China Begins to Rise From the Ashes.
My last article was about China having reached its nadir; a period when Chinese were referred to as, 'Opium Eaters'! But great nations have great resilience and the ability to rise again. For this to happen, nations need visionaries. One such visionary was born in China in 1866, just as it hit its lowest ebb; Sun Yat-sen. Sun was a doctor by profession, but a modern reformist and activist by choice. In his youth Sun witnessed the increase in opium consumption and how it affected addicts. He also realized that China's diminished international status was due to the inept and corrupt Qing Dynasty.
Being a modern reformer, he quickly realized the importance of the people in any nation and, therefore, became a democrat who favoured the creation of a republic. He is referred to as the "Founding Father of Republican China".
Sun played a significant role in overthrowing the Qing Dynasty and was the first President of the Republic of China, founded in 1912. He also founded and became the first President of the Chinese National People's Party or Kuomintang (KMT). Being a doctor by profession, he immediately took steps to limit the use of opium; and for rehabilitation of addicts. Despite their differences, both The People's Republic of China (mainland China) and Taiwan, which refers to itself as The Republic of China, acknowledged Sun as their Founding Father. However Dr. Sun's political career was an unstable one. Many of the Warlords who dominated their own regions during the dying throes of the Qing Dynasty, kept revolting and succeeded in ousting him.
During his brief stint in power, his contributions were many. Conscious of the need to rebuild a modern military, he set up the modern Whampoa Military Academy in 1924. And, wary of British dominance, Sun allied himself to Russia and sought its assistance economically and militarily. Naturally, therefore, it was not long before Communist influence began to creep in, and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) took birth in 1921 but it was to be some years later it began to rise to power.
Sun was not destined to live to see his party consolidate its hold over most of China, since he died in 1925. But, not only did he begin the reformation of the political system and the re-awakening of the Chinese people, he left an undying legacy in the form of his modern political philosophy, known as The Three Principles of the Chinese People: Nationalism, Democracy, and the Livelihood of the People!
The Northern Expedition, which resulted in the partial re-unification of China, also known as Northern March, began from the KMT's power base in Guangdong province. In 1925, the May 30th Movement announced plans for strike and protest against western imperialism and its warlord agents in China - meaning the KMT. Although Sun had allied the KMT with the CCP, however, after his death the alliance was an uneasy one, since Chiang Kai-shek distrusted Communists. While Chiang Kai-shek emerged as the undisputed military leader for this expedition, he was neither comfortable with the Russian alliance nor with the CCP. And Chiang also had political ambitions! However, he needed Russia and the CCP at the time.
The expedition set forth in July 1926 and by January of the next year liberated most of the north of China, bringing it under effective KMT rule. Chiang decided that this was an opportune moment to purge his forces of communists. April 1927 saw the slaughter of thousands of Chinese communists in the joint forces; survivors deserted.
Chiang had overestimated his achievement, since this provided an opportunity for the northern warlords to again combine and defeat Chiang's forces. The see-saw of victories and defeats ended with a decisive defeat of the KMT forces in 1928. The military defeat resulted in the removal of Chiang from the command of the army; and the beginning of political negotiations to reach an acceptable settlement.
This episode obviously weakened Chiang politically, but far more importantly, it drove the final wedge between Chiang Kai-shek and the CCP. This was to have a profound impact on the future when Mao Ze-dong (Chairman Mao) was to emerge as the most powerful leader on the Chinese political landscape!
Political negotiations made no headway, nor was Gen Chiang's replacement proving to be a success. In 1930, a chastened and wiser Chiang was reinstated.
Meantime, in 1927, British forces stormed Nanjing and expanded their Chinese holding. For the KMT, seeking Chinese re-unification and the re-emergence of Chinese glory, this was the last straw. Chiang's forces not only recaptured Nanjing but also Manchuria, forcing the Japanese, British, American, and other Europeans to give back Chinese territory. China had begun to assert itself again. They were no longer merely 'Opium Eaters'!
Japan, however, was an ancient enemy and pretended to the claims over portions of China. From 1931 onwards, numerous 'incidents' occurred, frequently resulting in military clashes. However, both sides continued to exercise restraint. It seems that neither was prepared to risk an all-out war till 1937.
Meantime, international geopolitics was undergoing changes. In Germany, the Nazi party was soon to assume power, America, Germany and even Russia; all were wary of Japan. The British Empire, though visibly intact, in the post WWI scenario, was beginning to show signs of cracks, and Britain was looking at 'consolidation' rather than 'expanding'.
It was in this backdrop that the Second Sino-Japanese War began in July 1937. Russia, Germany, and Japan, all assisted China in this war. The Second World War was to commence two years later and this conflict was destined to merge and become one part of that far larger conflict. For obvious reasons, Germany withdrew its support to China, but was replaced by Britain, and Russia and America doubled their assistance.
Initially, Japanese forces made considerable inroads to capture large tracts of south eastern China. Chiang Kai-shek was hard pressed, but had to establish himself as worthy of assistance. In late 1938, Chiang launched a counter offensive and, even though his achievements were modest, he proved himself to be a worthy adversary of Japan. More aid and military supplies began to flow in. This war also concluded only when the Japanese Imperial Forces surrendered to the Allied forces under Gen Douglas MacArthur, after the horrific (and unnecessary) nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
However, while Chiang was proving militarily competent, his and the KMT's political hold over China was steadily weakening. The CCP was gaining strength exponentially under the wily and charismatic leadership of Mao Ze-dong. KMT's days in mainland China were numbered.
It would, however, be unfair to under-rate Chiang Kai-shek's contribution to the re-unification and re-emergence of China on the international political scene as a "force-in-waiting" for the future. His military skills may not have been brilliant, but he learned his lessons.
After the haste with which he purged his forces of communists in 1927, resulting in his defeat at the hands of the warlords and his removal from command, he never again underestimated his enemy. What is more he, like Britain's Gen Montgomery, began to 'over ensure' his success by outweighing the enemy.
If Dr. Sun Yat-sen had initiated the process of rebuilding the Chinese people into an united and self-confident nation, it was the Second Sino-Japanese War that proved to be the catalyst which brought his dream to fruition.
This part of Chinese history would be incomplete if I concluded it without making a mention of the man who would chart China's future, Chairman Mao; who will be the subject of my next article. After the massacre of the CCP personnel in Chiang Kai-shek's army in 1927, the CCP never again reposed trust in the KMT and, especially in Gen Chiang. Inevitably, therefore, the two parties squared off on a confrontational course.
Ironically, it was also in 1927 that Mao began his rise. But, it was in the early 1930s that he came to rule a limited area of China as the military and political leader. Soon thereafter, the level of prosperity between regions under Mao and those under KMT became visible. Thus, even as KMT was fighting Japanese, Mao had been given a priceless opportunity to display his military and politico-economic skills. He was China's future.
The writer is a former vice president and founder of the Islamabad Policy Research Institute (IPRI).