Page 1 of 3 CHINA'S REVOLUTION: 90 YEARS ON,
In the beginning was Tiananmen
By Henry C K Liu
The People's Republic of China observed the 60th anniversary of its founding on
October 1, 2009. Many unthinkingly confuse that date as the 60th anniversary of
the Chinese socialist revolution. In fact, the protracted history of the
Chinese socialist revolution started 90 years ago in 1919 on May 4, when 5,000
students from Peking University, as it still prefers to be known in English,
and 12 other schools held a political demonstration in front of Tiananmen, the
focal point of what is today known as Tiananmen Square.
The demonstration sparked what came to be known as the May Fourth Movement of
1919-21, an anti-imperialism movement rising out of patriotic reactions to
China's then warlord government's dishonorable foreign relations that led to
unjust treatment by Western powers at the Versailles Peace Conference. May
was a political landmark that turned China towards the path of modern socialism
Nationalism had fueled the Xinhai Revolution led by the Nationalist Party
(Koumintang or KMT) under the leadership of Sun Yat-sen, which succeeded in
overthrowing the three-century-old Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) in its final
decrepit years by 1911 to establish the Republic of China. However, China after
the 1911 Xinhai Revolution was a fragmented nation ruled by regional warlords
preoccupied with internal power struggle. The weak central government at the
time, known in history as the Beiyang regime (1912-28), was backed by the
Beiyang Army commanded by Yuan Shikai, a warlord who had been a leading general
in the former Qing army.
The Beiyang regime, preoccupied with consolidating its rule over other unruly
independent regional warlords that had sprung up in a power vacuum as Qing rule
disintegrated, not only did little to counter persistent and continuing Western
imperialism in the new Republican China, it in fact made numerous additional
concessions on Chinese sovereignty to imperialistic foreign governments in
exchange for foreign financial and military support against rival regional
Yuan soon developed a delusion of monarchical grandeur, fanned by none other
than his American political advisor, Frank J Goodnow, a constitutional expert
sent to China by the Carnegie Endowment. Goodnow was later to become president
of Johns Hopkins University. A political scientist of note, Goodnow published a
book entitled: Principles of Constitutional Government, in which he
concluded that Americans had long doubted the fitness of a democratic republic
in China where a tradition of autocracy would make a constitutional monarchy a
far more suitable institution than a democracy.
Mistaking Goodnow's views as a sign of US support, Yuan made a failed attempt
to proclaim himself emperor of China on December 12, 1915. To secure foreign
acceptance of his monarchial farce, Yuan accepted Japan's infamous Twenty-One
Demands and signed an agreement with Russia to recognize its special interest
in Outer Mongolia and with Britain on its special interests in Tibet.
In protest, Sun formed a Southern Government in Guangdong. The monarchial farce
ended with the abolition of the three-month-old monarchy on March 22, 1916,
after other leading warlords refused to recognize Yuan as emperor. A frustrated
Yuan died on June 5, 1916, aged 56, officially from uremia, while some said
suicide. Two months later, Goodnow's book received a positive review in the New
York Times on August 13, 1916. After Yuan's death, vice president Li Yuanhong
became president of the restored republic and Feng Guocheng became vice
president. Both were warlords in the Beiyang clique.
As the Beiyang regime fell into chaos, an opening emerged for the restoration
of the Qing monarchy, putting Pu Yi, the last emperor, on the restored throne
on July 1, 1917. Twelve days later, Duan Qirui, a leading general under Yuan,
entered Beijing with his troops and ended the Qing restoration. Re-establishing
the republic once again, Duan assumed the premiership of the new government
under President Li Yuanhong.
Prodded by the US, the Duan government declared war on Germany on August 14,
1917, without the approval of president Li or the new parliament. Under the
pretext of financing China's war effort, Duan negotiated the secret Nishihara
Loan of 145 million yen (the yen equaling half a US dollar at the exchange rate
of the time). Thus fortified financially, Duan set out to destroy Sun's
Southern Government. But Feng Guocheng, who had succeeded Li Yuanhong as
president, preferred a peaceful negotiation with Sun. With the leadership of
the Beiyang clique divided, Duan's military campaign failed to topple the
At the end of World War I, Japan as a victorious ally of the Triple Entente had
taken Shantung, now known as Shandong, in China from defeated imperialist
Germany, which had a 99-year lease for a naval base at the port of Qingdao
since 1898, left over from unequal treaties with the Qing Dynasty that the 1911
bourgeois democratic revolution overthrew.
At the outset of World War I, China had at first stayed neutral, while Japan
joined the Allies and ousted Germany from Qingdao port in Shandong, and
subsequently occupied most of the province. After the war, Japan sought to
legalize its de factooccupation of Shandong.
In 1917, China entered World War I as an ally of Britain, France and Russia
within the Allied Triple Entente, with the understanding that all German
spheres of influence in Shandong would be returned to China after an Allies
However, the Versailles Treaty of April 1919 awarded German rights in Shandong
to Japan. The peace conference rejected China's request for the abolition of
all foreign extra-territorial rights in China, for the annulment of the
infamous Twenty-One Demands by Japan and for the return to China her sovereign
rights in Shandong.
Secret treaties between Japan and Western imperialist powers to recognize
Japan's Twenty-One Demands on China in exchange for Japanese support of
Russian, French and British claims on other former German colonies assured
great power support for Japan.
The coup de grace was a secret pact signed in September 1918 between Japan and
the warlord Beiyang regime, in which the Duan government had accepted the terms
of the Twenty-One Demands in exchange for a loan of 20 million yen from Japan
as part of the Nishihara loan. China's representative at Versailles argued that
the Twenty-One Demands were invalid because the Chinese parliament had never
ratified them. Further, the Chinese delegation invoked the international law
concept of rebus sic stantibus to nullify Japan's claim on Shandong. The
concept states that when the objects of a treaty, or conditions under which it
is concluded, no longer exist, the treaty becomes null and void.
In rebuttal, Japan divulged the 1918 secret treaty signed after China entered
the war in which the Duan government of the Beiyang regime had "gladly agreed"
to Japanese terms. The Western allies were bound by secret treaties to support
Japan, leaving US president Woodrow Wilson as China's lone supporter.
The United States at first promoted Wilson's idealistic Fourteen Points, but
was forced to abandon most of its anti-imperialist ideals due to firm
resistance from Britain and France, the major imperialist powers at the time.
Many Chinese intellectuals felt betrayed by the Versailles Peace Conference as
they had naively believed Wilson's ideals of universal justice and were
expecting the US to forge a new world order of democracy and international
justice after the war.
Two prominent Chinese intellectuals, Chen Duxiu and Li Dazhao, who participated
in the May Fourth student demonstrations, soon came to the realization with
others that Vladimir Lenin's conceptual linkage between capitalism and
imperialism was vividly proved by unfolding events around the world and
particularly in China. They came to the conclusion that to rid China of Western
imperialism, China must oppose capitalism and adopt a socialist path of self
regeneration. In 1921, Chen and Li co-founded of the Communist Party of China
(CPC) in Shanghai, the center of Chinese capitalism.
Hobson on imperialism
The structural link between capitalism and imperialism was first observed by
John Atkinson Hobson (1858-1940), an English economist, who wrote in 1902 an
insightful analysis of the economic basis of imperialism. Hobson provided a
humanist critique of neo-classical economics, rejecting exclusively
materialistic definitions of value.
With Albert Frederick Mummery (1855-1895), the great British mountaineer who
was killed in 1895 by an avalanche while reconnoitering the Rakhiot Face of
Nanga Parbat, an 8,000-meter Himalayan peak, Hobson wrote The Physiology of
Industry (1889), which argued that an industrial economy requires
government intervention to maintain stability, and developed the theory of
over-saving that was given an overflowing tribute by John Maynard Keynes three
The need for governmental intervention to stabilize an expanding national
industrial economy became the rationale for political imperialism in advanced
capitalist economies. On the other side of the coin, protectionism was a
governmental counter-measure on the part of weak trading partners for resisting
imperialist expansion of the dominant powers.
Historically, the processes of globalization have always been the result of
active state policy and action, as opposed to the mere passive surrender of
state sovereignty to market forces. Market forces cannot operate in a political
vacuum. Markets are governed by man-made rules. Globalized markets require the
acceptance by local political authorities of the established rules of the
dominant economy. Currency monopoly and hegemony is the most fundamental trade
restraint by one single dominant government. Today, the global market is
dominated by dollar hegemony.
Friedrich List on economic nationalism
German economist Friedrich List, in his National System of Political Economy
(1841), asserts that political economy as espoused in 19th century England, far
from being a valid science universally, was merely British national opinion,
suited only to English historical conditions. List's institutional school of
economics asserts that the doctrine of free trade was devised to keep England
rich and powerful at the expense of its trading partners and it must be fought
with protective tariffs and other protective devises of economic nationalism by
the weaker countries.
Nineteenth-century American statesman Henry Clay's "American system" was a
nationalist system of political economy. Economic nationalism was a necessary
policy for the US in the 1850s. US neo-imperialism in the post World War II
period disingenuously promotes neo-liberal free-trade against economic
nationalism labeled as protectionism to keep the US rich and powerful at the
expense of its trading partners.