Forgiving the Unforgivable – Nationalist China under a New Light

Written by Sam Mannakee. Edited by Katie Yates.

At the risk of disgruntling a certain number of dire-hard historians, I’m going to boldly assert that History somewhat resembles fashion. The lessons to be learnt from the myriads of accepted historical facts are far from definitive, their constant reinterpretation being the raison d’être of all historians. Much in the same way as in the world of fashion, a new collection will be issued with each new season, and so it is that every so often a historian picks up his Historical Chisel and refashions the Great Sculpture of History to his liking. The resultant masterpiece will stand until someone new takes up his own tools and either disfigures or adds to his predecessor’s work.

And so it is that modern Chinese History has recently been placed into the limelight. With this in mind, I pay particular attention to the period known as ‘revolutionary China’ in the first half of the twentieth-century. Up until recently, the Kuomintang (i.e. the Chinese Nationalist Party) regime was generally dismissed as authoritarian and corrupt,

Chiang Kai-Shek

lacking in unity: on the whole, it seemed doomed to collapse to make way for the more durable Communist Party. The so-called Warlord Period from 1915-1927, made for inconsistent administration and frequently its people experienced wide-spread famine and social unrest. Chiang Kai-shek’s move North and subsequent reunification of the country under a more centralized government failed to improve matters definitively. The regime was marred by gory power struggles and a currency which was rendered worthless by relentless inflation and an alleged tendency to ‘sell out’ to foreign imperialism. On top of all this, Chiang Kai-shek’s ‘great betrayal’ of the ‘Communist friends and allies’, through the mass murder of Communist supporters– prompting the period later known as the White Terror.

In light of recent research, however, it is now difficult to accuse the Nationalists of nothing but rampant corruption, hopeless disunity and abuse of power. What perhaps attracted the harshest critiques of the Kuo Min Tang regime was its straying from the original ‘revolutionary spirit’ of Sun Yat-sen. The KMT was subsequently accused of failing to abide by democratic principles such as basic human rights, or popular

Sun Yat-Sen

representation. However, these doubts on the Kuo Min Tang’s conceptions of democracy and liberalism are now being put to the test, as revisionism seeks to place a Historical Chisel in the hands of people such as Frank Dikötter, whose personal contribution to the Statue of History comes in the form of a book entitled: ‘The Age of Openness : China before Mao’.

Often a good indicator of a country’s aptness to Democracy is its level of liberality toward the press.  A strong and independent press, as is commonly agreed upon in the West, is the key to the circulation of liberal thought and, arguably, to the moral refinement of any government. Liberalism is thus both necessary to, and a product of, the free press and by extension, free media. Therefore, arguably, the cultivation of liberalised media in Nationalist China should amount to no less than sowing the seeds of Democracy. In his book, Dikötter highlights a truly liberal trend in Nationalist China during the War-Lord period. He argues that Nationalist China wasn’t always in a state of impending revolution. Its foundations were not all naturally flawed. My argument, in accordance with Dikötter’s rhetoric, is that by encountering necessary elements for the development of free media, such as liberal attitudes towards the press, we should then conclude that Nationalist China could not only have been the host of potential revolution, but also that of budding democracy.

When drawing a comparison to Western ideas of free media, it could be argued that Nationalist China harboured a thriving press- indubitably so when compared to the ensuing CCP rule. During the War-Lord period, censorship or persecution of authors or newspapers was effectively checked by the regime’s own flaws: with escape routes being found in the self-proclaimed ‘independent provinces’ under the patronage of influential governors or ‘Warlords’. Cosmopolitanism was also at its highest in the Nationalist era, thanks to the strong influx of foreign nationals made possible by numerous territorial concessions. Hundreds of multilingual newspapers circulated in China in a variety of languages, including Tibetan and Arabic- such practices being later outlawed and harshly condemned under Communist rule. Borders were also opened from the inside and for the first time a large and regular flow of Chinese students studied abroad, further adding to China’s then thriving blend of ideologies, political views, cultures and customs.

I refer now once again to the Historical Chisel to ask, should the Kuomintang’s shortcomings therefore be seen in a different light? Should the previously unforgivable, in light of current opinions, be largely forgiven? Can the historical statue be re-cast? For if the initially tumultuous division of China into modern-day ‘warring states’ followed by a ruthless autocratic regime, in spite of all its flaws, should indeed have for the first time in Chinese history harboured promising seeds of liberal thought and democratic reform, then perhaps the KMT should be regarded as a ‘justified experiment’, which could potentially have laid the foundations for a China more along the lines of Sun Yat-sen’s ideals. It is no longer absurd to think, that as those liberal elements of Nationalist China and its press do become more widely recognised, they may be perceived in future years as a precedent to Chinese political liberalisation. We can only speculate as to how historical viewpoints will evolve, but let us not rule out the possibility that the Kuo Min Tang era may one day be perceived as a precursor to something altogether more positive than ‘just’ revolution.