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Role of the Political Parties and the Military in China

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Published: 12th Dec 2019

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Tagged: International RelationsMilitaryPolitics

Sun Yat-sen’s views On The Role Of The Political Parties And The Military In China

To what extent were Sun Yat-sen’s views on the role of the political parties and the military in China simply copied from the Soviet Union?

The ideas of Sun Yat-sen have been crucial to the development of China in the twentieth century. Often referred to as the ‘father of the nation’ (Mackerras 1998, p23), Sun Yat-sen was the instigator of the revolution that overthrew the monarchy in China and later formed the basis of the ideology within the Nationalist Party. Certainly following the 1911 revolution Sun Yat-sen developed links with the Communist Party in Russia and continued to forge close links with Russia for more than a decade, yet much of this was in a pragmatic attempt to gain aid and support from the Soviet government, rather than inspired by the policies of the Soviet state. Some of his views were influenced by the Soviet Union, yet to states that his ideas were simply copied from the Soviet Union would be an exaggeration. Sun Yat-sen was widely travelled and educated – his ideas came from a variety of sources and his aims were to develop principles specific to China rather than to attempt to implement a political system from another nation and another culture. In his later years, Soviet advisers did gain a greater influence over SunYat-sen but it would be fairer to say that he took on board ideas that he felt suited his cause, rather than simply copied them.

Born to a poor family near Canton, Sun Yat-sen was largely educated in Hawaii. As a young man he was certainly at home as much abroad as in China and was comfortable conversing in English (Fitzgerald 1971, p24). Having learnt of the power and development of the West, he quickly became convinced of the corruption of the Manchu dynasty and made up his mind that only revolutionary change could save China. He was willing to engage radical ideas that had been impressed upon him by Western democracies. He saw a republic as favourable as monarchies had gone out of fashion in Europe and was impressed by the relative success of democracy in the more advanced Western nations.

Su Yat-sen’s earliest revolutionary ideas preceded the Soviet Union, and his much of his early thinking was done abroad. He spent time in Britain, collating ideas in the reading room of the British library and seeking out a variety of sources. Schiffrin reports that: Sun wasted no moments in gaieties; he was forever at work, reading books on all subjects which appertained to political, diplomatic, legal, military and naval matters; mines and mining, agriculture, cattle rearing, engineering, political economy etc; occupied his attention and were studied closely and persistently. The range of his opportunities for acquiring knowledge has been such as few men have ever had (Schiffrin 1968, p134). As early as 1897, Sun Yat-sen came into contact with Russian revolutionaries, meeting on several occasions in London with Felix Volhovsky, the editor of the English Society of Friends of Russian Freedom.

The basis of Sun Yat-sen’s political philosophy is his Three People’s Principles which detailed his ideal of a government that would serve the people of China. The principles were named nationalism, democracy and the people’s livelihood and were devised by SunYat-sen with the aim of restoring the nation as a powerful and successful democracy. Throughout his political life he came into contact with Russian revolutionaries and certainly at different stages they have contributed to his basic principles.

Russian influence was notable not only to SunYat-sen but to many education Chinese, particularly in the period following the 4th May uprising in 1919. This period saw the beginnings of nationalism in China, with many in the country becoming increasingly angered at the corrupt minister that they saw as having sold the country to Japan’ (Fitzgerald 1971, p24). The educated class in China gradually came to realise the state of the nation both internally and on the international stage and thus look abroad for ideas on how to make the nation strong again. Fitzgerald writes of this period Nationalism as opposed to Republican idealism, was born. he new enthusiasts did not much care what form it took as long as it did something to restore China (Fitzgerald 1971, p41). The Russian Revolution was an appealing alternative to young Chinese. Many were nationalists, and if some were lacking in understanding of communism, many others were attracted intellectually to the doctrines of Marx and Lenin. Above all else, many, and this undoubtedly includes Sun Yat-sen, were highly impressed by the transformation of Russia from a decaying monarchy to a socialist republic. It was apparent that other foreign powers were unable to stop the Russian revolution and feared the new Soviet state – this strength on the world stage was also appealing to Chinese nationalists. Sun Yat-sen who had been living in Shanghai at the time was one of many Chinese who admired the Revolution and had few qualms about the violent means to carry it out; in China the idea of ‘woe to the conquered’ was a fact of political life (Fitzgerald 1971, p46).

In examining the influence of the Soviet Union over Sun Yat-sen’s thinking, one has to appreciate that as a revolutionary and a socialist, it is only natural that he would have an interest in Soviet Russia. The Russian Revolution was one of the major political developments of his age and Soviet policies on political parties and the military would have been of interest to any revolutionary thinker at the time. Between 1920 and 1922 he was actively courted by emissaries from Russia and representatives from Comintern. Wilbur writes that Sun Yat-sen remained keen to be kept informed of developments in the Soviet Union and suggests that he showed much sympathy for the Russian Revolution, and his words suggest that he made a psychological identification between the Russian Revolution and his own efforts, and between himself and Lenin (Wilbur 1976, p112).

As early as 1918, Sun Yat-sen had telegraphed Lenin on behalf of the South China Parliament and the Chinese Revolutionary Party, congratulating him on the ongoing struggle in Russia and expressing the hope that the Soviet and Chinese parties might one day join forces in a common struggle. At this stage, his words have to be seen as a gesture of comradeship rather than an expression of any serious intent – the chaotic state of Russia at the time would have given Sun little basis for ideas on political and military organisation.

An American journalist, George Sokolsky, became a part of Sun Yat-sen’s entourage in Shanghai in early 1919 and facilitated discussion around possible military cooperation. However, Sun’s position in terms of the military differed at the tame from that of the Soviets – the Russian wanted an end to seemingly endless fighting whilst SunYat-sen remained, in the words of a Russian colonel an old-fashioned militarist who saw no way of saving his country except through arms (Wilbur 1976, p116). In years to come, the Soviets would consistently attempt to covert Sun Yat-sen from his reliance on military force to achieve political goals.

The period 1920-22 saw Sun Yat-sen eager to win financial aid from other nations. As a result he made some form of contact with practically all of the major power – the USA, Great Britain, France, Japan and Germany. As much as there was a warm relationship with Russia, it is likely that SunYat-sen would have happily taken aid from other powers had it been available. His correspondence and talks with Soviet envoy Adolf Joffe give some idea as to the somewhat confused nature of Sun’s relationship with the Soviets. Whilst stating to Joffe that the Soviet system was not suitable for China, Sun Yat-sen allowed Joffe’s influence to help regulate the roles of the Communist and Nationalist parties in preparation for the coming revolution. In 1923, he agreed to communists joining the Nationalist Party as individuals and it was advisors such as Joffe who helped Sun Yat-sen to organise his armies and free himself from the dominance of Chinese warlords (Fitzgerald 1971, p47). A joint statement issued with Joffe had been unequivocal on the issue of the political system that SunYat-sen was aiming for and summarises accurately his ideas about any future relationship that China would have with the Soviets.. It stated: Dr SunYat-sen holds that the Communistic order or even the Soviet system cannot actually be introduced into China, because there do not exist here the conditions for the successful establishment of either communism of Sovietism. This view is shared entirely by Dr Joffe, who is further of the opinion that China’s paramount and most pressing problem is to achieve national unification and attain full national independence, and regarding this task, he has assured Dr SunYat-sen that China has the warmest sympathy of the Russian people and can count ton the support of Russia (Wilbur 1976, p137).

SunYat-sen’s priorities at the beginning of the 1920s were simply to build a peaceful, united China operating within some form of constitutional order. He believed that foreign aid was vital for him to do this and utilise a number of tactics to do this. He wrote to foreign heads of state, had allies abroad campaign on his behalf and used military, economic and diplomatic strategies to try and achieve his goals. In terms of military aid and advice, he attempted to arrange for military advisers from Russia, amongst other nations.

His correspondence with Joffe led to a reorganisation of Sun’s Kuomintang Party. Whilst the Communist Party had advocated a revolutionary alliance with the Kuomintang, Sun rejected this idea, insisting instead that all Chinese revolutionaries join his organisation. By October 1922,Sun had inducted some Communist Party leaders into his party, and appointed their lead, Ch’en Tu-hsiu as a member of a nine man committee to plan for the reorganisation of the party (Wilbur 1976, p131).

1923 saw Sun Yat-sen established in Canton, attempting to build up his power base. It was the arrival of Michael Borodin in this period that began the most concerted period of Soviet influence of Sun Yat-sen’s ideas. Borodin’s role was to act as Soviet Russia’s instrument through which aid and guidance should be given to the revolutionary movement and it was he who instigated the reorganisation of the Kuomintang along Bolshevist lines. Borodin took little time in outlining his plans for a reorganisation of the Kuomintang, based around creating a provisional national committee of twenty-one under the chairmanship of SunYat-sen and consisting of the most prominent members of the Kuomintang, the Communist Party, the Socialist Youth Corps and worker’s unions. Sun Yat-sen took some of Borodin’s ideas on board and he began to plan a reorganisation of the Kuomintang. He appointed a nine-man Provisional Central Executive Committee to draft a new party platform and constitution and to prepare for the party’s first national congress, appointing Borodin as an adviser to the committee. Sun Yat-sen made it clear to his own followers, that whilst following some of the advice from the Soviets over party organisation, he would not blindly follow them. He stated, The present reorganisation should preserve our party’s original élan but adopt the Soviet Russian organisation, thus acquiring its benefits while rejecting its evils. We may merely yoke up Soviet Russia and mount it (Wilbur 1976, p175).

A military crisis shortly after Borodin’s arrival in Canton gave the Russian adviser an opportunity to have some influence over SunYat-sen’s military policies. His forces in the city were very much on the back foot against LinHu’s forces, with both army and navy troops deserting. Borodin’s plan was to play on the nationalism and economic aspirations of the Canton population. He issued decrees promising land to the peasants through the confiscation and distribution of landlord holdings, along with encouraging an eight-hour day and a minimum wage for workers. The plan worked to inspire a greater military effort at the front and the crisis was averted. Shortly afterward, Sun made a speech discussing past party failures and explaining that the ongoing reorganisation was intended to spread the part’s influence across all of China and release it from an exclusive dependence on military force – this had been very much a soviet idea. Sun Yat-sen, at this particular time, was keen to base his Three Principles of the People on a Soviet model. He stated: Now a good friend, Mr Borodin, has come from Russia.If we hope for victory in revolution, we should study the Russian methods of organisation and training (Wilbur 1976, p179). Sun argued the Soviet position that Communism had been chosen by the Russian people and that nationalism and popular support had enable it to defeat both internal enemies and external powers. His view was that that the Russian people were no longer the salves of foreign powers and that China’s revolution had failed to succeeded to date as it had not fully embraced nationalism in either its party organisation or within the military.

There was some opposition to what was seen by some as too much dependence on Soviet ideas on party organisation by Sun Yat-sen, yet1923 was the year when Soviet ideas held the most influence over Sun. In speeches he praised the discipline of Soviet party organisation and spoke positively on how a united party could take the movement away from such a dependence on armed force. Nonetheless, leaders with the Kuomintang remained concerned at the influence of the Communist International and the policies of admitting communists and allying with Soviet Russia. Petitions to SunYat-sen however met simply with denial of allegations and assurances about the Soviets. Sun increasingly had begun to argue the point that there was little difference between his Principles of People’s Livelihood and Communism.

The first National Congress of the Kuomintang met in Canton in January 1924 and confirmed a plan of party reorganisation based largely along the lines of Borodin’s advice. A new leadership was established to create a mass party with a wider influence across China. Sun Yat-sen saw his name written into the constitution as leader, with power of veto. Sun again spoke glowingly of the Soviet system, stating that its system of placing party above government was the most modern in the world (Wilbur 1976,p191).

Speeches given by SunYat-sen in 1924 formed the basis for what is understood as his basic philosophy, contained in his Three Principles. The lectures were largely based around his ideas on nationalism and give the clearest indication as to the effect that Soviet ideas had on his thinking in the latter years of his life. He saw the military future as one not of wars between races but between social classes or of oppressed against oppressor. He also talked more openly of empire and of recovering some of China’s territorial losses to other colonial powers. He spoke of the military dangers caused by China’s small military capability. He argued that Japan would be able to conquer China within two weeks, the United States within a month. Sun also move away from his earlier democratic tendencies in his later speeches, suggested that the Soviet style ‘dictatorship of the people’ was the most effective form of government.

Borodin’s influence on SunYat-sen’s lectures was clear, as was some of the ideas in terms of the military taken on board by Sun whilst Borodin was based in Canton. One of the roles of Borodin’s team was to establish a Kuomintang military academy, to be assisted with Russian advice and funds. The idea behind the Whampoa Military Academy was to produce, Soviet style, a politically indoctrinated and reliable corps of junior officers to form the basis for an army first and foremost loyal to the party. Russian officers instructed at the academy and Sun’s military capability was further enhanced in October 1924 by the arrival of a shipment of Russian arms, including several thousand rifles and ammunition, accompanied by a further nine Russian officers to continue training at the military academy.

Sun Yat-sen was not a confirmed Marxist and differed from the Soviet Union in this respect. He was never of the belief that Marxism could genuinely work in China. In other areas however, in particular party organisation, he was undoubtedly attracted to Soviet ideas Above all else Sun was a patriot who most of all wanted to make his nation great again. He saw the Soviet as a good example for China to follow – through revolution and the embracing of nationalism, a nation that had suffered under corrupt rule and at the hands of established colonial powers could once again reassert itself. The Soviet Union was also an ally. Whilst Sun Yat-sen may well have allied closer to other nations who offered help, the fact is that it was the Soviet Union that offered help to him and his movement. Sun Yat-sen was educated enough to form his own opinions about the best methods of party and military organisation. He may have come under some pressure from the likes of Joffe and Borodin to adopt Soviet methods but the Soviet ideas that he use were ones that he genuinely believed would best help his cause. In many ways, SunYat-sen was a pragmatist – he used the Soviet Union for his own benefit and would have acted similarly with other allies. Others within his party had concerns about the way he was influenced by Soviet ideas, but Sun was making a active choice to take on board these ideas – he was not simply copying them


Esterer Arnulf & Esterer Louise, Sun Yat-sen – China’s Great Champion, Julian Messner, New York 1970

Fitzgerald CP, Communism Takes China – How the Revolution went Red, American Heritage Press, New York 1971

Gray Jack, Rebellions and Revolutions, China from the 1800s to 2000, Oxford University Press, Oxford 2002

Mackerras Colin, China in Transformation 1900-1949, Addison Wesley Longman Ltd, Harlow 1998

Wilbur Martin, Sun Yat-sen – Frustrated Patriot, Columbia University Press, New York 1976

Schiffrin Harold, Sun Yat-sen and the Origins of the Chinese Revolution, University of California Press, California 1968

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