KMT and CCP – Friends or Foes?

Last week a historic event took place: Wang Yuqi, the head of Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council, visited mainland China, in what has been described as the first meeting between the Chinese and the Taiwanese governments since the end of the Civil War in 1949. But although China-Taiwan relations seem to be better than ever before, they remain extremely complex and contradictory – and potentially explosive.

The legal status of the Republic of China on Taiwan, for instance, has remained an unspoken issue which both Wang and China’s leaders tried to avoid. Ambiguity is a better way of copying with the difficult cross-strait relationship than straight-forward debate. No one exactly knows in what official function Mr Wang visited China, since the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China do not recognise each other’s existence.

Rather than a government-to-government meeting, this was an attempt at pacification between two old enemies: the Guomindang (also spelled Kuomintang, abbr. KMT) and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the two major forces of pan-Chinese nationalism. The purpose of the visit was nothing more than to pave the ground for eventual unification of what both parties regard as a divided nation.

Sometimes it feels as if history perpetually repeated itself. In the year 2014, the KMT and CCP are still determining the fate of the Chinese-speaking world, as they have been doing for almost a century. The unresolved conflict between these two parties remains one of the greatest uncertainties for the future of Taiwan and China-Taiwan relations. Moreover, as I will explain in a future post, a possible alliance between the CCP and the KMT would endanger the very existence of Taiwanese nationalism, represented by Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP).

The Makers of China’s Modernisation

In many respects, the KMT and the CCP have been the two major players in the modern search of the Chinese nation for renewal and modernisation. Despite their failures and ideological inconsistencies, it was they who led the path of the Chinese-speaking world out of the shadow of the thousand-year-old Chinese Empire and into the modern era.

The KMT was founded on 25 August 1912 by Sun Yat-sen, the leader of the revolutionaries who overthrow the Qing Dynasty in 1911 (see Lew / Leung 2013, p. 78). Sun Yat-sen was the first Chinese who uncompromisingly fought for the demise of the old empire and the foundation of a Republic. His Three Principles of the People served as a blueprint for a whole generation of modernisers. The great merit of Sun Yat-sen was to break with the imperial past of China, and to try to achieve a real change in the society, economy, and institutions of the country.

The first principle of Sun’s doctrine was nationalism. He believed that the weakness of China was a consequence of the lack of national consciousness of the Chinese, which resulted in a particularistic worldview. He argued that the Chinese cared more about the family and the clan than they cared about their nation, and that this had crippled their spirit and made them unfit to resist foreign aggression. Therefore, Sun sought to renew the soul of the Chinese by adopting some elements of Western civilisation, of which nationalism was the fundamental one.

Sun Yat-sen (source)
Sun Yat-sen was the first pan-Chinese nationalist. Just like European nationalists inherited the states whose borders had been made by kings, so Sun Yat-sen defined the Chinese nation as having the same geographical extension as the Empire of the Qing. Consequently, he believed that Tibet and Xinjiang should belong to the Republic of China, as well as all the various ethnic minorities, including the Manchus (you can find a more detailed analysis of Chinese nationalism and the end of the Qing Empire in my blog post Chinese Nationalism and China-Taiwan Relations).

The Guomindang, as it was envisioned by Sun Yat-sen and was developed in the following decades, was based on three main principles, which I will reformulate in the following way: 1) pan-Chinese nationalism, 2) democracy; 3) securing people’s livelihood through economic development. 

Sun’s ideas were often ambiguous and partly inconsistent. However, this turned out to be not a weakness, but a strength. He managed to synthesize various currents of thoughts – modernisation, nationalism, economic development, socialism, Confucianism etc. – and thus he didn’t have many ideological enemies. This helped him secure a broad consensus among all parties and classes.

As I have shown in the aforementioned post, Sun’s most important aim was to consolidate the new Republic and strengthen China through nationalism. When Yuan Shikai and regional warlords practically buried the young democracy, which was such only by name, Sun Yat-sen came to believe that the Guomindang could complete its revolutionary and state-founding mission only if it embraced militarism. Therefore, Sun invented the concept of “political tutelage”. Democracy had to be put off until the Republican government had become strong enough to allow the Chinese people to vote without endangering the stability of the state.

While theoretically Sun supported democracy, he believed that China’s best immediate hope was to delay putting it fully into practice by adopting a three-stage program of revolutionary transformation (Schell / Delury 2013, p. 135).

It took the Guomindang over sixty years to finally fulfill Sun’s democratic promise.

From his base in Canton, in the 1910s and 1920s Sun reorganised the Guomindang according to military principles. He found his role model in another country, a neighbour of China, which had also overthrown its own ancien regime: Russia. Sun Yat-sen was deeply impressed by the astounding success of the Russian Communists in consolidating their rule against their enemies. He therefore turned to Lenin and Trotzkij to learn how to make his Guomindang as strong as the Soviets (ibid., p. 136).

However, in the meantime, something had happened which would change the destiny of China forever and which would challenge the Guomindang’s monopoly on revolution and nation-building. By 1921 a group of intellectuals around Chen Duxiu and Li Dazhao were establishing the first Chinese Communist Party. A young man named Mao Zedong was also involved. In July 1921, the first Congress of the CCP was held in Shanghai, in which the party was officially established (ibid., p. 167).

From that moment on, the Guomindang and the CCP began competing against each other. And yet, they also had many similarities. This ambivalence is one of the reasons for a hundred years the two parties haven’t been able to decide if they are bitter enemies or potential allies.

Though Sun Yat-sen admired some aspects of the Soviet system, he rejected the idea of class struggle. He wanted to cooperate with the Communists without adopting Marxist orthodoxy. In January 1923, Sun Yat-sen and Soviet envoy Adolph Joffe 

issued a joint communique to the effect that conditions did not exist in China for communism, and that national unification and full independence were China’s paramount goals. Moscow promised support for the Chinese revolution, including help in reorganizing [the Guomindang] … Sun and Joffe agreed that the KMT [=Guomindang] would send representatives to Moscow to study military, government and political organization (Taylor 2000,p. 17; see also Colin Mackerras: The Cambridge Handbook of Contemporary China. Cambridge 1991, p. 7).

In the years between 1923 and 1927 the KMT and the CCP formed the so-called First United Front, a period of cooperation aimed at achieving two short-term goals: defeating the warlords and unifying the country (Dillon 2010, p. 188). 

But what were the major ideological differences between the CCP and the KMT, which made a peaceful coexistence so difficult?

Although Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek were revolutionaries and modernisers, they were at the same time also conservative and moderate. They wanted to change China in order to make her stronger in the modern world, but they didn’t want to erase the country’s entire civilisation. Moreover, they had a harmonious, corporatist view of society. They wanted all groups to work together, to build a new strong and independent nation and establish order. As a consequence, they  abhorred the idea of class struggle (see Fenby 2009).

In February 1928, Chiang Kai-shek convened the Fourth Plenum of the Second Central Executive Committee of the Guomindang, where he pushed the party to officially reject the doctrine of class struggle and replace it with a spirit of cooperation between the different groups of society (Wakeman 2003, p. 31; you can also read my post about China’s Republican Era).

Therefore, by the 1920s both the Guomindang and the CCP were revolutionary, modernist, nationalist, and Leninist parties. However, they were irreconcilably incompatible in this one point: the Communists saw the Republican revolution of 1911 as the first stage on the road to communism, and they believed that society was divided into antagonistic classes that would inevitably have to fight for power.

In an article entitled On New Democracy (1940) Mao Zedong explained his interpretation of the differences between Sun Yat-sen’s Three Principles of the People and communism in these terms:

To avoid misunderstanding and for the edification of the die-hards, it is necessary to show clearly where the Three People’s Principles and communism do coincide and where they do not. 

Comparison of the two reveals both similarities and differences. 

First for the similarities. They are to be found in the basic political programme of both doctrines during the stage of the bourgeois-democratic revolution in China. The three political tenets of the revolutionary Three People’s Principles of Nationalism, Democracy and the People’s Livelihood as reinterpreted by Dr. Sun Yat-sen in 1924 are basically similar to the communist political programme for the stage of the democratic revolution in China. Because of these similarities and because of the carrying out of the Three People’s Principles, the united front of the two doctrines and the two parties came into existence. It is wrong to ignore this aspect. 

Next for the differences. (1) There is a difference in part of the programme for the stage of the democratic revolution. The communist programme for the whole course of the democratic revolution includes full rights for the people, the eight-hour working day and a thorough agrarian revolution, whereas the Three People’s Principles do not. Unless these points are added to the Three People’s Principles and there is the readiness to carry them out, the two democratic programmes are only basically the same and cannot be described as altogether the same. 

(2) Another difference is that one includes the stage of the socialist revolution, and the other does not. Communism envisages the stage of the socialist revolution beyond the stage of the democratic revolution, and hence, beyond its minimum programme it has a maximum programme, i.e., the programme for the attainment of socialism and communism. The Three People’s Principles which envisage only the stage of the democratic revolution and not the stage of the socialist revolution have only a minimum programme and not a maximum programme, i.e., they have no programme for the establishment of socialism and communism … (note).

In the same article, Mao Zedong clearly shows that Sun’s vision for a new China was, in his opinion, not radical enough:

For many years we Communists have struggled for a cultural revolution as well as for a political and economic revolution, and our aim is to build a new society and a new state for the Chinese nation. That new society and new state will have not only a new politics and a new economy but a new culture. 

In other words, not only do we want to change a China that is politically oppressed and economically exploited into a China that is politically free and economically prosperous, we also want to change the China which is being kept ignorant and backward under the sway of the old culture into an enlightened and progressive China under the sway of a new culture. In short, we want to build a new China. Our aim in the cultural sphere is to build a new Chinese national culture (ibid.; my emphasis).

From Mao to Deng, or The ‘KMT-sation’ of the CCP

When Mao proclaimed the foundation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, most Chinese may have been expecting that the new leadership would try to restore order, and build a new stable, strong, and prosperous state.

However, ‘order’ was not a word that belonged to Mao’s political vocabulary. While chaos had been the nightmare of emperors and Confucian scholars in imperial China, Mao saw chaos, destruction, and to a certain extent even violence, as necessary processes of renewal. As Orville Schell and John Delury explain:

In Mao’s ideological universe of ceaseless contradictions, protracted struggles, and “permanent revolution,” there were never real finish lines, only brief intermissions between periods of struggle […]. 

Mao saw the institutionalization of a sense of “permanent revolution” as an important way of keeping political zeal at a fever pitch and his adversaries off-balance. So it was not long before he plunged the country into a series of mass political campaigns, each aimed at preventing the formation of new establishmentarian forces by keeping “the people” in a state of ceaseless revolutionary activism. 

Even the greatest “achievements in socialist construction,” he warned in a February 1957 speech on contradictions, should not be construed as meaning “that contradictions no longer exist in our society. To imagine that none exist is a naive idea which is at variance with objective reality.” “Our revolutions,” said Mao, “come one after the other,” and in the 1950s Mao set out to keep Chinese society “turning over” with a succession of mass movements (Schell / Delury 2013, p. 230, 235).

These mass movements, the most famous of which are the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution (a term, as we have seen, already used by Mao in the 1940s), were often violent and radical. Destruction was the bitter medicine that Mao gave to its country in order to eradicate all remnants of the ‘feudal’ past. But, as it turned out, his vision was not what the majority of the Chinese wanted. Even before his death, his system of permanent struggle and Stalinist autocracy began to crumble, and the desire of the Chinese for peace, order, stability, and prosperity, powerfully emerged from the abyss of endless ideological campaigns.

Deng Xiaoping was the politician who represented the voice of those moderates. It is one of the paradoxes of history that Mao and Deng, the first and second leader of the PRC, had such opposing ideals that one wonders how they could belong to the same party. In fact, in 1969, during Mao’s Cultural Revolution, Deng was branded “capitalist-roader number 2” and was sent to work in a tractor repair factory (ibid., pp. 268-269).

Deng was a pragmatist, an admirer of the Asian Tigers and Japan, and he wanted to make China richer and more advanced. After he became the leader of the CCP, he created an economic policy that was similar to the “planned free economy” adopted by the Guomindang on Taiwan a few decades earlier. It was a mix of market mechanisms, private enterprise, and state control, a hybrid that proved extremely effective. 

Deng even sought to bring back Sun Yat-sen into the consciousness of the Chinese people. In October 1979, Sun’s portrait was showcased in Tiananmen Square, in a symbolic gesture aimed at suggesting continuity between Sun’s ideology and Deng’s Four Modernisations (modernisation of agriculture, industry, science and technology, and national defence) (Bergere 1998, p. 1; Schell / Delury 2013, p. 273).

Sun Yatsen tribute in Tiananmen Square, 2005 (source).

As the doctrines of permanent revolution and class struggle were abandoned, and as the CCP moved from Maoism towards Leninism, Neo-Confucianism, nationalism and developmentalism, the party began to look more and more similar to the Guomindang of the Chiang Kai-shek and Chiang Ching-kuo era. It was an autocratic, developmentalist party trying to organise from the top the orderly cooperation of society for the sake of strengthening the economy and the military. Stability, order and economic growth became the new priorities, while Maoist chaos, mass mobilisation and class struggle silently disappeared from the party’s agenda.

And since the ideological appeal of Communism and Marxism vanished, Deng and his successors made pan-Chinese nationalism the last ideological linchpin of the CCP.

The line between the CCP and the Guomindang became so blurred that in 1997, when Taiwan’s Koo chen-fu visited mainland China, then President of the PRC Jiang Zemin sang with him the national anthem of the Republic of China, which had been performed for the first time on 16 June 1924 at the opening ceremony of the Whampoa Academy, founded by Sun Yat-sen and directed by Chiang Kai-shek (note).

In this process, the Sun Yat-sen cult and the adherence to his principle of pan-Chinese nationalism came to serve as unifying elements that brought the two parties together, while they marginalised Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), the main advocate of Taiwanese nationalism.

Legitimate as it may be, pan-Chinese nationalism is tarnished by one fact: the PRC’s pledge to use force in case Taiwanese nationalism should prevail.

Sun Yat-sen Mausoleum in Nanjing, built in 1929 during Guomindang one-party-rule in mainland China 

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