Li Fu-jen

China: A World Power

(January 1951)

From Fourth International, Vol.12 No.1, January-February 1951, pp.8-12.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

When Wu Hsiu-chuan, representative of the Chinese government at Peiping, looked blustering Warren Austin calmly in the eye at a United Nations meeting, and said coldly: “I must tell you, we are not frightened by your threats,” his statement was a dramatic emphasis of the fact that a whole epoch in relations between China and Western imperialism had come to a close and that a new epoch had begun. It denoted the fact that the old semi-colonial China, victim of imperialist appetites for more than a century, had gone from the scene and that in its place had come a mighty, independent China, a new world power.

Ever since the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-5, when newly-risen Japan delivered a smashing defeat to the empire of the Czars – the first time in history that a “superior” white power had been beaten in war by “inferior” Orientals – a frightening specter had haunted the chancelleries of the West: the specter of an awakened, powerful and unsubmissive China. In story and cartoon China was depicted as a slumbering giant who might one day awake to challenge his imperialist tormentors. The Hearst section of the American press harped endlessly on the theme of the “Yellow Peril.”

The Slumbering Giant Rises

Today, the specter has taken on flesh and blood. Grim foreboding has become alarming reality. The giant has arisen and smashed his fist in the face of the greatest imperialist power on earth.

Never before had the arrogant, bullying representatives of Wall Street been spoken to in the tone Wu used to Austin. They were accustomed to the obsequious and servile “Yes, sir” of Chiang Kai-shek or the Manchu government whenever they made complaints or demands – the proper mode of address by the slave to the master. Here was something strange and disturbing: “We are not frightened by your threats.”

Wu was not using empty words. Eight thousand miles away across the Pacific, Chinese troops in alliance with the Koreans were hurling back an American offensive that was to have ended the Korean war by Christmas. A victorious American advance was suddenly converted into panicky retreat. Involved was the bulk of America’s armed forces, using every weapon in the arsenal of war except the atom bomb. The imperialists, used for so long to having their own way with China, were stunned by the blow. It seemed incredible.

Clearly, a great change had occurred. To appreciate its scope and depth, it is necessary to recall some of the past, especially since a century of imperialist domination became an essential ingredient of the revolutionary present.

A Review of the Past Century

In the Opium War of 1840-42, the British blasted open China’s ports with their naval guns and forced surrender on the weak Manchu government at Peking. By the “peace” treaty of Nanking, China was reduced, in reality if not formally, to the status of a colony. In this and subsequent treaties, which the Manchus signed on the dotted line with all the major powers because they had no means to resist, treaty foreigners were exempt from Chinese laws and .taxes (extra-territoriality), China’s Customs were placed under foreign control (repayment of foreign loans and indemnities becoming first charges on the Customs revenues), an indemnity of some $10,000,000 was imposed, Hongkong was ceded to Britain, territorial concessions were carved out of the principal cities and placed under foreign control, and the imperialists secured the right of free navigation in Chinese coastal waters and rivers.

The precipitating incident in the war of 1840-42 was the action of the Chinese authorities in Canton in burning a British cargo of opium brought from India. Britain was forcing opium on China against laws enacted by the Manchu government – a cheap means of evading payment in silver (then a scarce and valuable metal) for the teas, silks and spices which the British bought from China. In the indemnity which Britain imposed at the end of the war, there was included a sum of $3,000,000 for the destroyed opium, the remainder being to cover Britain’s war costs. It would be difficult to imagine a greater humiliation visited on a great nation by a foreign invader. But the Chinese were compelled to stomach it. There were no means of resistance.

For more than a century thereafter the humiliation was multiplied and intensified. Warships of the Western powers cruised menacingly in Chinese waters. Among them were American vessels, for the U.S. imperialists were not slow in demanding “most favored nation” treatment in their treaties with China, insisting on all the “rights and privileges” accorded to others. When the anti-imperialist hatred of the Chinese exploded in some violent incident, as it did quite frequently (often it was some missionary who was the victim of Chinese anger), the warships would bombard towns or villages. There would be a demand for an indemnity and an apology, invariably granted. The Chinese government would be compelled to execute the “culprits” if it could find them. And new concessions would be wrung from the helpless country.

“Jim Crow” in the Big Cities

In the great cities where the imperialists went about their business of sucking out China’s wealth, foreign soldiers, sailors and marines were privileged to kick, cuff and curse Chinese citizens with impunity. These military forces had the task of guarding the concessions. If the Chinese could be humiliated further and made to feel inferior and helpless, the task became that much simpler. The methods were many. Notices in office and apartment buildings owned by foreigners forbade Chinese to ride in the elevators. “Jim Crow” sections were set aside for them in the streetcars. Shanghai’s only downtown park once had this sign at its entrance: “Dogs, bicycles and Chinese not admitted.” Moreover, the imperialists hung the sign “inferior” on the superstitious customs of the nation. Flocks of Christian missionaries came from a score of Western lands to impress upon the Chinese the superiority of Western superstitions.

Let no one say that the American imperialists were better than the older colonial powers. This writer observed, first-hand, hundreds if not thousands of incidents over a period of years showing the contempt in which Wall Street’s representatives held the “Chinks.” Acts of brutality were as common with them as with all the others. The only discernible difference between the British and the Americans was that while the British, for the most part, matched their words with their attitude and deeds, making no attempt to disguise their contempt for the Chinese, the Americans spoke unctuously about “equality” and assumed an air of “fraternization” that was but an ill-concealed condescension. (The American Club in Shanghai was the first to admit Chinese members). As a matter of fact, the seemingly more “liberal” American attitude was merely a weapon in the competition between the powers for China’s trade.

Anti-Imperialist Feeling Mounts

Chinese hatred of the imperialist freebooters crystallized in the Taiping Rebellion in the mid-nineteenth century. Although directed in the first place against the effete Manchu rulers, the anti-imperialist undertones were unmistakable. The Chinese people were alarmed by the endless concessions to imperialism of the court at Peking. The rebellion lasted 15 years (1850-65) and ended with the crushing of the Taipings by forces organized and led by an American, Frederick Townsend Ward.

Anti-imperialist feeling simmered beneath the surface, with only occasional outward flashes, until the beginning of the present century when it crystallized once more in the Boxer Rebellion. The Manchu Empress Dowager, sensing the rising anti-imperialist sentiment of the people, had given notice that China would not consider granting any further concessions to the foreign powers. As a defense against renewed imperialist aggression, she decreed the reestablishment of the old local militia. Militia bands were encouraged to organize. By the summer of 1899, many of these bands had assumed the name of I Ho Chuan or “Fists of Righteous Harmony.” The foreigners promptly gave them the name “Boxers.” At the end of the year, the movement had assumed sizable proportions and the foreign powers demanded that the government dissolve it. But the Manchu regime, fearful of overthrow, dared not accede to the demand. In June of 1900, Marines were put ashore from foreign warships to “protect” the legation quarter in Peking. The Chinese government ordered the diplomats to leave the city within 24 hours. This was a signal for action by the Boxers, who laid siege to the quarter. The imperialists mustered a force of 2,000 men and marched them from Tientsin. Eight weeks of fighting in which many Chinese were killed ended in the lifting of the siege.

The imperialists then proceeded to mete out vicious retribution. The foreign army, in which Americans participated, sacked the ancient Chinese capital and subjected its citizens to cruel humiliations. Outstanding among their acts of savage vandalism was the looting of the beautiful Yuen Ming Yuen summer palace of the emperors on the outskirts of the city. After taking all they could, the standard-bearers of Western civilization put the palace to the torch and burned it to the ground. But this was only the initial vengeance. Under the Boxer Protocol, signed by China and the foreign powers on September 7, 1901, China was required to execute the leaders of the Boxer movement, to permit the permanent stationing of foreign troops in Peking and, naturally, to grant additional trade concessions. To cap it all, China was saddled with a huge indemnity of $738,000,000.

These episodes in the relations of China with the imperialists were thoroughly characteristic and illustrate graphically the cruelty, contempt and arrogance of the imperialists towards the Chinese and the searing humiliations to which they subjected this vast nation. But the long night of oppression did not end with the Boxer outbreak and its suppression. The next half century witnessed much more of the same thing.

The Aborted Revolution of 1911

In 1911, the Manchu dynasty was overthrown by a revolutionary movement with distinct anti-imperialist antecedents and foundations. But because there was no new, strong class to grasp the helm of power, the revolution stopped where it began, with the liquidation of the monarchy. The native bourgeoisie was then only a class in embryo. It consisted of brokers and agents (compradors) of the foreign capitalists and traders. The proletariat was practically non-existent in a land where handicrafts were still almost the sole form of industry. The national power which slipped from the hands of the Manchus fell apart and passed in segments to local satraps who lost no time in making their arrangements with the imperialists. China was as far away as ever from independence and the formal national unity of the dynastic era disappeared. Moreover, all the acute contradictions of an outmoded social and economic life, exacerbated by foreign domination, remained unsolved. Thus was the stage set for the stormy revolutionary uprisings which swept the country in 1925-27.

Before that, however, World War I intervened. After sampling imperialist brutality and oppression for so long, China was now to taste the perfidy of the foreign powers. Placing faith in Woodrow Wilson’s talk about freedom and democracy, and the “inalienable right of self-determination” of all nations, the Chinese government entered the war against the Central Powers on August 4, 1917, hoping at the end of the war to achieve complete independence. Characteristically, the only participation China was permitted in the war was the contribution of thousands of laborers for “coolie” work behind the lines in Western Europe. The payoff came in the Treaty of Versailles, when, over China’s outraged protest, the large Chinese province of Shantung was transferred by the Allies from Germany to Japan! China refused to sign the peace of Versailles and negotiated an independent treaty with Germany.

World War I had one more important consequence for China in the emergence of a modern proletariat. Preoccupation of the Allies with the war in Europe, and the tremendous world demand for goods of all kinds, stimulated a growth of large-scale Chinese industry and therewith brought into being an industrial working class. This was to have a decisive influence on the revolutionary events which shaped up less than a decade later.

Second Revolution Crushed by Chiang Kai-shek

The first strong winds of the gathering revolutionary storm were felt in 1925 when British warships bombarded the Yangtze river port of Wanhsien, killing and maiming numerous peaceful civilians. The action was taken to compel the local warlord, Yang Sen, to release a British vessel carrying a cargo of arms to Yang’s rival. In Canton, far to the south, seat of the rising revolutionary movement, a gigantic protest demonstration took place against the bombardment. The British huddled in fear on their island concession of Shameen in the Pearl River, a stone’s throw from the city, and mounted machine guns on the bridges leading to it. As the demonstrators approached, they raked them with a murderous fire. The “Shameen massacre” roused anti-imperialist hatred to fever pitch. The next day, British Hongkong was paralyzed by a general strike and the British ladies were faced with the tragedy of having to do their own washing and cooking. The protest movement spread to Shanghai, which was likewise paralyzed by a general strike.

But the great revolutionary movement, which rose to magnificent heights in the ensuing months, embracing both workers and peasants, went down to crushing defeat when in April 1927 it was drowned in blood by Chiang Kai-shek, who led the nationalist movement only in order to betray it to China’s imperialist enemies.

We have recited the salient facts of China’s modern history only in order to indicate the weightiness of the past in the events of more recent times. When Wu Hsiu-chuan hurled the defy in the face of American imperialism, there hovered in the background the memory of a century of wrong, a long trail of bloody repression and galling humiliation. Are we, perhaps, giving undue weight to the subjective factor of righteous outrage? Let us remember that, considered dialectically, not only is there no absolute dividing line between the subjective and objective, but also there always exists an interrelation between them. Marxism rejects the notion of fixed and immutable categories. The subjective anger of a people against its imperialist oppressors becomes one of the objective ingredients of the colonial revolution.

A People’s Anger Explodes

Like the revolution of 1911, the great upheaval of 1925-27 left all of China’s urgent problems unsolved. Chiang Kai-shek’s bloody march to power paved the way lor the subsequent Japanese invasion of the country. But it also placed on the calendar of the future – the Third Chinese Revolution! All the explosive material lodged in class and international relationships remained, ready to be touched off when circumstances favored. The explosion came after World War II had run its course.

It is not necessary to our purpose – which is to explain the reasons for China’s rise to the status of a world power – to trace Chinese events of the post-war years. This has been done fairly recently in these pages. The question we must answer is this: what were the main factors which in the space of a couple of years converted China from a land of nearly 500,000,000 colonial slaves into an independent world power?

The Manchus, the warlords and the Kuomintang regime all bowed down or were forced into submission by the imperialists. Chiang Kai-shek never dared to summon the people to resist imperialism, for a great mass movement would have gone beyond his control and sealed the doom of his regime as the representative of the landlords and capitalists. Chiang preferred a junior partnership with imperialism. But imperialist domination, allied with archaic social relationships within the country, which plunged the masses into ever deeper poverty and misery, lit fires of revolt which flared continuously for twenty years before the great upheaval which followed World War II. The Communist Party placed itself at the head of the revolting peasantry and built a mighty army which in the end smashed the Kuomintang regime and thereby ended China’s subjection by imperialism. During the war, hoping thereby to bolster Chiang and preserve their economic positions in China, the powers “voluntarily” relinquished their extraterritorial rights and turned back the foreign concessions to China. What remained of imperialist privilege was liquidated automatically with the overthrow of the Kuomintang.

Had 1948 been 1848, the foreign powers would have sent their armies and navies to smash the insurrectionary movement. But the termination of the war with Japan saw the whole colonial world, including China, aflame. The victorious powers emerged weakened from the war. Their soldiers wanted no more war, and demanded to be sent home. World capitalism was in crisis. After fruitless efforts to mediate the civil war in China and keep Chiang Kai-shek in power, the powers were obliged to watch helplessly while the armies of Mao Tse-tung swept the country.

Source of Mao’s Power

The source of Mao’s power was and is the great mass of the people of China; above all the peasantry. Stirred into action by abysmal suffering, fired by visions of freedom and a tangible stake in the land of their birth – “the land to the peasantry” – they pounded their way irresistibly to victory. It was the great flood-tide of revolutionary mass ardor and determination, still far from receding, that stood back of the defiant words used by Wu Hsiu-chuan at the United Nations. In the past, if the masses had any program at all, it was the program of suffering and submission preached by reactionary rulers. Today they have a program of their own. Limited it may be, but in it they can readily discern their own interests.

The fact of the mass entry of the Chinese people on to the political arena, with the corresponding class pressures, should be pondered by those who contend that Mao Tse-tung is just a “puppet” of Moscow and the Peiping government merely a creature of the Kremlin. Such a view ignores the reciprocal relationship between party and class. It must be recognized that in recent times Mao has manifestly acted more in response to the pressure of his own popular support than in obedience to any Kremlin directives. The potency of mass pressure caused him to execute an about-face on the land question toward the end of the war, leading the movement of agrarian expropriation when the peasants would no longer wait for the land.

Moscow’s line was to preserve the “united front” with Chiang Kai-shek at almost any cost and, to that end, not to encourage social conflicts. Again, when the war was over, Moscow’s policy was to engineer a coalition government between Chiang and the Chinese Communists on the basis of a few democratic concessions by Chiang. But the intense hatred of Chiang’s regime and the flaming agrarian revolt compelled Mao to break off negotiations and declare all-out war against the Kuomintang. These weighty, incontestable facts should give pause to those who declare that Mao is simply a push-button stooge of the Kremlin.

China’s Third Revolution Roars

The China that now speaks to the world is a revolutionary China. It is this dynamic quality that imparts such tremendous power to China’s moves and pronouncements in world politics. In this connection, it is also of interest to note that the present-day leaders of China, despite long years of Stalinist corruption, have not forgotten the elementary principles of socialist internationalism. At a press conference in New York, Wu Hsiu-chuan was careful to distinguish between American imperialism and the American people when charging the United States with moving toward the abyss of a new war.

When we speak of China as being revolutionary, we are not by any means suggesting a completed revolution, but rather a revolution in progress. Properly defined, the overthrow of the Kuomintang, the winning of national independence, the setting up of the Peiping regime, and the partial shake-up of agrarian relations, represent the completion only of a first stage of the unfolding Third Chinese Revolution. That the revolution has not advanced beyond this stage and been deepened in the sense of a fundamental change of property relations in all spheres – above all in industry – is very largely due to the half-way, semi-reformist program within the confines of which the Communist leaders have tried to keep the movement of the masses.

Mao’s program of a “New Democracy” has appeared as a road-block in the path of revolutionary advance. It has slowed down the logical course of development by its insistence, among other things, on the inviolability of capitalist private property, thus preventing a fundamental solution of pressing economic and social problems. This program is destined to collide more and more with the needs of life and with the onward urge of the masses. The Communist Party, under popular pressure, will then either swing to the left or prepare the way for its own replacement by a new revolutionary leadership. It was the masses who pushed Mao to the pinnacle. They can push him off, too.

Pressures on Mao

In considering the factors which will make for a resumption of the interrupted course of revolutionary development in China, we should not overlook the pressures from outside. There are two main factors:

  1. Mao’s program calls, among other things, for the protection of foreign business enterprises in China, together with those of the Chinese capitalists. But the economic blockade of China which the U.S. imperialists have imposed in connection with the Korean war may force the Peiping government to seize the numerous and large American industrial enterprises and make them serve the Chinese people instead of the Wall Street moneybags. [1] Thus Mao would be going considerably beyond his own proclaimed program. Nor would imperialist pressure necessarily mean that the Peiping regime would draw closer, politically, to the Kremlin. Beset by external threats and driven forward by the masses, it could take a swing away from its narrow nationalism and toward genuine socialist internationalism, staking its fate on the sympathy and aid of the world proletariat.
  2. The whole colonial world in Eastern Asia is being swept by the flames of revolution – Korea, Indo-China, Burma, Malaya, Indonesia, the Philippines. China is the vast powerhouse of this movement. Today the peoples of these lands look to China, much more than to the Soviet Union, as the great leader in their fight for liberation. There can be no doubt that geographical proximity and racial affinity, common burdens and problems, and like aspirations, make for a deep reciprocal sympathy and solidarity. China’s masses, feeling far from alone in their fight for a better life, are lifted and inspired by the great movements on their borders. Here is an additional assurance that the present period of marking time in China will be followed by a fresh revolutionary upsurge, one in which the working class may be expected to play the leading role, that will carry the revolution to another and higher stage.

Resources for Revolutionary Victory

China, the powerhouse of the colonial revolution? This is no rhetorical exaggeration. This ancient land with an enviable culture reaching back into the dim ages is the habitat of almost 500,000,000 people. In area it is larger than the United States. The factors of population and area alone are sufficient to place China in the forefront of the colonial revolution. We can add to that immense natural riches and an enormous economic potential. The country’s economic and social backwardness is merely the legacy of foreign domination now ended. In the three northeastern provinces of Manchuria, despite considerable looting by Stalin’s armies during the 1945-46 occupation, there is a great industrial complex built by the Japanese which draws its raw materials from on-the-spot deposits. This can serve as a basis for elevating the whole country economically while giving needed assistance to neighboring countries.

Socialism in one country? Not at all. The socialist revolution begins on national grounds but can reach completion only on the international arena. Nevertheless, China’s industrial resources guarantee that she will not be strangled into submission by imperialist blockade. By the same token, revolutionary China presents itself to its neighbors as a powerful ally and source of strength in the battles they are waging for national liberation and social advance. Their courage is buttressed, their fighting spirit enhanced as they march toward great and resounding victories.


1. Shortly after this article was written the Chinese government ordered (Dec. 28) immediate seizure of all United States property and all private and commercial American bank deposits, in retaliation for similar US action Dec. 16 on Chinese assets in the US. The principal American enterprises in China are: (1) The Shanghai Power Co., largest electric power company in the Far East that burns coal. (2) The Shanghai Telephone Co., subsidiary of AT&T. (3) Numerous Standard Oil and Texas Oil installations throughout the country. (4) Even more numerous missionary properties: hospitals, schools, churches, etc. (5) National City Bank of NY (6) Extensive properties of the US diplomatic establishment. Total value is variously estimated at between one and two hundred million dollars, US currency.


Last updated on 12 April 2009