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Zhang Xun with the warlord Puyi 1917 (zhangxun) http://visualisingchina.net/#hpc-gr02-067

Modern Chinese History I: The Republic of China 1911-1925


Introduction

The Qing Imperial Monarchy was ultimately toppled by a decentralized revolution. Once it had been overthrown, it proved hard to find a new governmental structure that was satisfactory to all the regional economic and political interests which had worked to depose the Manchus. All agreed that China should be unified, that foreign imperialism must be halted and that China should reclaim control over its economic assets. However, revolutionaries wanted to achieve these goals through the wholesale restructure of government and society while conservatives wanted a new political and societal structure that preserved the influence they had acquired during the Qing Dynasty.

Delegations during signing of the Treaty of Versailles

The first decade of the Republic of China passed without it being able to install an effective central government. As regional warlords became more powerful and as China became disillusioned with the West following the Versailles Treaty’s transfer of Germany’s concessions in China to Japan, many educated Chinese increasingly feared that their country would be sliced up.

In response, intellectuals renewed their search through every kind of political organizational theory, including Marxist Socialism, in the hope of finding the best governmental structure for China. The disadvantages of using Confucianism as the organizational basis of China’s social fabric were debated and Western scientific knowledge was sought in order to advance China’s modernization. Many began to argue for the use of vernacular Chinese in writing and education in order to improve the accessibility of information. By 1921, the Chinese Communist Party had been founded in Shanghai with 53 members. Its founding corresponded with a rise of urban labor activism and of a merchant class that was increasingly nationalistic. The immediate period after the 1911 Revolution also saw greater independence for China’s border regions.

Yuan Shikai, the Kuomintang, the Second Revolution, Failed Dynastic Restoration

General Yuan Shikai, President of the Republic of China

In 1911, the Qing Dynasty was deposed.  On 12th February 1912, the Republic of China was founded. For his help in overthrowing the dynasty, Sun Yat-sen agreed that Yuan Shikai would become the first president of the new Republic. Meanwhile, Sun Yat-sen and his followers founded the Kuomintang (KMT) or the Nationalist Party, also referred to as the Guomindang. The KMT was a loyal opposition party designed to compete in electoral politics with Yuan Shikai and his followers. During the first assembly elections held in December 1912, the KMT won approximately 43% of the vote. Yuan Shikai was not pleased with these electoral results, nor with the KMT’s constant criticism of his policies.

The KMT was particularly censorious of Yuan’s management of national finances. By 1913, ineffective taxation meant that the government was running an approximately 13 million yuan monthly deficit. National cash flow was further hampered by foreign control over many of China’s economic assets. The foreign-controlled Imperial Maritime Customs, for instance, directly deposited China’s custom revenue in foreign banks which was then used to pay the interest on China’s rapidly accumulating foreign debt. Even salt taxes were under foreign supervision. Yet, instead of addressing tax and revenue collection directly, Yuan organized an additional loan of £25 million from a five-power foreign banking consortium. Yuan felt the loan necessary to give him the resources he needed to defend his power. Sun Yat-sen and his followers argued that the loan would further increase foreign control over China’s economy.

Song Jiaoren

In 1913 Song Jiaoren, the KMT campaign manager and a potential-prime minister, was assassinated, probably on the orders of Yuan Shikai. The KMT responded to the murder by calling for Yuan Shikai’s resignation. When he refused, they launched what has been called the Second Revolution. Yuan Shikai crushed the revolt easily, forcing Sun Yat-sen to flee to Japan. Yuan’s quick victory against the KMT fuelled his already growing dreams of grandeur.   While Yuan supported a strong, modern, industrialized Chinese state, he now envisioned that this state would be ruled by a dynasty with himself as emperor.

Despite Yuan’s imperial ambitions, he launched many modern reforms designed to strengthen the country. Specifically, he strived to develop an independent judiciary believing that an effective, impartial court would be China’s best method to terminate foreign extraterritoriality. He also centralized the national currency and, in agriculture, he enhanced productivity through improved irrigation and more efficient distribution of agricultural products to regional markets. Significant progress was also made in eradicating opium use during this time. Yuan advocated free compulsory primary school education. He also partially reformed the penal system, improving sanitation, work facilities, and prisoner education.

Foreign powers observed changing events in China closely. Their main priority was to protect their Chinese investments. These totaled almost $788 million in 1912 and reached $1.61 billion by 1914. They also wished to safeguard their nationals in the event of any recurrence of a Boxer-like, anti-foreign outbreak.

South Manchuria Railway

To obtain foreign support for his imperial ambitions, Yuan signed agreements with Russia and Britain giving them special privileges in Outer Mongolia and Tibet respectively. Yuan also agreed to the bulk of Japan’s infamous Twenty-One Demands presented to China by the Japanese ambassador in January 1915. The Twenty-One Demands effectively allowed Japan to take significant jurisdiction over Shandong, South Manchuria, Eastern Mongolia and China’s coastline. It also gave Japan the right to extract revenue from railway and mining concessions and placed in joint Sino-Japanese administration the huge Han-Ye-Ping iron and coal works in central China. Yuan’s American advisor, Frank Goodwin, contended that China might be better suited to a constitutional monarchy than it was to a republic, and thus also did not object to Yuan’s move to assume imperial power.

Zhang Xun, Qing-loyalist who attempted to restore Emperor Puyi

With foreign support in place, Yuan’s monarchical movement went public. In December 1915, Yuan accepted “petitions” by provisional representatives which asked that he become emperor. His reign, to be called Hong Xian, or the Glorious Constitution, was to start on 1st January 1916. Yet he badly misread the Chinese public. The Chinese were particularly angry about Yuan’s signing of the humiliating Twenty-One Demands. On 23 December 1915, an ultimatum was delivered to Yuan to stand down or face civil war. Thwarted, Yuan Shikai died in June 1916 of kidney failure, leaving a power vacuum and no national consensus about how China should move forward politically.

Warlord General Zhang Xun, a zealous supporter of the Qing imperial family, led his army into Beijing in mid-June 1917 to restore the abdicated Qing Emperor Puyi, now a boy of 11. His efforts were foiled by rival generals, and once-again the emperor was deposed. Instead of being punished, it was decided that Puyi was to be given a modern Western education under European tutors. General Zhang’s failed insurrection destroyed the pretense that China’s central government had any significant power. Instead, power devolved to the provinces into the hands of warlords.

Warlordism 1916-1927

Chinese Warlord-era General Wu Peifu on Time Cover

During the Warlord Era, a nominal government continued to claim authority in Beijing, but its power was almost entirely restricted to the capital and to relations with foreigners. In actuality, the political structure of China was completely fragmented.  Generals and regional landlords vied with each other for power and formed constantly shifting alliances in a manner reminiscent of the Warring States Period.

The nature of the warlords was as varied as the provinces over which they ruled. Some were ruthless despots and thugs while others were educated and worked to instill in their men their own ideas of morality. Some subjugated whole provinces, financing their armies through local taxes gathered by their own officials. Others ruled only a few towns, raising money from theft. Some warlords supported the Republic, preferring that their territory be reintegrated into a valid constitutional state. A number choose to work with foreign powers, whether they were the British in Shanghai, the Japanese in Manchuria or the French in the southwest. Some grew opium in order to generate revenues.

World War I and the May 4th Movement

Japanese Troops in Manchuria

When World War I broke out, to strengthen its claims on Chinese territories, Japan entered into a series of secret treaties with Britain, Russia, the United States and the acting Chinese government. The February 1917 Anglo-Japanese agreement required Britain to support Japanese claims in Shandong, and agreed that Germany’s Pacific possessions north of the equator were to go to Japan while those in the south could be claimed by Britain. The February 1917 Russo-Japanese agreement acknowledged Japan’s Twenty-One Demands and Russia’s territorial gains in Outer Mongolia. The November 1917 American-Japanese Lansing-Ishii Agreement concluded that: “geographical propinquity created special relations between nations”. In other words the US recognized that Japan, by virtue of its geography, had a special position in China. Finally, in a September 1918 secret pact, the Beijing government gave Japan right to build two railways in Shandong and to station its troops there as it deemed necessary in exchange for ¥20 million.

Although there was no historical precedent of China engaging in global events far from its shores, China entered World War I on the side of the Allies in 1917. China believed that if it fought to defeat Germany, then it would be able to reclaim Germany’s Chinese concessions. While China could not offer the Allies combat troops, it could provide manpower which would free up French and British males to go to the front. By 1918, an estimated 96,000 Chinese were laboring in France Ultimately, 2000 Chinese workers died in France and a further 543 lost their lives at sea.

Chinese Labour Corps load sacks of oats at Boulogne during World War I

After World War I ended, the Chinese delegation went to the Versailles peace negotiations believing they would benefit from the principles of democracy and self-determination which Woodrow Wilson espoused. Specifically, they hoped to recover Shandong and to abolish the so-called ‘Unequal Treaties’, under which foreign powers maintained privileged statuses in China. Instead, they were informed that the peace conference would deal only with those problems arising from the conclusion of the war. Only Shandong, therefore, qualified to be discussed. Moreover, the secret treaties that Japan had concluded, including the secret pact with the acting Beijing’s government, meant that China’s claims to Shandong had been effectively forfeited.

Beijing students protesting the Treaty of Versailles on May 4, 1919

The inability of China to achieve any of their objectives, despite having fought with the Allies, humiliated and angered China. Its sting felt all the more sharp as it came on top of the disgrace of Japan’s Twenty-One Demands. In protest, on May 4th  1919, 3000 students from 13 universities began to peacefully march through Beijing. They handed out leaflets written in Chinese vernacular which explained how the loss of Shandong was equivalent to the end of China’s territorial integrity. They called on all Chinese to protest. The march turned violent at the house of Cao Rulin, the Minister of Communications. Cao had backed the pro-Japanese Anfu group and was considered by many of the protestors to be one of China’s worst traitors. Inside, although Cao was absent, the students found Zhang Zongxiang the Chinese ambassador to Japan. They severely beat Zhang and set Cao’s house on fire. Thirty-two students were arrested, but they were set free three days later.

Zhang Zongxiang

Further protests erupted throughout China. The student protests generated nation-wide sympathy. In Shanghai alone, as many as 60,000 workers staged some form of work stoppage in solidarity. These strikes marked a new development in Chinese history. Thereafter, protesters frequently made good use of strikes to fight injustice, despite the risks of unemployment, beatings and even death. The series of demonstrations, strikes and boycotts that followed became known as the May 4th Movement, and it is said by many to mark the beginning of modern Chinese nationalism. Today, May 4th continues to be marked as an important commemoration with the date carrying huge political significance. The immediate result of the students’ actions was that the Chinese delegation left France without signing the Versailles Treaty.

Intellectual Awakening

Yan Fu translated Darwin’s works into Chinese

The failure of the Republic, the rise of the warlords, the betrayal of Versailles and the increasing encroachment of imperial powers into Chinese territory heightened a Chinese fear present since the time of the Opium Wars:  that China was at risk of being dismembered. This fear caused Chinese intellectuals and leaders to search for tools and philosophies that would allow China to become a modern, unified nation free from imperialism. Many continued to try to adapt western philosophies and science to the Chinese situation.

In 1896, for instance, Yan Fu  translated into Chinese the writings of Huxley and Spencer which applied Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” theories to human society: just as animals struggle for survival, Huxley and Spencer argued that people – and eventually their societies – also struggle, with the weak becoming prey to the strong. To prevent extinction, Yan argued that China and the Han Chinese people must evolve new strength. Early twentieth century Chinese thinkers applied the idea of strength broadly. Indeed, in his 1917 essay, A Study of Physical Education, Mao Zedong criticized the Chinese’s traditional aversion to physical exercise, arguing that physical prowess strengthened a people’s determination as well as making them more effective combatants.

Confucianism and traditionalism were also attacked. With the exception of friend-friend, the remaining four relationships of Confucianism – ruler-ruled, father-son, elder brother-younger brother, and husband-wife – were hierarchical in nature. Many intellectuals argued that this rigid social structure prevented China from modernizing as it encouraged subservience and discouraged independent thinking. It also completely subjugated women. In a series of 1919 articles Mao advocated the importance of granting women greater rights, arguing that empowered women would allow China to face the world with the full strength of its 400 million people.

Young Mao Zedong in 1919 advocated women’s rights and physical exercise

Increasingly, these views were expressed in magazines and publications such as the New Tide, The Weekly Critic and The New Youth. These magazines helped expand the intellectual debate both geographically and throughout society.  Often their articles were written in a simple vernacular style that could be understood by those with little education.

Debate about China’s national language began soon after the Republic was founded. By 1913 it was agreed that Mandarin would be the national language. Pronunciation was standardized and phonetic symbols were introduced to represent this pronunciation. By 1917 intellectuals began to argue that this standardized Mandarin should be written in a vernacular which was closely aligned to spoken language as opposed to the difficult classical language of Confucian scholars.

Other Chinese intellectuals lost faith in the West after Versailles and found it difficult to accept the West as both teacher and oppressor. Intellectuals such as Li Dazhao and Chen Duxiu began studying Marxist socialism and the Bolshevik Revolution. Socialism was appealing because it offered a way to reject both the constraints of Chinese tradition and Western domination. It also represented a goal as yet unrealized in Western Europe and America. Its success in China would put China ideologically ahead of the capitalist states.

The Russian Revolution also brought home to many educated Chinese that the outside world was changing in radical ways. Seeing these changes caused many Chinese intellectuals to believe in China’s own ability for radical change. The intellectual and psychological appeal of Marxism was further strengthened in 1919 by the Soviet readiness to renounce the old Tsarist special rights and privileges in China. Even though the Soviets later backtracked from some aspects of their offer – specifically with regard to returning Chinese railways without compensation – the Chinese remained appreciative of their gesture, particularly in contrast to Western and Japanese imperialist policies.

Pictured in Red Square in 1919, Soviet revolutionary leaders inspired Chinese thinkers

Increasingly debates within China centered on the relative advantages of gradual social reforms versus rapid radical change. In contrast to radical thinkers advocating a complete overthrow of Chinese societal norms, pragmatists such as Hu Shu argued for steady change in Chinese society that would be driven by scientific and methodical solutions to specific practical problems. This pragmatic, evolutionary method was partially adapted by the KMT. Communists, on the other hand, agreed with thinkers such as John Dewey who visited China from 1919 to 1921. Dewey argued that China’s 1911 Revolution was failing because it was externally imposed and did not alter the ideas of life – governed by Confucianism – which really controlled society. Chinese communists interpreted this to mean that China required a complete overhaul of Chinese society and industry.

Yet, regardless of their approach, most Chinese thinkers of the era recognized the need to adapt foreign ideas creatively to the Chinese experience. This was especially true for the Marxists. Li Dazhao argued, for instance, that China was being subjugated by foreign imperialists that exploited the Chinese people just as capitalists exploited workers in more developed countries. In China, it was often the imperialists who owned the means of production and took the workers’ surplus value. Perhaps most critically, if Marxism was to be applied to China, somehow the central role Marxist theory gave to the urban proletariat in revolution would have to evolve. China was a country of peasants despite its growing number of urban workers.

As Li, and his colleagues grappled with how to adapt Marxism to China, he encouraged his students to work in the Chinese countryside around Peking. By the early 1920s, under Li’s guidance, Peking University students had founded the Mass Education Speech Corps and were traveling to villages. Those students learned first hand about the desperation and the poverty of the Chinese countryside. This poverty was often further aggravated by droughts and floods bringing famine and plague.

The Birth of  the Chinese Communist Party 1921 – Li Dazhao and Mao Zedong

Li Dazhao, one of China’s first Marxists

Increasingly, the National University in Beijing became a hotbed of radicalism. As early as 1918 Li Dazhao, then a librarian, had declared himself a Marxist. He founded the New Tide Society followed by the Marxist Research Society which eventually became the Society for the Study of Socialism in December 1919. By March 1920 the various Marxist groups in Beijing united to form the Beijing Society for the study of Marxism. Li’s library assistant was Mao Zedong. Born to a wealthy farmer in Shaoshan, Hunan, Mao took up a Chinese nationalist and anti-imperialist outlook early in life after having been profoundly influenced by events such as the May 4th Movement. He too was an early adopter of Marxism-Leninism.

In April 1920, Russian Gregory Voitinsky met with Li and other radical academics and students. In Shanghai he held meetings with Chen Duxiu, an extremist from the May 4th  generation. It was during these meetings that it was decided to create the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The first secret Congress of the CCP took place on July 23, 1921 on the premises of a girls’ school in Shanghai, but was eventually relocated to a boat on the South Lake near Jiaxing in Zhejiang province for greater secrecy. 13 delegates attended representing the 53 members of the local Chinese communist groups in existence. Mao Zedong was said to be among these delegates, though this has been questioned by some academics. Early CCP objectives included the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism, the rule of the proletariat and an alliance with the Third International, the Comintern. Under the leadership of Vladimir Lenin, the Comintern’s goal was to foster world communist revolution. Additionally, the CCP planned to establish more labor unions, publish magazines and exploit other avenues to organize and educate the working class. During the Second Congress in July 1922, it was decided that the CCP would create a temporary alliance with the KMT led by Sun Yat-sen in order to advance its revolutionary objectives.

Li Dazhao meeting with Russian Voitinsky

However, while the early Congresses were able to agree overall objectives for the fledgling Communist Party, the means to achieve these objectives continued to be debated. In Shanghai, Chen subscribed to the general European Marxist view that industrial workers were the key to revolution. In Beijing, Li continued to argue that as the peasantry constituted more than 90% of the population and as agriculture was still the basis of the national economy, the peasants must lead the Chinese Communist revolution. This argument strongly influenced the thinking of Mao Zedong. After Li was executed on the orders of a Beijing-based warlord in 1927, it was Mao who carried on the push to make the peasant central to the Chinese Communist Revolution, putting his mentor’s ideas eventually into practice.

The Rise of the Chinese Workers Movement

Early railway car factory in northern China

At the same time that Marxist ideas were beginning to be seriously explored in China, China was seeing the emergence of a politically-conscious merchant class and urban labor force numbering between two and three million by 1919. Western and Japanese imperialism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries had spurred urbanization and industrialization in northeast China and the Treaty Ports. This industrialization was driven by the coupling of foreign capital with abundant, cheap labor. When the World War I erupted, Europeans powers recalled all nationals from China, allowing a new generation of Chinese entrepreneurs and managers to fill their void. This gave the new Chinese entrepreneurs invaluable business experience and allowed them to make large fortunes. Japan, too, competed to take advantage of the European absence.

Working conditions in these factories were often horrific. Conflict between workers and managers grew progressively more frequent.  Indeed, by the 1920s, there was already a history of trade labor unions and strikes as was seen during the May 4th protests. As CCP power grew, it would increasingly exploit this labor movement to its advantage.

Nanjing Road, Shanghai in the 1920s

A pinnacle of this labor protest occurred on May 30th 1925. The crisis started when Chinese workers, angry at being locked out of a Japanese-owned Shanghai textile mill during a strike, broke into the factory and damaged machinery. Japanese guards reacted by firing into the crowd, killing one worker. His death ignited public anger, student demonstrations, further strikes and arrests. On the 30th May thousands of workers and students gathered at the Nanjing Road Police Station, insisting on the release of six arrested Chinese students and protesting against foreign imperialism.  As the numbers of protesters increased and as they began to chant “kill the foreigners”, the commanding British inspector ordered the group to disband and then fired before the protestors could obey, killing 11 and wounding 20.

Chinese anger over the slaughter spread nationally. At least 28 other cities held rallies in solidarity with the May 30th  victims and a general strike was called in Shanghai. Foreign powers brought in troops to protect their international settlements. The tension from the May 30th incident was escalated in June when a major strike was launched in Hong Kong targeting the British. During a strike rally, British troops shot at protestors, killing 52 Chinese and wounding 100. Chinese fury boiled over and the strike in Hong Kong – which eventually lasted 16 months – was coupled by a boycott of British goods. Not until December, when the British police inspector and his lieutenants were fired and when an indemnity of 75,000 Chinese dollars was paid to the deceased families did public outrage quiet.

Mongolia, Tibet and Xinjiang

Map of the People’s Republic of Mongolia

Although Mongolia, Tibet and Xinjiang were explicitly stated in the provisional constitution of March 1912 to be included in the territory of the Republic of China, this was never realized in actuality. The Qing’s collapse allowed local political forces to make a bid for independence from China. This aspect of Chinese history is keenly contested as are the border regions themselves. The CCP argues that these territories have always remained under Chinese control, with the exception of Outer Mongolia which has been recognized as an independent country since 1945 (Inner Mongolia has remained as part of China). In contrast, many Mongols, Tibetans and Uyghurs believe that the degree of independence experienced in the years following the Qing’s fall set a precedent which should allow them to negotiate more independence now.

After the 1911 Revolution Inner Mongolia slipped into the hands of local warlords while Outer Mongolia sought help from Czarist Russia in their bid to create an independent state. Chinese control over Outer Mongolia had always been less direct than it had been in Inner Mongolia. After having defended their independence against the Chinese, Mongolia became a People’s Republic in 1924, closely tied economically and militarily to the USSR. Of all the frontier regions, Outer Mongolia was the only one to achieve independence from Chinese control, and this was because of its alliance with the Soviet Union.

Palace of the Old King of Tibet taken in 1905

By the mid-19th century Manchu and Chinese influence in Tibet was more symbolic than real. The Anglo-Chinese Convention of 1906 effectively repudiated Tibet’s efforts to remain independent by reaffirming China’s suzerainty over Tibet. When news of the 1911 Revolution reached Tibet, Tibetans rose against the Chinese, forcing the remaining Chinese out of the country. By January 1913 the exiled Dali Llama returned to Tibet and insisted that he was now Tibet’s sole spiritual and temporal authority. This separation lasted until 1951 when Chinese troops again invaded the region. This period of separation has been one factor fueling current aspirations for Tibetan independence.

Yang Zengxin, Chinese governor of Xinjiang 1911-1928

Xinjiang was formally annexed into the Chinese Empire as a province in 1884. Yang Zengxin became the governor of Xinjiang from 1911 until he was assassinated in 1928. Largely he retained the framework of civil administration that had been used by the Qing Imperial Court to rule its most distant subjects. He succeeded in keeping the region reasonably free from civil strife by isolating it from the turmoil of China proper. Yang’s replacement lacked his authority. Under his control, strains between the Chinese and the native Uyghur rose. In 1931 a local uprising against the Chinese authorities shifted power into the hands of the local warlords. Thereafter, Xinjiang was to remain separate from China and politically unstable throughout Chinese Republican era.

What happened next

Young Chiang Kai-shek

Despite having only 53 members in 1921, CCP membership consistently expanded through 1928 by giving voice to the plight of the working class and peasants. That said, during this time the KMT continued to enjoy greater prestige and numbers. Yet, despite their widely differing objectives, both the communists and the KMT agreed that China should be reunited under one government and that the foreign imperialism must end. With these objectives in mind, the two parties joined forces to retake the provinces from the warlords during the 1924 Northern Expedition.

Yet as communist power and membership grew during the Northern Campaign, KMT’s new leader, Chiang Kai-shek, felt increasingly threatened. In 1927 Chiang launched a coup against the communists in Shanghai. Driven out of the cities, the communists reorganized in rural areas. It was during this time that Mao Zedong, among others, began arguing that the Chinese peasants were to be the key to social change in China. Meanwhile, Chang Kai-shek’s KMT advanced northward. Under his leadership, China was finally re-taken from the warlords in 1928.

 

 

Whampao Military Academy inspection (wma)

Modern Chinese History II: Kuomintang and Communists – An Uneasy Alliance 1921-28

 

Introduction

Troops fighting during the Northern Expedition

Despite having only 53 members in 1921,  the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) membership consistently expanded through 1928 by giving voice to workers and peasants. That said, during this time Sun Yat-sen’s Kuomintang Party (KMT), also referred to as the Guomindang or Nationalist Party, continued to enjoy greater prestige and numbers. Despite their widely differing objectives and conflicting aims, both the fledging communists and the stronger KMT agreed that China must be reunited under one government and that foreign imperialism must end. With these common objectives in mind, the two parties joined forces to retake the fragmented provinces from the warlords during the 1924 Northern Expedition.

Yet as communist power and membership grew during the Northern Campaign, KMT’s new leader, Chiang Kai-shek, felt increasingly threatened. In 1927 Chiang launched a coup against the communists in Shanghai. From then forward, he became consumed with wiping out the communists often at the expense of defending China itself.

Driven out of the cities after the coup, the communists reorganized in rural areas. A series of devastating floods and droughts throughout the 1920s made the countryside ripe for communist influence, as did the harsh rural working conditions that most peasants experienced. It was during this time that Mao Zedong, among others, began arguing that the Chinese peasants were to be the key to social change in China. Meanwhile, Chang Kai-shek’s KMT advanced northward. Under his leadership, China was finally re-taken from the warlords in 1928.

Sun Yat-sen and the Rebirth of the KMT

Article in which Sun Yat-sen first put forward his Three People’s Principles

Sun Yat-sen had escaped to Japan after the failed 1913 Second Revolution. By 1918, Sun returned to Shanghai where he began to reorganize his revolutionary political movement on a national basis. Sun laid out a three-stage revolutionary plan for China: first, China would be conquered militarily; second, a period of political tutelage would ensue, overseen by a benign dictatorship whose job would be to prepare China for democracy; third, China would establish a constitutional government. In 1921 Sun Yat-sen launched a military expedition which was the forerunner to the 1924 Northern Expedition against the warlords. The military expedition failed during conflict with the warlords of the southern provinces of Guangxi and Guangdong. In 1923 Sun struck again and this time was able to re-establish his power in Guangzhou under a nationalist military government.

By 1922, Sun restructured his party in order to improve both unity and discipline. The new KMT Party – now called the Chinese Revolutionary Party – was structured on a political platform based on Sun’s “Three People’s Principles”- of national self-determination, people’s rights, and people’s livelihood. The revised organization also gave Sun control of the National Revolutionary Army (NRA).

The KMT, Soviet support and Chinese Communist Party Alliance

Early Chinese Communist Party leaders Mao Zedong, Zhu De, Zhou Enlai, Bo Gu

While Sun had been restructuring the KMT, he had also been watching the rise of the CCP which was rapidly developing close ties to labor and agrarian organizations. In the spring of 1921, the Dutch Comintern agent H. Maring met with Sun. Maring left impressed with Sun’s ideas of revolution and nationalism. Maring was soon arguing to the Soviet Comintern that the CCP should expand their influence initially through the KMT instead of trying to make a go of it completely independently. As reunifying China was a goal shared by both the CCP and the KMT, Maring argued that  the CCP should first join with the KMT to achieve reunification. The CCP could then proceed with its next objectives: the eradication of foreign imperialism, the organization of the urban proletariat for socialist revolution and the elimination of worker and peasant exploitation.

For his part, Sun was willing to accept the Communists for several reasons. Idealistically, he believed all Chinese, including Communists, should be given a chance to participate in his national revolution. Practically, he saw advantage in exploiting CCP labor and agrarian ties. He also thought accepting CCP members might give him access to Soviet aid; such assistance had not been forthcoming from the West. Furthermore, he realistically feared that independent growth of the CCP under Soviet aegis might undermine KMT authority. It might therefore be better to assimilate them within the KMT before they grew too strong.

Sun Yat-sen

Early CCP leadership only reluctantly agreed to the Soviet’s proposal. They feared KMT influence would corrupt their worker and peasant members. Eventually it was agreed that members of the CCP would join the KMT as individuals rather than as a group. This way they could also would retain their CCP membership. The CCP’s hidden plan was to eventually assume control of the KMT and then “squeeze out the rightists like lemons”.

In 1923 Sun sent his protégé, Chang Kai-shek, to Moscow to meet further with Soviet leaders. Chang Kai-shek was impressed both by the organization of the Soviet military and by the discipline of the Soviet Communist Party. Chiang encouraged Sun to employ some Soviet organizational methods to strengthen the effectiveness of the KMT. To this effect the Comintern agent Mikhail Borodin, was set to Guangzhou to advise the new KMT Central Executive Committee. While there, Borodin encouraged Sun to adopt a more radical agenda. He argued that workers and peasants would flock to the KMT if it promoted an eight hour workday, a fair minimum wage, and the redistribution of landholders’ holdings to the impoverished peasantry. Sun demurred as he felt that he could not risk alienating key industrial and financial allies by supporting such bold social initiatives.

Chiang Kai-shek

During January 1924 the first Congress of the reconstructed KMT was held. Sun’s stature and prestige were decisive factors in holding the CCP and KMT parties together, despite their often conflicting ambitions. Even today Sun remains revered in both parties.

USSR support for the new KMT was evidenced by a congratulatory telegram sent by the Soviet ambassador, Karakhan. Motivation underlying Soviet support was two-pronged. Not only did the USSR believe that the KMT would be useful to their goal of spreading revolution worldwide, but they also believed that building Chinese strength, regardless of the means, would help safeguard its borders.

In Asia Russia’s most significant threat was Japan, a staunchly anti-communist country. Japan had already routed Russia during the 1905 Russo-Japanese War. Japan was now becoming a dominant force in Manchuria, on Russia’s southern frontier. It was thus in Russia’s interest for China to be strong enough to balance against Japan’s rise. As the CCP had only 300 members in 1923, CCP’s alliance with the KMT would help Russia to more quickly expand its influence in China.

The Washington Conference

John Hay oversaw adoption of the 1905 Open Door Policy in China

These domestic political developments took place against the backdrop of two international conferences. The Washington Conference, held between November 1921 and February 1922, was attended by the nine powers which had interest in the Far East and the Pacific: the US, Italy, Great Britain, France, Japan, Belgium, the Netherlands, Portugal and China. A key American objective was to undercut the 1902 Anglo-Japanese Alliance. The Americans viewed the Alliance as contrary to their Open Door Policy which allowed all nations to have equal access to commercial and diplomatic relations, particularly with China. The Americans succeeded in getting the 1921 Four Power Treaty – signed by the United States, Britain, France and Japan – to replaced the Alliance. The new treaty stated that the four powers would resolve conflicts within their Pacific areas of influence by mutual agreement and not by force.

Sir Robert Hart, Inspector General, Chinese Maritime Customs 1863-1908

For their part, the Chinese delegation entered the Conference requesting participants to honor Chinese territorial integrity and political independence, to stop signing treaties between themselves which impacted on China, to respect China’s neutrality in future wars, to eliminate any foreign limitations imposed on its political, jurisdictional and administrative freedoms and to review foreign special rights and concessions in China. The proposal was sympathetically supported by the American and Europeans. In response the Nine Power Treaty was signed, which was to theoretically secure China’s territorial integrity and to restore Chinese sovereignty over parts of the eastern province of Shangdong.

Yet the Treaty lacked any enforcement provision, nor did it invalidate existing foreign privileges. To the ceaseless humiliation of the Chinese, foreigners continued to have significant control over Chinese Maritime Customs, the Salt Revenue and the Postal Service. The Chinese were also taxed without representation in the Shanghai International Settlement. Japan still controlled the Southern Manchurian Railway and used it to advance their objectives within Manchuria while the British dominated South China trade with Hong Kong.

That said, China concluded a 1922 treaty in which Japan agreed to return Jiaozhou and its surrounding region to China within six months, withdraw troops from the area and transfer the Qingdao-Jinan railway to China in exchange for 53 million gold marks. Great Britain also agreed to give up its British Weihai (also known as Weihaiwei) concession on the northern Shandong coast.

Congress of the Toilers of the Far East

The Congress of the Toilers of the Far East was held in Moscow in early 1922 as the USSR alternative to the Washington Conference from which it had been excluded. The Congress argued that the Four Power Treaty was just another means by which Western and Japanese imperialists planned to expand their power outside their own countries. It called for an indissoluble union of the workers of the Far East under the flag of the Communist International (Comintern). It was attended by representatives from China, Korea, Japan and Mongolia who all gave accounts of the conditions in their respective countries.

The First United Front 1923-1927 and the Huangpu (Whampo) Military Academy

Cadet dormitory, Whampoa Military Academy

The 1923-1927 First United Front marked the first period of cooperation between the CCP and the KMT. This included an interlude of preparation and training needed by both CCP and KMT members in order to ready them to launch what would be called the Northern Expedition, during which the CCP and KMT would fight together to retake China from the Chinese warlords.

Founded in 1924, the Whampo Military Academy was created to train the leadership of the United Revolutionary Army. Fresh from Moscow where he had been studying Soviet military methods and trying to attain obtain Soviet arms, Chiang Kai-shek was placed at the head of the new Academy. The Academy initially received 3000 applications and accepted 500, with a further 400 soon after.

Zhou Enlai in National Revolutionary Army uniform 1924

Selection criteria for admission were both physical and ideological. The cadets were to be given a thorough indoctrination in the goals of Chinese nationalism, KMT political philosophy and the Sun’s Three People’s Principles. The graduated officers were to form the nucleus of the National Revolutionary Army. Many of the KMT officers who trained at the Academy during this time became fiercely loyal to Chiang Kai-shek.

CCP members who were also KMT members were also eligible to apply. About 80 of the first 500 cohort were communists including Zhou Enlai who would eventually become the Premier of the People’s Republic of China under Mao Zedong. Indeed, just as it was for the KMT, the Academy proved to be an ideal platform to recruit and train future CCP elite.

Northern Expedition

Funeral of Sun Yat-sen

On March 12, 1925 Sun Yat-sen died from liver cancer. Chiang Kai-shek rushed into the vacuum, quickly working to take control of both the KMT and the NRA. In what has been called the Zhongshan Incident, Chiang seized the Zhongshan gunboat as it sailed into Guangzhou  on March 20th and arrested its CCP Captain. Chiang also arrested many CCP political leaders and their Russian communist advisors. He also disarmed the CCP-controlled Workers Guard Militia. He then took full control of the Whampo Military Academy and consolidated his own power in the KMT.

Going forward,Chiang issued a series of decrees designed to strengthen KMT leadership under his rule: no CCP members could head KMT or government bureaus; no CCP criticism of Sun’s Three People’s Principles would be tolerated; no KMT members could become members of the CCP; the Soviet Comintern was to communicate its orders to the KMT as well as the CCP; and names of CCP members were to be relayed to the KMT Executive Committee. He also made the KMT leadership swear an oath of loyalty to Sun’s Three People’s Principles, in effect cementing the Northern Expedition as a continuation of the vision of Sun Yat-sen.

Borodin and Chiang Kai-shek at the Whampoa Military Academy 1924

Russian representative Borodin encouraged the CCP to accept these terms because Lenin’s death in 1924 had initiated a power struggle between Stalin and Trotsky. Stalin could not afford to look bad because the CCP and his Soviet advisors had been evicted from the KMT. The strategic policies the two Russian rivals were advocating for the burgeoning Chinese revolution were central to each man’s jockeying as he fought for power within the Russian Soviet bureaucratic arena.

Having consolidated his power over the KMT, in 1924 Chiang Kai-shek pushed ahead with Sun’s Northern Expedition. The Northern Expedition’s aim was to retake China from the warlords and to unify the country under KMT leadership. The Northern Expedition was initially fought along three lines: a western route to the city of Changsha in Hunan; a middle route along the Gan River into Jiangxi; and an eastern route into Fujian. The NRA formed alliances with amenable warlords as they fought north, absorbing their militias when possible. Smaller groups of primarily CCP members worked ahead of the army, organizing peasant and urban worker strikes to create disruption and chaos in areas into which the NRA advanced. Thousands of laborers were also organized to move military supplies over the large areas where rail, road and river made mechanized shipment impossible.

Warlord coalitions 1925

The NRA met light resistance as it moved north. This was partially because northern warlords, despite their superior forces, were too preoccupied fighting themselves to coordinate an attack against the NRA. Growing peasant and workers movements also significantly aided the NRA’s advance, as too did the defection to their side of naval units which blocked enemy retreat along the eastern prong of the NRA’s attack. By mid-December 1926, the nationalists had conquered Guangdong, Hunan, Hubei, Jiangxi and Fujian, and had negotiated control over Guangxi and Guizhou. This gave them effective control over territory inhabited by over 170 million people.

On January 11, 1927 Chiang Kai-shek traveled from his Nanchang base to Wuhan to meet the Western NRA arm. Disagreement had broken out between different NRA factions about the best way to continue the northern advance. The troops most closely associated with Chiang Kai-shek had fought along the eastern seaboard of the country while the branch of the army making its base in Wuhan was more heavily influenced by the more leftward leaning commissars and politicians. Chiang wanted to drive to Nanjing – which symbolized the short-lived republican government under Sun Yat-sen – and Shanghai – the industrial and economic heartland of China. In contrast, the more left-leaning Wuhan-based KMT leaders agreed with Soviet agent Borodin that the NRA should march northward toward Manchuria to take Beijing. Ultimately, Chiang won the debate. Chiang not only controlled more troops than the Wuhan NRA arm, but Stalin also insisted that CCP leaders in China must continue to cooperate with Chiang and the KMT.

National Revolutionary Army troops, Northern Expedition

As the NRA progressed northward during the first phase of the Northern Expedition, the relationship between the Communist and non-Communist members of the KMT remained fraught. Conflicting KMT and CCP orders often led to friction between the two groups. Also, although the CCP and the KMT shared the short term goal of uniting the country, it was clear from the beginning that each group had its own agenda while pursuing this goal. Chiang continued to exploit communist organizational skills and local knowledge to foment unrest in advance of the NRA while remaining deeply suspicious of growing communist influence. Similarly, many members of the CCP were still discontented about allying with the KMT despite Comintern directives. That said, their alliance and the Northern Expedition provided the communists with an unparalleled opportunity to organize and recruit new members for both the party and its affiliated trade unions.

Indeed during this time, due in large part to communist efforts, an All China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU or Zhonghua Quanguo Zonggonghui) was formed which was to coordinate worker actions throughout China. ACFTU remains China’s sole legal trade union today and is the world’s largest with more than 130 million members. By late 1926 73 unions were listed under its umbrella. The ACFTU not only helped the NRA advance, but within NRA-controlled areas, new trade unions were often quickly formed under its umbrella and urban residents were radicalized. For instance, in advance of Chiang’s February 1927 march toward Shanghai, Shanghai labor leaders and ACFTU organizers called a general strike which brought Shanghai to a halt for two days. The strike was eventually disrupted by warlord forces that ultimately killed 20 strikers and arrested 300 strike leaders. Yet Shanghai worker morale remained high and a second major strike was planned for when Chiang Kai-shek marched into the city.

Shanghai at the time of the Northern Expedition

Shanghai factory owners and financiers, however, risked heavy losses if the waves of strikes continued. Some of these leaders had links to underground organizations such as the Green and Red Gangs. At the end of 1926 the head of the Shanghai Chamber of Commerce met with Chiang Kai-shek in Nanchang to offer the NRA the Chamber’s financial support. Chiang also met with Huang, the patriarch of the Qing Bang, (the Green Gang, a notorious criminal group) who reportedly offered his services to break up labor unions and attack insubordinate workers in return for freedom to expand his opium, prostitution, gambling and labor racketeering businesses. There is no record of Chiang Kai-shek’s response, but subsequent events suggest that Chiang had struck some sort of bargain.

Song Meiling

While in Nanjing, Chiang also met with Song Ailing, the oldest daughter of the late Shanghai tycoon Charlie Song, sister of Sun Yat-sen’s widow Song Qingling and wife of H.H. Hong. Both the Songs and the Hongs were Christian and thoroughly Westernized. Song Ailing told Chiang Kai-shek that he was at risk of being ousted by the left unless he secured the support of the Shanghai business world which her family could deliver. In return, she asked Chiang to appoint T.V. Soong and H.H. Hong as finance and prime ministers and to marry her youngest sister Song Meiling. Song Ailing was maneuvering her family into a position of significant influence over the KMT army and government. Chiang Kai-shek was keen as he found the idea of entering the Soong-Song-Sun circle alluring. One stumbling block to the plan, however, was that he was already married. Discarding his first wife, Chiang eventually married Song Meiling on December 31, 1927.

Foreigners in Shanghai, who had links with Chinese industrialists and financiers, were also getting nervous about worker agitation and the NRA advance. They feared both financial loss and for their own physical safety if fighting were to break out in the city. Increasingly, they amassed troops and police in Shanghai, and by the time Chiang Kai-shek entered the city, 42 foreign warships were at anchor in Shanghai’s port, backed by an additional 129 warships in other Chinese waters.

The Shanghai Coup also called the White Terror or the Shanghai Massacre

The NRA marched into Shanghai on the 22 March 22, 1927 without having to fire a shot. This lack of resistance was in large part due to another massive general strike and series of demonstrations that were called in support of the NRA and in support of the Workers’ Government that Shanghai workers believed would soon be established. Stalin told the CCP to cooperate with Chiang Kai-shek in Shanghai. Chiang Kai-shek issued strict orders to the labor unions, the communists and the NRA to leave foreigners and their property untouched. Once inside the city, Chiang Kai-shek issued reassuring statements to the foreign community. He also praised the unions for their contribution to the NRA’s success in taking Shanghai.

Roundup of Communists during the Shanghai Coup

Yet, at the same time, Chiang Kai-shek was making plans to purge the Communists from the KMT. Having taken Shanghai, he now felt that he was strong enough to decimate their movement and to abandon the United Front. Indeed, Chiang Kai-shek felt that if he failed to act at this juncture, he risked losing control over both the Northern Expedition and over the type of country China would become once it was fully unified.

On April 12, 1927 a bugle call from Chiang Kai-shek’s headquarters was sounded, followed by a loud siren emitted from a gunboat anchored in the river. This signaled the start of the Communist purge. Wearing blue clothes and white armbands, armed members of the Shanghai’s Green Gang attacked the offices of trade unions affiliated with the communists. Li Dazhao, China’s leading Marxist theorist, was executed during the purge along with hundreds of pro-labor and communist supporters. Zhou Enlai narrowly escaped. The ACFTU was paralyzed by unclear orders – including inadequate directions sent by Stalin – and thus put up a weak defense. When Shanghai workers and students held a rally protesting against Green Gang and the KMT’s action the following day, they were fired on by KMT forces.

Pro-Communist citizen executed during the Shanghai Coup

Although the ACFTU and the CCP organizations remained in existence after the purge, their links with the local community had been severed and their influence had been all but eliminated. The CCP alliance with the KMT nominally continued until 15 July when the CCP members of the KMT were ordered to renounce their Communist Party membership. At that point the Communist Party withdrew from the alliance.

In the wake of Chiang Kai-shek’s success, Trotsky faulted Stalin’s flawed leadership in China, arguing that he had contravened the fundamental Leninist principle that any alliance with bourgeois elements, no matter how temporary, was permitted only if the communists maintained organizational independence and freedom of action. To vindicate his China policy, Stalin issued an order encouraging the communists to raise a separate army and to transform Wuhan into a communist regime. The order was unrealistic. Instead, under widespread attack, the communists retreated from Wuhan. Borodin fled China for Russia via Mongolia in July 1927.

After the Shanghai Coup, Chiang Kai-shek resumed the Northern Expedition

Yet in an ironic twist that Stalin could well appreciate, in the months after the Shanghai coup, Chiang Kai-shek launched a reign of extortion against the financiers, industrialists and the wealthy of the city. The purpose of Chiang Kai-shek shake down was to raise the millions of yuan he needed to finance the rest of the Northern Expedition. Chiang Kai-shek demanded, for example, that the chairman of the Shanghai Chamber of Commerce provide him with a multi-million yuan loan. When he refused, Chiang Kai-shek confiscated his property and drove him into exile. Wealthy businessman were browbeaten into purchasing a combined total of 30 million yuan of short-term government bonds, with larger businesses being required to buy as many as 500,000 yuan or more.

Kidnapping was rife. Children of rich residents were arrested as counterrevolutionaries and released only upon receipt of donations to the KMT. Green Gang agents facilitated KMT extortion. Through KMT’s newly created Opium Suppression Bureau, for instance, the KMT and the Green Gang divided profits from the sale of the drug and from the registration of known addicts. The appointment in January 1928 of his new brother-in-law T.V. Soong to run the government finances finally freed Chiang Kai-shek to continue the Northern Expedition as T.V. Soong took responsibility for guaranteeing that Chiang Kai-shek would receive the approximately 1.6 million yuan he needed every five days in order to finance his expedition. Chiang resumed the Northern Expedition in February 1928. By January 1929, the greater part of China was united under KMT leadership.

Rural China in the 1920s

Women in rice fields 1920

For centuries, peasant uprisings had overthrown Chinese dynasties. Once again in the 20th century, it was eventually the peasants who would decide play an important role in determining who would rule China. Despite the expanding industrialization that China had been experiencing since the late 19th century and the growing urban movement, in 1928 approximately 75% of the roughly 450 million Chinese citizens tilled the soil. Life for the average Chinese peasant varied greatly, depending on the quality of soil that he worked and whether or not he owned the land. Land was more fertile and therefore life was better in the southern rice paddies than it was in the poorer soils of the west and north. Yet for all farmers, life was incredibly difficult. Almost all farming was done by hand and by beast. Produce that wasn’t consumed by the farmer was sold in village and regional markets along with handmade handicrafts, tools and processed foods.

Social and ritual life was hugely conservative and was based on both Confucian traditions and those of the local Buddhist or Daoist temples. Other societies or social organizations were organized between women, within villages or within regional areas. During the Warlord Era, some villages formed self-defense organizations such as the Red, White and Yellow Spears which were active mainly in the northern Chinese plains. Eventually, the CCP would try to recruit the Red Spears and other such secret societies as allies in their fight against the KMT.

Rural China also frequently suffered drought and flood. This was particularly true throughout the 1920s. In 1920 and 1921, for instance, a severe drought in northern China brought famine. The famine not only killed approximately half a half million people but it also destroyed the regional economy. Like many of the droughts that have plagued China even up to the present day, the effects of little rain were exacerbated by overpopulation and by soil erosion due to extensive logging and overgrazing of livestock. In 1923 further drought and flooding caused the deaths of an additional 100,000 people. In 1925 another devastating drought killed almost 3 million people in the Sichuan area. In 1926 the Yangtze and Gan rivers flooded. In From 1928 to 1930 drought and famine devastated the whole of northern China affecting more than 20 million people. This ruinous plague of drought and famine throughout the 1920s left much of rural China in crisis. Eventually, the communists were able to exploit this crisis by promising the Chinese peasant a better, more prosperous and fairer way of life.

Flooding in China was frequent during the 1920s

Early on, key Chinese Marxists theorists such as Li Dazhao and Peng Pai recognized the need to adapt Russian Marxism to Chinese reality. In other words, there could be no communist revolution without engaging the peasants as they represented the majority of the Chinese population. In the early 1920s, Peng Pai created a system of peasant associations in Guangdong province which campaigned against high rents, rural social injustice and landlord abuse, demonstrating to early CCP activists that an alliance between peasants and communists was possible. Mao Zedong, who had studied under Li Dazhao, travelled through his native Hunan in 1927 and his experiences there helped shape his belief that, for China, the peasants would be the key to the Communist communist revolution. From then on, he became a strong advocate of shifting Chinese Communist  strategy from a focus on organizing the urban worker to mobilizing the poor and discontent farmers.

What Happened Next

The period between 1927 and 1937 is often referred to as the Nanjing Decade. The new KMT Nanjing-based government was recognized by the international community, most of southern China, and a large part of northern China, although it did not control Manchuria nor did it have perfect control over many former warlords. Chiang Kai-shek tried to consolidate his power by eliminating warlord rivals. As a result, by 1929, civil strife once again broke out as warlords maneuvered to retain influence. Dealing with this power struggle meant that the much needed and long promised social reforms were slow in coming. For most Chinese life improved little. This created discontent that the Communists would eventually exploit.

Japanese invading Manchuria

The CCP in the meantime regrouped in rural southern Jiangxi. There they experimented with social policies that were to prove the forerunners of their ultimate governing practices. Repeated KMT attacks eventually forced the CCP on the epic retreat now known as the Long March.

As a backdrop to the KMT-CCP struggle was Japan’s increasing expansion into Manchuria and northern China. It was Chiang Kai-shek’s strategy to placate the Japanese while focusing on Communist eradication. However, rival KMT leaders finally forced Chiang to abandon war against the Communists and to fight growing Japanese aggression which culminated in Japan’s full-scale invasion of the China in 1937.

 

Woman with bound feet c1902 (boundfeet1902) http://visualisingchina.net/#hpc-ru01-057

Modern Chinese History III: The Nanjing Decade 1927-1937

Introduction

Chiang Kai-shek’s Presidential Palace in Nanjing

The period between 1927 and 1937 is often referred to as the Nanjing decade. The Kuomintang (KMT) established its new government in Nanjing after it had dispelled the Communists from the United Front and it had defeated the warlords to unite the country during the Northern Expedition. The new KMT government was recognized by the international community, most of southern China, and a large part of northern China, although it did not control Manchuria nor did it have perfect control over many of its former warlords.

Instead, Chiang Kai-shek had achieved national unification often by negotiating with these warlords– in effect allowing them semi-independent regional status – in return for their recognition of the new KMT government. Once in government, Chiang Kai-shek tried to consolidate his power by eliminating these warlord rivals where possible. As a result, by 1929, civil strife once again broke out as warlords maneuvered to retain their influence. Dealing with this power struggle meant that the much needed and long promised social reforms were slow in coming. For most Chinese life improved little. This created discontent that the communists would eventually exploit.

The establishment of the Chinese Soviet in Ruijin, November 7, 1931 with Mao Zedong, Zhu De

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP), forced out of the cities after the Shanghai Coup, retreated into the countryside. It was in these rural areas that the CCP began to develop their ideas for peasant mobilization, championed in large part by Mao Zedong. The communists most important rural base became the Jiangxi Soviet, headquartered in Ruijin in the south of Jiangxi province. There they experimented with governing and with the implementation of new social policies that were to prove the forerunners of practices they assumed once they won control of the country in 1949. Repeated KMT attacks finally forced the CCP from Jiangxi. This epic retreat of over 6,000 miles to Yan’an in the northern Chinese province of Shaanxi is now known as the Long March.

As a backdrop to the KMT-CCP struggle was Japan’s increasing expansion into Manchuria and northern China. It was Chiang Kai-shek’s strategy to placate the Japanese while focusing on communist eradication. However, rival KMT leaders finally went to the extreme measure of kidnapping Chiang until he agreed to abandon war against the communists. Instead, the kidnappers forced Chiang to join forces with the CCP in a Second United Front formed to fight growing Japanese aggression. This aggression  culminated in Japan’s full-scale invasion of China in 1937.

Division within the New KMT Leadership and Warlord Challenges

National Revolutionary Army Generals at a ceremony held to Sun Yat-sen to report completion of the Northern Expedition to Dr. Sun’s soul

The new Nanjing government of the KMT was to be based on the ideas of Sun Yat-sen and his Three People’s Principles: national self-determination, people’s rights, and people’s livelihood. Confronted with a need to integrate China into an international system based on nation-states, Sun’s principle of national self-determination was an effort to get the Chinese see themselves not just as a culture but as a state. During the dynastic era, what it meant to be Chinese had been defined not so much by race or by geographic area, but by an overall cultural cohesiveness. This Chinese culturalism was  based primarily on Confucianism, but also on Buddhist and Daoist teachings. This cultural heritage was imparted to the Chinese through the teachings of their families and through their rich recorded history and literature. It was also passed on through the arduous government examinations which meant that all the ruling elite all largely learned the same values. This cultural tradition underpinned the Chinese people’s self- understanding and also shaped its foreign policy until its increasingly difficult encounters with the western world beginning in the 1800’s.

Confucian values pervaded the Republic of China

Yet despite Sun’s, and later Chiang’s, efforts, during the first half of the twentieth century the majority of Chinese still considered their loyalties to be to their family, to their clan and to their patron-client relationships rather than to their nation. They were slow to look to the government for support and to feel obliged to defend it. Sun’s principle of People’s Rights – democracy – was linked to this idea of nationalism. If the first step of the 1911 Republican Revolution had been to overthrow the imperial governmental system, the next step would be to establish a government which would be seen by the Chinese as one of their own making to which they would then feel committed. Sun anticipated the establishment of this government as a multi-phased process. While the final government of the Republic of China would be based on a form of western constitutional democracy, Sun believed that the transition to constitutional rule would be preceded by a six-year tutelage period during which the gradual creation of local self-government would teach the Chinese people democratic values, habits and practices.

As a first step toward realizing this government, the KMT enacted the Organic Law of the National Government of the Republic of China on October 10, 1928. This law broke the government into five branches, known as Yuan: the Executive Yuan was to be the highest executive branch of the country. It would be led by a chairman and cabinet whose functions would include the direction of the central ministries, economic planning, general supervision of the military, relations with the provinces, and appointment of local government officials. The Legislative Yuan was to debate and vote on new legislation, budgets, and treaties. The Judicial Yuan was to run the court and supervise the legal system. The Examination Yuan – based on China’s Imperial examination system – was to supervise public service examinations which would qualify Chinese as civil servants. Finally the Control Yuan – based on China’s imperial censorate – would supervise the conduct of officials.  This five Yuan government system is still in use by Republic of China in Taiwan today.

Chiang Kai-shek’s Office in the Nanjing Presidential Palace

After passage of the law, Chiang Kai-shek was formally installed as Chairman of the new Nationalist Government as well as the chief of China’s armed forces. One of Chiang Kai-shek’s first acts as chairman was to establish the KMT Central Political Institute and cadre training schools, a main purpose of which was to create a new generation of cadets as fiercely loyal to Chiang Kai-shek as those that had graduated from the Whampoa Academy. The training philosophy was based on anti-communist, anti-imperialist nationalism combined with an emphasis on the Confucian virtues of order, harmony, discipline and hierarchy.

The Chinese people initially greeted their new Nanjing government with goodwill, but these favorable feelings were not to last. Sun’s prescribed period of “tutelage” largely freed Chiang from the need to demonstrate any effort toward creating a true democracy. Instead, Chiang quickly began excluding rivals from positions of authority within the new government. Chiang also soon ran into conflict with many former warlords. Chiang had achieved national unification during the Northern Expedition in part by negotiating with regional chieftains – in effect allowing them semi-independent regional status in return for recognition of the Nanjing government. In 1930, for instance, Chiang Kai-shek’s government directly controlled only 8% of the geographical area of China and 25% of its population. By as late as 1936, the KMT still governed primarily by alliance with provincial military governors whose cooperation was constantly subject to renegotiation. Many of these warlords still controlled large armies. In March 1929, the KMT called for the incorporation of these local militias into one national command under the control of Chiang Kai-shek.

Chiang Kai-shek wanted to consolidate all independent militia into the National Revolutionary Army

The KMT also made efforts to prevent the provinces from siphoning off tax and other financial receipts that it felt rightfully belonged to the central government. The warlords resisted these efforts to reduce their power and argued that Nanjing should reduce the size of its army before they demilitarized; Chiang Kai-shek countered that his army was to be the backbone of the new national army. Yet many of these warlords did not see Chiang’s claim to power to be any better than their own. Moreover, rival civilian and political groups were also concerned about his growing monopoly of military and political power.

By 1929, civil strife had again broken out in Guangxi, Hunan, Beijing, Manchuria and Guangdong. Instead of trying to deal with this strife by creating a more inclusive government in which these factional warlords would be brought in and given a voice, where he could, Chiang Kai-shek had rivals arrested. Many also objected to his policy of appeasing foreigners and his failure to counter increased Japanese aggression in Manchuria in order to direct scarce resources toward wiping out the regrouped Communists. Opposition parties and organizations such as the Nationalist Socialist Party, the People’s Front, The Workers’ and Peasants Party, The Chinese League for the Protection of Civil Rights, the National Salvation Association began forming. Although fundamentally powerless, they did undercut loyalty to Chiang’s government and impacted public opinion with their calls for a multi-party government, protection of civil rights, and the need for China to defend itself against Japanese and foreign expansion.

Warlord Long Yun and Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek- managing warlord ambitions was a constant struggle for Chiang

Dealing with this internal strife meant that the much needed and long promised social reforms were slow in coming. For most, life in the countryside had remained unchanged since the time of the Qing Dynasty. Regional administrators were often corrupt and more concerned with protecting landlords than the peasants who mostly lived in poverty underneath them. Local officials collected taxes and rent even in times of flood, drought and famine. Infant mortality was high and life expectancy low. Many girls still had their feet bound and marriages were frequently arranged. Education was minimal where it existed at all.

The KMT recognized the need to address these problems by measures such as better crop diversification, fair land distribution, agricultural price support, greater availability of agricultural credit, and improved access to education. That said, funds were always short and the KMT was always distracted by foreign pressures and internal dissension. The harsh rural living conditions seemed all the more stark when compared with the growing opulence of the cities where modern medical care, new schools, electricity, better boat, road and air transport, cinemas and western clothes were growing increasingly prevalent.

Chiang Kai-shek oversaw the expansion of the rail network

Finances were also a problem. It suffered from consistent annual budget deficits. On the one hand, China succeeded in negotiating with foreign powers to obtain full tariff autonomy in 1928, increasing its custom revenues from 120 million yuan to 244 million yuan in 1929 and 385 million yuan in 1931. On the other hand, there was no income tax until 1936. Furthermore, land taxes went straight to the provincial governments. Additionally, the amount that foreign corporations could be taxed was limited while heavy taxes on Chinese entrepreneurs drove most near to bankruptcy, defeating their purpose. Foreign debt service was also heavy. Debt servicing represented 35% of the 1930-31 budget, for instance, forcing the KMT to borrow even more in order to meet its existing financial obligations.

These financial challenges were compounded by the severe 1931-1935 deflation triggered by the 1929 Depression which drove down the value of silver. The US government tried to shore up the silver market by purchasing silver in large quantities. In response, silver poured out of China and the country was depleted of currency. As a result, prices plunged, imports poured in, banks were drained of reserves and industrial firms faced bankruptcy due to lack of working capital.

That said, despite growing Japanese aggression, worldwide depression, internal strife and the Communist challenge, the KMT did achieve some real successes before full-scale war broke out with Japan in 1937. By 1937, China had in place most branches of basic industry including the ability to design, construct and operate its own railways. By 1937, improvements in agriculture virtually eliminated the need to import rice, wheat and cotton. Many modern banking methods were instituted and the foreign monopoly of foreign-exchange dealings was stopped. Due in large part to foreign philanthropy, western medical practices were introduced into China.

Japanese Expansion in China

Japanese experts inspect ‘railway sabotage’ on South Manchurian Railway, leading to the Mukden Incident

Japan’s conciliatory position toward China during the Washington Conference hardened in 1928. This was due in part to a fear that the unification of China might cause Manchuria to be re-integrated into the country, limiting its military and economic presence in the region. In 1928, Japan’s interests in Manchuria were protected by the Kwantung Army which operated on a semi-autonomous basis from the main Japanese military. It was the Kwantung Army’s objective to take Manchuria for Japan. Manchuria was considered by many Japanese soldiers, and indeed by many Japanese alike, as theirs by right given the tens of thousands of Japanese troops which had died in the area during the 1904-1905 Russo-Japanese War. Japanese military leadership also viewed Manchuria as a useful buffer zone between it and Russia.

Many Japanese also believed that Manchuria’s vast territory, fertile agricultural land and abundant natural resources could ease provide Japan with much needed mineral resources, create new business opportunities for Japanese industrialists, and help solve the high unemployment levels caused by the ill effects of overproduction and worldwide Depression. By 1931, Kwantung military leaders decided to take action. It believed that growing economic pressures at home would help sway domestic opinion in its favor. As approximately 75% of foreign investment in Manchuria was of Japanese origin, Japanese industrialists specifically favored Manchurian expansion, although they preferred peaceful annexation if possible. It also saw that the new KMT government was bogged down with internal strife while the international community was enmeshed in the Great Depression. Moreover, key Kwantung military leaders were due for routine transfer and they wanted to seize Manchuria before being shipped elsewhere.

Japanese Forces in Manchuria

A September 1931 bomb explosion on the Southern Manchurian Railway in Shenyang (often referred to by its Manchu name of Mukden) was staged by the Japanese military as a pretext for invasion. Meeting little Chinese resistance, the Kwantung Army overran Manchuria – an area larger than modern-day Turkey – in just five months. Chang Kai-shek sought help from the League of Nations (a forerunner of the UN) and other western powers, including the United States, but received no meaningful assistance. The League of Nations agreed only to dispatch a mission to investigate Japanese actions in Manchuria, which it did on December 10, 1931. Chiang also marshaled popular outrage and trade boycotts to undercut the Japanese position. In January 1932 the Japanese invaded Shanghai in order to avert attention from their Manchurian conquest. In this instance, the KMT did fight, but Shanghai eventually fell to Japanese forces after a month of intense battle, and the KMT was forced to retreat to Luoyang in central China. International mediation eventually forced the Japanese to evacuate Shanghai in May 1932.

Emperor Puyi

In order to legitimize their Manchurian annexation, on March 9th 1932 the Japanese installed the last Qing Emperor, Puyi, on the throne of its puppet Manchurian regime, which it called Manchukuo. The League of Nations mission spent six weeks in this new “Manchurian State”. Its eventual report sided with China. It determined that Japan had been an unprovoked aggressor, rejected Japan’s claim that Manchukuo was the result of the spontaneous uprising of the Manchu people and repudiated its argument that its military operations in Manchuria were in self- defense in response to the September 1931 bombing. Japan reacted to the report by withdrawing from the League of Nations while consolidating control of Manchuria through its puppet government.

Communist Insurrection – Disease of the Heart; Disease of the Skin

Russian agent Borodin in Nanchang at Stalin’s behest

While the Japanese army was busy invading Manchuria, Chiang Kai-shek remained preoccupied with eliminating the communists. He believed that ‘the Japanese were a disease of the skin,  while the communists were a disease of the heart’ meaning that skin disease – the Japanese – was not deadly, whereas heart disease – the communists – could prove fatal. In other words, Chiang was more concerned with the enemy within than the enemy without.

The Shanghai Coup and subsequent attacks had badly weakened the CCP, with party membership dropping from an estimated 58,000 to less than 10,000. CCP influence within cities and within the urban labor movement had also been significantly diminished.  Spurred on by Stalin, who was trying to save face after the Shanghai Coup, the remaining communists tried to achieve victory by launching a series of uprisings, all of which were failures. For instance, on August 1, 1927 in Nanchang, Jiangxi, the communists succeeded in taking the city in the name of the newly created Workers and Peasants Red Army for four days. Although the uprising was ultimately unsuccessful, it has since been mythologized by CCP historians as the Nanchang Uprising. It is also marked by  the CCP as the birth of the People’s Liberation Army, and August 1st is still celebrated as Military Day in China today.

1927 Autumn Harvest Riot participants

Mao Zedong also led an Autumn Harvest Uprising, briefly holding the town of Liling before being forced to retreat to Jinggangshan, a remote mountain area of the borders of Hunan and Jiangxi in October 1927. Just as it was during the Qing Dynasty, the safest places for fugitives in China in the 1920s and the 1930s were the border regions between provinces where different administrative zones met, making it more difficult for the KMT and its warlord allies to coordinate counterattacks. Mao learned from this failed insurgency that no uprising could be successful without the support of the peasant masses.

A third insurrection was launched in Guangzhou in December 1927. Worried about their waning influence in Guangzhou’s trade unions, CCP leaders fighting under Communist International representative Heinz Neumann seized control of the city. They immediately announced a revolutionary government intent on the nationalization of land, factories and bourgeois property. They lost the city in two days, with some union members actually fighting against the communists.

Retreat to Ruijin

Mao Zedong and Zhu De inspecting the Red Army 1931

In January 1929 the CCP faction led by Mao retreated from their Jinggangshan base to Ruijin, southern Jiangxi. From Ruijin, the CCP began to govern the surrounding region. While the Jiangxi Soviet was the CCP’s main base, as many as 15 smaller soviets or administrative committees were established in the area. These soviets operated hierarchically although communication between the different soviets was often difficult. The Jiangxi Soviet period enabled the CCP to experiment with governing. The policies developed at this time were to significantly impact CCP governing theories going forward.

The move to Ruijin also provided the communists with a greater flow of supplies, revenues and recruits. Indeed, between 1929 and 1930, the Red Army expanded from 2,000 to almost 70,000 soldiers. As the Communists regrouped in the countryside, influence over their policies by Russian Communist International waned. Partly this was due to the difficulty of communication caused by their remote location. Additionally, Soviet interest in the Chinese Communist movement also diminished generally once the CCP was left the cities.

Group photo taken after the 1931 founding Chinese soviet with Mao Zedong, Zhu De

During the spring 1930, Mao Zedong undertook a detailed survey of the Jiangxi county of Xunwu. He researched the variety of businesses prevalent in the county’s small towns and the income they generated. He tried to determine levels of exploitation in order to quantify class tensions more accurately. For instance, he spoke with peasants who had been forced to sell their children to pay their debts. He studied the plight of women. This research allowed the CCP to hone criteria that could be used as a basis for land redistribution. It also allowed the CCP to more effectively respond to the causes of peasant frustration including high and often arbitrary taxes, conscription without sufficient compensation and lost land due to public work projects. Ultimately, the CCP was able to turn the peasant’s economic discontent into class warfare.

This research also confirmed for Mao that agrarian revolution was the way forward for China. That said, at the November 1931 founding conference of the Jiangxi Soviet, this continued to be a minority opinion. At the conference, Mao Zedong was elected chairman of the Central Executive Council. Continuing differences of opinion between CCP leaders led to much infighting at this time. In the coming years, Mao was to prove effective at exploiting these disagreements to facilitate his ultimate rise to power.

Mao Zedong in Jiangxi

At the conference it was confirmed that two of the most significant social issues that the CCP confronted were the subjugation of women and the inequality of land ownership. The CCP encouraged greater freedom of marriage and divorce and began to give voice to the rights of women. This earned the party much popular support despite the conservative undertones of rural society. Its land policies were to prove even more well-liked. During the 1931-1932 Land Investigation Movement Mao oversaw the redistribution of rich peasants land to the poor, leaving the rich peasant as much land as he could farm himself.

Land held by the more numerous middle income farmers was left untouched. This allowed the CCP to maintain middle income farmer support and to prevent disruptions in food production. This land redistribution became the basis for the CCP’s broader rural class struggles, and was a key to the CCP’s rise to power in the 1940s. The CCP also declared war on Japan at this time. While this amounted to nothing more than a symbolic gesture, it boosted their popularity among the many Chinese who believed that the Japanese threat should be China’s first priority.

KMT Encirclement and Suppression of Communist Campaigns

While the CCP was experimenting with government and social policy, the KMT was stepping up pressure on the Jiangxi Soviet combining economic blockade with military attack. On November 1930, the KMT began a campaign of Encirclement and Suppression designed to surround and eliminate the communist bases. During one KMT attack, in what came to be known as the battle of Dongshao, the CCP captured KMT radio equipment which allowed them to listen into KMT’s news military transmissions, improving significantly their intelligence on KMT military plans and troops. This radio information was a key to enabling the Red Army to fend off the first KMT attack.

Chinese Red Army during the First Encirclement and Suppression Campaign

Chiang Kai-shek launched the second Encirclement and Suppression Campaign against the Communists at the end of February 1931. This time the Jiangxi Soviet defeated a 200,000 strong KMT force during major battles in May, expanding the territory under their control. Expanded radio capability became fundamental to Red Army success, allowing them not only to gather intelligence on KMT forces, but also to more effectively communicate between different Red Army factions. Growing communist sophistication in code-breaking enabled the CCP to continue to collect information even after the KMT finally realized that the communists were listening to their communications.  The success of the communists against the KMT was also the result of Mao’s guerilla campaign of “luring the enemy in deep”. In most battles against the KMT, the Red Army was significantly outnumbered and possessed no air cover and little artillery. Instead, the Red Army retreated, forcing the KMT into unfamiliar and hostile territory where the communists could launch ambushes on one division at a time.

The Third Encirclement and Suppression Campaign was scheduled to be launched in July 1931, but Japanese expansion into Manchuria forced Chiang Kai-shek to abort the military mission. The Fourth was launched in June 1932, but was again repulsed by November 1932. The Fifth Campaign, in October 1933, was led by Chiang Kai-shek himself. Not only did he commit significant troops to the battle, but at each point of advance he created blockhouses and roads which allowed him to reinforce taken ground. By April 1934, the central Jiangxi Soviet was completely surrounded. It was decided that the communists had no choice but to break through the encirclement at the weakest point in the southwest corner. This strategic withdrawal was to be the beginning of what has been mythologized in CCP history as the Long March.

The Long March and the Yan’an Communist Base

Map, the Long March

Between October 16th  1934  and October 20th  1935, the Chinese Workers and Peasants’ Red Army retreated 6000 miles through some of the toughest terrain in western China- including mountains, barren plateaus and lethal swamps. Throughout this time they were constantly harassed and attacked by KMT forces. Approximately 85,000 communists began the trek westward while most women, children and approximately 20,000 wounded communists were left behind. At the end, only about 8,000 of the original 85,000 remained living. Most perished at the hands of KMT forces and also because of illness and by the harsh conditions which prevailed throughout the retreat.

The march was not one single maneuver, but rather the withdrawal from Jiangxi of different Red Army units which often independently fought their way west and north. The CCP was quite divided at this time, with different factions not only arguing about different military strategies, but also disagreeing as to where new revolutionary base should be ultimately established. From separate marches, numbers eventually arriving to join Mao later rose to about 30,000 due to the arrival of other Communist units and the consolidation of local communist factions.

Mao Zedong on the Long March

In December 1936 the CCP finally established its headquarters in the province of Shaanxi, in Yan’an. This base had the advantage of both safeguarding the communists from the 1937 Japanese invasion of China and helping isolate it from further KMT attack. By this time Mao, was firmly established as the leader of the CCP, although division remained within the party. The CCP’s courage in the face of unimaginable hardship and the communists ultimate victory despite their decimated ranks played an important role in the process of legitimizing the CCP rule.

Mao Zedong 1935

The period has since been portrayed romantically in fiction, drama, film and in museum exhibits. Many of the most important leaders of the People’s Republic of China founded in 1949 were survivors of the Long March. The March has become one of the most celebrated periods of the CCP’s history and is now an integral part of the national myth that underpins Chinese perceptions of themselves as a people and as a nation.

The Zunyi Conference

During the Long March, several crucial party meetings took place One of the most important of these occurred in the town of Zunyi in northern Guizhou in January 1935. It was attended by 18 key Communist leaders, including the Comintern representative Otto Braun. They discussed the reasons for their defeat in the Jiangxi region, concluding that the CCP should have pursued a more offensive mobile, guerilla war as Mao had been arguing. The vindication of his military policies was an important step in his rise toward control of the Communist Party. At the conference, he was appointed as a full member of the ruling Standing Committee of the Politburo. He was also appointed chief assistant to Zhou Enlai for military planning, from whom he would gradually assume full military leadership.

KMT Struggles and Responses

Cavalry parade of the Manchukuo Imperial Army

Despite growing Japanese aggression in Manchuria in northern China, Chiang Kai-shek and the Nationalist government continued to prioritize eradication of the communists over fighting the Japanese. This policy created great internal conflict within the KMT and its warlord allies particularly those most vulnerable to Japanese expansion in the north. It also motivated Chinese student nationalism. Chiang tried to quell student discontent by increasing the number of compulsory subjects and examinations at university, hoping to keep the students so busy they would be unable to protest. Those students that did protest were dealt with harshly.

But early 1934 Chiang Kai-shek also began developing a new unifying ideology, based on Sun Yat-sen doctrines as well as on some central tenets of Confucianism, particularly those relating to the formation of a loyal and moral human character. A key objective of this ‘New Life Movement’ was to create within the Chinese citizens an instinct for unified behavior which would make them willing to sacrifice for the nation at all times. The movement succeeded mostly in attacking antisocial behavior such as spitting, urinating in public and casual sex. Women in particular were harassed if they behaved or dressed in an immodest manner. They were urged to cultivate traditional virtues such as chastity and to focus on life inside the home and family.

Nanjing’s University, scene of student protests

At this time, Chiang Kai-shek also encouraged the formation of the Blueshirts – an organization run by Whampoa cadets, so named because they wore shirts of course blue cotton – designed to bring patriotic resolve to the military and civil leadership of China. Fiercely loyal to Chiang Kai-shek, the Blueshirts committed themselves to moral rectitude, eschewing gambling, whoring and gluttony of food and drink. They found much of value in Europe’s rising Fascism, admiring particularly Italy’s Mussolini. They ultimately were transformed into an elite Secret Service arm employed to investigate subversive forces within society, assassinate political rivals and dissidents, infiltrate labor organizations and gather general intelligence.

The Xi’an Kidnapping and the Second United Front

Zhang Xueliang

In December 1936 Chiang Kai-shek traveled to the Shaanxi provincial capital of Xi’an to discuss plans to launch a Sixth Encirclement and Suppression Campaign, which he hoped would finally bring an end to CCP resistance. At this meeting Zhang Xueliang, a northern warlord serving the KMT, took the lead in trying to convince Chiang to fight the Japanese instead of the communists. However, Chiang could not be diverted from his determination to wipe out the communists once and for all. On December 9th 1936 – the one-year anniversary of a student protest that had been crushed by Chiang – 10,000 students marched in Xi’an. They called for an end to China’s civil war and for a unified resistance to Japan who had launched a full-scale invasion of the northern province of Suiyuan (now a part of Inner Mongolia) in late October and November 1936.

Chiang Kai-shek ordered Zhang Xueliang to put an end to the student demonstrations or he would command his troops to fire. However, instead of forcing the students to disperse, Zhang agreed to argue their case with Chiang. Furious, Chiang told Zhang to choose between that KMT and the students while at the same time issuing orders to launch the Sixth Encirclement Campaign. At 4:30am on the morning of the 12th December – the day that the mobilization orders were to be issued – troops from Zhang Xueliang’s Northeastern Army Division arrived at Chiang Kai-shek’s villa. Alerted only moments before the troops’ arrival, he escaped to a nearby cave but was easily tracked and kidnapped. Zhang Xueliang and his followers held him for a week, presenting to him a list of eight demands which essentially called for the end of civil war and for a united armed resistance against the Japanese.

Photo of the .

KMT members captured during the Xi’an Incident

Song Meiling took a lead in the effort to secure her husband’s release during the intense negotiations that followed. Zhou Enlai – who had served under Chiang at the Whampoa Military Academy – also bargained for Chiang Kai-shek’s freedom. Zhou said that if Chang would fight the Japanese, the CCP would join the KMT in a Second United Front. A telegram from Stalin had urged the communists to support such an alliance. The rise of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy combined with Japan’s growing militarism caused the Comintern to urge fledging national communist parties in all countries to form partnerships with leftists and anti-fascist groups to fight against these avowed enemies of Bolshevism and Marxism.

In the case of China, a second alliance with the KMT would have the added benefit of protecting Russia’s flank from Japanese aggression. Stalin also argued in the telegram that Zhang Xueliang lacked the authority to lead the KMT effort. Having agreed to join with China and to fight the Japanese, Chiang Kai-shek returned with Zhang Xueliang to Nanjing where they were met by an ecstatic crowd of 400,000 Chinese citizens. At Nanjing, Zhang Xueliang was arrested for insubordination and placed under house arrest after his sentence of 10 years imprisonment was commuted.

What Happened Next

Japanese soldiers in Nanjing

In 1937 Japan launched a full scale invasion of China. By 1938 Japan had control of China’s Eastern Seaboard while the KMT retreated to the Western city of Chongqing after fighting horrific battles such as that for Nanjing. Yet, despite China’s huge military disadvantages, the Chinese turned what the Japanese military had assumed would be a three month campaign into a war of attrition lasting until 1945. The war pinned down 1.2 million of Japan’s 2.3 million overseas troops in the process.

The CCP benefitted from the Sino-Japanese War by expanding its territory, its army and its party membership. From their Yan’an Base, the communists waged a guerilla war which not only had some success against the Japanese, but also boosted their standing in the eyes of the Chinese people. It was during this time that the CCP developed and put into practice many of the social policies that were to form the crux of the CCP’s ruling philosophy once it assumed power in 1949.

The 1937-1945 Sino-Japanese war ended abruptly in 1945 after the Americans dropped the atomic bombs on Japan. Despite its terrible toll, the war had real benefits for China: elevating it to Great Power status, winning it a place on the UN Security Council and ending the imperialists’ hated Policy of Extraterritoriality and the Unequal Treaties that had plagued China since the 19th century.