Monday, July 22, 2019
China in Disintegration (book review)
The republican period cannot be understood without taking a brief glimpse of the catastrophic history of China in the 19th century. The treatment of China by the western powers, particularly the British, was truly appalling (the Opium Wars are among the most shameful chapters in all of British history and it’s surprising that the Chinese do not hate the British more than they do). It seemed likely that it would end with China being entirely dismembered and looted. This put the Chinese in a very difficult position - it seemed that they would have to westernise in order to survive but westernisation might well have meant the end of Chinese civilisation anyway.
It’s the dilemma that has faced every civilisation when confronted by the West - either surrender to westernisation or face destruction.
All of which explains why the successful Revolution of 1911 marked the beginning of revolution rather than the endpoint. Anti-imperialism continued to fuel revolutionary impulses while the country was hopelessly fragmented and in a state of near-anarchy. There was no way that the Manchus could simply be overthrown and replaced by a western parliamentary democracy. Firstly the country was going to have to be re-unified. By 1916 China had been carved up into semi-independent warlord states with no effective central government.
Secondly the country was going to have to be strengthened to the point where it could defend itself against the encroachments of imperialist powers. That would require industrialisation. How that industrialisation was going to be handled was open to debate.
Civil war was more or less continuous from 1911 to 1949, complicated greatly by Japanese invasion in the 30s. The conflict that really counted was the one between the Kuomintang (or Nationalist Party) and the Chinese Communist Party. The Kuomintang had many advantages but they were a sort of broad tent revolutionary party divided into leftist, centrist and rightist factions. The big problem for the Communists was that classical Marxist thought considered the peasants to be either an irrelevance or a hindrance to a revolution. China however was a peasant society. The genius of the Chinese Communist Party is that it was able to turn itself into a party of the peasants.
The Kuomintang on the other hand remained essentially a party of the urban middle class, its only interest in the peasants being in squeezing taxes out of them. The Kuomintang was fairly corrupt and generally incompetent and Chiang Kai-shek was increasingly dictatorial so despite holding a very strong hand the Kuomintang played that hand so badly that they managed to lose.
Sheridan is certainly sympathetic to the Communists but he still manages to give us a fascinating account of a bewildering but important period in the history of a great nation. Highly recommended.