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Liberalism in China is a development from classical liberalism as it was introduced into China during the Republican period[1] and, later, reintroduced after the end of the Cultural Revolution.[2]


Republic of China

During the Republican period, translations of John Stuart Mill, Herbert Spencer, Immanuel Kant, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and many other works were produced in China. These writers had a cumulative effect, as did the ascendancy of liberalism in world powers like Britain, France and the United States. The establishment of the Republic of China in 1912 signaled the acceptance (at least in principle) of these models and the liberal values with which they identified, such as constitutionalism and the separation of powers.

The writings of Liang Qichao (1873–1929) played a major role, despite his leanings to a conservative outlook in latter years. The New Culture Movement (1915) and its immediate successor the May Fourth Movement (1919) initially were strongly liberal in character, with key figures like Hu Shih (1891–1962) as the preeminent exponent of liberal values.[3] Other important liberals were Zhang Dongsun (1886–1973) and Zhang Junmai (1887–1969).

Liberalism was to suffer in the wake of the immense challenges China faced from Japanese militarism and the impact of the Chinese Communist Revolution. By the 1930s, many of the younger generation felt that only radical, authoritarian doctrines could save the country. Liberalism increasingly seemed to serve as a forlorn "third force", able only to admonish authoritarian regimes of the Left (Maoism) and Right (Chiangism).

Writers such as Chu Anping, however, made a strong case against the Kuomintang; educators and scholars such as Fei Xiaotong and Tao Xingzhi made a case for revolution as a cause worthy of liberal support; while many more liberals left China, including the rural reformer James Yen, the university president Chiang Monlin, and many less well known figures.

Later under its newly adopted 1947 Constitution of the Republic of China, the 1947 National Assembly election, 1948 Legislative Yuan election, and 1948 presidential election took place in China.

Maoist era

The ascendancy of Mao Zedong and the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949 brought the liberal impulse to its lowest level. Ideological witch-hunts were organized against the followers of Hu Shih,[4] and their values were ceaselessly derided as bourgeois delusions which could only weaken the nation.


With the collapse of Mao's ideology on his death, seeds of regeneration which had lain dormant gradually came to life. Liberal ideals like intellectual freedom, the separation of powers, civil society and the rule of law were reexamined in the light of the destruction wrought by the Chinese Communist Party which had been so vociferous in denigrating them. Starting in the Cultural Revolution, many younger people experienced virtual conversions to liberalism. This process was given further impetus by the Tiananmen Square protests leading up to the massacre of June 4, 1989. The democracy movement espoused (however imperfectly) many liberal doctrines. Among the key figures were Wang Ruoshui (1926–2002), who while remaining a Marxist humanist reconfigured this doctrine along liberal lines,[5] and Liu Xiaobo (1955–2017), initially a literary critic, who broke with Marxism to combine existentialist themes with liberalism.[6][7]

Since the 1990s

In the 1990s the liberal wing of the remnant of the pro-democracy movement re-emerged following the Tiananmen crackdown, including figures like Qin Hui,[8] Li Shenzhi,[9] Wang Yuanhua,[10] Zhu Xueqin, Xu Youyu, Liu Junning and many others. The writings of Gu Zhun (1915–1974) were rediscovered, providing evidence of a stubborn core of liberal values that the communist movement had failed to extinguish. Ranged against the liberals are the Chinese New Left and populist nationalism.[2]

Chinese liberalism itself tends to divide into market liberalism, impressed by the US as a political model and adhering to the doctrines of Hayek and other neoliberals, and left-liberalism, more aligned with European social democracy and the welfare state. These tendencies continue to evolve in an uneasy state of tension. Nonetheless, Chinese liberalism has clearly emerged in its social democratic form is even influencing the doctrinal evolution of the CCP.

Li Keqiang is viewed as a liberal in China's ruling elite, advocating for economic liberty.[11] Wang Yang is viewed as a liberal in China's ruling elite, representing a school of thought that advocates for gradual political liberalization.[12]

A 2010s study shows the Chinese people with higher level of education tend to favor liberalism. Chinese citizens have a range of opinions about individual rights and political freedoms that do not always match existing policies or state propaganda. There are plenty of nationalists, but there is also a silent majority in favor of economic reform and political liberalism.[13]

See also


  1. ^ Fung, Edmund S. K. (2010). The Intellectual Foundations of Chinese Modernity: Cultural and Political Thought in the Republican Era. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-1-139-48823-5.
  2. ^ a b Merle Goldman (2005). From Comrade to Citizen: The Struggle for Political Rights in China. Harvard University Press. pp. 128–160. ISBN 978-0-674-01890-7.
  3. ^ "China's Great Liberal of the 20th Century — Hu Shih Founder of Modern Chinese Language". Asia Society. Retrieved 2023-06-17.
  4. ^ Zhou, Zhiping (2012). 光焰不熄:胡适思想与现代中国. Beijing: Jiuzhou Press. p. 202.
  5. ^ Rosenthal, Elisabeth (2002-01-14). "Wang Ruoshui, 75, Liberal Who Was Shunned in China". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2023-06-17.
  6. ^ Pomfret, John (2021-10-28). "Opinion | Liu Xiaobo showed the world that China has a great tradition of liberal thought". Washington Post. ISSN 0190-8286. Retrieved 2023-06-17.
  7. ^ Zhang, Yu; Li, Jie; Martin-Liao, Tienchi; Mosher, Stacy; Worden, Andréa (2017). The Journey of Liu Xiaobo: From Dark Horse to Nobel Laureate. University of Nebraska Press. ISBN 978-1-64012-224-6. JSTOR j.ctvxrpxhh.
  8. ^ "Qin Hui 秦晖 b.1953 | Centre for Chinese Research". Retrieved 2023-06-17.
  9. ^ "Selected Writings of Li Shenzhi". Kettering Foundation. 2014-10-29. Retrieved 2023-06-17.
  10. ^ "Enlightenment and Chinese Civil Society: The Cases of Wang Yuanhua and Li Shenzhi | US-China Institute". Retrieved 2023-06-17.
  11. ^ "Keqiang ker-ching: How China's next prime minister keeps tabs on its economy". The Economist. 2010-12-09.
  12. ^ Jacobs, Andrew (5 November 2012). "As China Awaits New Leadership, Liberals Look to a Provincial Party Chief". New York Times.
  13. ^ Pan, Jennifer, and Yiqing Xu. "China’s ideological spectrum." The Journal of Politics 80, no. 1 (2018): 254-273.

Further reading