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Imperialism and Chinese Politics

January 29, 2010
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Hu Sheng. Imperialism and Chinese Politics. Foreign Languages Press, 1955.

Chris Hess (2000)

American scholars of China writing in the 1950’s, John Fairbank in particular, tended to downplay the damaging role imperialism played in the social, economic and political affairs of China from the 1840’s until the end of the first World War. The CCP historian Hu Sheng counters this by arguing that the deleterious effects imperialism had on China are the key to understanding the events of the period, and importantly, for understanding the rise of the CCP and its revolutionary struggle. He argues that following their defeat in the Opium War, the Manchu rulers and high Chinese officials continually submitted to the desires of imperialist nations in an effort to maintain power (p.91). The corrupt and weakening Qing dynasty no longer served the “Chinese people” (p.18). Rather, the dynasty was kept alive due to the imperialists, who favored a weak government that easily submits to their desires. Hu Sheng argues that efforts of regeneration and reform carried out by those such as Kang Youwei were futile for two reasons: they ignored the masses, and they did not recognize imperialist aggression as the main factor keeping China weak (p.123-126). The overthrow of the dynasty, he continues, merely offered new opportunities for the imperialist powers to compete over the control of Chinese territories and markets by backing various warlord factions. The main failure behind Sun Yat-sen’s 1911 revolution is again attributed to a “lack of proper understanding of the aggressive policy of imperialism.” (p.178) Throughout he also argues that the Chinese people were developing a revolutionary consciousness which, under the proper guidance, could overthrow both the old forces of governance and imperialist domination. For Hu Sheng, the CCP and the Soviet advisors provided such guidance (p.295).

Many studies on the issue of China and its relationship to the West in the modern era were being carried out by China historians in the U.S. at the time this book was translated into English (it was first published in Chinese in 1948). Few if any offer such an account of this sort of nature of Western imperialism and its long-term effects on Chinese politics. While Hu Sheng does use some Chinese secondary sources that these other works do not, he is also looking at many of the same sources Fairbank used in China’s Response to the West (1954). Yet none of the major Asian studies journals carried a review of this book. Hu Sheng joined the CCP in 1938. He would go on to serve as State Publishing Department Administer from 1949 to 1955, working for the Propaganda Department in 1954. His party status was thus clear to China historians in America. Perhaps this explains the silence. Yet this book is not complete propaganda. Part of the argument sets up the victory of the CCP. A Marxist approach can be traced throughout, as Hu Sheng searches for the development of a nascent class-consciousness among the people. He sees this as a process slowly building with each successive uprising in the late Qing. This is problematic in that it is obviously impossible to substantiate. But the core of his argument remains a challenge to the works mentioned above, which significantly downplay imperialism.

Hu Sheng goes into detail describing the strategies used by officials of the imperialist nations to further their interests and influence. In particular he traces the development of the control of customs, in which the foreign officers eventually gain complete control over this crucial revenue source. Moreover, the influence of these men, Hart in particular, stretched into foreign affairs (p.61-70). He also discusses a pattern he sees employed by the Western nations of remaining “neutral” during major Chinese domestic conflicts, (in particular the Taiping rebellion and the 1911 revolution) then supporting the side that best allows them to protect their interests and investments. The Boxer indemnity is another key to his argument. According to Hu Sheng, the indemnity forced the reformists, revolutionaries like Sun Yat-sen, and even warlords to promise to continue repayment or face intervention or withdrawal of fiscal and military support (p.179). This in turn influenced the outcome of various attempts for reform and revolution. His discussion of imperialist control of warlord politics (Japanese initiatives in particular) after W.W.I and the emergence of a new world order is also helpful to his overall argument.

It is obvious that this is a history written to serve the needs of the CCP, the only positive force throughout the period, according to Hu Sheng. His discussions of the desires of the “Chinese people” are vague and are not supported by his sources. Often his argument is coarse and unconvincing. For example, to prove that the Boxers were originally an anti-Qing force, he only presents us with two facts, that the leader in one area claimed to be a descendant of the Ming, and there was also a monk involved called “Ming Monk” (p.135). There is no clear introduction or conclusion, and he makes little effort to specifically counter other views of the history of this period. Interestingly, Fairbank’s “China responding” paradigm seems much more sensitive to the struggles of intellectuals as they dealt with the West than the argument presented by Hu Sheng, who tends to portray them as either self serving or as “toadying to foreigners” (p.55). Marxist teleology aside, the book is a provocative example of CCP scholarship on the nature of imperialism in modern Chinese history. Many of the points he makes in drawing his argument are quite valid, and are still used today in describing the complex role imperialism played throughout the late Qing and Republican periods.

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