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China and Revolution 1912 – 1962

Like Gandhi and Nehru in India, one of China’s greatest leaders, Dr. Sun Yat-Sen, learned from the West as well as the East. Born in 1867 of a Christian family, he received most of his education in Hawaii; while an exile, he lived in Europe, America and Japan.

Although Dr. Sun had been educated to be a surgeon, he soon gave up the practice of medicine to lead his people against their Manchu rulers. The Chinese were successful in overthrowing the Manchus and in 1912 they proclaimed their country a republic. Dr. Sun, who became known as the “father of the Chinese revolution,” was named president, but he turned the office over to Yuan Shih-kai, a general who had a number of followers. Dr. Sun believed that Yuan would be better able to keep order and unify the country.

Instead, Yuan made himself a military dictator and when he died in 1916, China was more divided than ever. Local war lords, or military governors, controlled the provinces. Each of the war lords had his own soldiers, collected taxes and ruled his territory as he pleased. Seeking for a way China could become a free and independent nation, Dr. Sun worked out his “Three Principles of the People‚” or, in Chinese, San Min Chu I.

The first of the three principles was nationalism. Chinese society had always been based mainly on the family; now the Chinese must think of themselves as a great and unified nation with a long history of civilization. They must rule themselves and have the same power as other nations. They must stop giving concessions and special privileges to foreigners and they must do away with the war lords.

The second principle was democracy. The government and the people must be responsible to each other. The people must be taught to read and write, so that they could vote and take part in the government. Instead of being like “a sheet of loose sand,” they must “break down individual liberty and become pressed together into an unyielding body like the firm rock which is formed by the addition of cement to sand.”

The third principle was people’s livelihood. The government must industrialize the country and build up the economy. The most important industries should be socialized. The condition of the peasants must be improved and they should own their own land.


Dr. Sun also explained his three principles as three stages’ in the development of the Chinese republic. First, what remained of the old system of rule must be swept away. Second, the people must prepare themselves for democracy. Third, the people must set up a government that was truly democratic and would govern for their benefit.

To carry out the three principles, Dr. Sun established the Kuomintang, or People’s Party. It won wide support throughout China and in 1918 he set up a government in the city of Canton, hoping that this would become the government of the entire country, but the war lords still controlled most of China and other nations still held on to their special rights and privileges. After the end of World War 1, Dr. Sun was disappointed when the Allied powers refused to take action and give up these rights and privileges. Unable to get help from the United States and Britain, he turned to the Soviet Union.

Not that Dr. Sun was a Communist. He felt that Communism as practiced by the Russians would never work in China. But he did have many socialist ideas, he admired the Russians for ridding themselves of the tsar, and he badly needed help in organizing an army to put down the war lords. And so, in 1924, he allowed Chinese Communists to join the Kuomintang and he welcomed Russian advisers.

A school to train officers was set up, headed by a young Chinese military man, Chiang K’ai-shek. Chiang had already impressed the Russians so much that they had sent him to Moscow for six months of training. When Dr. Sun Yat-Sen died in 1925, it was Chiang K’ai-shek who became the leader of the Kuomintang. Chinese of all classes rallied to him and in 1926 he was ready to move against the war lords. First he sent agents, both Communist and Kuomintang, out into the countryside and the cities to organize the workers and peasants. Then he led his army northward from Canton to the Yangtse Valley. With the people supporting him, he took Hankow, Nanking and Shanghai, where the workers had already won control of the city by a general strike.

It seemed as though at last a united China was marching on to freedom and independence. Then, only three weeks after the fall of Shanghai, something happened. Influenced by the conservatives in the Kuomintang, by the landowners and bankers and businessmen who feared that the workers and peasants might gain control of the country, Chiang turned savagely against the Communists. It may have been that he no longer wanted to depend on the Russians for aid, or that he had grown to distrust the Communists.

Chiang went further than cutting off the Russians and the Communists from the Kuomintang. He became the active enemy of the Communists and allied himself with the moneyed men of China. He massacred thousands of Communists and forced the rest to leave the Kuomintang. By 1928 the Kuomintang was solidly anti-Communist and Chiang continued his drive northward, taking Peking.

After changing the name of the city from Peking, which means “northern capital,” to Peiping, which means “northern peace,” he established his government in Nanking. Although many of the war lords still ruled their territories as they had in the past, Chiang had control of a large part of the country. It soon became clear that he had set up a dictatorship, with the usual features of totalitarian rule — a strong army, secret police, censorship and no elections.

Meanwhile, whatever Communists remained fled to the mountains in the south, where they could be safe, at least for a time. Here they began building up a Chinese Red Army, under the leadership of Mao Tse-tung. Mao Tse-tung was an intellectual who had been a teacher, a librarian, a newspaper editor and a union organizer. His Communist philosophy, which he explained in many books, differed somewhat from the teachings of Marx and Lenin. Marx had said that only the working class in a highly industrialized society could carry out a revolution. Later, however, Lenin had proved that a revolution could be carried out with the help of peasants in a non-industrial country, such as Russia was in 1917. Lenin also believed that the Russian revolution would set off revolutions throughout Western Europe, where the working class was large and well-organized, but events proved him wrong.

Mao Tse-tung went one step further than Lenin. Mao said that the peasants, even in a backward country like China, could successfully carry out a revolution without working-class support. Then, under a Communist government, China would rapidly become industrialized and the peasants would disappear as a class. Mao Tse-tung realized that this would not happen for many years, probably not within his lifetime.


Once again China was a divided country. While both Chiang K’ai-shek and the Communists declared that they were following the policies of Sun Yat-Sen, it seemed unlikely that his dream of a great, united, independent, democratic country would ever be realized. There was war between the Nationalists, as Chiang’s forces came to be called and the Communists. Chiang brought in military advisers from Germany and made his army the strongest China had ever known. The Communists worked tirelessly to win over the peasants and by 1931 they were powerful enough to proclaim a Chinese Soviet Republic in the southwest region. For several years they fought back against Chiang’s Nationalist armies, but in 1934 his troops were closing in on the Communist stronghold.


The Communist leaders decided that they could save themselves from disaster only by a retreat — a retreat not of their army alone, but of all their people, men and women, who would take with them everything they could carry. So on October 15 began what became known as the Long March, a 6,000-mile journey of perhaps 130,000 persons, from southeast China to the north-central region of Yenan.

The countryside was rugged, with mountains, rivers, grasslands and Chiang did not stand by and let the Communists go their way in peace. There was fierce fighting in which thousands of persons were killed. The Nationalists fought from stone blockhouses and the route of the Long March was marked by the bodies of the dead. By October of 1935 the Communists had reached their goal; by the end of the year they had fought off their enemies and established a base. They had indeed saved themselves by retreating and there still remained two centres of power in China, that of the Communists and that of the Nationalists.

There was a third center of power as well — that of the Japanese. After occupying Manchuria in 1932, they began pushing into the northern provinces of China. Taking advantage of Chiang’s continuing war with the Communists, they succeeded in forcing a number of concessions from him. They brought in quantities of opium and distributed it to the people, knowing that they could force addicts to cooperate with them by threatening to cut off the supply of the drug. They sent hundreds of agents deep into the country to prepare the way for further advances and it was plain that they would not be satisfied until they had conquered all of China.

On August 1, 1935, the Communists called for an Anti-Japanese National United Front. They appealed to Chiang to stop fighting “against his own people” and to organize a new national army that would drive out the Japanese. It was not only the Communists who called for unity against China’s invaders. Thousands of students in Nationalist territory held anti-Japanese parades and demonstrations and many of Chiang’s own soldiers were beginning to lose interest in battling the Communists. The drive against the Communists slowed down almost to a standstill and in December Chiang K’ai-shek went to Sian in the Shensi province to prod his general there, Chang Hsueh-liang, into taking action.

It turned out the general was perfectly willing to fight — but against the Japanese, not against the Communists. On December 12 he kidnapped Chiang K’ai-shek and held him prisoner for two weeks. Exactly what happened during those two weeks was never made public; perhaps Communist leaders came to Sian and spoke with Chiang. At any rate, when Chiang was released, he began negotiations with the Communists.

The result was that in February of 1937 the Kuomintang and the Communists agreed to stop the civil war. Chiang’s government would put into effect democratic reforms, following a policy in keeping with Sun Yat-sen’s three principles. The Communists would continue to govern their territory in the north, but would no longer work for a revolution throughout China They would put their armies under Chiang’s command so that every effort could be made to halt the Japanese.

The Japanese had always feared the might of a united China and they decided to act quickly. An incident that took place at the Marco Polo Bridge near Peiping gave them their excuse. On July 7, 1937, some Chinese troops clashed with a Japanese force out on maneuvers. It was a small incident that could have been easily settled but the Japanese did not want it settled. Since l93l, when they had seized Manchuria, they had been carrying on an undeclared war against China; now they began to fight on an even larger scale.

The Chinese fought back, but on July 27 they were forced to give up Peiping. The following month they lost Shanghai. In December the Japanese captured Nanking, celebrating their victory with several weeks of looting and slaughter. The Chinese moved their capital to Hankow and later to Chungking, but the Japanese kept advancing and by October of 1938 they had captured Canton. By this time, they controlled the coast, the rivers, the railroads and the most important cities. They believed that all they had to do was wait and the Chinese would give up.


For several years, the Japanese waited — and the Chinese did not give up. The war went on, with neither side making any decisive gains. Even so, the Japanese were confident that all of China would eventually fall to them; in fact, they looked beyond China to further conquests‚ They allied themselves with Germany, Italy and in 1941 they attacked the United States base at Pearl Harbour in Hawaii. The war in China became part of World War II and the United States and Britain sent aid to the Chinese. There was disagreement between Chiang K‘ai-shek and General Joseph W. Stillwell, the American in charge of allied forces in the China-India-Burma area. There was disagreement, too, between Chung and the Communists; they accused him of being more interested in fighting them than in fighting the Japanese. In spite of all the difficulties‚ however the Japanese were defeated.

The end of the war did not bring peace in China. Even during the war years there had been no real cooperation between the Communists and the Nationalists and it had been impossible to set up a coalition government. Now the situation grew worse. The United States, which wanted to see a stable government in China, recognized Chiang K’ai-shek’s Nationalist government as China’s legal government.

In December of 1945, President Truman named General George C. Marshall as his special envoy to China. Marshall tried to bring about an agreement between the Communists and the Nationalists, so that they could set up a unified government. Both sides ordered a cease-fire and for a short time it looked as though Marshall might succeed in his mission, but neither side was willing to compromise. Chiang was determined to put down the Communists by force; the Communists were just as determined to win control of the country.

In April of 1946 fighting broke out again. By the end of 1947, the Communists controlled most of Manchuria; by the end of the following year they controlled the northern provinces. Week by week, month by month, they pushed back the Nationalists and in 1949 they took Peiping, Nanking, Hangkow and Shanghai. Chiang Kai-shek’s government fled to the island of Formosa and the Communist advance continued. In September of 1949 the Communists established a new government, which they called the Chinese Peoples’ Republic. Mao Tse-tung became chairman of the central committee. Like Stalin in the Soviet Union, he was also secretary of the Communist party and the real head of the government.

Some observers said that the Nationalists had lost because they had not received sufficient aid from the United States. The Communists, on the other hand, had received aid from the Soviet Union, which had turned over captured Japanese war materials to them. Other observers, however, believed that no amount of aid could have saved Chiang Kai-shek’s government. It failed to win the support of the people, particularly of the peasants, because it did not carry out any reforms. Furthermore, there was much inefficiency, dishonesty and corruption within the nationalist government itself. United States Secretary of State Dean Acheson said that the Nationalists “did not lose a single battle during the crucial year of 1948 through lack of arms or ammunition. . . . The Nationalist armies did not have to be defeated; they disintegrated.” The Communists, meanwhile, had won the support of the people by promising them reforms.

For the first time in many centuries, China was unified under a strong central government. Being a Communist government, it had ambitious plans to “mange Chinese society from top to bottom. Mao Tse-sung aimed first to rid the country of its warlords and large landowners and then to bring about rapid industrialization. He achieved his aim without much difficulty: anyone who disagreed with the policies of the government was shot or imprisoned. In this way most of his opponents were eliminated. Before long, nearly all the land in China belonged to the government — but not to the peasants, to whom it had been promised.

Mao found that the second aim was more difficult to achieve. In 1949, fewer than five percent of the people worked in factories, while the rest grew barely enough food to keep themselves alive. In the late 1950’s, Mao and the leaders of the Communist party decided to put a daring plan into practice. They called it the “Great Leap Forward.” Under this plan, the Chinese people would be organized into “communes”–that is, communities of several thousand people who live in barracks, like soldiers in an army. In these communes, simple industries would be established. After a while, these simple industries would grow larger and more complex, as would the communes and eventually China would be a great industrial nation.

But the “Great Leap Forward” failed for the Chinese people were too individualistic to allow themselves to be herded into communes. The attempt to set up small industries broke down. The average commune did not have the skills and resources required for even the smallest factory. Finally, in the late 1950’s, China suffered a severe drought which ruined crops and forced the government to buy large amounts of wheat from Canada. To pay for the wheat, the government had to reduce the amount of money invested in the communes and it gave up the communes entirely. China seemed to be worse off than at any time since the Communists took power. The Great Leap Forward had turned out to be a great leap backward.

Failures at home did not prevent the Chinese Communists from carrying on their bold foreign policies. Mao Tse-tung wanted to make it clear that China was the greatest power in Asia. His armies took over Tibet, ruthlessly crushing all resistance and driving out the Buddhist Dalai Lama. Previous Chinese governments had always allowed Tibet a certain amount of freedom; after 1959, it was merely a province of China. In 1962, Chinese and Indian troops clashed over a longstanding border dispute between the two countries. The Indians were driven back and China occupied most of the territory, but Mao Tse-tung received a setback in his efforts to take the island of Formosa from Chiang K’ai-shek. A large American fleet protected the island and Mao gave up the idea that he could win it by force.

To the outside world, it seemed that the Chinese Communists were growing more revolutionary with each passing year. By the 1960’s, Mao was accusing Russia of turning its back on Communism and revolution. China proclaimed itself the defender of the “oppressed” coloured peoples of the world and even went so far as to lump Russia with the white “imperialists” of the West. China tried to spread its brand of Communism in South America and Africa, as well as in Asia. A conflict thus arose between China and the Soviet Union, the two giants of Communism and each bitterly criticized the other.

So China, which had been weak and defenseless for ages, suddenly emerged as a mighty force in world politics. Its leaders were not only revolutionary Communists who were determined to change the world; they were aggressive nationalists who did not shrink from challenging India, Russia and the U. S., all at the same time.

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