On 10 October 1911, a revolt broke out in the central China city of Wuhan which led to the overthrow of the last imperial dynasty, the Manchus. The Republic of China was established on 1 January 1912, with Sun Yat-sen as provisional president. When Sun was forced to step down China fragmented into a number of regional units governed by rival warlords, but the party he created, the Nationalist Party or Kuomintang. remained the dominant political force.
Sun Yat-sen himself was basically a nationalist and republican with few concrete ideas as to the sort of society he envisaged in place of Manchu rule. He did have some vague notions, derived from Henry George, of taxing land values so as to promote economic progress. But quite apart from the fact that Sun was never in a position to implement his ideas, there was no possibility of such a policy winning support among the Kuomintang’s landlord backers. Sun’s successors in the party leadership, especially Chiang Kai-shek, surrounded themselves with at least the trappings of dictatorship. and evolved no true economic or social policy at all beyond general support for the status quo. This didn’t stop individual members of the party becoming fantastically wealthy capitalists but it did mean that industrial development was confined to coastal cities like Shanghai. In the countryside, where ninety per cent of the population lived, conditions tended to worsen under the Republic, with a growth of absentee landlordism and the partial ruin of home industries. The capitalist nature of the Kuomintang was seen in its vicious attacks on the workers, especially in Shanghai. Nevertheless. it was a landlord party too, and was thus unable to disturb class relationships in the countryside.
The Chinese ‘Communist’ Party was established in 1921. Its leaders claimed to be socialists and used much of the phraseology of Marxism, but when they spoke of socialism they had no conception at all of the working class emancipating itself by the establishment of a classless society. Instead, their ideas were stridently nationalist, with ‘the Chinese people’ (everyone bar the largest landowners and those industrialists linked to overseas capital) seen as oppressed by imperialism and alien domination. Their political tactics were subservient to the aim of ending this oppression so that ‘the people’ could rule themselves and develop their own economy. Such development could not be anything other than capitalist, no matter how much pseudo socialist rhetoric was employed.
At first, following the instructions of advisors sent from Russia, the CCP concentrated on organising the small (in relative terms) urban working class, but with a distinct lack of success. One leader after another was forced humbly to admit his errors (though never the main one, which was that of following Stalin too slavishly). Meanwhile, at least one CCP member had come to realise that the way to power lay not via the cities but in the countryside. Mao Tse-tung had been present at the party’s founding meeting. By 1927 he was proclaiming the ‘revolutionary’’ potentiality of the peasantry, having seen that the way to disturb the rural status quo was not by ineffectual laws reducing rents but by getting the peasants themselves, under the party’s watchful eye, to dispossess the landlords. Mao’s policies received official sanction at the Sixth CCP Congress held in Moscow in the summer of 1928. The experience of the Chinese Soviet Republic in parts of Kiangsi Province from 1931 to 1934 showed that large areas could be brought under the party’s control provided that these were in the countryside and some land redistribution was practised. The Kiangsi era was ended by a Kuomintang blockade; the Red Army broke through the encircling troops and embarked on the six thousand mile Long March. They reached the north-west of China in late 1935, eventually making their capital at Yanan. It was on the Long March, at a conference at Tsunyi. that Mao Tse-tung at last prevailed over his various rivals and opponents. He was elected Chairman of the CCP, a post he held for over thirty- years until his death.
In Yanan the party declared war on Japan. Since the end of the nineteenth century. Japan had gradually been occupying parts of China. After taking over the important industrial base of Manchuria in 1931, the Japanese invaded the rest of China in 1937. successfully conquering the main cities and communication lines in the north of the country. Their aim was quite simple: to make China and its inhabitants serve the needs of expansionist Japanese capitalism by providing grain and raw materials. Requisition of food from the already poverty-stricken peasants was carried out with a quite ruthless efficiency and did much to drive the peasants into support for the CCP (Mao Tse-tung said as much himself). The CCP were able to control vast rural areas of northern China where the Japanese could rarely penetrate: by 1945 they had charge of an area of a quarter of a million square miles.
After the Japanese surrender there was a short-lived United States attempt at mediation, followed by a full-scale civil war between CCP and Kuomintang forces. The Red Army found little difficulty in defeating the demoralised Nationalist troops. Chung Kai-shek and his cohorts retreated to the island of Taiwan, having first removed there three million US dollars’ worth of gold and foreign currencies. Thirty years ago this month, on 1 October 1949. the founding of the People’s Republic of China was proclaimed in Peking by Mao Tse-tung.
The CCP had been brought to power by peasant armies, with a policy in the many areas already under its control of confiscating land from the rich peasants and landlords and distributing it to poorer peasants. Its attitude to private rural industry was one of protection and encouragement. Its support among the urban working class was small, while plenty of capitalists were prepared to stay behind rather than join in the flight to Taiwan; as it turned out, their interests were to be pretty well looked after.
The first three years or so of CCP rule were partly devoted to reconstructing the war-ravaged economy. The power of the landlords and of the lineages (kinship-based organisations especially strong in the south) was broken. The Agrarian Reform Law of 1950 paved the way for redistribution of land in favour of the poorer peasants throughout the country. The aim, however, was not simply to reduce inequality in the countryside: Lin Shao-chi said at the time:
“The basic aim of agrarian reform is not merely one of relieving the poor peasants. It is designed to free the rural productive forces from the shackles of the feudal land ownership system of the landlord class, in order to develop agricultural production and thus pave the way for New China’s industrialisation.”
The immediate follow-up to land reform was collectivisation, which was implemented in stages from 1952. First, resources were pooled in mutual aid teams, then forty or so households were grouped in a co-operative, and then from 1958 the communes were established as the rural economic and political units. Agriculture was now subservient to national economic policy. Under the Manchu and earlier dynasties, the landlords had used the surplus extracted from the peasants for conspicuous consumption or for the purchase of education for their sons, with very little being devoted to agricultural improvements such as irrigation works, and even less to commercial enterprise of any kind. Under the communes, the agricultural producers are proletarians rather than peasants, and the surplus is still there (forty per cent of production, according to some accounts) but it is now appropriated by the state by way of capital accumulation.
In industry, in contrast, there were no major changes in the early years. Most enterprises were left in the hands of private capitalists (though Kuomintang-owned concerns were nationalised). From the mid-fifties private companies were brought into joint state-private ownership, and then became wholly state-owned. The capitalists received fixed interest payments and often continued to work in their old factories as managers. The subject position of the factory’s workers was not affected; under the new state capitalism they were still wage slaves.
And what of the results, after Great Leaps Forward, Cultural Revolutions and Gangs of Four? Foreign capitalist firms are now allowed to invest in projects in China and take out the profits. The former private capitalists still constitute a wealthy elite. Unemployment is now admitted to be a huge problem. A bellicose foreign policy has led to the invasion of Vietnam. Truly, the aims of the CCP’s founders have been realised; China is no longer the plaything of other nations and has become an established member of the club of capitalist states. Much has altered in China in the last thirty years, but it remains a class society, with rulers and ruled, oppressors and oppressed.