Modern China

The Japanese Occupation


   In the 1930's, Japan was wracked by internal discord. The effects of the international depression and general dissatisfaction with Japan's loss of prestige in the 1920's led young officers in the military to oppose the civilian government of Japan. These young officers complained that the civilian bureaucrats were weak, inefficient, indecisive, and corrupt, and openly agitated for a "Showa restoration," in which the emperor would be placed in charge of the government in place of the inefficient bureaucracy. A series of maneurvers by these self-proclaimed saviors of Japan slowly put Japan on a militaristic and aggressive path which would eventually lead to the invasion of China in 1937.

   In July of 1937, the Japanese invoked one of the provisions of the Boxer Protocols of 1901 which allowed Japan and other countries to station troops east of Beijing. They held military training exercises near Peiping and, claiming that a soldier was missing, demanded the right to enter the city of Wanping. When they were refused, they bombarded the city and occupied it on July 8.

   This was the flimsiest of pretexts, but Japan immediately went to war against China. Troops poured in from Manchuria and occupied the area all around Peiping. The Nanking government, for its part, had formed the United Front, a coalition of various parties and armies, in an effort to defend China from Japanese aggression. This coalition included the CCP and the Red Army.

   The Japanese for their part had no fear whatsoever of the Chinese. Believing them to be disunified and backward, the Japanese high commanded expected to defeat China within a mere three months. Once China was defeated, Japan would turn its sights on what it considered its real objective: Soviet Russia. The United Front troops were, as the Japanese had predicted, no competition for the technologically and militarily superior Japanese.

   The Nationalists allowed the Japanese to occupy Peiping, but put up a spirited defense when the Japanese moved on Shanghai. There, the Nationalist troops managed to keep the Japanese at bay for three months—the total amount of time the Japanese had allocated for the entire war. When Shanghai fell, however, Nationalist defense fell. Besides losing their most important troops, in losing Shanghai they lost the financial center of China. The Japanese then moved unopposed to Nanking, the center of government. Chiang quickly moved the capital to Chungking in Szechwan province.

   The fall of Nanking evidenced perhaps the most brutal massacre in the history of war. Having taken the city, the Japanese, unsystematically and indiscrimately, slaughtered over 100,000 innocent civilians and probably an equal number of rapes. The event, known to history as "The Rape of Nanking," was so brutal that the Japanese military kept it a secret from even the Japanese until the end of the war.

   After sixteen months, the Japanese controlled a vast amount of Chinese territory. But Chiang had traded territory for breathing space and now the Japanese, at the end of 1938, were deeply entangled in central China. Despite their initial successes, the Japanese would make no more headway and lose vast amounts of resources and men trying to extricate themselves from central China.

Wang Ching-wei

   With prospects looking bad for the Chinese and with Chiang Kai-shek bravely fighting against impossible odds, the Japanese offered peace terms to the Chinese. Intrigued by these terms, Wang Ching-wei, the second ranking member in the Nanking government, flew to Hanoi to negotiate peace. Under the peace of Wang Ching-wei, the Nationalist government would be dismantled in favor of a new Chinese government committed to friendship with Japan, a mutual defense agreement directed against communism and the Soviets, economic cooperation, and the recognition of Manchukuo as a legitimate state. In exchange, China would receive back all conquered territory, would regain control over areas controlled by foreign countries, and have a government and economy independent of Japanese control.

   The Chungking government agreed to Wang's peace, but the Nationalists under Chiang bitterly decried it. Chiang had Wang dismissed from the KMT, but in March, 1940, Wang set up a five yüan governemtn in Nanking. None of the powers in the West recognized the legitimacy of Wang's government. We will never know why Wang betrayed Chiang and his party, for he died just a few months before the defeat of China; he was spared the public humiliation of a traitor's trial. His generals and assistants, however, were all tried and executed as traitors.

Resistance

   In 1941, the United Front broke down and the two armies, the Nationalist Army under Chiang K'ai-shek and the Red Army for the most part controlled by Mao Tse-tung, engaged in a stalemated war of resistance against the Japanese. Chiang employed traditional military tactics while the Red Army engaged in guerilla warfare; so effective was the Red Army that by the end of the war it was equal to the Nationalist Army. The duration of the war witnessed a simple stalemate between the two sides, Chinese and Japanese; the real winner, it turns out, was the CCP which gained substantial territory in central and northern China.

   This period of time in the Communist party, known as the Yenan Period (1937-1945), was absolutely critical for the CCP. During this time, Mao had the leisure and authority to restructure the party and the movement according to his vision of its future. This was the most creative period in Mao's political career as he began to read Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Stalin very carefully. With a better knowledge of basic Marxist texts, he began to skillfully adapt Marxism to the specific conditions in China. During the Yenan period, Mao developed the two main components of Maoism: the mass line and revolutionary nationalism among the peasantry. The mass line approach involved addressing the needs of the poor peasantry through land reform and the bringing of the peasantry into full involvement politically, socially, militarily, and economically with the new regime. The Yenan period was an active period of forming peasant groups and organizations; peasants, traditionally timid, were in Mao's territories fully involved in the social and political direction of the government.

Consequences

   After the defeat of the Germans, the allies issued the Potsdam Declaration on July 26, 1945. This declaration demanded the immediate and unconditional surrender of Japan or "its complete and utter destruction." When Japan refused, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima on August 6 and another on Nagasaki on August 9. On August 10, the Japanese government agreed in principle to the Potsdam Declaration. The treaty, signed by the allies (including the Soviet Union) and Japan, allowed Chiang K'ai-shek to run the central government of China, returned Manchuria to Chinese control, and confirmed the political independence of Outer Mongolia from China. Chiang agreed to these conditions (even though he lost Outer Mongolia), and the Soviets had effectively betrayed the Chinese Communists. On September 2, the Japanese officially surrendered and China was now free. Chinag K'ai-shek emerged from the war a hero and China emerged as one of the superpowers in world politics. It became one of the Big Five powers of the world and was granted a permanent seat on the Security Council of the newly formed United Nations. At no point in Chinese history has China enjoyed the international prestige that it enjoyed after the Second World War.

   There were, however, serious consequences. China was absolutely instrumental in the winning of the Pacific War. Through the guerilla tactics of the Red Army and especially due ot the spirited and brilliant fighting of the Nationalist Army, Japan got bogged down in China in an expensive, useless, and resource-consuming war of attrition. Over half of the Japanese military strength was engaged in China all during the war; these are troops that could have been effectively deployed elsewhere. If, for instance, Japan had moved against Soviet Russia, it's unlikely that Russia could have survived a two-front war with Japan and Germany. The result of all this fighting, however, was the depletion of Chinese resources, economically, militarily, and spiritually. The Nationalist government was really in no position to effectively govern a newly centralized China. Ultimately, however, no-one had the resources or spirit to fight another war. Mao Tse-tung, having consolidated his territory and political theory in the Yenan period, understood that the Chinese were too exhausted for another war, so he immediately began challenging the Nationalist government. The Chinese desire for peace, he understood, made the Nationalist government too weak to withstand the communist onslaught.

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1997, Richard Hooker
Updated 3-9-97