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Chiang Kai-shek Renews China's Alliance with Moscow

By the time that Mao and his colleagues had settled in Yenan, Stalin and his Politburo were well into their new foreign policy, seeking good relations and coalition politics with those powers that might stand against Hitler. In September 1934 the Soviet Union had joined the League of Nations. In May 1935 – two months after Hitler announced Germany's rearmament – the Soviet Union signed an alliance with France and Czechoslovakia. In July and August 1935, the Comintern announced that an "anti-imperialist front" should be launched worldwide – an alliance with all those it had recently been calling social fascists and capitalist tools. The Chinese delegation to Moscow, led by Wang Ming, accepted the new directives. And the Communist forces in and around Yenan adopted the title "The Chinese Anti-Japanese Red Army."

The Soviet Union in 1935 feared Japan's expansion toward their borders. Moscow had an alliance with the Chinese warlord in Sinkiang – China's most western province, a desert region just east of the Soviet Union's Kazakhstan. The warlord in Sinkiang, Sheng Shicai, had invited the Soviet Union to intervene against forces in the area that he was fighting – forces believed to be supported by the Japanese. In exchange for Soviet help, he promised the Soviet Union peaceful relations and a market for Soviet manufactured goods. Germany, Japan and Britain objected to Sinkiang's new Soviet orientation, but Sheng remained undeterred.

The Soviet Union feared Japanese expansion into the People's Republic of Mongolia. Japan was attempting to win an agreement from Mongolia to accept Japanese military observers in their country and to allow Japan to station a military telegraph station there. When Mongolia rejected these requests, the Japanese press in Manchukuo (Manchuria) began calling Mongolia a "dangerous country," and it described Manchukuo as intending to regulate all issues and settle all disputes by force of arms as it saw fit.

In late 1935 the Chiang Kai-shek regime responded to its concern about the Soviet Union by proposing improved relations to the Japanese. The Japanese responded with three "principles" on which an improvement would need to be based: (1) China would have to give up maneuvering Western countries against Japan; (2) it would have to recognize Manchukuo and recognize Japanese interests in northern China; and (3) it would need to take joint action with Japan against "the anti-Japanese Communist movement" in China. Chinese nationalism and anti-Japanese sentiment were still intense, and Chiang and his Guomindang Party did not wish to go so far as recognize Manchukuo, and no further agreement between China and Japan was made.

The Japanese pushed on with their attempt to dominate China. In 1936, the Japanese announced their intention to open a consulate at the capital of Sichuan province: Chengtu. When the Japanese arrived at Chengtu, Chinese there rioted, and two Japanese were killed by a mob. On September 3 a Japanese owner of a drugstore in Guangdong province in China's southwest was murdered. And there were other incidents, including scuffles between Japanese and Chinese soldiers near Beijing. Fearing the Japanese, Chiang tried to discourage such incidents, while the Japanese were increasingly irritated. Japan presented China with seven demands, which were made public: that China allow Japan to combine its forces with Chinese troops in a campaign against the Communists; that China allow the placement of Japanese advisers in all offices of China's government; that China grant autonomy for China's five northern provinces; and that China reduce tariffs on Japanese products to their 1928 levels.

But Chiang's forces fighting alongside Japanese soldiers was not to be. And for the Chinese people Japan's new demands were like its hated Twenty-one Demands back in 1915. China's students and others renewed their passionate hostility toward Japan and continued their call for war. Again Chiang did not wish to surrender to the passions of the masses for war. He wished to hold off war as long as possible. He had only recently emerged from convincing warlord armies to place their forces under his regime's command. The worldwide economic depression was subsiding, and recently China had been making economic gains. Chiang was trying to build China as an economically viable nation rather than have it diminished by an all-out war. In 1936 China had 115,000 kilometers of motor highways, up from 1,000 kilometers in 1925. It had 13,000 kilometers of rail lines, up from 8,000 in 1927. Elementary and secondary education was growing rapidly. Credit societies were being established, including an Agricultural Credit Administration, designed to improve conditions in rural areas. Chiang believed that China had to be stronger before taking on Japan. And he was trying to strengthen China – which took time.

Pursuing Moscow's strategy of a united front against imperialism, the Communists around Yenan in May 1936 announced a cease-fire against Chiang's forces, stating that battles between the two would delight only the Japanese imperialists. Mao wrote a letter to his "brothers" in the Chiang's Guomindang Party requesting that they unite against the Japanese.

Chiang and the Guomindang still wanted to annihilate the Communists. In December, Chiang was preparing another assault against the Communists, while others in the Guomindang Party were negotiating with the Soviet Union. Soldiers in the Chiang-Guomindang armies were among those who hated the Japanese, and some of them did not wish to see Chiang divert the nation's military against their fellow Chinese. Among them was Zhang Xueliang, the deputy commander-in-chief of the Guomindang armies. While Chiang was visiting his troops in Sian, the capital of Shaanxi province, Zhang and a force under his command kidnapped Chiang and demanded that Chiang direct his energies in fighting the Japanese. Military units in the area wished to try Chiang as a traitor, and a few politicians in the Guomindang were inspired by the prospect of Chiang's death in their hope that they would rise in his place.

Chiang gave in, perhaps trying to save his life. He promised the Communist representative, Zhou Enlai, that his war against the Communists was over. According to Mme Chiang Kai-shek, who had come north to be with her husband, it was Zhou Enlai and other Communists who persuaded the Guomindang military not to execute Chiang. For the Communists it was an example of the benefits of policy that put aside passion. (Zhou Enlai considered Chiang the murderer of his wife and sister.) It is said, however, that it was Stalin who ordered that Chiang be spared. Moscow was afraid of elements in the Guomindang who were more likely than Chiang to ally China with Japan and the other anti-Comintern nations: Germany and Italy. Moscow favored someone with Chiang's prestige to lead China against Japan.

Chiang returned to his capital city, Nanjing, while Japan charged that the Soviet Union was behind his having been kidnapped. The Soviet newspaper Pravda charged that the kidnapping was a Japanese sponsored affair. Chiang denied that he had made any promises as a condition for his release, but Chiang kept the promise he had made with Zhou Enlai: the drive against the Communists was called off. Zhang Xueliang, the man who released Chiang, was arrested and was to serve twenty-four years in prison – two years for each of the twelve days that he held Chiang prisoner. Zhang's Manchurian armies were dispersed, leaving the Communists without a rival Chinese army nearby and relatively free to develop their power.

Sources

Mao, a Life, by Philip Short, 2000

China: a New History, by John King Fairbank and Merle Goldman, 1998

Chiang Kai-shek: His Life and Times, by Keiji Furuya, 1981

Copyright © 2010-2014 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.