On October 1, 1949, the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) leader Mao Zedong proclaimed the establishment of the modern Chinese state as we know it today. The CCP continues to be the central force shaping the Chinese government and military.
But how did the ideology of Communism come to China and why did it prevail? Here is the history behind China having to look for a governing philosophy when it did, and its road to communism – with revolutions, internal wars, foreign players and an Indian leader playing their roles.
In the 20th century, many countries became free from colonial rule and influence and had to choose an economic and political path for themselves. Around the Second World War (1939-45), the outsized capabilities of the capitalist USA and the communist USSR were visible.
Thus began a rivalry for ideological and economic supremacy between them – the Cold War, where they would not battle directly in a ‘hot’ war but acquire power by influencing other countries and their future as nations.
What led to China following the path of Communism?
China’s search for a political setup began in the early 1900s, following a tumultuous period:
1. Internal problems: For more than 2,000 years, China had multiple warring states ruled by local kings. As early as 221 BC, there were attempts to establish sole control over the vast area and the first to achieve success was King Shi Huang of the Qin dynasty. Some dynasties ruled for long periods, others collapsed into smaller states more quickly.
The Qing dynasty began in the mid-17th century. By the 19th century, it began to decline due to internal problems of corruption and misgovernance, and the increasing presence of foreign actors.
2. Foreign presence: At the time, Britain was buying large amounts of tea produced in China, but this was draining its resources. To halt this, it introduced opium to the Chinese, forcing them to spend their resources on its purchase from Britain.
After China’s attempts at stopping the opium inflow failed, the first Opium War began in 1839. China lost and had to part with Hong Kong and give greater trade concessions to British traders. Foreign powers now had their respective “spheres of influence” in different regions of China.
3. Boxer rebellion: In reaction to these “unequal” treaties, some peasants emerged who were termed “boxers” by foreigners as they trained in a kind of martial arts. They were against foreign presence, government corruption and Christian missionary activities’ influence on traditional Chinese society.
They would also get support from the Empress of China. But, troops from eight allied nations (Austria-Hungary, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, United Kingdom and the USA) crushed the Boxer Rebellion of 1900, leading to more demands imposed on China.
As resentment grew against the king, the Xinhai Revolution began in 1911 with a mutiny from troops in one province. It spread further and eventually led to the abdication of the boy emperor, Xuantong. The revolutionaries made former doctor-turned-political leader Sun Yat Sen the provisional president of China in 1912.
How Communism came to China: A ‘Father of the Nation’ and a revolution
Sun had been against the Qings’ rule for years. An anti-monarchy organisation that he formed would later be known as the Kuomintang or the Nationalist Party. He is often termed the ‘father of modern China’ and gave three principles for a modern nation: “Nationality, Democracy and Socialism”.
But Sun fell out with a former provincial governor and general named Yuan Shikai, with whom he attempted to share power after 1912. He then went abroad in search of allies, having previously lived in the US and sought financial assistance from the Japanese.
With his allies unable to help, he turned to the Soviet Union this time. In 1917, the revolution in the USSR dethroned the czars and led to a communist state being established under Vladimir Lenin. As Sun interacted with Russians – who were also keen to have allies – he became inspired by the toppling of their own monarchical regime.
Political groups in China also got a boost thanks to the May 4, 1919 movement – a result of prevailing dissatisfaction over how things were going in the new republic.
Students led protests against what they saw as the continued influence of foreigners, particularly the Japanese. They further engaged in ideas of openness, scientific rationale and equality for women. Another concern for them was the strengthening influence of local warlords, going against Sun’s hopes for a unified nation.
Growing nationalist sentiments led to Beijing seeing a mass demonstration against the decision of the Versailles Peace Conference, which drew up the treaty officially ending World War 1 in 1918. Under this, former German territories in China’s Shandong province would be transferred to Japan, despite China also contributing to the war efforts for the victors. With growing protests, China eventually did not sign the treaty.
How Kuomintang and communists split, briefly united and finally went to war
The May 4 movement saw participation from people such as future Chinese President Mao Zedong and Premier Zhou Enlai, who would eventually play central roles in the Chinese Communist Party, formed in 1921. The CCP was aided by people sent by the Comintern or the Communist International – an organisation founded by Russian communists to spread the political ideology globally.
According to the South China Morning Post, the Communist Party had 50 members in 1921, growing to 1,500 by 1925. In contrast, the Kuomintang had 50,000 members in 1923 – when a United Front of the two parties came up.
The Kuomintang then formed the government in 1925 with Soviet and CCP support. Sun Yat Sen died in the same year, leading to a split in the Nationalist Party. His protege Chiang Kai Shek became the leader of its right-wing faction but he increasingly grew suspicious of communists and how their labour unions went against local businessmen and warlords’ interests.
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