bodies for the expansion of regime legitimacy.
From the last decades of the nineteenth century to the end of the Republican period, Chinese perceptions of the relationship between the individual, the collective, and the state witnessed dramatic change. Former subjects of imperial rule now laid claim to their rights and duties as citizens. These changes became most apparent in discourses on citizenship and nationalism, the emergence of new public institutions, and a new education system.4 Progressive intellectuals examined foreign political alternatives as members of study societies or joined forces in nationalist organizations and political parties.5 Moreover, an increasingly selfconfident urban workforce made their demands heard through protests, boycotts, and strikes. Such mass movements of the early Republican period further paved the way for more popular modes of forming and expressing political opinions and the emergence of mass political parties in the mid-1920s.6 However, how exactly the will of the masses was to enter political decision-making processes was a contested issue.
Early experiments with popular voting had proven in the eyes of many observers that “elections merely aggregated private interests, which could be manipulated by unscrupulous campaigners for personal benefit.”7 Nonetheless, even though the elites were divided on the question of popular voting, they united behind the demand for a greater involvement of intellectuals and experts as counsels to the government, which was firmly in the hands of the Nationalist Party (Guomindang GMD). They believed that their expertise would improve political decision-making and that they could act as mediators between the government and the common people’s interests. The self-image of many intellectuals, their trust in the moral character of talented men, and the primacy of a strong government over civil liberties were reminiscent of the justification of merit-based appointments for political offices during the late imperial period. In 1931, the GMD government gave in to the intellectuals’ demands as its reputation decreased with every concession to Japanese aggression. They extended an invitation to prominent public figures (except Communists) to join a National Emergency Conference (Guonanhui which met in Luoyang in April 1932.8
Contemporary critics unmasked the conference as a mere political gesture to counter a growing sense of disillusionment caused by the empty promises of an inclusive and representative form of government and the related loss of legitimacy. After the disclosure of the list of participants, the famous intellectual Tao Xingzhi (1891-1946) derided it as a “celebrity conference” (mingren huiyi AH’ ai), in which fame outranked expertise. None of the participants ever-fended for themselves through manual labor, but they would still claim to speak on behalf of China’s common people (dai laobaixing shuohua R A fiilii'iiinS). “The deterioration of politics in recent years stems from this word dai. ... How I wish that this grievous word will no longer be included in future dictionaries of the Chinese Republic,” Tao concluded reproachfully.9 Other prominent figures like Shi Liangcai Ahi A (1880-1934) joined the call for a boycott of the National Emergency Conference. They demanded to replace it with an assembly of real political influence, yet the GMD was not willing to put its monopoly of power-up for discussion.10 Even GMD delegates voiced concerns over the lack of representative bodies as a counterweight to one-party rule.11
In 1938, the GMD started a renewed attempt to appease calls for a more democratic form of government by establishing the Guomin canzhenghui H K the “National Political Participatory Assembly.” Again, the real power of the council did not meet expectations. Peng Juyuan ¿Oj® (dates unknown) described the longing for structures that would represent the will of the people (minyi jiguan Kiitlfll]). In Peng’s view, a genuinely democratic council would have to meet four criteria: first, it would need to be large enough to represent the diversity of China's large population; second, its members would have to be selected through democratic procedures; third, it would have to hold the highest decision-making power; and fourth, participation in this council should be open to people from all parts of China.12 The National Political Participatory Assembly fell short in all four points. However, we see here the yardstick for measuring later proposals for consultative or even legislative assemblies: size, elective procedures, legal status, and the representation of all regions and social groups.
With the Japanese defeat and the end of the Second World War, the external threat’s unifying power diminished, and the GMD’s and CCP’s competition for popular support entered a new round. In 1945, the American and Soviet governments pressured both parties to return to the negotiation table and to sign the “Double Tenth Agreement”13 on October 10. As part of this agreement, a Political Consultative Conference (Zhengzhi xieshang huiyi was to be held
as the first step toward the drafting of a constitution and a reformed united government, including the so-called democratic parties and groups (minzhu dangpai KijSTilR, DPGs).14 However, when the conference finally convened in January 1946, the government had failed to implement the necessary reforms promised in the agreement. Not surprisingly, the public expectations of the conference merely ranged from cautiously optimistic to fatalistic.15 Already the concluding
People’s Political Consultative Conference 285 celebrations of the consultative conference were disrupted by attacks on DPG representatives. Both CCP and GMD refocused on solving the conflict through the power of the gun rather than persuasion.
Ultimately, the failure of the GMD to make political concessions, as well as the persecution of DPG members, helped the Communists to portray themselves as a conciliatory force pressured into a military confrontation. As Lyman van Slyke noted, at this point, the language of CCP propaganda changed accordingly from an “anti-feudal united front,” to a “new democratic united front,” reaching its climax in an even broader “anti-Chiang front” against the head of the GMD government Chiang Kai-shek5l$fW:T (1887-1975).16 Furthermore, the CCP began to set up elected representative bodies in the areas under their control to showcase their willingness to cooperate across party divisions.17 In short, the CCP decided to revive the “old” consultative conference (jiu zhengxie of 1946 not because it had been a functioning political body but, on the contrary, as a potent symbol of democratic promises broken by the GMD, which were finally to be realized by the CCP with a “new” consultative conference (xin zhengxie ®r¡Stro). The choice of the name “consultative conference” rather than, for example, “participatory council” (canzhenghui projected an image of a transitional assembly that was to mediate between political forces and to pave the way for a new form of government. That this body would become a permanent part of the PRC’s political system was not apparent at this stage.