Socialist Experiments at Nationalist China's Frontiers, 1920s40s

AHA Session 231
Saturday, January 5, 2019: 3:30 PM-5:00 PM
Salon 10 (Palmer House Hilton, Third Floor)
Timothy Brook, University of British Columbia
Timothy Brook, University of British Columbia

Session Abstract

In the decades after the founding of the Soviet Union, the utopian ideal of socialism became a powerful tool of realpolitik—a fact which had profound implications for the USSR’s largest neighbor. The Republic of China struggled from its earliest days to maintain control over the traditional frontier regions of the Chinese empire; and by the 1930s, many of these regions had slipped from the Republic’s control. As the papers in our panel demonstrate, expansionist states at China’s borders—the Soviet Union and the Japanese Empire—mobilized socialist ideology to reorient China’s border regions toward their own metropoles. In the process, Soviet and Japanese efforts permanently altered the relationships between citizens and the state in China’s border regions. The Soviet Union’s efforts to combine ideology and power politics reached farther afield as well, with the Comintern tapping socialist internationalism in order to orient Chinese revolutionaries around the world toward the USSR and its particular version of communist revolution.

Our panelists will examine how these transborder episodes between the 1920s and the 1940s echoed through Chinese history in the second half of the twentieth century. After the People’s Republic of China was established in 1949, state-society relations in China’s borderlands continued to be profoundly shaped by these areas’ early contact with quasi-socialist administration under Japanese and Soviet influence. In each case, these experiences left a tangled legacy, one extending beyond questions of class warfare. In Inner Mongolia and Manchuria, the experience of Japanese occupation raised troubling questions of conflicting ethnic, national, and imperial loyalties, and accusations of collaboration remained potent for decades. In the predominantly Muslim Xinjiang region, the USSR’s key ideological role in the 1930s and 1940s created persistent issues of divided loyalties among the province’s native population, significant segments of which retained strong pro-Soviet leanings even after the Sino-Soviet split. Finally, in the overseas Chinese communities where the Comintern and the Chinese Communist Party were active, local Chinese often found themselves navigating difficult questions of loyalty: attempting to prove their belonging in new nations in which they were minorities, while at the same time professing allegiance to an internationalist communist ideal, as well as to a far-off revolution in China. Our panel will demonstrate the enduring significance of these episodes of socialist construction at the fringes of pre-Communist China, and demonstrate that Chinese communism had multiple origins—some of them far removed from the centralized Chinese Communist Party organizing that dominates most narratives of Chinese communism's historical development.

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