6. A Critique of Merchants as a Special Interest Group
Zhang Taiyan's critique of political groups also focused on the operation of state power in these organizations and its moral consequences. Learned societies and political parties, as well as chambers of commerce, were the most important among urban groups. Since creation of the Self-Strengthening Learned Society (Ziqiang xuehui), most late imperial learned societies were political groups; these were also the precursors of modern Chinese political parties. The most forceful promoter of learned societies was Liang Qichao. He used the term "grouping" for
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all sorts of social and political organizations. Their most important function was to bring together the Chinese people as a unified nation. In "Lun xuehui" (On learned societies), in Bianfa tongyi
(The general significance of the reform movement), Liang divided social groups into three types: "National groupings are the parliaments, commercial groupings are companies, and academic groupings are learned societies. Parliaments and companies know and discuss their vocations. Both derive from learning, so learned societies are the mother of those two."
As Hao Chang has pointed out, Liang Qichao granted learned societies such an important position because he believed that they formed an integral link in China's state making. Learned societies not only undertook the mission of teaching the people but also provided a way of shaping a certain political identity. Thus they constituted an indispensable bond in transforming China's complex and unorganized society into a unified, cohesive nation.
During the constitutionalist movement of the late Qing, political parties had a close relationship with learned societies. Zhang criticized these political groups primarily because of their ties with state power. He said that "if the state has political parties, then not only are most political matters corrupt, but the virtue of the scholargentry also declines. It turns the government into a redlight district, and national affairs into a peep show." This, he explained, followed from the election of representatives from political parties, who "ascended overnight to the king's road, sitting to discuss the Way. They seek to express their parties' views, not the will of the people. As for the various craft and commercial parties, all submit to their own private circles."
Hence his denial of political groups was twofold: on the one hand, they were self-interested social collectivities that obstructed the rationalization of state making; on the other hand, the activities of Chinese political groups were part of the state's workings. This also was the foundation of his post–1911 revolution theory: "Raise revolutionary armies and eliminate revolutionary parties."