We are excited to announce a new title in the Studies of the Weatherhead East Asian Institute book series: China’s Conservative Revolution: The Quest for a New Order, 1927–1949, published by Cambridge University Press. The book’s author is Brian Tsui, an Assistant Professor of Chinese Culture at Hong Kong Polytechnic University who earned his PhD at Columbia University.
In this ambitious examination of the complex political culture of China under Guomindang rule, Brian Tsui interweaves political ideologies, intellectual trends, social movements and diplomatic maneuvers to demonstrate how the Chinese revolution became conservative after the anti-Communist coup of 1927. Dismissing violent struggles for class equality as incompatible with nationalist goals, Chiang Kai-shek’s government should, Tsui argues, be understood in the context of the global ascendance of radical right-wing movements during the inter-war period. The Guomindang’s revolutionary nation-building and modernization project struck a chord with China’s reformist liberal elite, who were wary of mob rule, while its obsession with Eastern spirituality appealed to Indian nationalists fighting Western colonialism. The Nationalist vision was defined by the party-state’s hostility to communist challenges as much as by its ability to co-opt liberalism and Pan-Asianist anti-colonialism. Tsui’s revisionist reading revisits the peculiarities of the Guomindang’s revolutionary enterprise, resituating Nationalist China in the moment of global radical right ascendancy.
We thank Dr. Tsui for taking the time to discuss his book with us. Please read the following Q&A to learn more about the research and questions that drove his project.
What are some of the larger questions that you initially had about the period of Guomindang’s rule that led you to undertake this project?
The core question that drove this project was deceptively simple: What was particular about the Guomindang or the Nationalists in twentieth-century Chinese history? There is a tendency in the field – which began as a much needed corrective to narratives sanctioned by the states across the Taiwan Strait – that stressed continuities and similarities between the late Qing, the Republican and the Communist periods. Modern Chinese history is portrayed as one of increasing statism and illiberalism. While there is merit to this approach, the specificities of each political project get downplayed. By revisiting the Guomindang and implicitly comparing it with other regimes and revolutionary movements in China and elsewhere, I wished to reconstruct the Guomindang enterprise as a unique political formation that competed with the Communists in defining the Chinese revolution.
What are some of the social, political, and economic conditions that helped Chiang Kai-Shek’s government take power in China from 1927-1949?
First, a caveat: at no moment in the period I studied did the state led by Chiang Kai-shek effectively govern the entirety of China. Warlordism, Japanese aggression and Communist insurgencies significantly compromised its strength. Yet, I argue that the Nationalists did manage to substantially command the loyalty, albeit conditional, of the urban middle class and the petit bourgeoisie. This is because the Guominding claimed to offer urban constituencies, for much of the period when it was based in mainland China, stability and order. I believe that the topic of how Chinese states related to urban dwellers and intellectuals remains understudied. There is an assumption that most urbanities and, in particular, intellectuals were distant from the authoritarian tendencies of Chinese states. But I suggest that liberal and middle-class elements of Chinese urban society were susceptible to the Guomindang’s illusive promise of a good and stable life, even if it was premised on a highly unequal social hierarchy. The tendency of Chinese liberals to align with the conservative revolution, or fascism, is a phenomenon to which my work tries to draw attention. The fact that the Scouts of China movement had many liberals in its rank and that the popular writer Zhu Guangqian were embroiled in the Guomindang propaganda machine shows that Chiang Kai-shek’s regime secured hegemony, if tentatively, among the urban petit-bourgeoisie.
How did the rise of the Guomindang in China relate to other right wing or nationalist movements around the globe?
I suggest that the post-1927 Guomindang, after its split with its Communist allies, became a state and a mass movement that was very similar to other fascist regimes across the world. In this sense, Nationalist China was part of a global current that swept across Europe, Asia and Latin America in the second quarter of the twentieth century. While there were attempts on the part of the Guomindang to learn from its German, Italian and Japanese counterparts, I argue that its radical rightwing shift was a phenomenon indigenous to China. Guomindang cadres worked within the theoretical framework supposedly laid down by the party’s founder Sun Yat-sen and answered to global challenges as inflected on China. These included uneven economic development, foreign invasion, a militarized Communist movement and the sense that the citizenry was decadent and ill-disciplined. The nature of Communism in China and, of course, the fact that the country was on the receiving end of imperialist warfare make its interwar radical right different to those of the Axis powers.
Why do you think this conservative revolution ultimately failed in China?
In one sense, the conservative revolution didn’t fail. The Guomindang ruled Taiwan and held onto two Fujianese archipelagos and was, until the 1970s, recognized by much of the “free world” as the legitimate government of China. The party has now of course transformed itself as a mainstream center-right party that participates in electoral politics. In fact, many fascist regimes in the world did not collapse after the end of the Second World War. Franco governed Spain until 1975 and Portugal’s Estado Novo lasted until 1974, enjoying the grudging support of the West during the Cold War. “Free China” fit into this pattern, whereby Washington’s priority was to contain communism.
The conservative revolution, however, did fail if we consider its two main goals: providing a corporatist, pseudo-alternative to liberal capitalism and overcoming Euro-American hegemony. That since the late 1940s, the Guomindang had to depend on US support for survival significantly undermined its autonomy over “Free China’s” political economy and foreign policy. The party-state persisted, but its revolutionary ideology was aborted.
How did you choose to structure this book? What kinds of individuals, organizations, and stories did you focus on?
Unlike similar studies, which focus mostly on state and party organization, my book pays attention to the state’s interactions with broader society in China and beyond. There are, of course, elements in the book which constituted the mainstay of the Nationalist movement. Dai Jitao, a major ideologue of the radical right, wrote profusely on Sun Yat-sen’s principle of livelihood (sometimes rendered as socialism) and his thoughts on “cleansing” the Guomindang of communist elements demands a serious reading. The National Spiritual Mobilization Campaign, a state-sponsored mass movement that compelled the citizenry to join a total war against Japan, was an initiative of the Guomindang leadership.
But what is perhaps more interesting is the substantial overlap between the Guomindang and organizations and figures that one wouldn’t associate immediately with the party-state. The scouting movement was semi-official, but among its officials were treaty-port liberals with missionary background. The renowned scholar and popular writer Zhu Guangqian was a critic of the party-state, but he wrote for the party mouthpiece during the Second Sino-Japanese War. Rabindranath Tagore, who was of course no fascist, wrote glowingly of Chiang Kai-shek. His Chinese associate, the Buddhist scholar and supposedly apolitical Tan Yunshan, secured funds for the Bengali savant’s university Visva Bharati and from senior Nationalist cadres and helped bridge the Guomindang with the Indian National Congress in a pan-Asianist alliance. In fact, one recurring theme throughout the book is that when confronted with state authoritarianism and class revolution, the urban middle class and non-partisan, liberal intellectuals often chose the former.
From what kinds of sources and archives did you draw to write China’s Conservative Revolution?
Like most works of history, I used abundant published and archival sources. A lot of my sources are held by archives in Taipei, including Academia Historica and the Kuomintang Party History Institute. The Second Historical Archives of China, located in Nanjing, were also of use. The Nehru Memorial Museum & Library has interesting materials on the relationship between the Guomindang and the Indian National Congress. Access to archives is very important for historians; unfortunately, for different reasons, authorities in both mainland China and Taiwan have made it increasingly challenging for scholars to conduct research.
How might your book help us better understand the current rise of nationalist and conservative movements around the world?
I finished writing this book in the Trumpian age, when fascism suddenly became mainstream again in popular discourse. There are obviously features in contemporary radical rightwing movements that resemble the Guomindang in the second quarter of the twentieth century. Appeal to nationalist emotions, promise to curb capitalist excesses without getting rid of capitalism, protecting traditional values, challenging global liberal norms are some of them. One major difference between Nationalist China and today’s world is that in almost all major societies, the organized left remains extremely weak and provides little effective resistance against the right. I stress in the epilogue that China’s conservative revolution, like much of twentieth-first century radical rightwing politics, was ideologically incoherent. But ideological inconsistencies, often mocked by liberals, did not prevent it from taking hold of power. As citizens, we must take the inchoateness of fascisms seriously and not be consumed by the ludicrous aesthetics of strongmen and mass gatherings.
Could you tell us briefly about your current research project(s)?
I am working on two interrelated projects, both focusing on the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the rest of Asia in the 1950s. One studies how Christian leaders in Hong Kong debated the emergence of the PRC and brought social developments over the border to bear on their ruminations of the colony’s transformation into a Cold War outpost. The other explores how Indian intellectuals understood “New China” in the context of India’s and Asia’s decolonization. I’m interested in understanding how the advent “New China” was simultaneously a “Chinese” and an “Asian” event, one that mirrored state diplomatic maneuverings underpinning the Bandung Conference in 1955. The influence of mature Maoism on Western and Asian societies is well studied but how a less radical phase of Mao Zedong’s reign was understood by Asian intellectuals remains understudied. I hope the two projects will coalesce in some meaningful ways and form the basis of my second book.