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China on the Eve of Communist Takeover

January 29, 2010

A. Doak Barnett. China on the Eve of Communist Takeover. New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1963.

Jeremy Brown (2003)

Doak Barnett’s first-hand account transports readers to an era when war-weary Chinese people longed for peace and loathed the shortcomings of the Nationalist regime. As Barnett writes, China on the Eve of Communist Takeover “concerns the tragic story of failure and collapse on the China mainland as I observed it during 1947-49” (p. 13). Barnett was a fellow of the Institute of Current World Affairs and a correspondent for the Chicago Daily News, and his travels took him from China’s large eastern cities to the far-flung hinterland.

Although the book was not published until the early 1960s, Barnett has left his late 1940s reports unaltered. This imbues his writing with a vital freshness and allows the uncertainty and urgency of the late Civil War years to shine through. Barnett classifies his 23 reports into four parts. “Disintegration: Nationalist China’s Urban Base” depicts the collapse of morale in China’s cities. By late 1948, almost everyone Barnett talked to was mentally prepared for regime change. Part two, “Stagnation: Nationalist China’s Rural Hinterland,” is an in-depth study of local conditions in Ba County, Sichuan. In 1948, Sichuanese farmers had never heard of Mao Zedong, knew little about Jiang Jieshi or the Guomindang, and seemed bogged down by a conservative ennui.

Part three, “Fragmentation: Warlords, Borderlands, and Political Disunity,” chronicles Barnett’s travels through Shanxi, Gansu, Qinghai, Suiyuan, Xinjiang, Xikang, Yunnan, and Hainan. China appears diverse but also incredibly fractured and fatigued. In all of these places, the battles of the Civil War seem far away, communism is a distant, confusing notion and the Chinese Communist Party is a relatively unknown entity. This portrayal of the 1947-49 period underscores the immense and multifarious challenges that faced the Party as it took over and consolidated power throughout northwest, south, and southwest China in the early 1950s. As Barnett sees it, the Nationalist collapse in 1948 and 1949 was so swift because in many regions, there was little trace of central government influence in the first place.

Barnett concludes with three reports about the Communist takeover of Beiping. His final essay, which discusses Barnett’s conversation with a pro-Communist Beijing University student, reveals Barnett’s major concerns and exposes mutual misunderstanding and a communication gap. Barnett keeps coming back to questions about individualism, democracy, and freedom of the press, while the student gushes about Communist policies and advances. It is clear that Barnett understood much more about Nationalist failings than Communist successes. And for Barnett, who also focuses on democracy, rights, and representation in other reports about Nationalist or warlord shortcomings and repression, the Nationalist loss and Communist victory truly represented a “tragedy.”

Putting aside its anti-Communist tone, the book’s main contribution is providing a detailed, colorful picture of the Civil War years. This reviewer wishes that Barnett had stayed in travelogue mode more and spent less time trying to reconstruct the complex histories of various provinces. His amazing conversations with Yan Xishan, his attendance at a meeting between Chinese leaders and Lolo chieftans in western Sichuan, and his grim depiction of Ningxia, where Barnett saw “more glum expressions than in any other province except Shanxi,” are priceless (p. 193).

In a Pacific Affairs review, John Gittings appreciates Barnett’s contribution but takes him to task for apologizing to the Nationalist government on Taiwan for “raking up the past” (37.2, 1964, p. 203). While there is no doubt that Barnett was part and parcel of the Cold War academic policy establishment (a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and founder of the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations, he passed away in 1999), we should be grateful for his first-rate powers of observation.

© Copyright 2003. All rights reserved.

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