The Chinese Communist Party 1937-49 – The Unfolding of Historical Necessity: China’s Great Revolution – Part Two: The Sino-Japanese War

If the Japanese leadership had not planned the Marco Polo Bridge Incident which sparked the full-scale war, they didn’t let that show. By October, only three months after the war started, the Japanese had already reached the most westerly point of the entire war.

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They succeeded in totally destroying China’s air force in only a few weeks, which enabled them to mercilessly bomb civilians for the remainder of the war with no threat to themselves, like shooting fish in a barrel (Guillermaz, op cit. pp287). Between 1939 and 1941, the temporary capital of ‘free’ China, Chongqing, was bombed 268 times, with 4,400 being killed in the first two raids (Eastman, op cit.). Within a year Japan had effectively taken control of all the lucrative areas of China it desired - that is the industrially developed and agriculturally productive North and East of the country. In a number of key battles that were all over by the end of 1938, the Japanese brutally crushed any hopes of an effective Guomindang led resistance.

Losing 15 of 18 Provinces

We have argued that a far more effective means of fighting the Japanese would have been to organise a revolutionary war of resistance by mobilising the hundreds of millions of Chinese workers and peasants on a socialist programme to make the occupation impossible. Given that the CCP sacrificed this perspective for one of collaboration with the militarily stronger but politically reactionary Guomindang, it is our duty to honestly assess the calibre of this fighting force with which the CCP had allied at such great political cost.

Evidently, the Guomindang did not match up well to the Japanese since it only took the latter twelve months to achieve all it wanted - the control of North and East China and the total destruction of the Chinese air force. The anti-Japanese ‘united front’ for which Mao argued so vociferously failed spectacularly to defend China. But how and why?

Chiang Kai-shekPart of the reason for Japan’s rapid success was Chiang Kai Shek’s cruel contempt for the Chinese people. Despite Chiang’s ‘nationalism’, these hundreds of millions never entered his plans as China’s greatest force for resistance. Anticipating the war he argued in 1935 that “even if we lose 15...of the 18 provinces of China proper, with Sichuan, Guizhou and Yunnan provinces in our control we will definitely beat any enemy” (quoted in Eastman, op cit.). Instead of spending the period from 1935 onwards to prepare the masses in the 15 other provinces to make the Japanese occupation impossible, he sacrificed those millions to Japan’s tender mercies with barely a fight.

The key northern cities of Beijing and Tianjin were taken with ease by Japan in only a few days in late July 1937 thanks to Japan’s already existing military occupation of Manchuria. Immediately after the Marco Polo Bridge Incident, Japan was able to mobilise 160,000 troops in Northern China in only a few weeks. The vital southern city of Canton (now Guangzhou) fell without a fight in October 1938.

The most graphic application of Chiang’s policy of sacrificing the majority of China to the Japanese was his ‘scorched earth policy’ in which he took the trouble to kill and destroy Chinese people and industry on behalf of the Japanese in order to make their occupation less feasible. For example, in November 1938, as the Japanese were approaching Changsha, capital of Hunan province, it was decided to set fire to the entire city to make its occupation strategically pointless and costly. Tragically, in their haste they started the blaze before everyone had evacuated, so not only was this historic city destroyed but so were the lives of 2,000 of its inhabitants.

A much worse incident had already taken place in June of 1938 on the Yellow River at Kaifeng, Henan province. Retreating from encircling Japanese forces, the Guomindang commanders hit upon the idea of destroying the entire valley behind them by diverting the great river in order to halt the Japanese. It worked rather too well, flooding 4-5,000 whole villages and leaving over two million homeless, destitute and without crops and food (Eastman, op cit.). Guillermaz even claims that millions of Chinese peasants died from the loss of harvest. It was a funny kind of national ‘united front against Japan’ when the nationalists were often responsible for more death and destruction of Chinese than were the Japanese.

The Invasion of Shanghai and the Nanjing Massacre

Despite the policy of retreat and self-sacrifice (or rather, the policy of sacrificing the Chinese masses on their behalf), there were some instances of determined Guomindang led-fight backs and even victories in the early days of the war, however these often only sparked off a more vicious Japanese assault for which the Chinese were not prepared.

Japanese Bombarded WanpingOnly one month after the Marco Polo Bridge Incident, the Japanese found a pretext for invading the lucrative city of Shanghai when a Japanese lieutenant was killed by a Chinese guard in August 1937. The Japanese lost no time in seizing the excuse for an invasion with a front line of troops formed outside the city in a couple of weeks. Feeling that to lose Shanghai without a fight would be too politically humiliating, Chiang moved in roughly 300,000 soldiers to the city to fight the 200,000 of Japan (Guillermaz, op cit. p291). However despite not only their numerical superiority but also their enormous ‘home advantage’, the Guomindang army lost the battle with around 270,000 killed and by November were retreating from Shanghai.

History shows that an occupying force, even one of tremendous technical superiority, can have enormous difficulties in winning a war in a large city if its inhabitants are united in fighting against the occupation. Every building becomes a war zone, a potential hiding place for snipers and bombs, every citizen a potential soldier. It is therefore testament to the Guomindang’s fear of and hostility to their own people, as well as their general ineptness and corruption, that they failed to hold Shanghai or make the Japanese occupation of it particularly difficult despite the fact that the latter had not even made plans to invade this far south. As Guillermaz points out (referring to later battles), “the Japanese action was helped at a political level by the unpopularity of the nationalist troops who, underfed and undisciplined, laid waste countryside already hit by severe famine.”

Had the CCP spent the decade since 1927 rebuilding a base in cities like Shanghai, campaigning against the bourgeois dictatorship of Chiang Kai Shek and for the need to wage a revolutionary war with Japan, they could have mobilised the working class of Shanghai (their original stronghold along with Canton) for a general strike and urban guerrilla warfare against this Japanese invasion.

But worse was to come from this defeat, for Chinese forces retreated in such a way as to give the Japanese open access to Nanjing, the then capital of ‘free’ China, failing even to use the deliberately constructed concrete fortifications outside the city, which the Japanese entered on 13th December 1937. This was when the defenceless population suffered the infamous ‘rape of Nanjing’ in which up to 300,000 civilians were raped and massacred, for which one of the chief perpetrators Prince Asaka was never tried. The methods of killing included burying alive and burning alive with kerosene (Eastman, op cit.).

The Guomindang government fled Nanjing and set up a temporary command in Hankou (now part of Wuhan) before reestablishing the national government in Chongqing, which would remain the capital until the end of the war.

The Character of Chiang Kai Shek’s Military

If war is a continuation of politics by other means, than it is no surprise to find the Guomindang’s army was as corrupt, inefficient, inept and exploitative as was his political tutelage.

We have already explained the reasons for the corruption and degeneracy of Chiang’s regime. In summary, despite being a so-called party of national unity and modernisation, because in coming to power it had to base itself on China’s weak and corrupt bourgeoisie in order to defeat the working class-led revolution, the party sunk into the worst backwardness. It abandoned itself to the most reactionary forces, in particular landlordism and warlordism, since those were the ones who were allies against the CCP.

Thus Chiang maintained his power by balancing between, flattering and bribing the archaic local warlords and the most corrupt speculative capitalists. His regime had to be one of corruption because its power base was an inherently corrupt class. He had no independent power to unite the country, and so it actually became more divided into competing warlord fiefdoms than before. Frequently, when his power loomed too large above those of his lords, they would forge alliances against him, and he would have to bribe one or the other with promises of political influence. Chiang very much resembled a feudal king or chief thief sitting uneasily atop many lesser thieves.

Given that Chiang’s power was based on that of local warlords, it is unsurprising that such corruption and disunity found its sharpest expression in the military and the war against Japan.

“Many Chinese commanders were hesitant and cowardly. Most of them had enjoyed regional autonomy too long to risk their lives and power merely at Chiang Kai Shek’s command. Governor Han Fuju, for example, ignominiously abandoned Shandong province to the Japanese, although he, in contrast to most, paid for his disregard of Chiang’s orders with his life. He was executed in January 1938...It was not, however, a united, national army, but a coalition of armies which differed in degrees of loyalty to the central government as well as in training, equipment and military capabilities...Long Yun, governor of Yunnan, for example, resisted central government encroaches upon his provincial power...Governor Yan Xishan, commander of the Second War Zone in North China and vice chairman of the Military Council, ruled his native Shanxi as an autonomous satrapy. He prohibited units of the Central Army from entering his war zone...since 1941, Yan had even maintained close and amiable relations with the Japanese.” (Ibid).

Eastman points out that from non-Central Chinese armies, 12 generals defected to the Japanese in 1941, 15 in 1942 and 42 in 1943, taking with them around 500,000 troops who were now used against the Guomindang and, in the main, the CCP! And of course we cannot leave out the most infamous of all desertions, that of Wang Jingwei, who in 1927 was trumpeted by the CCP as the leader of the Guomindang’s left wing and a reliable ally for the Communists. In 1938 he deserted the Guomindang and by 1940 was installed as the leader of Japan’s puppet ‘Reorganised National Government of China’ based in Nanjing.

As with all gangster politicians, Chiang demoted or minimised the influence of the few generals with actual talent since they posed a threat to his power with their independent ideas and incorruptibility. The others were promoted precisely because they were mediocre or came from powerful warlord backgrounds but typically with no idea how to fight a modern war - nor the desire to do so. The epitome of this was reached when in 1944 Roosevelt demanded that Chiang place the US general Stilwell in full command of the war effort since Chiang and his commanders could not be relied upon, and instead Chiang sent Stilwell back to America, understanding this as a mortal threat to his own power. Stilwell was replaced by General Wedemeyer, who quickly drew the same conclusions and hit the nail on the head when he described Chiang’s commanders as “incapable, inept, untrained, petty...altogether inefficient”.

Class exploitation in the Military

What they lacked in talent, determination and unity, they made up for in the art of exploitation and cruelty for their own troops. All males between 18 and 45 were subject to military conscription, however

“recruitment was left in the hands of the local gentry [again revealing Chiang’s complete dependence on these anachronistic classes and lack of any real national state apparatus], which meant that al the relatively well-off families escaped conscription. Consequently the poorest and physically weakest sections of the population found themselves herded into primitive depots, and then had to cover several hundred or thousand kilometres on foot to join their units. Out of 1,670,000 men conscripted in 1943, 750,000 never reached their destination.” (Guillermaz, op cit., p302, our emphasis)

In many cases peasants were simply rounded up without any formal conscription process taking place. Guillermaz quotes General Wedemeyer on the realities of conscription, “Conscription comes to the Chinese peasant like famine or flood, only more regularly - every year twice - and claims more victims. Famine, flood, and drought compare with conscription like chicken pox with the plague.”

Eastman adds more horrific details to the treatment of peasant conscripts,

“Frequently the recruits were tied together with ropes around their necks. At night they might be stripped of their clothing to prevent them from sneaking away. For food, they received only small quantities of rice, since the conscripting officers customarily ‘squeezed’ the rations for their own profit. For water, they might have to drink from puddles by the roadside - a common cause of diarrhoea. Soon, disease coursed through the conscripts bodies’. Medical treatment was unavailable, however, because the recruits were not regarded as part of the army until they had joined their assigned units...Within a month [of General Wedemeyer’s appointment] he realised that the soldiers were too weak to march and were incapable of fighting effectively, largely because they were half starved...An American expert, who in 1944 examined 1,200 soldiers from widely different kinds of units, found that 57% of the men displayed nutritional deficiencies that significantly affected their ability to function as soldiers.”

Unsurprisingly, not only did millions of soldiers die from starvation and disease - more than from fighting the Japanese - but in many cases over half the soldiers in a given unit would desert - sometimes to the CCP, others just fled in desperation. It is genuinely not an exaggeration to say that during the Sino-Japanese war, the most fearful and directly harmful enemy of the Chinese people was their own Guomindang government (and the class it represented).

This is the reality of the regime established by China’s ‘successful’ bourgeois revolution of 1927. It is undeniable proof that the Chinese bourgeoisie, to the extent it even existed, was incapable of taking society forwards or even holding it together. This was a rotten, bedraggled and crisis ridden regime ripe for the overthrow. We believe we have shown enough evidence of corruption, cruelty, ineptness and disunity to prove that the CCP’s about-face and silencing of all anti-Guomindang propaganda was profoundly wrong. The united-front was clearly a farce because the Guomindang could not even hold together its own army to fight Japan, not to speak of the way it ran the economy and exploited the working class (more on that soon).

And yet despite finding itself unable to organise an army worthy of the name, it did manage to keep one general’s forces well fed and trained - those of General Hu Zongnan, because it was his troops that in the early 40s - whilst the ‘united front’ was still being practiced by the CCP - that were charged with containing the CCP’s forces in the north. At times in the war Chiang committed as many as 500,000 of his best troops to blockading the CCP’s bases, especially after the Guomindang’s treacherous role in the ‘New 4th Army Incident’, which will be explained in part III. Throughout the war Chiang deliberately held back the anti-Japan war effort in order to save his forces for a future struggle to wipe out the CCP. This fact says everything about the sincerity of the Guomindang’s alliance with the CCP to defeat Japan.

The united-front was always a fiction dreamt up in Moscow and imposed onto the Chinese reality, because for Stalin the CCP was not an agent of the Chinese revolution but a bargaining chip in his negotiations with Chiang Kai Shek. This is underlined by the fact that the USSR “signed a treaty of nonaggression [with Chiang Kai Shek] on August 21, 1937, sent aid of about $300m to the Nationalists, and stationed as many as 500 military advisors and pilots with them, though none with the Communists, so far as is known. All this aid reportedly led Mao to query in December, 1937, “If so much could be given to Chiang Kai Shek, why could we not get a small share?” Why indeed.

The Literal Bankruptcy of Chiang Kai Shek’s Regime

The same ossified, fractured approach to the war effort was the defining characteristic of China’s economy in this period. Social and economic life was choked by an intolerably corrupt, short sighted and grasping bureaucracy taking advantage of the absence of a strong capitalist class able to control the state. This state of affairs, already firmly entrenched by the ten years of Chiang’s rule before 1937 fed off itself in a vicious circle; the dead end of Chinese capitalism and all pervasive corruption it caused only further encouraged those with the ability to fleece the state, workers, peasants and anyone else to do so with abandon.

Faced with a Japanese blockade of what was already an extremely sickly economy, the government increased its issuance of currency over 700 fold from 1937 to 1945; as a result average prices rose over the same period by a multitude of 2,395! There are a number of reasons why price rises were around three times as high as the increase in currency; the main one was most likely the huge decline in industrial output after Japan took possession of the most productive cities, meaning that supply could not meet demand. Industrial production fell to below 12% of the prewar level. As well as the loss of factories to Japan, within Guomindang controlled China 82% of factories folded due to a particularly short-sighted boom in 1939-40 (Eastman, op cit.). Farmers in turn started to hoard grain as they had lost confidence in the currency, the resulting lack of grain naturally caused this staple commodity to rise in price, worsening the inflation.

Additionally, during the 1930s the rural economy suffered under the iron fist of Chiang, who imposed compulsory labour onto the peasantry that benefited the rich landowners, and the brutality of this experience forced them into striking (Bianco & Lloyd, Peasant Movements, Cambridge History of China volume 13, p290). Agricultural production worsened still thanks to the Japanese invasion, especially from 1942 onwards, further impoverishing both rural and urban workers (Myers, The Agrarian System, Cambridge History of China volume 13, pp267-9).

Indeed the effects of this on the working class were devastating, as wages failed to rise by anything like this amount, a fact which Eastman perversely celebrates as the one ‘success’ of China’s hyper-inflation, “the consequences of inflation were not all negative. During the eight years of war, for example, real wages of workers rose only during 1938; thereafter, to the benefit of employers, they declined.” The destitution of the working class is always a silver lining for the capitalists when enduring a crisis!

With rampant inflation came rampant speculation, which had always been the chief vice of China’s capitalist class (see the above linked article), diverting investment from productive activity: “investors made substantially larger profits simply by storing the cotton than by chancing long term investment in mills that processed cotton” (Ibid). 86% of liquid capital went into speculation as opposed to real investment in 1944!

Thanks to all this, from 1937-45 industrial workers’ real wages fell by more than half! Roughly the same figure applies to rural workers, although farmers who owned their land ‘only’ saw their incomes fall by around 20%. But extraordinarily, the real wages of civil servants, university workers and professors and soldiers all fell by around 90%! (Ibid). The poverty of soldiers, professors and civil servants is explicable by the government’s austerity drive to counter the costs of inflation on war expenditure, and in the case of the civil servants also gives an insight into why corruption became so rampant.

We apologise for the lack of a discussion of the CCP’s analysis, propaganda and political intervention regarding this dire economic situation and class exploitation, but thanks to its alliance with Chiang Kai Shek and its absorption in rural and military survival, the CCP said and did little or nothing about this state of affairs. Consequently it failed to make political headway amongst urban workers, students and professors.

Rapidly spiralling prices, which the government had failed to anticipate, forced a reaction. In 1941 it started to scratch around for tax revenue to pay for the war. Thus it fell back on the hated ‘likin’ tax (again, please see above linked article), one of the most economically depressing taxes possible, as well as other ingenious taxes like the ‘contribute-sandals-to-recruits’ tax, the ‘comfort-recruits-families’ tax, the ‘train-antiaircraft-cadres’ tax, and the ‘provide-fuel-for-garrisoned-troops’ tax! (Fairbank & Goldman, China: A New History, p314).

For the same reasons the government also pursued a harsh austerity agenda. Through measures like holding down the wages of government employees during extreme inflation and cutting back on government support for industry, the government actually reduced its real expenditure during the war by more than three quarters, despite having to feed a huge army! Although, as we have seen, it barely fed the soldiers if it could help it.

‘Bureaucratic’ Capital

Far from uniting the working class with the bourgeoisie, the rigours of the war revealed the bourgeoisie’s rotten, self-serving and venal characteristics, preferring as it did to use the chaos of war to speculate and hoard, driving millions to starvation. Wartime, more than any other, demands the superiority of a collective plan and unified effort to overcome what are profoundly social questions. Such an effort and coordination was far beyond the capacities of a class raised on a diet of usury and easy money.

Whereas the planned economy of the USSR was able, despite all its bureaucracy, to move the key war industries in a short space of time from European Russia to behind the Urals, the anarchic Chinese capitalists failed in their equivalent task. Despite the government’s bribery of guaranteed 5-10% profit rates for 7 years, plus low interest rate loans and free factory sites for capitalists who moved their factories into the interior far away from the Japanese, only 120,000 tons of equipment ever got moved, far less than both what was available to be moved and what needed to be moved. “[M]ost industrialists and financiers felt little or no personal involvement in the cause of Chinese resistance...They did not allow patriotism to dull their business instincts. (Eastman, op cit.).” And yet the CCP remained wedded to this ‘patriot’ class right to the end of the war.

Indeed the failures of the capitalist class in the war forced the government to play the leading economic role long before the CCP nationalised the means of production after 1949. By 1942 the state controlled 17.5% of all factories, 70% of all capital, 32% of workers and 42% of horsepower (ibid). This tendency towards statisation of Chinese capitalism is important to note for the later discussion on exactly why - contrary to their stated aims and perspectives - the CCP proceeded to expropriate capitalism after taking power. It also forms important evidence in our argument that the alliance with the bourgeoisie was totally unjustified for it lacked the capacity to and interest in taking China forwards.

Of course, this had been obvious ever since the bourgeoisie backed Chiang Kai Shek to become the dictator of China. His autocracy was the political expression of the same inability of Chinese capitalism to develop the productive forces that forced the government to play an increasingly large economic role. The terms of the CCP’s deal with Chiang was that his regime would gradually reform itself into a democratic one in which the CCP could legally participate, and yet in 1939 the Military Affairs Commission, chaired by Chiang, arrogated to itself all administrative functions of government, making Chiang’s control direct for every aspect of China’s life.

Chiang Alienates the Imperialists

Given the basket case of China under Chiang Kai Shek, the British and American imperialists were in 1939 giving serious thought to forging an alliance with Japan, which they correctly estimated as being so much stronger than China that it might be worth abandoning the latter. The British, perhaps understanding how rotten and unpopular Chiang’s regime was, even wanted to wait to see if Wang Jingwei’s Japanese puppet regime in Nanjing might manage to be more popular than that of Chiang’s before choosing whether to back China or Japan. However these designs were scuppered by Japanese intransigence with regard to British and American interests in China (Akira Iriye Japanese Aggression and China’s International Position, Cambridge History of China volume 13, pp525-6). The imperialists had no concern for the plight of the Chinese masses under the heel of Japan and only sided with China to protect their narrow interests there, and in the hope that China could be used in an American dominated post-war setup to contain Russia and grind Japan and Germany into the ground.

With China apparently an important inclusion in the schemes of the imperialists, the egotistical Chiang began to fantasise that this had elevated China into one of the world’s great powers. In reality China’s lying prostrate in the face of Japanese imperialism meant that it required the American and British imperialists, who were concerned about the Japanese threat to their interests only, to fight the battle on its behalf. We have already seen how the Chinese capitalists were not prepared to lead the fight themselves, economically or militarily. Chiang’s foolish delusion that having the US fight on his behalf (whilst he concentrated on the CCP) would mean the future elevation of China at the hands of the US led to increasing frustration from the US, to the point where they refused Chiang’s government a $1bn loan and considered supporting the CCP more (which they saw as the better fighters, and not really Communists anyway).

Chiang Kai Shek was a miserable, grasping and lazy leader only ever interested in the preservation of his own power. He staffed his army with incompetent generals simply because they were loyal, and concentrated his best troops not against Japan but the CCP. As disastrous as this was for the Chinese ruling class, they could have it no other way, for they had not the means to effectively resist Japan without arousing the masses to military activity, the last thing they wanted. Chiang’s cowardice and preference for passivity in the war by banking on the US to fight on his behalf, and his determination to get the maximum for his regime from the US with the minimum disturbance to his kingdom, is the true political expression of a capitalist class born too late and with no role to play.