Argument against Involvement in the Chinese Civil War

Nathaniel Peffer

July 1947

…I have watched China at intervals over the past thirty years, I watched the newly formed republic slowly decline into inanition in the early years of the first World War. I was there in the warlord years which followed, when the country was split into segments, under semiliterate, pseudomilitary men who looted everything within reach, and still later in the seething years of the nationalist revolution. Bas as conditions were in those years, one could hold to perspective and see them as the surface phenomena of social transition, the labor pains of a new society. One actually did discern new forces in the making, young men emerging of a different order.

I have just been in China again, and now I find that one can hold to perspective only by an effort of will and not always successfully. Now the surface conditions are at least as bad as they were—but they can no longer be construed as the painful process of social transformation. Nor can one now discern anything ahead that is better.

There are no new forces in the making (the Communists can only doubtfully be so classified) and the young men of a better order are suppressed. There is still warlordism, but a kind of higher warlordism and therefore a worse one. Twenty years ago the warlords were local satraps, the power and rapacity of each limited to his own locality; now they are organized in a single, centrally controlled machine, with the greater power that centralization and system always give. The rapacity is less crude and less obvious, but in sum it yields as much. The centrally controlled machine is the party called the Kuomintang, which in fact—if no longer in law—is the government of China; and its head is Chiang Kai-shek.

No one who has been in China in the pat year will think this picture overdrawn. Nor is it affected by the recent pronouncements about constitutionalism and the broadening of the base of government. I was in Nanking when the new constitution was adopted last December. Among those whose adherence to the government is not bought by political jobs or economic favors there were some who had hopes that it signalized something new in China, but none who had confidence.

There was little reason for confidence. There is nothing much wrong with the constitution itself. From the point of view of a political scientist it is muddled, unclear, and badly thought through; but its merits and demerits from the point of view are irrelevant. As a matter of fact, the constitution could serve as a workable basis for responsible representative government—if those who hold power had any desire for such government. The point is that they have no such desire. The constitution was “granted” in order to allay a mounting discontent among the Chinese people on which the Communists were capitalizing, and, still more, in order to meet criticism in America and thus get a large American loan…

The trouble in China is not a matter of the form of government and laws. It is a matter of persons—and not so much the character of persons as their spirit and their political and social attitudes. In theory, the monopolistic rule by the Kuomintang was not particularly unsound. It derived directly from Sun Yat-sen’s philosophy of progress toward democracy in stages. The period of Kuomintang monopoly was to be the stage of tutelage; the Kuomintang was to act as trustee, while the people were being educated for democratic government. Had the Kuomintang been what Sun Yat-sen envisaged, this would have been not only logical but ideal; for the Chinese people, who have a long political tradition but one of a different order from democracy, were not prepared to exercise popular rule at once. But the Kuomintang is not, and for twenty years has not been, as Sun Yat-sen envisaged it. It is almost the exact opposite.

The Kuomintang is not a political party in the accepted sense. It is best described as a holding company for a country with a large number of shareholders (the party members) who have given their proxies to a small number of directors. These directors are self-appointed and self-perpetuating. They may or may not report to the shareholders, but periodically they throw a small dividend to a favored few in order to keep them active in rounding up and delivering proxies. These dividends take the form of jobs for the smaller shareholders and opportunities to make money for the larger ones. But the company is run exclusively by and in the interests of the directors—some of whom take their compensation in wealth, some in power, and some in both….

In any case China has become a private possession of the Kuomintang, and the Kuomintang is controlled by a small coterie of which Chiang Kai-shek is unchallenged chief. The coterie is composed of Chiang himself, his personal associates, military leaders who work with him, the directors of the party’s patronage machine, and those big business men and financiers who lend financial support to the Kuomintang when necessary and in return get certain lucrative favors. There is also a group of enlightened, well-meaning and highly-trained men who technically at least are members of the Kuomintang directorate. They are permitted a voice, so long as it is in assent. Many struggle manfully against odds in the hope of accomplishing something, and in small ways they may succeed. They are tolerated so long as they do not interfere unduly—mainly because they make attractive window dressing, especially to the foreign eye.

Government in China is personal government, and the person who counts most is Chiang Kai-shek. He is not easy to classify or understand. It is not accurate to call him a dictator, since words in the lexicon of politics do not carry the same meaning in China as in the West. Not everything that is done in China is what Chiang wants—but nothing can be done that he definitely does not want, and there are few public men in China who are willing to make important decisions without getting Chiang’s assent. If they do, they are very likely to find themselves arbitrarily reversed, the law and the formal scheme of government notwithstanding. The legend—more widely disseminated in this country than in China—that Chiang is the victim of men around him, that he is kept uninformed by them, or that they are so powerful that he must yield to some of them in order to keep their support against the others, is a myth. Chiang is powerful enough to deal with any or all of them if he wants to….

Corruption in China is often exaggerated by foreigners, mainly because standards of public trust very with social settings. What is graft in one setting may not be graft in another. But judging by China’s own standards, one can say that corruption has never in recent times been as brazen as now. There is plenty of positive corruption in the form of exemption of the favored few from taxation while the masses are subject to outrageous exactions. In addition, there is the passing on of opportunities for profit from so-called public enterprises to the same favored few.

Furthermore, nothing is done to alleviate the lot of the masses—meaning now not only burden of inflation falls most harshly. Regulations for control of prices and prevention of hoarding are passed in an endless stream, and they flow by as a stream, without even ruffling the surface. This ineffectiveness results in part from the lack of administrative machinery; but it is due even more to the fact that enforcement of the regulations would deprive the favored of their profits.

It is this that has alienated the politically conscious Chinese from the government, and left even the illiterate masses suspicious and distrustful. Still more serious is the system of repression that has been developed to keep the present ruling group in power. This, too, can be exaggerated. It is not nearly so tight and inexorable as repression in ex-Nazi Germany or Communist Russia. The machinery is not so efficient, and the Chinese do not go in for absolutes anyway, either in thought or conduct. But protest is stifled nevertheless, principally because protest has become dangerous. It is not necessary to look over one’s shoulder before one talks in China, but it is politic to be sure one knows everybody present….

This is the atmosphere in which China now lives—an atmosphere not of terror but of fear. In larger urban centers, especially where foreigners can observe, there is more discretion in imposing repression. In some of the outlying regions there is all but terrorism. Especially in the newspapers, repression is becoming less necessary, because either the Kuomintang buy up newspapers and installs its henchmen as editors, or the editors have seen examples of reprisal—such as, for instance, the withholding of paper stock. Increasing the men in important posts in media of communication are those who are sure to stand without hitching.

From all this the principal beneficiaries are the Communists. Not Marxism but the perversion of Sun Yat-senism—the original philosophy of the republican and nationalist revolution—has recruited Communists. The young men, the men of spirit or those who despair, see no alternative to the Kuomintang except the Communists. The middle parties are too weak and without hope of succeeding to power, though they contain large numbers of men who carry respect. These are the liberals of whom General Marshall spoke in his farewell statement on leaving China, and they are worthy of respect. But they are at present negligible.

Since that is so and the Kuomintang has repelled them beyond recall, young men of vigor and idealism are turning to the Communists. In many cases they do so regretfully and as a last resort—often not because of the Communist philosophy, but in spite of it. They would be followed by many more, if it were not for a widespread fear of terrorism of another brand and, still more, fear of Russian expansionism. If the Russians had not been shortsighted, if they had not insisted on the restitution of their old imperialistic possessions in Manchuria and had they not looted the industrial properties there, the Communist movement would be far stronger in China today than it is….

Today the Communists appear preferable to their opponents, simply because the Kuomintang leaders are the kind of men from whom no enlightened regime can be expected, while the Communist leaders are the kind from whom it could be. But one can never feel certain of the ultimate purposes of the Communists. Definitely one cannot escape the question whether in power they might not be wholly different from what they are now. Of course they hotly deny that, if successful, they would subordinate themselves to Russia after the fashion of Poland; but in justice to them it should be added that they say bluntly that continued American aid to the Kuomintang would throw them into the arms of Russia.

It is here that the international complications enter—complications of the kind which have produced turmoil in the Far East for generations and a general war in the last decade. By a process of drift rather than reasoned choice, America has entered itself as a major factor in these complications. Legalistic terminology aside, the truth is that America has intervened in China. It has intervened more definitely than any other great power ever did, except Japan. And whatever its original purpose may have been, the effect has been to bring about just those conditions that made civil war inevitable. This war, in turn, produces the kind of international situation in which America has to give its future as hostage.

It was sound analysis of the causes of war in the Far East which made America choose unification in China as the first essential, to be followed by reconstruction and industrialization. With China strong and stable, the Far East would be stable and America would be spared the risk of another war. The choice was sound; the means to give it effect were not.

What we did was to hand a blank check to those elements in China which would make unity impossible. Indeed, we gave unconditional support to the worst elements in China. By 1944 it was already evident that the Kuomintang had alienated a large proportion of the people and that the Communists stood to gain strength thereby. When the war ended with Japan’s sudden surrender, American ships and planes moved up the Kuomintang armies to take over the Japanese—occupied areas. This was probably justified, since otherwise both Chinese armies would have rushed in, touching off a civil war at once. But when we presented the country to Chiang Kai-shek and the Kuomintang, it should have been only under stringent conditions—changes in personnel at the top, reform of the army, proof of immediate intention to institute economic and social reforms. We made no conditions. We gave support first, and then expressed hopes; the Chinese returned polite generalities. Why not, since they had already gained what they wanted?….

It is unanimously agreed that General Marshall did everything that was humanly possible to induce a compromise. His perception of underlying causes was unfailing, and he pressed for measures that would eliminate them.

But his hands had been tied. We had already forfeited his only means of pressure. Supported by Ambassador Stuart, he could—and did—argue ably and persuasively the merits of democratic government, with representation of all parties. He could even get agreement from Chiang Kai-shek in generalities. Intellectually, no doubt, Chiang was convinced that this was the way of the modern world; but his actions were according to his instincts, which are of an earlier and politically uglier world. Moreover, these instincts were fortified by the persuasions of his friends, for whom there was only one desirable end—continuation of their personal power.

General Marshall’s efforts were sabotaged by both sides, but the first and major acts of sabotage were the Kuomintang’s. The price of peace was remission of their own absolute power, and the Kuomintang leaders would have none of it. So long as America continued to give support to the Kuomintang, General Marshall had nothing to argue with except logic and appeals to good will…

In the end, of course, General Marshall failed. In publicly acknowledging the completion of his task without result, he acknowledged also that there was a state of war in China. But the American troops remain and the American military mission still remains—in the capital, where in the nature of things it can train only the national army, which means training one side in a civil war. (Even more recently American naval vessels were handed over to the Chinese government.) Now there can be no further pretense that our forces are there only to ensure peace, for we acknowledge that there is no peace. Now we are frankly intervening in a civil war…

Once the Chinese government knew that it could not get further help from America just by playing off Russia against us, it might reform perforce, as a first step introducing into the government the kind of men who understand what reform means.

But if America carrying out what might seem to be the pure logic of the Truman Doctrine, decides to back the present government just because it is anti-Communist, then China will continue to drift further into what will become barely concealed fascism. Then the state of China’s politics will deteriorate further, the economy will dissolve, despair will drive more Chinese into the Communist ranks, the civil war will become more intense, America will have to put more strength behind the Kuomintang forces. Then Russia, unwilling to see the Chinese Communists extinguished, may well put force behind them in a way that it has not done so far. And then Communist and Kuomintang forces will confront each other only as skirmishing forces in advance of major armies—American and Russian.

Whatever may be true in Eastern Europe, this does not have to come about in the Far East. America’s present policy in China is helping to bring it about. In American self-interest the policy should be reversed. The first step is to withdraw our forces from China entirely and to withhold all further economic help until conditions in China change. is a project of the Ashbrook Center at Ashland University

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