Published Date

August 1, 1944

Resource Type

GI Roundtable Series, Primary Source

From GI Roundtable 42: Our Chinese Ally (1944)

China has been disrupted by the war more than any other country, even Russia. By 1936 it was well launched on the long slow process of transforming the old China into a modern state. The accompanying chart gives a dramatic picture of advances made between 1927 and 1936. In the next two years, Japan wrecked much of what had been accomplished by the terrific effort of the previous decade. The war destroyed most of China’s industry, its railways and its foreign trade, drove the students from its universities, and compelled 50,000,000 people to migrate to the west.

When the government moved to Chungking at the end of 1933 it had to establish itself in a part of China close to the source of raw materials but undeveloped industrially and backward in many ways. It had the huge task of rehabilitating 50,000,000 refugees, more than one-third as many people as there are in the whole United States. And it had to face a wartime price inflation which developed at an alarming rate.

At the beginning of 1944 the price of a bowl of rice or a pair of shoes in China was 150 times the prewar level and still climbing. The reasons for this are many and complicated—the difficulty of enforcing a satisfactory tax system, the loss of the revenues from customs and the salt tax which had contributed largely to supporting the government, heavy issue of paper money, the hoarding of food and other commodities, lack of production of consumer commodities, and the difficulties of transportation. The government has tried to impose new taxes and to prevent hoarding but has not been able to stop the tide of inflation.

Much of the progress in reconstruction that China had made from 1927 to 1931 and its reconstruction program for subsequent years might easily have been wiped out by the appalling disruptions of war. But all was not lost and the process of remaking China is still continuing, though of course at a slower rate. Industry is developing in Free China. There are new schools, some new roads, and even new railroads. And despite normal wartime tightening of controls, the Chungking government has made some slight progress toward the realization of the democracy that Sun Yat-sen promised the Chinese people. If war weariness and defeatism exist in some circles today, it is not to be wondered at. It is more important for us to do all we can to bolster the morale and strengthen the fighting power of the Chinese than to carp and criticize. For China is very important to us in the job of defeating Japan.


Is China a Democracy?

Because China has a one-party government, and especially since the time in 1943 when Chiang Kai-shek became president of the Republic as well as generalissimo of the army, one frequently hears China spoken of as a dictatorship. The Chinese one-party system, however, differs from fascist one-party systems in one important respect. Fascists are ideologically antidemocratic, whereas the Kuomintang is founded on the democratic thought of Sun Yat-sen and is pledged to the creation of a democratic system. Chiang Kai-shek has promised that within a year after the end of the war an assembly will be called for the purpose of adopting a constitution and a representative system of government. There are millions of believers in Sun Yat-sen’s program for China who eagerly await this day.

In trying to judge how much democracy China has now we are apt to begin by comparing it with our own democratic country. Has it the same institutions that we have and the same kinds of procedure for seeing that the will of the majority is carried out? If it hasn’t, we hesitate to call it a democracy.

This way of looking at things can often lead to misunderstandings. The most important standard by which to measure progress in a country like China is not “how near have they got to our way of doing things?” but “how far have they got ahead of the way things used to be done?” Judging them by this standard, the Chinese have made very great progress. They have made so much progress that they certainly will not slip back into the old condition of weakness, chaos, disunity, and tyranny enforced by independent regional military chieftains, combined with foreign domination of their economic life. They were slowly lifted from that condition by the long struggle of the Chinese Revolution.

The question is not one of further progress in China, but of how the progress will be accomplished. War always increases the authority of a government, because it is necessary for those in power to be able to act decisively with a minimum of debate or discussion. But in spite of this fact China during the years of war has to some degree increased the facilities for the expression of popular opinion.

The People’s Political Council is one example of this. Formed during the war, it contains a Kuomintang majority, but other political parties, including the Communists, are represented, as well as members nominated or elected by provincial and city governments. Its powers are purely advisory. It can suggest legislation, criticize government policy, and call on all government departments, including the army, for reports.

Going to School in Wartime

If progress toward democracy seems slow, progress in other fields has greatly accelerated. One of these is the field of education.

Chinese have always had tremendous respect for learning and faith in education in spite of the fact that a large proportion of the population have always been illiterate. Today there is a government policy of encouraging mass education and a great hunger for learning on the part of the masses which has already markedly reduced, illiteracy. In 1940 it was estimated that in the preceding two years more than 46,000,000 people had learned to read. School children are encouraged to teach their parents, and older children form classes among their neighbors or in the villages.

Widespread illiteracy in China has chiefly been due to two facts. Chinese writing is so extraordinarily difficult and complicated that only the small leisure class had time to learn it, and books and even newspapers were written in a classical style quite unintelligible to the average man. To teach the masses to read, it was necessary first to give them books and newspapers written in the style in which people talk, and then to work out an easy system for teaching people to read this simplified literature.

Movements were started in the 1920’s which are making easier the task of teaching a nation to read in wartime. One was the so-called “literary renaissance” under the leadership of Hu Shih, which developed the use in writing of the pai hua (pronounced by hwa) or conversational language, making it possible for the average person to learn to read in months instead of the years it used to take. Another, often referred to as the “thousand-character movement,” promoted a system for learning a thousand characters which would enable people to read a simple book or newspaper in pai hua.

Because China has many more soldiers than she can equip and fewer trained leaders than she needs, the government has advised students to continue with their studies, including those in American colleges, in spite of the lure of more active patriotic work. The epic migration of thousands of students from Occupied China into the interior has often been told. Students and professors, with what little equipment they could salvage from their bombed campuses, walked thousands of miles into Free China and started school again in mud huts or abandoned temples or caves dug in hillsides. In spite of all the hardships and difficulties involved, university enrollment jumped from 32,000 in 1936 to 45,000 in 1941 and enrollment in secondary schools increased from 583,000 in 1936 to 622,000 in 1940.

Industrial Cooperatives

Both large and small industries have sprung up in many parts of Free China to meet the urgent demand for war materials and consumer goods of all kinds. Wartime conditions however favor small-scale investment and production. It is difficult to invest on a large scale because with rapid inflation a large investment piles up too much in the way of costs before it can get into production. This condition encourages owners of capital to buy existing commodities, hoard them, and speculate on the rise in prices rather than invest in production of new commodities. On the other hand, the scarcity of commodities is so great that a small investment which gets into production rapidly, turning out needed commodities, is certain of a good profit and is at the same time a direct contribution to the national welfare.

The difficulty and expensiveness of transport encourage the decentralized kind of enterprise which uses local raw materials and sells to a hungry, local market. This tends to even out the development of industrial production over the whole country, besides relieving wartime shortage of transport.

One of the methods used for setting capital to work quickly and manufacturing local raw materials into commodities for the local markets is the industrial cooperative. Early in the war a movement known as the Chinese Industrial Cooperatives organized small worker-owned-and-managed industries in many parts of Free China, at first chiefly to provide a livelihood for skilled refugees as well as to meet the crying need for such articles as soap, candles, and shoes. Improvising simple machinery and using whatever raw materials were available, they soon had their own machine shops, transportation and marketing systems, and technical training schools, and rapidly expanded to make large quantities of blankets and clothing for the armies as well as civilian goods. Today they are also manufacturing equipment for the American forces in China.

Modern Chinese Women

Nothing more revolutionary has happened in China than the transformation in the lives of countless women in all classes of society. Women have always been important and influential in China. As in medieval Europe, an exceptional few played leading roles in history as warriors, scholars, and poets, while millions of others had an indirect effect on public life through the power or influence which they wielded within the four walls of their own homes. Only within recent years, however, have women begun to participate directly in public and national life and to hold positions of influence not merely as wives or mistresses but in their own right.

In the early years of the Republic, schools were opened for girls. As more of them left home to go to school, and read Western books and saw American movies, the rigid pattern of the old life began to crumble at the edges, particularly in the coastal cities where there was contact with the West. But at the time of the Japanese invasion the great mass of Chinese women still led the old life within their homes.

The process which contact with the West had started was immeasurably speeded up by the war with Japan. For one thing, 50,000,000 refugees were forced to leave their homes and flee into the far interior of China under circumstances which made it almost impossible for families to stay together. Sometimes the young people would go and the old people stay on the land. Sometimes the husband would go and the wife be left behind to look after those too old or sick to travel. Sometimes half a family would be killed by bombs and the rest would flee. Children would become separated from their parents and wives from husbands.

This great migration not only dislodged 50,000,000 people from their homes, but it also uprooted the family system of China. Even the families who were not forced to move hundreds of miles and those who were not bombed out of their homes cannot carry on in the old way, for high prices and a labor shortage mean that almost everyone must work, men and women alike.

Today there is almost no field of work which is not open to women. Not long ago a hank was opened in Chungking owned and operated by women. There are industrial cooperatives managed by women, and women railway and mining engineers and government officials. In 1943 there were fifteen women members of the People’s Political Council.

Madame Chiang Kai-shek has organized a Women’s Advisory Council through which she has mobilized enormous numbers of women all over Free China to do various forms of war work, such as nursing, caring for orphans and refugees, organizing cooperatives, and teaching women sewing and other crafts.

The Chinese woman of today has exchanged her security and seclusion for insecurity and freedom.

But China Is Not Yet Modernized

When we talk of the “progress” made by China in the years since 1927, not only in political life, education, industry, and the position of women, but in health and sanitation, famine control, improved methods of farming, and so forth, we must bear one thing in mind. China is still “backward” in all these fields by modern American standards and has made remarkable progress only in relation to the China of a generation ago.

Americans going to China for the first time are still shocked by the poverty and dirt and disease, the lack of sanitary facilities, and the poorly equipped and undernourished soldiers about whose valor they have heard so much. Americans need to understand that China has only begun to acquire the scientific and technical knowledge (most of which we ourselves have had for less than a hundred years) which is needed to deal with germs, floods, and famines, or to build machinery and modern plumbing. As for poverty, most careful students believe that only by dealing fundamentally with the age-old landlord-peasant conflict can this be noticeably lessened.

China’s roots are so deep and its ancient civilization so strong that it is probable (and many think desirable) that when China does become modernized, it will not, as Japan did, simply copy the superficial features of Western life. Rather, a new China will be created which is modern but still different from the West. Symptoms of this deep change are the new and creative painting and literature which have blossomed in the war years and which are both truly modern and truly Chinese.

At the moment China’s difficulties may loom larger than its progress. The ravages of seven years of war are serious. Chinese are not all heroes, but are very human, and we must understand that they are in a tough spot. It is to our interest to help them, and relief agencies have widely advertised their need of help. Many Chinese today, however, prefer to have us emphasize their ability to help themselves. The Chinese have already accomplished more by their Nationalist revolution and by their resistance to Japan than almost any American dreamed possible twenty or even ten years ago.

After the War

There are several questions which are often asked about China after the war. Will the Chinese really be able to establish a democratic form of government? Will the government be able to maintain order or will there be civil war? Will there be opportunities in China for foreign trade and investment? What will be the position of China among the nations after a victorious war?

The degree of democracy attained in China during the war is not an adequate indication of her democracy in the future. The long battle front in China has been relatively stable now for about four years. Behind this battle front the Kuomintang, which controls the government, has tended to tighten up discipline and to impose both uniformity and conformity. It can be expected that when the process of recovering the invaded parts of China begins there will be spontaneous but often naive and even utopian attempts to establish democratic methods and procedures. Democracy is the opposite of the system of terror and force which Japan has imposed. It is what the Chinese people have been promised for the future and what the people long for as something that will instantly bring a happy life, free from abuses. The administrators who are sent into the newly liberated areas will have to cope with this outburst of the feeling of liberty. It is reasonable to expect practical compromises between the popular instinct for untrammeled liberty and the organized drive of the Kuomintang for uniformity, discipline, and control.

At this point the question of the Chinese Communists will become acute, but it is far from certain that it will be so acute as to result in civil war. Agents of the Communists, even more than the representatives of the Kuomintang, will have to compromise between what they would like to do and what the people want them to do. It must also be remembered that the Kuomintang, as the established party controlling China, has had freedom to teach the complete range of its doctrines and theories. The Communists, in a marginal part of Free China, hard pressed by the Japanese, have been able to preach only a wartime doctrine of patriotism and survival. They have had to persuade peasants that they stand for lighter taxes and more popular representation, and at the same time to persuade landlords that they do not stand for the seizing of private property. Thus they are already a party of compromise, and it is at least possible that after the war, instead of becoming a party of extremism, they will be found to be a party of moderation. Both Communists and Kuomintang have a great stake in avoiding civil war. All that China has gained during the national war of survival would be ruined by civil war.

The Chinese will have an enormous task after the war, not only of rebuilding what the Japanese have destroyed, but in carrying forward the process of transformation of their whole life which was interrupted by the war. They will need foreign capital and foreign trade, but they will not need it badly enough to give to foreigners any measure of control of China’s internal affairs. They will welcome business on a basis of equality but not on a basis of exploitation.

China’s future policies toward other countries, like China’s developments at home, will be of primary concern to everyone. The abolition of the unequal treaties by America and Britain has already symbolized the end of the hundred years of China’s semicolonial subjection. China’s part in the final victory will give significance to that symbolic act.

No longer will the destinies of Asia be dictated by imperial powers. Nor, on the other hand, is it to be expected that China will embark on an imperialistic career of its own. Chiang Kai-shek advocates a general and rapid evolution out of the colonial system for Asia, and has plainly stated that China has no imperialistic ambitions. Without imperialism it is highly probable that China will grow in importance not only in Asia but in the world. The time may come when, instead of its being important to have China on our side, as it is today, it will be important in the world picture for us to be on China’s side.

We no longer live in a world of “the European question,” “the Balkan question,” “the Russian question,” “the Near Eastern question,” “the Indian question,” “the Far Eastern question.” That era is over. We live in a world where such questions are only local aspects of the world question. Whether we make a success of that new world will depend on the interaction of two things: the success or failure that each nation makes of its own affairs, and the success or failure of all nations in dealing with each other as neighbors in a world order.

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