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“We Are the Ones Who Manage the Affairs of the People”: The Kuomintang Party School and its Legacy on both sides of the Taiwan Strait after 1949

Anatol Klass

How a group of Chinese classmates applied their diplomatic craft in radically different political environments during the first decades of the Cold War.

When Zhou Ziya (周子亚 1911-1995), one of the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) first experts on international law, passed away at the age of 84, the tributes from his students and colleagues extoled his many contributions to the development of legal studies and practice in the new nation after 1949.

Zhou had taught hundreds of students over the course of nearly four decades spent as a professor at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences’ Institute of Law, many of whom themselves went on to hold prominent positions in government and academia. He was a director of the Chinese Society of International Law and a longtime member of an academic advisory committee for the People’s Liberation Army Navy. He pioneered an approach to international maritime law that is still deployed by PRC officials today, analyzing the Law of the Sea to expose its “political” roots. Even before the revolution, he authored a withering international legal perspective on the guilt of American soldiers who were accused of abducting and raping a Chinese college student in the 1946 Shen Cong Affair, contributing to the mass anti-American and anti-Kuomintang movement that followed.

These paeans, however, breezed over Zhou’s early years and the educational background that prepared him for a career as one of the PRC’s first international law experts. Born in Hangzhou in 1911, the same year as the founding of the Republic of China, Zhou spent the first decades of his adult life in the service of a different national project. At the age of 17, he was admitted to the Kuomintang’s party school, then called the Central School of Party Affairs (國民黨中央黨務學校). As was required of all incoming students at the party school, Zhou joined the Kuomintang (KMT) and pledged to work for the Nationalist Party and its fledgling government upon graduation.

A year after Zhou enrolled, the KMT reorganized its school to focus on training civil servants for the newly established government in Nanjing rather than party cadres for political work. With the reorganization came a new name, new departments, and new curricula. The party school was rebranded as the Central Political Institute (中央政治學校), the name by which it would be known until it ceased to be run by the KMT after World War II and was brought under the authority of the Ministry of Education as a regular university.[1]

Courses for future judges and tax officials replaced the original political organizing curriculum. Leninist cadre training gave way to scientific managerialism and other specialized skills thought to be crucial in modern governance. Written by Chen Guofu, one of the KMT’s most notorious rightwing ideologues, the school song opened with the stirring declaration that “politics is the art of managing the affairs of the people/ And we are the ones who manage the affairs of the people” (“政治是管眾人之事,我們就是管理眾人之事的人”). When the school opened a Diplomacy Department (外交系) in 1930, Zhou Ziya transferred into it as one of 11 students in the founding class. After graduating, he worked for the Republic of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, both in the Nanjing headquarters and in various overseas consulates.

Even among those who study the development of the legal profession in post-revolutionary China, Zhou’s name is relatively little known. Perhaps precisely because of his background as a KMT party member and nationalist government bureaucrat, he largely remained on the academic periphery of PRC law and governance, always in an advisory role but never himself a high-ranking official of the new state.

I came across Zhou while researching my dissertation, a prosopographical study of the nearly 130 students who graduated from the KMT party school’s Diplomacy Department during its first decade. I begin by examining the student experience of this cohort in the classroom and on campus as they navigated the competing claims of the Chinese Nationalist Party’s political education and technocratic skills acquisition. The dissertation then follows those young bureaucrats as they entered the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the 1930s and 1940s, deploying their newly acquired diplomatic skills and philosophies to transform the structure, functions, and orientation of the institution. Finally, I trace the rise of these individuals to positions of prominence within the two Chinese diplomatic systems, one in Beijing and the other in Taipei, during the early Cold War.

Nearly half of the Diplomacy Department alumni stayed in Mainland China after 1949 and this network of KMT-trained diplomats exercised influence (to varying degrees) on both sides of the Taiwan Strait throughout the 1950s, the 1960s, and the 1970s. Many historians have highlighted continuities between the Republican and Maoist periods while ignoring the historical experience of the Republic of China (ROC) on Taiwan after 1949. I, instead, track the political and institutional bifurcation that occurred after the revolution with former classmates and colleagues pursuing parallel careers from the two rival Chinese Ministries of Foreign Affairs.

The archival research for the dissertation was conducted primarily in Taiwan with the support of the Wilson Center’s Chun and Jane Chiu Family Foundation Fellowship in Taiwan Studies. Most of the documents were collected at Academia Sinica’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs Archive, Academia Historica, the KMT Party Archives, and the archival collections of National Chengchi University (NCCU), the modern-day successor to the Central Political Institute.

Academia Sinica and Academia Historica are both relatively well-known and easy to navigate archives. Sinica’s collection allowed me to track the graduates’ careers in the Republic of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, following their institutional paper trail as they generated memos and intelligence reports from various far-flung consular outposts or obscure sub-committees. Historica’s collection included the personnel files for almost all my subjects, crucial information as I built up a biographical database. These files not only included biographical data, but also performance evaluations and letters of recommendation that helped me track the networks of patronage and collaboration that emerged among the young bureaucrats.

NCCU’s collections are less well known and deserve greater scholarly attention, especially as the KMT party archives have now come under the stewardship of NCCU’s libraries. This transition is welcome news for those hoping to make use of the party archives as the previous reading room, at least in its final months, was reduced to a single bank of computers in a windowless room on the first floor of the party headquarters on Bade Road in Taipei. Those computers, when they were functional, allowed researchers to access documents that had been digitized in previous collaborations between the archive and external academic institutions like National Taiwan University and Stanford’s Hoover Institution. There were not, however, an easily navigable procedure for requesting that non-digitized materials be made available. The new system at NCCU makes it far easier to work with archivists who will digitize any requested materials for viewing in the library’s reading room.

In addition to these party documents, a wide variety of new materials related to the Central Political Institute have become available to researchers in recent years, most of them housed at NCCU, but little progress has been made in terms of incorporating these new documents into historical analysis of the Nationalistperiod or illuminating the school’s lasting influence on postwar China and Taiwan.

In 2012, the National Library of China announced the creation of a new initiative known as the “Republican Period Historical Materials Preservation Plan” (民国时期文献保护计划) to facilitate the promulgation of documents from archives and libraries around the country related to the period of KMT control.  Since the beginning of this project, the Second Historical Archives of China in Nanjing and the Nanjing Library have declassified and published a wealth of previously unavailable documents, including many on the Central Political Institute. In particular, researchers can now consult the investigatory field reports written by students during their practical internships in their chosen area of government work as well as the school’s administrative records.

As a result of the new focus on Republican historical materials, the Second Historical archives also established a document sharing partnership with National Chengchi University in Taipei whereby newly available Second Historical materials on the school can be read in the NCCU Archive reading room. This partnership is especially important today, as researchers with foreign passports face huge hurdles accessing the Second Historical archives or any other mainland Chinese collection.

Zhou Ziya was by no means the only standout figure in early graduating cohorts of the Central Political Institute’s Diplomacy Department. His classmates included the first (and for many years the only) female consular officer in China’s diplomatic corps, a literature professor who later committed himself to translating all of Theodore Dreiser’s novels into Chinese for PRC readers, and the future husband of a well-known film and television actress who was recently featured as the grandmother in 2018’s Crazy Rich Asians.

Yet, to my mind at least, Zhou’s proper foil is a fellow member of the original class who also transferred into Diplomacy when it was created in 1930. Zhu Jianmin (朱建民1908-2010), born in Henan, had a nearly identical CV to Zhou Ziya up until 1949 when he followed the KMT regime to Taiwan, while Zhou stayed in mainland China. The two young men were stars of the first Diplomacy cohort, the two favorite proteges of the department’s first chair, Xu Mo (徐謨 1893-1956), who would later become the first Chinese judge on the International Court of Justice. Upon graduating in 1933, both Zhu and Zhou spent two years working for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Nanjing before being sent to China’s embassy in Hitler’s Germany, earning master’s degrees from the University of Berlin while also serving as diplomatic attaches.

Zhu and Zhou both floated back and forth between academia and government work. Like Zhou, however, Zhu settled in academia after 1949, returning to the Diplomacy Department as a professor (though the school had changed its name to NCCU and moved to Taipei, the department remained intact and was still a feeder program for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs) where he was a fixture until his death at the age of 102. One of the highest student awards at the contemporary Diplomacy Department is named in his honor. Zhu spent half a century training the Republic of China’s top foreign affairs experts, both academics and practitioners. In the celebratory volumes that were compiled for Zhu’s seventieth, eightieth, ninetieth, and hundredth birthdays, the reverence with which the professor’s students, a dazzling array of postwar ROC diplomatic personages, spoke of him mirrored the tone of adulation that Zhu and members of his generation used when describing their own teacher, Xu Mo.

The similarities between Zhu Jianmin and Zhou Ziya’s career trajectories both before and, more surprisingly, after 1949 suggest that the KMT’s pre-war state-building efforts influenced the structure and character of Chinese and Taiwanese governance in the second half of the century, even if neither contemporary government is eager to claim the legacy.

My dissertation analyzes the lives and careers of these 130 foreign policy experts in support of a wide range of theses about Chinese and Taiwanese governance in the twentieth century. I argue that these figures, based on the novel theories of international politics that they encountered at the Central Political Institute, helped bring about a structural and strategic transformation of Chinese diplomacy in the 1930s that set the course for both Ministries of Foreign Affairs after 1949. Yet, as Zhu and Zhou’s parallel careers suggest, at its core this is a project about a single educational cohort split in half by the course of history, a group of classmates with the same training and expertise who applied their craft in radically different political environments during the first decades of the Cold War.


[1] Scholars have used a wide variety of English translations for the school’s name, making it hard to track through English-language historiography. I choose to call it the Central Political Institute because that was the name which students and administrators consistently used in their own English writing during the period of its existence. Similarly, thought I generally use Pinyin transliterations for names of Chinese people or institutions, I still use other spellings that are widely in use for particular names (e.g. Chiang Kai-shek instead of Jiang Jieshi) or are used by the subjects themselves (e.g. the Chinese Nationalist Party to this day refers to itself as the Kuomintang or KMT in English rather than the Guomindang).

About the Author

Anatol Klass

Anatol Klass

Former Chun and Jane Chiu Family Foundation Fellow in Taiwan Studies;
UC Berkeley History Department

Mr. Anatol Klass is the Chun and Jane Chiu Family Foundation Fellow in Taiwan Studies, affiliated with the Wilson Center's History and Public Policy Program, in summer 2022.

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