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Ria Stone

China – Colossus of the East

The National Revolution and the Imperialists

(February 1944)

From New International, Vol. X, No. 2 (Whole No. 83), February 1944, pp. 47–50.
Transcribed & marked up by Damon Maxwell.
Proofread by Einde O’ Callaghan (May 2013).

For the last seven years, substantial sections of the American bourgeoisie have taken upon themselves the job of spokesmen for “heroic China.” By so doing they have created among the American people an unprecedented interest in the future of the people of China.

After the First World War the American bourgeoisie took the lead in furthering imperialist exploitation of China. They will do so again after World War II unless the American workers are alert to the aims of American capital and assert their class solidarity with the Chinese masses.

Part I – Background of Revolution

Modern China has never known a state of normalcy. For over half a century the constant miseries of her close to half a billion people have been punctuated and deepened by foreign wars, civil wars, revolutions and counter-revolutions. These political upheavals have occurred against a background of changing economic conditions, bringing into play new popular forces and ideas.

Ancient China was invaded innumerable times, but the invaders never brought with them a revolutionizing culture. For two thousand years before the British bombardment of Chinese ports in the early nineteenth century, the old static economy was constantly reproduced. Dynastic heads were cut off, but the peasants invariably found the new dynasty but another surname for the old social order. Warlords, landlords and emperors joined hands to exploit the peasant masses or, in rivalry among themselves, rode to and fell from power on the strength of the peasant revolts. In the middle of the seventeenth century the peasant rebels achieved such strength that the foreign enemy had to be invited in from Manchuria by the bankrupt Mings to suppress them. For the next two hundred and fifty years the Manchus ruled the country as foreign conquerors, unable to alter the pattern of Chinese culture or stabilize the conflicts between the Chinese masses and their exploiters.

The Bankruptcy of the Manchus

The entry of Western imperialism in the nineteenth century disrupted the old economic structure, introducing new classes, new chaos, new struggles. In the West, the invaders themselves were undergoing revolutionary economic and political changes, forcing them into conflict with one another. As the decades passed, China more and more became the battlefield for these conflicts which were put aside only when the Chinese masses became a serious threat to all imperialism.

China’s handicraft industry declined almost to zero as she became a market for the cheaper machine-made goods of the West. Merchants and officials in the coastal areas became compradores for foreign trade and capital and with their accumulated profits bought up more land and expropriated the peasants. The unemployed artisans and uprooted peasants formed the mass base for the Taiping or Great Peace Rebellion of 1850–65. Wherever this rebellion succeeded (and at one time the rebels held sixteen of China’s eighteen provinces), there were instituted not only agrarian reforms, such as destruction of land titles, but also bourgeois and national reforms, such as stimulation of the internal market, abolition of slavery, and suppression of the British-sponsored opium trade. The ultimate failure of this embryonic bourgeois and national revolution was dictated by British and American imperialism, acting directly through their soldiers and indirectly through their compradors. The Manchus who had, in the first place, been called in to suppress the peasant masses, now found themselves forced to call upon more powerful foreign forces to protect their rule. The strength of the revolutionary masses had reached new heights. But just as the primitive agriculture and handicraft of China had been unable to compete against Western manufactures and industry, the Chinese peasants and artisans were unable to win out against foreign guns and steel bullets. Kept “peaceful” by two hundred years of Manchu occupation, they had only their religious fanaticism and occult practices to arm them against modern weapons.

Nevertheless, for several decades, the Chinese masses kept China in turmoil, battering down the Manchu dynasty, already spent from its efforts to limit the inroads of Western capitalism. Every sign of weakness on the part of the Manchus was a signal for an uprising against the privileged classes. Every sign of strength among the masses was a signal for the Western powers to come to the defense of the decadent Manchus. This triangular pattern will be reproduced in every great crisis of modern China.

Birth of the Chinese Bourgeoisie

In the first few decades of Western imperialism, the Chinese ruling class had played a comprador role for the imperialist merchants and exploiters of China’s natural resources. As imperialism took on the character of capital export after the Sino-Japanese war, industry began to develop in the treaty ports. The defeat of the Manchus by the rising Japanese bourgeoisie exposed once and for all the weakness of the old ruling class. It thus both stimulated more wanton aggression by the imperialists and called forth a Chinese bourgeoisie to take over the reins of the nation. In the inviting security of foreign-controlled coastal China, the Chinese landlords and commercial capitalists became industrial capitalists, building cotton and weaving mills, match factories and silk filatures. Banks were established and a Chinese bourgeoisie with its fingers in commerce, industry and finance was born. This new class required progressive political reforms for its new economic role, but it was too weak to exact these from the old feudal regime. The imprisonment in 1898 of the young emperor, enlightened by bourgeois pressure, demonstrated the futility of the bourgeois intellectuals as the political instrument of China’s industrial revolution.

China’s need for an agrarian and industrial revolution, however, did not rest in the bourgeois intellectuals. The increasingly pauperized masses in the countryside had begun to recuperate from their exhaustion after the unsuccessful Taiping rebellion. Famine, the incessant plague of a country without modern transport, added to the unrest. At the turn of the century, the masses rose again. This time their accumulated grievances against the Manchus could be deflected against a new enemy – the foreign invaders whose railways and missionaries had penetrated beyond the coast. These revolts, known as the Boxer Rebellion, were again doomed to failure. Perverted by the decadent Manchu bureaucracy, again organized only with primitive and esoteric practices against modern weapons in the hands of strong imperialist forces, with no key position in the new Chinese economy, the rebellious masses went down to defeat by the Powers. These carried out the counter-revolution with a brutality and a ruthlessness not exceeded by Hitler’s crimes in Europe today. The Allied forces occupied Peking, where Britain and Germany, supported by the United States, became the dominant powers.

Nevertheless, the masses had tasted some fruits of their growing power. It was the unwillingness of the Manchu soldiers to fire upon the peasants which had forced the Empress Dowager to turn the revolt into a struggle for national liberation. Moreover, the Boxer soldiers had joined in battle with the combined armies of European, Russian, American and Japanese imperialism, and acquitted themselves creditably. Foreigners in the interior had been compelled to flee to the ports or leave the country entirely. What the ruling class had been too weak to achieve had been accomplished by the peasant masses. Only the revolutionary activity of the Chinese masses had saved China from being divided up, like Africa, among the Powers.

The Republican Revolution

During the next ten years hardly a year passed without riots and insurrections. The Empress Dowager was compelled to make all sorts of promises of popular government and reform. The scene of the popular movement had begun to shift from the countryside to the coast, and even beyond that, to the overseas areas where Cantonese emigrants had become workers and shopkeepers, and Chinese students had come to learn about the West. The 1905 revolution in Russia is the contribution of this decade to the history of mass struggle. From this time on, the sections of the Chinese population most intimate with the modern world will play the decisive role. Modern forms of struggle, the boycott, mass demonstrations, strikes and cooperation between the civilians and soldiery will replace simple violence reinforced by charms and other occult weapons.

By 1911 these methods, utilized by petty capitalists, merchants, intellectuals and workers, had enabled the petty bourgeoisie to overthrow the Manchu dynasty, which had become a complete slave to foreign imperialism. Again, famine is the scourge which drives the masses to action, while the stimulus for the Chinese capitalists is a Manchu railway sell-out to German, British, French and American bankers.

Sun Yat-sen, the leader of the republican movement, stood half way between the old China and the new. In his early youth he had close association with the Taipings. In his later years he fraternized with Western missionaries, bankers and overseas Chinese. Sun Yat-sen was a petty bourgeois humanitarian with the limitations of his class and of his time. His methods for achieving the “Three People’s Principles” (San Min Chu I) of nationalism, democracy and livelihood, reflected his lack of contact with the developing mass movement, his confidence in the Western imperialists and his semi-conspiratorial leanings. Instead of calling upon the masses to oust the imperialist exploiters, he bowed before the Powers and asked them for benevolent cooperation. Instead of calling upon the masses to achieve self-government through exercise of political liberties, he asked them to accept preliminary periods of military rule and political tutelage by the enlightened intelligentsia. Instead of agrarian revolution and wide-spread economic reorganization, he advocated gradual equalization of rights in the land and restriction of capital. With no economic base in Chinese society. Sun Yat-sen and his followers utilized the method of playing one military clique against another. Thus, a few months after his election to the presidency of the young republic, Sun Yat-set voluntarily resigned in favor of Yuan Shih-kai, a warlord notorious for his betrayal of the enlightened emperor in 1898 and for his support of the foreigners against the Boxer revolutionists in 1900. With the aid of the Powers, Yuan then proceeded to suppress all efforts to introduce reform into China. With the aid of American capital, he attempted in 1915 to restore the monarchy, only to be frustrated by the pressure of Great Britain, Japan, Russia and France.

Division of China Among the Powers

The Powers, which were as one when social revolution threatened in China, were at loggerheads as soon as this threat was removed. The death of Yuan Shih-kai in 1915 and the inter-imperialist war in Europe threw China into a civil war between the feudal warlords, each backed by a rival imperialist but united in their determination to maintain the feudal system of exploitation. The Powers were more generous overlords of the Chinese ruling class than the Manchus had been. They did not require civil service examinations for the right to exploit the masses, and they provided comfortable and safe foreign settlements where the landlords could escape from the rebellious peasants.

Up to and during the First World War, regional armies, made up of the ever-increasing floating population, were to aggravate the misery of the Chinese masses by banditry, battles and military requisitions. Lacking modern communications and divided by dialects, the mass movement was forced into local channels and dominated by local warlords. Throughout, the rival imperialist powers continued the economic invasion which drove the peasants to banditry, and the political and financial maneuvers which kept the provincial armies at each other’s throats. Every progressive Chinese movement was refused recognition by the Powers. Every sign of reaction was encouraged. British assistance to the warlords in 1922 enabled them to oust Sun Yat-sen from Canton, where he had set up a relatively democratic government. The American government took the initiative in refusing to permit China to recognize the Soviet government. The Washington Conference in 1921 marked America’s assertion of dominance in the Far East. At this conference, Japan’s rape of China in the Twenty-one Demands was confirmed by America as a blow to Germany, Britain and Russia. At this conference, also, the Americans provided the formula whereby maintenance of foreign troops in China was legalized.

The Proletariat Asserts Itself

China’s participation in the First World War had merely provided the front behind which the rival imperialists could work out their schemes for repartitioning the country. Nevertheless, the war gave Chinese industry a chance to expand, comparatively unhandicapped by competition with foreign production and the world market. Out of this development of the productive forces grew a bolder Chinese bourgeoisie intent on ousting the foreign imperialists. The development of the bourgeoisie as a class, however, was inevitably accompanied by the development of an industrial proletariat, locked in conflict with both foreign and Chinese employers within the process of production. The concentration and organization of the mass struggle accompanied the concentration and growth of industry. For the first time in modern history, China had given birth to a class strong and united enough to oust the imperialists. Leading the agrarian movement which was organized rapidly into peasant leagues, the workers in the major industrial areas of China carried out a revolution from 1926 to 1927. The success of this revolution depended on the masses pursuing a clear-cut policy of class struggle against their native exploiters at the same time that they raised the slogan of national liberation. Even the sketchiest acquaintance with China’s previous history demonstrated without a doubt that “only the deepening of the revolution could save it” from the Allied forces. These, as always, stood ready to intervene the moment the Chinese ruling class needed their aid against the Chinese masses. This time it was the weakness in policy rather than the weakness in arms which doomed the rebellious masses to failure. The misleadership of the Third International, deluding the masses into a reliance on the Chinese bourgeoisie and landlords, brought about the betrayal of the revolution. The native exploiting elements, an inseparable amalgam of landlords, industrialists and bankers, led the Kuomintang. Confronted with a proletarian revolution, these elements now compromised with the foreign imperialists, who had learned to exploit class differences in the nationalist movement as they had exploited regional differences a decade before.

True to its traditions, the Chinese ruling class bowed to the foreign enemy to save itself from the native proletariat and peasantry. With the aid of foreign gunboats and money, Chiang Kai-shek beheaded the mass movement and brought the Chinese bourgeoisie to power. In the main industrial areas of China, there was instituted a naked anti-labor dictatorship. Now the bourgeoisie came to power on the wave of mass revolt as once the feudal dynasties had triumphed.

From the petty bourgeois radicalism of Sun Yat-sen, the Kuomintang had developed into a full-fledged bourgeois party with many of the political instruments of a fascist government. Blue Shirts, C.C. Corps and other terroristic agencies were organized to stamp out every sign of struggle among the masses.

The power and position of the new regime is symbolized by the appellation “Soong Dynasty.” Chiang Kai-shek derives political prestige as the successor to Sun Yat-sen. His wife is Mei-Ling Soong, the sister of Madame Sun Yat-sen. The Minister of Finance is T.V. Soong, Mei-Ling’s brother. And still another Soong is married to H.H. Kung, the Minister of Industry, Labor and Commerce. Three of the four members of the Joint Bank Board are members of the Soong Dynasty; the Generalissimo is chairman. China’s traditional nepotism has taken on modern bourgeois dress.

After the success of the counter-revolution, the remnants of the mass movement retreated to the interior where, under the leadership of Chinese Communists, local peasant uprisings and wars against the Kuomintang armies brought scattered successes and failures. For a period, the agrarian movement, less subject to the “direct operations of the hangmen of the counter-revolution,” rode high. Poorly armed and fed, these peasant forces fought innumerable heroic battles with the armies of Chiang Kai-shek, whom the imperialists supplied with the most modern weapons. After a defeat in 1934, they were finally forced to withdraw to the Northwest. Even then despite the series of disasters which they had undergone, the desperate peasants within the Communist-led armies showed their courage and discipline under the rigors of the “Long March,” one of the most remarkable mass expeditions in all history.

America and the Counter-Revolution

Since the defeat of the 1927 revolution, Chiang Kai-shek’s claim to hegemony over China has rested entirely upon his support by the imperialist powers, jointly or severally. As one who could be trusted to preserve the treaty privileges of the powers in China, the Generalissimo has never ceased to be the recipient of political support, money and arms. The Powers have encouraged by every possible means every expedition of Chiang’s which would keep alive the flame of internecine war and prevent national defense of China from imperialist aggression. Without their support the devastation of the country and the massacres of millions of Chinese by Chiang’s armies could never have occurred. Whenever any opponent of the Generalissimo’s has shown signs of strength, the Powers have not hesitated to intervene with troops to wipe him out, as at Shantung in 1928 against Chang Tso-lin, or at Shanghai in 1932 against the Nineteenth Route Army under Tsai Ting-kai In both cases, Japanese troops played the hand, but the Powers, especially the United States, dealt the cards. American officers built up the Chiang Kai-shek air forces during the ’Thirties for bombing expeditions against Communist and other opponents of the Generalissimo, including hundreds of thousands of civilians. Only the mutiny of some of Chiang’s troops in 1936 and their flight to join the rebel forces of the South prevented another bloody massacre by American-sent airplanes. Long before Pearl Harbor American silver purchases in China made the Chiang Kai-shek government at Nanking a financial dependency of the United States.

Throughout, the Powers have drawn the line at aiding the Chiang Kai-shek government when it has been a question of resistance to imperialist aggression.

National Liberation for the Chinese Masses

It is for this reason that the mass movement in China during the last ten years has tended to assume nationalistic form, i.e., of resistance to Japan as the most overt aggressor. Not only for underlying class reasons, but also because of Chiang’s patent subservience to American imperialism, the mass movement was also bound to be anti-Chiang Kai-shek. The national and class struggles in China have hence been inextricably intertwined. The nation could be defended only by combining the struggle against Chiang Kai-shek with the struggle against imperialism. The policy of the Chinese Communists before 1935, which called for struggle against Japan and against Chiang Kai-shek, aroused popular support throughout China. The heroic defense of Shanghai against the Japanese by the Nineteenth Route Army in 1932, over the active opposition of Chiang, symbolized to the Chinese masses their potential power and the treachery of Chiang. The kidnapping of the Generalissimo at Sian in 1936 by the troops of the Young Marshall was further evidence that the peasants in the North were willing to carry on a combined struggle against Japan and against Chiang Kai-shek. Again, it was the disastrous policy of the Kremlin and the treachery of the warlord leaders in the North which misled the masses into a popular front with Chiang Kai-shek. Even Agnes Smedley, notorious as a Stalinist fellow-traveler, reports that a “wave of cynical resentment against the Soviet Union swept through Sian” when the Kremlin instructed the Chinese Communists to see to the Generalissimo’s release. [1]

Not only China’s whole past but all subsequent events have demonstrated that the Chinese ruling class is unable to conduct the national defense. In their own interests and in the interests of their imperialist sponsors, the Chinese exploiters have never abandoned the struggle against the Chinese masses nor hesitated to accede to imperialist demands for dividing up China in return for support against mass rebellion. Only the revolutionary activity of the masses has prevented the partitioning of China among the Powers.

Up to the Lukouchiao incident of July 7, 1937, and even after it, Chiang was unable to decide whether his main enemy was at home or in Tokyo. The revival of industry in China after the world depression had strengthened the Chinese bourgeoisie and emboldened it against the Japanese aggressor. But with more than the usual hesitation of the bourgeoisie to institute a national war for liberation, it continued to hope that Japan could be deflected by threats and appeals to the other Powers.

The war against Japan has been going on for more than six and a half years. During these years, however, it has not been one China but several Chinas that have been fighting. Roughly, these China’s may be classified as Chiang Kai-shek’s China in the Southwest, the China controlled by the Communists in the North, and the China of the East under Japanese domination. [2] In the first, the bourgeoisie is linked inextricably with Anglo-American imperialism; in the second, the leadership has ties with Russia. In the third, the proletariat is locked in class as well as national opposition to the Japanese and is beyond the direct control of the Chinese bourgeoisie. Analysis of these three Chinas will repay the revolutionist well. For as Japanese imperialism crumbles in the Far East, the conflicts between these Chinas will sooner or later break out in civil war and social revolution.

(To be continued)


1. Battle Hymn of China, New York 1943.

2. Approximately eighty per cent of China’s territory is “free” and about sixty per cent of her population. The exact size and population of the different areas are impossible to determine. Military retreats and victories and mass migrations shift the picture constantly. Natural disasters, like famines, droughts and floods, and man-made disasters, like war and expropriation, have made millions of Chinese a migratory population.

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