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Helping Democracy in China

ISSUE:  Summer 1942

Before Pearl Harbor American sympathy for China was largely sentimental. Now it is a business proposition sound enough to be backed by a half-billion dollar loan. We want China to win now, not only because hers is an heroic people defending itself with rifles and machine guns against a foe armed with tanks and planes, but because that same foe is ours. China’s victory will be ours, too.

We are sending help to China because we want her to be as strong as she can be, But outside help can play only a secondary, not a major role. China’s greatest hope lies in her own vast store of wealth and strength and spirit, which has not yet been fully drawn on. Despite four and a half years of desperate resistance not even the surface of China’s power has been scratched. To bring all the strength of the Chinese giant into play, basic changes must be made within the country—and American democracy has the opportunity and the obligation to see that they are made. Is this interfering with another nation’s affairs? Maybe so. But that will be nothing new for either China or the U. S. A.

Lacking modern armaments and the industrial plant to produce them, China has been too weak to pursue an independent domestic or foreign policy, She has manoeuvred between rival imperial powers, playing off one against another. “Divide and be not ruled” has been her policy, In the process of implementing it she has sought to exact concessions, now from one side, now from another, in the hope of eventually standing on her own national feet. Not long ago, for instance, Dr. Sun Fo stated that China might be unable successfully to continue resisting Japan unless the United Nations devoted more energy to the Asiatic conflict. This was a typical example of the jockeying and manceuvering upon which China has long seen fit to rely. There is however, an alternative to this reliance upon outside aid-dependence upon the spontaneous creative force of an emancipated and democratically governed people. Yet, for a variety of reasons, China can still lay no realistic claim to being a democracy, though foreigners whose well-meaning enthusiasm exceeds their information do not hesitate to proclaim her one.

There is undoubtedly an inherent potential democracy in Chinese society. The ricksha puller’s attitude towards his passenger resembles that of the New York hackie’s towards his fare—rather than that of the English gentleman’s chauffeur towards his master. Chinese human relationships, tempered by a lingering paternalistic feudal heritage and by the complex family system, do remain on a more personal and less monetary footing than in more highly industrialized societies. The cash nexus does not rule supreme. National unity, heightened by external attack or exploitation, also obliterates class distinctions to some small extent, as we hear it is doing in England. Powerful religious groups, secret societies, craftguilds and provincial associations also draw together different economic strata towards seeming social equality.

Where these vestiges of democracy have been retained and where they have been strengthened by what Americans would consider very moderate political and economic reforms, there

China has worked her politico-military miracle, This consists of holding the countryside between the Japanese-garrisoned big towns and between enemy-dominated lines of communication. This formidable accomplishment is the result of democracy. Without it, guerilla activity and rapid manceuvering warfare are impossible. With it, the civilian population becomes an auxiliary of the army. A civilian population, offering co-operation in return for freedom, withholds information from the enemy but acts as an intelligence service for its own forces; it helps with provisioning, billeting and care of the wounded; it provides guides and volunteers for the army; it affords the native’s detailed knowledge of his own locality, which is invaluable in this type of fighting, especially on the all-important night-raids.

All this goodwill and active co-operation have been obtained in the so-called Border Regions of Shansi, Hopei, Chahar and Honan, and all the way to the coast of Shantung and Kiangsu—a sizeable belt across the middle of China. In these areas rents, taxes and usury are controlled, though they still might strike Americans as high. Democratic elections are held and civil liberties granted to all who are genuinely anti-Japanese. Social legislation is as enlightened as the meagre material resources permit. A sincere effort is made to give medical attention to the civilian and military population; the wounded are not left to die as is so commonly the case in other parts of China. Efforts are made to abolish illiteracy.

There is certainly nothing very radical in all this. Yet it is enough to ensure excellent co-operation between the people and the soldiers, a most rare accomplishment in China. Without such elementary democracy the enemy could not for a moment be withstood in what is technically “occupied territory.” With it the peasants form an invaluable auxiliary. The army itself is physically and morally in first-class condition, attracting swarms of volunteers from the local peasantry. Yet, in most other parts of China, the peasants for generations having looked upon all armies and governments as an unmixed curse, new conscripts have still to be roped together to prevent their desertion.

It is having the invader right on the doorstep which has wrought these changes towards democracy in China, just as it has in England. They are not a revolution, but they are a long step forward. These gains will last at least as long as the danger does, because to withdraw them would be to invite the enemy off the doormat in over the threshold.

Where the threat from the enemy is less immediate these progressive moves have yet to be made. In those parts of China far distant from the battle-front there is a greater contrast between the fabulous wealth of the few and the ground down poverty of the many than anywhere else but India. Wartime devastation has distributed poverty more widely than before, so that the wealth of the small number of war profiteers makes the contrast sharper than ever. In west China, during the past year the price of rice rose to from thirty to forty times its pre-war level. And rice is the fuel of China’s most widely used machine—Man. Everything which this rice-burning machine produces, therefore, has risen accordingly. Although wages and salaries have increased too, they have by no means kept pace with the rising cost of living. While the buying-power of the poor peasants, workers and, above all, the salaried middle-class, has fallen drastically, that of merchants and landlords with a surplus of rice to throw on the market, has increased. It is the old story of the rich getting richer and fewer and the poor getting poorer and more plentiful. Rice riots occurred in several interior cities and ripening crops were looted from the west China landlords’ fields by bands of desperate peasants.

In an effort to divert discontent from profiteering merchants and landlords and towards the inscrutable forces of Nature, Buddhism and Taoism unite with secular authority. Politico-religious edicts are periodically issued by local governments, particularly at times of drought, prohibiting the butchering of animals for a given number of days, to check the rising cost of food. Noisy and colorful processions file through the streets, with monstrous effigies and beating of drums and long-robed monks with shaven heads. The ancestral gods are thus invoked to solve problems provoked by the profiteers.

Taxation is still undeveloped as a way of re-distributing uneven wealth. In America to-day income-tax is no longer, like mothers-in-law, mere material for wisecracks. In China it remains a subject for study in the universities, from whose campuses it rarely if ever escapes. Dr. Lauchlin Currie, on his last year’s visit to Chungking, is said to have displayed disappointed surprise on learning of this situation. Some Chinese wit commented that he was perhaps unfamiliar with the inconveniences attached to collecting income-tax from a man like Liu Wen Hwai. Liu, of course, has a large private army and a jealously-guarded feudal domain in mountainous Sikong, bordering on Tibet. Similar, if less bellicosely obtained tax-exemption, however, applies to the major figures of the Chungking government itself. Taxation as a whole is not one of the more progressive features of contemporary Chinese life.

In such soil democracy does not easily flower and many, including some sincere and idealistic patriots, instead of cultivating it seek national salvation along the Fascist path, These well-meaning if simple-minded patriots join with the less naive supporters of Fascism because they think that only totalitarianism will bring certain national diseases to a speedy and fatal climax. One of these national weaknesses is inefficiency.

China is an agricultural land where basic methods of production have changed little in three and a half thousand years and where natural science has never been highly developed. In such a society inexactitude, unpunctuality and poor organization are to be expected. These expectations are regrettably realized. Governmental corruption, too, is one of the few activities carried on in China with less sublety than it is in the West. The Chinese version of robbing Peter to pay Paul is robbing the government for the benefit of your family. If this is not Confucian filial piety in the very best tradition it is at least considered as ethical as Robin Hood’s activities, which only the most academic legalists condemn, So inefficiency and corruption die hard.

Although objective consideration of the nation’s social ills clearly indicates democracy as the remedy, conservative quacks persist in trying to palm off Fascism as a patent cure. To start with, as Americans may now have an opportunity to observe, war brings with it the danger of patriotic fanaticism as well as the benefits of noble enthusiasm. China’s middle-class nationalism, still in the first fine flush of youth and heightened by a long and bitter war, is not free from the former taint. Besides this, Chiang Kai Shek is a leader who has made no strenuous efforts to deny the almost mystical aspects of his personal mission to save his country. Even the conventional scapegoat element of the Fascist formula is not altogether lacking. Official instructions have been handed down by leaders of the CC Clique (the initials are those of the Chen brothers, Chen Li-fu and Chen Kuo-fu, whose sympathies are pronouncedly Fascist) to all functionaries of the Kuomintang political machine, which they control, that the Communists are always to be referred to as the “alien party” or the “traitor party.” Notwithstanding the united front to which they still find it expedient to pay lip-service, these Fascists would make the Communists fulfill the function of the China’s non-existent Jews.

According to official Kuomintang analysis, too, China is not yet ready for the democracy which Sun Yat Sen, founder of the Republic, intended for her. Till a “suitable” time arrives the country is supposed to go through a period of “political tutelage” which closely resembles protective custody. In such cases there is liable to be dispute as to whether the restrictions upon the prisoner’s freedom are entirely for his own benefit. Thus, despite the official united front between the Kuomintang and the Communists, the precise legal status of the latter, outside of those areas in which they dominate the army, is not clearly defined. Chou En Lai remains in Chungking, but only as official representative of the Communist Party and no longer with any position in the government. The Communist paper is published in the capital under a censorship so stringent as to resemble outright sabotage and with periodical raiding of its offices by the police. The censored paper is sold on the streets by newsboys who have frequently been beaten-up and had their papers seized by politically-organized gangs of hoodlums. Subscriptions, as distinct from street sales, are few; it is not healthy to have one’s name on the list. Out-of-town circulation is made practically impossible.

The entire ex-Soviet region of the north-west, controlled by the Communist-dominated 18th Group (formerly 8th Route) Army, is militarily insulated from direct contact with Kuomintang China. At every point not facing a Japanese front the entire Communist region is surrounded by a triple ring of government-constructed cement block-houses. According to Chou En Lai anyone trying to journey from Chungking to Yen-an, the capital of the Special (ex-Soviet) District, has to pass forty-one inspection stations—from any one of which he would run grave risk of being transferred to a labor camp for “re-education in the Three People’s Principles.” It is conservatively estimated that there are about six thousand political prisoners at present studying this course around Sian. The system of defence-works in depth was, and presumably still is, manned by Hu Chung Nan’s crack First Group Army, one of the best trained and equipped forces in China. The blockade they maintain is so effective that not only men, money, military equipment and commercial products fail to penetrate it, but even medical supplies from the U. S. specifically ear-marked for the northwest, are rigidly excluded.

This being the plight of the relatively powerful Communists, that of smaller non-Kuomintang groups may easily be imagined. These various more or less liberal minority organizations are little but political cliques of intellectuals without mass following—tadpole parties with large heads and little bodies. While accorded fictional tolerance they are subjected to factual persecution which is sometimes more oppressive than that directed against the Communists, whose organized strength affords them some protection.

The promised development of the People’s Political Council along provincial and county lines has failed to materialize. The seldom-meeting national P. P. C. is a mere discussion-group of non-elected hand-picked delegates with power only to give advice and register approval of faits accomplis. The representation of non-Kuomintang interests is symbolical rather than proportional. A one-party dictatorship such as this cannot do otherwise than suppress criticism of itself. This is the thin edge of the dictatorial wedge and leads to the eventual elimination of all civil liberties. Opposition to and exposure of the prevailing suppression has been restrained by the desire of those who suffer from it to preserve national unity in the face of invasion. Yet this restraint obscures the fact that maximum efficiency and co-operation among divergent groups engaged in the war-effort has been severely checked by lack of freedom. Madam Sun Yat Sen, whose passionate desire for China’s victory none can question, has publicly denounced the lack of democracy involved in such arbitrary acts as the arrest of Professor Ma Yin Chu (for expounding doctrines of war economics about as subversive as those of Mr. Morgenthau) and the closing of the mildly liberal Life Publishing Company bookstores, etc.

The present lack of academic freedom threatens to produce virtual intellectual stagnation in the universities. The same students whose admirable enthusiasm and activity before the war was an important factor in checking the practice of consistent capitulation to the Japanese, and who in the early days of the war flocked into patriotic mass-organizations, are now lapsing into frustration, cynicism or apathy. They no longer rush to enroll in organizations for aid to the wounded soldiers because their principal activity on so doing consists of receiving instruction in the menace of Communism and the purity of the Kuomintang, They no longer “go to the peasants” offering education and exhortation, because patriotic slogans unbacked by concrete action aggravate rather than palliate the peasants’ ills. Students resorting to non-rhetorical measures are in danger of being branded “Red.”

Press censorship in the hands of reactionary party politicians has departed from its legitimate function of withholding information of value to the enemy. It has become an instrument of party propaganda. So, in a different way, has the Army. Despite reiterated demands for a national, non-partisan army, outside of the Communist-dominated 18th Group and the now theoretically disbanded but factually flourishing New Fourth Route Army, promotion is largely dependent upon Kuomintang membership, as well as on more legitimate factors.

These and other manifestations of the one-party dictatorship in this period of “political tutelage” fail to arouse spontaneous and whole-hearted participation in the war-effort amongst considerable sections of the population. Yet there can be no doubt of the truly magnificent response which real freedom would at once inspire. The courage and skill which has certainly been shown by many should not be permitted to obscure the reality that it has not been forthcoming from many more—as is absolutely essential for victory in the total warfare of to-day.

China’s maximum war potential can never be developed so long as the vast majority of Chinese live so close to the level of economic subsistence that their primary concern is merely keeping themselves alive. Only when the economic obstacles to doing this are superseded by an even more direct and pressing military threat can their voluntary co-operation as yet be counted on. Americans tend to forget that even after four and a half years of war there are vast regions in the continent which is China that have still had little or no direct contact with the war. Even in a small country like Spain, the Catalans learnt only a year too late that the defence of Barcelona lay at the gateway to Madrid. In the enormous hinterland of China the process is bound to be even slower. Only concrete indications to the mass of the people—that is, the peasants—that this war is their war, that they have a personal stake in it, that the government is not merely an impersonal tax-collecting apparatus but a human institution bent on giving them better lives—only these will pry the practical-minded and poverty-bowed Chinese peasant away from his pre-occupation with eking out from the soil a meagre living for himself and his family. Not until these new signs appear will China begin to function at something like maximum efficiency. When she does call forth her full strength, nothing on earth will be able to hold her down.

Any regime unwilling or unable to inspire spontaneous support must depend for the conduct of war on coercion and repression. Fortunately, in China even the suppression of liberty conforms somewhat to the classical golden mean. It is mitigated in the first place by the tempering feudal tradition of friendship, which is placed almost on the footing of blood-relationship. Secondly, just that inexactitude and inefficiency which is so deplorable in science or industry tempers suppression with inadvertent mercy. Finally, the fact that the Kuomintang government, far from being monolithic, is a series of loosely linked rival cliques, leaves certain gaps in anti-democratic suppression. Nevertheless a hydra-headed, Gestapo-like secret police functions throughout China. Although the precise details of its functioning are naturally not easily obtained, it is widely understood, even if it is not widely discussed, by informed Chinese; they know just who the heads of this complex organization are and what are their objectives and inner relations. The field is broadly divided, in a spirit of rivalry rather than of cooperation, between civilian, military and political-party controls. The civilian machine is run by the CC clique, headed by Chen Li-fu. The military machine is headed by Tai Li, a sort of Chinese Himmler. Recently appointed to head the police-work of the San Min Chu I (Three People’s Principles) Youth Corps, which is the Kuomintang’s nearest approach to a mass organization, is Chu Chia Hua. The secret police reached out until recently even to Shanghai and Hong Kong, where it employed henchmen of the notorious ex-gangster Tu Yueh Sheng. This foreign branch was for the purpose of keeping tabs not only on Japanese and puppet agents, but also on genuinely anti-Japanese critics of the Chungking government.

The common purpose of all these rival Gestapo machines is to suppress not merely Communism but every vestige of social and political democracy. Their motives range from the sincere if narrowly patriotic to the brand of “patriotism” peculiar to Coughlin or Petain. Their immediate objective is to weld China into a rigidly authoritarian state of which each group imagines itself to be the fitting leader.

But this totalitarian cloud has a silver lining. In the long run these vest-pocket fuehrers are doomed to failure. The principles of German Fascism by which they are directly influenced cannot successfully be applied to contemporary China, where the objective conditions of Fascism do not yet exist. The Chinese army and, when the relaxation of economic pressure gives them a chance, the whole of the Chinese people are fundamentally anti-Japanese. In the end the overwhelming urge to drive out the invader will drive China itself towards democracy, for democracy alone can effectively mobilize her powers of resistance.

Fascist sabotage of total mobilization is weakened by the fact that the Kuomintang is not a solid reactionary unit but a series of loosely connected rival cliques. This leaves the Chungking government as a whole and Chiang Kai Shek in particular maintaining a delicately and insecurely adjusted balance. American aid at the present moment can be directed so as to tip this balance in either the democratic or the totalitarian direction. Democracy in China, apart from any idealistic or humanitarian ends, would enable that country more fully to exploit her tremendous untapped resources in material wealth, man-power, morale and human intelligence. The alternative would temporarily settle in the saddle more firmly than ever an oppressive one-party dictatorship which, consciously or otherwise, is more wrapped up in its own partisan interests than in putting forth a maximum effort to win the war at any cost.

In tipping the balance in the democratic direction America can naturally count on aid from inside China. First, both as a dramatic symbol and as an able and sincere individual, stands the wife of the founder of the Chinese Republic, Madame Sun Yat Sen. Madame Sun herself lived in Hong Kong till the fall of that colony. She endured self-imposed exile there rather than allow her voluntary presence in Chungking to imply approval of the regime’s lack of democracy, which prevented calling forth total war effort. Now that she has been forced to seek refuge in Chungking, her personal position as widow of the revered founder of the Chinese Republic affords her protection if not spiritual comfort. Second, there is a federation of such minor political parties as the Young China Party, the Social Democrats and the National Socialists (who bear no more than nominal resemblance to their German prototype). These organizations, supported by the National Salvation Group, published in Hong Kong towards the end of last year a program urging the end of the one-party dictatorship and favoring military, political and economic reforms of a liberal nature. Third are the democratic elements in the border and guerilla districts already referred to, which significantly include many Kuomintang old-timers. Fourth are the people in the ex-Soviet regions and the Communist Party, the only one in China with a considerable mass following. (Despite Sun Yat Sen’s dying efforts the Kuomintang never succeeded in rooting itself amongst the people.) The very moderate reforms which the Communists have so far effected come indisputably within the widely understood definition of democracy. Fifth come a group of now apathetic, discouraged or confused individuals who would experience a political renaissance should there appear such hope or guidance as American democracy can offer. This group includes a considerable number of young army officers whose indisputable courage and genuine patriotism far outstrip their political understanding. Lastly —and towering above all—come the countless millions of the Chinese men in the street—more accurately, men in the field.

America should be concerned to see all of these diverse elements strengthened, not weakened, by any aid their country sends to China. If this is to be achieved, that aid must be emphatically ear-marked. A check made out no more concisely than to “Chungking, China” would run grave danger of bolstering a totalitarian bank account. This would be as disastrous for the American as for the Chinese people.

For China, like any country at war, stands at a crossroads. Which is the path to victory, democratic self-discipline or totalitarian slave-driving? Even in America and Great Britain the decision in favor of the former can be assured only by eternal vigilance. In China, which was untouched by the democratic turmoil of the 19th century, the situation is still more precarious. Whatever Americans can do to insure that their aid impels China in the desired direction of democracy and victory will be practical politics, sound military strategy and, coincidentally, human decency.

Two recent events symbolize China’s choice, her strength and weakness. They are the magnificent victory at Chang-sha and the persistence of traditional inefficiency and corruption on the Burma Road. The Changsha victory involved all of China’s strength—the morale arising from knowing the justice of her cause, heightened in this case by the recent entry of United States and Great Britain into the fight, her overwhelming superiority of numbers to counterbalance inferiority of equipment, and above all, the amazing fortitude and powers of endurance of her soldiers, who can sustain a greater percentage of losses before withdrawing from the firing-line than any other army. On the other hand the Burma Road situation, long known to moderately informed people in China, revealed equally characteristic weaknesses: not merely ineptitude for organization and mechanical work, which is to be expected in a non-industrialized country, but a placing of personal profit before communal welfare. Seventy per cent of the goods carried on the Burma Road, the Arnstein Report revealed, so far from being vital war necessities were luxury goods yielding a quick and high return in the commodity-starved interior. It would benefit Chinese and American alike if our aid were to help those democratic elements in China which alone have the ability and inclination to end this sort of grafting. This accomplished, the country’s vast military and economic potentialities might be exploited as effectively as the heroism and sacrifice of her people have been.

But an army does not march on its stomach alone. Maximum war efficiency demands political as well as economic democracy. This means again that America has a direct obligation to earmark her aid. It is natural that we should give all possible help to our allies, but unless adequate conditions are attached to it this aid may actually help drive China away from democracy, and so away from victory.

For the Kuomintang government is no more independent in its domestic than in its foreign policy. At home it has to tack between the appeasers and the reactionaries on one side, and the progressives and the people on the other. Its own historical tradition, including ten years of civil war against the Communists, incline it forcibly towards reaction. It veers to the democrats for protection, however, whenever the reactionaries threaten to sell out a la Wang Ching Wei. This the reactionaries will do whenever they estimate that they can profit themselves less in continuing the war than by sharing with the Japanese militarists in despoiling the Chinese people. Their reactions throughout the war have demonstrated clearly that they fear Japan far less than they fear a China run for the benefit of its own people. Whenever any such immediate danger of treachery from the right has passed, the government instinctively veers away from the democratic embrace, which it clearly fears may develop into a death-hug. This constant tacking is the formula which accounts for the ups and downs of democracy in China in recent years. The chart showed an upward curve from the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War in 1937 till the fall of Hankow in October, 1938. That storm and Wang Ching Wei’s defection having been successfully weathered, the trend has since been distinctly down. Now arises the opportunity and the necessity to send it up again.

The fall of Hong Kong and Shanghai has intensified an already serious economic crisis. This was originally due partly to such unavoidable exigencies of war as are now to be expected here—labor displacement, shortage of raw materials, etc. Besides this China faces an acute transportation problem, the loss of highly productive rural areas and of the whole of her modern industrial base. While withstanding this tremendous strain she has to cope with an enormous influx of refugees. But to these legitimate troubles must be added speculation, profiteering, hoarding, every variety of graft and corruption. Besides these factors, there prevails, just as there did in England, strong suspicion of an influential faction with a long record of appeasement not too far behind it. This includes, is perhaps headed by, Minister of War Ho Ying Chin, (who signed the notorious Ho-Umetsu agreement with the Japanese in 1935).

On the eve of Pearl Harbor widespread dissatisfaction with both the political and economic situations, as well as with the virtual military stalemate which showed no sign of developing into the long-promised general counter-offensive, might have driven the political pendulum back towards democracy. Chungking might at that time have been forced to try to solve the financial and food crises by means of progressive taxation, price-control, elimination of war-profiteer? ing, hoarding and speculation. The government might have felt impelled to recall the progressive political exiles from Shanghai and Hong Kong and from protective custody (euphemistically labelled “literary activity” and “research projects”) in China itself. It might have had to fall back on the proven democratic-military tactics involving close co-operation with a free and enthusiastically selfless people fighting with spontaneous enthusiasm, not merely forced by conscription or negative hatred for the foe who had destroyed their homes and families.

Suddenly, a literal bolt from the blue, came Pearl Harbor. As the first bombs dropped on American ships the pendulum of progress stopped in mid-passage. Help from the democrats in China—feared just as Russia’s help is feared elsewhere—was seen no longer to be necessary. America would no longer sell oil and scrap-iron to Japan. She could be counted on to help China. Her existence depended and still depends on doing so. So the pendulum, scarcely started on its forward course, edged gladly back. It must be pushed once more towards democracy. Then China can exploit to the full every ounce of her military, economic and above all human strength—physical, mental and moral. America’s aid must be clearly made out—”to democracy in China.”


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