Political Change in China
Social and economic forces have a very significant impact on political change in China. Historically, it is the social and economic forces that have resulted in the rise of new regimes. Economics is always an important force in history. Chinese society was governed by the Confucian code of social conduct, which was a social hierarchy in which everyone accepted their place and paid loyalty to their superiors, while patronising those who were lower in the hierarchy. The emperor was above the subject, father above son, husband above wife, and so on. Confucianism as a social force shaped and gave structure to feudalism throughout most of China's history. Now that the feudal state is gone, and officially Confucianism has been done away with as well, the society still maintains this structure of loyalty.
China began as a collection of feudal states, and eventually was unified under various emperors. Peasant rebellions lead to the end of each dynasty, and the rise of a new one. When the economic situation became unpleasant, then the peasants would be motivated to revolt. The Tai Ping Rebellion in the 1850s was one of the first steps that directly shaped what path China's political history would take. At this time the European powers had divided China up into protectorates, and the Chinese themselves had very little power. A man named Hong Xuzhuan believed it had been revealed to him in a dream that he was Jesus's younger brother. He led a rebellion attempting to liberate the Chinese from all foreign oppression.
Foreign control left the Chinese people in a state of poverty, while the foreigners grew rich in extraterritoriality zones, places in China where the Chinese had no legal jurisdiction. The Chinese people were treated as second class citizens in their own country. But European domination was not the only imperialism China faced. Japan was a rising power and it needed land and raw materials for economic expansion. In 1894 - 1895, the Sino-Japanese War took place. The result was, that China realised it had to change and modernise in order to survive. Chinese students were sent abroad to learn, and they returned to China with democratic ideas and Western ideals. The emperor attempted to reform education in 1898, and modernise the economy, army, and bureaucracy as well. But the elite didn't want change, and didn't want their position of feudal power threatened, so a coup resulted. The emperor was sent to prison and reform was halted. While Confucianism had been abolished, nothing had been created to replace it. The new generation could only see that something needed to be done to save China, and they became nationalist revolutionaries.
One of the revolutionaries was Sun Yatsen. In 1905, he was elected the head of the Revolutionary Alliance, a group of Chinese students studying in Japan and tying to raise support for revolution in China. He turned the alliance into the Kuo Min Tang, the Nationalist Party. While he was in Denver trying to raise support, a rebellion broke out and spread across China, so when Sun returned, he became president of the new Republic of China. The old regime fell because it was very weak. But the nationalist revolutionaries were not strong, and had nothing to replace it with. Central power crumbled, and power fell to the hands of Warlords, men whose families had inherited massive personal armies. On warlord, Yuan Shikai, briefly unified the country, but he died in 1916, and everything fell apart again. While the KMT claimed to be in control, only the warlords had any power.
In 1919, when the Treaty of Versailles was published, the Chinese hoped that imperialism would finally end. But the areas claimed by the Germans were just transferred to other European powers. The students launched a social movement, the May Fourth Movement, and decried not only imperialism, but the broken down education system, Confucianism, and the feudal family structure. The movement was poorly organised, but it was the beginning of change. Many students turned to Marxism. Lenin's progress in Russia was very inspirational.
In 1921, the Communist Party was formed. They asked Moscow for help. The KMT was also inspired by the Bolsheviks. Moscow sent advisors, lead by Mikhail Borodin, to help the KMT develop. Borodin placed the Communist Party within the KMT, since it was too weak to survive on its own. In 1925 when Sun Yatsen died, Chiang Kaishek took over the KMT. He was more interested in power than in Communism, and he didn't like the Communists. In 1926, he attempted to expand northward and unify the country. The Communists went ahead, spreading their own doctrine of Communism. They became very popular, and secured support for the civil war they knew was coming. On 12 April 1927, the tensions between the Communists and the KMT finally errupted into war. Chiang Kaishek was afraid the Communists were attempting to undermine the KMT, so he attacked them in Shang Hai, and executed hundreds of them.
Mao Zedong was a party member at that time, but he was basically unknown. He survived the KMT attack because he was out in the countryside. He developed the idea that the revolution had to be a guerilla war based in the countryside. The cities were under KMT control, and the capitalists who lived in the cities supported Chiang Kaishek because he was interested in power and profit. The peasants, on the other hand, were oppressed and suffering, and they supported the Communist Party and its promise of freedom and equality. Mao launched an attack, called the Autumn Harvest Uprising, but it was not successful at all. He went inland and established a commune called the Jiang Xi Soviet. The KMT launched four unsuccessful campaigns against this Communist base camp, and finally on their fifth attempt, Chiang Kaishek surrounded the commune with such a huge force of KMT soldiers, that Mao and his people had no choice but to escape to the west. This began the Long March, a year-long running battle that resulted in 90% of the Communist forces being killed. But Mao lead them successfully to safety in Yan An in 1935. On the way, the Communist policy won them the support of the peasants and the mass population. The KMT was only interested in destroying the Communists. They pillaged and burned and abused the peasants whose villages lay in their way. But the Communists payed for everything they needed, helped the peasants rebuild their villages, and treated them with great respect. They redistributed land and reduced taxes. Chiang Kaishek destroyed himself with the hatred he instilled in the people against the KMT. Mao won their hearts and minds.
In January 1936, Mao became Chairman of the Communist Party. His Communist revolution was not at all along the lines of what Marx expected. He turned Marxism into a peasant-oriented philosophy, rather than industrial workers.
During the 1930s and 1940s the Japanese took control of Manchuria and attempted to take over the rest of China as well. The KMT and CCP supposedly formed a united front against the Japanese, but actually Chaing Kaishek didn't want to fight the Japanese at all. He publicly said that he hoped the Japanese would win the war. His biggest hero and role model was Adolf Hitler. The Communist army grew and became more popular, and when World War Two finally ended, the Communists started taking control of the country, starting in the north and working south, until Chiang Kaishek finally fled to Taiwan in 1949. The People's Republic of China was created on 1 October 1949.
In the 1950s, the Communist Party developed a rift between moderates, and those who wanted an immediate transition to socialism. Chairman Mao held all the power, and organised a Soviet-style democratic centralist state. Under Mao, collectivisation and communalisation brought China closer to true communism than any state has ever been. But his attempts to make China economically self sufficient, and industrialised, at the same time, were disastrous. Heavy industry took central stage, and the standard of life began to fall. Collectivised fields didn't provide farmers with the profit they needed to keep themselves above subsistence level. The Great Leap Forward severely crippled China's economy. Students were sent to the countryside, rather than sent to school. The resources were overtaxed, and a generation of education was lost.
The Cultural Revolution had an even greater impact on China politically, however. Mao saw that the bureaucracy in the Communist Party was becoming too hierarchical and powerful. He stepped down as the leader, and let the moderates speak out and do whatever they wanted. They moved away from his extreme policies. In 1963, Mao began instilling revolutionary ideas into the younger generation that had not experienced the war. Lin Biao, head of the People's Liberation Army, also created a cult of personality around Chairman Mao. The new generation idolised him and worshipped him. The Little Red Book of his quotations became practically a bible for them. In 1966, the Cultural Revolution began, incited by Chairman Mao and then publicly endorsed by him. The students left their classrooms, took to the streets with weapons, and began destroying all vestiges of "old China", in order to create a new perfect Communist society, without any baggage and impurities from the past. The students were organised into Red Guard brigades. In 1967 they became too violent, and Chairmaon Mao sent the PLA in to calm things down, then withdrew the army to let the chaos continue. The seeds of resentment were planted here, and although dissent was suppressed until long after Chairman Mao was dead, the unspoken consensus was that he had destroyed the country. The Cultural Revolution was a deliberate, controlled civil war. Mao assumed that the end justified the means, in setting the Communist Party back on the path of socialism. But he overlooked the great cost that the country had to pay.
In 1973, Zhou Enlai, Mao's second-hand man, lead the country in an attempt to modernise agriculture, industry, science, and the military. A semblance of order was restored and China began the painful process of putting itself back together again. Zhou was a beloved leader and diplomat. He died in 1976, and the country went into mourning. Massive demonstrations took place in Tian An Men square. Mao died in 1977, and the mourning was even greater. But the legacy of the Cultural Revolution, cynicism and embitterment, would finally begin to surface.
In the 1980s, democratic movements began to form, but they were brutally silenced as the Communist Party attempted to maintain control. In 1989, the Democracy Movement began. Thousands of students were massacred in Tian An Men square in May. After that, it became even harder for dissidents to speak out. They had to go abroad in order to be safe from the Communist Party's attempts to silence them.
Deng Xiao Ping opened up the economy in 1989, after decades of Mao's isolationist policies. But he didn't reform the political system at all. People became more and more influenced by Western media, and consumerism. Firms became privatised. Discontent is growing, because this economic freedom has caused a huge rift between rich and poor, where a small handful of people are becoming bigger and bigger millionaires, while the standard of living is going down for many others.
In 1997, Hong Kong was returned to China. The Communist Party promised not to interfere in its economy. The mainland is becoming increasingly chaotic, since without any political restructuring, there is no way to control the open economy. There is no protection for workers. Unions are not allowed to form. Private firms are not regulated in any way. Corruption is rampant.
Independence movements are growing as well. The Uyghur separatists, inspired by the breakup of the Soviet Union, want to form their own Muslim state. Uyghur terrorists have planted bombs in Bei Jing, and are becoming more militant. Taiwan wants to become a viable nation on its own, although China continues to claim sovereignty over it.
The Fa Lun Gong Movement has now grown even bigger than the Democracy Movement that resulted in the Tian An Men Square Massacre of 1989. This is a movement similar to the Ghost Dance movement that swept the United States. The focus is on meditation and personal spiritual balance. Protesters stand silently in meditation position and focus their thoughts on their desired outcome. Protests are staged daily in Tian An Men Square now, and with this new movement gaining strength, it is only a matter of time before China will begin another stage of drastic change.
Copyright, © Gulmaram 2000