What Next in China?

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WORLD JULY 31, 1929

What Next in China?

The settlement of China's foreign relations may be said to be well under way. The treaties forced on China during the period of imperialistic aggression have been disregarded in fact, and their formal nullification by diplomatic action is already being negotiated. But China's internal affairs, much more vital to the Chinese people, are further from settlement and less clear. If it is deceptively easy to imagine, from appearances, that China is moving in a circle, it is just as easy, and just as mistaken, to suppose that when the Nationalists arc established in control of the government, civil war will be over, unification attained, and reconstruction begun. All that can be said is that this long period of transition will end in a reunited, reorganized and revitalized country—or else China is several steps nearer a final break-up.


THE NATIONALIST GOVERNMENT at Nanking, now recognized as the de jure government of China, claims jurisdiction over all eighteen provinces. Legally, it may have this jurisdiction, but in the practical sense that orders from a capital would be executed in all parts of the country, even if unpalatable to local military leaders, and public revenues automatically sent here, Nanking is not the capital of the Republic of China. In that sense, there has been no Republic of China for years, and there is none now. But so far as there is any center of authority, it is at Nanking; ant he fact that various military leaders have felt obliged to give it even lip loyalty is testimony enough to the moral ascendancy of the Nanking government.

And yet it is only moral. For the practical basis on which the government was established was a shaky alliance of military factions, which has since become an armed truce. Of the four groups that combined to overthrow the Peking government, one was eliminated in the civil war early this year—the so-called Kwangsi faction. It challenged Nanking and lost. A second, led by Yen His-shan, who is a lone hand rather than a faction leader, has too little power to count. This leaves the two groups led by Feng Yu-hsiang and Chiang Kai-shek. These two are already in open disagreement, and may be fighting by the time this article is published.

This is no need to say much here about the differences between them, for it is a question of the subtleties of Chinese politics, and of little importance to anyone whose fortunes are not involved. No real issues are at stake. There may be some disagreement as to policy, but it is really the old story of rival ambitions.

Chiang Kai-shek has to his credit the fact that he does hold some conception of subordination to civil authority. His qualities as a leader are doubtful; his record as an administrator is not impressive; and his capacities do not live up to his ambitions. He has also forfeited the confidence of many of the best elements in the country. Bu by long association with the ultra-progressive Kuomintang, he has been at least somewhat indoctrinated with the ideas of party government limitation on the powers of the military. In the last resort, he will insist that his must be the deciding voice; but he at least recognizes the necessity of counsel with non-military officials.

Feng Yu-hsiang, on the other hand, is a dominant personality and a leader of men, and the region under his control is well governed. He has built roads, established schools and model villages, instituted an efficient and, on the whole, honest system of administration, and gathered about himself a unique group of idealistic young men. He has high-minded, if naïve, plans for social reconstruction, and a genuine social sense. The needs of the masses lie closer to his heart than in the case of any other Chinese military leader in recent times. He reverts, however, to the older type of oriental official: the paternal autocrat. His whole career has been a single-minded effort to establish personal mastery, sometimes by dubious means.

Yet these men represent an advance in China’s political development, if we compare them with the military mandarins, such as Chang Tso-lin, who have misruled the country since the establishment of the Republic. The new men have at least a dim comprehension of political responsibility. To be sure, it is not so great as their personal ambitions, but any at all is a clear gain. They do not plunge into wars quite so recklessly as their predecessors. And in China, as elsewhere, every question, political, social and economic, turns on the preservation of peace.

Assuming that there will be a few years of peace, what then ? Politically, there is a vacuum in China now. There has been a vacuum since the traditional system, embodied in the monarchy and the bureaucracy of scholars, broke 'down, partly under the weight of its own decadence and partly under the pressure of the intruding West. There is now but one source from which the vacuum can be filled. That is the Kuomintang. The Kuomintang is officially a party, but it is best described as the vehicle of an idea. The idea is, in a word, revolution—a complete break with the past.

Expressed in one form or another and in continually changing programs, this idea has been gaining force for a generation. Under various names and leaders, and often with mutually contradictory policies, the Kuomintang has served as protagonist of the idea. As the Tungmenhui, it secretly organized the revolution against the Manchu dynasty, overthrew the monarchy, and established the Republic. As the Kuomintang, it sought to consolidate the Republic and failed. It has remained as the party of opposition throughout the succeeding period of military dictatorships, as well as the party of reform, and, more recently, of ultra-nationalism. It was the Kuomintang that captured Peking, wiped out the last vestige of the old government, and set up what is now recognized as the government of China. Whatever comes in China in the next few years will come through the agency of the Kuomintang. Yet, to conceive of the Kuomintang as a completely definite entity is a mistake. It is too inchoate, too lacking in cohesion, composed of too many irreconcilable elements, and too unstable in its policy and program. In this respect, it also represents the country, for under all the shifting of principles and leaders there remains an inflexible purpose: to free China of foreign control and establish it on a basis of modern social and economic organization. This is the one point of unity in the Kuomintang, as it is in all of intellectually conscious China.

As an historical movement this is unity enough, but as an instrument of government it is, of course, inadequate. China's government at present is by party dictatorship. The Kuomintang is the dictator; it appoints the cabinet, promulgates laws and decides policies. In practice, this means an oligarchy composed of a small group in the Central Executive Committee. Throughout the country, it means that power is exercised by those that assume the name of the party and control the local party organization—usually irresponsible youngsters and very often a nuisance to their community. In a country whose people have only a vague political


consciousness and no experience of democratic government, a broad-based party dictatorship might be an effective expedient, but in that case the party would need to have a clearer set of principles, a definite program, and a sharp test of fitness for membership. All these the Kuomintang lacks, and Nanking reflects the lack.

Consequently, Nanking has accomplished little as yet, except in the creating of a new mood. There is nothing concrete. It seems to be a part of the natural history of revolutions everywhere that the first stages are taken up with trivialities, and China is no exception. Names of cities and streets and official bureaus are being changed; old customs are being proscribed—and the proscriptions ignored by the people; regulations are proclaimed governing outward forms. Grandiose pronunciamentos follow one another, and are forgotten. The fine hot glow, the self-forgetting zeal of three years ago, when the revolutionary forces were fighting their way northward, has been lost. In Nanking itself there is disillusionment, and among the people, skepticism. There are undoubtedly men of fine spirit and distinguished ability in Nanking, but they are in a minority. The average of capacity is discouragingly low in comparison with the needs of China at this time.


HOWEVER SYMPATHETIC one may be with Chinese nationalism, it is impossible to deny that, if the account were struck now for the whole revolution, there would be little social gain to balance the cost in human suffering. The life of the masses is now more wretched than before, unimaginable by those that have not witnessed it, and indescribable by those that have. To the natural catastrophes of famine, flood and plague have been added terrorization by bandit gangs, which swarm over the land, depredation by hordes of troops and, perhaps worse, official spoliation by taxation imposed with indifference or caprice. Much of the suffering would no doubt have come in any case. The Chinese social system has been dislocated by the times as well as by war and revolution. But much could have been prevented had the revolution had a clearer intellectual base and Its leaders not made the same mistake as its critics—that is, to expect a miracle in a year, and by proclamation. They were too impatient to lay foundations and build slowly, and all that they have set up has crumbled. They believed they could change truths by changing names, and solve the problems of an age-old civilization by injecting half-understood ideas snatched from the West. Republicanism, democracy, socialism, communism, big business, industrial development, single tax—first one, then the other, then two or more at the same time, even when mutually exclusive—for twenty years a hodge-podge of ideas has dissipated the energies and enthusiasms of those that sought a new order in China.

To Sun Yat-sen's zeal and determination Chinese Nationalism owes nearly all it has achieved in wiping out the decayed monarchical regime and loosening the bonds of foreign control; but the Chinese people have also paid an exorbitant price for his instability, his Intellectual immaturity, and his weakness for slogans and nostrums. He has now been canonized, and that bizarre document that is supposed to contain his social and political gospel, the “Three People’s Principles,” has been adopted as scriptural revelation. It does in fact accurately mirror the Kuomintang and the revolution. It is itself a hodge-podge of sound principles, sophomoric callowness, and pseudo-scientific jargon. In justice to Sun Yat-sen one must say that he was intellectually superior to the “Three People’s Principles,” and in justice to the Nationalist leaders one must say also that they do not take the book or the program as seriously as they pretend; they know better. The whole Sun Yat-sen legend, as a matter of fact, is a synthetic creation for practical political purposes, and it does indeed serve. The legend provides a rallying cry, an inspiration, and a binding force.

In justice to the leaders of the Nanking government, it should be said, finally, that they are learning from their failures. They are thinking more realistically now than three years ago, and realize the size of the job they have on their hands if China is to regain its balance. They have acquired more men with technical training for their tasks. The balance of power is still wielded by the military, but the civilian elements are steadily gaining power. Although it is true that the actual condition of the country has never been worse in our time, it is also true that there are elements of promise which have not existed before in our time. China may now be expected to go more slowly and with less dramatic flourish. There will be less trumpeting of “awakenings” of China. But what is established will be more enduring. The Chinese race has lived through more than one cycle and has always come up reinvigorated for a new period of political and cultural growth. There is evidence for the belief, without too much optimism, that China stands at the beginning of a new ascent. It is a favorable augury that at last the great state of the West are not inclined to interfere. That is the one clear gain of the revolution, perhaps the only one; but its value is not to be underestimated.

This article originally ran in the July 31, 1929 issue of the magazine.

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posted in: world, republic, china, chiang kai-shek, feng yu-hsiang, sun yat-sen, yen his-shan

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