By Pat Welsh, contributor
With the seizure of Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai and Nanjing in 1937, the undeclared war with Japan was under way. After the fall of Shanghai, the Japanese high command had not intended to capture Nanjing. Their priorities centered on consolidating their position in northern China, hoping this would put an end to China’s will to resist their future demands. Instead, Chiang Kai-shek’s (蔣介石) decision to widen the war by establishing a front in the Yangtze River valley forced Japan to rethink their strategy in China.
In November 1937, Chiang moved his command center to Wuhan. By January 1938, Wuhan seemed vulnerable, causing Chiang to change his military strategy as he recognized that conventional military tactics would be suicidal against Japan.
On Jan. 11, 1938, the Japanese Prime Minister Fumimaro Konoye (近衞 文麿) gave an ultimatum to Chiang for more concessions that included putting north China under Japanese control and a payment of reparations to Japan. Chiang was expected to agree to this proclamation in 72 hours. Chiang refused these demands and Japan ended its recognition of the Kuomintang government and sought to destroy it.
At the end of January 1938, Chiang summoned a military conference where he outlined a strategy to defend Xuzhou, a railroad terminus located 500 kilometers north of Wuhan. On Feb. 9, 1938, the Japanese seized Bengbu, which was 400 kilometers northeast of Wuhan. This seizure gave Japan control over areas north of the Huai River. This action was followed up with two lines of Japanese troops advancing southward along the Jinpu railway. Until March 1938, north and northeast of Xuzhou the Japanese were unable to scatter Chiang’s defenses.
In late March and early April, the Chinese were able to experience their first victory at Taierzhuang located northeast of Xuzhou where their forces wore down a Japanese attack. This showed the Chinese that Japan was stoppable. Unfortunately, after a few days of celebration, the parochialism of Chiang’s forces once again reared its ugly head and made Chiang’s efforts to resist Japan more difficult.
The Japanese commanders learned from their defeat at Taierzhuang. They reinforced their armies and moved their forces southward to squeeze Xuzhou in a vice. To avoid encirclement and utter destruction, Chiang ordered a retreat from Xuzhou. On May 18, helped by a sandstorm and fog, about 40 KMT divisions managed to slip past the Japanese and regroup to fight another day.
To slow the Japanese advance into central China, Chiang destroyed the flood dykes of the Yellow River at Huayuankou on June 6. He hoped to stop the Japanese army from moving onto Zhengzhou, a rail center whose capture threatened both Xian to the west and Wuhan to the south. This flooding gave Chiang five months to move his main forces from Wuhan toward Chongqing. Unfortunately, by doing this, Chiang had flooded much of central China at the cost of an estimated 500,000 Chinese deaths and family displacements.
No longer able to approach Wuhan from the north, in August 1938, the Japanese navy along with 9,000 soldiers approached Wuhan from the east along the Yangtze River. On Oct. 25, surrounded by Japanese, Wuhan fell. The eastern side of China was lost and Chiang’s idea of “Free China” now meant mostly Sichuan, Hunan and Henan provinces. In the north around Yenan, Mao Zedong’s (毛澤東) tactics made it impossible for the Japanese to hold the countryside, but they were unable to defeat the Japanese near the rail lines.
Between late 1938 and December 1941, any appearance of a stalemated situation might be considered deceptive. Both Mao and Chiang settled in for a long war. Mao was strongest in China’s northern countryside. Chiang was strongest in the west and southwest. Japan held the eastern and northeastern provinces. The nature of the warfare became more defensive by all three parties.
The Nationalists settled into Chongqing in 1938. In the spring of 1939 when the winter fogs had lifted from Chongqing, Japanese air raids began. Lacking adequate air-raid defenses, Chiang’s wife Soong Meiling (宋美齡) recruited a retired U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. Claire Lee Chennault to take over the training of China’s tiny air force. Chennault also recruited pilots from the United States to take on the Japanese fighter aircraft and bombers. The official name of this group was the American Volunteer Group but later it became better known as the “Flying Tigers.” The activities of this group raised the morale of the government in Chongqing even though they alone could not stop the Japanese bombing raids.
In the east, the Japanese were poorly prepared for the responsibilities of occupation. Japan had the idea that their conquered territories would pay for themselves and even provide revenue for their efforts. Yet this strategy proved to be more successful in Manchukuo than in eastern China where banditry and small unit resistance broke out in the countryside while criminal activities and various disorders were common in the cities.
On March 28, 1938, the Japanese established the “Great Way Government (大道政府) which lasted only one month. On that same March day, the Japanese established its Reformed Government of China (中華民國維新政府) at the Great Hall of the National Government in Nanjing. It was to be headed by Liang Hongzhi (梁鴻志) who had been prominent in military politics in the 1910s and 1920s but whose role had diminished under the Kuomintang. Once established, Liang and his government returned to the New Asia Hotel in Shanghai where they operated for two years.
Meanwhile the foreign concessions in Shanghai continued to operate but were forced to accommodate thousands of refugees. Problems with food, water and sanitation plagued these concessions until they were closed.
In Yenan, abandoning suicidal positional warfare, Mao’s tactics of small unit mobile guerilla warfare showed some success where he headed a well-disciplined army of soldiers and social work cadres. At the beginning of the war, he had 30,000 men whom he reorganized into the Eighth Route Army (八路軍). This number expanded into three divisions of 80,000 by the end of August 1938. In addition, 12,000 more men were formed into the New Fourth Army that operated in central China.
The loss of China’s major cities in the east to the Japanese strengthened Mao’s argument that the communist movement should move from the countryside into the cities, not vice versa as most of Mao’s challengers had asserted. The result was an immigration of some 100,000 migrants, most were well educated, who believed Mao, not Chiang, had the best ideas for a new China. Mao’s armies grew to over 763, 400 by 1941. With Yenan being outside of the international spotlight, Mao had a better opportunity to create a new social order. Not ready to confiscate and redistribute land, Mao chose to supervise the private economy while imposing rent reductions and the reduction of tax burdens.
On Nov. 26, 1938, Zhou Fohai (周佛海) and his aide Mei Siping (梅思平) called for a secret meeting at the home of Wang Jingwei (汪精衛) in Chongqing. A former rival of Chiang, Wang had been pacified by Chiang who assigned Wang to key defense posts and making him a vice-chairman of the Kuomintang movement. Mei himself had come from secret meetings with senior Japanese military figures in Shanghai. Mei and Zhou urged Wang to defect and establish puppet government in Japanese-occupied eastern China. Wang had been seeking a negotiated peace deal with the Japanese. Fearing the total humiliation and destruction of China by Japan, after a few weeks of wavering, Wang decided to flee and defect. Now he hoped that his position with the Japanese would enable him to act as an intermediary between Chiang and the Japanese military.
Once back in Shanghai, Wang began collaborating and seeking peace terms with the Japanese. On March 30, 1940, Wang established the Nanjing Nationalist Government (南京國民政府), also known as the Reorganized National Government of China, a collaborative government based in Nanjing. There, Wang was named as the president of the Executive Yuan and Chairman of the pro-Japanese Nationalist Government (行政院長兼國民政府). Using terror tactics, Wang had control over the city streets, but otherwise, the legitimacy of his state weakened in the eyes of those around him.
After Pearl Harbor in 1941, Chiang had two mighty Western nations supporting him and there was no longer any real need for a collaborating Chinese government to act as a bridge between Chiang and Tokyo.
About Pat Welsh
In 2009 while teaching English at Sichuan University, Welsh was asked to give a speech where he was introduced to the audience as a “pioneer of Chinese American relations” as a result of his cooperative work in international banking during the Deng Xiaoping era. For more than 65 years, Welsh has been learning Chinese and has used this knowledge both professionally and personally to enhance his understanding of Chinese and Asian affairs. Now fully retired, he currently resides in Georgia where he used to lecture on China to a number of classes at Dunwoody High School.