The long and torturous road to the Third Chinese Revolution

Part 7 of China in the age of American decrepitude

When the sudden decline of US industry in the 1980s and 1990s opened the possibility, for the first time in half a century, for a new industrial power to arise, it was China that was poised to take greatest advantage of the opening – not Brazil, not India, Korea, Mexico, nor any of the other more developed countries of the semi-colonial world, still less the United States’ old imperialist rivals in Europe or Japan.

The reasons for this lie in the particularities of China’s history: the rapid capitalist development in the last thirty years was the product both of the Third Chinese revolution of 1949, and of the decay and extinguishment of that revolution. A familiarity with the main lines of China’s history in the twentieth century is therefore needed to understand its industrial emergence in the 1990s.

The British iron steam ship Nemesis (right) destroying the Chinese war junks in Anson’s Bay, Pearl River, on 7 January 1841, in the First Opium War (1839-42). Painting by Edward Duncan

The opening of the imperialist stage of world capitalism at the beginning of the twentieth century coincided with the nadir of China’s modern history. For half a century, British opium, forced into China at gunpoint, had drained the treasury of the Chinese empire, and demoralised its officials. British textiles had destroyed its economy of small-scale handcrafts, and broken the isolation on which the political power of the empire rested. The prostration of the empire was demonstrated, and greatly worsened, by the Taiping rebellion and the Dungan revolt, formless social and political convulsions which wracked China from the 1850s to the 1870s. The military actions and brutality of the Taiping, and its equally brutal suppression by Beijing, cost tens of millions of lives. Its economy in ruins, millions of Chinese were forced into emigration under conditions of semi-slavery, as indentured labourers in the Americas and Caribbean, Asia and the Pacific. The Chinese coolie was both despised and feared as the most exploited worker on earth.

US river gunboat, Shanghai 1900. Caption gives a list of other US possessions in the Pacific where the boat served: Luzon, Panay and Mindanao (Philippines), Guam, Tutuila (Samoa), Oahu (Hawai’i)

By the time the sufferings of the Chinese people had crystallised into a revolutionary movement in the early twentieth century, all the major imperialist powers had already sunk their teeth into China’s coastline, establishing colonial enclaves under direct rule of the foreign powers in violation of China’s sovereignty. Britain had its enclaves in Hong Kong and Shanghai, Germany in Qingdao, France, the United States, and others in their respective quarters of Shanghai and Tianjin. Japan had conquered China’s tributary state of Korea and the island province of Formosa (Taiwan) through the war of 1894-95. Each of these powers cast one greedy eye over the Chinese interior, and with the other, a hostile sideways glance towards their rivals for the spoils.

For the enclaves were just a beachhead for deeper penetration of capital: Russian railways crisscrossed the northeastern provinces (with the right to move Russian troops along them enshrined in law), French capital obtained mineral rights in Guangxi and Yunnan, British and American interests bought up properties, utilities, and transport networks – especially on the key route to the interior, the Yangzi River.

The Revolutionary Army of the Wuchang uprising fighting in the Battle of Yangxia, 1911

The First Chinese revolution took the form of a mass mutiny in the imperial army, which began in Wuchang in 1911, quickly spread and overthrew the Qing dynasty the following year. Led politically by Sun Yat-sen, it began the process of building a modern republic in China on the ruins of the empire.

Left: Nanjing Road, Shanghai, during 1911 revolution. The five-coloured flags represent ‘five races under one union’ – the national unity of the five major ethnic groups in China. Right: Sun Yat-sen (Sun Yixian)

But Sun was thwarted by the imperialist powers, who sponsored resistance by feudal warlords with local power. For decades there was no real central government in China. Of the many foreign would-be conquerors, Japan enjoyed early advantage due to its geographical proximity.

The provision in the Versailles Treaty at the close of WW1 which awarded control of the former German colony in Qingdao not to China but to Japan spurred a renewal of national political agitation in China. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was founded in 1921 by Chen Duxiu, inspired by the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 in Russia, and based on the burgeoning working class in the textile industries of Shanghai. It grew rapidly in size and influence. 

Founding leaders of the Communist Party of China, Chen Duxiu (L) and Li Dazhao

But the CCP looked to the Communist International (Comintern) for guidance at the very moment that the bureaucratic caste led by Joseph Stalin was reversing the Comintern’s revolutionary course and steering it towards class collaboration. To this end, the Comintern demanded ­– against the stated opposition of Chen Duxiu, Peng Shuzi and other founding leaders – that the CCP give their political support to the bourgeois Guomindang party of Chiang Kai-shek (Pinyin: Jiang Jieshi), who had become the principal republican leader after the death of Sun Yat-sen. The CCP had to dissolve its own organisation into the Guomindang, and party members were forbidden from criticising ‘Sun Yat-senism.’

Peng Shuzi (L) and Chen Bilan  in 1970s. As members of the early Communist Party in the 1920s, Peng and Chen both opposed the disarming of the party and giving support to the Guomindang.

And when class conflict reached its revolutionary peak in 1925-27, this political course proved disastrous. In Shanghai, seventy thousand workers at the Japanese cotton mills went on strike in 1925. When British police fired upon a demonstration by these workers, killing seven, the strike spread to the whole working class of Shanghai. A similar killing of 57 demonstrating workers by British and French police in Guangzhou led to a general strike in Guangzhou and Hong Kong. During 1926, peasants increasingly entered the struggle, especially in Hunan, at first demanding lowered rents and interest rates, later fighting to get rid of the landlords and take over the land.

Recruiting and organising workers’ militia, Zhabei district, Shanghai, March 1927. Photo:  Archives of the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Paris)

Chen and Peng renewed their efforts to get the CP to separate from the Guomindang, and again they were overruled by Moscow. Peng wrote: “The tide of revolution is still swelling and deepening. On the other hand, a compromising and reactionary tendency among the leaders of the National Revolutionary [Guomindang] Army has become apparent. They have attempted, publicly or secretly, to make a compromise with the enemy against the masses they confront. This is the most dangerous phenomenon in the revolution at present, and it may well destroy the whole revolution.”1

Workers’ militia, Shanghai, March 1927. In early 1927 such militias took control of sections of Shanghai, but at the insistence of the Communist International, these militias were disarmed. The ‘ally’ Chiang Kai-Shek then unleashed a massacre of the workers a short time later. Photo: (C) Doreen Stoneham, University of Bristol, John Montgomery collection.

Just as Peng had foreseen, Chiang turned on his CCP ally, and slaughtered thousands of communists and other workers. Beginning in late March 1927 Chiang organised a series of coups in which his forces systematically disarmed, suppressed, and dispersed the organisations of the working class. The sharpest blow came in Shanghai, where Chiang’s forces gunned down thousands of fighting workers and CP members. The industrial centres in Shanghai and the southeast were occupied by troops loyal to Chiang. Union meetings and demonstrations were physically broken up and strikes suppressed, both by Chiang’s troops and by members of the Green Gang, a criminal organisation that dominated the opium and sex trades in the city, which had been enlisted by Chiang. Chiang later granted Du Yuesheng, the leader of the gang, the rank of general in his National Revolutionary Army.

Chiang’s troops behead a prisoner in the streets, April 1927.

The revolutionary movement in China was not yet defeated. Mobilisations of workers and peasants continued to gather strength, especially in Hunan, where unions had a membership of over a million and the Hunan Peasant Association, ten million members. Land occupations spread. Still the Communist International leadership refused to draw the lessons from Chiang’s coup and regroup. Instead, Stalin directed the CCP to place its hopes in the ‘left’ Guomindang leader Wang Jingwei, based in Wuhan. In order not to alienate Wang, the CCP forbade land takeovers by the peasants and factory occupations by the workers.

Soviet envoy Mikhail Borodin (centre, with dark tie) with GMD leader Wang Jingwei (seated right) in 1925. [Photo: University of Bristol Ref: Fu-n155. © 2007 C. H. Foo and Y. W. Foo]

The CCP made further concessions to Wang, as the fatal logic of class collaboration played itself out. For fear of driving the ‘left’ Wang into the arms of the reactionary Chiang Kai-shek, in June 1927 the General Trades Union of Hubei voluntarily disbanded their pickets and turned over their weapons and ammunition to the military guard in Wuhan. Even this abject surrender was insufficient for Wang: in July he expelled the Communists from the Guomindang and the Revolutionary Army, laying the basis for further repressions. (Wang Jingwei later headed the government set up by the invading Japanese army.)

Only then, when the Second Chinese revolution was mortally wounded, did Stalin dictate the launching of a series of uprisings, abortive and easily crushed by the Guomindang, at the cost of thousands more lives of CCP workers and peasants. By the end of 1927, the defeat was complete, and tens of thousands of fighting workers and peasants lay dead.

When, earlier this year, Xi Jinping commemorated 100 years of the Chinese Communist Party, he was making a fundamentally false claim of continuity. The revolutionary party founded in 1921 was physically destroyed by Chiang in 1927; whatever fragment survived the repressions was politically destroyed by the Comintern’s subsequent scapegoating of its leaders, Chen Duxiu in particular, for the defeat.  The crippled remnant that emerged from the defeat claiming the name and authority of the CCP – the organisation from which Xi Jinping’s party can legitimately claim its origins – was an entirely different thing, a creature of the Stalinist Comintern. It was led by Mao Zedong, the leader most closely identified with Stalin’s class-collaborationist policy of supporting the Guomindang. Mao elevated this policy to a general historical law in his ‘Theory of the Bloc of Four classes.’

Mao Zedong (middle row, third from right) at a meeting of the Central Committee of the Guomindang, March 1927. Portrait of Sun Yat-sen between the flags

For the next two decades the Mao leadership stuck rigidly to this fawning class-collaborationist and anti-working class line, leaving the Chinese workers and peasants defenceless and leaderless in face of the invasion and occupation of China by the Japanese army which began in 1931 in Manchuria. A long and bloody struggle followed, in which the Japanese army showed exceptional brutality.

Chinese refugees pour into the international settlements in Shanghai following the defeat of Chiang’s forces by the Japanese invaders, November 1937. Photo: George Krainukov,

For his part, Chiang’s regime, whose military forces gradually merged with those of the remaining warlords, devoted more attention to the effort to wipe out the small CCP forces than he did to fighting the Japanese. In December 1936 Chiang was arrested in Xi’an by his own subordinates, who wanted to force him to join forces with the CCP and fight the Japanese; it was Chou En-lai, Mao’s loyal CCP vice-chairman, who negotiated Chiang’s release. In pursuit of the ‘united front’ with Chiang – formalised in 1937 when the Japanese forces swept south from Manchuria – the CCP abolished their ‘Soviet Republic,’ dissolved their ‘Red Army’ into the Guomindang’s National Revolutionary Army, and abandoned land reform.

Chinese troops captured by Japanese army 1937.

Nonetheless, when towards the end of World War 2, the Japanese army began to withdraw, under attack from both the US advance across the Pacific and growing resistance from the occupied peoples of Asia – and later from the advancing Soviet Red Army – it was the CCP rather than the Guomindang which won the allegiance of the Chinese peasant masses. This was largely due to the Guomindang’s proven record of corruption and passivity in the face of the Japanese invasion: since Pearl Harbour and the opening of the Pacific theatre of the war, it had been counting on US military power to defeat Japan. The CCP, on the other hand, was identified with the military victories and economic advances of the Soviet Union.

Under the watchful eye of US Ambassador Patrick Hurley (left) Chiang and Mao negotiated for seven weeks in 1945 to reach an agreement. Chiang would settle for nothing less than abject surrender.

A new upsurge of the Chinese national struggle began, centred on the peasantry. Chiang, with redoubled US support, opened a new war of annihilation against the CCP. Still Mao stuck to the class-collaborationist line, even as China erupted into civil war in 1945. Not until late 1947 did the CCP openly call for the overthrow of the landlord-backed Guomindang regime and a resumption of the land reform. The collapse of the Guomindang followed in 1949. The victory of the People’s Liberation Army was welcomed by workers across China.

Mass outpouring welcomes the People’s Liberation Army into Guangzhou, 1949

Some of the key battles took place in the north-eastern provinces of Heilongjiang and Liaoning, which were briefly occupied by Soviet troops in 1945 as Japan was forced back. In these provinces China’s mining and heavy industries were located, and therefore where the most powerful contingents of the urban working class were centred.2 Despite this, the working class was demobilised and sidelined in these battles, reduced to role of spectator at best, and often treated as the enemy.

Victory parade at Tiananmen Square, Beijing, 1 October 1949, the day the People’s Republic of China was proclaimed

The city of Changchun, the former capital of the Japanese puppet-state of Manchukuo, was the key industrial and political centre of the North-east. The Guomindang took control of the city following the withdrawal of Soviet troops in 1946. In mid-1948 the People’s Liberation Army laid siege to the city for five months, attempting to force the well-equipped GMD garrison to surrender by cutting off the food supply to the city. With the GMD troops monopolising the dwindling supply of grain, starving civilians attempted to flee the city, but were shot at and forced back by the PLA. By the time the city fell, 150,000 civilians – the city’s working class – had died of starvation. This was the true meaning of Mao’s ‘strategy’ of ‘encircling the cities from the countryside.’ The terrible toll was first revealed in a book published in 1989, based on interviews with survivors and PLA records. The book, White Snow, Red Blood, was banned and its author Zhang Zhenglu was arrested.

Even after the CCP took power in 1949, Mao demonstrated great reluctance to take any action that might challenge the prerogatives of the capitalists and landlords. His government strictly respected the Stalinist conception of the ‘bloc of four classes’ and the theory of stages, whereby China needed to undergo a prolonged period of development under capitalist rule before the overthrow of capitalism was even posed. (On the flag of the People’s Republic of China, the fours small stars represent these four classes – the working class, the peasantry, the urban petty bourgeoisie, and the national bourgeoisie.)  

But the capitalists themselves had other ideas. Neighbouring Korea was also in the throes of civil war, with direct intervention by imperialist military forces. In October 1950 the United States launched a large-scale offensive in Korea, and seemed poised to topple the workers’ and farmers’ government in North. Imperialist troops penetrated as far as the Yalu River dividing Korea from China. At the same time, the United States tightened its economic blockade on China, and the CCP regime was immediately faced with widespread sabotage and defiance by capitalists and landlords, who were confidently looking forward to a restoration of the Guomindang regime.

The CCP regime was forced to act in self-defence. Mao mobilised the Chinese workers and peasants both militarily, to aid the Korean workers and peasants to beat back the imperialist advance, and economically, to disarm and expropriate the capitalists and the landlords.

These years were the high point of the Third Chinese Revolution. At the culmination of a titanic national and class struggle, the workers and peasants of China had won the national unification of China – a feat that no regime since the fall of the Qing dynasty had been able to achieve – and had finally freed it from the depredations of all the colonial overlords. And by 1953, a land reform – for all the hesitations, the unevenness, and the bureaucratic implementation, for all the unnecessary and costly humiliations and violence against the defeated landlords that accompanied it – had distributed land to 300 million formerly landless peasants.

Left: land reform meeting, landlord kneeling at centre. Right: Field is assigned to Yi Zhenjia, a farmer of Yueyang County, Hunan Province in 1950. [Xinhua]

These were the highest achievements of the Third Chinese revolution; by themselves they were sufficient to rank it as one of the great revolutions of twentieth century, among the wave of anti-colonial revolts that swept the globe in the wake of the Second World War. China, which fifty years earlier had been a symbol of humiliation and debasement, was now an inspiration to the oppressed masses of the world, especially in Asia.

Mao surrounded by young freedom fighters from Asia, Africa and Latin America in 1959. Chinese revolution won the admiration of anti-colonial fighters the world over.

National unification and land reform – these are tasks of the bourgeois epoch, which the working class had to carry out in China because the bourgeoisie was too weak and too dependent on the imperialist powers to carry them out itself. The Chinese revolution had taken the first steps beyond this, with sweeping nationalisations of capitalist enterprises and the beginning of economic planning. But the tasks of building socialism are infinitely more difficult. They can’t be carried out at the point of a gun. China was still an economically backward agricultural society, facing economic strangulation and political isolation from the United States and world imperialism.

In this next phase of the struggle, the absence of a revolutionary working class leadership would prove to be extremely costly – and ultimately, decisive for the outcome of the revolution.


  1. See Peng’s Introduction to Leon Trotsky on China, Pathfinder Press, p57-58.
  2. The Japanese occupiers of these provinces had developed a steel industry and mining of iron ore and coal, in order to put these resources at the service of Japanese militarism. These industries could have provided a solid basis on which China could begin to industrialise after the defeat of Japan and the revolutionary victory in 1949. However, in August 1945 Soviet troops entered and occupied Manchuria and northern Korea, rapidly pushing back the Japanese Kwangtung Army. A large part of the industrial equipment, especially for electric power generation, coal and ore mining and railways, was dismantled and shipped to the Soviet Union during the occupation, along with gold bullion stolen from Manchurian banks.

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