It is a characteristic of mechanical and idealist political thought to imagine that the ruling party in society has a more-or-less free hand in governing society. If we accept this then all the tendencies history exhibits towards the degeneration of regimes into despotism, corruption and inefficiency have to be explained subjectively. That is clearly unscientific, and the Chiang Kai-shek Regime was no exception to this.
The Nature of the Chiang Kai-shek Regime
According to this subjective approach, power becomes concentrated in a corrupt clique merely because the people at the top happen to be greedy, mistrustful and jealous of their power. But this seductively simple explanation is so simple it explains nothing, it is a tautology, like when a child, in response to the question ‘why did you break this?’ answers ‘because I did.’
In defending the record of Bolshevism Trotsky explained that it is foolish to try to explain the growth of bureaucratic tendencies and the rise of Stalin purely on the basis of policy errors. Yes, seizing power magnifies a political party’s power over society greatly, but doing so also imposes all the objective tendencies of society, all its social contradictions, onto that party with a force of far greater magnitude.
Chiang Kai-shek ‘betrayed’ Sun Yat Sen
In this way there was an objective necessity to the Guomindang’s degeneration upon taking up its role as the force of counter-revolution. The fallacy of the idealist thesis that a governing political party rules purely in accordance with its own wishes is disproven by the transformation in the Guomindang upon leading the counter-revolution. In order to play this role, a painful process of internal purgation and ‘betrayal’ of its principles, as it adopted those of the ancien regime and even of fascism, had to take place. Rather than being the party of the liberation of China, of its modernisation and democratisation, as many of its founders sincerely wanted, instead it internalised and reproduced in ever more grotesque forms all the barbarism and backwardness of feudal China, distorted and exaggerated as this was by imperialism.
Today the Chinese Communist Party, in its adoption of capitalism and courting of Taiwanese capitalists, has tried to resuscitate the role of the Guomindang (which still rules in Taiwan) and its founding figure of Sun Yat Sen, with the anti-Marxist position that Sun Yat Sen was an honest revolutionary whose principles were unfortunately betrayed by Chiang Kai-shek. But betrayal of ‘principles’ is inherent in bourgeois politics, especially when based on a particularly backward, semi-feudal bourgeoisie as China’s was.
Whereas a Bolshevik organisation is based upon adherence to a clear revolutionary programme, and is composed of a membership committed to that, a bourgeois organisation such as the Guomindang is necessarily loose. Thus Sun Yat Sen’s opportunistic policy for gaining power was to encourage everyone and his uncle to join, with no attention paid to their sincerity and no political education given. Yes, such a policy can lead to a rapid taking of power, but at what cost? That the party is internally extremely weak and thus far more open to tendencies of corruption.
Nevertheless in its quest for power the Guomindang relied upon the hard work and dedication of honest revolutionaries, both CCP members who had joined under orders and honest rank-and-file Guomindang members. But both these groups were generally on the far left of the party, which at the rank-and-file level may have been in the majority (Eastman, The Nationalist Era in China 1927-1949). When the party took power in 1927-8, they earnestly believed it was carrying out a revolution. Local Guomindang party organisations under the control of the rank and file would organise militant anti-imperialist, anti-warlord campaigns and even carried out programmes of rent-reduction for poor peasants (Ibid)
Therefore the first act of the Guomindang’s conversion into a lackey of imperialism and warlordism was to reveal its true face by purging all these nuisance elements. Like the fascists in Italy and Germany, Chiang Kai-shek personally and the Guomindang as a party had been paid handsomely by Shanghainese capitalists to sort out the labour unrest. He was charged with setting the record straight that warlord/landlord land would not be touched and that their extreme exploitation of the peasants would not be questioned.
As a result in early 1928, the Guomindang Central Executive Committee moved to dissolve all provincial party organisations ‘not creditable to the party.’ All members had to ‘re-register’ and members were ordered to conduct themselves ‘in the spirit of the leadership’. “Mass movements were also, for all intents and purposes, suspended. Henceforth, the mass organisations would serve as Nanjing’s instruments of control, not as organs for the expression of popular opinions or initiatives.” (Ibid)
The Guomindang ceased to be a real party. Its genuine supporters were expelled for, being cannon fodder, they had now served their purpose. Only those yes men who clung to the coat tails of the warlords and imperialists remained. And they were joined by the armed feudal warlords, who backed the various factions of the party now that they could see its ‘revolution’ was an established fact and one they could do quite well out of. These warlords joined the Guomindang to “indulge in political manoeuvres which, they hoped, would result in the preservation, if not the enhancement, of their personal and regional power” (Ibid)
To get a job in the government it was necessary to be a Guomindang member. The party was quickly inundated with the rotten bureaucracy of the old regime, whom Chiang Kai-shek welcomed with open arms as an ally in his struggle against the left-leaning party rank-and-file. Of course, if one intends on faithfully administering the needs of the old ruling class and enriching oneself in the process, it is necessary to have a staff of corrupt bureaucrats who aren’t necessarily any good at their jobs but are faithful defenders of the system of privilege. These mandarins “shuffled papers, but paid minimal heed to the actual implementation of policy. Thus the values, attitudes, and practices of the old warlord regimes had been injected into the new government.” (Ibid)
In this respect Chiang Kai-shek’s regime took on a characteristic of fascism - the conversion from a mass petty bourgeois movement with populist, pseudo-socialist imagery, into a direct instrument of the most brutal state oppression.
Under this new regime everything backward and outdated in China was brought forward in a cruder form than ever before. The Chinese revolution had begun with a process of intellectual ferment as restless students finally tore down the edifice of Confucianism (China’s conservative 2,000 year old ideology of caste and filial servitude) in their search for revolutionary ideas. But as the revolution’s executioner Chiang Kai-shek brought it back “to provide the moral and national basis for anti-Bolshevik action. In the context of society, the role of the gentry, who were the examples and guides[!] for the rural population...was enlarged and rendered more powerful.” (Guillermaz, op cit., my emphasis)
Chiang Kai-shek’s adoption of the most hated and antiquated ideological system as the moral justification for the rule of the gentry is proof that the counter-revolutionary party does not operate in a historical vacuum or pursue ‘new’ policies of their own choosing. It is forced by its social role to adopt and enhance all the ready-to-hand rubbish of human history. It is the Guomindang’s eventual role as leader of counter-revolution and defender of privilege that determined the ideas it espoused and its brutal methods of rule.
The secret to understanding why the regime was so unprecedentedly corrupt and based itself on economic plunder rather than growth is that it not only defended and maintained capitalism, but that it based itself on a ruling class and economic system whose time was up, was no longer viable. The revolution of 1925-7 proves that. And so from the very beginning the regime abandoned itself to the most short-sighted plunder. Having defeated the progressive forces in China, it went on an unconstrained reactionary binge. “Its generals and bankers, its landlords and bureaucrats, its jailers and executioners, inextricably interlaced, mercilessly drained the country. The land, the people, even the most limited kind of economic enterprise, became sources not merely of profit but of plunder. All the existing means of exploitation that had been vainly challenged by the revolution were not merely preserved but sharpened to an unprecedented degree.” (Isaacs, op cit.).
It is thought that by 1930 140,000 had been executed, and in 1931 “a collection of reports from only 6 provinces produced a total of 39,778 executions that year.” (Ibid). To discipline the rural population the Guomindang once again fell back on the most barbarous methods from Chinese history. They used the Baojia medieval system of collective punishment and incorporated into it the harsher Japanese Lianzuo punishment system, whereby if the local chief failed to report any dissidents in his family/clan, the entire clan would be punished.
In addition to the political executions meted out there were the deaths from the civil war with the CCP in the 1930s. Upon capturing Red territory, the Guomindang army would “make of such districts a desolate, uninhabited wasteland...thousands of children were taken prisoner and driven to Hankou and other cities, where they were sold in ‘apprenticeships’. Thousands of young girls and women were transported and sold into the factories as slave girls and as prostitutes.” (Edgar Snow, Red Star Over China) Having recaptured an area from the CCP, they went to extraordinary lengths to give the land back to the landlords, it having been given to the peasants by the CCP. This was done even when it had become practically impossible to do so.
Snow quotes Red Army General Xu Haidong on witnessing the atrocities committed by the Guomindang, “in Ma Cheng, we came to one of our former athletics fields. There in a shallow grave we found the bodies of twelve comrades who had been killed. Their skin had been stripped from them, their eyes gouged out, and their ears and noses cut off.” (Ibid).
To fill the vacuum left by the expulsions of rank-and-file activists and to bolster his own position, Chiang Kai-shek created a hardcore fanatical organisation known as the ‘Blue Shirts’. A counter-revolutionary regime does not merely maintain the status-quo as it was, but is forced to heighten the oppression and exploitation in order to grind the masses down. The ideological expression of this was not just the maintenance of Confucianism but the adoption of the new and fanatical methods of fascism. With the Blue Shirts Chiang Kai-shek consciously attempted to develop his own regime into a fascist one, saying in 1935 that,
“fascism...is a stimulant for a declining society.” “Can fascism save China? We answer: yes. Fascism is what China now most needs. In fascism, the organisation, the spirit, and the activities must all be militarised...In the home, the factory and the government office, everyone’s activities must be the same as in the army...In other words, there must be obedience, sacrifice, strictness, cleanliness, accuracy, diligence, secrecy...And everyone together must firmly and bravely sacrifice for the group and for the nation...What is the New Life Movement that I now propose? Stated simply, it is to militarise thoroughly the lives of the citizens of the entire nation so that they can cultivate courage and swiftness, the endurance of suffering and a tolerance for hard work, and especially the habit and ability of unified action, so that they will at any time sacrifice for the nation.” (Quoted in Eastman, op cit).
This is not to say that the regime was fully fascist. Although he created the Blue Shirts, they remained a very weak force and were created after the fact, whereas in Germany the Brown Shirts were a genuine mass movement that helped bring Hitler to power. Chiang Kai-shek’s regime also lacked a base in society outside the militarist clique, and it was too weak to establish anything genuinely totalitarian. But the regime had clear fascist tendencies. It was a bourgeois Bonapartist regime with aspirations towards fascism. But fascism in Germany also proved itself in the last analysis not to be a strong regime, a viable new form of capitalism, but a final agonising cry of capitalism, a kind of senile insanity which could easily have been replaced with socialism had the Soviet Union been a healthy workers’ state. In this way Chiang Kai-shek’s regime spelt out its own doom and the necessity of the victory of the CCP in 1949.
Despite high hopes that Chiang Kai-shek’s victory would at long last lead to national unification, he proved incapable of overcoming warlordism. In absorbing into itself, rather than struggling against, the warlords, the Guomindang capitulated to their regional power, legalising their role by creating local branch ‘councils’ as part of the state apparatus in 1928, which were autonomous administrative organs. What started out with the Northern Expedition as a war to unify and modernise the country ended up in the institutionalisation of these regional parasites.
The system whereby China was effectively divided up into local fiefdoms of feudalistic warlords was extremely beneficial for imperialism, for a country divided is all the more easily dominated. Probably a chief factor in the weakness of the labour movement after 1927 was the division of the country into separate authorities, which must have undermined working class unity, so in that respect it benefited the exploitation of labour.
However, the inability to unify the country and overcome medieval-style military cliques was the most explicit expression of the chronic weakness of Chinese capitalism. These cliques were constantly at war with one another and with Chiang Kai-shek. There were endless intrigues against his power which forced his resignation at the end of 1931. Actually these brutal mini-civil-wars must have been a big factor in the CCP’s ability to fend off all but the last of the Guomindang’s 5 extermination campaigns on their base in Jiangxi, as Chiang’s troops and resources were diverted to fighting this or that warlord-Guomindang clique.
According to some reactionaries, dictatorships such as that of Chiang Kai-shek have a saving grace in the stability they bring and the economic growth that comes with that. What this perspective fails to understand is that capitalism’s need for dictatorships flows from its inability to take society forwards. Such regimes do not remove the obstacles of capitalism’s inner flaws, in fact they raise them to new heights. Chiang’s regime was an economic failure of the first order and one of the most unstable regimes imaginable.
Between 1929 and 1931 there were four different factional wars between various militarists and Chiang Kai-shek. The mid 1930 conflict between Chiang’s regime and the warlords Feng Yuxiang, Yen Xishan and their Guomindang allies Wang Jingwei and the Western Hills faction led to approximately 250,000 deaths (Eastman, op cit.). Each time the bloodshed was ended not through resolving the underlying problems, but merely by Chiang personally bribing the respective warlord with millions of dollars and the promise of an important and lucrative official position.
The militarism that accompanied this represented a grotesque indulgence on behalf of the ruling class. Between 1927 and 1937 two thirds of state expenditure was devoted to the military and to servicing debt - but most of the latter was military related anyway. This is not to mention the vast military expense of all the competing landlords.
Thanks to the regime’s chronic weakness, its regional dislocation and utter inability to carry out any land reform or in any way touch the privileges of the landlord class, it was unable to guide the economy and protect it from more competitive imperialist capitalisms. It could not even collect tax properly.
Prior to contact with Western capitalism, the Chinese peasantry had always been relatively self-subsistent and well-off compared to European peasants in the past. Arable land was of a high quality which freed up labour, meaning that half of the household would produce the tools, clothing etc. that peasants would need. Most peasants were not hired labourers or serfs, and the landholdings of the landlord class were rarely much larger than what relatively well-off peasants would have. Social differentiation in the countryside was much lower than in Europe.
But the forcible entry of the world market into China destroyed all that. The cottage industries were wrecked by cheap British cotton. The landlords got rich from trade and they used this money to buy up the land of the now impoverished peasants. More peasants slipped into feudal servitude. Rents became obscenely extortionate and were sometimes collected decades in advance.
The Guomindang based itself upon this and strengthened the gentry at the expense of the peasants. They had no intention of carrying out the kind of land reform France had experienced 130 years previously. During the 1930s “Unequal income distribution [in the countryside] perpetuated a group of high income recipients who employed their earnings to finance high standards of consumption as well as to maintain their position through land purchase and speculative marketing and credit operations.” (Douglas Paauw, The Guomindang and Economic Stagnation).
For these reasons they were unable to raise tax from the countryside. Considering it made up 65% of GDP and involved four fifths of the population, taxing agricultural production would be a cornerstone of any programme of industrialisation. Instead, in the 1930s 85% of tax revenues were derived from trade and industry, despite the fact that they only comprised about 3.4% of GDP (Ibid).
However, ruinous local taxes were collected by unscrupulous warlords to finance their own private armies and lavish lifestyles. The defeat of the revolution and peasant uprisings in 1927 gave the warlords the green light for an unprecedented expansion of exploitation beyond their wildest dreams. Peasants were fleeced in everything they did, and the utterly unproductive warlords blocked every pore of productive activity in the countryside with taxes on sales, domestic animals, camels, salt carrying, salt consumption, opium lamps, sheep, merchants, porters, pigeons, land, middlemen, food, special food, additional land, wool, coal, skins, slaughter, boats, irrigation, millstones, houses, wood, milling, scales, ceremonies, tobacco, wine, marriage and vegetables. There was a 30% tax on the sale of sheep, cows and mules, 25% on the ownership of a sheep, a tax on slaughtering pigs and 40% on the sale of a bushel of wheat.
The indebtedness that resulted “forced many farmers to sell all their cattle and abandon their lands. Great areas had been bought up by officials, tax collectors, and lenders at very cheap rates, but much of it remained wasteland because no tenants could be found to work under the tax burden and rents imposed.” (Snow, op cit.)
In addition to being grossly inefficient the tax system clearly expressed the regime’s subservience to imperialism and backward feudal localism. Regarding the former, the tax system was devised so that it failed to develop the Chinese economy and to protect it from more advanced ones. Customs duties “failed to provide incentives to investment in China’s leading modern industry, cotton textiles, for example, since imported raw materials and other producers’ goods were taxed at rates almost as high as the duty on imported textiles.” Taxes were also devised that lowered demand for Chinese goods. Low quality goods were taxed higher than high quality goods, when it was precisely in low quality, cheap goods that the weak Chinese economy excelled.
Like Germany at the time of the industrial revolution, the Chinese economy was also hampered by its lack of centralisation, with a tax system known as Likin, a tariff between provinces. This obviously tended to depress trade and prevented the formation of the national market, a key part of the development of strong capitalism. It was abolished by the Guomindang in 1931, but since the Guomindang failed to abolish warlordism, the basis of local particularism such as this tax, the warlords reintroduced it under another name and the central government was powerless to prevent them.
Because of the pitiful tax revenues the government was constantly forced to go into debt to the Shanghai bankers. 25% of expenditure was financed by borrowing, and thanks to this dependence on debt the bankers took yields of 20-40% on these bonds. This guaranteed source of high returns, combined with the unprofitable nature of Chinese business (as we have seen, it was taxed in such a manner to promote foreign competitors, and it was taxed highly since it was the only source of government revenue) caused an explosion in unproductive speculation on government debt,
“One Chinese writer estimated that 50% of Shanghai’s total liquid assets were invested in government bonds, and that much of the remainder was diverted to speculation in these same credit instruments. Nanjing government finance, therefore, promoted the diversion of the economy’s stocks of savings from investment to speculative uses. In addition, it raised the cost of bank credit to the point where private entrepreneurs could not make use of bank credit for productive purposes.” (Paauw, op cit.)
According to Paauw, during this period consumption fell, foreign investment fell from 1931 to 1936 and domestic investment was so low it was not even sufficient to maintain existing capital. According to Eastman less than 4% of government expenditure from 1934-6 was devoted to economic development, much of which was embezzled anyway. Total agricultural output increased by less than 1% in the 5 year period 1932-36. GDP in 1936 was approximately the same as in 1932, and average output for the 1932-36 period was somewhat lower than the 1932 figure. The growth of GDP failed to keep pace with the increase in China’s population, and an index of production for seven leading industries, constructed by the Central Bank of China, showed no increase in output over a 3 1/2 year period (1932-5) (Ibid). But what did the Guomindang care - they were able to exploit their prize possession - state power - and a layer of top bureaucrats became rich.
A direct consequence of the descent into feudalistic dependence was the great North West famine of 1928-30, in which up to 6 million impoverished peasants perished. Natural disasters bring the contradictions and injustices of class society into sharp relief, firstly because their disastrous consequences are usually unnecessary. Secondly because of the disgusting way in which the ruling class takes advantage of the ruined state of the masses to extend their wealth and power. This famine was no exception to this rule.
Despite the drought there was plenty of rice and wheat around, and money with which to purchase more from abroad. The trouble is that this rice and wheat was deliberately kept from peasants’ bellies by those who also held the money, so that it would make them even more money as it rose in price. Money and food collected from abroad also failed to make it to the starving due to factional struggles between the regional warlords.
Because they were so desperate for food, starving farmers were effectively forced to sell all their productive land to landlords and financiers for as little as three days’ worth of food, so that the latter may get richer. Of course with their sums of money and superior knowledge they could wait until the best land became available, and so in this way the concentration of wealth advanced thanks to the famine. It’s no surprise then that according to Eastman, China’s death rate in 1930 was virtually the highest in the world, two and a half times that of the US and significantly more than India’s. These are the economic conditions that the CCP were struggling against, the kind of political regime they were up against, and that made Chinese capitalism so ripe for overthrowing.