USM Open Source History Text: The World at War: World History 1914-1945

1930s China

Let’s take a closer look at those important middle years of the 1930s. Though the nationalists had routed the communists from their urban strongholds and though the Guomindang assumed an increasingly authoritarian and fascistic mode of governance, the party was never able to put forth a stable and workable governmental strategy. The surest sign of the inherent instability of nationalist China was its inability to raise increased revenues and to balance its national budget. Throughout the 1930s Chiang Kai-shek’s fiscal position worsened and the nationalist government became increasingly dependent on foreign loans. By 1937, some 25% of the government’s revenue went to service their foreign debt. The financial problems rested, in the end, on the inability of the Guomindang to establish firm control over the provinces so that they could institute a uniform tax collection policy, which denied them a central tool of power – the ability to re-distribute resources in order to build local support for the central government. A truism in modern state building is that local peoples can be brought over to support centralized authority only very hesitantly and the two main factors in doing this are ideological authority and the promise of financial benefit. The nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek didn’t succeed in either domain.

While control over some of the key Chinese cities, like the bustling and booming Shanghai, proved relatively successful for the nationalists, growing discontent gripped the countryside, especially in the wake of the global depression, which decimated prices for important Chinese cash crops like silk, cotton and soybeans. As a result, the communists found fertile ground for their message among the peasants. The rural political structure remained as it had been in the late years of Qing rule, meaning that the peasants found themselves under the thumb of local landlords and administrators who were now backed up by the military and police power of the nationalists in their shared dislike of radical actors like the communists. Communist growth and nationalist attempts at suppression led to situations where the peasantry was caught in the middle, often with bloody results. The ceaseless Guomindang campaigns to wipe out communist elements in the countryside ultimately failed and drove the desperate peasant population into communist hands.

Power in China has long been divided between the active power of the urban elite and the dormant and much greater power of the rural peasantry, who now and then rise up and create a state of chaos, which ultimately ends in some sort of change in regime, though often one not in the peasants’ interests. In the late 1920s and early 1930s a number of factors were at work transforming the peasants from passive receptors of power into active resisters of the state. Though there is scholarly disagreement about whether the Chinese peasant was worse off in 1920 than in 1900, by 1930 and the Great Depression there is little doubt that Chinese rural life was beset with huge problems. Structural problems included a general and broad-based ecological land crisis caused by floods, erosion, deforestation, over-farming, and exploitive relationships between landlords and peasants. New and more acute crises were caused by the impact of globalization, especially the failure of the Chinese to mechanize their agriculture, the hardships they had in competing with industrial manufacturing, the disadvantages they faced in the lack of transportation infrastructure to bring their goods to market, and finally, as mentioned, the bottoming out of commodity prices caused by the Great Depression. Increasingly, small farms, operating at or just above subsistence level, suddenly became too small to support the family that owned it. This last development created just the opening in the countryside that the communists needed. Mao Zedong, once a peripheral member of the communist movement, would be the principle architect for a new communist strategy: the formation and organization of rural soviets. The movement of communism out of the cities and factories (its natural habitat) and into the countryside among the peasants would be Mao’s greatest political innovation. How unnatural such a marriage was can be seen by remembering Karl Marx’s famous dismissal of peasant existence in the Communist Manifesto as the “idiocy of rural life.”

For Mao Zedong, the peasantry was far from a useless mass of idiots; indeed, the peasantry was the last and best hope for achieving the goal of a communist China. From 1927-1934, peasant soviets formed throughout the southeastern and central eastern provinces between Nanjing and Canton. During the next years, ones of constant conflict with the increasingly militarized Guomindang, Mao proved to be a skillful and practical tactician, ideologically flexible and sensitive to local conditions. For example, he softened his land confiscation policies, realizing that dividing peasants on strict class lines would fail to build a cohesive front against big landlords and repressive administrators. The key was to keep the peasantry together and to win the loyalties of the wealthier peasants who were the natural leaders of their communities. In the spirit of Karl Marx, who exhaustively studied the growth of capitalism, Mao undertook to gain an in-depth understanding of the rural economy. Armed with such a knowledge, Mao was able to deploy a nuanced strategy, which would create class divisions precisely at the most advantageous points for the communists, as opposed to those which were ideologically “pure.” During these years, Mao proved himself to be a nuanced and practical politician, not the inflexible ideologue he would later become. This nuance and knowledge provided a marked contrast with the Guomindang. The nationalists, much more concerned with defeating communism than with building stability and loyalty, conducted themselves with brutality and ignorance in the countryside, all but guaranteeing their failure to achieve truly national power.

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