10. Japan Wields an Iron Fist

It took Chiang Kai-shek until February 2, 1928, to call a meeting of the KMT central executive committee. Chiang needed that long to weed out leftist members who might object to his plans to turn the Kuomintang in a decisively conservative direction. Chiang also arranged for his right-wing rival Hu Hanmin and two other rightist opponents to leave conveniently on a "tour of inspection" abroad, paid lavishly by the KMT government.1

At Chiang's instruction, the committee eliminated every trace of Communist-inspired ideology, forbade criticism of the party and directed that all KMT members be reregistered, thus insuring removal of anyone with views different from the conservative leadership. The committee named a ruling executive committee of eight but dominated by Chiang, plus large government and military councils whose standing committees were stacked with conservative party veterans or powerful military commanders.

The Kuomintang was now in Chiang's hands. But he still was obliged to rely on warlords because the excellent KMT new army of two years before was only a shadow of its former self. Against the KMT, the Manchurian marshal, Zhang Zuolin, had assembled a rickety alliance with warlord Sun Chuanfang and Hebei forces of Chu Yupu and Shandong soldiers of Zhang Zongchang.

The warlord Feng Yuxiang drove east toward southwestern Shandong while Chiang's army pressed north toward Jinan. Sun Chuanfang attempted a counterattack but was badly defeated in April, 1928, thus uncovering Jinan to KMT troops.

At this point the Japanese entered the scene. The previous November, the Japanese prime minister Tanaka Giichi had tried to warn Chiang off north China in order to secure Japan's position in Manchuria and its role as "protector" of the northern warlords. Since Chiang would not be bluffed, the Japanese government had devised a new strategy to control Manchuria that was almost unbelievably arrogant.

But before springing this strategy, the Japanese encountered in Jinan what they considered to be a matter of face: Tanaka asked Chiang to bypass Jinan since there were about two-thousand Japanese civilians living in the city. Chiang refused because Jinan was an important rail center and a major crossing point on the Yellow river. However, he assured Tanaka he would protect Japanese lives and property.

The Japanese war ministry persuaded Tanaka and the cabinet to send 5,000 Japanese troops to Shandong. This brought immediate protests from both Beijing and Nanjing and public anger against Japan erupted everywhere. Even so, Chiang wanted to avoid a conflict with Japan and tried to play down the violation of China's sovereignty.2

The Japanese troops, under General Fukuda Hikosuke, landed at Qingdao and about three-thousand had arrived at Jinan by May 1 and barricaded a perimeter around the area where most Japanese lived. On May 2 Chiang Kai-shek arrived and asked Fukuda to withdraw his troops. Although Fukuda consented, fighting broke out the next morning between Japanese and Chinese soldiers.

Fukuda and Chiang worked out a cease-fire and Chiang agreed to withdraw all his forces from the city except for a few thousand to maintain order. General Fukuda had now decided, however, that the prestige of the Japanese army had been sullied. He asked Tanaka for reinforcements and the Japanese government quickly began feeding in additional Japanese troops from Korea and Manchuria. On May 7, Fukuda sent an ultimatum demanding that all Chinese soldiers that had been shooting be disarmed in the presence of the Japanese army and that all Chinese troops withdraw seven miles on both sides of the Jinan-Qingdao railway. Chiang sent back a conciliatory reply but refused Fukuda's demands. On May 8 Fukuda ordered his troops to attack the largely ill-armed Chinese. Destruction went on for three days. Most of the 5,000 Chinese troops and thousands of civilians died and the Japanese laid waste to much of the city. A wave of revulsion rolled over China. Chiang's government tried to get the League of Nations to investigate and the United States to help but nothing came of the requests.

In mid-May, 1928, Chiang launched a general offensive at Beijing and Tianjin. The troops of the Shanxi warlord Yan Xishan, who had joined Chiang, pressed on Shijiazhuang, about 150 miles southwest of Beijing. There, on May 10, they met troops of Feng Yuxiang pushing northward. The northern warlord armies were falling apart.

Zhang Zuolin's Manchurians were preparing to withdraw from north China. It was at this point that Japan laid out its plan to protect Manchuria. Prime Minister Tanaka called in foreign representatives on May 17 and explained Japan's strategy. If Zhang Zuolin withdrew from Beijing quietly and was not pursued by Chiang's troops, Japan would "permit him to enter Manchuria." If he fought in Beijing and retreated toward Manchuria, fighting the KMT as he went, Japan would prevent both Zhang and the Nationalists from entering Manchuria.3 In any event, Japan would not allow KMT forces beyond the Great Wall. He therefore carved out an exclusive Manchurian domain forbidden to the Nationalists.

The U.S. secretary of state, Frank B. Kellogg, now made the first meaningful move in opposition to Japan. He wired the U.S. ambassador in China, J.V.A. MacMurray, that the United States would not participate in joint action with Japan to prevent extension of the war into Manchuria. In the British House of Commons Sir Austen Chamberlain, foreign secretary, said Britain regarded Manchuria as part of China.4 Neither was a powerful statement but together they gave Japan pause.

What Kellogg and Chamberlain did not know was that a group of Japanese army officers was pressing Tanaka to give up protecting Zhang Zuolin. Instead they wanted Japan to seize all of Manchuria. Tanaka apparently was on the point of yielding to this pressure, when Kellogg in Washington responded to a reporter's inquiry that the United States considered Manchuria to be a part of China and gave the reporter a copy of the nine-power treaty of 1922, signed by Japan, which guaranteed China's sovereignty.5 Tanaka now informed the army officers that Zhang Zuolin would be allowed to remain in power.6 The officers were indignant but Tanaka held firm: there would be no occupation of Manchuria.

Zhang Zuolin now had no choice but to withdraw from Beijing and left with most of his cabinet and high-ranking officers on a special train bound for Shenyang (Mukden) in Manchuria. But a group of young Japanese officers was determined to sabotage Tanaka's agreement with Zhang. They decided to kill Zhang. A Japanese colonel, Komoto Daisaku, sent a subordinate officer to Beijing to identify the train on which Zhang would be riding. Komoto dispatched a lieutenant to find a place where the car bearing Zhang could be blown up. The officer found a point south of Shenyang where the tracks crossed over another railway. The Japanese officers enlisted in the plot a major in charge of the guards in the area, Japanese engineers brought in explosives and a demolition expert installed the detonator. Komoto hired three dissident Manchurians to lurk near the crossing and, if Zhang Zuolin lived after the explosion, they were to rush into his car and kill him. At 5:20 a.m. on June 4 Zhang was sitting at a mah jong table when his car blew up, sending a steel fragment into his nose. He died soon thereafter. The Japanese plotters planned to kill the Manchurian dissidents and lay the blame of the explosion on them. But they were able to stab only two of them. The third made his way to headquarters of Zhang Xueliang, the old marshal's son, and told the story.7 Zhang Xueliang kept his father's death secret until June 21, by which time he had taken his father's place. Knowing that a public announcement of his father's assassins might cause a violent reaction by the Japanese Kwantung army, he kept his peace. However, he quickly executed two of his father's lieutenants, known to be pro-Japanese and allegedly implicated in killing his father.8

Although Prime Minister Tanaka was shocked at the insubordination of the Kwantung army, he could do nothing about it because many army officers in Tokyo headquarters were sympathetic. Emperor Hirohito, who had succeeded to the throne in 1926, told Tanaka the guilty must be punished. But the army and cabinet refused to do more than retire Komoto and his superior. Hirohito thereafter refused to give Tanaka an audience. The prime minister had no choice but to resign. The emperor commanded Hamaguchi Osachi to form a new cabinet and Hamaguchi brought back Shidehara Kijuro as foreign minister. It had been a triumph for Hirohito, but the Kwantung army had successfully defied the Tokyo government.9

* * * * * * * * * *

China was now almost unified, at least in theory. A few Communists were trying to survive in obscurity. Mao Zedong and Zhu De had moved in July, 1928, from the bandit stronghold of Jinggang shan to Ruijin, 120 miles southeast in the Wuyi mountains on the Jiangxi-Fujian border. There they set up a tiny soviet government. Other Reds created smaller rural bases in other out-of-the-way places. Mao and Zhu slowly developed a self-sufficient territorial base that relied little upon guidance from the Comintern or the party leaders in their secret Shanghai headquarters.10

Because of the great danger from Chiang Kai-shek's police, the Chinese Communist party held its sixth party congress outside Moscow in July and August, 1928, but Mao and the other Communists in the rural bases didn't even hear about it. At the congress the Comintern pushed forward Li Lisan, a 28-year-old labor leader from Hunan who had been in France and Russia, to assume effective control of the party. Although a colorless former boatman, Xiang Zhongfa, was made general secretary, Li Lisan became actual party leader. The new leadership reflected the Comintern's doctrinal conviction that the revolution required urban leadership. To prove it, the congress proposed a nationwide effort to capture the cities. This required reuniting the party with the urban worker proletariat. Thus the labor agitator, Li Lisan, was the obvious choice to lead the party. The "Li Lisan line" he undertook reflected the emphasis of cities over the countryside which the Comintern imposed.11

Other than the Reds, only "the young marshal" of Manchuria, Zhang Xueliang, remained officially out of the Nationalist fold. But even he was caught up in the wave of patriotism that swept over China and on December 29, 1928, he completed secret negotiations with Chiang Kai-shek and, much to the displeasure of Japan, hoisted the Nationalist flag.

However, the sense of unity that came with the defeat of the warlords was an illusion. "New warlords" had risen in the war and Chiang Kai-shek found himself only primus inter pares. Chiang had to grant the regional warlord generals semi-independent status as a condition of their recognizing Nanjing as the central government of China.12 For example, Zhang Xueliang became commander-in-chief of the "northeast frontier defense army." Only so long as their interests didn't collide with Chiang's were the warlords willing to cooperate with the Nationalist government. Chiang kept his capital at Nanjing in the midst of a region he controlled and changed the name of Beijing ("Northern capital") to Beiping ("Northern peace").

The Kuomintang also had not healed from the three-way split which had weakened the party in the past. The party elder Hu Hanmin and the Western Hills group remained on the right and had not joined forces completely with Chiang Kai-shek. Although the leftist Wang Jingwei was still abroad and discredited, there still remained a strong left wing that looked to Wang as its leader.13 The leftists remained out of office but Chiang worked with Han, who became president of the legislative branch or yuan.

Chiang Kai-shek was convinced he could rule only by dividing his opposition. As a measure of this division, the KMT maintained three separate chains of authority which existed independent of each other. One was the Kuomintang party structure, the other was the national government and the third was the military. At the top Chiang tacitly encouraged various cliques which divided loyalties and prevented possible challengers from uniting against him. Chiang used patronage and awards of privilege and influence to insure that cliques and individuals remained indebted to him but he never allowed any one group to gain predominance.14

Chiang had to compromise to keep existing political forces from combining against him. As a result, he was unable to make fundamental changes in Chinese society. This left reform entirely to the Communists and gave them the tool to incite workers and peasants. The strength of the Kuomintang was built on a coalition of conservative landlords and modern bourgeois businessmen and entrepreneurs from the cities.15 This coalition opposed radical change, especially land seizures or forming militant unions of industrial laborers.

Since Chiang could not reform, the only course left was control. By dividing his opposition, he was able to maintain himself in a position which looked like it represented power. But he could only maintain the status quo. And that, in a country that cried out for reform, was his fatal flaw.

Control meant repression of all who voiced discontent. Assassinations, midnight arrests and summary executions became common. The government censored the press and free expression of all kinds. Even slight criticism of the regime could cause reprisals, bannings or arrests. The terror increased as the years went by and concentrated especially on intellectuals, professors and students. Government informers penetrated student bodies and secret police arrested students in mass sweeps. More terrifying were unexplained disappearances of students with no word of their fates. Repression gave rise to the shadowy Blue Shirts, built around graduates of the Whampoa military academy intensely loyal to Chiang Kai-shek and dedicated to turning Chiang into a fascist dictator on the order of Benito Mussolini.

The alliance with the warlords brought not only them into high positions in the government but also self-serving bureaucrats who had administered warlord regimes. These "northern mandarins" soon found posts at all levels of government. They were noted for their devotion to red tape and "squeeze" or corruption but showed little interest in reform. Their seizure of the administration disillusioned idealists and caused many to withdraw. As a part of the process, the KMT bureaucracy became bloated with surplus office holders who did little but draw salaries. One major function of the cliques was to provide jobs and support for bureaucrats. Almost the only way to attain a position was to win the backing of some powerful figure.16

None of the KMT party or military groups wished to give the mass of the people any significant say in how they were ruled. The Nationalist government formally promulgated on October 10, 1928, made it clear that the KMT exercised sovereign power during the "period of political tutelage" (of indefinite duration) during which the people were being prepared for democratic life.17 "Tutelage" provided an excellent cover behind which to erect a military dictatorship.

Chapter 11: Chiang Attacks Warlords and Reds >>

1. The narrative for the final KMT drive into north China is drawn from Cambridge, vol. 12, chapter 11, "The Nationalist Revolution: from Canton to Nanking, 1923-28," by C. Martin Wilbur, professor of history emeritus, Columbia University, pp. 697-720; Hsü, pp. 541-4; Clubb, pp. 143-5; Hoyt, pp. 62-70; Iriye, pp. 192-223. A fairly complete record of events during this period, and especially the Japanese intervention in Shandong and position on Manchuria, is contained in FRUS, 1928, vol. 2, pp. 119-254.

2. Morton, pp. 114-22.

3. Details of this plan are given in FRUS, 1928, vol. 2, pp. 224-5, 229. See also Morton, pp. 122-30.

4. FRUS, 1928, vol. 2, p. 226; Morton, p. 126.

5. FRUS, 1928, vol. 2, p. 231.

6. Hoyt, p. 67. Iriye, pp. 221-2, maintains that Japanese Prime Minister Tanaka was not restrained by the statement of U.S. Secretary of State Kellogg. He refers to a comment made in June, 1927, by Nelson T. Johnson, chief of the State Department's Far Eastern division: "All of the evidence seems to point to the friendliest of feelings between us and the Japanese which should continue more or less indefinitely." Morton, p. 129, says that Kellogg's statement may have agitated Tanaka but not dissuaded him. The failure of American leaders to take more positive action in 1928 is inexcusable. By denying the Nationalists access to Manchuria, Japan had demonstrated its intention to rule the region and this was contrary to the American policy of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of China.

7. Borton, pp. 312-3; Morton, pp. 130-4; Hsü, p. 530; Hoyt, pp. 68-70. See also Takehiko Yoshihashi, Conspiracy at Mukden: the Rise of the Japanese Military, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1963.

8. Cambridge, vol. 13, chapter 2, "China's International Relations 1911-1931," by Shinkichi Eto, professor of international relations, Aoyama Gakuin University, Tokyo, pp. 113-4; Wu, p. 3; Iriye, pp. 235-6; Morton, pp. 134-40.

9. Morton, pp. 149-50, 153-4, 158-62.

10. Hsü, p. 556.

11. Hsü, pp. 554-5; Cambridge, vol. 13, chapter 4, "The Communist Movement 1927-1937," by Jerome Ch'en, professor of history, York University, Toronto, p. 171; Brandt, pp. 52, 168-9; North, pp. 127-8.

12. Tien, pp. 5, 14-15; Hsü, pp. 541-2; Cambridge, vol. 12, pp. 711-7.

13. Hsü, p. 544; Cambridge, vol. 13, chapter 3, "Nationalist China during the Nanking Decade 1927-1937," by Lloyd E. Eastman, professor of history, University of Illinois, Urbana, pp. 119-20.

14. Tien, pp. 3-4.

15. Chesneaux, p. 198.

16. Eastman, pp. 5-6, 9-11, 14-15, 20-27, 31-83. Tien, pp. 18-44, gives a coherent summary of the structures of KMT administration, party and military. See also Cambridge, vol. 12, pp. 711-17.

17. Tien, pp. 18-44; Cambridge, vol. 13, pp. 716-7.