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Communist China: The Early Years, 1949-55

January 29, 2010

A. Doak Barnett. Communist China: The Early Years, 1949-55. New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1964.

Ellen Huang (2003)

A. Doak Barnett’s book, Communist China, told readers much about the hectic social policies and changes that were implemented in the early years of Communist rule in China. This collection of disparate essays is composed of reports written by Barnett after he witnessed the Communist victory in Beijing and during his subsequent stay in Hong Kong. There, he served as a correspondent for the Chicago Daily News, an associate for the American Universities Field Staff (AUFS), a staff member of the American consulate general, and a fellow of the Institute of Current World Affairs (ICWA). In these various capacities the author recorded his observations on Communist China. The resulting volume was one of the first attempts of a Western scholar in the 1950s to understand the main tasks undertaken by the CCP: consolidation of political power, social reorganization and economic rehabilitation.

Written between 1949 and 1955, ten years before the book’s publication, the twenty essays are presented with little revision. Barnett based his observations on official CCP government publications, official newspapers, reports, and refugee interviews. At the time, these were the only sources available and as a result, his essays generally replicate the official party discourse. Organized topically, the book’s chapters are comprised of assorted reports on social control and political organization, propaganda and indoctrination, mass mobilization, and economic development. This work’s disjointedness is perhaps a result of the fact that the author did not intend for it to be a comprehensive survey or an over-all analysis of events.

Contemporary reviewers did not overlook the author’s experience, repute and knowledgeable insight (John W. Lewis, JAS, 24.4: 685-6; Richard Walker, China Quarterly, 25, 231-3). However, one reviewer rightly noted the work’s lack of conceptual framework and failure to support the claim that “subsequent developments in Communist China cannot be fully understood without some knowledge of this 1949-55 period,” as Barnett asserts in his preface (ix). As early as 1965, a contemporary reviewer in Barnett’s own discipline bemoans the book as missed opportunity for a leading political scientist to reconsider the crude methods of scholarship in vogue in the wake of the Cold War (John Lewis, Journal of Modern History, 27.3: 420).

Indeed, Barnett’s study for the most part reflects rather than rethinks the conventional methods of China scholarship and the American political climate during Cold War heyday. The perspective of the victory of communism-socialism in a modernizing nation as a divergent path permeates all of Barnett’s judgments of the new ruling regime. As a political scientist, the author’s focal point is the state and does not take into consideration the social conditions, processes of culture and imperialism that may have played a role in China’s modern transformation. In this sense, this work is largely an elite-oriented, top-down view of recent change in China. Indeed, in Barnett’s view, revolutionary China was “still in motion, developing, and dying away” (327). A rather monolithic view of Communist China during this time period emerges from such statements as “nothing was non-political” (71), when referring to art life, and “the Party remains an effective totalitarian instrument” (59).

Without a glossary, Chinese romanization translations or footnotes, Barnett’s study qualifies only as a good summary of early fifties China and a reflection of Cold War scholarship produced in America. More sensitive and analytical overviews of this time period can be found in such recent textbooks as Maurice Meisner’s Mao’s China and After (1999) or Jonathan Spence’s Search For Modern China (2000). Still, the wealth of facts relayed in Communist China attests to the continuing need and room in the China field for in-depth examinations of the transitional years immediately following the CCP revolution.

© Copyright 2003. All rights reserved.

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