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Civil War in China

January 29, 2010

Suzanne Pepper. Civil War in China: The Political Struggle, 1945-1949. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978.

Matthew Johnson (2003)

In her preface to Civil War in China’s 1999-printed second edition Suzanne Pepper cites the axiom that “historical writing is defined as much by its own present as by the past it seeks to illuminate” (xix). The “political struggle” referred to in the title might thus be interpreted as reflecting conditions under which American scholars wrote China’s revolutionary history, as well as describing the vaster human experience of that revolution itself. During the late 1960s and early- to mid-1970s, focal points of struggle for young American China-watchers were Chalmers Johnson (Pepper’s graduate advisor) and intellectual contestation surrounding the Vietnam War. According to Pepper, Civil War in China was intended to provide a counter-argument to Johnson’s “peasant nationalist” theory of the Chinese Communist Party’s political success by “tracing the pragmatic process of revolutionary institution-building” (xxv), with the hope of establishing a closer relationship between the categories of (Marxist) socioeconomic revolution and Chinese contexts. The work’s broader agenda was to show that conservative arguments bemoaning the “loss” of China, and Vietnam, to communism failed to appreciate the social conditions that fostered such transformations. More than twenty years later, both Pepper’s argument and the density of its supporting evidence remain persuasive models within the field of Chinese studies.

Strictly speaking, Civil War in China is concerned with establishing the meaning of Chinese political contexts during the 1945-1949 period, defining politics as “a process of interaction and exchange between the government and the governed” (4), thereby allowing the author to sidestep accusations of an overly elite (and elitist) focus while simultaneously directing inquiry toward the foundations of political legitimacy itself. While Pepper includes both Guomindang failures and Japanese aggression as factors contributing to Communist success, she is primarily interested in the source of the Communist “mandate” to rule as stemming from popular support. To what extent this support existed is thus a result of both KMT deterioration and CCP dynamism, and of the context of civil war in general.

The first part of the work, “The Last Years of Kuomintang Rule,” provides a thorough catalogue of KMT blunders during the “reconversion” (jieshou) process following Japanese defeat in 1945. Collaboration with officials of the hated quisling regime, abuse of those who had remained beneath it (rather than following KMT leaders into uncertain exile), inept attempts at economic reform, and seemingly ubiquitous corruption and graft stripped the KMT officials of their prestige as legitimate rulers. Within the “informal court of public opinion” (28), this de-legitimating process was manifested in the form of labor strikes, student protests, and repeated calls for reform. Pepper convincingly shows that, for many, to oppose the KMT did not necessarily imply support for Communist policies, and that within the coastal cities that were primarily under KMT control the Communists often remained only a shadowy, unproven alternative to the more immediate experience of pressing social malaise. Liberalism, not communism, “was the dominant political current among intellectuals in the KMT-controlled areas” (132). But liberal intellectuals proved equally inept as politicians, generating no viable alternatives of their own.

The second part, which addresses “The Communist Alternative,” is thus an investigation both into intellectual critiques of the Communists, and of the rural and urban policies from which their ‘viability’ – and legitimacy – derived. At the heart of this investigation is Pepper’s reinterpretation of the much-discussed Communist policy of rural land reform, through which she argues that the reduction of social inequality, and liquidation of rural elites, remained a consistent practice throughout the Anti-Japanese and Civil Wars even while discourse and practice related to tenancy changed. The political success of the Communists was not a result of a nationalist “united front” (as argued by Johnson, and an impossibility given the stiff opposition of elites to Communist policies), but of an approach to redistribution that coupled the mobilization of poor and middle peasant support with systemic institution-building. As this rural revolution returned to the cities following KMT defeats, pragmatism and anti-leftism ultimately ‘led’ to an urban policy whose aim was “to safeguard China’s urban economic infrastructure” (391) by pursuing a more unlikely united from that included workers, capitalists, and highly-paid Soviet advisors.

Concluding that “the CCP’s victory was as genuine as the KMT’s defeat” (433), Pepper’s account presents a view of ‘victory’ that includes tactics of violent intimidation and localized variation, and a view of ‘defeat’ that includes attempts at reform, and popular ambivalence alongside popular rejection. Civil War in China’s geographic and thematic sweep are almost unthinkable by present standards of scholarship, but as Pepper herself modestly observed, “to the extent that the book succeeded, it did so because of the compelling nature of that same subject matter and the lines of inquiry it opened” (xx). The obviously exhaustive research on these subjects, however, led one contemporary reviewer to praise the work as a “definitive account” within the writing of modern Chinese history (Journal of Asian Studies, 38,2: 343-345). Rather than critique the work for its unavoidable limitations concerning sources, or for its position within a cluster of concerns that are now refigured or forgotten, a more productive interrogation might ask (as Pepper does) why such an undeniably transformation – and as of recently, richly-documented – period has received so little scholarly attention among Western academics since Civil War in China’s initial publication. The varied levels and locales at which Pepper investigates political process, far from appearing outdated, reveal configurations of change that escaped the reified dichotomy of KMT and CCP “periods” within Chinese historiography, without denying the importance of (or ambivalence toward) politics in everyday human life.

© Copyright 2003. All rights reserved.

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