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Spymaster: Dai Li and the Chinese Secret Service.

Spymaster: Dai Li and the Chinese Secret Service, by Frederic Wakeman Jr. Berkeley and Los Angeles, University of California Press, 2003. xxii, 650 pp. $75.00 US (cloth).

Spymaster lifts the lid on a political legacy of the twentieth century that remains highly topical today, but is rarely exposed to such close scrutiny: the secretive world of kidnappers, torturers, spies, and smugglers in government employ. In this masterful book, Frederic Wakeman, Haas Professor of Asian Studies in the Department of History at the University of California, Berkeley and former President of the American Historical Association, meticulously traces the development of the secret police system in China during the rule of Chiang Kai-shek in the 1930s and 1940s, under the leadership of the elusive General Dai Li (1897-1946). The book is difficult reading, both for its subject matter and for the depth of detail it contains, but it is by the same token a tour de force and richly instructive for any modern historian in illuminating the hidden politics of Republican China, which gave rise to a veritable army of agents and assassins.

Some statistics will suffice to convey the intricacy of detail in Spymaster. At 365 pages, the text takes less than 60 per cent of the volume's 650 pages. The index/glossary alone runs to over 70 pages, the bibliography nearly 40, and the endnotes another 150. There is an unusually high amount of discursive matter in the endnotes, no doubt in order to keep the main text relatively accessible to non-specialist readers, although one suspects that few editors would have been as indulgent with a less illustrious author. The length of the index, however, is due to the fact that Wakeman deals with literally hundreds of named individuals--most of them relatively obscure--and scores of organizations. Dai Li reportedly kept few paper records and relied on a prodigious memory to keep track of the organizations and agents under his control (numbering perhaps 100,000, controlling another half-million informers and spies by war's end, p. 487, n. 40). Wakeman has also performed a feat of organization and memory worthy of his subject in keeping the people in the book straight (with more paper files than Dai used, one imagines).

Another way in which Wakeman has sought to keep his complex account manageable is through dividing it up into a large number of short chapters (twenty-five of them), each in turn split into subheaded sections of two, three, or four pages apiece. Not atypical is chapter seven, which has five sections totalling 18 pages, and 117 endnotes. The divisions and headings make the book easy to dip into and in theory to skim, although would-be skimmers will need to keep one thumb lodged firmly in the index. Correspondingly, the arguments in the book tend to be interspersed rather than sustained, and careful reading is required to locate and digest them. It is worth doing so, for they are fascinating and important, coalescing around the themes of foreign versus Chinese sources for Dai Li's innovations, the social and psychological dynamics underlying secret police work, and its consequences for our understanding of Republican China.

The book falls into three chronological sections, with the chapters arranged topically within each one. The first ten chapters trace Dai Li's early career and his emergence to prominence within what Wakerman aptly dubs "the Chiang Freemasonry" (p. 45): the labyrinth of overlapping secret and semi-secret associations of Chiang loyalists that took shape around alumni of the Whampoa Military Academy from 1931. Much past work has focused on the so-called "Blue Shirts," but Wakeman demonstrates that the real core of Chiang loyalism was a highly secret group known as the Lixingshe of "Society for Vigorous Practice," which controlled several interlocking front organizations including the Fuxingshe ("Renaissance Society"), which is commonly but wrongly identified with the Blue Shirts. In a finely nuanced discussion of the vexed question of the influence of European fascism on Guomindang politics, Wakeman argues against interpreting these movements as fascist, while recognizing in them fascist elements and what he terms "a proto-fascist cultural style" (p. 101). Instead, here and throughout the book, he emphasizes the Chinese influences on the political actors of the era, including Dai Li and his master, Chiang. Dai was often likened by others to Himmler, but he never travelled abroad, and his self-image, Wakeman shows repeatedly, was shaped by Chinese classics like The Art of War and by the martial tradition in vernacular fiction, especially the protean figure of the magician-minister Zhuge Liang in the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, the prototypical kingmaker, strategic genius, and paragon of loyalty in Chinese culture.

The middle chapters of the book concern the period between 1934 and the withdrawal of the government inland in 1938 after the Japanese occupation of eastern China, while the final chapters treat the war years and after (until Dai's death in a plane crash in February 1946). Useful though they were to him, Chiang Kai-shek found the Lixingshe and its offshoots fractious and difficult to manage, and he consequently placed increasing trust in the services of Dai Li, who reported directly to Chiang alone. Dai proved himself consistently able to furnish his "Leader" with timely, accurate, and politically important intelligence, and as a result his power and his budget swelled, particularly after the defeat of the anti-Chiang Fujian Rebellion in early 1934. Dai's ascendancy culminated in his appointment in 1938 to head a new independent security agency, the innocuously-named "Bureau of Investigation and Statistics of the Military Affairs Commission" (Juntong for short), which expanded from around 2,000 agents at its inception to an estimated 100,000 or more at the war's end.

These sections of the book are more engaging than the first ten chapters, as Wakeman explains, with sometimes chilling precision, the ties between Dai Li's network and the Shanghai underworld; the techniques of kidnapping, interrogation, and killing that Dai and his agents employed; and the importance of smuggling in narcotics and other contraband to Dai's budget and to his hold over his personnel and informants. Some of the most interesting chapters concern the "Sino-American Cooperative Organization" of SACO, set up after Pearl Harbor to coordinate US and Chinese intelligence efforts against Japan, which, Wakeman shows, in effect placed US personnel and resources at Dai's disposal, foreshadowing the later entanglements of the CIA with other foreign spy and counter-insurgency agencies.

Despite the massive expansion of the secret police system, Wakeman also shows that Dai's agents had more success against anti-Chiang elements within the Guomindang, progressive intellectuals, and collaborators with the Japanese than they did against their principal targets, the Chinese Communists. Success against the Communist Party is ultimately hard to evaluate, because our knowledge of the history depends very heavily on the testimony of several of Dai's agents who were "re-educated" by their erstwhile Communist enemies after 1949. The remaining archival documents were shredded in Taiwan in the early 1990s, and for many of the details the memoirs of the turncoats are the only evidence available. Despite the voluminous bibliography, then, much of the book rests on these memoirs, especially those of Dai's high-ranking lieutenant Shen Zui, although Wakeman is careful to draw attention to the problem and to balance their testimony with other contemporary sources such as Shanghai police files and newspaper accounts.

One thing Spymaster reveals is the extent to which Chiang Kai-shek's regime rested on direct repression and the ambiguous effect for the regime of relying on the secret police. Quite aside from the terror it inflicted on the Chinese populace, Dai Li's empire fostered an illicit wartime economy that existed in parasitic relationship to the public economy, exacerbating the problem of economic reconstruction after the war which was so instrumental in the regime's downfall to the CCP in 1949.

What of Dai Li himself? Wakeman reveals in a postscript that, for all the measured and dispassionate tone of the book, the topic disturbed him and caused him to reflect on the preoccupation in his oeuvre with the forces of disorder and repression in Chinese society. Likening writing about these topics to resisting the "viper's hypnotic stare," Wakeman notes that Dai, the man, remained for him--as he will for the reader--an enigma, "if ... not wholly monstrous, then ... at best cunningly ambiguous" (p. 367).

Ryan Dunch

University of Alberta
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Author:Dunch, Ryan
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 2004
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