By Jacob L. Shapiro
Fifty years ago, in May 1966, the Cultural Revolution began in China. Chairman Mao Zedong unleashed a decade of hell to purge the Chinese Communist Party of what he considered capitalist and traditionalist challenges to communist ideology and to his own power. However, 1966 was not the only year in Chinese history in which the month of May began a transformative revolution. On May 4, 1919, China erupted in protest at what it perceived as betrayal at Versailles. The May Fourth Movement, as it came to be called, is an amorphous term for the political, social and cultural developments that came as a result.
When Westerners think of the Treaty of Versailles, they often think of the harsh terms that were imposed on Germany that made World War II inevitable. But Versailles had ramifications in East Asia too. China had contributed large numbers of laborers and workers to the Allied cause in World War I and believed that an Allied victory would be an important step toward the end of imperialism and the beginning of Chinese national self-determination. Chinese delegates were greeted at Versailles with the announcement that Japan had entered into a secret agreement with Great Britain, France and Italy in 1917. In return for Japanese naval assistance against the Germans, Germany’s claims over Shandong were to be transferred to Japan. On April 30, 1919, the U.S., the U.K. and France recognized the Japanese claim.
To add insult to injury, Japan also revealed that China’s premier (read: chief warlord) from 1916 to 1918, Duan Qirui, had made a secret deal of his own with Japan, whereby Japan gained the right to station soldiers and police in two of Shandong’s cities and gained all of the income from two new Shandong railroads. The income from the railroads was given to Japan to help pay back the massive loans Duan Qirui had taken from Japan to enhance his military power. The Chinese citizens and students who poured into the streets on May 4 were boiling over with frustration about the imperial powers taking advantage of China yet again and the self-destructive political and military conflicts that prevented China from behaving in the interest of the nation, as opposed to the interest of whichever warlord could bring the most military force to bear at any given moment.
Three years later, in July 1921, the first plenary meeting of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was held in Shanghai. At the time, the CCP had fewer than 60 members spread throughout the country, and the leaders of the CCP could not attend the meeting, either because they didn’t think the meeting was important enough or because attending would have put them in physical danger. Karl Marx’s ideas had been translated into Chinese at the beginning of the 20th century and had met with some interest, and the newly constituted Soviet Union was hard at work in encouraging the development of the CCP. But the CCP was hardly a strong political force compared to the various warlords ruling different parts of China or Sun Yat-sen’s Guomindang (National Party of China).
Had we been writing in 1921, would we have forecast that 28 years later, after Japan invaded China, World War II and the Chinese Civil War, that the CCP would declare the creation of the People’s Republic of China and preside over one of the most unified periods of Chinese history? That China and Japan were on the road to military conflict was abundantly clear – they had just fought a war in 1894 and 1895 in which the Qing Dynasty had been humiliated and now Japan wanted China’s material wealth. World War II also would have been possible to predict, and many did at the time. Germany was the core of the problem, and the terms at Versailles didn’t fix the problem, they exacerbated it. And predicting civil war in China would have been just predicting the status quo would continue, which, when in doubt, is the easiest thing to predict. But could our methodology have seen that the 13 delegates of the CCP who met in 1921 set in motion a process that would change China and the world?
For better or for worse, this is not a question we will ever be able to answer definitively. However, it brings up a deeper question about the relationship between ideology and geopolitics. China, then as now, was a country with a massive population, where the majority of people lived as farmers or artisans in general poverty. (In 1920, the American Geographical Society estimated China’s population at roughly 316 million; Chinese historian Jonathan Spence puts the number above 400 million.) The backdrop of the CCP’s beginning was a massive influx of foreign investment and economic expansion in China, despite the instability that reigned in the country. The value of Chinese imports and exports tripled between 1912 and 1928, according to Spence. Production of coal, iron and steel also increased dramatically. And every year, hundreds of thousands of Chinese nationals were leaving the countryside to find opportunities in China’s industrializing cities.
The ideology of the CCP, and of Maoism later, gave voice to changes that were reshaping Chinese society. It was better than any other ideology or political program at the time at articulating an underlying reality that was already changing. For the hundreds of millions of Chinese peasants and workers who either hadn’t heard the news of the Allied betrayal or wouldn’t have cared, the CCP had a potent message. Back in 1919, in an essay titled “To the Glory of the Hans,” Mao wrote that “the greatest force is that of the union of the popular masses.” However, the previous line is arguably more telling: “What is the greatest question in the world? The greatest question is that of getting food to eat.” The CCP was telling these Chinese nationals that the power was theirs, and that if they would only exert it, the struggle to put food on the table could be overcome. Survival is a first order concern. Ideology takes advantage of it.
It may not have been possible to anticipate that the CCP would find the right timbre and tone in speaking to the Chinese people that would allow it to rapidly swell its ranks. The Guomindang for a time was stronger, with its own compelling message and organizational structure – the CCP and Guomindang oscillated between cooperation and fighting because both needed the other. It would have been possible, however, to see the changes that were reshaping China’s economy. It would have been possible to see the millions of Chinese workers who were coming from the countryside and had never encountered anything like the industrial jobs for which they were hoping to be hired – and to see the CCP at the ground level trying to organize them. It would have been possible to see that foreign companies – particularly British, American, German and Japanese companies – were reaping the benefits of China’s economic expansion, and that both political and military fighting was preventing China from claiming those benefits for itself. It also kept China from defending itself against foreign attacks, to disastrous effect in the Second Sino-Japanese War from 1937 to 1945, which would lead to the death of tens of millions of Chinese citizens and occupation of much of the country by Japan.
When thinking about ideology, it is possible to get trapped in a chicken-egg cycle. Which came first – the ideology or some fundamental change that altered the playing field entirely and necessitated a new way of making sense of the world? There are two ways out of this trap. The first is to realize that the changes that remake the world, for the most part, do not happen overnight. These changes are long processes, which can stretch hundreds of years, though they can develop intensely in the course of a few weeks and then move in barely perceptible gradations either forward or backward for decades. The second is to realize the importance of ideology without being seduced by its claim to be all-encompassing. Ideology can be immensely powerful. It helped the CCP grow into the over 85-million-member group it is today and gave China a shared vocabulary for unification. But ideology is meaningless if it cannot help large groups of people understand their situation and give them a view of how to improve it. Without a host, ideology is harmless. And more often than not, ideology is a symptom – not a cause.
So could we have predicted the rise of the CCP? The answer, I think, is no. No one could, and if someone had I would have called it luck (though it is sometimes better to be lucky than good). But could we have predicted the various international conflicts in which China was involved, and could we have predicted that the status quo in China was untenable – that eventually someone would rise to unite the fractured country and drive out the foreign influences that were taking advantage of China’s weakness?
The answer to that, I believe, is yes. An understanding of China’s interests in 1921 make it clear that China would unify. That same understanding allows us to say today that there are limits to China’s power. For hundreds of millions of Chinese citizens, the current path will lead not to personal gain but to hard economic times, and President Xi Jinping is attempting to reinvigorate the CCP’s ideological foundations because, in the last 30 years, they have become obsolete. Xi may be able to buy himself time by appealing to public virtue as he searches for new ideas. But the CCP knows better than anyone that the source of its power is not in its words or in its communist principles, but in its ability to protect China from harm and to put food on the table.