China Finds a Hero in Lincoln?

Lucas Morel

April 1, 1999

Last week Americans bid farewell to the prime minister of China, Zhu Rongji, who was visiting the U.S. to bolster the "strategic partnership" between the two nations. His departure couldn’t have come too soon, what with his crack about Lincoln being "a model" for Taiwan’s reunification with China. Comparing the forced return of Taiwan to China with Lincoln’s enforcement of the Constitution in the "seceding" states during the Civil War is ludicrous.

About a month before the Civil War began, Lincoln delivered his first inaugural address. He outlined his hopes for avoiding war with southern states intent on leaving the Union because of his election. Lincoln was careful not to assert full federal authority in the South to avoid further provocation of hostility. But he also explained why he thought "secession" was actually rebellion, and therefore inconsistent with both the American union and self-government proper.

"Plainly, the central idea of secession," Lincoln declared, "is the essence of anarchy." He explained that "the only true sovereign of a free people" is a majority of the citizenry acting through a constitutional system with "checks and limitations" on their power. No blind devotee of pure democracy, Lincoln thought that a constitutional majority would best reflect the will of the people through "deliberate changes of popular opinions." The only alternatives were anarchy or despotism.

So when Premier Rongji spotted Lincoln’s portrait during his U.S. visit, and remarked, "I think the Abraham Lincoln president is a model" of how China can reunify with Taiwan, one wonders where the analogy holds. Rongji wanted Americans to interpret Lincoln’s use of force to keep the southern states in the Union as a justification for China’s refusal to renounce force to return Taiwan to "the motherland." But the despotism that marks communist China’s rule could not be further removed from the constitutionalism that marked Lincoln’s presidency.

The national elections of 1860 took place under a long-established Constitution of the United States. Despite being left off the ballots of ten southern states, Lincoln was elected president. He assured dubious southerners that neither he nor his party intended to deny the constitutional rights of any citizen–including slaveowners. Five weeks after Lincoln’s inauguration as president, South Carolina fired on a federal fort, thereby starting the Civil War.

Lincoln then exercised his sworn duty as president to "preserve, protect and defend" the Constitution by doing just that. When asked when the war would end, he always replied, "as soon as the rebels stop shooting." For Lincoln to renounce force to keep the states united would be to renege on his presidential oath and give license to America’s enemies, whether foreign or domestic.

Turn now to the alleged parallel to the civil war between the Communists of mainland China and the Nationalists of Taiwan. Talk about a "cold war." For the most part, the struggle for a united government of present-day China and Taiwan has been on ice since the Nationalists’ retreat to Taiwan and Mao Tse-tung’s founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. Even granting the argument that secession from the United States was justified according to states’ rights, Taiwan never seceded from communist China. Instead the Nationalists claimed they were the legitimate rulers of Taiwan and mainland China.

More importantly, Maoist China was only a republic in name. The Communist Party has ruled on behalf of the mainland Chinese people but with no accountability or concern for rights. Premier Rongji implied as much when he contrasted the "freedom-loving people" of America with the "peace-loving people" of China. For China, a peace bought at the price of freedom, what Lincoln called "despotism," remains the only game in Beijing.

From Chairman Mao to Premier Rongji, might has always spelled right–especially for the Communists who have controlled China for the past half century. From the American founders, Lincoln drew the opposite lesson: "Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it." His Civil War presidency demonstrates that might on behalf of right is the only legitimate exercise of government authority.

Lincoln’s presidency is a model for communist China, but not in the way Rongji imagines. The premier thinks China must choose between peace or disorder, but Lincoln elevated freedom above both. Of course, governing a free society is no easy project. As Lincoln observed, "Must a government, of necessity, be too strong for the liberties of its own people, or too weak to maintain its own existence?"

Accepting the difficulty, Lincoln thought his duty was to give freedom and self-government a fighting chance. If only Premier Rongji valued the same in the Chinese people, he would see that Lincoln could teach him how to help the Chinese "achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace."

Lucas Morel is an adjunct fellow at the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University and an assistant professor of Political Science and History at John Brown University in Siloam Springs, Arkansas.