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Thinking About the Chinese Revolution, Part I

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Originally Posted at Hella Occupy Oakland
Last week I discussed the meaning of the term comrade, and this week's blog post was supposed to be, and is, about the limits to power. When I was writing the outline for the post, I realized that the only way to talk about limits to power was to use a case study, since talking about these things in the abstract is not as meaningful as pointing to real life examples.

One of the things I realized at OO was that most people had little conception of how revolutions and and dramatic social change have played out in the past, and this lack of common framework made discussions very difficult. It was a pretty jarring experience to at one moment hear someone criticize me as a "liberal" and on the same day be called a Maoist by someone else. Obviously both those things cannot be true.

What was happening is that some people are caught in decades old scripts about how a society changes, and what "revolution" really looks like. Unfortunately these people are very loud and adamant in their misunderstanding. What they did not understand was that my analytical lens is not the same as theirs; it does not fit neatly into their trite categories of liberals vs revolutionaries, or anarchists vs Marx-Leninists. It's different, and what OO taught me was how different it really is.

A lot of my thinking on the subject of social change comes from my examination of the Chinese revolutions of the 20th century. After much encouragement from friends, I have decided to share some of these thoughts with a wider audience. I think it is appropriate for folks involved with Occupy Oakland to know something about the history of Chinese revolutions, because move in day happened on the 100th anniversary of the Xinhai Revolution that ended imperial rule.

It is my hope that readers will find this information useful in developing their own understanding.

This week's blog entry will be part one of a capsule history of those revolutions. The purpose is to show what happens when elite institutions fail to adapt to changing circumstances, and the patterns of conflict that emerge. China is a good case study because during the 20th century all the major political philosophies played out on a big stage-- constitutional monarchy, anarchism, socialism, fascism and communism.

Our story opens in 1898. China's rulers were the Qing dynasty that took power in 1644. Where China had once been a center of world learning and technological innovation, in the mid 19th century China lost several wars with Great Britain, resulting in a significant colonial presence along the coast. Learning and intellectual life centered on the examination of centuries old philosophical and moral texts. The economy was based on pure rent extraction by the elite-- the government featured a privatized tax collection system, as well as extensive taxes on transit and on the fundamental necessities of life, like salt. Land, necessary for survival and farming at the basis of the economy was monopolized by wealthy families, who kept their tenants poor and desperate. Average Chinese people lived lives of crushing poverty, and opium addiction was a widespread public health problem. The Qing court attempted to simply buy foreign advanced weapons while keeping the philosophical underpinnings of western technology at arms length. The Qing court was intensely corrupt and senior government officials diverted vast sums of money to themselves, taking money meant for industrialization and putting it into their pockets.

This did not work, most notably in 1895 when China went to war against its historical vassal state, Japan. Japanese forces annihilated the Chinese navy. The Qing court had diverted vast sums of money meant for naval modernization to rebuilding a stone boat at an imperial resort. Unfortunately, stone boats were of little use in open combat. Moreover, the Chinese military was as corrupt as the court, with incompetent fighters and major weapon systems totally useless and poorly maintained.

By 1898 it was apparent to anyone with eyes to see that the imperial government was corrupt and incompetent, and wedded to philosophies and practices that rendered it unable to defend itself from foreign aggression. This was in sharp contrast to the leadership of Japan, which, as had become apparent in 1895, undergone an intense effort to remake itself, by tearing out centuries old values and educational models and replacing them with new ideas that would support the building of an industrial nation-state. This turn of events was especially humiliating for the Chinese elite, which had long looked upon Japan as a sort of younger brother, as Japan had in the past adopted significant linguistic, cultural and technological influences from China.

Faced with these problems, in 1898 the Guangxu emperor summoned his best and brightest to the court in Beijing to begin an aggressive reform program. For about 100 days, edicts flew from the capitol, to eliminate corrupt officials, institute banking and industrial policy and change the fundamental ideological and philosophical underpinnings of imperial rule. People made plans to send students abroad to learn science and engineering techniques. Nonetheless, the reform threatened entrenched economic and social interests among the elite, and so, in the fall of 1898, conservative forces isolated the emperor and arrested the most prominent of the reformers. Although he was the emperor, the general of China's most powerful military force lined up against him. The Guangxu emperor would spend the rest of his short life in captivity. What became clear to everyone was that the hardliners who controlled the Qing court were completely hopeless. They were unable to see past their narrow self interest, and as a result in a few years their ancient institutions would vaporize.

But in the short term, the coup leaders arrested and executed six of the most vocal reform advocates, while others fled for their lives , ironically enough, to Japan. One of these men, a classically trained intellectual, Kang Youwei, would spend the rest of his life raising money overseas to restore the emperor and create a constitutional monarchy.

However, fate had other plans. At the same time that Kang and his reformers in the elite had been stirring things up in the capitol, other people were also working to remove the Qing from their imperial perch. Although the Qing ruled China, they were actually a minority group, the Manchu, that had lived on the borders of China. They had a separate language and distinct culture from the majority Han ethnic group. If you visit the Imperial Palace in Beijing, you can see that along with Chinese writing, there is also a kind of cursive-looking script on many of the buildings-- which is Manchu. Although the Qing took power in 1644, there had long been armed opposition to their rule as "foreign," especially in Southern China, a thousand miles from the capitol of Beijing. Kang Youwei and many of his intellectual circle were actually Southern Chinese people in origin. Opposition took the form of idiosyncratic folk religious movements, secret societies and sworn brotherhoods. At one point in the middle of the 19th century, the Taiping, a religious sect led by a man who had failed the Chinese equivalent of the bar exam and then declared himself the younger brother of Jesus Christ, contested wide swathes of Southern China over a 15 year period. The secret societies were ostensibly anti-Qing forces, but some had profitable sidelines in drug running and violent crime, and some were attached to various martial arts styles. It was sometimes difficult to draw a clear line between revolutionaries, gangsters and violence for hire. It was a similar situation to what happened to some of the groups associated with the Black Panthers and other would-be revolutionaries.

People from Southern China made up the bulk of overseas Chinese emigres to places like Southeast Asia and the United States, and these networks would play an increasingly important role in the overthrow of the Qing dynasty. Overseas Chinese provided shelter for revolutionaries, financing, and most importantly, conduits for new ideas into China. These people were not typically of the intellectual elite; rather they were merchants, laundrymen, gold miners and day laborers. As they lived in foreign countries that were often extremely hostile, they built networks using the same tools they'd used to survive in China. That is, networks of personal obligation,heavily supported by kinship associations and secret societies. Large numbers of these people settled on the West Coast of the United States, in California, Washington, and Hawaii. Out of this firmament, emerged a man that the English speaking world would come to know as Sun Yat-sen. Sun was a hybrid, born in China and educated in Hawaii in American missionary schools. He was a tireless fundraiser and publicist for the revolution. Sun made use of the secret societies and sworn brotherhoods as foot soldiers in his uprisings, along with members of the Qing military who were sympathetic to the idea of ending the dynasty. These groups worked together via interlocking bonds of personal loyalty, and a general idea of overthrowing the Qing state. Sun made it a point to recruit men who had many secret society and brotherhood memberships, and for them to bring in their followers in turn.

However, there was as yet no clear ideology that transcended personal loyalties and obligations. Interestingly, Sun was also supported by a coterie of Japanese advisors, sponsors and militants. Many of these men were intellectuals and ex-samurai who put their own networks at Sun's disposal. Some of these men were in it for opportunistic reasons, as there were factions in the Japanese government and industry that hoped to build a puppet government in China. At the same time, there were dedicated democratic supporters who believed in a Pan-Asian vision of fighting colonialism and in assisting the rise of a democratic, prosperous Chinese state.

Sun and his network staged multiple unsuccessful uprisings during the the early 1900s.

Eventually, on 10 October 1911, a group of people affiliated with Sun's network staged a local uprising in Wuchang city, in conjunction with units of the army that defected from the Qing court. This led to mass defections in other provinces. Imperial rule ended and Sun became President and proclaimed the birth of a Republic, which was supposed to have an elected legislature along western democratic lines. The events of 10 October 2011 became known as the Xinhai Revolution.

However, in practice, the country was controlled not by a central authority, but by a patchwork of regional strongmen. The Qing had attempted to raise western style armies in the provinces, funded by the local governments. What this did was create a patchwork of armies whose personal loyalties lay in their local commanders. With the fall of the Qing dynasty, these men reached for personal power, and with armed followers they were able to impose their will on their localities. Later generations would come to call these men warlords. They ruled as local dictators, at gunpoint. The traditional landlord elite continued to extract their living from the backs of the peasants, and the foreign colonial powers continued to enjoy their colonies, while manipulating the warlords through various financial schemes.

From 1912 to his death in 1922 [correction, 1925], Sun and his followers (the Nationalist party) attempted to turn the Republic of China into a legitimate nation state with a common language, currency and military. This was very difficult because the Republic of China depended on local warlords armies playing nice with the central government. Warlords didn't contest elections-- they assassinated troublesome civilian leaders. Although the retrospective narrative places Sun as the leader of China during this time, the fact is that he was in and out of power as various warlord factions struggled for dominance.

Sun and his followers struggled to build a state where the monopoly on violence was tenuous and where their civilian political control was tenuous at best. Moreover, most people were still locked into the idea of clan/family loyalty as paramount and it was difficult to propagate the notion of a modern nation-state where there were goals and values that exceeded the local and personal.

In 1923, Sun decided, fatefully, to accept military aid and funding from the Soviet Union. The Kuomintang had sought recognition and aid from the United States and other western powers, to no avail. This is unsurprising, as many Nationalist party members wanted to completely remove the western colonies from China. The Nationalists accepted not only money and military aid, but chose to reorganize the party to centralize control by the leadership.

Sun and the Kuomintang had by this time left Beijing and set up camp in Southern China. The Soviets provided money and instructors for the new military academy, called Whampoa, to train the new Republic army, and build loyalty to the Republican state. The Nationalists of course placed their cadets at Whampoa, but so too did another group-- the nascent Chinese Communist Party.

Tune in for more next week.

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Submitted by lambert on

Thanks for the perspective. And it's great that you're writing both here and in Oakland.

Submitted by lambert on

... is that if you try to imagine yourself in the midst of Chinese politics in 1900, there's no possibly way for any prediction to be made. The situation is incredibly dynamic. All you can do is your best. I'd argue we are in a similar position. For all I know, the administration's giant data center in Utah is a stone boat; after all, 70% of software projects fail. We just can't know.

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Submitted by wuming on

In a lot of ways, what we end up getting is the after narrative. We see the last people standing, and assume it was because of something they did right, when it might have been luck. But, I think we can learn a lot of smaller lessons, in terms of what NOT to do, as well as certain patterns of conflict that are always there.

Understanding those patterns of conflict gives us options, in terms of choosing where and how we want to focus our efforts. Obviously, I have a didactic intent in writing this series. The point I am trying to make, via examples, is that once a culture dissolves the monopoly of violence, then armed political factions and criminal enterprises become the only people who can survive. All the good, kind, decent things that you can do become less possible, and less likely.

If you were living in the warlord era, and you had a desire to see political change, then one way or the other you were going to pick an armed faction or create one of your own. Because otherwise, those whose interests diverged from yours would have no problem ending your life. It was actually that simple.

Ending that chaos comes down to: collectively deciding when and where violence is legitimate. That comes out of building a shared culture-- which is a difficult undertaking when it is all up for grabs. And this is why I view the idea of eliminating the American nation-state to be so incredibly foolish and stupid. Think patriarachy and racism are shitty now? Wait until it's not OPD and bureaucracy , but a few dozen young men with assault rifles who think that Jesus commands them to eliminate race-traitors and gays, and they happen to be the guys controlling the mountain pass people have to get through to get to the market where you sell your produce. I meet a lot of anarchists that love their multi-cultural life and non-traditional gender roles. Well all those nice things were constructed within the protection of the nation-state and academia and when that vanishes, good fucking luck.

Tangential to that, I read the Graeber interview from January that apparently happened at City Lights Books in SF. I wish I had known about it-- I would have gone. I was curious to see that Graeber talks so much about the culture of obligation, as distinct from a "monetary" culture, and how fascinated he is by that as a sort of foreign thing. Which it isn't to me, as I've explained in previous blog entries. Being inside web of obligation can be as "oppressive" as any hierarchy, as some people will figure out how to "trap" other people in those obligations. You can call it "mutual," but I'd argue that those who accumulate the most "obligations" while owing little to others, will _necessarily_ accrue power in any community. And they may not be terribly accountable-- I've witnessed this play out in large and small ways, BEFORE I ever got involved with Occupy. And even within Occupy, as I have commented before, very clearly, some people wield more power than others.

Not acknowledging that allows people to wield that power even more effectively, as outsiders to the community will not be able to "read" the power structure and therefore, will be profoundly disempowered from even knowing with whom they should speak if they have a problem/request/issue.

I like many of Graeber's insights, I just disagree that we can ever "resolve" the issues he identifies; at best we can solve them for today, understanding that in a generation or two, they'll have to fight these battles again.

Right after January 28th, I had a long talk with someone I really respect; he's a long time labor activist and rabble rouser. He was talking about resolving the contradictions of capitalism, systematically. And I said, I don't think you can ever really do that, you aren't going to escape the human condition. Life is suffering. But we can make it better for a while. That's really all I'm asking.

Submitted by lambert on

I was more contrasting this post to schematic views where either "We're fucked, nothing is possible!" or "Victory is inevitable!" To be fair, the first is a lot more prevalent than the second. What your post said to me is that such schematics are so cartoonish as to be laughable.

However, I think this the nut graph, so it's a shame it's only in comments but maybe more will come later:

The point I am trying to make, via examples, is that once a culture dissolves the monopoly of violence, then armed political factions and criminal enterprises become the only people who can survive. All the good, kind, decent things that you can do become less possible, and less likely.

Exactly. That moves the non-violence discussion from the strategic to the world historical and moral. Very, very important.

Could it be that violence advocates are like that because they want that tiny slice of personal power? Naah...

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Submitted by wuming on

There will definitely be more later. I don't subscribe to the "inevitability" of revolutions theorizing, it's one of my key disagreements with the Marxist worldview.

Having said that, there are certainly factors which increase the chaos in a society, and one of them is normative failure. In late Qing China the economy offered poor prospects for everyone, and there were a lot of failed scholars who had spent years studying for the imperial exams, but could not pass, and therefore, could not get a job. Once the government cancelled the exam, there were many people who had studied for years _and gone into family debt to do so_, and these people now had no clear opportunity for advancement. It was men such as these who helped bring the Qing to their knees.

The parallels with modern America are striking. We have legions of college graduates who have gone into debt but yet can't find a job. The opportunities for advancement are shrinking, even for science and technology graduates. These are capable people who "bought into" the system and have discovered that the system simply doesn't give a shit about them and will not be offering them the things they need to maintain the lifestyle they thought they were going to get. America's modern political economy is trending towards fewer and fewer people being able to have a "middle class" life. Service jobs have already taken the hit-- I remember when a couple working at a union grocery store as checkers could own a small house and send their kids to college. That's been over for some time as Wal Mart etc have driven wage suppression in the service sector.

People thought tech jobs were the next hot ticket-- nope, wage suppression there is accomplished via "temporary" workers or outsourcing. The only engineering jobs safe from outsourcing will be the most senior positions, the rest of the work can be done in Asia near to the manufacturing facilities. Some high level research jobs (requiring _at a minimum_ a Masters, if not a Ph.d) can stay onshore but realistically very few people are going to be qualified. The only entry level tech jobs that cannot be outsourced are things associated with the security services. It strikes me that this will actually close the feedback loop, in that only the 'most loyal' will get those jobs, and they will believe in the system that much more, in order to keep their jobs. This will necessarily create a further divide in orientation between those who have access to the security service tech jobs, and those who don't. Not a good prescription for stability.

To me it is indicative of both the arrogance and the ignorance of our governing elite, that they don't see the danger in breaking the implicit bargain of study hard>>buy into the system>>get a job. Hence, Occupy.

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Submitted by brucedixon on

was the first book I read on the Chinese Revolution.

The first hand account of a young US journalist who went behind the lines to tour the liberated Red areas, interview ordinary Chinese and leaders like Mao, Chou En-Lai, Chu Teh and others, it was written in the late 1930s, when the triumph of the Chinese Communist party was far from certain, in the vision of many. Thus it is far from a "last man standing" view on that half-century struggle.

I read it when I was 19 years old and in the Black Panther Party in Chicago. I have to admit that it had a profound and lasting impact on me, gave me a lasting sense of the scale and depth of historical change that it may be possible to accomplish in a single lifetime.

If you want a kind of understanding of the vision and history of the Chinese Revolution, it's an indispensable read, a powerful antidote to the history of WW2 and the 20th century we all learned in school and the US popular media.

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Submitted by wuming on

Red Star Over China does have a very strong narrative and I think it's an accurate depiction of the story that Mao's faction of the Communist Party wanted told to the world. I haven't read it in a while (maybe ten years or more) but from what I remember it seemed a little too hagiographic to me. I do agree that the Communists were much more successful at gaining popular support than the KMT. It's been a long time, and there are now disputes about the complete veracity of the account, but I did enjoy Jack Service's book, Last Chance in China. Service was a U.S. diplomat who accurately predicted the Communist victory in '49. Mao's legacy is problematic-- he was an excellent and still relevant military strategist, but as a ruler he was a disaster.

I'll discuss these issues more in the weeks to come.

One of the interesting things I've often noticed in talking with people who were affiliated with the Panthers, is the strong influence of Mao and the Chinese revolution. At Occupy, this has made for a few interesting conversations to be sure. Even though I have strong differences with the Maoist legacy, at the very least it provided a context for discussions.

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Submitted by Brian.Nelson on

This is an extremely comprehensive article but it is very detailed and a very good read about all the things that are happening in China. It is really about time that some of these issues are brought to the forefront.

China has a human rights crisis on their hands and according to some stats they continue to cover it up as much as possible but eventually the truth will all come out.

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