[Book] China: From Permanent Revolution to Counter-Revolution

Yenan, the Second United Front, and the War against Japan

8.1 Introduction

The Long March was a major factor in consolidating the peasant/soldier brand of Maoism with its authoritarian and privileged command structure, and confirmed the lack of any genuine orientation by the CCP towards the urban working class.

This chapter shows how the so-called Second United Front in China was the Chinese version of the Popular or People’s Fronts being implemented in Europe, America, and elsewhere under the direction of the Comintern. It describes the abrupt about-face from adventurism to social patriotism, and the abasement of the CCP before Chiang Kai-shek in order to achieve a temporary and false unity with the KMT against the Japanese invasion. Mao’s New Democracy synthesised this class collaborationist doctrine, would threaten the creation of a Chinese workers’ state, and would eventually form part of the conceptual basis for capitalist restoration.

After arriving in northern Shensi in 1935/6, the Chinese Communists under the direction of the Communist International made a strategic shift climaxing in the formation of a so-called United Front with the Nationalists. In a parallel move intended to bolster Chiang against the Japanese, the USSR signed a non-aggression pact with the KMT on 21 August 1937, and began delivering military supplies to it.

Under the terms of the agreement with the KMT, the Chinese Soviet government was renamed and notionally replaced by a Border Regions’ Authority, nominally under the Nationalist regime. The CCP continued to promulgate its own laws and regulations, but now these were based on the Nationalist codes and in many cases simply adopted relevant and useful Nationalist laws, such as those against opium and banditry. During the Yenan period, the primary task of the people’s courts in the border regions was to defend the anti-Japanese Popular Front and the Party bureaucracy; to punish traitors, criminals and other harmful elements.[1]

The agreement with the KMT required the CCP to halt the seizure of landlords’ lands (which caused many peasants to fear that the land that had been distributed might be taken back), backtrack on women’s rights (which was strongly opposed by the more radical elements in the Party), and propose an alliance with the NRA (which was seen by many soldiers as a shameful betrayal of the sacrifices they had made in ten years of civil war). To overcome this opposition the CCP would launch a rectification programme of structured political indoctrination that sought to “unify the thinking of the entire membership” and give the leadership a degree of control much greater than Stalin had exerted in the Soviet Union.[2]

8.2 The Second United Front

The ultra-left policies of Third Period Stalinism had split the German working class in the face of the Nazis and allowed Hitler to come to power “without breaking a pane of glass”. A frightened Stalin turned to diplomacy to protect the Soviet Union from the results of his own policies. The Soviet leadership cynically manipulated the national Communist Parties in its own interests to relieve the twin pressures of Germany in the west and Japan in the east. The national Communist Parties would seek to control the class struggle using so-called Popular Fronts; in return their own bourgeoisie would extend goodwill towards the Soviet Union.

Thus, the 7th World Congress of the CI (25 July–21 August 1935) advocated a Popular Front policy for a number of countries of which China was one.[3] The CCP was to reach a detente with Nationalist China to protect the Soviet Union’s eastern seaboard.[4] The CCP itself almost never used the term Popular Front preferring instead “United Front”. In this way it hoped to demonstrate the similarity in political and social content with the so-called United Front of 1925-27, and to preserve the fiction that this venture was a continuation of the ‘unity’ of 1925-27!

The 7th World Congress had Wang Ming announce that the anti-imperialist peoples’ United Front was the only “means for the general mobilisation of the entire Chinese nation for the sacred national revolutionary war against Japanese imperialism.”[5] Only eighteen months previously the same Wang Ming had, at the 13th Plenum of the ECCI, boldly affirmed that no improvement in the condition of the Chinese masses was possible without completion of the agrarian revolution, without the overthrow of the Kuomintang and its replacement by a Communist government.

Many Marxists in Western Europe have made strenuous efforts to differentiate Mao from Stalin. The adoption of the United Front strategy is one example. While the 7th World Congress was in session, the Red Army was resting in the town of Maoerhkai from which it issued the Maoerhkai Appeal on 1 August 1935 calling on all classes and armies in China to form a political and military alliance against Japan. It promised the CCP would co-operate with the KMT if it stopped attacking its own people and fought the Japanese invaders. The Maoerhkai Appeal thus appeared to anticipate the Comintern’s own Popular Front appeal made the very next day. For some time, radicals in Europe and the USA argued this was an independent CCP initiative not only because it pre-dated the appeal of the 7th World Congress (if only by a day) but also because the Congress cited China as a prime example of how to proceed. However, with the opening of Soviet and CCP records it is now clear that the Maoerhkai Appeal was drafted by Wang Ming in Moscow, and an integral part of the Comintern move towards the Popular Front strategy.[6]

Naturally, at this stage the appeal was not directly to Chiang or the KMT. How could it be? KMT armies were at that very moment attempting to annihilate the Red Army and the CCP. It would take a little time before Chiang would be claimed as the ally of the CCP and saviour of China.

The call was largely ignored by Chiang Kai-shek; the Red Army had been defeated at Jiangxi and had been reduced to a small rump, there had been a bumper crop in 1935, there was an economic upturn as world trade revived, and an accompanying political stabilisation. Still hoping a compromise could be reached with Japanese imperialism, the Chinese bourgeoisie conducted a purely defensive struggle which slowed down the Japanese advance but could not withstand a determined imperialist attack nor ever achieve Chinese national liberation.

With moves towards Popular Frontism under way, the Chinese contingent to the 7th Congress led by Wang Ming approved a series of proposed changes to CCP policies that would make them more acceptable to the KMT; these included making landlords who actively supported the resistance to Japan, exempt from expropriation. This, if effected, would end land redistribution and the land revolution. The changes were considered sufficiently important for an envoy carrying details of the 7th Congress decisions and Wang’s proposals, to be airlifted into North Shensi.[7]

Moscow now called for the CCP to enter an alliance with the Nationalists and for a joint military struggle against the Japanese to protect the Soviet Union from attack. With such a strategy the natural choice of leader for the CCP was Mao, and at the 7th Congress he was singled out for praise as an “outstanding and valiant standard-bearer” of the Communist movement. In Moscow’s exhibition hall of CCP history, the only personal portrayals of CCP leaders were Mao and Zhu De. In the Communist International, No. 33-34, 1935, Mao was praised as the “legendary leader of the Chinese people.”[8] The myth of ‘Mao-versus-Wang’ with Wang the red comprador, was spread later by Maoist historians to absolve Mao from responsibility for mistakes in Party policy. Unfortunately, many young militants in the West were deceived by this into believing that Mao was politically opposed to Wang, and that Mao had adopted an anti-Stalin stance.

The last stages of the Long March had been named The Anti-Japanese March and the Red Army was supposedly ‘in preparation’ for fighting the Japanese, but in its day-to-day activities it had to defend itself from the immediate enemy, the ‘troops of the Chinese traitors’. This was reflected in a continuation of its policy of “resist Japan and oppose Chiang.”[9] We can safely assume that this policy was a pretty faithful reflection of the hatred of Chiang felt by most of the Red Army troops.

At the end of March 1936, the ECCI intervened to accelerate the process of forming an anti-Japanese front with the KMT.[10] On 5 May 1936, Mao Zedong, as Chairperson of the Soviet Government of China, and Zhu De, commander-in-chief of the Red armies, made the first formal overtures in an appeal addressed to the Nanjing government and the Military Affairs Commission (of which Chiang Kai-shek was chair). This appeal called for cessation of hostilities between the Red Army and the Nanjing troops and called for a “peace conference in order to realize our common aim of resisting the Japanese.”[11]

Chiang felt he had nothing to gain from discussing terms with a vanquished adversary. His position was enormously strengthened when, on 24 June, Pravda condemned as a Japanese plot, an attempt by local authorities in Guangdong and Guangxi to force Chiang into fighting the Japanese! The Chinese Stalinists would have to do a lot more belly-crawling before they would shake Chiang’s blood-stained hand.

In public, the ECCI declared its sympathy with the internal difficulties faced by the CCP in making a complete about-face: from defending the Soviets against the attacks of KMT armies to transforming and restructuring those same Soviets to be subordinate to the National government and placing the Red Army under the command of Chiang Kai-shek.[12] In private, in his notes made during a meeting with Stalin, Dimitrov was more obdurate: the CCP must take a leading role in the war against Japan and for that the confiscation of land must stop; there was to be only one slogan “For a free China against Japanese war-mongers”, no further fighting against Chiang Kai-shek until victory in the war against Japan; it was “not advisable” for the CCP “to engage in theoretical discussions” they could leave such discussion until after the war.[13] It can be understood why even in such an obedient Party as the Chinese, there was a delay in adjusting to the Moscow line.

However, the CCP’s move towards a Second United Front was by no means exclusively the result of pressure from Moscow, it also had its Chinese line of descent. After all, Mao had been an active protector of the rich peasants in Jiangxi and before that had been strongly in favour of alliance with the KMT. But now there were two big differences; the KMT and CCP had been at war since 1927 and it was clear that even if Chiang were forced into an alliance, he would turn on the Communists as soon as he felt able, secondly Mao was within grasp of Party leadership and this would be a factor in his decisions – and as we know the struggle for leadership in undemocratic Stalinist parties could be a matter of life or death for hundreds, even thousands of comrades. These considerations led to a difference in emphasis – but not in political line – between Moscow and Mao, which would later be presented by some as a fight for the independence of the CCP from Moscow.[14]

With direct CCP-Moscow radio contact re-established, July-August 1936 formed a watershed in the CCP’s transition towards the Popular Front. On 22 July, the Party endorsed Wang’s land policy and began a campaign in its press to convince the KMT that it offered no threat to essential bourgeois interests. To do this Wang Ming reminded the bourgeoisie how the CCP had renounced the agrarian revolution and attempted to keep the peasants in check during the peasant upsurges of 1925-1927.[15]

Mao Zedong outstripped even this, offering the Chinese bourgeoisie the same renunciation of revolutionary struggle as in 1927. He then went one step further, offering guarantees that should the forces of the revolution raise their heads, should rank and file militants speak of “class against class”, the CCP stood ready to play the role of executioner.[16]

The Politburo meeting on 10 August formally endorsed Zhou Enlai’s statement that “the old slogan ‘to resist Japan one must oppose Chiang first’ is no longer suitable.”[17] The government was renamed the “People’s Soviet Government” and the Chinese Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Army became the “People’s Red Army”, later to be re-named “People’s Liberation Army”. The name “Communist Party” was ordered to be removed from all governmental institutions and replaced by “Anti-Japanese Salvation Association”. The omnipresent red star was replaced by the Chinese sun on a blue field, the symbol of the Anti-Japanese United Front. All previous laws in the Soviet districts limiting the civil rights of the bourgeoisie were repealed and a decision made not to confiscate the land of rich peasants. The CCP would protect the property and the factories of the big and small merchants and capitalists. In an echo of the worst decisions of 1925-27, the CCP pledged to limit itself to demanding a bourgeois democratic republic and declared the estates of serving officers and anti-Japanese big landowners were no longer subject to confiscation.[18]

An ECCI directive of 15 August advised the CCP to negotiate with Chiang directly and to immediately announce that the CCP was prepared to send a delegation to Chiang, or welcome a KMT delegation in the Soviet area. However, the directive contained several warnings: the establishment of a Japanese national united front should not be used to reduce soviet power, nor should the Red Army be integrated into the KMT armies.[19]

This might sound a big step forward in the thinking of the ECCI but no such luck. The Russian bureaucracy had observed Chiang’s dealings with the Japanese and appreciated that Chiang would be only too keen to accept a face-saving deal with Japan that left the Imperial Army free to attack the Soviet Union. It was a necessary defensive measure to preserve an armed force loyal to the CCP because that might become the only barrier between the advancing Japanese army and the USSR. The Red Army had to be maintained independent of the bourgeoisie, under the exclusive leadership of the CCP. Submerging the Red Army into the NRA could lead to its destruction. What was being suggested was still the same old goal of a national bourgeois democratic regime, but now the Red Army would fight for it in parallel with, rather than as part of, the Nationalist armies. The degree of separation and subordination would depend on circumstances. The struggle for socialism would, as previously, take place at some unspecified time in the future.

As a result the CCP sent an open letter to the KMT on 25 August, appealing for KMT-CCP unity against Japan. The Open Letter to the KMT, drafted by Mao followed ECCI advice:

“We are prepared to form a strong revolutionary united front with you as was the case during the … great Chinese Revolution of 1925-7, when there existed a broad united front for struggle against national and feudal oppression, for that is the only proper way to save our country to-day. You … have not yet forgotten the glorious history of collaboration between the Communist Party and the Kuomintang. … It was precisely thanks to this collaboration that all the national and feudal oppressors shook before us. At that time our national oppressors and Japanese imperialism in particular, were very much afraid that our collaboration might lead to final victory and the complete emancipation of China. Therefore they sowed the seeds of strife between us and set in motion all possible means, threats, and temptations as a result of which one side gave up its collaboration and buried the united front. Do you feel no pricks of conscience when you recall this to-day?”[20]

Such a blatant falsification of events was not meant to deceive the leadership of the KMT (who, after all, were still intent on destroying the CCP and killing every Chinese Communist), it was meant to counter the very real mistrust felt by the majority of the Party.

On 1 September, the Party Centre directed Party organisations to formally relinquish the old slogans of “Resist Japan and oppose Chiang” and “Down with Chiang Kai-shek.”[21] The directive stated that political and military agreement with the KMT would require the Soviets and Red Army to be placed under the unified command of the national defence government and allied anti-Japanese armed forces. But added, “the independence of the soviets and the Red Army in their organisations and leadership shall not be abolished.” KMT officers and administrators would not be allowed to join the Red Army or Soviet area government. The CCP would continue to enlarge and consolidate its own political and military forces to assure a thorough victory in the anti-Japanese war and the creation of a bourgeois democratic republic.[22]

But in 1927 the CCP could have led a mighty mass movement of many millions in a revolutionary situation; in 1937 it stood at the head of 100,000 badly equipped, poorly disciplined peasant soldiers without the faintest concept of the working-class movement. In 1927 the CCP had stood in opposition to the peasant struggle and had suppressed its demands; now ten years later it was promising to repeat its mistakes.

Before the call for the Popular Front, the CCP had repeatedly addressed itself to the front line units of the KMT offering a fighting alliance against the Japanese army setting only the elementary conditions: an end to the offensive against the Soviet districts, democratic rights for the people and the right for volunteers to organise and arm themselves into anti-Japanese fighting units. Appeals of this kind were designed to tear the supports from under the Kuomintang, thereby relieving the pressure on the Soviet districts, promoting the anti-Japanese struggle, and preparing for the defeat of Chiang Kai-shek’s regime. This was accompanied by a propaganda campaign along the lines that Chiang Kai-shek and the whole KMT had been unmasked as preparing to partition China in the face of the Japanese advance. To aid this process, prisoners taken by the Red Army, after first aid treatment were subject to intensive political instruction and released. All this good work was now found to have been an error and was summarily ended: the anti-imperialist front was to be promoted ‘in a new manner’.

The arguments used in 1926-27 were dusted off and brought out to justify the Second United Front but on their own, were clearly inadequate. Three new reasons were produced. The first was the universal indignation of the Chinese people at the expansionist policies of Japan (in fact popular opposition with mass boycott and student actions was greatest in 1931-32 when Japan seized Manchuria); the second was the increased strength of the Red Army which had grown to a “mighty military factor throughout China” (in fact the Red Army having been defeated at Jiangxi, had arrived in Shensi on the outskirts of China a shadow of its former self); the third reason was that the national bourgeoisie were freeing themselves from their illusions in the KMT and were turning towards the toiling masses (in fact the national bourgeoisie had opted to support the KMT in 1926-27 and were still clinging to it).

Anyone who stated the elementary truth, only recently promulgated by the CCP, that the overthrow of the KMT was the condition of a successful national-revolutionary war was branded an “enemy of the Chinese people” and an “agent of Japanese imperialism”. The policies of class struggle and agrarian revolution were publicly jettisoned. The theme of Stalinist propaganda welcomed the “People’s Anti-Japanese United Front” embracing “all parties and groups” (in practice the CP and KMT), leading to the establishment of an “All-Chinese Government of National Defence”. Care was taken to remove any suggestion that the CCP was even hinting at the overthrow of the KMT regime, even as a distant aim. Wang Ming declared any such suggestion to be “an absolutely false and unfounded legend spread by pro-Japanese elements … It is slander, provocation!”[23]

8.3 The Sian Incident

During 1936 Chiang was under pressure to resist the Japanese advances from Nationalist troops, particularly those in the north east who were most threatened. These troops had engaged the Japanese forces on a number of occasions, and were vigorously opposed to Chiang’s continuous retreat and his refusal to fight. By the end of 1936 a de facto truce existed between local generals and the Red Army to the extent that the Red Army was given uniforms and weapons and the CCP allowed access via Yenan to Communist groups in Nationalist China.[24] On 12 December 1936, Chiang flew to Sian (Xi’an, capital of Shensi province) to personally remonstrate with General Chang Hsueh-liang the local commander, and induce him to begin an offensive against the Soviet area. In an astounding turn of events, the younger officers seized Chiang and refused to release him unless he agreed to a bold anti-Japanese programme. The rank and file soldiers threatened a ‘people’s trial’ and there is no doubt that initially Mao also supported this proposal.

Moscow intervened strongly; on 14 December a Pravda editorial, and on 15 December an article in Investia, condemned the action, calling the rebellious generals Japanese puppets. Within days, Dimitrov dispatched a telegram to the CCP calling for it to effect Chiang’s release. Mao is said to have stamped his feet in rage at this proposal but it was confirmation that he was not the undisputed leader of the CCP when Po Ku and Zhou Enlai immediately accepted the ECCI’s directive, and Zhou Enlai stepped in to meet with Chiang, to save his life, reinstate him as leader of the KMT, and send him back as national leader to Nanjing. With his life on the line, Chiang agreed to Zhou’s proposals which were so mild they were not so difficult to swallow.[25]

One reason for the CCP’s sensitivity to Stalin’s wishes was the material aid being received from Moscow. In 1936 the Comintern subsidy to the CCP was about US$2,000,000 (about half the annual budget of the Yenan Soviet).[26,27] This level of support would continue until the defeat of Japan in 1945.

It was at this time that the HQ of the Red Army moved into the walled town of Yenan which contained some hundreds of decent enough houses, some even with small gardens. Agnes Smedley who was in Sian at the time and reached Yenan shortly after the take-over, describes how the Red Army entered Yenan without a fight, extended the area controlled by the Soviet by many thousands of square kilometres and about one million people without firing a shot because the local troops were fed up with offering no resistance to the Japanese.[28] By the end of 1938, Yenan was reduced largely to rubble by Japanese bombing raids and the population moved to the surrounding hills where they again lived in caves.

A short time after his return to Nanjing, Chiang called a meeting of the CEC of the KMT to consider the CCP proposals for a Popular Front. During February 1937, Zhou negotiated with the KMT. The CEC insisted that it remained determined to uproot Chinese Communism but would accept the CCP proposal subject to four conditions: (1) Suspension of the class struggle, (2) Cessation of all Communist propaganda, (3) Dissolution of the Soviet Republic and the appointment of KMT officials to take charge of the local areas, and (4) Abolition of the Red Army and its incorporation into the Government armies under the direct control of the Military Affairs Commission – but it must not number more than 3,000 and officers above division commander must go abroad.[29]

The CCP replied on 15 March 1937, and declared that it had already voluntarily met the first two conditions; confiscation of the land of the landlords had ceased and the Communist Party would no longer promote class struggle. To show goodwill a Communist youth congress held in Yenan in April elected Chiang Kai-shek to its presidium alongside Mao Zedong. These actions by the CCP helped save Chiang who was facing an officer corps on the verge of revolt.

In May 1937, the CCP called a National Conference to assess its work, address the confusion within its ranks, approve the line proposed by the ECCI and discuss its practical implementation. The conference was a rubber stamp and, just as in the USSR, attendees were appointed. In Yenan no elections were ever held for delegates to CCP conferences.[30]

Lo Fu described as “Secretary of the CC of the CCP” was interviewed by Nym Wales (wife of Edgar Snow) on 14 July 1937.[31] Lo gave a very positive picture of the block within, maintaining it had been “a united front against imperialism and feudal forces” and that “in July 1927 the CCP and the KMT finally split.” After a decade the Stalinists still refused to admit that the Chinese bourgeoisie had massacred peasants, workers and Communists in a bloody counter-revolution. Lo dated the Soviet programme of the CCP as continuing up to the Sian incident after which “it continued only pending completion of negotiations with the KMT” and Lo referred to Yenan as the “ex-Soviet capital”. Lo maintained, “To continue with the Soviet slogan would be to demand the overthrow of the KMT, which would mean civil war and make it impossible to realise the anti-Japanese struggle.”

On 15 July 1937, the CC of the CCP announced the basis of its co-operation with the KMT.[32]

  • “The CCP CC finds it necessary to proclaim its sincere devotion to the cause of national liberation. Therefore, it once again solemnly declares to the whole nation:
  • that since Dr Sun Yat-sen’s Three Principles of the People are what China needs today, our party is ready to fight for their complete realization;
  • that we shall give up our policy of encouraging insurrection to overthrow the KMT regime, call off the sovietization movement, and discontinue the policy of forcible confiscation of the land of the landlords;
  • that we shall abolish the present soviet governments and call for the practice of democracy in the hope that state power will be unified throughout the country; and
  • that the Red Army will give up its present name and designation, that it will be reorganized as part of the National Revolutionary Army and placed under the Military Council of the national government, and that it will be ready for orders to march to the anti-Japanese front and do its duty.”

From here on, Yenan surrendered the designation of Soviet becoming a special administrative region, the Shensi-Gansu-Ningxia Border Region, of the Chinese Republic, and renounced all revolutionary claims. However, the only noticeable change (apart from the name changes and disappearance of the red stars from buildings) was the discontinuation of circulation of the CCP’s own currency; post offices, schools and all local services remained very strictly under local control.

However, against KMT demands, the CCP insisted that the old Soviet area would not be divided and there would not be new local government elections. The CCP did agree that the Red Army would be nominally integrated into the NRA as the 8th Route Army (the New 4th Army was added in October 1937), re-organised into three divisions and placed under nominal KMT control. However, against KMT demands, the CCP insisted its command personnel would not change and each division would number 15,000.

Discussions failed to resolve the differences. What decided the matter for Chiang was that the Japanese army marched into the Beijing-Tienjin area in July 1937 and Japanese gunships shelled Shanghai in August. Chiang had no choice but to accept the status quo vis a vis the CCP and no doubt, the promise of arms from the Soviet Union sweetened the pill.

The Japanese were determined to take all of north China and every important port on the coast. After crawling for six years before the Japanese, the KMT was finally compelled to offer resistance because Japanese aggression now threatened to extinguish the Chinese bourgeoisie altogether. Chiang could retreat no further without widespread revolt amongst his own troops. Within a year the invading Japanese armies held all the main centres of the north, almost all the principal seaports, and all but two of the principal railways. “Patriotism throughout history has been inseparably bound up with power and property. In the face of danger the ruling classes (the so-called ‘national’ bourgeoisie) have never stopped short of dismembering their own country so long as they could preserve their own power over part of it,”[33] but that was no longer an option in China.

As part of Stalin’s Popular Front strategy, Communist Parties worldwide pressurised their governments to form an alliance with Russia against Germany and/or Japan, in return for which the CP would attempt to suspend the class struggle. The CCP occupied a key place in these machinations as a pawn of Russian diplomacy with the goal of preventing the KMT Government from joining Japan in an anti-Soviet pact. The Red Army and the Communist Party insisted that they no longer struggled for either an agrarian or proletarian revolution, but for bourgeois democracy.

8.4 Wang Ming Returns

When Wang Ming returned to China in November 1937, his importance was demonstrated by his being airlifted to Yenan. Wang was accompanied by two other Politburo members, Kang Sheng and Chen Yun, and these three made a substantial difference to the Politburo. With support from Zhou Enlai, these three were in a majority against Mao, Zhang Wentian, and Rem Bishi. Wang was a member of the Presidium of the Comintern and had received personal instructions from Stalin. When he addressed meetings his “speech resembled that of an imperial envoy transmitting an imperial decree.”[34]

Despite there being no obvious or major political, policy or strategic differences between Mao and Wang whatever topic was discussed at the Politburo the meeting ended in heated deadlock. It was agreed that the Comintern should adjudicate. The ECCI appreciated that the major element in the disagreements was the jockeying for leadership of the CCP between Wang and Mao. Dimitrov pulled no punches:

“You must tell everyone that it is necessary to support Mao Zedong as the leader of the CCP. He has been tempered in practical struggle. Such persons as Wang Ming should no longer fight for the leadership.”[35]

To get him out of the way, Wang Ming was assigned to liaise with the KMT. In this role he continued to push an extreme version of the Popular Front; e.g. that any struggle for democratic reforms should have prior KMT approval. When in December, 1937, the KMT decreed the death penalty for workers who went on strike or even agitated for strikes while the war was in progress, Wang Ming told an interviewer that the CCP was “fully satisfied” with the Kuomintang’s conduct of the war. From 1937-45 “The Communists opposed strikes as detrimental to the war effort, and undertook no independent organization of labour (or the peasants) in Kuomintang administered areas.”[36]

In February 1938, Mao spelled out the CCP’s perspective in answer to the question: “Will the CCP-KMT co-operation last long?” He replied:

“The CCP has never wanted to break away from the KMT. In the past 10 years of split both parties and the people have suffered enough. This painful experience will serve to reinforce our co-operation, the aims of which are joint resistance at the present and joint reconstruction in the future.”[37]

On 2 July 1938, Mao explained to a visiting student delegation, his view of China after victory over Japan; a free and equal democratic nation with agriculture, industry, and commerce jointly operated by the state and the people. Workers would benefit from an 8-hour day and peasants would own their land. The bourgeoisie would have complete freedom of speech, publication, meeting and association. Such a nation would not be a socialist state, nor its government a Soviet government, but a state and a government that practised democracy under the principle of respecting private ownership. To achieve this goal the CCP desired to unite with the KMT and other revolutionary parties and factions as well as with the people of the entire nation.[38] What reformist, social democratic politician has not painted the same picture?

At the 6th (enlarged) plenum of the CC of October 1938 Mao presented his analysis of the then current situation in China in The New Stage.[39] The tone of his report is represented by the sub-heading The Kuomintang Has a Brilliant Future and, let it be noted, also “a glorious history”! Chiang is referred to as a “great leader” waging a courageous war of resistance: “In its 50-year history the KMT whenever it encountered a great revolutionary struggle always transformed itself into an alliance of national revolution.” The massacres of 1927 and the subsequent extermination campaigns are air-brushed from history.

Pierre Rousset, a spokesperson for the former Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire and a founding member of the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste, has claimed that during the Sino-Japanese war, the CCP made “major efforts” to reforge its links with the urban working class, and cites the work led by Liu Shaoqi as proof.[40] In fact, Mao’s speeches at the October 1938 plenum polemicised against the proposals of Liu Shaoqi that greater emphasis be placed on mobilising the urban workers. His alternative was that the “fulcrum of Party activity” must lie “in the front zones and in the enemy’s hinterland.”[41] It is quite true that there was considerable underground work by the CCP within KMT areas but there are no records of substantial or effective work in the factories.

Belden, who was present at the time, reported conversations with local CCP leaders in the liberated areas:

“There was little or no connection between the Central Committee of the party and its underground workers, but messengers and orderlies were dispatched to the large towns to post slogans, distribute handbills and spread the word as best they could. General instructions were for workers, students and farmers to unite, to evacuate the cities immediately and to help organize guerrilla warfare… Their nuclei among the workers in Chiang’s areas was almost nil.”[42]

It is true that as the CCP took on the mantle of the party of national resistance its support amongst university students grew. During 1947 and 1948 the KMT regime launched a campaign against the universities and middle schools in an effort to root out any traces of Communism. Thousands of students were beaten up, arrested, imprisoned and tortured. So deep was the hostility these moves engendered that many non-socialist democrats and intellectuals saw their only hope of ending the civil war was to support the CCP. However, the emphasis of the CCP was not to encourage the students to link their demands with those of the workers but for them leave the cities and travel to the liberated areas to help administer the Border Regions’ Authority. In one month alone, October 1948, over 4,500 students are said to have moved to the Communist areas.[43]

To justify the united front and bloc of four classes, Mao’s writings of 1937-40 developed the idea that the Russian Revolution was qualitatively different from the Chinese because the Russian bourgeoisie, although military-feudal, had carried out imperialist aggression against other countries and so entirely lacked any revolutionary quality. The Chinese bourgeoisie was the victim of imperialist aggression and so retained some revolutionary quality.[44] Mao’s views were coloured by the needs of the moment so, for example, the successes of the Northern Expedition were described as due to Chiang Kai-shek’s brilliance, not mass peasant mobilisation. Mao did realise that the relative weakness of the Chinese bourgeoisie meant the democratic revolution would have to be carried forward on the backs of the urban workers and peasants, but instead of following Lenin and recognising that this opened the way to a socialist revolution, he intended that the peasants and workers of China would act in the service of the bourgeoisie and stop the revolution half-way. Mao not only closed his eyes to the lessons of history, he re-wrote history to match his own class-collaborationist perspective.

The ECCI had determined that Mao was the most suitable leader for the CCP both because of his military abilities and skills and for his natural inclination towards an alliance with the KMT. In 1939 the Moscow publishing house Ogiz-Izogiz produced a monograph which was a shortened version of Edgar Snow’s Red Star Over China, with all the critical comments on Mao removed. At the same time a brochure entitled Mao Zedong and Zhu De: Leaders of the Chinese People appeared describing Mao as a model leader of the Chinese Communists.[45] In early 1940 Dimitrov made a series of comments on the membership of the Politburo. Mao is described as “truly the most outstanding political figure in the CCP. He knows China better than the other CCP leaders, knows the people, correctly interprets political events and basically frames problems correctly.”[46]

The KMT was fighting a progressive war, representing an oppressed semi-colonial country against Japanese imperialism. The progressive nature of the war was not negated by the fact that the struggle was led by Chiang Kai-shek, hangman of the Chinese Revolution. Surely it was the duty of all revolutionists to support him? Were the Stalinists not right, then, in making a united front with Chiang Kai-shek and the Kuomintang?

It was the duty of revolutionists to support China’s struggle by all means possible, including agreements of a strictly practical nature with Chiang Kai-shek and the Kuomintang – but not to abandon their own programme, to dissolve themselves in a People’s Front, to relinquish the right to criticise and condemn the Kuomintang’s conduct of the war. The Stalinists, spurning the Leninist United Front tactic, did just this latter, thereby aiding and becoming party to the betrayal of China’s struggle. The Bolsheviks under Lenin’s leadership ‘supported’ Kerensky against the white Russian General Kornilov, while simultaneously preparing to overthrow Kerensky and establish workers’ power. The Chinese Stalinists, however, accorded Chiang Kai-shek unconditional political support, thereby betraying the revolution and the national struggle which was indissolubly bound up with it.

Just as in 1925-1927, KMT-CCP unity meant the political subordination of the Communists to the KMT, so in 1937 it was directed against any signs of revolutionary activity. Wang Ming wrote:

“The Chinese people … will judge of the degree of determination and readiness of the KMT … to undertake the armed struggle against the Japanese aggressors, by (the KMT’s) attitude to Japanese agents and national traitors and, in particular, to the Japano-Trotskyist-fascist agents. The government and peoples of the U.S.S.R. are setting us an example of how to … purge the state, military and party apparatus of these vipers.”[47]

On 25 September 1937, the 8th Route Army ambushed and defeated two Japanese divisions at Pingxingguan in eastern Shanxi, a much needed victory in time of general defeat. Because of this and the supply of arms and munitions from the USSR, the Nationalist government agreed through 1938, 1939 and 1940, to provide the 8th Route Army with a cash subsidy (on the basis of a strength of 45,000) and a small supply of ammunition.[48]

However, the KMT was demonstrating not its ability to defend China, but its complete rottenness. The key battle to defend Wuhan and hold the Yangtse valley, began in June 1938 and ended at the end of October with the victory of the Imperial Japanese Army. This was the longest, largest and most significant battle of the Second Sino-Japanese War, and one of the largest battles in all of history. More than one million NRA troops under Chiang Kai-shek‘s personal command gathered to defend Wuhan. However, corruption was so rampant at the top of the NRA that Japanese General Iwane Matsui could boast to the New York Times correspondent that for $80,000 in silver dollars he had bought safe passage and landing for his troops. The key defences for Wuhan were the forts at Matow, which fell almost without a fight because the commander was in a brothel in a town several miles away. All supplies to treat wounded soldiers had been sold to privateers, and wounded Chinese soldiers were left to crawl as best they could – the Japanese army took no prisoners.[49] The loss of Wuhan was the loss of the most important transport hub of inland China, and the only remaining major military and economic centre.

As the war continued, units of the Red Army (8th Route Army) infiltrated behind the Japanese lines and advanced into the northern provinces of Hopei (Hebei), Chahar (Inner Mongolia), and Shanxi. The Japanese army usually sent no more than advance scouts into the villages, the sight of which caused the KMT troops to flee. The local villagers freed from KMT domination and not under direct Japanese control, spontaneously formed their own militias and elected underground administrations, which were nuclei of anti-imperialist resistance. When the 8th Route Army arrived it inherited these organisations. The militia units were soon co-ordinated and integrated into the anti-Japanese resistance. The local government organisations were also co-ordinated through the CCP but, given the general chaos that existed, retained a high degree of autonomy.[50]

By 1939 the CCP had set up six liberated zones in regions far from Japanese garrisons which tended to confine their activities to control over the economically important areas. Each zone extended over many thousands of square kilometres, with a total population of as many as 20 million. In January 1939, a conference of 500 delegates from these zones declared themselves the Shanxi-Hopei-Shantung-Honan Border Government. This became the pattern, wherever Communist forces won control they set up a border region government. Based on the three-thirds principle (see Section 8.5) representatives were elected by secret universal ballot, but the presence of the 8th Route Army was decisive in all important decision-making. The mass of peasants, observed the new government to be the first which had not acted against the people and welcomed its policies on rents and interest rates. They were ready to grant it their support.

To the delight of the poor and middle peasants, the lands and properties of those considered to be traitors were seized and shared out. In this way some 15% of agricultural land was redistributed. Rents were cut, eviction of tenants was prohibited, and a three-year moratorium imposed on all debts. The grain tax which had fallen most heavily on the poor peasants was reformed so that the richer the peasant the more he paid. Initially about one quarter of the poorest peasants were made exempt, but as the demands of the war increased so did the burden of the tax. The maximum legal interest rate was reduced to 10% annually. Payments were rigorously enforced, but there was a degree of laxity regarding the enforcement of rates which remained well above the 10% target. To prevent Japan from using the area’s resources, wheat was grown instead of cotton and, after an initial dislocation this change had the beneficial effect of increasing the food supply. It was significant that, despite the land and tax reforms, numerous wealthy citizens (merchants and landlords) who had fled at the approach of the People’s Red Army, now returned. Communist Party policy was, it appears, acceptable to them.[51]

Despite having a common enemy in the Imperial Japanese Army, tension was always present between the Communist and Nationalist forces. This grew with the relative success of the Communists in establishing extensive areas of control, initially within the limits set by the KMT but gradually extending outwards. As Chiang manoeuvred his armies to fight the Japanese, vast areas adjoining those controlled by the Communists were stripped of troops and the Red Army moved in, displaced KMT officials and established new local government bodies. In this way the Shen-Kan-Ning administrative area expanded considerably. The New 4th Army operated across Japanese lines in the provinces of Anhwei and Kiangsu outside areas previously agreed with the KMT and in close proximity to some of the most reactionary generals in the NRA.

In January 1940, the puppet government of Wang Jingwei was launched in Nanjing and simultaneously both the KMT and Japanese began to prioritise the cleaning up of their hinterlands.[52] In January 1941, Mao accepted Chiang’s request to send 10,000 troops from the 4th Army across the Yangtse river. They were surrounded and attacked by more than 80,000 KMT troops. Some 5,000-6,000 Communist troops were killed or wounded compared to 20,000 on the Nationalist side. This was known as the Southern Anhwei Incident.[53] From this time onwards the Nationalists spent as much or more of their resources on attacking Communists as fighting the Japanese army. American Intelligence analysis made at the time claims that with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour (7 December 1941), the best of the Nationalist forces were re-allocated to blockade Communist areas because Chiang realised that the US and Britain could be left to defeat Japan.[54]

8.5 Women in Yenan

Shensi had been largely under warlord control so the CCP was bringing law and order for the first time, and this was widely welcomed. For local administration, Mao introduced his own variation of the bloc of four classes, dubbed the three-thirds:

“The system whereby the Communists (representing the workers and the poor peasants), and progressive elements (representing the petty bourgeoisie), and the intermediate elements (representing the middle bourgeoisie and enlightened gentry) each contributed one-third of the leading personnel of the government administration, was introduced in all the Liberated Areas.”[55]

CCP members were told to sincerely co-operate with, and genuinely listen to the views of, non-Communists.

From February 1937, Yenan was the seat of government of the Shensi-Gansu-Ningxia Border Region. In this Communist-controlled enclave, the CCP continued to work to win the support of the population by implementing programmes that would benefit the majority of people. However, the ways these were formulated and carried out were constrained by the move towards the Popular Front e.g. an end to radical land reform programmes. Particularly affected was the policy to raise the status of women.[56]

The Communists were under siege, and in the arid land of Shensi which provided little material comfort, the CCP depended for its survival on Party discipline and, more importantly, a community spirit that was the opposite of the corrupt, decadent and self-seeking KMT. The CCP was eager to show the world that Yenan was organised in accordance with a fair and just social ideal, a model society where everybody, regardless of position and power, worked for the common good. However, those in Yenan who had to battle with the harsh realities day to day saw a different picture, where uneven access to resources and privileges left many feeling disgruntled.

From its earliest days, the CCP paid particular attention to the problems of women because women were a vast reservoir of support for the Revolution as they were among those who could benefit most from it. Belden quotes from a school book he came across in the liberated area, headed On women’s equality:

“The old society is too dark; men and women are treated differently. The man goes to an office, the woman stays within the compound. The man wears new clothes, the woman dresses in rags. The man eats white flour, the woman, husks and chaff. The man can scold until heaven bursts, the woman seldom opens her mouth. The man reads books, the woman stands at the side of the cauldron. The man three times changes his temperament, the woman swallows into her stomach the words she has to say. In the (liberated areas), a great revolution has taken place. People are free, male and female have equal rights, men and women jointly apply themselves to production, and men and women together enjoy better times.”[57]

Formally the administrative programmes of the Border Region ensured “that women enjoyed an equal position in society”, including “equal pay for equal work” and “five weeks paid maternity leave.”[58] With the drive for a Popular Front with the KMT, the Party re-assessed its goals and big changes took place in its policies.

The first and major shift was a change in emphasis, criticisms of traditional family values (the extreme subjugation of women in the family home) were downplayed and instead it was argued that women would reach equality simply by joining men in production. Of course, the CCP leadership presented their policy in Marxist terms. Great emphasis was placed on Frederick Engels’ argument that: “The emancipation of woman will only be possible when woman can take part in production on a large social scale and domestic work no longer claims anything but an insignificant part of her time.”[59] But this one sided, economic, approach relegated the importance of social elements such as equality in marriage and divorce. It also omitted the important consideration that the end result of all these efforts would be a liberal bourgeois, capitalist society in which women would remain second-class citizens.

The main concern of the leadership was maximising the war effort, and the emphasis in Party literature was for women to become spinners and weavers to produce their own clothing and clothing for the troops. This had a certain resonance locally in Shanxi where women tended to dominate in handicrafts, but it bowed to patriarchy by preserving the tradition that women remained at home and did not participate in agricultural work.

The responsibilities and goals of women’s groups during the Popular Front were outlined in a pamphlet entitled The Mass Movement of the Shanxi-Gansu-Ningxia Border Region published in 1938. Party policy was that the movement to liberate women was secondary to building unity to resist Japan. Rather than risk upsetting their allies in the Popular Front, Party leaders called for the utmost caution when implementing any moves to emancipate women. Activities to eradicate traditional feudal practices (e.g. arranged marriages, foot-binding, and demanding protection of human rights) had previously been pushed with vigour but now these were put on the back burner and it was declared that male-female equality would be achieved by women voting in local elections, participating in production, and joining in defence work. Local cadres were to tell women that by contributing to the war effort, they could break away from the traditional system that had oppressed them for centuries. In principle this was correct, but little guidance or evidence was presented on how these activities would help achieve social equality within the foreseeable future.[60]

A similar response had occurred in the Soviet Union when the Stalin-Bukharin leadership of the Party had bowed to the conservative social demands of the kulak to restrict the rights of women. Take the question of divorce. The CCP cadres arrived in Yenan with the example of Jiangxi fresh in their minds, and women cadres actively promoted divorce as a means of breaking up the traditional family structure. The result was a significant improvement in the treatment of women, but at the expense of disruption of the traditional family unit which had a negative effect on the local economy. The CCP leadership, susceptible to pressure from the rich peasants and “patriotic” landlords, shifted its position to one of asking women to avoid drastic action and to try and find liberation within the family! Liberation Daily, the CCP’s daily newspaper in the border region, now published articles arguing that the wife of even a violent and extremely abusive husband should stay with him and work to reform him rather than get a divorce.[61]

Women’s associations were tasked to solidify the family unit by making them more harmonious; women were to achieve a sense of fulfilment from the knowledge that increased production contributed to Japan’s defeat. Women comrades were instructed to form study groups within the associations to raise their cultural level and political understanding, a move meant to overcome the objections of members and bring them into line with the new policy.

The theme of the Liberation Daily articles was that women’s liberation would be achieved if the women’s movement participated in resistance work against the Japanese, but singularly failed to explain how. Nor were women given any direction on how they could obtain the skills and training needed to enter production on an equal basis with the men. In practice, in many cases, when women took more skilled positions they were of men called away, and the woman had to relinquish that position when the man returned. While women’s associations still encouraged women to participate in village politics, their main emphasis changed to the co-ordination of child care and other efforts to increase production.

At the same time the conservatism of certain leading cadres could be seen in reports on party work where it was claimed that “promiscuous women” inspired “disgust” and “fear” in “ordinary peasants.”[62] These were the women Mao had referred to (without prejudice) in his Report on an Investigation into the Peasant Movement in Hunan as having “triangular and multi-lateral relationships.”[63] Conservative attitudes were gaining ground with the growth of the Popular Front.

In an attempt to head-off criticisms of the leadership, male comrades were taken to task for dominating their female partners and limiting their activities to household chores. However, the consequence of the political perspective of a democratic dictatorship meant that women’s associations downplayed the importance of the fight for equality within the family. Equality was presented as one aspect of the liberation struggle, but one which could have the undesirable consequence of women blaming men not society for their plight.[64]

The extent to which Party officials sacrificed the cause of female emancipation to political and wartime objectives, can be seen in marriage reform. Traditionally the woman was effectively imprisoned in the family house with her labour supporting the status quo; thus the right of women to divorce ran counter to the interests of the middle peasants, an essential support for the Party. Faced with the KMT blockade and the increasing demands of the war with Japan, the Yenan government determined not to alienate peasants by disrupting the social system. The Party claimed there was no alternative but to subordinate radical reform of marriage to the immediate need to survive. Soon marriage reform was only a propaganda slogan.[65]

8.6 Yenan, the CCP and “Wild Lillies”

The bulk of the Kuomintang troops who surrendered to the Japanese became puppet troops. The CCP in its official history claims Chiang Kai-shek secretly ordered many of his troops to surrender to the Japanese invaders and then, under the command of the Japanese, to attack the 8th Route Army and New 4th Army. Because of Chiang’s orders the Japanese were able to mobilise over 90% of those who surrendered.[66]

The KMT – as a result of the Southern Anhwei Incident – imposed a tight blockade on the entire area controlled by the CCP and withdrew its subsidies to the 8th Route Army (worth about 10 million silver dollars in 1940). In Yenan, prices of everything rocketed and there were substantial tax increases on all sections including the formerly-exempt poor peasants. October 1940 saw the Red Army launch a surprise attack on Japanese forces causing significant losses of Japanese troops. In response by January 1941, the Japanese army had concentrated nearly two-thirds of its forces on the Liberated Areas located behind Japanese lines, and a large-scale campaign was launched based on the policy of ‘Burn-all, Kill-all and Loot-all’. The essence of this policy was to surround a given area, kill all young men, kill or steal all livestock, destroy everything possible, all the houses, furniture, farming implements and tools, so that the area would be uninhabitable for the foreseeable future.[67]

When rallying support in the face of these adversities and attempting to make the Border Region economically self-sufficient, the CCP found serious divisions opening up in the Party. There was conflict between the largely illiterate peasant layers recruited as a result of the land revolution (mild though it was), and who formed the great majority of the rank and file, and the more recent incomers who were invariably literate had joined the Party on the basis of its Popular Front and reformist policies, and formed the majority of the administrators. The taxes imposed on one group supported the other and the self-sufficiency campaign threatened to generate a division of potentially disastrous proportions. There was also grave concern about the quality of the cadres. Party membership had risen from 40,000 to nearly 800,000 between 1937 and 1940 but with the exception of the leading cadres and some intellectuals there had been virtually no education in Marxist-Leninist ideas (or any other kind of education or training).[68]

An added complication was that for the local population, Party membership had become a route to upward social movement. Selden has provided data which shows that in at least one area, over half those who joined the Party locally did so as poor peasants or landless labourers but within a year the majority had gained sufficient land to be classed as middle peasants: “Party members … had been major beneficiaries in the land revolution.”[69] This had a conservatising effect, promoting opposition within the CCP itself to the new higher taxes, a large part of which were spent in supporting the newcomers.

The answer was a Rectification Campaign that sought to educate Party members in the CCP version of Marxism, motivate them to adopt the radical measures necessary for self-sufficiency and to accept Party discipline. In 1941, the CCP began a series of training programmes to overcome the deficiencies in Party cadres that had appeared. Possibly in preparation for this campaign Mao, in early 1938, had made a study of the works of Stalin to determine which should be translated into Chinese.

The character of this initial Rectification Campaign can be seen from material which participants were expected to read, study and make notes on prior to discussing them: Stalin, On Bolshevisation of the Party; Stalin, Problems of Organisational Leadership; Dimitrov, Cadre Policy and Cadre Education Policy; a selection of Stalin’s writings on Party Discipline, Party Democracy and Equalitarianism; the Conclusions from the History of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.[70] To emphasise Mao’s pre-eminence within the CCP six of his pamphlets were on the list to be studied.

Within the Party there was a group of intellectuals, writers and artists who were becoming increasingly dissatisfied and had come to believe the rich peasant elements within the Popular Front were putting a brake on social progress, particularly with respect to the liberation of women. This group coalesced around Ding Ling, the Party’s most outspoken and free-thinking woman, and took the opportunity of the Rectification Campaign to publish material unmasking the CCP’s hypocrisy by pointing out instances of inequality in Yenan.

Ding had toured the Border Regions as part of a propaganda group performing plays for the peasants and had been given the job of leading the development of women’s organisations in Yenan, which put her at the focus of the contradictions between mobilising women but limiting their activities to those not deemed divisive. She edited the Literature Section of Liberation Daily, which appeared several times a week. Based on her wide experience of the actual life of peasant women and women within the Party, she wrote an article Thoughts on 8 March, Womens’ Day, which appeared in the 9 March 1942 issue of the paper.[71]

The article only hinted at some issues (those seeking abortions risked punishment; some babies were wrapped in soft wool and looked after by governesses while others were wrapped in soiled cloth and left crying on their parents’ beds), its main emphasis was to blame the Party for its contradictory attitude of promoting the role of wife and mother and then when the “woman’s skin was wrinkled, her hair thin, and fatigue had robbed her of the last traces of attractiveness, she was blamed for her political backwardness” which was then used as a reason to get a divorce. The article was condemned as “narrowly feminist”, Ding Ling was removed from her post on Liberation Daily, and she and others were successfully pressured to repent and disown their criticisms.[72]

Ding’s accusation that Party leaders married at their convenience and divorced their wives when it suited them with little regard for the principles of equality, is supported by Hua Chang-Ming.[73] In a situation where men outnumbered women by as many as 18:1 this behaviour of the leaders must have seemed particularly reprehensible and a clear abuse of position. In Yenan the bureaucracy was increasingly becoming aware of itself and defence of the family as an institution took on the character of defence of a conservative element in society which would act as a prop for the Party elite. This was very similar to the defence of the family taking place in the Soviet Union at about this time. Zhou Enlai took the lead to emphasise the importance of motherhood, to argue that women had a “natural” pre-disposition to look after the welfare of the home within the context of family life.[74] He laid down ground rules that the Party would faithfully follow. Mao, in 1958, would return to this theme and claim that not only did Chinese society need the family but that the family needed a head.[75]

Ding Ling’s article was the first of several that criticised the ruling Party elite. The most damaging came from Wang Shiwei (Wang Shih-wei), a young writer and translator who had been to study in Moscow in the late 1920s and early 1930s. He had associated with a Trotskyist group in Shanghai for which he translated a number of Trotsky’s works. In 1936 he travelled to Yenan to become a research officer in the translation department of the Academy for Marxist-Leninist Studies. In this post he enjoyed privileges of cadre clothing and extra food, and was close to the Party elite.[76]

Wang was also employed on the Liberation Daily and specialised in the short essay (zawen), traditionally used in China to expose social ills and often used by Communist writers in political debates. Wang Shiwei was by no means the only one who spoke out against the CCP’s leadership, but he was unique in that he refused to recant and remained unrepentant. His Wild Lilies which criticised the hierarchical structure and privileges of the Party bureaucracy appeared in two parts in the Literature section of the paper on 13 and 23 March 1942.[77]

The title Wild Lilies was itself a barb against Mao’s taste for women, especially young actresses from Shanghai, which was common gossip. Mao had married one such actress, Lan Ping (Jiang Qing), in 1939. Ostensibly Wild Lilies is a story about 26 year old Li Fen a student comrade who was handed over to the authorities by her uncle because she was a Communist. “Before going to her death, she put on all her three sets of underclothes and sewed them tightly together at the top and the bottom. This was because the troops in Pao-ch’ing often incited riff-raff to debauch the corpses of young girl Communists they had shot.” Li Fen is presented as a model of sexual reticence and self-sacrifice which stood in stark contradiction to the activities of the Party elite who were well known for their parties, dances and drinking, and which were a clear symbol of the social stratification that existed. Readers could well contrast the woman – Li Fen – to whom the article was dedicated, with Mao’s taste for dramatic beauty. In case the lessons were missed, Wang wrote the articles in a parody of Mao Zedong’s renowned colloquial style and salty peasant language.[78]

More importantly for the bureaucracy, was the criticism of the hierarchical system of ranks maintained by the Party, and justified by attacks on petty-bourgeois egalitarianism. Rank and file Communists had little or no money with which to buy food or clothes on the open market and so depended on the food and clothing allocated by the local Soviet administration. Wang made his often-quoted criticism of the five levels for food:

“At present there is no noodle soup for sick comrades to eat and young students only get two meals of thin congee (a type of rice porridge) a day – when they’re asked whether they have had enough to eat, Party members are expected to lead the rest in a chorus of ‘Yes, we’re full!’. What is more, relatively healthy ‘big shots’ get far more than they need or than is reasonable to eat and drink, with the result that their subordinates look upon them as a race apart.”[79]

Wang also attacked the three levels of clothing whereby the higher the Party rank, the better the clothing provided.

The bureaucracy had been challenged where it was weakest, on its privileges. The CCP machinery swung into action and pressured Wang Shiwei to retract his criticisms. Wang refused, the CCP’s initial attacks only made him more intransigent and popular amongst his supporters. Wang was put on trial for disrupting party unity, slandering party leaders, espousing Trotskyist ideas, and being a member of a group of subversive Trotskyists within the CCP. The trial took the form of a series of public struggle sessions in May and June of 1942, and on 10 June Wang was found guilty of absolute egalitarianism, being hostile to democratic centralism and Party discipline and hence, anti-Party.

The Liberation Daily, produced a day-by-day diary of the anti-Wang meetings including his public cross-examination. This diary was to act as a guide for future public meetings in CPC rectification campaigns. Its purpose was to popularise the Party’s view and guide the readers to accept the leadership’s rationale for the social differentiation that existed, and the predetermined verdict of the trial.

Mao and the Party leadership broadened the scope of the Rectification Campaign to include all critical writers; first in Mao’s Yenan Talks in May 1942, and then in the campaign against Wang Shiwei. The Yenan Forum on Literature and Art was held in relative secrecy and was not reported in the Liberation Daily. Mao published his Talks at the Yenan Forum on Literature and Art about one year later.[80] His themes sound familiar – literature, especially, must serve the workers, peasants and soldiers, content should be Party-directed and form should suit the needs of the Chinese peasants and workers. All the Party’s newspapers were re-organised to fit with the Party’s rectification movement, i.e. no dissident writers allowed. Mao side-stepped the content of the criticisms and counter-attacked along true Stalinist lines: “There are a few people who speak from an incorrect standpoint, that is, the concept of absolute egalitarianism and the methods of covert attacks.”

Mao was simply repeating in a Chinese context the arguments for proletarian (or socialist) art given a decade earlier in the Soviet Union. Despite the propaganda, the arguments that sought to reduce literature to an expression of the immediate political and practical needs of the Chinese workers and peasants were, in reality, arguments to protect the interests of the bureaucracy. Since the bureaucracy equated its interests with those of the socialist revolution it interpreted any attack on itself as counter-revolutionary.

After Mao’s Yenan talks, the Rectification Programme to “correct unorthodox tendencies” took on a much darker character and was extended and deepened to eradicate all independent criticism within the Party. The thought-reform movement which was carried out in Yenan during 1941-44 would become a well-established part of CCP cadre training. As with the Futian incident, to both stimulate and justify the excesses of the campaign, it was suddenly announced that as many as 10% of CCP members were KMT agents who had to be rooted out.

Benton has described Mao’s intensive purging of the Party from 1942-1944 as the fourth Bolshevisation of the CCP, and has claimed that it was even more effective than when Stalin mastered the Comintern after 1924.[81] The 1942 Rectification Campaign did not use the term Bolshevisation largely because it sounded too foreign for a movement that was purporting to unite Marxism-Leninism with the concrete reality of the Chinese Revolution. The purpose was to root out and destroy all remaining leftist opposition to the leadership of the Party, especially those influenced by the Trotskyists who opposed the Popular Front. It also had the aim of extending the rule of the Mao group into the subsidiary bases established outside the main Shanxi base and to politically homogenise the new raw recruits.

What made this campaign uniquely sinister and effective was the extent it extended into the lives of ordinary Party members. In Yenan the same comrades tended to sleep and socialise in their work groups. One of the first instructions by the leadership was to limit contact between different groups to trusted Party cadres. These semi-isolated groups then became the basis for the campaign, which was managed so that the personal ties and links that had formed within a group became a weapon against the individual members. Group criticisms isolated individuals and subjected them to the rebukes and admonishments of all others present, which was intended to shake their self-confidence. These meetings, which could be daily and last for three or four hours, could result in demotion and additional work that placed the offender in a humiliating position. It is claimed that all members of the CCP had their activities reviewed and if sufficient ground were found (a chance remark, even cracking a joke), they were made to provide additional information on themselves and their life experiences sufficient for their peer group to subject them to extensive criticism.

Individuals who were believed to require thought reform were reported to a Party committee and the next step, if necessary, was one or more public struggle meetings where the individuals were publicly accused and humiliated before a large and usually jeering audience, allegedly representing the community. In Chinese society where great emphasis was, and is, placed on group esteem, these were powerful and effective methods of obtaining obedience to authority.

Mao did not exempt the top of the Party if he sensed any weaknesses. In the case of Peng De-huai (deputy commander of the 8th Route Army) who took equality and fraternity too seriously, these sessions are said to have lasted forty days, while for Zhou Enlai who had been too close to Wang Ming, five days was deemed enough.[82]

The combination of one’s workmates, colleagues, comrades, friends, and companions exerted an almost irresistible pressure to conform. As the pressure increased and individuals found no escape from the denigration of their old selves, they were made to write and re-write confessions of their evil conduct, analysing the reasons why and asserting their desire to change. Pressure was often increased by a period in jail, possibly in solitary confinement but more likely in a cell with others. This prepared them for the final stages of recantation and reconciliation. When the confession was finally accepted and the Party welcomed them back into the fold, the accused naturally experienced a tremendous relief and elation and willingly accepted Party guidance. Whether this psychological experience did change personalities is less certain than the fact that it was a highly unpleasant experience to be avoided in future. One way or the other, the result was conformity to the Party line.[83]

The Rectification Campaign, which lasted from 1942 to 1944, was largely successful in eliminating the last vestiges of democracy, free speech and open criticism of the leadership within the CCP. How many were driven mad, to nervous breakdowns or to mental disorder will never be known but it is certainly in the thousands. Sad to say, the main way of protest was suicide, with some desperate individuals killing their families first.

During the upsurge of Maoism in the West, during the sixties and seventies it was often claimed that Mao had shown a qualitative difference from Stalin in that the rectification programme had not massacred dissidents but had re-educated them. This, it was argued even by certain leading Trotskyists, was a qualitative difference between Mao and Stalin.

The outcomes of the purges in the Soviet Union and of the Rectification Campaign in the CCP were the same: complete domination by the leader. Mao had shown in the Futian incident that he was prepared to kill thousands of Party members and Red Army troops to secure his position. In Yenan he used a different approach for many reasons, including:

  • The CCP was part of a Popular Front and promoting unity. It would have been very difficult to launch a mass extermination campaign simultaneously.
  • Stalin purged the Bolshevik Party, a party which had led a successful revolution and had a history of internal democracy. To ensure bureaucratic rule he had to remove all those whose activities extended back to 1917 and before. No such situation existed in China. The CCP had been thoroughly Stalinised by the time of the defeats of 1927, party membership did not pose the same threat to the leadership as in the USSR.
  • Mao, unlike Stalin, was not yet in total control of the Party. Any moves to physically eliminate dissidents were likely to have been seen as a threat to his opponents (such as the 28 Bolsheviks) who would – to save their skins – have had to fight back, and they still held a large number of leadership positions within the Party.
  • Stalin was seeking to eliminate any possible threat to the bureaucracy’s hold on state power after a successful revolution. The CCP was still in the stage of making a revolution, Mao had time to achieve his domination of the Party by other means.
  • By the time Mao launched the Rectification Campaign it was clear that the Great Purge in the USSR had resulted in widespread chaos in government departments, an atmosphere in which no-one would make a decision and there had been a sharp drop in recruitment to the Party. From Mao’s viewpoint the Great Purge had been a wasteful and disruptive process. The Rectification Campaign could achieve the same goals much more efficiently and without the disruption.
  • Unlike Stalin, Mao had played a leading role in the development of the CCP and PLA and could honestly lay claim to the leading position; to be accepted as Lenin’s Lieutenant, Stalin had to imprison or kill those who knew the real history of 1917.

It was openly argued that in the Yenan period, Mao emphasised magnanimity towards his opponents. This was part of the so-called ‘Yenan spirit’.[84] However, the scientific truism that the exception tests the rule, is applicable here. Acceptance of the Rectification Campaign in the West was because Mao appeared relatively benevolent to those whom he considered a political threat. Wang Shiwei spent five years in prison making matchboxes, and was allowed to meet a number of outside visitors to demonstrate the nobility of the CCP. In 1947, when Yenan once again came under KMT attack, the Communists were forced to quickly retreat. Wang Shiwei was summarily executed during the evacuation from Yenan. Sources differ, but all agree he was killed: either shot or hacked to pieces with an axe, most likely on the direct orders of Mao, confirmed by Kang Sheng, head of security of the Communist Party.[85] While Wang Shiwei was imprisoned and then murdered for revealing the layers of bureaucratic privileges that existed in Yenan, eminent socialists such as Isaac Deutscher could write that Mao “had lived all those years amongst the poorest peasants, … had allowed no differences in food rations and uniforms and no social estrangement between officers and men.”[86]

At the start of 1942, as the Rectification Campaign swung into its stride, the CCP abandoned any attempt to mobilise women behind appeals to emancipation and gender equality. A meeting of senior cadres agreed that raising women’s political consciousness was generally permitted but that cadres should ensure it took second place to economic mobilisation, because of both war needs and concerns about potential resentment from male peasants. For the next period the CCP would continue to emphasise women’s participation in production as opposed to a wider general equality, and moved decisively to shore up the patriarchy of its civilian and military forces on the grounds that to make the border region self-sufficient required avoiding inter-social conflict.[87]

On 26 February 1943, the CC issued a statement apparently criticising itself for the lack of progress towards equality for women. In reality it was a re-orientation of Party work away from women’s self-organisation, women-specific projects and slogans. These were now considered a waste of labour power and material resources. Now the Party emphasised “the need to overthrow feudalism gradually” and called on women to achieve liberation through “working harmoniously within the (patriarchal) family towards common economic goals.” There followed a stream of articles in Liberation Daily explaining that work in production and the economic freedom it brought was the way for women to gradually liberate themselves from feudal discipline.[88] In fact, the CCP needed to revive the old handicrafts that had been destroyed by the influx of Western machine-made goods because these articles could no longer be obtained due to the KMT blockade. To supply the cloth for uniforms, weaving and spinning were re-introduced.

The drive to get women into production resulted in major successes such as the development of the textile industry, in which the Women’s Federation took a leading role. The CCP used local technical knowledge to develop cotton and hemp production, based almost completely on women’s labour and expertise. Much of the raw product was grown through women’s work teams, with virtually all the spinning and further processing out-sourced to co-operatives of women working at home. The articles carried by Liberation Daily now focused almost exclusively on promoting such activities and praising the women involved for their contributions.

However, the Yenan women were too successful at organising themselves, and by 1945, lack of co-ordination and planning by the Party tops led to serious supply and distribution problems. Bureaucratic direction and lack of involvement of the women concerned in overall planning soon became apparent; there was no work plan to match production with need, there was little or no matching of training and personnel with equipment available, the places where cotton was grown were too far from where the spinning was done, the Party cadres had emphasised spinning so that a village could be without weaving facilities, and there were no plans on how to train women to effect repairs, etc.[89]

Goodman has pointed out that in words, the CCP formally remained committed to gender equality but this was not supported by practical activity. The previous encouragement for women to participate in politics now gradually disappeared whilst their mobilisation for production was highly praised. The emphasis on social issues was placed on the rights of the male. Despite constant pressure from the Women’s Federation, the traditional practice whereby widows were forbidden to remarry was repeatedly upheld. It was only under the pressure of food shortages that this finally changed in 1944, resulting in the marriage of 300 bachelors and widows. However, the same logic – that a lower number of households should be generally encouraged because they required less food – had also led a year earlier to divorce being banned.[90] Of course occasionally, in some places, outstanding women did take the lead and create opportunities for genuine participation in social and political activities but these were exceptions to the general rule.

Despite the Popular Front, progress was made in women’s liberation up to about 1945 particularly in taking women out of the home and into production because this required eliminating such feudal customs as foot-binding and the isolation of women. However, radical social measures could only be enacted if ‘self-financing’, so the Party developed a system, for example, whereby women suing for divorce, besides supporting themselves took on the additional burden of paying their husbands grain or money to compensate for the loss of a worker.[91]

8.7 Summary

The KMT united all reactionary influences, including the feudal remnants, to resist the masses and to suppress them. It was consequently unable to fulfill any of the bourgeois-democratic tasks, not even such a slight reform as a 25% reduction in rents. It was mainly characterised by consummate Asiatic despotism, corruption, and inefficiency. These characteristics were completely revealed during the ‘War of Resistance’.

Following the twists and turns of Moscow and the ECCI, the CCP returned to the class-collaborationist policies that had ended in white counter-revolution and the massacres of tens of thousands of Communists and millions of peasants. The so-called United Front was revived and the political direction of the CCP was determined not by the needs of Chinese workers and peasants, but by Stalin. The political programme adopted by the CCP – in particular its land programme – was limited so as not to offend the KMT. This unity had other consequences such as undermining the gains made by women in society by backtracking on freedoms gained in marriage and divorce.

The CCP presented to the world the rose-tinted picture of a Yenan as a fair, just and equitable society where everybody worked for the common good and enjoyed a common standard of living. However, within the Soviet areas and within the Party, the bureaucracy was quietly acquiring for itself material and social privileges that set it apart from the rank and file. This behaviour was corrupting the party and many Shanxi peasants who joined did so in the hope of acquiring land and/or stock to rise from being a landless labourer or poor peasant to a middle peasant.

Mao, the major figure in the Party, was determined to silence criticism of the bureaucracy and, if necessary, was quite prepared to kill the individuals concerned. Within the Party, extreme methods were used in rectification campaigns to ensure unquestioning obedience by the mass of Party members. This approach to Party discipline and democracy was Stalinist through and through.

The CCP was a Stalinised organisation: it accepted the theories of socialism in one country and of stages, was part of the Stalinist International, and had the corresponding bureaucratic centralist party structure and norms. Party democracy was stifled and the cult of the individual promoted – first Stalin and then Mao. As would be expected, the general direction of the CCP programme was towards class-collaboration; occasionally in specific circumstances it would zig to the left to strengthen peasant support before zagging to the right and returning to its natural path: thus land expropriation and re-distribution policies varied with date and location.

The fable that Mao had fought against Stalin and put the interests of the Chinese before those of the Russian bureaucracy has been debunked by documents released in Moscow and Beijing. Before and during the Yenan period the ECCI and Moscow consistently promoted Mao’s interests and finally in 1938 the General Secretary made it plain that Mao Zedong was his choice for leader of the CCP.


[1] Shao-Chuan Leng, Pre-1949 Development of the Communist Chinese System of Justice, The China Quarterly, No. 30, 1967, p93-114.

[2] Cohen, A. The Communism of Mao Tse-Tung. Univ. of Chicago Press, 1966, p193.

[3] Degras, J. The Communist International, 1919-1943, OUP, 1956, Vol 3:353-355.

[4] Benton, G. The “Second Wang Ming Line” (1935-38), The China Quarterly, No. 61, 1975, p61-94.

[5] Wang Ming, Report to the 7th World Congress, 1935. www6.svsu.edu/~jalewis2.

[6] Benton, The Second… Op. cit.

[7] Benton, The Second… Op. cit.

[8] Sheng, M. Mao, Stalin, and the Formation of the Anti-Japanese United Front: 1935-37, The China Quarterly No. 129, 1992, p149-170.

[9] Sheng, Op. cit.

[10] Sheng, Op. cit.

[11] Mao Zedong, Open Cable Message for Armistice and Negotiations for Establishing an Alliance Against Japanese Aggression, 5 May 1936, w.m.org.

[12] Dimitrov, G. Speech on the Chinese Question, 10 Aug 1937, w.m.org.

[13] Dimitrov, G. Notes on the Chinese Question, 11 Nov 1937, w.m.org.

[14] Benton, G. The Second… Op. cit.

[15] Wang Ming, Revolutionary Movement at www6.svsu.edu/~jalewis2/Communist%20International/1935.

[16] Isaacs, Op. cit. p440.

[17] Sheng, Op. cit.

[18] Shum Kui Kwong, The Second Wang Ming Line (1935-38) The China Quarterly No 69, 1977, p136-154.

[19] Sheng, Op. cit.

[20] Mao Zedong – Open letter from the CCP to the KMT, 26 Aug 1936 w.m.org.

[21] Sheng, Op. cit.

[22] Benton, The Second… Op. cit.

[23] Wang Ming, Communist International, Oct. 1937, Vol.14, No.10.

[24] van Slyke, L. The United Front in China, Jnl. of Contemporary History, 1970, 5(3)119-135.

[25] Braun, O. A Communist Agent in China 1932-1939, Hurst & Co. Ltd., 1982, p187.

[26] Pantsov, A. How Stalin Helped Mao Zedong … Issues & Studies, 2005, 41(3)181-207.

[27] Snow, E. Red Star Over China, Gollanz, 1968, p231.

[28] Smedley, A. Battle Hymn of China, Da Capo Press, 1975.

[29] Li Fu-jen, End of the Chinese Soviets, New International, Jan 1938 pp16-20, MIA.

[30] Braun, Op. cit. p195-197.

[31] Wales, N. Why the Chinese Communists Support the United Front: An Interview with Lo Fu, Pacific Affairs, 1938, 11(3)311-322.

[32] Saich, T. The Rise to Power of the CCP, Sharp, 1994, p771-3.

[33] Trotsky, L. Revolution and War in China Jan 1938 w.m.com.

[34] Kampen, T. Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai and the Evolution of the Chinese Communist Leadership, Nordic Institute of Asian Studies, 2000, p86-93.

[35] Pantsov, A. & Levine, S. Mao, Simon & Schuster, 2012, p323.

[36] Epstein, I. My China Eye, Long River Press, 2000.

[37] Shum Kui Kwong, Op. cit.

[38] Mao Zedong, Talks with Messrs K’o Lo-man, Ya-Te, Fu Lu-te and Lei K’o-nan, CW Vol 6 Part 1, 2 July 1938, w.m.org.

[39] Mao Zedong The New Stage, October 1938, www.marxists.org.

[40] Rousset, P. The Maoist Project Tested in the Struggle for Power, International Institute for Research and Education Number 3.

[41] Braun, Op. cit. p235.

[42] Belden J, China Shakes the World, Gollancz. 1951, p51 and 398.

[43] Ibid, p406.

[44] Mao Zedong, On New Democracy, January 1940, www.marxist.org.

[45] Pantsov, A. How Stalin Helped Mao Zedong … Issues & Studies, 2005, 41(3)181-207.

[46] Ibid.

[47] Wang Ming, Communist International, Vol.14, No.10, Oct. 1937.

[48] North, R. Moscow and the Chinese Communists, Stanford Univ. Press, 1963, p189/190.

[49] Li Fu-jen, After the Fall of Wuhan, January 1939, MIA.

[50] Belden, Op. cit. p71-78.

[51] Rosinger, L. Politics and Strategy of China’s Mobile War, Pacific Affairs, 1939, 12(3)263-277.

[52] Braun, Op. cit. p17.

[53] North, Op. cit. p189/190.

[54] Ibid p204.

[55] Hu Chiao-mu, Thirty Years of the CCP, 1951, FLPH.

[56] Stranahan-Jackal, P. Changes in Policy for Yenan Women, 1935-1947: Modern China, 1981, 7(1)83-112.

[57] Belden. Op. cit. p122.

[58] Saich, The Rise, …. Op. cit. p935.

[59] Engels, F. Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State, w.m.org.

[60] Stranahan, Op. cit.

[61] Liberation Daily, 2 and 3 July 1941, quoted in Stranahan, Op. cit.

[62] Saich, The Rise, …. Op. cit. p1016.

[63] Chi-hsi Hu, The Sexual Revolution in the Kiangsi Soviet, The China Quarterly, No. 59, 1974, p477-490.

[64] Liberation Daily, 26 Oct. 1941, quoted in Stranahan, Op. cit.

[65] Hua Chang-ming, The feminine condition and the Chinese Communists in action: Yan’an, 1935-1946. Paris: Centre de Recherches et de Documentation sur la Chine Contemporaine de l’Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, 4, 1981.

[66] Hu Chiao-mu, Op. cit.

[67] Johnson, C. Peasant Nationalism and Communist Power, Stanford U.P. 1962, p56.

[68] Selden, M. The Yenan Way, Harvard U.P. 1971, p188-189.

[69] Ibid, p111.

[70] North, Op. cit. p196.

[71] Ding Ling, Thoughts on 8 March, libcom.org/library/thoughts-8-march-women%E2%80%99s-day.

[72] Benton, G. The Yenan Opposition, NLR., 92. 1975, p93-106.

[73] Hua Chang-Ming, Op. cit.

[74] Manning, K. Making a Great Leap Forward?, Gender & History, 2006, 18(3)574-593.

[75] Wu, E. The Secret Speeches of Chairman Mao,1989, Harvard U.P., 1989, p456.

[76] Cheek, T. The Fading of Wild Lilies, The Australian Journal of Chinese Affairs, No 11, 1984, p25-58.

[77] libcom.org/library/wild-lily.

[78] Cheek, Op. cit.

[79] libcom.org/library/wild-lily.

[80] Mao Zedong Talks at the Yenan Forum on Literature and Art, 2 May 1942, w.m.org.

[81] Benton G. Bolshevising China: From Lenin to Stalin to Mao, 1921 – 1944. Leeds Univ., East Asia Papers No 22, 1996.

[82] Chang, J. and Halliday, J. Mao, Vintage, 2007, p321-322.

[83] Fairbank, J. The Great Chinese Revolution 1800-1985 Harper Perennial, 1987 p255 et seq.

[84] Shao-Chuan Leng, Pre-1949 Development of the Communist Chinese System of Justice, The China Quarterly, No. 30, 1967, p93-114.

[85] Short, P. Mao, McMillan, 2001.

[86] Deutscher, I. Stalin, Pelican, 1949, p582-3.

[87] Goodman, D. Revolutionary Women and Women in the Revolution, The China Quarterly, No. 164, 2000, p915-942.

[88] Stranahan, Op. cit.

[89] Stranahan, Op. cit.

[90] Goodman, Op. cit.

[91] Hua Chang-Ming. Op. cit.