The Chinese Revolution at Seventy

The Chinese revolution turned seventy this week. If you were looking for reflection on the meaning of that revolution today, you wouldn't find it in mainstream media coverage.

A statue of former Chinese leader Mao Zedong in Wuhan, China. Wang He / Getty Images

The Chinese government put on a spectacular October 1 event in Beijing to mark the seventieth anniversary of the 1949 revolution. Mainstream media focused on the dangerous armaments that were paraded along Chang’an Avenue, a main Beijing thoroughfare, and how President Xi Jinping is a terrible dictator of an autocratic regime. No opportunity to stoke fear among those in the “free world” went untaken.

What we did not read, unfortunately, was anything that actually explained what the Chinese revolution represented and its historical significance. The nature of today’s China is rooted in the revolution of seventy years ago.

On the afternoon of October 1, 1949, Mao Zedong, a key leader of the revolution, stood atop Tiananmen, gateway into the Forbidden City, and declared the founding of the People’s Republic of China. He listed himself and fifty-seven other men as having been elected by the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference to run the country, and outlined their various responsibilities. He concluded by stating their intent to establish diplomatic relationships with any other governments.

The defeated armies of Guomindang (GMD) leader Chang Kai-shek soon fled to the island of Taiwan and founded the Republic of China, which they asserted was the true government representing China in its entirety. It was not until 1973, the year after US president Nixon’s visit, that a majority of governments recognized the authority of the People’s Republic of China over that of the Republic of China. It took almost twenty-five years after the 1949 revolution before most governments stopped considering an island 0.4 percent the size of China’s landmass, with a population under 2 percent the size of China’s, as the dominant power.

Considering what the 1949 revolution accomplished, it’s no wonder that their new government wasn’t recognized, as they brought to an end what was known as the Century of Humiliation. Beginning with the first Opium War of 1839, foreign occupation and exploitation was its hallmark. British markets, thirsty for Chinese tea, silk, and porcelain — and unable to balance their growing trade deficit — came up with the ingenious idea of growing opium on their plantations in neighboring India and selling this highly addictive drug in China.

When the Qing dynasty attempted to end the havoc this epidemic was wrecking upon its people by banning the drug’s sale, the British responded with what was later termed “gunboat diplomacy.” As you might be able to guess, the emphasis is on “boats with guns,” less so on the “diplomacy.” With the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911 in a revolution led by Sun Yat-sen, China was highly divided and dominated by local warlords, who colluded with foreign imperial powers, especially along China’s eastern coast, to openly pillage and exploit the Chinese people and its resources.

In one of martial artist Bruce Lee’s more political films, Fist of Fury, there is a particularly poignant scene where the protagonist takes on the racism that was inherent to the occupation, which was not just a question of white colonialists versus Chinese. The British had no compunction about deploying Punjabi soldiers and Sikh guards to put down popular revolts.

The history of the Japanese occupation of Nanjing was particularly brutal. The atrocities were even too much for Nazi Party member John Rabe, a German businessman in China, who used his membership of a fascist organization to delay a Japanese attack, allowing tens of thousands of Chinese refugees to flee. (Before getting too excited about one expat Nazi who committed a unique and exceptional act, it should clearly be stated that credit for the end of the Japanese occupation belongs to the Communist Party of China [CPC]).

The May Fourth Movement was launched in response to the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, which allowed Japan to take over German interests in oil-rich Shandong Province. Stunned that a war in Europe ended with the transfer of Chinese resources from one imperial power to another, many of the students who led this struggle later became founders of the CPC in 1921. Inspired by the success of neighboring Russia’s 1917 revolution, the Communist International (Comintern) was an important influence on the Chinese activists.

The membership of the CPC experienced exponential growth between its founding and the mid-1920s. Concentrated in the coastal cities and overwhelmingly composed of urban workers, the Party attracted this sector of society by practicing a politics with the self-emancipation of the working class at its center. They led strikes, confronted the violence of foreign armed forces, and organized millions of workers into trade unions.

The CPC was not the only game in town, and national liberation sentiment was also organized into the aforementioned GMD. Because of its links to Chinese landowners and capitalists, the GMD was almost as afraid of workers and farmers rising up as they were opposed to foreign occupation. The Comintern, founded in Moscow in March 1919, had the primary task of spreading working-class revolution around the world. It advised the CPC to work under the direction of the larger and more established GMD. The Comintern later admitted the GMD as an associate party and appointed Chiang Kai-shek as a member of their leadership body — with Leon Trotsky as the sole vote against this decision. Trotsky believed the GMD would betray both workers and farmers; history proved him correct.

By the 1920s, the Comintern was in desperate need of a win. Following 1917, multiple revolutions in Germany failed, and the revolution in Russia was becoming increasingly isolated and literally starving. For some, the Comintern was seen not as a tool of spreading revolution, but to expedite Russian foreign policy interests. Joseph Stalin, who had risen as a leader as the Russian revolution flagged, wanted a victorious Chinese revolution fast-tracked — and saw a GMD and CPC alliance as the means to achieve it.

During a debate In August 1927, Trotsky criticized the tactics of the Comintern. The kernel of his argument was that the political autonomy of revolutionaries cannot be sacrificed for political expediency. Socialists should work alongside and form alliances with other forces around a common struggle, but they also must maintain political independence and keep their eyes on the long-term goal of working-class power. These lessons were learned from the Russian struggle.

The subservience of the CPC to the GMD ultimately resulted in a bloodbath, a story best told by Harold Isaacs in The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution. Starting in the spring of 1927, Chiang allied with local warlords in Shanghai to round up CPC organizers and execute them. Hundreds of thousands were killed over the next year, and what was left of the CPC fled for China’s interior — never regaining its previous influence among coastal urban workers.

To his credit, Mao Zedong succeeded in regrouping what CPC forces remained and focused his efforts on maintaining, and later building, a formidable army. When the Japanese occupation began in 1937, Mao’s base in Yanan became a center of resistance. The CPC brought together a sense of national identity along with a fight for land reform. Appropriating and redistributing property from landlords to farmers using their military force made them popular in the countryside. Organizing among the majority forces of farmers in China gave the CPC a strong foundation to build upon — and provided the military strength alongside political will to forcibly expel first the Japanese occupation, and then Chiang’s forces.

While the Chinese working class was the dominant force in the CPC prior to Chiang’s campaign of extermination, after the reorganization of the CPC, it wasn’t even a secondary factor. As historian Maurice Meisner wrote, the CPC “entered the cities in 1949 no less as occupiers than as liberators, and for the urban inhabitants who had contributed so little to the revolutionary victory, feelings of sympathy were intermingled with strong feelings of suspicion.”

The Chinese revolution succeeded in kicking out not just foreign powers, but their lackeys in the GMD. This was an important victory for national liberation. It was a mass struggle that fundamentally changed China. But it’s also important to not confuse a national liberation movement with a fundamental change in how an economy is run. Socialists should support efforts of people to free themselves from foreign rule, and it is possible to do that while recognizing the limitations of national liberation — and talking about the many horrors that proceeded under Mao, like the massive famines that killed millions during the Great Leap Forward between 1958 and 1962, or the wild excesses of the Cultural Revolution several years later.

In China today, what is now referred to as “socialism with Chinese characteristics” looks a lot like plain old capitalism, in which the vast majority of people in the society work, and their labor is exploited by a tiny minority who own. Xi Jinping earned a PhD in Marxist ideology, and can therefore speak loquaciously commemorating Marx’s two hundredth birthday, but still say nothing of substance in regards to how China is actually run. The Western media still treats the country like the old bogeyman of Communist dictatorships, but the opposite is true: the country is a capitalist dictatorship.

China reports lifting 750 million people out of poverty, and there is no denying that living standards have increased significantly since 1949. Despite this, inequality is massive. Jack Ma, the billionaire founder of Alibaba (the equivalent of Amazon in China) was one of one hundred people the Central Committee of the CPC highlighted as pioneers last year. With a net worth of over $38 billion, Jack Ma did not get rich reselling apples he had polished up for some local market. As a vocal backer of Xi and a member of the CPC, Jack Ma got rich the same way Jeff Bezos did: exploiting workers and making friends in high places.

The important question to ask is: where did the wealth come from that raised living standards of 750 million Chinese and made Jack Ma a billionaire thirty-eight times over? Who should ultimately control that wealth?

China is facing big questions: a widening gap between rich and poor, severe gender inequality, disputes with neighboring countries over territory, environmental catastrophe, a slowing economy, repression of its Muslim minority, trade war with the United States, ongoing protests in Hong Kong. If Chinese history has taught us anything, it is that regular, everyday people have the capacity for amazing and inspiring struggle. From the anti-imperialist Boxer Rebellion to the mass strike wave of 1927, from the 1949 revolution to Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, the people of China have proven themselves capable of rising up and fighting back against seemingly insurmountable odds.

Leftists should educate themselves and others about China’s rich history. We should follow and learn about the struggles occurring there now, and be prepared to organize solidarity with those movements. Our own fights have similarities to those that average people in China have been and are currently waging; our collective future depends on our international solidarity.