Communism in China I

Mao and Chiang celebrate 1945

Stalin may have backed down in West Berlin but in the short term he had achieved what suited him: the attention of the Americans had been hugely diverted from developments in Asia that were of far vaster significance for the future. The other great European crisis also showed its effects. Greece was proving to be what Lawrence had said of Balzac, a sort of ‘gigantic dwarf’. The British had given up on the extraordinarily complicated but in the end quite simple little country, in February 1947, and Truman had picked up the pieces with his ‘doctrine’ (like most such, civilian or military, in effect a one-liner) a month later. The Americans shouldered up non-Communist Greece. But at exactly the same moments, the British were throwing in their hand over Palestine, over India, even over Indonesia and Vietnam. There was now a general crisis in that huge area of the world that had been dominated, until very recently, by British and Japanese imperial power, and the largest of the problems occurred over China. In the late winter and early spring of 1947, there were terrible headlines, one after another, throughout this region of British implosion, and the Cold War encountered what was to prove the greatest of its dimensions. The British decision of February 1947 over Greece was the pebble announcing the avalanche.

Greece now became symbolic on a worldwide scale once more – a symbol of developments over the next two generations. Empires were to be replaced by nation states, the world over, and an immense problem came with the modernization of the backward places that escaped from empire. Nineteenth-century Europe had introduced as a universal principle the nation state, and Greece had been launched, freed from the Turkish empire, early on, though only as a small kingdom, based on the Morea (a name meaning ‘mulberry’). She was modernized as such things were then understood: a constitution, a Bavarian megalomaniac as king, professors enthusiastically making up words for the new national language, one far beyond anything that the peasants could understand (‘laundry’ was katharsis and ‘foreign travel’ metafora esoterika). She had, even then, a further pioneering role: she attracted footloose, romantic intelligentsia, obsessed with foreign liberations that they perhaps did not understand any too well. The English (or Scottish) poet Lord Byron, his finances not in good shape, his talents ebbing away, the latest mistress sent back to her elderly husband, betook himself there, was widely stolen from, and was be-scened by a page boy, one Loukas, who extracted from him a coat of gold cloth which he wore when astride the donkey with which he followed Byron around. In 1824 Byron turned his face to the wall and died. The subsequent history of Greece was not very happy, and in 1945, though she had the appurtenances of a nation state, she was in many ways closer to what was soon to be called the ‘Third World’. In that respect, she was, on microscopic scale, a model, and, there, as on the far greater scale beyond Europe, British imperialism came to grief.

‘Third World’ – at one time covering countries as different as Haiti and South Korea (of which, in 1960, the only export consisted of wigs) – was itself an expression that became worse than useless, but after the Second World War large areas of the world were indeed backward and poor, with millions of illiterate and superstitious peasants scratching the soil and making immense families. Running democracy in such countries was a precarious business, and in politics they wobbled between military coups and would-be revolution. Between the wars, Greece had been on the edge of anarchy. A quarter of the population consisted of minorities, themselves very varied, and another quarter had arrived twenty years before as penniless refugees from Turkey. Often enough, they were exploited, not so much by great landowners as by village headmen and especially by middlemen on a small scale who bought and sold for them. The State was a major employer, and clans fought over the resulting jobs, or the meagre fruits from corruption that came with them. There was indeed some industry, mainly to do with ships and tobacco-processing, but not much.

But Greece developed a Europeanized educated class, with English and especially French schools; there was also a large diaspora in the eastern Mediterranean, Alexandria especially, which produced more in the way of European civilization than did Athens herself. Communism developed, particularly in Salonica, where dockers, minorities and refugees congregated – a miniature Shanghai. Here was imperialism (British) in alliance with a grasping native bourgeoisie (Aristotle Onassis, Taki Theodoracopulos) and an exploited peasantry; here as well was an army with a political role; and here too was an intelligentsia which could lead that mass of dock workers and porters and servants-of-servants and bargees who were too poor, disorganized and mistrustful to produce a trade union movement of their own. Here, the Party would come into its own. It would be the ‘vanguard’. Of course there was absurd oversimplification in seeing all such countries as the same. Later on, development economists fell for similar oversimplifications. But the fact is that there was often much of substance to what the Marxists said, and their diagnoses were often not wrong at all. The prescriptions turned out to be another matter. They created more havoc and mayhem than anything the banana republic alternatives would have done.

The failures of the Communists were some way in the future, and meanwhile in 1946, in that huge swathe of the world that was coming free of European empires, there was near chaos. The war had caused even more death and destruction in Asia than in Europe, the great symbol being the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, on 6 August 1945. The Japanese had taken a lead in showing that the Western powers could be defeated by their own technology. A Japanese fleet had annihilated a Russian one in 1905; Japanese commerce had taken over Western markets; then at the turn of 1941-2 superior Japanese air power had produced catastrophe for the British at Singapore and the Americans at the naval base of Pearl Harbor. Japanese occupation of an enormous area of eastern and south-eastern Asia had followed. The peoples involved – Vietnamese, Burmese, Malayan, Indonesian – produced independence movements that the Japanese (clumsily) encouraged, and when the war came to an end, these national movements had a force that could not, as events soon showed, be stopped. True, the Americans’ atomic bomb did indeed demonstrate that Western inventiveness was still ahead, or even far ahead. The casualties from that single bomb, about ten feet long and just over two feet in diameter, ran to 140,000 (direct and, through radiation, indirect); even the birds in mid-air were burned, and two thirds of the city’s buildings were destroyed. The West was still hugely superior in the most advanced forms of engineering (or ‘technology’ as it became known), but there were by now great limits to the effectiveness of this. Asia was at least learning ‘intermediate technology’, and though the West might win great land wars, winning small and scattered ones was another matter. Empire was over, though it fought a rearguard action that now seems very weird.

Such was the condition of the Far East as the Cold War got under way in 1947. So far, the Far East had already influenced events in Europe: at Yalta, the Americans had been willing to concede a great deal in eastern and central Europe in order to get Soviet help against Japan. But that meant a full-scale Soviet invasion. It struck a China already in endless convulsion. During the war, thanks to the American alliance, China had been very unsteadily returned to independence, had even been granted nominal Great Power status, with membership of the Security Council of the new United Nations. But she was in the grip of civil war, and Stalin patronized (or bullied) the local Communists, under Mao Tse-tung. The Berlin blockade was a very good device for diverting the attentions of the Americans away from China; they were surprisingly weak on the ground in the Far East, and were altogether unsure as to how to proceed. When the civil war began in China, American support for the non-Communists was limited and sometimes reluctant, and by 1949, when the Berlin blockade was ended, the Communists were well on their way to victory. This was a greater disaster than even the Second World War, but it began with good intentions and with Western sympathizers who, for all their extraordinary knowledge and sympathy, now look foolish.

Chinese Communism had started off as a reflection of Russian Bolshevism, and there were Chinese intellectuals – including the young Mao Tse-tung, then a librarian – who had looked at socialist or at least progressive literature. They seethed with resentment, or even hatred, at what had happened to old China: important seaports just seized by this or that foreign power, the Japanese in bullying mode, finances in a mess, native collaborators coining it in. In 1912 the old empire had been abolished, but no solid state had then followed: on the contrary, local warlords divided the country up. There were also some 6,000 Protestant missionaries, setting up hospitals and even universities some way into central China: Yale developed a connection. But this activity just called attention to Chinese backwardness: the awful poverty of the peasants, the degradation of women (in China little girls had their feet crushed so that, in later life, they would walk daintily), the illiteracy that was bound to follow from a script in which each word had its own character, sometimes of forty different brush strokes. Even the Americans’ record was not spotless: they imposed such restrictions against Chinese immigration that a team of Chinese representatives trying to set up their pavilion for an international exhibition at St Louis were roughed up as they came through. Shanghai was an international city, with tens of thousands of foreigners in their own settlements, from which Chinese were kept out; and when there were riots in the twenties, foreign policemen fired into the crowds. Russia had also been dominated by more advanced countries; Lenin had just refused to pay the debts, and in 1919 was defeating the foreign invaders trying to collect them and to return Russia to her previous status. In Peking, Chinese took an interest, and a Communist Party soon followed.

Of course, this was in some degree fanciful. Old Marx did not really have very much to say about such countries, regarding their economic and social arrangements as fossils. There was not much of an industrial working class in China, either. However, Lenin had made his revolution in a Russia that also had only a limited number of industrial workers: the ‘people’ were Volga boatmen, dockers, hawkers, servants-of-servants and especially peasants, and especially again peasants who had been pushed into military uniform in pursuit of a very badly managed war with Germany. There were at least the beginnings of that pattern in China, and some of the intelligentsia understood as much. The cause was even inspiring, and Chinese students, getting married in France, solemnly had photographs taken to record them in their wedding finery, jointly holding up a copy of Das Kapital. France, appositely enough, was the principal source for the spread of Marxist ideas: in the First World War, to create some gratitude on the part of the imperialists, the Chinese government had sent 100,000 labourers, each with a welded dog-tag, to the Western Front: this was known to the British as the ‘sausage machine’. Students, who also undertook to work part-time, also went to France, where, unsurprisingly, they picked up revolutionary ideas. Some of Mao Tse-tung’s most prominent colleagues were among these students: Chou En-lai and Deng Xiaoping, for instance. Later on, as French academe moved Left, the Sorbonne attracted many more such, from all countries.

On the worldwide scale, there was of course a potential Bolshevik alliance with victims of imperialism, and, quite soon after the Revolution, representatives of these, from India or China, began to appear in Moscow. The Communist International – Comintern – set up a school for them, and sent its own people to offer sage advice. Mao Tse-tung (the name means ‘shined-on east’) did not go to that school, and did not in fact go to Moscow at all until after his own victory, much later. But his cause was revolutionary, and he belonged to a type that, worldwide, produced revolutionaries: for he was a student teacher from a peasant background less dismal than others, and had ambitions to count as a scholar, which had been frustrated by an irascible, bullying father who made him work in the fields. The province in which he was born (in 1893), Hunan, was on a military road, and it was relatively open to foreign influences: in 1903 it had the first girls’ school in China and its capital was also chosen by Yale University as the place for an educational programme, on which American missionaries were very keen. In fact Mao was first noticed by an American, the president of Yale-in-China, as an agitator in 1924. It was easy enough for the young Mao to regard China with contempt. Why had such a civilization, the most ancient of all, come under Western domination? Mao cut off his pigtail, broke with his domineering father, and took up links with Peking intelligentsia who became interested in the Russian Revolution.

It was not just Communists who wanted to get rid of these things. There was a progressive-nationalist movement, the Kuomintang, initially dominated by Chinese Christians, with support from the merchants and students. They, too, were prepared to collaborate in the anti-imperialist cause with the Bolsheviks, and developed close relations with a Moscow which, to start off with, regarded the Kuomintang as the desirable ally. The overall notion was that China was too backward and rural to produce a proper Communist movement, and that the likely revolution would be anti-Western but also fuelled by peasants wanting their own land and merchants wanting to corner trade: these would be useful to Moscow, though they might also, on the ground, be hostile towards Communists. The Russians sent advisers and even set up the Whampoa Military Academy, near Canton. Its graduates, led by Chiang Kai-shek, set about unifying the country, which had fallen under various warlords, each with his protection racket (often involving opium, of which there was an epidemic). Moscow instructed the Chinese Communists to co-operate with Chiang, and the labour unions in Shanghai did so. He, however, had other ideas, and mercilessly butchered them, sometimes, to save ammunition, just binding them in batches of ten, taking them out to sea, and throwing them overboard. The origins of the Sino-Soviet split, a vastly important element in the end of the Cold War much later on, go back to this period. The Communists were decapitated, and Mao kept much of the nucleus together in remote, difficult, mountainous country; he did get help from Moscow, but not very much – in effect only enough to keep him going (in one decisive battle, his troops could fire their machine-guns only for ten minutes). Meanwhile, Moscow co-operated with Chiang Kai-shek, since the Kuomintang had taken over most of the country and especially the cities. Even when the Kuomintang eventually lost the civil war, in 1949, and evacuated Shanghai in conditions of much disarray, the Soviet ambassador accompanied it to the very last stage of exile.

Mao Tse-tung turned out to be a guerrilla leader of genius, and kept his forces together for years of harsh living and very hard fighting against an enemy far stronger. As Leszek Kołakowski says, he ‘was one of the greatest . . . manipulator[s] of large masses of human beings in the twentieth century’. The ideology was ‘a naïve repetition of a few commonplaces of Leninist-Stalinist Marxism’ and in places hardly said more than ‘what goes up must come down’. But it did lay stress on the peasant side, and it possessed the necessary degree of hating-ness, as required by Lenin. In later life, he became grotesquely vain and self-indulgent, producing a ‘Little Red Book’ that the masses were supposed to chant (‘The world is progressing, the future is bright and no-one can change this general trend of history’ and the like) and he was always neurotic (suffering from chronic constipation). But he had a Stalinist mixture of guile and ruthlessness, and even when he was travelling through remote territory, carried on a bamboo litter with two senior colleagues and followed by a bedraggled horde carting weaponry along muddy tracks, he had an idea as to which of the two colleagues needed to be knifed by some show trial held in some hut of wicker, roofed and walled with yak dung. He also seems to have had the measure of the Soviets, knowing how to extract help from them and what to expect. It was at a Party meeting at which Stalin’s henchman Lominadze presided that Mao made his most famous remark, that ‘power comes from the barrel of a gun’.

In China, the generation that surfaced with Mao Tse-tung around 1920 took up the revolt of the peasants, the downtrodden rural masses, oppressed by landlords and by village usurers. When these matters were properly examined, the downtreading was limited, or, rather, was a matter of overall poverty. There were no doubt usurers who made money out of the poor, but the landlords themselves were badly off, in most cases not far above the rest of the peasantry: in fact, when Mao set about land distribution, expropriating the landlords, each peasant came away with one sixth of an acre, or hardly more than a suburban garden. True, there were absentee landlords in the towns, and their rent collectors were hated, especially when they arrived at a bad time, but in every village there were problems between peasants or other inhabitants, and it was here that Mao excelled. Collecting army mutineers, village bad-hats, bandits and dirt-poor peasants in an isolated mountain area in Hunan, he applied himself to studying what a peasant revolution would really be about: prices, profits, networks, diets, the incomes of watch repairers, the numbers of prostitutes (thirty in a population of 2,684 in one locality). ‘On hearing that a borrower has sold a son, lenders will hurry to the borrower’s house and force the borrower to repay his loan . . . “You have sold your son. Why don’t you repay me?” ’ Mao thus represented the Party with at least some cohesion and force, whereas the Shanghai and southern components had been hopelessly weakened; later, he escaped to an even more remote area, where he set up the ‘Jiangxi soviet’, one of those Communist islands that appeared with all wartime resistance movements, complete with its own secret police, its own re-education arrangements and its own machinery for exploiting gullible foreigners. In any village there would be a confiscation committee, a recruitment committee, a ‘red curfew committee’ etc., and even a children’s corps. An economy developed, too. Curiously enough the area was a big source of tungsten, and exported it through a state bank run by Mao’s brother to Canton; peasant women were made to cut their hair short such that their hair-pins – their savings – could be taken in for war finance. There was, however, primary school education for the first time, and Mao gained a favourable press, with romantic American journalists such as Edgar Snow to be flattered or lied to (when the Sino-Soviet split occurred, he was refused a visa to Moscow). There were other little Red bases, such as Hailufeng on the south coast, that counted as a ‘Little Moscow’ with its own Red Square and a gateway copied from the Kremlin, the leader of which, Peng Pai, had 10,000 people killed, burning down ‘reactionary villages’. He was then chased away, and when the remnants of such defeated forces reached Mao he took them over and expanded his own force: he could now defy the Shanghai leadership (which wanted to dismiss him) and impress Moscow. It needed him: relations between the USSR and Kuomintang China were not straightforward. The Kuomintang were nationalistic, not inclined to give way over foreign concessions, and in 1929 there was a Soviet-Chinese crisis when the Nationalists tried to take back the vast railway concession in Manchuria, including Harbin (this was the largest of the foreign concessions, at 400 square miles). The Soviets set up a Far Eastern army under Vasily Blyukher, who had been adviser to Chiang Kai-shek, and Mao was encouraged to divert the Nationalists by campaigns 1,250 miles to the south. His real strength lay in his having the largest Red Army outside the USSR. Stalin’s tactic was to keep the Communists in play, but never strong enough to win (the same tactic applied over the Spanish Civil War). Mao was helped in this because he was soon joined by Chou En-lai, who knew a great deal about foreign circumstances (he had studied in Japan and in 1921 had been in France). In Shanghai he had been associated with the Comintern representative, Gerhart Eisler, and he had even been at the Whampoa Military Academy, as director of the Political Department when the Soviet Blyukher directed the officer cadets. He turned out to have a genius for operating in clandestine conditions and in Shanghai he had set up the Chinese equivalent of the Cheka (the later KGB). A man of icy and elegant presence, he became an essential prop for the brutal Mao, and was especially important because he knew well enough what could be expected from the USSR.

No doubt if matters had been normal, the Communists would have been defeated; Chiang Kai-shek had vast superiority, and controlled the cities; and Kuomintang China, despite the troubles, was making remarkable progress with railways, banks, education, industry and even health. But matters went far beyond control in the early 1930s. The world economic depression caused great turmoil, bankrupting producers of raw materials, and drying up foreign investment; and in 1931 cataclysm occurred, with an attack by Japan. She – or rather, her military – were now determined on empire, and took advantage of China’s confusions to take over Manchuria, industrially the richest part of the entire country, with raw materials such as coal that Japan did not possess. With truces now and then, the Japanese fanned out over the next few years, occupying eventually a third of China and usually defeating the disorganized Chinese, who in any case, with the Communist presence, had a civil war on their hands. Even without the Japanese, Chiang Kai-shek had local challengers, would-be warlords to put down, and Mao was able to use them, on occasion, as allies. He himself claimed to fight the Japanese in the name of national unity but in practice did so fairly seldom, and sometimes even made secret arrangements with them.

It was in that context that Mao constructed the founding legend of the Party: the ‘Long March’. In September 1933 Chiang Kai-shek mustered half a million men for the fifth ‘annihilation’ expedition against Mao’s Ruijin state base. In May he had agreed a truce with the Japanese to do this and he surrounded the area with an ever-tightening net of blockhouses – ‘drying the pond and then getting the fish’. Each side had its Germans: on Chiang’s were two very prominent generals of the First World War, Hans von Seeckt and Karl Litzmann, and on Mao’s, Otto Braun (who had to be assigned a ‘wife’) and Manfred Stern, who emerged later on in the Spanish Civil War as ‘Kleber’, one of the main agents of the undercover Communist takeover. Mao was driven to break out, and he showed himself a leader of genius, even using the 28,000 wounded and sick as a rearguard, and dumping the wives and children as well (he was himself a neglectful and even cruel father). Mao managed to keep his force of 90,000 men together, at least in part because he kept the treasure, hidden in a cave, and thereby defeated possible rivals. The whole episode required ruthlessness and cunning. One of the Nationalist chieftains was bought off with a deal involving the local tungsten, unreliable men and women were hacked to death and pushed into pits before any move was made, and there was a pretence that action was going to be taken against the Japanese. Instead, in October 1934, Mao’s whole force, laden with weapons and machinery, undertook a vast and circuitous move towards the north-west. Chiang himself was something of an accomplice, in that he wanted the Communists out of the way, so that he could control the south-west, including Sichuan and Yunan (where, in the event, during the Second World War, he established a Kuomintang government) and it suited him for the Communists just to make off, on a 6,000-mile trail that depleted them, to the far north-west, in barren Shanxi, where there already was a Red ‘pocket’ of some million souls. The area was quite widely Moslem, and Turkic, and Communists had already shown how they could use such minorities. In this case, Mao’s men even forswore pork. Otto Braun said with wonder that ‘the hospitality astonished me greatly’. Nationalist planes attacked and there were marches of 25-30 miles per day but Mao was able to trudge back and forth, and even to force his way across an old bridge leading into Tibet: an episode that was crowned by legend, as even the veteran American journalist Harrison Salisbury wrote it up (in 1985) as heroic: the bridge was alleged to have been burning. Later biographers regard this as ‘complete invention’. By October 1935 the Red armies at last consolidated, Mao’s in a dysentery- and louse-ridden state, but there were supplies, and the new base was not far from Soviet territory. Foreigners such as Edgar Snow were there to conduct public relations with the West, especially the United States, and they were remarkably successful in presenting the Communists as progressives in the American sense: land reformers, emancipators of women, etc. One such was Anna Louise Strong, in Malcolm Muggeridge’s words ‘an enormous woman with a very red face, a lot of white hair and an expression of stupidity so overwhelming that it amounted to a kind of strange beauty’. Such people, marching across the Sinkiang swamps, had a wonderful time playing outlaw with foreign passports to save them, and in the case of Miss Strong the Maoist convictions were strong enough to land her in a Soviet prison, as a spy (Muggeridge adds that ‘her incarceration proved to be brief – I imagine that even in the Lubyanka her presence was burdensome’). At any rate, Mao had excellent relations with Moscow and with the USA, whereas Chiang Kai-shek, facing Japanese invasion and the need to respect Western pieties, had other concerns. By October 1935 Mao was in safety, recognized as leader by Pravda, and able to profit from Chiang Kai-shek’s mistakes and misfortunes.

The Japanese did much of Mao’s work for him. They smashed a good part of the Chinese army and air force, and Chiang Kai-shek tended to keep his best troops in relative safety, in the south-west (thus alienating Churchill, who thought that he was not seriously fighting the war at all). Japanese depredations (which had included the killing of hundreds of thousands in the Nationalist capital, Nanking) caused chaos, and the war ended only with the Soviet invasion of August 1945; it had taken 20 million lives and caused 100 million refugees to flee. When the Japanese advanced on Chiang’s headquarters at Chungkin they even dropped fully one third the tonnage of bombs on it that the Americans used on Japan.

Chiang Kai-shek was under strong pressure from the Russians as regards arms deliveries and had more or less to do as he was told, but he was also pressed by the Americans, who looked at him patronizingly. Roosevelt had a network of informers who included Edgar Snow, while the British ambassador, Clark Kerr, said that Chou En-lai was worth all the Nationalists rolled into one. Chiang Kai-shek’s regime could be portrayed in much the same way as, say, the exiled Polish government in London, representative of ‘reaction’, capital, landlords, etc., and when Ernest Hemingway submitted a report comparing the Communists’ tactics with those he had observed in Spain, it was sidelined by a White House economic adviser, Lauchlin Currie, who said that the Chinese Communists were just ‘socialists’, and that the White House approved of ‘their attitude towards the peasants, towards women and towards Japan’. It was also Currie who chose as American representative Owen Lattimore, a considerable expert (he even spoke Mongolian) but also forthrightly sympathetic to the Chinese Communists (as was another considerable expert, the Englishman Joseph Needham: both men looked somewhat foolish when the truth emerged). Chou En-lai now devoted his energies to the Western powers, persuading Mao that they could be far more useful than Mao had realized. Meanwhile, the Communist base was strengthened financially through sales of opium, grown on 30,000 acres in Yenan and marketed in part through a Nationalist general to the north. This at least allowed Mao to ease up on the exploitation of the peasants. Later on, another considerable expert, Gunnar Myrdal, was to observe a village in that area, and to offer wide-eyed praise at the ‘traditions’ being observed. Mao had the grace to burst out laughing.

He meanwhile built up his party (it now had over 700,000 members) and many were well-educated volunteers from the Nationalist areas as they arrived (40,000 of them) in Yenan. In 1945 an effort was made to bridge the gap towards well-intentioned neutrals, school-teachers for instance, because Mao would need ‘cadres’ to run things. He himself was by now wholly in charge, chairman of the top bodies of the Party – Central Committee, Secretariat and Politburo, having, Stalin-fashion, eliminated all of his rivals and several others for good measure; all opposition had been swept aside, and when in April 1945 the seventh Party congress was held, of the 500 previous delegates half had dropped out, whether by suicide or nervous collapse or arrest. But still, in this period Mao could present himself as the genuine reformer, and was accepted as such by many foreigners; he went out of his way to emphasize that he would not discriminate too far and his lieutenant, the then young Deng Xiaoping, announced that ‘our policy towards the rich peasants is to encourage their capitalistic side, though not the feudal one’ (‘rich’, ‘capitalist’ and ‘feudal’ being entirely relative terms). The Kuomintang, by contrast, counted as corrupt and tyrannical; the wayward and vainglorious Chiang Kai-shek – his mausoleum in Taiwan must count as the greatest ever monument to failure – did not impress. Besides, the Chinese Communists were given a great shot in the arm when the Soviet Union intervened in the Far Eastern war.


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