China, meantime, was engaged in a great struggle to free itself from the hold of the Western colonial powers. The struggle was much more than a simple conflict between nationalists and imperialists. It was complicated by two additional elements in particular—the increasing threat to Chinese independence from an expansionist Japan and increasing communist intervention in Chinese politics. China faced the prospect of simply exchanging one set of imperial overlords for another.
By 1900 the Chinese Empire had lost much of its effective sovereignty through concessions of naval bases and economic and political privileges to the European powers and Japan. Following China’s defeat by Japan in 1895, European imperialists had engaged in a hectic scramble for further concessions (see Chapter 22). A formidable reaction to this outburst of imperialist activity had erupted within China.
The hard-pressed Manchu government had encouraged the formation of anti-foreign nationalist secret societies, of which the most important was the Fists of Righteous Harmony. Missionaries called this group the Boxers, and when they revolted, the name was taken up by the Western press. The result of the Boxer Rebellion of 1900, in which more than two hundred foreigners were slain, was the use of troops by the foreign powers, including the United States, to protect their nationals and property against the Boxers. In 1901 they obliged the Manchu government to pay a large indemnity and to grant them rights that further impaired Chinese sovereignty.
The next Chinese rebellion, the revolution of 1911, was directed against the Manchu regime that had proved so incapable of resisting foreign imperialism. The movement was also directed against the West—against Westerners themselves or against local governors who seemed to be agents of the West. But it was a movement inspired at least in part by Western ideas and examples and often led by thoroughly “Westernized” Chinese.
From the start, two chief revolutionary groups displayed conflicting ideas about the nature of the new society that would replace the Manchus. One group formed the Nationalist party, the Kuomintang, led by Sun Yat-sen (1866-1925) and many young intellectuals who had studied and traveled in the West.
Its leaders wanted a democratic parliamentary republic modeled on the Western political system, though preserving as far as possible the basic Chinese family and village structure, on to which Western industrial society was to be grafted. The other group, whose leader was Yuan Shih-k’ai (1859— 1916), wanted a strong central government basically authoritarian in structure, with authority not in the hands of an emperor and the traditional and highly conservative mandarin bureaucracy but in the hands of strong men capable of modernizing China from above.
A struggle for power broke out between the assembly elected after 1911 and Ytian Shih-k’ai. The party of Sun Yat-sen was defeated, and by 1914, after a purge of the Kuomintang members of the assembly, Yuan Shih-k’ai issued a constitutional declaration that put him in the presidential office for ten years. Sun Yat-sen and his followers had failed to turn China into a parliamentary democracy. Yuan, however, died in 1916, leaving the new republic facing the prospect of the dissolution of all but the shadow of central control and the assumption of real power by regional strongmen. A new era of provincial warlords had begun.
In the same years, China also faced the aggressive attempts of Japan to take over the Far Eastern imperial interests of European powers now at war among themselves. Early in 1915 the Japanese secretly presented to the Chinese government the Twenty-One Demands, which amounted to a demand for something close to a protectorate over China. The Chinese republic, now at the lowest point of its strength, countered by declaring war against the Central Powers, thus securing at least the nominal protection of Britain and France.
Unable to defy Western objections, the Japanese contented themselves with taking over the German concessions. At the end of the war the victorious Allies, with the United States in the lead, checked the ambitions of their recent military partner. In 1922 Japan was forced to sign a Nine-Power Treaty guaranteeing the independence of China. This rebuff to Japan was one of the first in a long chain of events that intensified the hostility of Japan toward the United States and ended, two decades later, in war.
After World War I, then, the main elements in the Chinese political situation were the Kuomintang, the communists, and the Japanese invaders. After the death of Sun Yat-sen, the Kuomintang came under the leadership of his brother-in-law, Chiang Kai-shek (1887-1975), an army officer trained in Japan. The nationalists of the Kuomintang were engaged in a constant and unsuccessful struggle to set up an effective central government against the provincial warlords.
The Chinese communist movement began in the early 1920s. At first it was inspired by direct contacts with the Comintern in Moscow, guided by Soviet agents, and encouraged by leaders of the Kuomintang itself. For a time the Chinese communists were little more than the left wing of the Kuomintang, but a breach soon occurred between them and the more conservative elements led by Chiang Kai-shek.
The communists did badly in this early struggle for power. In 1926 Chiang’s forces began a campaign of persecution and assassination against them; in 1927 they were expelled from the Kuomintang. An important reason for this setback was the failure of the Chinese communists to get effective support from Moscow, for these were the years of the Trotsky-Stalin feud. The conflict between the two Soviet titans was intensified by their differences over the “correct” Chinese policy for the Soviet Union to follow. Stalin, who was rapidly gaining the ascendancy, believed that China was not ripe for a proletarian revolution; therefore, he did nothing to help his Chinese comrades.
Nationalists and communists fought in word and deed for the allegiance, or the passive acceptance, of nearly 500 million Chinese, for the most part illiterate peasants. To transform China into a nation in the Western sense required more than building railroads and factories or promoting the study of modern science instead of the Chinese classics. It required getting the Chinese peasants to regard themselves as Chinese citizens. This indispensable process was beginning in the 1920s and 1930s.
The Japanese attack came in September 1931 in Manchuria, an outlying northern province of China that was a particularly tempting target for Japanese aggression. Manchuria had coal and iron; it adjoined Korea, already a Japanese possession; and it had never been fully integrated into China. Moreover, the Japanese regarded themselves as the natural successors of the Russians, whom they had driven from Manchuria in the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-1905.
By 1932 the Japanese were strong enough to proclaim Manchuria the “independent” state of Manchukuo, under a puppet ruler, Henry Pu-yi (1905— 1967), who as a child had been the last emperor of old China. The Chinese responded by boycotting Japanese goods; the Japanese countered by carrying the war to the Chinese port of Shanghai. Given the weakness of the Kuomintang government, effective Chinese resistance would have required full support from strong outside forces.
Neither the Western powers nor the League of Nations gave China more than verbal support; the Chinese had to give up their boycott, and the Japanese remained in Manchuria. Tensions between China and Japan persisted, and the Japanese soon decided to absorb most of the rest of China. The invasion came in July 1937 without a formal declaration of war.
Militarily, the Japanese did very well. By October, when the key southern Chinese city of Canton fell, they had taken the strategic points along the coastal area and the thickly populated river valleys. Chiang Kai-shek took refuge in the interior province of Szechuan, where he set up his capital at Chungking on the upper Yangtze River. There, with Western aid, the nationalist government held out until the end of World War II and the collapse of Japanese imperialism.
Yet even at the height of their success, the Japanese had achieved no more than the stretching across China of a string of garrisons and the control of great cities like Shanghai and Peking. They held the railroads, subject to guerrilla attack, but away from the relatively sparse lines of modern communication they were helpless. Many Chinese villages in the area that were nominally Japanese never changed their ways during the occupation; nowhere did the Japanese win over the Chinese people.
The nationalists of the Kuomintang led the resistance to the Japanese from the beginning, but they, too, ultimately failed to win the full loyalty of the Chinese people. This was partly a military matter, for Chiang’s armies were no match for the Japanese, who controlled the few industrial cities in China.
During the long exile in Szechuan, moreover, the morale of the nationalists decayed. The ordeal, far from purifying and strengthening them, emphasized their alienation from the Chinese masses, their own corruption and intrigue, and their inability to live up to the early promise of Sun Yat-sen and the Kuomintang. It was the communists, not the nationalists, who succeeded in the end.
During the 1930s and the early 1940s the relative strength of communists and nationalists underwent a decisive shift. Both parties were in a sense totalitarian. Both were organized on the one-party pattern, which left no place for an opposition. The communists, pursued across much of China during the 1930s, ended up with a base in Yenan in the north; their strategic position somewhat resembled that of Chiang in Szechuan.
But there was an important difference. In the long years of Japanese occupation, Chiang remained in Chungking with his army and his bureaucracy. The communists, on the other hand, managed to extend their network of organized armies and local councils in and around the Japanese in the north, and down to the sea and up through Manchuria. By 1945 the communists were ready for their successful conflict with the Kuomintang.