Barnett on the public mood in southern China (1948)

A. Doak Barnett was an American writer and academic who specialised in China, where his father had served extensively as a missionary. Writing in late 1948, Barnett describes the public mood in the Guomindang-held regions of southern China:

“Political demoralisation in these areas is almost universal, and morale is incredibly low. Almost no spirit of resistance against the Communists remains, and faith in the Central Government seems to have vanished. I talked with people of many sorts – businessmen, educators, rickshaw coolies, civil servants, technicians, merchants. All were psychologically prepared for a basic shift of political control and a change of regime.

This low moral stems from numerous factors: the difficulty of ordinary living, a longing for peace and stability, and a growing mistrust of the Central Government, as well as the ominous reports from fighting fronts. Remarks such as ‘This can‘t go on’ or ‘Any change will be for the better’ are accompanied by solemn head-shaking and dour expressions. The people with whom I talked face the future, and the prospect of a Communist-dominated government, with emotions that mix resignation, relief, and apprehension in varying degrees.

The ‘mood of the people’ is an intangible thing that cannot be described in neat formulas or measurable terms. In China, the difficulty of defining the political mood is magnified by the scarcity of media of public expression. Whatever its validity elsewhere, the concept of ‘public opinion’ is not generally applicable in China because the majority of the population is politically inarticulate.

Furthermore, millions of people without access to reliable information have no clear-cut opinions about national political events. They react emotionally to such stimuli as grapevine rumors, incomplete news, distorted reports – and the local price of rice. They feel, rather than understand, political trends.

The people I met between Shanghai and Canton [Guangzhou] feel that the time is ripe for a major political change in China. Even those who fear change seem to accept its inevitability with helpless resignation.”