The World and China (book review)

The World and China, 1922-1972 By JOHN GITTINGS (London, Eyre Methuen, 1974). 303pp. £5.25 

Nowhere is the suspicion of Chinese ‘opportunism’ so rife as in her foreign policy – and to no one more puzzling than to those who claim to understand the theory and practice of marxism. The sudden friendship with imperialist America, the growing animosity towards fraternal Russia, the reception accorded to the running dogs of imperialism — the Shah of Iran, the Lion of Judah et al. – at the court of ‘the celestial kingdom’, the betrayal of Bangla Desh and of the JVP (in Sri Lanka) – all these bewildering shifts and changes in Chinese foreign policy have generally been understood in terms of big power politics. Some have gone further and accused China of fostering counterrevolution abroad and dictatorship at home. 

Gittings, however, puts the record straight. In this thorough and meticulous study, based on official and unofficial Chinese, American, and other sources – some translated for the first time – and written lucidly and objectively in the lowest of British keys (and the more arresting for that reason), Gittings shows that in every aspect of China’s relations with foreign powers over the last fifty years, Mao and the CCP have pursued a consistent political line deriving from an incisive analysis of specific historical conditions and their prevailing contradictions, with one single-minded goal in view: world revolution. In the process, Gittings has demonstrated the dynamics of marxism-leninism as applied to international relations – validating in turn China’s practice of world revolution. 

I can not illustrate this better than by asking the basic questions that have confronted me, and then providing the answers which Gittings has helped me to find. Q. Why the sudden ‘friendship’ with America? A. Offers of cooperation (China makes a distinction between friendly relations with socialist countries and peaceful coexistence with others) had lain on the table since before the revolution. Even as far back as 1944, Mao and Chou had offered to visit Washington, on behalf of the revolutionary government in Yenan, to explore areas of cooperation. In 1948, on the eve of taking power, Mao again welcomed diplomatic relations with non-socialist countries, including America, on the basis of respect of each other’s territorial integrity and sovereignty. But so unbending – and absurd – was America’s imperial arrogance that, far from accepting an equal relationship with the People’s Republic, it presumed to recognise the defunct Nationalist ‘government’ from a consulate in Mukden – while demanding territorial rights for the US consular compound in Peking. In 1955, at Bandung, Chou-en-lai spelt out the five principles of coexistence between states with different social systems – the same principles that Nixon was obliged to sign in a joint communique seventeen years later. 

In every instance the Americans, pursuing a policy of imperial expansion and socialist containment, had rejected the Chinese overtures. Mao and the CCP for their part had never been dogmatically hostile to the US. Throughout they had ‘put politics in command’, and followed ‘a revolutionary diplomatic line. Even the invitation of American emissaries to Yenan in 1944 was made on an objective analysis of the situation: Japanese colonialism was the major contradiction, the Kuomintang were its collaborators, and alliance with the US would help to defeat the Japanese and weaken the KMT – leaving the ‘main forces of the revolution intact. ‘Our tactics’, Mao had said, “are guided by one and the same principle: to make use of contradictions, win over the many, oppose the few, and crush our enemies one by one.’ 

Why the sudden hostility to Russia, and why is Russia such a threat to revolution? A. The disagreements with Soviet analysis and the rejection of Soviet advice go back to the Stalin era. In 1945, for instance, Stalin predicted the collapse of the Chinese nation, unless the CCP came to terms with Chiang Kai Shek. Mao refused to do so, and later remarked that Stalin’s advice, if taken, would have spelt death to the revolution. In fact, when the revolution did succeed Stalin refused to recognise it as genuine – until after the US-China war in Korea. In 1949, Mao went to Moscow to negotiate a treaty with the Russians, but what was achieved after two months of negotiations does not, according to Gittings, ‘place Stalin’s fraternal spirit in a very favourable light’. Nor were the Russians ever pleased with China’s unique revolutionary path and its influence on Third World countries. 

From the very beginning, Mao had insisted that the Chinese revolution, although learning from the Soviet experience, was essentially a Chinese revolution. One could apply the analysis, the strategies, even the tactics of marxism-leninism to China, but they must be oriented to the Chinese reality. Whenever that reality was not understood by the Soviet Union, it was the latter’s advice that went by the board, not Mao’s concrete analysis of the concrete situation’. But because the USSR was the first socialist country in the history of the world, because it was the duty of all revolutionaries to safeguard the Soviet revolution, because the Soviet experience was a guide to the theory and practice of revolutions elsewhere in the world, China’s disagreements with Russia were a family affair – not to be publicised to the world, and to be conducted in a spirit of struggle, of ‘unity, criticism, unity? This did not mean, however, that China was Russia’s satellite. 

But if the disagreements with the Soviet Union in Stalin’s time were methodological and tactical, those with Khrushchev were ideological. By 1956 Russia had begun to advocate peaceful transition to socialism, peaceful competition and cooperation with imperialism and a ‘warless world’ (in the epoch of imperialism). Khrushchev also maintained that the Soviet Union was now ‘a state of the whole people and the party ‘a party of the whole people’. To Mao and the CCP, it was a line that would lead to the restoration of capitalism, allow the Soviet Union to act in an imperialist manner towards countries under its influence, deny that contradictions persisted in a socialist society, and abandon the dictatorship of the proletariat (the consolidation of which has been Mao’s continuing concern and his most recent instruction to the nation2), But China’s attempts to ‘struggle’ were rebuffed. In June 1960, at the Third Congress of the Rumanian Communist Party, Khrushchev attacked Mao as an ultra-leftist, and ultra-dogmatist, and indeed a left revisionist’. The contradiction had become antagonistic. The danger to China and world revolution was clear (to the Chinese anyway). A system that was socialist in words but imperialist in its actions was a more covert threat to revolution than the unashamed imperialism of America. Besides, imperialism on the world stage was on the wane. The ‘irresistible trend of history showed that countries want independence, nations want liberation, and the people want revolution. The real and as yet unseen danger was ‘social imperialism’. 

Q. Why the friendship with reactionary regimes in the Third World? A. Given that revolution is the main trend in the world today, and given that Soviet revisionism helps to subvert revolutionary forces in their struggle against imperialism and super-power hegemony, and even threatens to infect the Chinese revolution itself, China requires more than ever to safeguard her own revolution from enemies both within and without. Once again it is important to win over the many and isolate the few – in this case the super powers. If, in doing so, China appears to give viability to reactionary regimes, the answer is that such compromise does not require the people in these countries to follow suit and make compromises at home. They must ‘continue to wage different struggles in accordance with their different conditions’ (Mao, 1946). Revolution could not be exported, but independence from imperialism (*countries want independence’) would lead to national liberation nations want liberation’) and to revolution (ʻpeople want revolution’). Inter-state relations with these countries is a necessary tactic in defence of socialism, as Mao himself had understood of the Russo-Japanese rapprochement in 1939 when Chinese resistance to Japan was at its height. 

If this is not a review of Gittings’ book, it is certainly an appreciation of his work – for without his help I, and many like me, would have been less clear about what the Chinese revolution was all about and our own place and contribution to the revolutionary task. That Gittings could have retained his objectivity even as he China-watched for that most genteelly reactionary paper, the (British) Guardian, is a matter for wonderment.