Published Date

August 1, 1944

Resource Type

GI Roundtable Series, Primary Source

From GI Roundtable 42: Our Chinese Ally (1944)

Since the first years of this century China has been in the throes of a revolution in which it has been struggling for two things: to free itself from foreign control and to build a strong and modern nation with a government representing the people. Sun Yat-sen, the great leader of the revolution, died in 1925, but the movement for democracy in China is still far from its goal and his principles are the things for which the Chinese people are fighting today.

The chief result of the impact of the West on China had been to weaken her and to postpone the day when she could form a strong new government to replace the tottering Manchu Dynasty. In other ways, however, the West helped to bring about the Chinese Revolution. Chinese who went abroad to study or who came in contact with Western education in China soon realized that China must develop a strong government along Western lines if it was to take its place in the modern world. Also, the growth of modern trade and industry in the treaty ports developed an entirely new class in China, a middle class of merchants, manufacturers, and bankers who did business with the West and shared many of its ideas. This class provided much of the leadership and the money for a nationalist movement which came to be organized under the name of the National People’s Party, or, in Chinese, the Kuomintang.

The political genius of the revolution was Sun Yat-sen, a physician who had studied in Hawaii and Hongkong. He built a politically disciplined revolutionary party, worked out a theory of the aims of the Chinese Revolution, and developed the methods by which to achieve them. In a series of lectures to thousands of his followers at Canton he described these aims as the “Three Principles of the People,” which are usually translated as “‘Nationalism, Democracy, and the People’s Livelihood.”


The First Revolution Got Rid of the Manchus

The first revolution, in 1911, aimed to rid the country of the Manchus and to set up a republic modeled on the governments of the United States and Great Britain. It was comparatively simple to overthrow the Manchu Dynasty. It fell because it was too rotten to stand. But the long task of forming a strong and representative government was not so simple and has not yet been completed.

For the first fifteen years after 1911 little apparent progress was made. This was the period of the war lords: politicians with private armies who fought, shadow-boxed, and bargained among themselves and with or against the central government. Various foreign governments had dealings with one war lord or another, in search of someone who could be set up as the internationally recognized dictator of China, able to mortgage. China’s minerals and other resources in return for loans. Japan, on the other hand, pursued a calculated policy of always supporting more than one war lord, since Japan did not want a unified dictatorship any more than any other form of unity in China.

During these years the Nationalists, under Sun Yat-sen, were slowly gaining popular support, but realized that they needed help from abroad in order to overthrow the war lords and set up a strong central government. After appealing in vain to the United States, Great Britain, and Japan, they turned to Soviet Russia. Sun Yat-sen invited Russian technical and political advisers to come to Canton to help to reorganize, the Kuomintang and build up a revolutionary army. The Chinese Communist Party; which had been organized in 1921, was admitted into partnership with the Kuomintang and helped to organize factory workers and peasants so that they could assist in the revolution.

The Second Revolution United China

In 1926 the army of the Nationalists, under the leadership of a young general, Chiang Kai-shek, began to march north from Canton to unify all China. Ahead of them went an army of propagandists who roused the people against the war lords and in support of the Nationalist ideals. As a result the war lord armies, which were not bound together by either patriotism or nationalism, were overwhelmed.

The rapid advance of the Northern Expedition slowed after Hankow, Nanking, and Shanghai were occupied. As they advanced up the railway from Nanking toward Tientsin and Peking the Japanese military forces in the province of Shantung obstructed there, provoking an armed clash.

In North China there loomed the threat of war with Japan. There- was also the threat of intervention by Britain and America, which did not wish to see a new government in China under Communist or Russian influence. In these circumstances Chiang Kai-shek felt that he could not afford to alienate either Britain and America or his own landlord and growing capitalist class who had become alarmed by the growing left wing of the Kuomintang—the Communists, students, and intellectuals who wanted to base their power on the peasants and workers of China. He therefore decided to break with Russia and to destroy the Chinese Communists. The Russian advisers fled, many thousands of Communists were killed, and the right wing of the Kuomintang, backed by the army, set up a government in Nanking. Thus, in 1928, the present Nationalist government of China was founded and was immediately recognized by most of the great powers.

The struggle between the Chinese Communists and the government lasted from 1928 to 1937, when a United front was formed to face the growing menace of Japan.

Preparing for the Storm

The Nanking government was a one-party government, controlled by the Kuomintang or Nationalist Party. Among its leaders one man stood out as the supreme representative of the China of this generation. That man was Chiang Kai-shek, who proved to be not only a soldier but a statesman who could balance all the different forces in both the old China and the new China, not merely by playing them off against each other, but by welding them into something new.

When Chiang Kai-shek came into power in 1923 he knew that sooner or later he would have to fight Japan, and all he asked was time to build up an army and to strengthen the nation. He was given only three years before Japan invaded Manchuria in 1931, and only nine years before the storm broke in full fury in the summer of 1937.

Japan’s imperialist ambitions had long been clear to China. During the first World War Japan had presented to China her “Twenty-one Demands” which, if granted, would have given Japan a stranglehold over China. While the intervention of America and Britain temporarily saved the situation, China never forgot this illustration of Japan’s real intentions. During the next ten years, as we have seen, Japan did all she could to interfere with the Nationalist movement. In Japan the power of the militarists was growing and the writings and public utterances of their leaders were making it increasingly clear that they fanatically believed in their god-given mission to rule the world, the first step to which was the conquest of China.

After 1928 the Nationalist government had two main lines of policy which it pushed with all possible speed: to strengthen and modernize the country and to bring it all under the administrative control of the central government. Great advances were made in education, medicine and public health, in banking, mining and engineering, in communications, and in industry. Rapid extension of road and rail communications met both strategic and economic needs. The primary railway systems of China ran parallel with the coast and had been built with foreign loans and under foreign control in order to increase the trade of the treaty ports in the interests of foreign enterprise. The government now began to build lines directly opening up the hinterland, extending its hold over the country as a whole, and increasing trade without increasing foreign control.

Beyond and between the railways the network of motor roads was even more rapidly expanded; and still deeper in the interior air lines began to reach points to which even the motor roads had not yet penetrated. In far inland China today there are actually millions of people who have seen airplanes but never an automobile, and many more who have seen cars and trucks but never a railway train. When the remotest regions, where life has hardly changed for centuries, are reached first by the most advanced technological developments, there are startling effects. Vast areas in China will move directly into the age of electric power, skipping almost entirely the age of steam power.

In the same period China’s industry expanded with unprecedented rapidity. In all kinds of enterprises which had once been carried on only under foreign management, the Chinese began to show more and more competence. Quantitatively, in numbers of factories or total of horsepower, the achievements of Chinese industry by 1937 were so small that they would hardly show on a comparative world chart. Qualitatively, they were as important as yeast is to bread. Every power-driven machine in China does two things: it makes things and it teaches people. Every factory is a technical training school. The transformation of China’s economy is at flash point. As in early Yankee New England when the machine was just corning into its own, the transition from journeyman-worker to inventor and skilled engineer can be made in an astonishingly short time.

The new government rapidly extended its authority, over North China, but when Manchuria joined the national government it was a political event of the first importance, for not only had Manchuria long been known for its political separatism, but Japan had special interests therein the way of railway and mining concessions.

Manchuria was not a backward region but one of China’s most important frontiers of progress. Chang Tso-lin, the old war lord of Manchuria, had been succeeded by his son Chang Hsueh-liang, the “Young Marshal,” who had been notified by the Japanese in an unmistakably menacing way that it would not be a good thing for Manchuria to participate in. the unification of China by having anything to do with the new government at Nanking. In spite of this warning, Chang Hsueh-liang identified Manchuria with the rest of the nation of China by hoisting the Nationalist flag in 1929. Japan struck two years later.

Next section: The War in China