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WATCH: Chinese Communist Revolution

In the first half of the twentieth century, the great power of China lay wounded. Its peasants were impoverished, its armies humiliated, and its lands increasingly captured by enemies. After World War II, however, one of the greatest revolutions of world history brought the Communist Party to power in China. The result would be both hardship and glory, but certainly it laid the groundwork for a resurgent China. In this video, we look at the Chinese Communist Revolution as a transformational event in both Chinese history and the global history of revolutions, with the help of Dr. Prasenjit Duara.

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Video transcript

By the time you get to the 1940s  in your study of world history, you will have encountered a lot of revolutions.  Some of these were mainly liberal revolutions meant to establish political rights for a middle  class under the republic as a form of government. The American War of Independence is a  good example of this type of revolution. You have also seen social revolutions. They're  still about liberation, but these revolutionaries took an even deeper dive and sought to overturn  the existing class systems and economic structures that oppress them. An early example is the Haitian  Revolution. Many revolutions fell somewhere in between, with some political and some social  and economic change. By the early 20th century, transformations like the Mexican Revolution  usually split the revolutionaries into two groups, some who just wanted political rights for a middle  class of people and others, usually socialists or communists, who are fighting for better lives and  livelihoods for poor workers and peasants. Hello, I'm Francesca Hodges, and today we are going to  look at another revolution that saw this split between political liberals and communists and  which ended up fundamentally transforming not just one country but the entire world, the  Chinese Communist Revolution of 1945-1949. China, at the beginning of the 20th century, had been racked by civil war, invaded by outside powers, and had almost  collapsed under the weight of the Boxer Rebellion. During this period, nobody suffered  more from this chaos than the Chinese peasants, many of whom experienced famine, theft,  and exploitation on an enormous scale. In October 1911, revolutionaries in  the central Chinese city of Wuchang rebelled against the authorities. Their rebellion  spread, and in 1912 the Chinese Republic was born. This group of revolutionaries were mainly  army officers and members of the middle class, and their revolution really only aimed to  change the political structure of China not to transform the poverty of the peasants, and  it wasn't even a successful political revolution. By 1916, China had broken apart into many regions  ruled by local warlords, while the central government had only limited authority. Meanwhile,  outside powers still tried to take bites of this vast country. The worst was Japan, which expanded  its territory in China in the 1920s and 1930s. So now, there were two groups trying to reunite  China and push back against the Japanese invasion. The first was a group of Chinese nationalists  who formed a party known as the Guomindang. The Guomindang fought to strengthen the democratic  republic, but they didn't want economic change. In 1925, a leader named Chiang Kai-shek  took control of this party and became the official leader of the Republic of China. The  second group was the Chinese Communist Party. They didn't just want political change. They  wanted a social and economic revolution to help peasants escape from poverty. This party had many  leaders, but the one we will get to know best is Mao Zedong. At times, the Guomindang nationalists  and the Chinese Communist Party work together. Both fought against the Japanese for example  before and during the Second World War. At the end of that war in 1945, Japan was  defeated by the Allied Forces, including China alongside the United States, Britain, France, and  the Soviet Union. The Japanese invasion was over, but China still had two competing factions,  the Guomindang government under Chiang Kai-shek and the Communist Party led by Mao Zedong. These  two forces now turned on each other in what we know as the Chinese Communist Revolution. It's  a lot of plot twists, right. And with the start of the Chinese Communist Revolution, it can  be even harder to follow, both in terms of the history of China and as part of a history  of global revolutions. That's why I decided I needed the help of an expert, so I reached out  to Professor Prasenjit Duara at Duke University. So starting off with our first question then.  What was the Chinese Communist Revolution? The Chinese Communist Revolution was  essentially a massive assault to massively overhaul Chinese society as a first step  in their ideology, in the ideology of the communists to overhaul global society  so that there would be social justice and that the people at the bottom of the rung in  peasant societies, in urban societies in China would have a greater share both in the economic  and political dimensions of life and have a better life in general. So why did the Chinese Communist  Revolution happen? It happened because firstly China has had a long tradition of peasant  rebellions. This is one that has happened before the Christian era. You've had enormous  Chinese peasant rebellions where they rose up, and the Chinese communists themselves believe  that they drew on this tradition, but of course they gave it a modern twist. They gave it a modern  ideology to look for more modern institutions and ideas of equality and justice and the  removal of exploiters of these people, and so they drew on that and for that of course  they drew upon what were globally circulating ideas of a revolution that came from the  Soviet Revolution and other areas of the world. Speaking to the revolution itself, why  did the communists win? The Japanese occupation helped the Chinese Communist Party to a great extent because the Guomindang, while it was also opposed to Japanese occupation, was not able to persuade or convince the people to support them against the Japanese because they were not able  to penetrate into society and show that they could bring about a better society than either  was there before or under Japanese occupation. Whereas, the Chinese communists had the mobilizing  power. They had the organization to be able to penetrate deep into rural society and even  appeal to the nationalism of the people against the Japanese occupiers who were very  violent in many cases in China, in occupied China, and they also engaged in various kinds of reforms  like giving land and giving dignity to the poor, the rural poor in particular. In 1949, the Chinese  communists were able to seize power from the Guomindang who fled to the island of Taiwan. Mao  Zedong ruled a unified communist state, the People's Republic of China on the mainland.  Not only was China an independent country, it now had a role to play in two episodes  of global significance, in the post-war era, decolonization and the Cold War. I wanted  to ask Professor Duara more about this role. What role did the People's Republic of China play  in decolonization after the revolution? China did provide support for socialist, anti-colonial  movements, and it provided material support in terms of arms, in terms of expert advice, in terms  of money to anti-colonial, socialist movements, and one of the best examples of that is perhaps  Vietnam where it turned out, by the end of the Vietnam War, to have been the greatest supporter.  Can we then see the Chinese Communist Revolution as part of the Cold War struggle? Yes, I think  we can if we also recognize that the Chinese Communist Revolution generally supported  decolonization movements but actively supported decolonization movements that  were socialistically oriented. I ended my conversation with Dr. Duara by asking about  the successes and failures of the revolution. What did the revolution achieve? The Chinese Communist Revolution I think achieved a great deal. Once it was able to get through to the rural populace and implement their policies, they were able to achieve what we now consider human development indicators so that they were able to improve the health of the people by bringing sort of basic health services, by providing   basic education to vast numbers of illiterate  people. They were able to create job skills, and they also created ideas of equality. So women  for instance were given very important roles in society that they did not have before,  and this gave also a tremendous amount, and they were able to give some property to the  poor who did not have, so this was also able to give some kind of measure of self-respect to  people in society, to the lower classes of society. To counter that question then, what were some of  the failures of the revolution? Well, I think that the principal failure is the cost of revolution, the cost of revolution in terms of human lives, which you know over a million people were probably  killed during the land reforms which took away land from a lot of people and also killed a lot  of people who were considered traitors or who had other religious beliefs and so on. Within the  long history of revolutions in the modern age, few were as transformative as the Chinese  Revolution. Building on a tradition of peasant uprisings within China and inspired  by revolutions elsewhere, the Chinese Communist Party took power and overturned  the lives of the wealthy and the poor alike. Seventy years later, the Communist Party still  governs China. In another video, we will explore its policies and their effects on the Chinese  people in the era of intense globalization.