Historian Yu Ying-shih warns China is threat to democracy

05/04/2019 11:03 AM
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By Ozzy Yin and Elizabeth Hsu, CNA staff reporters

Chinese American historian Yu Ying-shih (余英時) believes the ideas of democracy and science have been carried out partially, even comprehensively, in Taiwan, but he cautioned the island to be wary of the Chinese Communist regime and to keep its democratic system intact.

China's Communist regime is "the biggest threat Taiwan is faced with," said the 89-year-old Yu in a recent interview with CNA at his residence in Princeton.

A Princeton University emeritus professor, Yu is regarded by his peers as the greatest Chinese intellectual historian of his generation.

He said that most ordinary people in Taiwan do not know the threat, and only think that Communist China is very rich and that Taiwan has to comprise with it to earn money.

"It depends on how far you want to go in compromising," Yu said.

"If it is a compromise made regardless of political consequences, I think Taiwan will become a second Hong Kong in the future," warned the historian and Sinologist known for his extensive research on Chinese history and philosophy.

Yu warned: "Currently the interior ideology of Taiwan is in great disarray, without a common consensus. This is a huge crisis."

"Spirit of May Fourth Movement"

The interview was made ahead of the 100th anniversary of the May Fourth Movement, which started with a student-led march in Beijing on May 4, 1919 in protest against foreign powers exerting control over parts of China and the weak Chinese government at the time.

The march sparked nation-wide protests and marked an upsurge of Chinese nationalism and a move towards political activism by ordinary people rather than just intellectual elites.

In a broader sense, the term "May Fourth Movement" often refers to a new cultural movement from 1915 to 1926 with the pursuit of democracy and science by intellectuals and students to modernize and strengthen China.

(Peking University's Red Building, the cradle for the May Fourth Movement)

(The New Culture Movement Memorial of Beijing)

The anti-Imperialist, democratic and nationalist ideals expressed by the students who took to the streets a century ago, however, are now credited by China's Communist Party for having lit the revolutionary flame that led to its formation.

But Yu argued that the Communists took advantage of the May Fourth Movement to build themselves up before they established the People's Republic of China government in 1949.

The Communists emphasized "the people's democratic dictatorship," claiming the "proletarian dictatorship" was true democracy.

Such a claim runs contrary to the spirit of the May Fourth Movement and its activists, Yu said.

He elaborated that democracy and science are closely related to each other because democracy cannot exist without the freedom of speech, action and organization, which is what science needs.

Without freedom, scientists cannot achieve their research works, the historian said, adding that Communist China does not want democracy and science, nor knowledge, only the skills to control people.

Communist China's true gospel is "serving the party," Yu said.

"The Communists uphold one-party dictatorship under the cover of May Fourth patriotism and by taking advantage of the nationalist sentiment. It's what it has done most successfully," Yu contended.

Citing many Chinese university professors and researchers, Yu said "it is now the worst time" for freedom of speech in China, while students would monitor instructors' remarks in classes, causing fear among the latter that they could be sacked because they have said something "incorrect."

The Xi Jinping (習近平) administration completely violates the May Fourth spirit, Yu charged.

"Ideals of Democracy"

The prominent historian, however, does not believe the May Fourth Movement's ideals have gone extinct in China. On the contrary, they are successively active, and have been the spiritual strength that has pushed China to move over the past century, Yu said.

There are evidence for this, he said, including opposition activists stepping forward one after another calling for democracy and human rights in the wake of the Tiananmen Square student-led demonstrations in Beijing on June 4, 1989, and seeking basic human and press rights.

Yu also regards the democratic and free system Taiwan has established over the past three decades as deriving from the May Fourth Movement.

From 1949 to 1960, the second round of the movement occurred in Taiwan with the publishing of the journal "Free China," for which Hu Shih (胡適), a philosopher, essayist and diplomat who is widely recognized as a key contributor to Chinese liberalism and language reform, served as the publisher, according to Yu.

At that time, Yu said democratic ideas did not prevail in Taiwan. Also, under the Kuomintang's one-party dictatorship, there was no room for democracy to grow there until the birth of "Free China," which advocated the ideas of democracy, freedom and human rights.

Thanks to the spread of ideas of general elections and opposition political parties by Hu and Lei Chen (雷震), one of the key editors of the periodical, the ideas continued to grow even after the publication of "Free China" was ordered to cease in 1960.

It promoted the birth of opposition parties in the 1980s and helped materialize the first direct presidential election in the 1990s, Yu said.

"You can say the ideas of democracy and science that May Fourth advocates have been carried out partially, or even comprehensively, in Taiwan," Yu noted. "Today in Taiwan, scientific research can be undertaken freely, and the democratic system there is mature basically."

"The key is the May Fourth (movement)," he said.

Asked if Taiwan can have its influence on China on the path toward democracy, the historian said that is "unlikely for the time being."

However, he said, all of the liberals from China he made contact with hoped Taiwan will keep its democratic system intact, so that it can serve as a possible direction for China's development in the future.

"If the thing (democratic system) cannot be kept, the intellectuals on the mainland would see it as a very dangerous situation, and believe that Chinese people would be convinced China should not develop democracy," warned Yu.

Born in Tianjin, China, Yu moved to Hong Kong in 1950, shortly after the Communists took over the mainland. He later immigrated to the United States and was a tenured professor at Harvard University and Yale University before moving to Princeton.

Yu won the U.S. Library of Congress' John W. Kluge Prize in 2006 for his lifetime achievements in the study of humanity, becoming the first Chinese scholar to win the honor.

In 2014, he was also awarded the Tang Prize in Sinology for his original research and insight into the intellectual history of China.

Yu has insisted that democracy and Confucianism were not incompatible as many people believed.

He argued that liberal Confucian values, when freed from imperial ideology, were essential to democracy, because they had always insisted on independent scholars critiquing political power, people having a voice in governance, political power being contingent on the performance of rulers, and the responsibility of the individual for social action.


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