China: the descent into militarist chaos

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In the previous article we saw that the Chinese bourgeoisie had been unable to pave the way for a capitalist modernisation. Although in 1911 the Chinese republic was proclaimed by ousting the old Manchu dynasty, no strong central bourgeois government had arisen. This historical weakness of the Chinese bourgeoisie meant that China was going to go down, under a spiral of militarism, even if at the beginning foreign powers were not yet directly involved in the military escalation. But China became one of the birthplaces of a new phenomena - warlordism - which was going to put its stamp on the whole 20th century.

The emergence of warlordism

Faced with an increasingly powerless central government, certain provinces declared their independence from Beijing after 1915. In most of the provinces warlords became the dominant force.

Their sources of income were: (forced) exactions of taxes mainly from peasants; they lived on the basis of banditry and the drug trade(opium). It was no coincidence that drug trade, which more than half a century before had been curbed, then revived. Production of opium had almost been stopped by 1916, but warlords gave large areas of land to opium growth, there was even a ‘laziness tax’ on those farmers who did not plant opium. Land tax was raised 5 to 6 times by warlords and many taxes were collected in advance - in some areas collected for decades in advance. The warlords recruited a large number of soldiers from the peasantry and lumpenised elements. With the disintegration of the dynasty and the fragmentation of China at the beginning of the 20th century, an increasing number from among the floating mass of poor and landless peasants began to enrol in the professional armies of the regional ‘warlords’. Most warlord soldiers were unreliable, since most of them were jobless and hungry people who fought without a cause but only for money. As a result many of these soldiers changed sides or ran away in battle. This is why soldiers had to be constantly recruited, often forcefully. At the same time in many areas peasants were forced to join secret societies for self-protection against marauding troops.

Because there was no united nation state with a central government at its head, capable of defending national unity, each warlord could claim his territory. But at the same time these were not aiming at splitting off from the Chinese ‘empire’ and setting up a new nation. Generally they were not tied to a particular sector of society and they were not particularly involved in the defence of particular sectors of the economy. They were classical “parasites”, feeding off the population without any special ideological, ethnical or religious basis. The goals of their military operations were neither so much the largest possible extension of their area of domination nor wars of conquest to open up new markets or to plunder raw materials. In a certain sense they waged war 'on the spot' and pillaged the country. As a result trade became restricted. The transport system suffered heavily not only from the direct war ravages but also because of the fact that it had to carry a lot of troops and because of the payment of special taxes to the militarists.

All the resources of society were absorbed by militarism. Frequent dictatorial seizure of goods, the irresponsible handling of money by the warlords (whenever money was needed to finance their legions of soldiers and arms purchases they printed as much money as they needed) meant a terrible burden on the economy. In short they revealed a pure process of decomposition, a rotting on the feet of society. They expressed the incapacity of the national bourgeoisie to unite the country. The fragmentation of the country into a number of fiefdoms (smaller units), which were under the control of marauding warlords, meant a gigantic fetter on the productive forces; it also showed that in China national liberation was no longer on the agenda, because the nation could no longer be an adequate framework for the development of the productive forces.

Even if during World War I the foreign imperialists tried to influence and win over different warlords, the wars waged by the local warlords at that time were not yet dominated by the rivalries amongst the foreign sharks.