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Counterfeiting Legitimacy: Reflections on the Usurpation of Popular Politics and the “Political Culture” of China, 1912–1949

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image of Frontiers of History in China

The rhetoric of popular political participation filled Republican China’s newspapers, periodicals, and books throughout the 1910s and 1920s. The vocabulary, however, masked a different reality: the monopolization of political life by elites, well-organized political parties, and various kinds of activists. Through a three-part analysis of counterfeit legitimacy in early twentieth-century print media—the widespread use of the word “citizen,” the seeming pervasiveness of civil society associations, and the periodic scheduling of elections—this article exposes the manner in which democratic-sounding rhetoric was manipulated for political gain. Chinese political culture in this era could be characterized as a culture of “misrepresentation” in which politically savvy individuals and groups deliberately cloaked themselves with misleading rhetoric. A recognition of this “usurpation of popular politics” should inform any scholarly attempts to locate a “civil society” or a “public sphere” in early twentieth century China.


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