The relevance of Pepper’s work for a scholar seeking to understand the dynamic that informed the politics of China’s civil war period cannot be over emphasized. Not only does Pepper treat us to a most perceptive and brilliant analysis of what went into making a communist victory possible in 1949, when just four years earlier the Kuomintang (KMT) had enjoyed the undisputed confidence of almost every section of Chinese society, but she also provides us with a wealth of data and documentation on the subject. The story of KMT rule during the period 1945-46 to 1948-49, both in the cities and the countryside, was, as Pepper records, is a sorry one. The venality and corruption of its officials gradually alienated almost every section of the urban and rural population. Government policy makers of the time also revealed both a lack of will and determination to take those· hard decisions so necessary for any kind of economic recovery. Instead, the KMT appeared to have only one obsession for which it was willing to sacrifice the interests of all – the continuation of the civil war against the communists.
It was perhaps this, more than any thing else, that eventually forced the intelligentsia in the cities to come to terms with the reality of a communist alternative. For, the intelligentsia, that most progressive and advanced section of the population, clung till the very last to the KMT in the vain hope that some how it would read the writing on the wall and reform itself. The student community was also not immune from this species of wishful thinking. As late as 1948, as Pepper notes, a survey conducted amongst students in the University of Shanghai revealed that whiie a substantial number (72 per cent) favoured reform of the political system and the creation of a coalition government, only 3.7 per cent favoured national rule by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) alone. Of course this can also be attributed to the fact that most of them were cut off from the reality that existed in the countryside and were thus prone to argue that since neither the KMT or the CCP were in a position to win, the civil war would be a long draw out indecisive affair.
Unlike the KMT, the CCP appeared to possess both the will and the ability to implement a programme which the KMT had pledged itself to honour viz. the implementation of the three people’s principles of Sun Yat Sen. This was perhaps most clearly spelled out by Mao in his essay ‘On New Democracy’ when he invited all sections of the people except traitors and enemy agents to participate in the building of a new China. And though Mao reiterated that the maximum Programme of the CCP still remained the ushering in of a communist society with its one-party rule, he assured all ‘Lovers of democracy’ that this was unlikely to happen during their life-time.
Thus, at a time when the KMT was responding to every eruption of dissent, disgust and frustration in the cities with a heavy hand—reflecting its all or nothing approach—the CCP was showing, through its united front policy, a much greater flexibility and appreciation of reality.
As for the countryside, the situation was not very different from that that existed in the cities, except for those areas where the CCP had struck its roots during the anti-Japanese war. Pepper devotes an entire chapter to a study of the reasons behind the CCP’s success in the countryside and it is here we feel that she makes her most original and significant contribution.
It is by now commonplace, that in the wake of the formation of the united front with the KMT in 1937, the CCP abandoned its policy of ‘violent’ land confiscation and redistribution for a policy that sought to solely implement a reduction in rent and interest rates. This ‘retreat’ in the countryside, as it is termed, is regarded by some, of whom Chalmers Johnson’s is perhaps the most well-known, as primarily responsible for the CCP’s subsequent success in uniting the vast majority of the peasantry under its leadership. What is however often overlooked by those who argue thus, is that in the North of China, a rent and interest rates reduction policy could not serve as a rallying point for the vast majority of the rural masses given the fact that (a) an absolute majority of the peasants in the North owned the land they tilled; (b) tenancy was a relatively minor problem in the North; and (c) there were areas where land reform had already been carried out and where land lords were practically non-existent. Neither can one explain the CCP’s success in terms of its appeal to nationalism. For if this were so, there is no reason why the KMT should not have scored higher since at the time Chiang Kaishek was regarded as the national symbol of China’s resistance to the Japanese. The reasons for the CCP’s success in the countryside lie much deeper.
Pepper argues, with careful documentation that when CCP leadership exhorted its cadres to ‘thoroughly’ implement the rent and interest rates reduction policy it was in fact advising them to attack the most blatant forms in which the inequality of wealth expressed itself in the villages. Thus they were to meet what the peasantry -as a whole perceived as its most immediate grievance: the corruption and arbitrary use of political power and social position within the village community. This could serve as a basis of ‘mass activation through mass struggle’ even in areas where landlords were not a problem. Rent reduction became a euphemism therefore for the elimination of all excessive economic exploitation, while the ‘settling of old accounts’ served as a guise for the confiscation of land. The nature of this ‘multi-featured struggle’ in the countryside in turn enabled the communists to destroy the existing system of economic and political power in the villages and mobilize mass support for the construction of a new one. The formation of local militia forces as part of this struggle also provided the CCP with the man power it needed to fight the Japanese and later the KMT. So that, the May Fourth Directive on Agrarian Policy issued by the CCP in 1946 rather than signifying the reversion to a more radical land policy must be regarded, as Pepper rightly points out, as the formal culmination of a policy that had already been put into operation during the latter period of the anti-Japanese united front. Thus the CCP’s success in laying down its roots in the villages during the period of the anti-Japanese war is not to be attributed to its abandonment of class struggle but rather to its continuation of the class struggle albeit under a different guise given the imperatives of its united front with the KMT.
Pepper’s account of the CCP’s return to the cities also makes absorbing reading. One is in particular struck by the CCP’s willingness to learn from its earlier mistakes—in contradistinction to the KMT. Thus whereas in 1945-46 the CCP after occupying the city of Kalgan from the Japanese immediately doubled the basic wage for all workers, once the ill effects of this action on prices and production became clear they abandoned it. The Resolutions passed by the All China General Labour Union in 1948 condemned the principles of egalitarianism in the payment of wages and pledged itself to maintain the distinction between mental and manual labour.
It was again, by avoiding immediate demands for total commitment that the CCP was able in 1949 to enlist the active support and participation of students and intellectuals in the cities. On the whole therefore it does appear, as Pepper herself concludes, that it was the CCP’s ability to cope with the challenges it faced and its commitment to carry with it as large a section of the rural and urban population as it could, in order to meet these challenges that enabled it to emerge at the top. And, one may add, it is Pepper’s masterful, if somewhat lengthy, treatment of the subject that enables it all to fall into place.
Harmala Kaur Gupta is a Research Scholar at McGill University, Montreal, Canada.