About the Author

Anthony Saich is the director of the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation and Daewoo Professor of International Affairs, teaching courses on comparative political institutions, democratic governance, and transitional economies with a focus on China. In his capacity as Ash Center Director, Saich also serves as the director of the Rajawali Foundation Institute for Asia and the faculty chair of the China Programs, the Asia Energy Leaders Program and the Leadership Transformation in Indonesia Program, which provide training programs for national and local Chinese and Indonesian officials.

Saich first visited China as a student in 1976 and continues to visit each year. Currently, he is a guest professor at the School of Public Policy and Management at Tsinghua University, China. He also advises a wide range of government, private, and nonprofit organizations on work in China and elsewhere in Asia.

Saich is a trustee member of he National Committee on US-China Relations (2014-), AMC Entertainment Inc., the chair of the China Medical Board, and International Bridges to Justice. He is also the US Secretary-General of the China United States Strategic Philanthropy.  He sits on the executive committees of the John King Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies, Council on Asia Studies, South Asia Initiative and the Asia Center, all at Harvard University. He serves as the Harvard representative of the Kennedy Memorial Trust and previously was the representative for the Ford Foundation’s China Office from 1994 to 1999. Prior to this, he was director of the Sinological Institute at Leiden University in the Netherlands.

His current research focuses on politics and governance in post-Mao China, China’s urbanization and rural-urban inequality in China; and the interplay between state and society in Asia and the respective roles they play in the provision of public goods and services at the local level. His most recent books include Governance and Politics of China (Fourth Edition, 2015); Chinese Village, Global Market (2012); Providing Public Goods in Transitional China (2008); Revolutionary Discourse in Mao’s Republic (with David Apter, 1998); The Rise to Power of the Chinese Communist Party (1996); and China’s Science Policy in the 80s (1989); He has edited books on Political Governance in China, 2015, Philanthropy for Health in China (with Jennifer Ryan and Lincoln Chen, 2014), China's urbanization (with Shahid Yusuf, 2008), HIV/AIDS (with Joan Kaufman and Arthur Kleinman, 2006), and the Reform of China’s Financial Sector ( with Yasheng Huang and Edward Steinfeld., 2005).

He holds a Ph.D. from the Faculty of Letters, University of Leiden, the Netherlands. He received his master’s degree in politics with special reference to China from the School of Oriental and African Studies, London University, and his bachelor’s degree in politics and geography from the University of Newcastle, UK. Away from the office, he enjoys time with his two children, movies, and soccer.

Book Description

What does a Dutchman have to do with the rise of the Chinese Communist Party? Finding Allies and Making Revolution (Brill, 2020) by Tony Saich reveals how Henk Sneevliet (alias Maring), arriving as Lenin’s choice for China work, provided the communists with two of their most enduring legacies: the idea of a Leninist party and the tactic of the united front. Sneevliet strived to instill discipline and structure for the left-leaning intellectuals searching for a solution to China’s humiliation. He was not an easy man and clashed with the Chinese comrades and his masters in Moscow. This new analysis is based on Sneevliet’s diaries and reports, together with contemporary materials from key Chinese figures, and important documents held in the Comintern’s China archive.

Behind the Book is brought to you by HKS Library & Research Services, in collaboration with the Office of Communications & Public Affairs. If you have any requests, comments or suggestions, please contact us.

Alessandra Seiter: In the history of political movements, few have accumulated as much power as the Chinese Communist Party. Its influence extends both inward, to the everyday lives of Chinese citizens, and outward, as it expands its sphere of economic and military power around the world. But, the party's origins are more modest than its current form would indicate. It's a story that begins with the end of World War I, the gathering of a small group of Chinese intellectuals, and a Dutchman.

That story is the focus of a new book by Harvard Kennedy School professor, Tony Saich. Professor Saich has studied the rise of China on a global scale since the 1970s, when a professor told him, "No matter what happens in this place, it's going to affect all our lives." To help us understand why, Professor Saich's latest book brings us back a century to the founding of the Chinese Communist Party. On this episode of Behind the Book, we speak with Tony Saich, Director of the Ash Center for Democracy and Government Innovation and Daewoo Professor of International Affairs about his book, Finding Allies and Making Revolution: The Early Years of the Chinese Communist Party.

Let's do a little scene setting. In 1911, the Xinhai Revolution ended 2000 years of imperial rule in China. In its place, the Republic of China was established. However, the republic was relatively weak, as much of the country was under the control of warlords from 1915-1928. The political situation was fluid and a burgeoning Chinese nationalist movement was dissatisfied with the government, particularly after it failed to gain concessions from the Allied Powers at the end of the First World War. This led to a series of anti-imperialist uprisings, known as the May 4th Movement. It was out of this movement that a group of Chinese Revolutionaries, including a teacher named Mao Zedong, began to think about the possibilities of China's political future.

Tony Saich: Unlike when orthodoxies began to set in on all different sides, it's a time of amazing excitement. The imperial system has just collapsed - what do we want China to be? An attempt at constitutionalism has failed, it's disintegrated into basically who's the strongest - that person can rule through warlord factions. But, [there's] a lot of intellectual energy and a lot of people trying to discover what is the right way to take China forward.

Seiter: On the other side of the continent, the Russian Civil War was raging and out of this conflict emerged the Russian Revolution and the Soviet Union. Around the same time in Moscow, the Communist International, or the Comintern, was established to convene and coordinate communist parties in other countries. The political upheaval in Moscow, as well as the philosophy and strategies of the Soviet Union's leader, Vladimir Lenin, were intriguing to Chinese revolutionaries.

Saich: And you begin to see them moving to the more extreme solutions and the more extreme ideologies that they think is going to provide an overall solution for China. And then, of course, they look at Soviet Russia and say, "Hey, it's successful." It's broken the chain of an imperial system. It's broken the chain of dominance by the colonial powers and then, eventually, the economy begins to move forward, as well. So, it looked an attractive alternative.

Seiter: The interest was mutual. Lenin hoped that the establishment of the Soviet Union would spark a global working-class movement worldwide, including in China. Spreading communism to China became one of Lenin's priorities.

Saich: They identified China as a revolutionary base for the whole of East Asia. So, originally the idea was it wouldn't just be China, but it would pull in Korea, it would pull in Japan.

Seiter: What happens next is the subject of Professor Saich's book, which takes advantage of the recent publication of two key sets of archival documents. The first from Moscow at the Archives of the Comintern, and the second from Amsterdam at the Institute for Social History. Together, these materials provided Professor Saich with a more nuanced narrative of the CCP, particularly around its relationship with Soviet powers. As Communism gained more influence in China, the Comintern began to advise and consult its leaders. This is where the new archival documents come in, to shed light on the complicated web of strategies, debates and alliances carried out between the Comintern and the nascent CCP, all with the initial goal of expanding Russia's proletarian revolution into China. These archival documents are particularly important because, according to Professor Saich, the historical record on the CCP's development has thus far tended to be skewed depending on who's narrating.

Saich: Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, basically historians were official historiographers for the party. So, they're both gonna reflect what the party wants to tell you about that period of time. So, I think, if you look at sort of first iterations of historians writing about China, it was a lot more emphasis on Soviet domination. I think what we can do now is redress that balance.

Seiter: In fact, much of Professor Saich's book features the often unique viewpoints and actions of one Comintern member, Henk Sneevliet, a Dutch labor organizer and revolutionary, handpicked by Lenin to lead Soviet work in China.

Saich: In a way, he becomes like the spider at the center of a web and part of that web is not of his making because he has to conform with what the Comintern is laying down as policy. He's got to adjust that to the reality on the ground in China and of course, often they jar - what is happening on the ground doesn't fit ideology or policies or dictates from Moscow.

Seiter: Sneevliet was tasked with navigating between various interests in Russia and China, balancing what an array of groups thought were the most effective means of establishing a Revolutionary Communist Party in China. And, while he wasn't able to bend China entirely to his will, he was able to leave two legacies of Soviet strategy that Professor Saich says have shaped Chinese governance to this day. The first was to organize the party around the strict guidelines and structure prescribed by Lenin.

Saich: In word if not in deed, from the beginning the Chinese Communist Part adopted all the trappings of Leninism: hierarchal organization, democratic centralism, minority subordinate to the majority. And continually it keeps reasserting in its party's constitution that it is a Leninist party. And that maintains down to today. See Xi Jinping - his belief is in the paramount power and importance of the Chinese Communist Party and it's only the Chinese Communist Party that can really drive China forward.

Seiter: The second legacy Sneevliet left with the CCP was the organizational tactic of the United Front, whereby the Communist Party combines forces with other segments of society to consolidate political power and achieve a broad mission.

Saich: The second, the United Front, has come and gone depending on how accommodating the Communist Party has felt or how much it has needed others to help it meet its objectives. At times, when the Chinese Communist Party wants to emphasize the economy and development, it builds united fronts and it builds connections with intellectuals, with economists, with technicians that help it develop its policies.

Seiter: The success Sneevliet found with the CCP ended under circumstances outside of his control. Over time, Soviet leadership began to prioritize their own national interests over the cultivation of a global working-class movement based in international solidarity. Sneevliet wrote to his Comintern superiors criticizing the shift. The Comintern decided to dismiss him and appointed a Bolshevik, named Mikhail Borodin, to take his place. Sneevliet only found out about the change when he ran into Borodin on a train as he was leaving China.

Saich: And I think there's no better symbolic moment than that handing the baton from the global revolutionary to the good Soviet soldier and apparatchik.

Seiter: Professor Saich's hope is that his book and the archival material it discusses will prompt a renewed understanding of what's possible for China through a reclamation of the CCP's history.

Saich: I think one way that they can be used, as I said, is by Chinese nationals who want to rediscover that there is a history that relates to their own movement which is quite distinct from the official narratives. So, I think it's important to know there is another history to the Chinese Communist Party which is very open, very diverse, very engaging, with different ideas and that is gone, but it's there beneath the surface and maybe one day that will be retrieved for future reviews.

The book is Finding Allies and Making Revolution: The Early Years of the Chinese Communist Party, written by Tony Saich, Director of the Ash Center for Democracy and Government Innovation and Daewoo Professor of International Affairs. It's published by Brill.

This has been Behind the Book, a production of Library and Knowledge Services at Harvard Kennedy School. Special thanks to the Hauser Studio. Find past and future episodes of Behind the Book by subscribing to Harvard Kennedy School on YouTube, following us on Twitter at @hkslibrary and visiting our website.