Summary: Fascism with Chinese Characteristics: Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist Vision And US-China Relations Today.

{Image not part of orginal essay. From the 2009 Chinese film “The Founding of a Republic”, showing Chiang Kai-shek (left) and Mao Zedong (right) in front of a portrait of Dr Sun Yat-sen (founder of the Chiang Kai-shek’s KMT).}

Summary: Fascism with Chinese Characteristics: Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist Vision And US-China Relations Today.


In 2022 Routledge published a survey of Chinese ideological trends from ancient times to the present. It included an essay by Professor Dean Chen “Fascism with Chinese characteristics; Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalist vision in the 1930s and implications for US-PRC rivalry today” [PRC=People’s Republic of China]. This is a review of this essay only in the sense of examining closely. The justification is that there may be many people beyond political science who see the political character of the Xi Jinping regime as vitally important, but may not know of this essay which adds an important perspective to answering this question. The essay indirectly proposes that Xi Jinping is moving towards nationalist fascism akin to Chiang Kai-shek’s regime; there are lessons for the Chinese Communist Party from the subsequent defeat of Chiang Kai-shek’s regime on the mainland; and thus lessons for constructive US foreign policy.


China in the 1930s and 1940s.

In 1949 the Chinese Communist Party [CCP] won control of China from Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang [KMT] government that had claimed to rule China since 1927. Chiang Kai-shek blamed the defeat on the KMT’s lack of spirit, discipline and virtue.

The KMT government lacked the power to fully rule China and efficiently gather taxes. The KMT became progressively more incompetent and elitist. There were some successful modernizing projects in the more developed coastal cities, but most effort went into fighting rebellious local warlords, the CCP rebels and the Japanese invaders. China was inordinately rural in the 1930s. The KMT depended on deals with regional warlords, who blocked land reform. The victorious CCP had even less money and military equipment than the KMT, but gained mass support from the peasants.

The KMT government was greeted with enthusiasm in 1927. Dr Sun Yat-sen had originally founded the Revive China Society (forerunner of the KMT party) in the 1890s, to overthrow decaying Chinese imperial rule, restore national unity, oust foreign invaders and create a thriving democratic republic. By the 1930s the KMT had become a fascist party in response to China’s multiple crises. The trigger was the 1931 invasion of Manchuria by Japan, which created the extremist Blueshirts faction of the KMT. The KMT adopted the Leninist idea of the dictatorship of a vanguard party; thier policies were the use of state terror; nationalist cultural indoctrination; Confucian paternalism based on the ideas of KMT ideologue Dai Jitao; militarism from Germany and Japan; and the modernizing industrialization of the KMT founder Dr Sun Yat-sen. The elitism of the KMT however led to their demise.

Fascism and Development Theory.

There have been three routes from traditional to modern industrial societies: bourgeoisie revolutions,peasant revolutionary movements or reactionary capitalism (ie fascism).

If the (typically urban) bourgeoisie are weak they must form alliances with the old landowning elite, and authoritarian governments with limited democracy are formed, rather than liberal governments. Crises these incompetent governments cannot manage, then lead to the transition to fascism.

Fascist regimes use militarism and political indoctrination to ensure popular loyalty and dominance. Fanactical patriotism is used to appeal to the old landowning elite, and to block demands by the poor for wealth redistribution. The KMT government in China in the 1930s conformed to this pattern.

Trade was important in shaping Chinese politics in the 1930s, as economic and political power are often linked.

Generally in emerging industrial societies more foreign trade creates a greater alliance of interests between workers and the bourgeoisie against rural landlords, while less foreign trade creates a greater alliance of the bourgeoisie and rural landlords against workers. The reason for this is that these societies have an abundance of labour but a shortage of land and capital. Reduction in trade (eg due to protectionism) reduces the economic bargaining position of resources a country has in abundance (eg labour), and increases the bargaining position of resources where there is a shortage (eg land and capital).

[Note: Added a nineteenth century example from the pioneering industrial nation Britain, because Professor Chen is following famous arguments of this era, still relevant to mainstream economics in 1930s and conservative economics today: In Britain protectionism after the Napoleonic Wars reduced food imports, so increasing food prices and giving power to landowners, while workers resented high food prices, and the bourgeoisie resented the higher wages that needed to be paid to feed their workers. This led to a coalition between the urban bourgeoisie and the industrial working classes, for free trade and liberal political reform. Free trade led to industrial expansion, which increased both profits and wages. It should also be noted other factors – often ignored by conservative thinkers – were also important in influencing chronic urban poverty: rapid population growth in unplanned industrial towns, lack of worker’s political power, lack of wealth redistribution, and the boom and bust economic cycles.]

The great decline in world trade in the 1930s [of which protectionism was a cause and symptom] led to a stronger alliance between the urban bourgeoisie and rural landlords against workers. The resulting political crises encouraged the spread of fascism and communism in many countries, including China.

Military threats were more important than global economics for exposed countries like China in the anarchic system of rival nations attempting to occupy territory – that was eventually ended by the Second World War. Examples of this process are Britain and Germany. Britain as an island nation was less exposed to invasion and so developed a parliamentary system, while Germany as a continental nation surrounded by rival powers created a state in which the intertwined monarchy and military retained power.

[Note: More detail is needed on Germany. Bismarck was a conservative Prussian politician who by 1871 had managed to use militarism and diplomacy to unify the reluctant German states into a single state, where the deeply intertwined Prussian monarchy and military held ultimate power. The unbalanced nature of the state, industrialisation and the temptations of rapidly changing military technology were all important background factors besides European continental great power rivalry.]

Fully transformative modern revolutions require the combined crises of internal social conflict and external foreign intervention. Examples are Russia, France and China. Russia’s defeats in the First World War contributed to the Russian revolution. French defeats against Britain in the late eighteenth century contributed to the French Revolution. Western imperial exploitation in the nineteenth century, and later defeat against Japan in the 1890s contributed to the Xinhai Revolution that ended the rule of the Qing dynasty in China

[Note: Wars are expensive which in highly unequal societies impacts the poor, and defeat erodes belief in the power and promises of the regime in power.]

Defending the state against foreign aggression was a major justification for revolution. They were presented as a radical means to introduce methods of modernisation.

The Kuomintang and Blue Shirts ideology of the 1930s: Confucian Fascism.

China’s century of humiliation started in the 1830s, and created a yearning for the revival of national greatness. Chiang Kai-shek rose to power in the 1920s, and feared that the Chinese people under foreign pressure would become weak by losing faith in their culture.

During the decade following the founding of a nationalist government by Chiang Kai-shek’s KMT party in Nanjing in 1927, allies were desperately needed to counter the Japanese invasion. The KMT increased ties with Nazi Germany, the United States and the Soviet Union. The tie with Germany was the most important, providing much needed military and industrial modernisation, as well as ideological inspiration.

Chiang Kai-shek was more inspired by an earlier era under Bismarck rather than the Nazis. He saw that Bismarck’s economic policies helped to create a strong unified Germany that was able to defeat France – its greatest enemy – in 1871. Chiang Kai-shek was still however interested in certain aspects of Nazi ideology, because it opposed both the conservative and progressive social forces that he also opposed. He admired the apparently effective methods of control used by the Nazis to control their followers, and severely punish their enemies. The KMT was also influenced by Japanese fascism and its propaganda about Pan-Asianism to drive out Europeans.

Chinese Fascism—Confucius, Sun Yat-sen and Dai Jitao.

In organizational style and methods of repression the KMT were like European fascist movements. They however differed in disregarding the virulent racism and colonialism of European fascism, because these types of abuses were being inflicted on China.

Dai Jitao the ideologue of the KMT government of the 1930s, believed that China needed to adopt the selected Confusian concepts of loyalty, hard work, thrift and stern morality. He claimed that traditional Chinese family values were essential. He argued that modernisation did not mean all traditional values should be rejected.

In practice the KMT’s traditional values were used to exclude dissenting voices, justify a campaign of terror against the Chinese Communist Party, and suppress supporters of liberal democracy. The KMT were highly conservative on social issues but progressive on the use of new technology.

The KMT used the elitist argument of their late founder Sun Yat-sen, that it may take thousands of years for the ignorant Chinese masses to be fit for democracy [ironically an argument used by Western imperialists in their colonies]. Dai Jitao claimed that the resulting idea of an undemocratic government run by experts came from Confucianism.

Chiang Kai-shek and the Blue Shirts.

Chiang Kai-shek was determined to always remember China’s national humiliation. He saw traditional Chinese values as the route to restoring China’s greatness. Personally he was most influenced by the Confucian emphasis on self-discipline and action.

Chiang Kai-shek hated and suppressed communism because he saw it as the main threat to China. He saw communism as a threat to the cohesion of society and the traditional family. Ironically the KMT was organized on the Soviet elitist principle of “democratic centralism” where in practice a central elite dominated decision making. Chiang Kaishek justified this by using the rhetoric that “we [China] must be strong before we can be free”.

The Blue Shirts Society were a feared fascist ultranationalist part of the KMT, that eventually had half a million members. They promoted Confucian Fascism (e.g. education, militarisation, a strict moral code and the suppression of individualism) as the only way to restore China’s greatness.

Chiang Kai-shek eulogized selected traditional Chinese values: “Loyalty, filial piety, humaneness, charity, righteousness, peace and harmony are one and the same as our nation’s traditional virtues of propriety, righteousness, integrity, and frugality”. He claimed adopting these values would “create a glorious and radiant world order for mankind”.

He saw the link between fascist military discipline and the Confucian obsession with hierarchy. He claimed that Confucianism was successful in ensuring its values were obsessively followed, by the creation of strict rules of behavior, and by the example of others. He created the “New Life Movement” to instill Confusian Fascism, and to ensure “personal discipline, diligence, cleanliness, and obedience”. Those who did not measure up to this standard were suppressed violently.

The KMT used the methods typical of European fascist movements (ultranationalism, dictatorship,opposition to individualism and democracy, state domination of the economy, totalitarian control of culture, the militarization of society, and the use of secret police against political enemies.)

Chiang Kai-shek differed from Nazis and the Japanese in ignoring race and not wanting territorial expansion let alone world domination. The KMT adopted the traditional hierarchical Confuscian ideas on social and military organization from the late Chinese Imperial state. They were elitist and so did not create a mass fascist movement. Their suppression of peasant uprisings helped to empower the Chinese Communist Party, because the alienated peasants were the majority of the population.

Lessons from the KMT: Xi Jinping’s push for an assertive China.

The political objective of overcoming past humiliations is still important in China, despite 40 years of economic growth that has created the second largest economy in the world. The KMT’s “disciplined Confucian moralism with revolutionary nationalism” and Xi Jinping’s “Chinese Dream” and the “Great Rejuvenation of the Chinese Nation” are part of the same political path, that has been pursued by all Chinese leaders since the beginning of the twentieth century.

Since 2013 the US has had good reason to be concerned by Xi Jinping’s more assertive, aggressive and illiberal policies. Since 2013 his “Belt and Road Initiative” has been trying to establish China as the hub of business and technology all the way to Europe. Powerful state owned companies have been stealing intellectual property on a large scale. Xi Jinping’s ideological thought has been imposed on China, and he has become a leader for life.

Since 2018 the US has adopted more realistic policies to push back against China. The current Biden US administration is willing to cooperate with China when necessary (e.g. Climate Change), but sees a fundamental conflict with China between autocracy and democracy. In response, Xi Jinping’s regime, just like the KMT in the 1930s, has become more nationalistic and oppressive. A personality cult has been created to portray Xi Jinping as a highly talented enlightened leader. China’s political system is justified as superior to the libel democratic system, because it claims to promote the most virtuous and talented leaders.

In the 1930s Chiang Kaishek’s Confuscian Fascism was tolerated by world opinion. It was seen as a defensive measure because China and the KMT government were weak. In contrast the modern Chinese Communist Party has a strong hold over Chinese society whose economy is now powerful. The CCP has adapted to changing circumstances, as illustrated by Xi Jinping’s “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era”.

China is now facing many more challenges: confrontation with the US and Taiwan, environmental degradation, economic slowdown, corruption, oppression in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, and blame for the Covid-19 pandemic. The KMT lost control of China, because of war; Chiang Kai-shek’s autocracy; corruption; incompetence; and elitism. The CCP should be aware of the lessons from history. Xi Jinping did at least warn that the CCP’s future depended on tackling corruption. The Chinese people do want China to be strong, but they also want the central leadership to focus on their wellbeing, efficient governance and being accountable.


Prof Chen indicates that Xi Jinping’s regime is pursuing similar nationalistic-fascist (rather than racist-fascist) polices to those of Chiang Kaishek’s KMT in the 1930s and 40s. Chiang Kaishek’s regime failed to hold on to power on the mainland, because it was too weak and the opposition from the Chinese Communist Party and the Japanese was too strong for the regime to survive. Xi Jinping’s hold on power is far stronger than that of Chiang Kaishek; he controls a powerful economy, military and security force; and has no eternal or internal enemies capable of challenging his rule. Xi can better survive the consequences of  “autocracy, corruption, incompetence and elitism”.

Xi has created a neo-totalitarian state since 2012 (“Summary: The fantasy of the One Why China is totalitarian.”), that has centralised all state power under his control. He appears to believe in ever more autocracy to strengthen his regime. The lesson for the US from this is surely that Xi Jinping’s regime has too much power given its fascistic autocratic nature, and is likely to be driven by internal ideology to become an ever greater threat to the United States.

The multiple crises that drove the transformation of Chiang Kaishek’s regime to fascism, where driven by the aggression of foreigners, the rise of communism and the collapse of international trade. These factors were external to the ruling KMT party.

The crisis that drove China’s post Maoist government towards fascistic neo-totalitarianism under Xi Jinping, came from forces  internal to the ruling Chinese Communist Party (“China of Xi Jinping: Towards Chinese Fascism? by Jean-Philippe Béja.”). After Mao in the 1980s Deng Xiaoping reformed the economy, but only partially reformed the political system. The CCP adopted collective leadership, and rules to protect party cadres from arbitrary power. The dictatorship of the CCP over the Chinese people remain unchanged.

In 2001 China joined the World Trade Organisation and the wealth of its economy soared. The combination of partially reformed political power and miraculous new economic power lead to the creation of interest groups within the CCP that were dismembering each other, and so weakening the party. At the same time the relaxation of controls that came with economic reform, created spaces for public criticism of the party. The CCP elite feared for the continuation of the absolute power of the party, especially now that China was generating wealth worth stealing. Xi Jinping promised to end this drift by restoring strongman rule and persecuting wayward party cadres.

He centralised power under his control, so creating a neo-totalitarian regime. He transformed CCP ideology to nationalistic- fascism, retaining communism only in its rhetoric. The danger is that Xi Jinping has the power to pursue objectives that are consistent with the regime’s ideological logic, but are disconnected from both ethics and reality. This was the process that Hannah Arendt describes motivating the genocidal excesses of Hitler and Stalin [pp458 “Origins of Totalitarianism”, Arendt 1973].

The nationalist-fascist Xi Jinping regime is a novel threat to the world order, because of the military and economic resources it controls. It will by its nature block constructive cooperation, now so vital to tackling the climate emergency. Professor Chen shows the parallels between the ideological nature of Chiang Kaishek and Xi Jinping regimes. The Xi Jingping regime lacks the limitations, circumstances forced on the Chiang Kaishek regime, and so the current situation is radically worse.


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