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1 December 2021

From the NS archive: Chinese Cinderella

9 October 1943: Our ally in the East, fighting Japan, needs support not sentiment.

By New Statesman

In the lead-up to the Second World War, China was governed by the Kuomintang led by Chiang Kai-shek, which was itself fighting the communist People’s Liberation Army. War led to a cessation of hostilities between the two parties as they faced the Japanese invasion and the atrocities that followed. In this piece for the magazine, the unnamed writer saw new democratic instincts emerging in China. However, the country was isolated, worn out and lacking the materiel to fight the war. It needed more than “sentimental speeches” from the West. As the momentum of war turned in favour of the Allies in the West, they needed to support China in the East. The writer made a prediction: “If the new Chinese democracy, hungry and disillusioned, continues to be so far isolated from the rest of the world, there is grave danger that the China of the future will be not the friend, but the enemy of the Western democracies.”


The Kuomintang Central Executive Committee and People’s Political Council have just finished their meetings in Chungking. They were of great importance; yet they caused only the faintest ripple of interest in the British and American Press. From being the pet of the United Nations, China has become the Cinderella. Neither role suits a great nation passing through the bitterest crisis of its history. China needs substantial aid and she needs understanding. Neglect is as dangerous as patronage. To combine, as we do today, sentimental speeches on public platforms with unconstructive criticism in the privacy of official circles makes the situation worse. If the public here and in the United States is not told the truth about the corruption, the black market, the growth of totalitarian methods, the deterioration of social life which are the substance of official talk about China, one day revelations will come, and sentimentalism, founded on ignorance, will change to cynicism. Similarly, if the new Chinese democracy, hungry and disillusioned, continues to be so far isolated from the rest of the world, there is grave danger that the China of the future will be not the friend, but the enemy of the Western democracies.

Pearl Harbor and the Japanese success in Burma and throughout South-West Asia had the unexpected effect of slowing down the war on Chinese territory; indeed, it produced a virtual stalemate. If Japan was too preoccupied to launch any large-scale offensive in China, the Chinese, cut off from all source of supplies, except those which could trickle over the Himalayas in an occasional aeroplane, were not equipped for an initiative against Japan. Since 1937, the Chinese have fought against the mechanised armies of Japan, generously supplied with oil and war materials from the United States and the British Empire. After Pearl Harbor the Chinese confidently expected a speedy end to their heroic and uneven battle. The opposite happened. After the loss of the Burma Road they were isolated…

All reports coming from China to-day speak of the population as sick at heart. Her armies are ill-equipped and badly fed. Many thousands have died from famine in Henan province. Students and teachers alike are hungry. It is a standing jest that the University professor is now paid less than the rickshaw-puller. The student class and intellectuals, who have played so great a part in the history of China, have shared with all those of fixed incomes the terrible effects of a vast inflation. There is a rush amongst students to learn technical and commercial subjects. If there is good as well as evil in these changes it is more than counter-balanced by the increasing wealth of the merchant class and the admitted growth of corruption and the success of the black marketeer.

If we add to this picture that the secret police is again unpleasantly active, that free speech has become dangerous and criticism in the press is punished, we begin to understand why those who return from China to-day talk of frustration and cynicism beginning to take the place of the vital belief in democracy which was so hopeful and splendid a feature of China during the earlier days of her lonely resistance against Japan.

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Unity against Japan remains, but the division between the Eighteenth Route Army and the main armies of Chiang Kai-shek is not bridged. The Generalíssimo’s recent statement that “the Chinese Communist problem is purely political and should be solved by political means” means, we may take it, that he personally is opposed to any efforts to solve this problem by a renewal of the fighting which took place some years ago between the Central Government and the Communist armies.

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Yet the Communist army remains isolated. Half a dozen trucks of medical supplies are the most that have reached these areas during the past two years, and only a tiny proportion of the large sums of money subscribed for the relief of China goes to the guerrilla armies in the North-West, although these men and women have sustained almost a third of the casualties.

One factor at least is permanent in the midst of the social upheaval of war. Chinese nationalism will become an increasing force in the world, though the direction in which it will grow is not determined. There is the feeling, if not yet the conviction, that the war has ended once and for all the semi-colonial role which had been thrust on China by Western capitalism in the 19th century. Anglo-American concessions, carrying with them the reality of economic exploitation and political control from abroad, are now presumed to be past history, and China today is at least nominally acknowledged as a free and equal ally in a world partnership. China has permanently left her backwater.

Nor can there be any doubt that the industrial revolution, long prophesied in China, has begun seriously to develop. The war has accelerated industrial development and ended the excessive concentration of industry along the coast and the Yangtze valley. Students recognise this and crowd to technical colleges, while their government facilitates their training in the engineering industries in this country and the United States. The Chinese cabinet recognises this development and calls on government departments to draw blueprints for the future.

But how far is it possible for China to work out her own salvation without accepting conditions dangerous to her new independence? Wall Street and the City of London see their opportunity and are arranging for vast loans to stabilise Chinese currency. Such loans are intended to guarantee the position of the West in China and it is certain that China will want foreign capital. But the old terms of investment will not be permitted to the foreign capitalist. The Central Executive Committee of the Kuomintang a month ago passed a resolution relaxing restrictions which applied to joint Sino-foreign enterprise and declaring that “negotiations for foreign loans for State enterprise shall be centralised. Individuals may negotiate foreign loans on behalf of their private undertakings, and such loans and agreements shall become effective following the approval of the government. The government shall determine at a later date which categories of State enterprise may accept foreign investment and which categories may seek foreign loans.”

This resolution seems to mean that China admits the need of foreign capital, but that the Government of China intends to control its own industrial development. It is quite unlikely to agree to the onerous interest of which some City magnates are still dreaming. On this point we recall the recent warning of TV Soong, China’s Foreign Minister and most able financier. He warned Britain and America that China would increase her industry and maintain her independence; if she could have the necessary help from the West on acceptable terms she would welcome it; if not, China could still develop her independent nationalism by the “hard way” trodden by the Soviet Union.

[See also: From the NS archive: The Soviet Union and China battle for control of world communism]

Against this picture of internal China we must recall that the period when Japanese and German successes in some quarters almost produced a feeling of defeatism has gone; there is certainty that, whatever the future of China may be, she will eventually be free from Japan. Allied victory is assumed, and successes in the Mediterranean give hope to the Chinese that forces will soon be released for greater activity in Asia. American airmen are arriving in China in larger numbers, and the number of planes flying between India and China has increased. The appointment of Lord Louis Mountbatten, now on his way to the East, is universally welcomed as a proof that the period of waiting for Allied action in Asia is coming to an end.

It was in these confused, gloomy, and yet hopeful circumstances that the recent meetings of the Kuomintang and People’s Political Council were held. The delegates, most of them nominated rather than elected, asked themselves what the victory for the Allied Nations would mean for China. What of the very real forces of democracy that for the first time in her long history broke through to the surface of Chinese life? What, for instance, of the Chinese Industrial Cooperatives, which many observers have regarded as the most hopeful development in the entire Chinese scene? Will these tendencies grow or will reaction come with victory?

The resolutions passed by the Kuomintang show that the authorities at least realise the necessity of recognising the existence of this new democracy. The Kuomintang manifesto called on the Chinese people to increase their resistance, to promote democracy, to fulfil the Chinese Revolution’s original mission of national reconstruction, and to realise an industrial programme on the lines laid down by Sun Yat-sen.

An important resolution envisaged the end of the Chinese present system of a one-party government and determined that a national congress to adopt a new constitution should be convened within a year of the end of the war. At present delegates are in general to retain their present status but electoral areas which have not yet chosen their delegates are to have an opportunity as soon as the fighting ceases. The statement undoubtedly reflects internal pressure and a desire to impress the outside world. Internally, it should encourage progressive people whose voices have been silent; externally, it is a challenge to democratic countries to renew their help by deeper understanding and co-operation.

[See also: The London kidnapping that changed China]

Read more from the NS archive here, and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as “Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).