Recently we have seen the massive demonstrations in Hong Kong, China demanding democratic reforms. If we read the pro-capitalist newspapers we might conclude that these demonstrations are new and have no connection with the history of China. When we look Chinese history we see that the people who live in this region have been struggling to free themselves for over 175 years. This paper will attempt to give some of the outlines of that history.
Most of Chinese history has been a history of feudal dynasties. Like any of the world’s feudal regimes these dynasties had their periods of relative prosperity as well as decline. In those periods of decline the Han nationality—which is over 90% of the Chinese population—didn’t have a good reason to support the ruling powers. For this reason, feudal regimes that emerged from minority nationalities were able to rule China for hundreds of years. These minority nationalities included the Mongols and then the Manchus.
Britain and the Opium Wars
After the revolution of the thirteen colonies that created the United States of America, Britain searched to new colonies it could dominate. China had been trading with Spain for many years in order to attain the silver produced in the Americas. Britain wanted this silver, but there was a problem. China was a self-reliant nation and didn’t need anything Britain produced. The British solved this problem by selling the Chinese opium.
The Manchu rulers of China saw how opium was destroying the lives of the people while draining the economy. For seventy years the Manchu Dynasty had laws prohibiting the sale of opium. The British responded to these laws by increasing opium sales from 15 tons in 1730 to 1,400 tons in 1838. As one might conclude, this willful and consistent violation of Chinese law led to war.
The Manchu ruling powers confiscated a full year’s opium supply from the British. This act prompted the British to engage in the first Opium War that lasted from 1839–1842. The Manchus rulers were more interested in maintaining their power than in fighting the British who had superior naval armaments. For this reason, the Manchus agreed to pay Britain for the cost of the war. This included the lost revenue from the destroyed opium. Another concession from the Opium War was that Britain gained political control over Hong Kong.
The defeat of China in the Opium War resulted in a complete economic disaster. The Manchus quickly ran out of money and several rebellions erupted throughout China. The largest of these uprisings was the Taiping Rebellion of 1854–1864. This rebellion was immensely popular with the Chinese peasants, and the Taipings were able to take control of vast areas of China.
In the midst of this rebellion, the British went to war again against the Manchu regime in the second Opium War or Arrow War. After the their victory in this war, the British gave their full support to the Manchus in their war against the Taipings. The British support to the Manchus was crucial in the defeat of the Taiping Rebellion. In this defeat China may have lost sixty million inhabitants due to deaths or emigration.
We might consider that at the same time as the Taiping Rebellion, the Union forces of the United States were in the midst of their own Civil War. While the Union forces fought against the pro–slavery forces of the Confederacy, the U.S. government also supported the Manchus in their defeat of the Taiping Rebellion. While slavery was outlawed in the United States, slave–like conditions continued in China.
Famine and the Boxer Rebellion
These Chinese defeats led to more devastation for China. Mike Davis wrote an outstanding book titled: Late Victorian Holocausts: El Nino Famines and the Making of the Third World. In his book Davis wrote about the fact that during the years 1876–1900 between 19.5 and 30 million people starved to death in China.
Just as in the Irish potato famine, China had sufficient food supplies to feed all the people. The problem was that the British used the economy for their own interests and had no desire to alleviate mass starvation in China. The only way to transport food to those who were starving was to use pack mules. We might also keep in mind that Britain was in a period of decline during those years.
One of the main reasons why the British needed revenue from China was to pay off loans they had with banks in the United States. While the transportation system deteriorated in China, thousands of Chinese workers toiled under horrendous conditions to build railroads in the United States.
This massive starvation led to the Boxer Rebellion. The Chinese call this the I Ho Ch’ uan or Fists for the Protection of Public Peace. As with the Opium War, the Manchu ruling power initially supported the rebellion. Then, they joined with the imperialist powers to defeat the Boxer Rebellion. After China lost millions to starvation, hundreds of thousands lost their lives in the Boxer Rebellion. While the imperialist powers had no money to alleviate the conditions of starvation in China, they invested $333 million in their military to defeat the Boxer Rebellion.
Nationalists take power
By 1911 another rebellion took power led by Dr. Sun Yat–sen. This rebellion wasn’t able to maintain power. After Sun’s death Chiang Kai–shek (Jiang Jieshi) became the new leader of the nationalist forces known as the Kuomintang (Guomindang). Chiang allied himself with the ruling powers of China and attempted to reverse everything Sun Yat–sen dedicated his life to advance.
Then, in 1927 another broad revolution rocked China. The emerging working class united with the peasantry to bring about a new nation. The Chinese Communist Party had tremendous support at this time. Unfortunately Joseph Stalin had betrayed the Russian Revolution and the Chinese Communists were loyal to his miss-leadership.
This meant that the communists continued to support Chiang Kai–shek even after it became clear that he was prepared to drown this rebellion in blood. Even after Chiang defeated the communists, he was determined to wipe them out.
I believe it is important to consider the idea that the defeat of the 1927 revolution had disastrous consequences that continue to today. After this defeat, Chiang Kai-shek controlled the cities of China. Chiang’s policies as well as the Japanese invasion effectively stifled working class decent.
History has shown that the only way for society to be transformed into a place where human needs are more important than profits is when a workers government comes to power. Because the working class had been stifled, the Chinese Communist Party turned to the peasantry for support. Mao Zedong, who was raised in a peasant environment, became the leader of the communists.
China isn’t just the most populous nation in the world. China is also the place where some of the most audacious projects have taken place. China’s Great Wall has a length that would stretch across the United States. While the Panama Canal is fifty miles long, China’s Grand Canal is about 1,500 miles long and stretches from northern to southern China.
It was in this spirit that the Chinese Communists organized their Long March. While Chiang Kai-Shek’s forces attempted to annihilate his opposition, the communists marched about 6,000 miles over 18 mountain ranges, and crossed 24 rivers. In this march they carried heavy equipment.
The Japanese ruling powers saw this development and decided to take advantage by invading the country. Chiang was so obsessed with fighting the communists that he refused to use his forces to engage the Japanese. In fact, many leaders of his Kuomintang gave support to the Japanese invaders. Finally, after his own officers placed him under house arrest, Chiang agreed to form an alliance with the communists in the fight against the Japanese invaders.
The Chinese Communist Party
After the war, China needed to pay an enormous debt for the armaments used against Japan. This debt destroyed the Chinese capitalist economy by creating an astronomical inflation. Under these conditions Chiang had very little support. For this reason, the 1949 revolution that brought the Chinese Communist Party to power had very little opposition.
Shortly after the 1949 revolution China had to face a new threat. The United States invaded Korea to support the puppet government they installed in the south. The U.S. armed forces marched to the Yalu River on the border of China.
General Douglass MacArthur felt that he could just continue his campaign into China. His arrogance exposed his near complete stupidity as a military commander.
As the U.S. forces marched north in Korea, millions of Chinese and Korean soldiers surrounded the invaders. This force prevented the U.S. army from invading China. However, millions of Chinese and Koreans lost their lives in an effort to prevent these nations from being controlled by foreigners once again.
Mao Zedong’s rule of China had mixed results. Francis Moore Lappe wrote a book titled World Hunger—Twelve Myths. While capitalist nations argued that they are combatting world hunger with their so-called Green Revolution, Lappe gives us the real facts. She argued that it was the Chinese Revolution that has done more to combat world hunger than any other force.
However, there have also been disasters brought about by the new rulers of China. The Great Leap Forward meant that millions of Chinese perished. Mao’s Cultural Revolution meant that some of the most talented people of China would face humiliation and isolation.
After Mao’s death a new regime took power and adapted to capitalist investment. This meant that China has built more rail lines than any other nation in the world. Today China has become one of the most important industrial centers in the world.
In order to support capitalist interests, about 5,000 coal miners die every year as a result of preventable mining accidents. Hundreds of millions of peasants continue to live on about two dollars per day.
Political decent has been stifled. In 1989 the Chinese military suppressed the demonstration in Tiananmen Square. We might consider that in the middle of Tiananmen Square is the Monument to the People’s Heroes. This monument gives a history of many of the Chinese wars that attempted to liberate the people, starting with the Opium War.
The current demonstrations in Hong Kong are a continuation of this very old struggle. While the course of Chinese history has been uneven, there has been a stubborn persistence of the people to achieve liberation.
The media as well as most history texts tend to ignore the facts presented in this paper. My attempt is to not only give a brief history of China, but to show how China has always influenced world events. This will continue, and the recent demonstrations in Hong Kong allow us to be optimistic about the future.