The Digulist Monument in the Tanjungpura University district of Pontianak, Indonesia. The present-day city was once the home of the Lanfang Republic, established by Chinese immigrants in the 18th century. Photo: Shutterstock
by Wee Kek Koon
by Wee Kek Koon

The first Chinese democracy lasted over 100 years and was quite the success. It just wasn’t in China

  • The Lanfang Republic, located in the present-day Indonesian city of Pontianak, was founded by Chinese immigrants and proved a relatively successful experiment
  • Threatened by Dutch colonists in Indonesia, the republic’s constitution changed and the presidency became hereditary. It did not last much longer

The dust has finally settled on the death and funeral of Queen Elizabeth, whose longevity and dedication to her duties had earned her the respect and admiration of millions around the world. Her passing, however, presents an opportunity for the Commonwealth realms to decide if they should do away with the monarchy.

Apart from the United Kingdom, the newly minted King Charles III is also the head of state of 14 other independent nations – from countries as massive as Canada and Australia to tiny islands such as Tuvalu – where he is represented by a governor-general.

My ambivalence to monarchy – all monarchies, not just the Windsors – has been articulated in this column before. Royal pageantry and glamour do nothing for me, and I resent having to bow, scrape and genuflect before someone just because he or she happened to be born or married into a particular bloodline, however ancient.

To me, royalty represents unearned privilege and power, and the subservience to its members a symptom of infantilism and internalised inferiority.

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The Chinese monarchy was formally abolished in 1912, though there were a few failed attempts to revive it shortly afterwards.

But the first Chinese republic wasn’t the Republic of China, which replaced the Qing dynasty in 1912, nor the short-lived Republic of Formosa, which lasted from May to October 1895 on the island of Taiwan.

The first republic founded and governed by the Chinese was located outside China, in the present-day Indonesian city of Pontianak at the western tip of the island of Borneo.

The Lanfang Republic, which existed for a respectable 112 years from 1776 to 1888, was founded by Hakka immigrants from Guangdong, China. At the height of its powers, its influence extended to the whole of Borneo, an island three times the size of the United Kingdom.

The Kapuas River runs through Pontianak. Photo: Shutterstock

Founded earlier by Chinese-born Chen Lanbo and Luo Fangbo (hence “Lanfang”) as a militarised company, similar to the British East India Company but on a much smaller scale, the Lanfang Republic was formally organised as a state in 1776 with the support of local rulers and peoples, including the Chinese who had already settled in the region, the Dayaks and the Bornean Malays.

Unique to Asian polities of the time, Lanfang was constituted as a republic with non-hereditary rulers. The current dazongzhi, or president, would identify and nominate a successor. The potential successor had to receive the majority of the people’s vote before he could take over as president when the incumbent died or retired.

It is unlikely that there was universal suffrage, or even universal male suffrage, but Lanfang’s fledgling democracy was enlightened and progressive for its time.

By most accounts, Lanfang was a well-run and successful state, with an economy based on mining and trade. Its multi-ethnic population seemed to have coexisted peacefully with one another.

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By the second half of the 19th century, however, it appeared in the crosshairs of the Dutch, who had colonised much of modern-day Indonesia.

Perhaps the external threat changed Lanfang’s constitution. The presidency became hereditary: Liu Asheng (the 11th and 13th president) was the father of the 12th and 14th presidents. The 15th and final term of presidency was a joint leadership of two other men who led the doomed battle against the Dutch.

By 1888, the Lanfang Republic was no more. Today, its existence has been largely forgotten in Indonesia and the rest of Southeast Asia.

But at a time and in a region where indigenous feudal monarchies and European colonial autocracies were the entrenched norms of governance, the Lanfang Republic stood out as a relatively successful experiment in democracy.