Chinese Revolution, 1949
China had a long history and through most of historical times was more advanced than Europe. But by 1900, China had lagged behind on most fronts. A particular reason for its downfall was the long corrupt and inept rule of Manchu dynasty since 1650. The landed gentry produced scholar officials called mandarins, who defended the established order with privileged status. The mass of the population, the peasants, suffered from high rents, high taxes and shortage of land. Agricultural production was stagnant. Cultivated areas were densely populated, with the average size of a farm remaining less than an acre. Although China possessed coal and iron ore in abundance, industrial development was slow.
The oppressive political and economic system triggered a number of risings during the nineteenth century. The most serious was the Taiping Rebellion (1850–1864). That it took fourteen years for the government to crush was an indication of the weakness of the government. Growing European pressure, first the British, and then the French, Germans, Russians and Americans, forced China to cede trading rights at ports to foreigners. The British were twice at war against China (Opium Wars). It was a favourable time for the foreigners as China was preoccupied with the Taiping Rebellion and could offer no resistance. The European-controlled area stretched from Hong Kong to Port Arthur. Shanghai especially became a flourishing port.
The weakness of China became very clear when the newly modernised Japan began its acts of aggression in 1894. By the peace treaty of 1895, Formosa went to Japan and Korea became independent. Thereupon thousands of European businessmen began to exploit Chinese trade. Christian missionaries landed in China and began to spread their faith inland. European activities and their interference in local administration produced hatred of foreigners among the Chinese. In 1900, on top of the discontent resulting from infiltration of foreigners, there came two successive harvest failures, and devastating floods caused by the Yellow River. The Boxer Rebellion broke out.
The Taiping (meaning great peace) Rebellion started as a peasant uprising. But soon it developed into a revolutionary movement under the leadership of Hung Hsiu-chuan, a school teacher from a peasant family. He preached equality between people, stressing on equal division of the land, and an end to old social distinctions. In 1853, the movement’s membership soared to two million and succeeded in taking over Nanking and administering 40 per cent of the country as a state of its own. But the Taiping leadership did nothing to improve the status of peasants. A reorganised imperial army, with modern weapons supplied by Britain and France, under the British army officer Major Gordon quelled the rebellion. Nanking was retrieved in 1864.
Opium Wars: The first Opium War was the result of China’s attempt to suppress the illegal opium trade, as the human cost of the Chinese addiction was deadly. British traders were the primary source of opium supply in China. The treaty of Nanking signed at the end of first Opium War (1842) opened the doors to Britain. China ceded Hong Kong and paid an indemnity.
The first war broke out when Chinese officials boarded a British-registered ship, the Arrow, docked in Canton and arrested crew members for piracy. The ship belonged to the Chinese, the crew were Chinese. But the ship flew the British flag because of a permit from the Hong Kong government. The permit had actually expired. Nonetheless the British government, which was looking for a pretext to go to war so that it could force China into granting more trading concessions, responded by sending a warship. Fighting broke out and France, using the excuse of the murder of a French missionary (February 1856), joined Great Britain. This time a British and French force destroyed the Summer Palace in Peking. Finally, in 1860, China succumbed to the superior British military strength and the Beijing Agreement was reached. It opened Chinese ports to trade, allowed foreign ships down the Yangtze, and permitted the free movement of foreign missionaries within China. Most importantly, it allowed the legal trade of British opium within China.
Boxer Rebellion (1899–1901): Boxer was a name that foreigners gave to a Chinese secret society known as the Yihequan (“Righteous and Harmonious Fists”). Although the Boxers came from all sections of society, many were peasants, particularly from Shandong province, which had been struck by natural disasters. The original aim of the Boxers was the destruction of the Manchu dynasty and also of the Westerners who enjoyed a privileged position in China. The Boxers burned churches and foreign residences and killed suspected Chinese Christians on sight. A multi-national force, seized Peking, as the Empress and her court fled. Nearly 100,000 people died. The great majority of those killed were civilians, including thousands of Chinese Christians and 200 to 250 foreign nationals (mostly Christian missionaries).
The Boxer Rebellion formally ended with the signing of the Boxer Protocol on 7 September 1901. By the terms of the agreement, forts protecting Beijing were to be destroyed. Boxers and Chinese government officials involved in the uprising were to be punished. Foreign consulates were permitted to station troops in Beijing for their defence. China was prohibited from importing arms for two years and it was agreed to pay more than $330 million in reparations to the foreign nations concerned.
In October 1911 a mutiny broke out among the troops in Wuchang. This is regarded as the formal beginning of the revolution. The mutineers soon captured the Wuchang mint and arsenal, and city after city declared war against the Manchus. Revolution broke out in the valley of the Yangtze and soon spread to the greater part of central and south China. On New Year’s Day 1912 the provinces involved in the revolt proclaimed a republic with its capital at Nanking. On hearing the news of the uprising, Sun Yat-sen arrived in Shanghai and was immediately elected provisional President of the new Chinese Republic. Yuan Shih-kai, who had earlier served as a minister in the Manchu administration, was recalled by the Regent who was acting for his infant son to handle the revolt. But gauging the mood of the people Yuan advised the abdication of the Emperor.
On February 12, 1912 an Edict of Abdication was issued and the Manchu dynasty (Qing government) vanished from the Chinese political stage. In the following month, Sun Yat-sen, in the interests of unity, resigned in favour of Yuan, since the latter had total control over the army.
In the four years of his administration, Yuan Shih-kai proved that he was opposed to both democracy and republicanism. Yuan went on to ban the Kuomintang, the Nationalist Party, and seize the provinces under its control. On 10 October 1913, Yuan was installed as the full-fledged president of the republic. Exactly three months later, he dissolved the National Assembly and replaced it with a "political council," which drafted a "constitutional compact" granting dictatorial powers to the president. Yuan was made president for life. Yuan became unpopular when he agreed to the Japanese demand to have economic control of Manchuria and Shantung. On the death of Yuan in 1916, a new president was appointed. For the next twelve years the government was central only in name. It was a period of disorder. Around this time Marxist ideas were gaining support in the north of China, parallel to Sun-Yat-sen’s activities in the coastal cities between Shanghai and Canton.
Dr. Sun Yat- sen, born in a poor family, was educated in a mission school and became a medical doctor. His interest in politics prompted him to participate in a rising against the Qing government in 1895. The rising failed and Sun Yat-sen had to spend the next sixteen years in exile. He spent his time in spreading his revolutionary ideas amongst Chinese students and others living overseas. In 1905, he founded a political party in Tokyo, which became the Kuomintang or National People’s Party.
Sun-Yat-sen championed three principles: Nationalism, Democracy, and Socialism. In 1894 Sun Yat-sen had founded the China Revival Society that took exception to the “unequal treaties,” as the Chinese called the two treaties forced on China by foreign powers. The society grew and attracted the youth. By 1912, it had changed its name to the Kuo-Min-Tang. Sun Yat -sen, the inspirer of the organisation, wanted a republic, not a constitutional monarchy.
With the death of Yuan Shih-kai during the First World War, the country came to be divided by rival Chinese generals backed by different powers. Many of the intelligentsia had faith in US liberalism to end this state of affairs. But they felt let down as the expected did not happen. The frustration was unleashed by millions of people through rallies and demonstration in which students took prominent part. After the Russian Revolution of 1917, the writings and speeches of Marx and Lenin became popular amongst the intellectuals. Interest in Marxism grew as China’s emerging industrial working class gained in strength and demonstrated it through strikes and boycotts. In 1918 a Society for the Study of Marxism was formed in Peking University. Among the students who attended was a young assistant librarian by the name of Mao Tse-tung.
A series of strikes rocked China in 1922. About 2,000 seamen in Hong Kong, braving the proclamation of marital law, struck work. It soon developed into a general strike of 120,000 workers forcing the employers to opt for peace. Clashes between British police and workers in British-owned factories in Hankou culminated in a warlord shooting down 35 striking rail workers and executing a union unit secretary. Such repressive measures halted the onward march of the working class movement, but did not destroy the spirit of resistance. Instead it led to an increasing level of class consciousness.
By now Sun Yat-sen had established a constitutional government. But its position was weak. So he sought USSR’s help to reorganise his Kuomintang. USSR sent Michael Borodin to China. As an experienced Communist Borodin reorganised the Kuomintang as a centralised mass party and helped to build up a revolutionary army. The Whampoa Military Academy was founded near Canton, with the assistance of Soviet officers. Its first director was Chiang Kai-shek. On the staff in charge of political activities was Chou En Lai, as an alliance had been formed between the Chinese Communist Party and the Kuomintang.
Mao was born in Hunan in south-east China. His father was a wealthy peasant, and a firm supporter of the Manchu dynasty. Mao entered the junior college at Changsha in the year of the revolution (1911). Mao joined the revolutionary army but soon left and enrolled in the Teachers’ Training College in Changsha. He remained there until 1918, spending long hours in the library. He then moved to Peking and served as an assistant librarian in Peking University. In the following year Mao began his full-fledged political activities as an organiser of Hunan and emerged as a staunch Communist.
After the death of Sun Yat-sen in 1925, the Kuomintang was organised on Communist lines, but it did not adopt Communist policies. While the Kuomintang was led by Chiang Kai-Shek, the Communist Party was under Mao Tse tung and Chou En Lai. The Communists increased their influence among the workers and peasants, and won recruits for their army. The Kuomintang represented the interests of the landlords and capitalists.
Chiang Kai-Shek began his march known as ‘the Northern Expedition’ from Canton, and by the end of 1925, he had captured Hanko. By March 1927, when the Expedition was approaching Shanghai, a general strike involving 600,000 workers erupted and the unions had taken over the control of the city. Chiang Kai-shek had already cracked down on the workers’ movement in Canton by arresting a number of communist activists and harassing the unions. In Shanghai, after allowing the victorious rebel forces to hand him the city, he treacherously arranged for the criminal gangs in collusion with wealthy Chinese merchants and the representatives of the foreign powers to launch a pre-dawn attack on the offices of the main left wing unions. The workers’ sentries were disarmed and their leaders arrested. Demonstrations were fired on with machine-guns, and thousands of activists died while fighting. At the instance of wealthy merchants and financiers, Chiang Kai-Shek purged all Communists from the Kuomintang Party. In 1928 he was successful in capturing Peking. Once again there was a central government in China. But over the next 18 years his government became notorious for its corruption and gangsterism.
Mao knew that the Kuomintang grip on the towns was too strong. So concentrated his energies on organizing the peasantry. He retreated into the wild mountains on the border between the provinces of Kiangsi and Hunan. Here Mao and his comrades stayed for the next seven years. As the army of Mao was gradually growing, despite five extermination campaigns, the Kuomintang was never able to penetrate the mountains successfully. In the new base of the communists, they had protection from the attacks of Chiang Kai-Shek, and an advantage in dealing with constant threat from Japan and also the attacks from war lords.
As Chiang Kai-Shek had built a circle of fortified posts around the Communist positions, Mao wanted to move out of Hunan for safer territory. Therefore, the Communist army set out on what came to be known as the Long March in 1934. The marchers were continually harassed by Kuomintang forces, by local war lords and by unfriendly tribesmen. The machine gun fire of Kuomintang contingents and the deafening roar of the river caused horror to the marchers. Of the 100,000 who set out, only 20,000 finally arrived in northern Sheni late in 1935, after crossing nearly 6000 miles. They were soon joined by other communist armies, and by 1937 Mao Tse-tung was the ruler of over 10 million people. Mao organised Workers and Peasants’ Councils in the villages of Shensi and Kansu and the base for the eventual Communist conquest of China was established.
The Japanese continued to occupy north Chinese provinces while developing Manchuria as a military base. Mao believed that Chiang Kai-shek was necessary for some time to hold together Kuomintang to fight the Japanese. As a consequence of this pragmatic policy, the attacks on the Communists gradually petered out. However, a stronger line was adopted towards Japanese expansion. Yet the Japanese had occupied the whole of the eastern half of China during the Second World War, as the Kuomintang armies fell easily. Chiang Kai-shek’s capital had to be shifted to Chungking.
With the announcement of the Japanese surrender in 1945 after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, both the groups in China took immediate steps to occupy the Japanese areas. In the course of this race, the USA advised both sides to negotiate. During 1946 General George Marshall twice negotiated ceasefires, but both were unsuccessful. The Kuomintang government controlled the administration, ports and communication system in view of themassive support provided by the USA.But the Kuomintang soldiers, mainly drawn from the peasants, were Mao disillusioned and discontented. Mao, on the other hand, had an army with higher morale and better discipline. When civil war broke out, Chiang Kai-Sehik’s army began to disintegrate, with generals changing sides. Cities fell one by one. By the end of 1949 Chiang Kai-Shek had fled the mainland for Taiwan. The People’s Republic of China was established in 1949.