Was Chinese Communism Inevitable?

It is likely that, even now, many people in America and Britain still hold to the simple formula that people are good and communism is evil. And, just as good cannot support evil, people cannot support communism. Therefore any political movement that appears to be popular and communist cannot really exist. It can be one or the other, but not both. Any other explanation, however cumbersome or implausible, is preferable to this “impossible” conjunction.

Thus the Soviet Revolution is seen to be the work of German imperialists and the Chinese Revolution as the result of Russian expansionism. The first stage of the Vietnamese fight for independence is believed to have been won by Chinese aid, and the second is supposed to have been fomented and organized from the outside, this time from an entity—North Vietnam—made foreign for the purpose.

In the Chinese case the evident independence of the local Communist leaders rapidly made the explanation of Russian expansionism hard to accept. Dean Acheson and Dean Rusk, C. L. Sulzberger and other cold war dinosaurs claimed for a time that China was a Soviet satellite and was about to be partitioned. However, anyone with any pretensions to scholarship or knowledge of the situation found it impossible to maintain this line and a new, comforting, but far more plausible, explanation was developed. Communism was now seen to have conquered China, not through Soviet invasion but on the heels of the Japanese. W. W. Rostow wrote in The Prospects for Communist China:

The K.M.T. [Kuomintang] made important and now often forgotten progress over the decade 1927-1937…. Progress was made in agriculture, industry, transport and public health…. In evaluating the weaknesses of K.M.T. rule over this period it must be borne in mind that internally the Communists were never crushed, and difficulties with warlords persisted; and that, externally, Chiang Kaishek enjoyed peace only for the period 1929-1931. In 1931 the Japanese moved into Manchuria; in 1932 Shanghai was attacked and from that time down to 1937 when full fledged invasion began, North China was progressively infiltrated.

This hypothesis that the K.M.T. were making progress, and might well have succeeded politically and economically had it not been for Japanese interference and invasion, has been widely accepted and used even by reputable scholars. The other half of the explanation is that in the political complications of the anti-Japanese United Front of Nationalists and Communists and the chaos of the war itself, by using devious political means and guerrilla tactics the Communists were able to increase their strength dramatically. Rostow wrote:

In 1937 they held some 30,000 square miles embracing 2 million people: in 1945 they held some 300,000 square miles containing 95 million people or between 20 or 30% of the Chinese population. The Chinese Red Army decimated in 1934-35 numbered about 900,000 in 1945.

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The most sophisticated elaboration of this thesis was made in Professor Chalmers Johnson’s Peasant Nationalism and Communist Power.1 This book came out in 1962 and has dominated debate on the rise of Chinese Communism ever since. Johnson maintains that before 1936 the Chinese Communists had failed. They had been driven out of their bases in central China and were only just managing to survive in the remote Northwest when they were saved by the Japanese invasion. According to Johnson this early failure was caused by the inability of the Communists to mobilize the peasants merely on a program of social radicalism. However, during the war, using the same political techniques but a very different program, they were able to rouse millions to their support. In place of the previous radical distribution of property, the new program provided for very mild social reform—rent and interest-rate reduction. At the same time, however, the new component of anti-Japanese nationalism was added.

Johnson explains the success of the new line by saying that the Japanese invasion and occupation of the major centers, together with the crumbling of Nationalist and warlord authority in the surrounding countryside, created an unprecedented power vacuum into which the Communists were able to move. The Japanese occupation and their ruthless tactics, especially their raids into the villages, politicized the peasants and established a mass national consciousness among classes that had never felt one before. According to Johnson it was effective guerrilla warfare together with mass mobilization with nationalist, not social, appeals that gave the Communists their unassailable position in 1945. Thus though the anti-Japanese guerrilla movement was indisputably both popular and communist the union of the two “incompatibles” was made possible only when communism took on the effective “disguise,” to use Johnson’s own word, of nationalism.

Johnson investigates some of the reasons why the Communists were able to capture the banner of nationalism from the Nationalists. However, he does not tackle the major problem of why the Nationalists failed to organize an effective mass guerrilla movement. The omission may be due simply to the obviousness of the answer. The Kuomintang leaders were frightened of the peasants and any form of mass organization. Thus when the centers of power were taken by the Japanese, the officials fled or went over to the invaders. Chiang Kai-shek and his supporters felt unable to organize large numbers of people in areas beyond their military control without the paraphernalia of the state to back them up.

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The “peasant nationalist” theory has come under heavy fire from other historians. In 1964 Dr. Donald Gillin reviewed Johnson’s book in a long essay which showed that in at least one province Johnson’s theory did not appear to fit the facts. First, he showed that in Shansi in 1936 the peasants seem to have had very little sense of anti-Japanese nationalism. On this point he was attacking a straw man. Although Johnson was not specific about it, it is evident that he merely maintained that only those Chinese peasants who had direct contact with the invaders, and whose experience was organized and articulated by the Communist resistance, became nationalist. Those away from the front line or those whose lives had been disrupted for long periods before the cadres reached them tended to remain apathetic.

Gillin also demonstrated the more important point that large numbers of peasants did respond to the Communists’ social appeal, in spite of the mildness of their policies from 1936 on. In rural China any social and economic reforms that were actually carried out were startling and attractive. Furthermore Gillin’s criticisms shake one of the main props of Johnson’s structure: his argument that the Communists failed before 1937. In fact statistics show that the Communists expanded faster in earlier periods when they concentrated on social problems than at any time during the war. The speed and effectiveness of these earlier mobilizations were made clear in the fascinating article on “The Ecology of Chinese Communist Success” by Dr. Roy Hofheinz, which is included in the important but patchy collection, Chinese Communist Politics in Action.2

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Hofheinz like Johnson makes use of the analogy of bacteria. He tries to find out under which conditions the “disease” of communism took hold and under which conditions it failed or was defeated by antibodies. He rejects as “mechanical” theories that view the rise of Chinese communism as the result of general forces such as “imperialism,” “rural impoverishment,” and “organized indignation” in the social environment. To avoid this he plunges into a detailed study of China’s 2,000-odd counties. Using data of very uneven reliability, he measures the counties for their incidence of tenancy, percentage of crops paid in rent, degree of contact with the West, and many other variables.

From all this material he appears to have gained virtually nothing. He does seem to have shown that “radical hotbeds”—that is, counties producing large numbers of revolutionaries in the early stages—tended to have had radical traditions and to have been relatively near cities and Western influence. For the later stages of the movement he can detect no convincingly distinctive social features in areas of Communist strength.

Although Hofheinz is reluctant to admit it, it seems to me that after the establishment of the Red Army, the major factor in determining the degree of Communist influence in a given area was the military one. Wherever the revolutionary army and its supporting militias could keep out or restrain right-wing forces the Communists survived and flourished. These areas tended to be hilly, mountainous, or marshy, on the edges of spheres of influence, and away from major cities and lines of communication. Thus there could be no positive correlation with incidence of tenancy or modernization.

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Clearly differences in social or cultural life meant that there were different reactions to the Communists, and there is no doubt that non-Chinese minorities were often hostile to them. Nevertheless the startling thing was not the heterogeneity but the homogeneity of the response. Wherever their organizers and military strength went, the Communists seem to have been able to gain with remarkable speed warm support from large sections of the population. Mobilization appears to have been achieved with equal success in both rich regions and poor ones, regions of high tenancy and regions where the majority owned their own land.

Moreover, between 1928 and 1949, the amount of popular enthusiasm for the Communists seems to have varied very little. This fact is even more surprising when one considers the wide range of social policies they proposed. At certain periods, they advocated the expropriation of everyone who owned more land or property than a poor peasant. At others they left major landlords and merchants untouched. The Communists themselves clearly considered these political lines to be of critical importance. Many long and bitter debates were held trying to hammer out correct programs that would generate maximum support. Nevertheless, despite the twists and turns of their policies, the devotion of the rural population to the Communists seems to have remained more or less constant.

The rapid fluctuations in Communist fortunes seem to have been caused by the relative effectiveness and above all the relative unity of the forces opposing them. Within the Kiangsi Soviet, for instance, there was considerable factionalism, and many serious mistakes were made. Even so, the evidence shows that the majority of the local people had identified their interests with the Communists. Time and time again there were reports from Kuomintang and foreign observers about the difficulties in distinguishing the “Reds” from the peasants. They also noted the Communist soldiers’ superiority in motivation and skill over their enemies. It seems evident that the soviets in Kiangsi and other areas were not defeated by a failure to mobilize large numbers of peasants. They were crushed by the effective application of overwhelming military force backed by the power of Chiang Kai-shek’s Nanking regime.

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If the Communists suffered from Nationalist and warlord strength, they gained from their weakness. In the chaos that followed the Northern Expedition in 1927 and the Japanese invasion in 1937, there were great expansions of Communist influence, while right-wing forces were fragmented and demoralized. Revolutionary fortunes varied with the general situation and before 1945 the Communists had insufficient power to alter it. Nevertheless their appeal to poor Chinese seems to have remained remarkably constant. in spite of his predilection for complexity and variety Dr. Hofheinz feels obliged to admit this uniformity which he attributes to:

…the viability and vitality of the movement itself, its organization and dynamism, the quality of its personnel and the vigour of its recruitment.

Unfortunately, quantitative studies or “social scientific” analysis cannot probe such mysteries, and he gives up at this point.

In early twentieth-century China there were incorruptible and efficient Nationalists and warlords and there were a number of Communists who backslid into banditry. Moreover, like the Communists, Nationalists and “modern” warlords often had disciplined organizations and a passionately held ideology. In spite of this blurring at the edges, however, there is no doubt that there is something qualitatively different about the Communists that distinguished them from all other political groups. One differentiating factor was the intellectual coherence and beauty of Marxism-Leninism that was completely lacking in Sun Yat-senism. There were also the integral links between the Chinese Communists and the worldwide movement as well as the confidence generated by the belief that they were in the vanguard of world history.

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A simple-minded but still more important distinction between the Communists and the others was that the former were alone in owning no personal property. In bourgeois democratic and fascist countries it has occasionally been possible to develop efficient mass organizations with devoted followers, while retaining private ownership. However in China personal possessions always seemed to generate individual concerns that made it impossible for large numbers of men and women to dedicate themselves to any movement, particularly to any movement of social justice. As in Mussolini’s Italy or South Vietnam, the reforms of the Nationalists were and were seen to be superficial and spurious. In all these cases, because the ruling elite owned property, it could never tackle the key problems relating to it. Furthermore, only the Communists, unable themselves to own property, were as a party free from the graft and corruption that pervaded China.

Although they contain devoted members and are well organized, most Communist parties in the world have failed to match even one of the Chinese party’s repeated successes. In spite of the undoubted special qualities of the Chinese Communist movement it seems evident that in themselves they do not form a sufficient explanation of what Hofheinz calls the “historical unity” of the struggle. To do this I believe it is necessary to return to some of the general social concepts that he dismisses as “mechanical.” The over-all deterioration of rural living standards, the failure of landlords and governments to provide anything in return for the enormous sums of money extracted from the peasants, do appear to have been crucial to the rise of Chinese Communist political power. There was also the existence of millions of what Mao described as vagrant proletarians—soldiers, bandits, and petty thieves. These men with literally nothing to lose were essential to the vast recruitment necessary to sustain and expand the Red Armies. As Mao wrote in 1930, China was “littered with dry firewood which will quickly be kindled to become a blaze.”

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This brings one back to the arguments about the success and potential of the Kuomintang regime of the 1930s. Here Rostow was clearly mistaken. The economic situation of China was probably worse then than it had been under the unreformed warlords. Between 1928 and 1936 the average annual rate of industrial growth appears to have been smaller than that for the whole period 1912-1936. In spite of the rising population, agricultural production seems to have stagnated. Neither of these phenomena is surprising in view of the continuous and often bloody warfare among the Kuomintang, the warlords, the Japanese, and the Communists. This also meant that up to 44 percent of total government expenditure went to the military. Since a further 22 percent was spent servicing and repaying foreign loans and about 30 percent went into administration and tax collection, virtually nothing was left for economic development.

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James Thomson recognizes all these shortcomings in While China Faced West. At the same time he believes that “the ten years of Nationalist Government form a unique and relatively cohesive political unit,” that Chiang Kai-shek was not a warlord, and that the K.M.T. Government was far more advanced than the regimes that preceded it. These points have substance and the paradox is real. Furthermore, to a man with Dr. Thomson’s background this must be even more acute. As the son of American missionaries in China who has served in the State Department and the White House, he has chosen the agonizing topic of American advice and aid to the Nationalist Government. In doing so he draws a fascinating parallel between American relations with China in the 1930s and those with the whole of the Third World since 1950. He is not carried away by the comparison; for instance he points out the qualitative differences between the missionary and private foundation efforts in China and the vast state-backed projects after the Second World War. Nevertheless the similarities are clearly there, and although Dr. Thomson would never use the words, it is fascinating and perhaps useful to look at Nationalist China as a prototypical “neo-colonialist” state.

In the early 1930s the US controlled less than a tenth of foreign investment in China; Britain and Japan had over 30 percent apiece. What is more, the stake in China was less than 6 percent of American investment abroad. Thus actual financial involvement, like that in most of the Third World today, was very small. At the same time there was absolutely no desire in the United States to colonize the whole or part of China. This is hardly surprising when even Britain and Japan balked at the idea of direct administration of hundreds of millions of Chinese. In the American case the hesitation was reinforced by her anticolonialist tradition and by early fears that her slight involvement would leave her behind in any colonial scramble for China.

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Ever since the nineteenth century this small scale of economic and military involvement allowed missionaries a relatively large say in shaping American policy. Thus the missionary purpose of imbuing the Chinese elite, if not the whole Chinese people, with American values came into the political sphere very early. In 1908 the US government, concerned about the growing Japanese influence in Chinese higher education, decided to spend a considerable portion of its share of the Boxer Indemnity3 on providing members of the Chinese elite with an American education.

This seems to have been justified economically by the optimistic notion that a prosperous China, independent of foreign domination but ruled by “rational” and “progressive” men friendly to the United States, would provide an important area for American investment and a huge market for American goods. In one respect the Nanking Government was the answer to their prayers. Although there was clearly a Western bias in the English language Who’s Who in China, it is startling to note that by 1939 over 36 percent of the entries had been educated in the US.

Stability and prosperity were more difficult to achieve. To gain these it was considered necessary to develop Chinese self-reliance, to wipe out backwardness and avoid chaos, that is to say the conditions under which it is impossible to do business. In the 1920s the most menacing form of chaos was Bolshevism. By the 1930s Americans in China were obsessed with its challenges to private property, individualism, and enlightened self-interest. Communism and Christianity had similar values, but the Communists, unlike the Christians, went some way toward practicing what they preached on a mass scale. At the same time communism spread rapidly while Christian evangelism had almost no impact.

All this fascinated and terrified intelligent missionaries. As with Americans in later years, although they were genuinely concerned about poverty, the preoccupation that gave urgency to their efforts to end it was the desire to eliminate what they took to be the breeding ground of communism. They were also like many postwar Westerners in their underlying political pessimism, the feeling that they were trying to hold back an almost irresistible flood.

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Dr. Thomson describes the attempts of missionaries and Chinese Christians to create areas of prosperity and social justice where peasants would not feel the attraction of communism. A few of these pilot schemes succeeded for a number of years but, despite the investment of considerable amounts of time, money, and intelligence, sooner or later they all came to nothing. Although it has dangerous teachings on human equality and theoretical attacks on property, Chiang Kai-shek has been attracted to Christianity for a long time. In Chinese culture it allowed one to be “modern” and “dynamic” while at the same time it could be used to reinforce obedience to authority and acceptance of an unequal society. Chiang encouraged the missionaries and gave many of their schemes his formal backing.

However when it came to the crunch, the Kuomintang Administration, like most pro-American governments in the Third World today, could not attack itself. Rich landowners were the pillar of Nationalist power in the countryside. This meant not only that it was impossible to redistribute land or property but also that local administrators were hostile or lukewarm toward schemes for cooperation, mass literacy, or public health. They saw very clearly the dangers to their position in organizing or stirring up the peasants. Working against the local power structure the Christians could not begin to tackle the enormous economic and social problems which even the Communists with their techniques of mass mobilization have so far been unable to eliminate. The missionaries and their friends failed even to scratch the surface of China’s poverty and misery.

Here one should return to the question of whether the Nationalist regime had the potential to establish a workable and prosperous nation. It seems clear that, unable to rouse enthusiasm and terrified of mass organizations, they had absolutely no hope of creating a just society with popular participation. However it could be argued that even without social progress, a strong military government could have maintained control over a unified China and that eventually such a regime could have introduced modern techniques that would bring about economic progress without disturbing the privileged classes. In fact, whether or not the gentry could have presided over such social change, the Kuomintang were incapable of providing a strong unified regime.

In spite of his modern pretensions and international recognition it does seem more useful to regard Chiang Kai-shek merely as primus inter pares, among competing warlords. Before the Japanese intervened directly there was no steady trend to unity. All the evidence shows that even if the invasion had not taken place the internal and international situation would never have allowed the Nationalists to unify China effectively. In view of the underlying social discontent and endemic civil war there is every reason to suppose that even if the Red Army had been defeated, Communists would have continued to exist and to have retained the potential for sudden expansion in favorable circumstances that were bound to occur. The Japanese invasion certainly helped and speeded the process, but it seems to have been contingent rather than necessary to the rise of Communist power.

  1. Stanford, 256 pp.
  2. Edited by A. Doak Barnett. Washington, 620 pp., $12.50.
  3. The sum, approximately a quarter of the Chinese national revenue for forty years, extracted by the Western powers for damage to foreign life and property during the Boxer Rising.