Modern China

Nationalist China

Chiang Kai-shek

   Unlike Sun Yat-sen, whom he admired greatly, Chiang Kai-shek, who assumed leadership of the Kuomintang in 1926, had little contact or knowledge of the west. Sun Yat-sen had forged his political, social, economic, and revolutionary ideas primarily from Western materials that he had learned in Hawaii and later in Europe. Chiang Kai-shek, however, knew almost nothing about the West; he was firmly rooted in his Chinese identity and the Chinese culture he was steeped. As his life progressed, he became more militantly attached to Chinese culture and traditions. His few trips to the West confirmed his pro-Chinese outlook and he studied the Chinese classics and Chinese histories assiduously. Of the three People's Principles of Sun Yat-sen, then, the principle he most ardently and passionately adhered to was the principle of nationalism.

   Chiang Kai-shek was an ardent Confucianist. Like Sun, he believed that Confucian ethics could bring about the social discipline and unity that would make a democracy possible. He also believed, however, with Confucius that moral values were the foundation of all human society and all human life. While Sun Yat-sen idolized Hung Hsiu-ch'üan, the leader of the Taiping rebellion, Chiang Kai-shek idolized Confucian officials.

   Despite his ardent nationalism and his commitment to Confucianism, Chiang Kai-shek was deeply committed to all three People's Principles, particularly the nationalization of land and other socialist aspects of Sun's economic program. Chiang was particularly committed to Sun's idea of "political tutelage"; using this ideology, Chiang built himself into the dictator first of China and then of Taiwan.

The Northern Expedition

   Shortly before his death, Sun Yat-sen wished to attack the imperialist warlords in the north of China. When he died in 1924, the political leadership of the party fell to Wangh Ching-wei and Hu Han-min, respectively the left wing and right wing leaders of the Kuomintang. The real power, however, lay with Chiang Kai-shek who, as superintendent of the Whampoa Military Academy, was in near complete control of the military. With this military power, the Kuomintang confirmed their power in Canton and Kwangtung (the province containing Canton) and Kwangsi (the province north of Kwangtung). The Nationalists now had a rival government in direct opposition to the warlord government based in the northern city of Beijing.

   With their power confirmed in the southeast, the Nationalist government appointed Chiang Kai-shek commander-in-chief of the National Revolutionary army, and the Northern Expedition to suppress the warlords began. Chiang had to defeat three separate warlords and two independent armies. Chiang, with Soviet supplies, used blitzkrieg tactics and, in nine months, he had conquered the southern half of China. A split, however, erupted between the Chinese Communist Party and the Nationalist Party; this split threatened the Northern Expedition. Joseph Stalin, the leader of Soviet Russia, however, healed the split by ordering the Chinese Communists to obey the Kuomintang leadership in everything. Once this split had been healed, Chiang Kai-shek resumed his Northern Expedition and, with the help of Communist strikes, managed to take Shanghai. There he began to liquidate the Communists and the Nationalist government, which had moved to Wuhan, dismissed him. Unfazed, Chiang set up his own alternative government in Nanking. When the Wuhan government collapsed in February of 1928, Chiang Kai-shek was the only Nationalist government still standing.

The Nanking Government

   After the success of the Northern Expedition, the Nanking government adopted a provisional constitution called "An Outline of Political Tutelage." The constitution granted to the Kuomintang two powers, that of educating the people in the Four People's Powers (voting, recall, initiative, referendum) and the task of running the five branches of government (executive, legislative, judicial, censorate, civil service). The government was divided into five Yüan, each of which had a president and vice president. Above the five Yüan was the office of the Presidency, which was filled by Chiang Kai-shek:   The Nationalists were the nominal government of China from 1928 to 1937. During that period, they had little opportunity to initiate the far-reaching changes that they promised. Instead, the Nationalist government solely concerned itself with maintaining order in a country that was flying apart at the seams. In addition ot contending with dissident politicians in the KMT, the Nationalists also had to deal with rebellions by the "new warlords." In the south, the Communist party began to threaten KMT authority, while the Japanese, in an aggressive new policy, began to threaten Manchuria, Beijing, and northern China. While the Nationalists were able to bring about some financial and industrial reforms, on the whole they neglected the Nationalist project of alleviating poverty and equalizing the economy, the third of the People's Principles of Sun Yat-sen. The neglect of the peasantry eventually proved to be their downfall at the end of the Japanese occupation when the communists were swept into power with a peasant revolt.

The New Warlords

   There were four prominent, rebellious warlords challenging the authority of the central government. Li Tsung-jen and Li Chi-ch'en controlled the Kwangsi Clique which controlled the provinces of Kwangsi, Hunan, Hupeh, and Kwangtun; Feng Y7uuml;a-hsiang controlled the National People's Army in the northern provinces; Marshal Chang Hsüeh-liang controlled Manchuria; and another warlord, Yen Hsi-shang controlled a small territoryin Shansi. These warlords, particularly Feng Yüa-hsiang were progressive leaders who modernized their territories in industry and economy. They did not, however, see themselves as part of a larger nation and resisted the Nanking government. They used their armies mainly to expand their own territories; most of their territories' resources were funneled into these armies rather than their modernization efforts. The Nanking government, for its part, expanded vast amounts of resources keeping these warlords in check; as a result, very little resources throughout the country were devoted to the establishment of democracy, political tutelage, or the modernization of the economy.

Japanese Territorial Expansion

   The most pressing threat to the Nationalist government came from Japanese territorial ambitions. In particular, the Japanese had their eyes on Manchuria, a rich agricultural region north of Beijing and east of Korea. When the Japanese annexed Korea in 1910, they began a series of rebellions in Manchuria in order to gain control of the region, but each attempt failed. These ambitions would lead to increasing militarism and aggressiveness on the part of the Japanese which would lead it straight into world war and its own eventual destruction. Because of a weak cabinet, the Japanese army in Manchuria, the Kwantung army, was free to pursue its own aggressive course. Despite international protest, the Japanese overran Manchuria in five months, fully conquering it in January of 1932. In order to distract attention away from Manchuria, the Japanese attacked Shanghai on January 28, 1928, and forced the Nationalist government to move from Nanking to Loyang in central China.

   The Japanese did not annex Manchuria, but instead set up a new state, Manchukuo ("Manchu state" or "kingdom"), with a puppet government. The chief executive of the puppet government was P'u-i, the last Ch'ing emperor of China who had been forcefully abdicated in 1912. The Japanese were attempting to cast the Manchuria incident as a local, Manchu-inspired event, but the international community didn't buy the deception. The Nationalist government, powerless to do anything, pursued a course of non-intervention and indirect negotiation with Japan. By March, 1934, the Japanese had conquered the four northern provinces of China and had installed P'u-i as the K'ang-te emperor ("Prosperity-Virtue") of Manchukuo, the first and only emperor of that new state.

   While Japanese aggression eventually dismantled the Nationalist state, the greatest long-term threat to the KMT came from the Chinese Communist Party, which had slowly been building in China, was temporarily allied with the KMT, but throughout the 1930's became increasingly independent. The future of China eventually lay with the Chinese communists.

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1997, Richard Hooker
Updated 3-9-97