John Liang

Chinese and Russian Relations

(Fall 1957)

From International Socialist Review, vol.18 No.4, Fall 1957, pp.132-134.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

A History of Sino-Russian Relations
by Tien-fong Cheng
Public Affairs Press, Washington, D.C. 1957. 389 pp. $6.

Documents on Communism, Nationalism and Soviet Advisers in China, 1918-1927
Edited, with introductory essays, by C. Martin Wilbur and Julie Lien-ying How
Columbia University Press, New York. 1956. 617 pp. $8.75.

It is the habit of ideologists of social classes overthrown by revolution to attribute the disaster that has overwhelmed them to blunders and episodic misfortunes which the class enemy (usually with the aid of a foreign power) has been able, with a malign cunning, to exploit to his advantage. Revolution becomes, so to speak, a historical accident.

While they may acknowledge the legitimacy of Europe’s bourgeois revolutions, these lugubrious mourners stubbornly refuse to regard the proletarian and colonial revolutions of our time as anything more than political aberrations – a mere “passing phase.” to quote one of Dulles’ most recent pronouncements. Kerensky is still at this late date seeking an explanation for the Bolshevik revolution outside the basic fact that, with the fall of Czarism, the belated and feeble Russian bourgeoisie he represented had no role to fill except a totally reactionary one.

Now comes Dr. Tien-fong Cheng with a volume in which he tries to explain the great Chinese revolution in terms of the same type of political thinking. The author was education minister in Chiang Kai-shek’s government for a while and also put in a spell as Chinese ambassador in Berlin during the Nazi regime. It is hardly surprising, then, that his contribution to the historiography of China turns out to be a piece of special pleading that will leave inquiring students wondering what, in reality, were the fundamental social and political factors that led to the destruction of the Kuomintang regime.

A recounting of Sino-Russian relations, going as far back as the first known Mongol-Russian contacts in the twelfth century, is the vehicle Dr. Cheng uses to carry his view of recent Chinese history. However, his lack of historical insight deprives his work of any value other than as a bare catalogue of events and a revelation of Chinese bourgeois thinking.

Dr. Cheng’s thesis is simple, if not original: Russian expansionism, which he sees as a constant, unchanging factor. Under the Czars, the Muscovite imperialists pushed out Russia’s frontiers and made repeated grabs for Chinese territory. Russia under the Soviets and under Stalin continued the old Czarist policy. The Chinese Communist party is an instrument of Russian expansionism and is dominated by the Kremlin. This, it would appear, deprives the third Chinese revolution of historical legitimacy. To be sure, the revolution that toppled the Kuomintang was not simply the result of a Soviet plot. There were numerous indigenous factors, naturally, that led up to the great debacle. But these were, in Dr. Cheng’s view, of a fortuitous character and merely made easier the work of Moscow’s Chinese agents.

Had the multifarious misfortunes that beset the Kuomintang regime not occurred, Soviet “imperialism” might not have had its chance. Says Dr. Cheng: “The fundamental (sic) cause of the defeat and collapse of the Chinese Government on the mainland was the eight-year Sino-Japanese war (which) completely ruined China, financially, economically and morally.” Runaway inflation made it ever harder for the people to live. Corruption was widespread. And so – “officials lost the incentive to work, officers and rank and file lost the will to fight, while intellectuals, professors, teachers, university students, etc., lost their confidence in the government and began to have illusions about the Communists. Had these things not happened the Communists would never have been able to occupy the mainland.” As the tide of revolution rolled closer to Chiang’s capital at Nanking: “Any will to resist which had still been left among the government officials and troops were (sic) now almost completely taken away and everybody expected the worst.”

What is this if not the classic picture of a regime doomed by history and awaiting the political undertaker?

The Kuomintang regime collapsed because of its own inner rottenness. The Communists simply walked in and took over. But where he deals with the corruption of the regime, Dr. Cheng is careful to be vague, for fear of giving offense to the gang on Formosa which still hopes to stage a come back. Dr. Cheng was not at the summit of the Kuomintang hierarchy, but he was pretty close to it and knew what went on. Yet he never so much as hints that the most corrupt among the corrupt were precisely those at the very top, beginning with Chiang Kai-shek and his Madame and the Soong family clique. On the contrary, our historian refers to Chiang with the deference of an underling, never forgetting to give him the title of “Generalissimo” or “President”.

The Kuomintang government of Chiang Kai-shek was the instrument by means of which the Chinese bourgeoisie wielded political power. This bourgeoisie was even more feeble and belated than its Russian counterpart that went down in the Bolshevik revolution. It arose and it functioned primarily as an agentry of foreign capital. Having no independent and progressive social function, it could rule only by means of a military dictatorship. That’s what the Kuomintang regime was, from its beginning in 1927 until its destruction twenty years later. When Chiang’s armies, the only sure prop of the regime, began to melt away in the spreading fires of revolution, the end was in sight.

The regime might yet have been saved, Dr. Cheng thinks, if massive American military support had been forthcoming. As he writes: “The only hope to turn the situation for better seemed to lie in immediate and large-scale military aid from the United States.” What a confession of utter bankruptcy! In the hour of mortal peril the Chinese bourgeoisie knew of only one means to save itself – military intervention by an imperialist power! Chiang asked urgently for American military aid. He even invited the U.S. to occupy the cities of North China and to appoint American military advisers to participate in the “direction of operations” against the Communist armies.

Bat Washington, having observed how American military supplies somehow always ended up in the hands of the Communists; convinced, too, of the imminence of the Kuomintang’s collapse, was cool to Chiang’s appeals. What’s more, alas! the State Department was honeycombed with people who naively looked upon the Chinese Communists as simple “agrarian reformers” instead of a Red revolutionary menace. And so the last hope vanished.

Secretary of State Dean Acheson, writing “Finis” to the immediate postwar chapter of American policy in China, declared: “Nothing that this country did or could have done, within the reasonable limit of its capabilities, could have changed that result (the Communist triumph) ; nothing that was left undone by this country has contributed to it. It was the product of Chinese internal forces, forces which this country tried to influence but could not.” In this statement, Acheson revealed several years ago more understanding of the Chinese revolution than Dr. Cheng does now.

As if to emphasize the ineptitude of the dead-and-gone Kuomintang regime which he adorned, Dr. Cheng’s book has appeared with serious technical defects of a most irritating kind. There are inconsistencies in the spelling of Chinese names. The text is marred by faulty grammar and some of the most atrocious English construction. Finally, the book teems with typographical errors.

In refreshing contrast is the volume of documents seized in the raid on the Soviet embassy and military attaché’s office in Peking in 1927, edited and with introductory essays by C. Martin Wilbur and Julie Lien-ying How.

Here is valuable source material for students of the second Chinese revolution and the Stalinist policies that led to its defeat. Here, too, in some of the written records of the time, is confirmation of many of the facts upon which Trotsky based his criticisms of the course imposed upon the Chinese Communist party by the dominant Stalin-Bukharin leadership of the Comintern.

Across the pages of this impressive volume move the great figures of China’s modern revolutionary movement. Here is Chen Tu-hsiu, founder and leader of the Chinese Communist party and a great cultural pioneer. After the defeat of the revolution in 1927 he became a Trotskyist. The Stalinists, after 1949, overturned the headstone on his grave in a little Szechuan village, thinking to obliterate this illustrious revolutionist from the minds of the young.

Also in these pages are Peng Shu-chih, another pioneer revolutionist, later a Trotskyist and Liu Jen-ching, briefly a Trotskyist, who wrote in the early Trotskyist press in this country under the pen name of Niel Sih. Naturally we encounter the names of the Stalinist great – Mao Tse-tung and Chu Teh, Chou En-lai and Chu Chiu-pai. And the Soviet advisers and instructors – Borodin, Voitinski, Pavel Mif and General Galen (Vassili Blucher, framed up with other Red Army generals and shot by Stalin’s order in 1937).

The raid on the Soviet establishment in Peking, violating all the norms of diplomatic usage, took place on April 6, 1927, just a few days prior to Chiang Kai-shek’s counterrevolutionary coup d’etat at Shanghai. It was ordered by the Manchurian warlord Chang Tso-lin, then in control of Peking. Its evident purpose was to find documentary proof of Soviet plotting in league with the Chinese Communist party, as a pretext for a rupture of relations with Moscow.

Seven truckloads of documents, some partly burned, were carted away by the raiders. Thirteen days later, the authorities began publishing the purported texts of the seized papers, some in English translations from the Russian, others in the original Chinese, with English translations. On April 27, the purported originals were exhibited for the benefit of the diplomatic corps and other foreign observers. If the documents were forgeries, Chang Tso-lin must have had in his service some really expert forgers and remarkable technical facilities for making the forgeries seem genuine.

Moscow denounced the whole thing as a frame-up instigated by Britain and declared the documents forgeries. The notorious “Zinoviev Letter” used by the Tories to defeat the Labor party in the 1924 elections and later proved to be a forgery, seemed to add weight to Moscow’s denunciation. Press correspondents in Peking were divided in their opinions as to the authenticity of the seized documents, which purported to show Soviet “plotting” in China, directed, particularly, against the imperialist powers. But most of the newsmen thought they were genuine. The authors of this volume, concluding a remarkable work of research and scholarship, believe the documents were genuine and advance convincing reasons for that belief. Strongest, perhaps, as they point out, is the internal evidence of authenticity offered by the documents themselves. They square with established facts that are now a part of history.

The Peking documents afford an invaluable insight into the policies and activities of the Chinese Communist party. This Comintern-dominated party was in turn subordinated politically, by Moscow orders, to the Kuomintang. This was effected through the medium of the so-called “Left” Kuomintang, which was just a small clique led by Wang Ching-wei.

The theory upon which this subordination was brought about was the bare contention that the Chinese struggle for national independence was led, and could only be led, by the bourgeoisie. The Chinese Communists were taught that the fight against imperialism required a national united front. Since the bourgeoisie was already supposedly the leader in the fight, the Comintern pundits confirmed them in that role.

The national united front of that period went down in history as the “bloc of four classes” in which, allegedly, all sections of the population, the bourgeoisie and the petty bourgeoisie, the workers and the peasants, were united in a common battle against the imperialist violators. To preserve the united front against imperialism, it was necessary to avoid giving offense to the bourgeoisie and the landlords. Workers were forbidden to strike and the peasants were held back from seizing the land. This Menshevik-type policy of class collaboration was palmed off on the inexperienced Chinese Communist party – as Bolshevism.

Instead of becoming the leader of the revolution, the Chinese Communist party became its [illegible]. With the proletarian and peasant masses disarmed, both politically and otherwise, the counter-revolutionary triumph of Chiang Kai-shek was assured. Needless to add, Chiang quickly revealed his true face, net as a fighter against foreign domination, but as a venal tool of the imperialists.

Twenty years later, after World War II, the Stalinist leadership of the Chinese Communist party sought to repeat the disastrous policies of 1925-27. Nothing was further from the intentions of these ingrained opportunists than the seizure of power in the name of China’s workers and peasants. Eschewing revolution, they tried until the eleventh hour to make a political coalition with the Kuomintang – the same Kuomintang that had slain the revolution before – on the basis of democratic reforms. But tremendous revolutionary mass pressure and a changed world situation rendered impossible a repetition of the old performance. The Chinese Stalinists were compelled to take the power they were so reluctant to wield.

Thirty years – the span of a generation – have elapsed since the events with which the documents in this volume are concerned. Yet the documents have a certain freshness, for they embody ideas and tell of facts that still are a subject of debate between the opportunist school of Stalinist politics and the revolutionary school of Trotskyism. Young people in the socialist movement should by all means study this valuable historical material.


Last updated on 30.3.2005