Thinking About the Chinese Revolution, Part I
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.