By Pat Welsh, contributor
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor changed everything for the foreign interests in China. Foreign concessions in Shanghai ended as Japanese troops arrested and interned all foreigners in China’s cities living under their occupation. They were no longer neutrals; they became enemy aliens.
In February 1942, Japan invaded Burma (now known as Myanmar). At first, Japan had no intention of taking Burma, except Burma seemed to be an easy acquisition as the country was only lightly defended by the British. Then too, seizing Burma would cut off a supply route to China as well as be a real threat against India.
In Washington D.C.. Lieutenant General Joseph W. Stilwell received orders that would, over four years, initiate a very different Chinese relationship with America. Stilwell was to command some Chinese troops operating in Burma. In any case, both General George Marshall in Washington and Chiang both viewed Stilwell operating as Chiang’s junior partner. Under Chiang and his uneasy relationship with Stilwell, Chiang had both the United States and the British Empire as allies against Japan.
Yet tension between Stilwell and Chiang arose from Chiang’s intention to address the wrongs done to China by both Japan and the Western Powers. To the British, who actually viewed Chiang with contempt and arrogance, Chiang laid down a list of demands that included the return of Kowloon and Hong Kong to China along with incorporating Tibet into China. At that time the British had still been exercising influence over Tibetan foreign affairs.
In hindsight, it would appear that both Chiang and his Western Allies had views about each other that contained elements of deception. The United States valued a continued Chinese resistance against Japan because it limited the ability of Japan to resist American naval and Marine Corps efforts in the Pacific. The two western allies did try to give the impression that China was a serious ally but they only put a modest effort into the relationship. On the other hand Chiang seemed to overestimate what he was worth to the Western Allies.
A second source of tension lie in differences between Stilwell on one side and General Clair Chennault, a close friend of Chiang’s, on the other. Chennault had been in China working with Chiang since 1937 heading the Flying Tigers and organizing Chiang’s small air force. Chennault believed air power held the key to a swift victory in China, whereas Stilwell contended that the war in China could only be won by long and hard campaigns on the ground. Stilwell had shared Chiang’s hope that American ground forces would fight in China, but Chiang’s tension with Stilwell increased as he realized that the use of American ground troops in China was never seriously considered by Allied commanders.
A third source of tension arose out of the common desire of both men to rescue Burma. Chiang wanted China’s southern borders with Burma and the city of Mandalay to remain secure. Yet Chiang viewed Stilwell as a foreign general with no real military experience, and because of this, Chiang always feared losing a significant part of what remained of his forces under Stilwell.
On the other hand, Stilwell viewed Chiang’s tactics as being too cautious. Stilwell wanted his Chinese troops to be more aggressive in northern Burma. In the third week of March 1942, Stilwell’s tactics failed. For this he blamed second-guessing by his Chinese commanders and Chiang’s meddling. Back in Chongqing, Stilwell offered to resign his command because his orders had not been followed in Burma. Not wanting to create a rift with an ally, yet while still having serious reservations, Chiang relented and sent Stilwell back to Burma accompanied by General Luo Zhuoying who was to ensure that Stilwell’s orders were enforced.
A new battle of wills erupted in April when Stilwell’s plans in Burma were frustrated by the Japanese. Failing in Burma, Stilwell wanted his Chinese troops to retreat to India while Chiang ordered the Chinese troops to retreat northward. Stilwell and his forces split. Stilwell and a party of 80 Americans, British and Chinese retreated on foot to India and arrived on May 8. Chiang, angered at Stilwell’s desertion, felt the alliance was just empty words. The Chinese troops who followed Chiang’s orders were left behind to retreat back to China as best they could on their own. During a very arduous retreat they fared poorly. Jungle conditions and encounters with miscellaneous Japanese took their toll before they had made their way back to China. The hope of using Burma as a supply route to China came to an end.
Yet another part of the tension grew out of Stilwell’s realization that Chiang and his wife, Soong Mei-ling, showed definite signs of tolerating corruption. They seemed to live well, but they seemed to lack full appreciation of the economic disaster China was undergoing. While wanting to modernize and institute welfare relief on one hand, Chiang’s connections to the criminal underworld cause him to lose the pluralism that had marked his earliest wartime phase.
Furthermore, his hatred for communism motivated him to name Dai Li as head of the Military Investigation and Statistics Bureau, a terrorizing security organization used as an instrument with strong ties to the criminal underworld. Part of Dai’s terror activities also arose from a relationship with the American naval captain Milton Miles. The two were key players in SACO (the Sino-American Cooperation Organization) whose activities included acquiring intelligence. The name SACO was to leave a very sour taste in China after World War II because of its association with the jailing and torture of political dissidents, especially the suspected communists.
One other idea about SACO was that it was to train guerillas to harass the Japanese when a hoped-for invasion of the Chinese eastern coast by U.S. forces occurred. Estimates of those trained range between 25,000 and 40,000. In his book “Forgotten Ally,” Rana Mitter claims that this training “was the mixture between the sinister and the farcical” and he gives details backing up his evaluation.
One has to give Chiang some credit for attempting to deal with the hardships experienced by his countrymen. A taxation program in 1942 took in grain rather than cash. This measure reduced inflationary pressures, but it also provided many opportunities for corruption. Then an early autumn drought in 1942 occurred. Some places were spared, but the problem was that of bringing food to places where needed. Incompetence and corruption aggravated the situation. Mass starvation, especially in Henan Province, revealed the desperation that the common man in China was experiencing. The further east and north one traveled, the harder it believed that the Kuomintang state had real authority beyond devalued banknotes and words on paper. Civil servants who kept Chiang’s government running found themselves on the wrong side of the growing gap between the privileged few that had black market connections and the huge majority of rural peasants and city workers who did not. In all likelihood, Chiang probably did have sympathy for the victims of famine of 1942, but only in an abstract sense.
At the same time, Wang Jingwei’s pro-Japanese government in Nanjing had been experiencing a constant crisis of legitimacy from its beginning. Wang had also instituted a reign of terror headed by Zhou Fohai (周佛海), who recruited two Shanghai gangsters and former communists, Li Shiqun (李士群) and Ding Mocun (丁默村) as the face of this operation. Their terror tactics officially began in March 1940. They had some short-term success in the streets of the cities, but these tactics also further weakened the legitimacy of Wang’s state overall in the eyes of many Chinese.
Returning to the communist-held areas in the north, a new political movement was underfoot. On Feb. 1, 1942, Mao Zedong addressed over 1000 party cadres claiming that the party needed changes. This speech initiated the “Rectification Movement (整顿作風). Always distrustful of the educated elite, Mao stated that the uneducated peasants understood a reality of which the intelligentsia was ignorant. The party work style was to be rectified. The party was to study Mao’s writings and a religious commitment to the stated goals of the Communist Party. There was to be a thorough reinvention of Chinese society. Mao wanted to remodel the Chinese state and used Kang Sheng (康生) and his methods of terror to bring this about.
The year 1943 saw changes in the deteriorating relationship between Chiang and his Western Allies, the topic of my next offering.
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.