Soviet relations with the Communist Chinese during the years 1937 to 1941 must be interpreted primarily in the context of the events which led to World War II. Soviet actions and the role played by the Chinese Communists are comprehensible only if seen as the response to an increasingly threatening probability of a two-front war. In an effort to avoid involvement in a major European war, Soviet leaders followed three basic strategic principles.
First, they attempted to prevent the formation of anti-Soviet coalitions. This strategic principle was translated into attempts to prevent German coalitions with other European and Asian powers. The obverse of this policy was to attempt to create pro-Soviet alignments and to establish coalitions which would isolate Germany. The Franco-Soviet, Czech-Soviet, and Polish-Soviet pacts fell into this category. Collective security and popular front efforts were also part of this strategy.
Second, if conflict was unavoidable, it had to be contained or diverted as far from Soviet borders as possible. Unofficial Soviet involvement in the Spanish civil war had this as one of its many purposes. Another purpose was to prevent French capitulation to the forming Axis group. Third, the Soviets attempted to avoid war by direct negotiations and alliances with the aggressor states. From the mid-thirties on, Soviet leaders attempted to reach an understanding with Nazi Germany itself, but were unsuccessful until circumstances in 1939 made possible a temporary rapprochement.
Soviet leaders applied the same three strategic principles in the Far East, where an aggressively expansionistic Japan had already occupied Manchuria and north China and where border incidents between Soviet and Japanese troops were becoming increasingly frequent. The great Soviet fear was the evolution of a Japanese-Chinese coalition, or even truce. An agreement between Japan and China, or even a truce, would present great danger to the Soviet Union’s eastern front, for it would free Japan from its entanglement with China to concentrate on its problems with, or designs on, the Soviet Union. It would also free the Nationalists to concentrate fully on their own internal Communist problem. The need for the Soviet Union to prevent a coalition of any sort between China and Japan was therefore absolute. In secret talks during 1936, the Soviets attempted to draw the Nationalists into an agreement, an attempt which showed little progress until the Sian incident of December 1936. Two reasons for the lack of success on the part of the Soviets were that during 1936, talks were in progress between Nanking and Tokyo concerning a settlement of differences. In addition, German advisers and technology were playing an important role in Nanking’s armament program.
The Sian incident, however, was the catalyst that determined the structure of international politics in the Far East for the coming conflict. After Sian, the Chinese Nationalists turned away from even a tacit settlement at that time with Japan and moved toward a more favorable position vis-à-vis both the Chinese Communists and the Soviet Union. This momentous realignment undoubtedly spurred Japan to act sooner than she had planned. The resultant war hardened the respective positions of the involved powers, and diminished the possibility of a Japan-Soviet war, but did not eliminate it. The Soviet Union, by materially supporting the Nationalist war effort and concluding a mutual nonaggression pact with them, attempted to insure against the possibility of the Nationalists capitulating.
In the pact of August 21, 1937, the Soviets agreed to send monetary, technical, and advisory assistance to enable the Nationalists to prosecute the war against Japan. Most important to the Soviet Union in terms of its first strategic principle—that of preventing the formation of opposing coalitions—was article II of the pact, which stipulated that in the event of an attack on one of the parties by a third power, neither of the signatories would render assistance of any kind to the third power. By this measure, the Soviet Union attempted to insure against a settlement of the Sino-Japanese war on the basis of Chinese aid in an attack on the Soviets.
The pact was also the successful application of the second strategic principle—diverting an unavoidable conflict as far from Soviet borders as possible. Later, in 1941, the Soviets succeeded in applying the third principle as well by concluding a five-year neutrality pact with the Japanese—a pact which flagrantly violated article II of the Soviet-Chi-nese nonaggression pact of 1937. The Soviet-Japanese pact also served the larger purpose of inserting a wedge between the principal partners of the anti-Comintern pact, Germany and Japan; or, in other terms, it was the application of the corollary to strategic principle number one, the effective disestablishment of an opposing coalition.
United Front Policy in China
The Chinese Communists, despite vicious intraparty strife which sometimes delayed the adoption of the Soviet line, ultimately pursued policies which consistently complemented those of the Soviet Union. Strictly speaking, it was not in the interests of the Chinese Communists to support the Nationalists against Japan. Nationalist success would reduce the Communists’ own chances for victory, as some Communists, including Mao Tse-tung, realized. Yet the policies the Communists adopted were those which supported the Soviet Union’s international position.
The Nationalist-Communist United Front was formally initiated on the 22nd of August, one day after the signing by the Nationalist Government of the nonaggression treaty with the Soviet Union. On that day the Nationalist military council formally designated Communist party members Chu Teh and P’eng Teh-huai as commanders-in-chief of Communist troops, which were henceforth to be named the Eighth Route Army of the National Revolutionary Forces. This army was to be composed of three divisions totaling 20,000 men and was to operate in the second war zone in northern Shansi under the overall command of Yen Hsi-shan. At the same time, the government of the Communist area surrounding Yenan was renamed the Shen-Kan-Ning Border Area Government. Communist leader Lin Tsu-han (Lin Po-ch’u) was appointed chairman and Chang Kuo-t’ao vice-chairman of this government.
On the 25th of August the Chinese Communists held a conference at Lochuan, northern Shensi, to discuss their role in the united front.1 While agreeing to the formation of the Eighth Route Army, they had heated differences of opinion over the extent of cooperation with the Nationalists. In every instance Mao Tse-tung took the negative position,arguing against truly unified action. None of Mao’s extreme proposals was accepted by the leadership.
As to the organizational form of the Eighth Route Army, Chu Teh and Chou En-lai argued that it should conform to the Nationalist system of military organization, since the Communists had agreed to unity of command and had requested the Nationalists to integrate the forces. Mao and Jen Pi-shih, however, disagreed, calling for the continuance of the existing military organization of the Red Army. The upshot of this disagreement was the first of several compromises arranged within the party by Chang Wen-t’ien. Except for accepting the three division plan set up by the Nationalists, only minor, inconsequential changes in the Communists’ own military system of organization would be made. For example, political commissars would be called deputy commanders or directors of political departments as in the Nationalist organization, but the basic system would remain unchanged. The three divisions which were to compose the Eighth Route Army were thus the 115th, commanded by Lin Piao, the 120th, commanded by Ho Lung, and the 129th, commanded by Liu Po-ch’eng.
Chou En-lai and Chu Teh again sided with each other on the question of whether or not Nationalist staff’ officers should be permitted to accompany Eighth Route Army troops into action. They stated that some Nationalist officers should be accepted, if only to show good faith. Mao and Jen opposed this view and again Chang Wen-t’ien brought forth an acceptable compromise. The Communists would accept a token number of Nationalist staff’ officers at Yenan for liaison purposes, but would permit none to accompany troops in the field.
On Eighth Route Army strategy in Shansi, Chu Teh urged coordinated operations with Yen Hsi-shan, but Mao argued that the small 20,000-man Communist force would make no appreciable difference in the conflict no matter how well they fought. He advocated, instead, that they disperse their troops behind enemy lines and fight independent, guerrilla battles. In still another compromise, it was decided that initially the Eighth Route Army’s troops would act under Nationalist orders. This would make good propaganda. When the Japanese moved against them, they would then disperse and wage independent, guerrilla operations in the enemy’s rear and establish bases there.
The final issue discussed at Lochuan was the evaluation of the war and the Communist role in it. On this issue, differences in the party were reflected in the positions of Mao and Chang Kuo-t’ao. Chang, expressing the right wing view, maintained that the war gave the Nationalists prestige, as a result of which they would be able to mobilize the entire country under the Nationalist banner. This, he reasoned, made the possibility of an internal split of the Kuomintang unlikely and, therefore, dictated for the Communists a policy of united action against Japan. Mao dissented from this view, continuing to argue, as he had for some time, that the Nationalists would split under the impact of full-scale war, with the pro-Japanese element surrendering and the anti-Japanese Left joining the Communists. Once the split occurred, the Chinese Communists would assume the leading role in the war, which would result in the defeat of both the Japanese and Chiang Kai-shek. Therefore, Mao argued, no concessions should be made to the Nationalists. Chang Wen-t’ien again negotiated an acceptable compromise. No wholehearted, long-term cooperation with the Nationalists was envisaged, although the Communists would profess adherence to the policy of the united front.
The essence of the decisions taken at Lochuan was that the Communists would build “good will” during the early stages of the war, and build their own power bases afterward. Publicly, they proclaimed support of the policy of the united front, despite the deep disagreement within the party’s leadership ranks. Opposition to the united front centered around Mao Tse-tung, who, although suffering a minor policy setback at Lochuan, succeeded in forcing a split in the Internationalist group, a split reflected in Chang Wen-t’ien’s mediating efforts. In the long run, it was the split in the Internationalist group which enabled Mao to capture control of the party.
On September 22, the Communists made another public pledge for a “joint effort” against Japan. Voicing support for the Three Peoples’ Principles of Sun Yat-sen, they declared their intention to: abandon armed struggle against the Nationalists, abolish the Soviet government, establish democratic rule, and reorganize and subordinate their armed forces under Nationalist command. The next day Chiang Kai-shek issued a statement proclaiming the triumph of “national consciousness” over “prejudice,” and expressing the hope that, “like everybody else,” the Communists would rally to the Nationalists in defense of the country. The united front was consummated.
Although Nationalist-Communist cooperation had been formally established, Mao’s dissenting voice could still be heard. In an article published on September 29, Mao wrote that the Communists “shared” with their Nationalist “comrades” the responsibility for saving the nation, but that it was absolutely necessary to establish a new government which would carry out systematic and widespread reform of both governmental and military systems.2 Here Mao publicly disagreed with the Comintern’s position, which was that, reform or not, the Kuomintang must be supported. Mao’s outspokenness on this critical policy question disturbed Moscow. To insure that an apparently vacillating Chinese Communist Party leadership would strictly adhere to the policy of the united front, Moscow sent back to China a group of tried and true revolutionary leaders.
Stalin, Wang Ming, and Mao Tse-tung
In late October the Soviet Union sent back to China several Chinese Communist Party leaders along with some equipment in order to show its good intentions in connection with the newly adopted policy of Communist-Nationalist cooperation and to facilitate improved communication between Moscow and Yenan.3 The leaders flown in by Soviet aircraft were Wang Ming (Ch’en Shao-yü), Ch’en Yün, K’ang Sheng, and Tseng Shan. (This move was reminiscent of the critical situation during the summer of 1930, when Moscow sent the Twenty-Eight Bolsheviks to China to bring pressure on Li Li-san to conform to the policy line. Then, too, the principal figure involved was Wang Ming.) The equipment forwarded included a powerful transmitter and a few antiaircraft weapons.
The Chinese Communists were overjoyed by the arrival of Wang Ming and his companions. For most, his arrival aboard a Soviet aircraft meant that the Comintern had not abandoned its Chinese “section.” Mao Tse-tung was less enthusiastic in his welcome, but Wang carried instructions from Stalin himself that were, indeed, for Mao Tse-tung a heartening surprise. Stalin, although he thought that Mao’s ignorance of Marxism-Leninism and his narrow empiricist problem-solving attitude were “defects,” supported his candidacy as a party leader because he had proven his mettle in the revolution. Perhaps with dual purpose, Stalin instructed the Russian-trained party members to “help” Mao ideologically and to build the leadership around him.
Wang Ming also delivered important instructions concerning two other party leaders, Chang Wen-t’ien and Chang Kuo-t’ao. Chang Wen-t’ien was considered by Moscow unsuitable to continue as general secretary of the party because Trotskyites had been discovered in a Moscow party cell of which he had been a leader. Although there was no question of Chang’s personal loyalty, his leadership ability was now suspect. Wang’s further instruction concerned the internal strife between Mao and Chang Kuo-t’ao. Stalin thought the struggle against Chang “overdone,” and instructed the party to correct this errant policy.4
While Wang Ming’s arrival offered positive benefits for Mao Tse-tung, namely personal recognition from Stalin, it also marked the beginning of a new stage in the struggle between the Mao and Internationalist groups. The instructions Wang carried from Moscow regarding Mao, Chang Kuo-t’ao, and Chang Wen-t’ien constituted the opening move in that contest. By upgrading Chang Kuo-t’ao, Mao’s opponent, and downgrading Chang Wen-t’ien, Mao’s ally, Stalin hoped to give greater weight in the Politburo to those who wholeheartedly supported his policy of the united front. Since the Tsunyi conference Chang Wen-t’ien, in effect, had shifted from the Internationalist to the Mao group. As general secretary his role was to mediate intraparty policy disputes. In each case, however, his mediation tended to favor Mao’s position, as, for instance, at Lochuan. In fact, it had been Chang Wen-t’ien whose “compromise proposal” was the crucial act in Mao’s ascension to control of the Revolutionary Military Committee at the Tsunyi conference. His removal from the post of general secretary opened up the possibility that Wang Ming could capture that post.
The reintroduction of Wang Ming into the Chinese political scene caused a polarization of party leadership around Wang and Mao. The lines of struggle were drawn at a Politburo conference which convened from December 9 through 13, 1937. The agenda of the conference included three major items: first, an evaluation of the war; next, the question of reestablishing the party organizations destroyed by the Kuomintang; finally, the problem of reorganizing the central leadership.5 On each issue Wang Ming leveled a direct challenge to Mao Tse-tung.
In the major policy speech of the plenum regarding the present war situation, Wang struck a positive note. Contradicting Mao’s views, stated publicly the previous month,6 which was a primary reason for Wang’s presence in Yenan, Wang stressed that beyond question the Kuomintang was the national government of China and should be supported by all patriotic Chinese. Waging a war of total resistance (not partial resistance as Mao charged), the Nationalist Government was to be strengthened, not reorganized or reformed. Finally, again directly contradicting Mao, he stated that it was not the Chinese Communist Party, but the Kuomintang which was leading the struggle against Japan. The current critical situation, he noted, was no time to engage in a power struggle with the Kuomintang.
Wang Ming’s position was accepted by the party leaders in assemblage, even by Mao Tse-tung, for obvious reasons. The task of keeping the Nationalists in the war against Japan was paramount for Soviet leaders and for the survival of the Chinese Communists. Wang noted in his speech that the Japanese government had requested the German ambassador to China, O. P. Trautman, to mediate a peace settlement between Nanking and Tokyo. Even more serious, on December 2, 1937, Chiang had held discussions with his own military leaders, who unanimously advised him to settle the conflict, and on the same day Chiang informed Trautman of his acceptance of Japanese terms as a basis for discussion. (Chiang subsequently procrastinated and the Japanese broke off’ negotiations after the fall of Nanking on December 13.) But the issue of possible Nationalist capitulation was paramount in the minds of the Chinese Communist leaders at the conference. Nationalist surrender would create an extremely dangerous situation for the Soviet Union in the Far East, not to speak of the position of the Chinese Communists themselves, and had to be prevented at all costs. It was therefore not unusual that all of the Chinese Communist leaders, including Mao, agreed that everything had to be subordinated to resistance to the Japanese by working with the Kuomintang.
On the question of party reconstruction, Wang Ming struck a second blow at Mao, which the latter again had to accept. It was decided that the party should restore the organizations destroyed by the Nationalists during the extermination campaigns. Therefore, the North, Yangtze, and Southeast party bureaus were reestablished, in each case with men of Wang Ming’s choosing. Yang Shang-k’un, one of the original Twenty-Eight Bolsheviks, was named head of the North China Bureau. Its location unknown, the North China Bureau coordinated guerrilla activities and base building behind Japanese lines. The number two man, Chu Jui, director of the Organization Department, was later succeeded by Li Hsueh-feng, who was one of Mao’s supporters, but at this point the northern bureau was under Wang’s control. Wang himself took charge of the Yangtze Bureau, which was located in Wuhan. Ch’in Pang-hsien was named director of the Organization Department. In addition to coordinating guerrilla and other activities in east central China, Wang, through the Yangtze Bureau, controlled the New China Daily, which began publication from Wuhan on January 11, 1938. Finally, Hsiang Ying was appointed secretary of the Southeast China Bureau and Tseng Shan director of the Organization Department. Located in Nanchang, the Southeast Bureau directed party activities in southeast China in addition to commanding the New Fourth Army. Yeh T’ing, who had defected from the party in 1927, returned from self-imposed exile in Germany to assume nominal command. Actual command responsibility lay with Hsiang Ying, whose formal post was deputy commander. Although granted permission by the Nationalists to form the New Fourth Army in October 1937, it was not until early 1938 that the Communists could make this force operational. Its main area of activity was in Anhwei province on both sides of the Yangtze River.
The third item on the agenda of the December 1937 Politburo conference was the reorganization of the central leadership, called for in the instructions brought back by Wang Ming the previous October. Following the letter of the instructions, but not the spirit, Mao agreed to the removal of Chang Wen-t’ien from the post of general secretary, but managed to gain party acceptance for the abolition of the post itself! As a result, the party was governed by a collective leadership with a broad division of power between the Mao and Internationalist groups, a power split which was reflected in the composition of the Politburo standing committee. The nine man committee included Mao Tse-tung, Wang Ming, Chu Teh, Chou En-lai, Chang Wen-t’ien, Chang Kuo-t’ao, Ch’in Pang-hsien, Ch’en Yün, and K’ang Sheng. In this grouping Wang commanded at least four votes (his own, and those of Ch’in Pang-hsien, Ch’en Yün, and Chang Kuo-t’ao) and, if either Chou En-lai, Chu Teh, or K’ang Sheng voted with him, a clear majority. Mao, at this time, could count on the regular vote of only Chang Wen-t’ien.
The December Politburo conference accomplished Moscow’s principal objective of settling the issue of party acceptance of a united front with the Kuomintang. Henceforth there would be no argument by Chinese Communist leaders, not even Mao, over the basic concept of the united front, although the policy itself was soon to be emptied of all content. Internally, the conference resulted in the division of the party along geographical and organizational lines which established the basis for the factional struggle over the next several years. Wang Ming emerged from the conference with what appeared to be a commanding position. He was in control of the newly established party organizations of north, Yangtze, and southeast China, had his own propaganda organ, the New China Daily, and also had command of a military force, the New Fourth Army, which, to be sure, was as yet only a scattered band of guerrillas in the mountains of Anhwei. In the Politburo itself Wang Ming’s position was stronger than Mao’s. On the whole, Wang and his International group seemed to have the advantage over the Mao group.
Mao, however, retained a strong position of his own. He commanded the Shen-Kan-Ning Border Area Government as well as the Eighth Route Army, both of which gave him a solid organizational basis from which to expand. In other terms, Mao retained control of both the military and state systems in the movement and a powerful voice in the standing committee of the Politburo. Geographically, too, Mao was in position to avoid direct military involvement with Japanese forces and therefore had greater freedom of action. In the Politburo, while not able to count on a majority, Mao still held the all-important post of chairman of the Revolutionary Military Committee. It was also to his advantage that the post of general secretary had been abolished, because that was the only post in the party hierarchy which was more powerful than the chairmanship of the Revolutionary Military Committee. Mao had frustrated Wang Ming’s objective of claiming the position of general secretary for himself by maneuvering to abolish the post and introduce instead the system of collective leadership. The principle of collective leadership worked in Mao’s favor (and worked even better when Chang Kuo-t’ao defected from the party the following April; the vacancy on the Politburo standing committee was not filled, taking one vote away from the Internationalist group). Also, one of Mao’s supporters, Liu Shao-ch’i, was appointed director of the Cadres Department at the conference, a post from which he could control appointments and thus shape party organizations to his own and Mao’s advantage. Finally, Mao was designated chairman of the preparatory committee to arrange for the party’s Seventh National Congress, which was to convene sometime in 1938. Wang Ming was named a secretary under Mao on this committee. It would, therefore, be at Mao’s discretion when the Seventh Party Congress would be called, not Wang’s.
The Two-Front War Danger Mounts
The Japanese proceeded to establish a political position in China to support the new areas which their armies had conquered. In October they set up a Federated Autonomous Government for Inner Mongoha under Princes Yun and Teh; the day following the Kwantung Army’s capture of Nanking, they announced the establishment in Peking of a provisional government. On March 28, 1938, the Japanese proclaimed the establishment of the Reformed Government of the Republic of China at Nanking. The Nationalist response to these events was to convene an extraordinary National Congress at Wuchang on March 29 (the government had by this time already moved from Nanking to Hankow). The congress elected Chiang Kai-shek as director-general (Tsung Ts’ai) of the Nationalist Party and adopted his program for a war of resistance and national reconstruction. Calling for widespread guerrilla warfare, the congress announced an administrative decentralization of the country for purposes of local defense. The Nationalists adopted the policy of strategic withdrawal, trading space for time during which to prepare for counterattack.
While the congress convened on the 29th of March, Nationalist forces in the field struck a damaging blow to Japanese forces at Taierhchuang in southern Shantung. In a counterattack, the Japanese encircled Nationalist forces at Hsuchou and would have annihilated the Chinese units had not the latter blown a gap in the dyke of the Yellow River near Chengchow, flooding the area and preventing the Japanese from continuing pursuit. The Japanese were forced to alter their course and began to move in pursuit toward Wuhan along the Yangtze River, but progress was slow.
In addition, the eruption of a serious conflict between the Soviet Union and Japan in July caused a temporary suspension of the Japanese drive toward Wuhan and permitted the recovery of Chinese forces. A skirmish between Soviet and Japanese army patrols in the area of Lake Khassan southwest of Vladivostok (where the borders of present-day Manchuria, North Korea, and the Soviet Union join) ballooned into heavy fighting. Each side increased its forces, supporting them with heavy artillery and tanks, and each absorbed heavy casualties. The Japanese withdrew. By August 11, a settlement had been reached, with Soviet forces retaining possession of the high ground taken during the battles.
Regardless of which side initiated the skirmish (and there are widely conflicting accounts),7 the rapid and massive Japanese buildup was interpreted in Moscow as a probing action to test the Soviet Union’s Far Eastern defenses. The signing of the Munich agreement the following month, which allowed Germany to expand into eastern Europe, combined with German-Japanese talks concerning a military alliance, gave ominous significance to the Japanese military action. It brought one step nearer the possibihty of the ever-dreaded combined German-Japanese attack on the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union was pinned between two aggressive powers with no eff’ective counterbalance to deter either one except the Nationalist Government of China.
In this extremely precarious situation, the Soviet Union immediately attempted to generate Nationahst resistance against Japan to preclude any possibility of the constantly rumored rapprochement between the Nationalists and the Japanese which would totally isolate the Soviet Union. Moscow granted additional aid to the Nationalists under the nonaggression pact of the previous year and instructed the Chinese Communists to present their most conciliatory attitude toward the Nationalists. This the latter did by immediately convening the party’s Sixth Plenum (instead of the Seventh Party Congress scheduled for sometime that fall), which lasted from September 28 through November 6.
The Sixth Plenum was characterized by the party’s complete acceptance of the Soviet Union’s policy position. Although Mao continued to differentiate his position from that of Wang Ming and the Internationalist group, internal party differences were expressed within the context of complete agreement with the united front. Hsiang Ying, for example, noted in a post-plenum report that the Comintern has issued “instructions on how China could fight for the ultimate victory in the war of resistance. The Sixth Plenum has completely endorsed and accepted these instructions.”8 Mao Tse-tung, until the previous December the one Chinese Communist leader most anxious to dispute the Soviet position, made clear the general party agreement in his opening report to the plenum, entitled “On the New Stage.”
Publicly, Mao repudiated the position he himself had advocated only a few short months before; Mao praised the Kuomintang and Generalis-simo Chiang profusely. “It is unimaginable,” he said, “that the war of resistance could be launched and carried on without the Kuomintang.” In fact, said Mao, the Chinese Communist Party “occupies a second place in the political field. . . . Unquestionably . . . the Kuomintang is playing the leading role.” It was necessary for the “whole nation to give unanimous support to Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, the National Government, KMT-CCP cooperation, and national unity. . . . We must see to it that the prestige of Generalissimo Chiang and the National Government should not be damaged in any way. . . .”9 In support of these blandishments, the Chinese Communists offered to join the Kuomintang in the open, provide name lists of all party members who would join, form no secret party groups inside the Kuomintang, and support Chiang Kai-shek and Chiang only as “supreme leader.”
Continued wartime unity, Mao went on, augured a “bright future” for postwar China, when the Chinese Communists would support the formation of a “three-principles Repubhc.” This future Chinese state form would be a centralized democracy based on universal suffrage and private ownership; “it will not be Soviet or Socialist.”
Privately at the plenum Mao disagreed sharply with Wang Ming and the Internationalist group over the content of the united front. Wang urged the party to channel “everything through the united front.” Mao disputed this conception, saying, in his concluding speech:
The Kuomintang . . . has not allowed the united front to assume an organizational form. Comrade Liu Shao-ch’i has rightly said that if “everything through” were simply to mean through Chiang Kai-shek and Yen Hsi-shan, it would mean unilateral submission, and not “through the united front” at all. Behind the enemy lines, the idea of “everything through” is impossible, for there we have to act independently and with the initiative in our own hands while keeping to the agreements which the Kuomintang has approved. . . . We must not split the united front, but neither should we allow ourselves to be bound hand and foot, and hence the slogan of “everything through the united front” should not be put forward. . . . Our policy is one of independence and initiative within the united front, a policy both of unity and independence.10
At the Sixth Plenum, while disagreeing with Wang Ming’s position, Mao did not attempt to label his position “total capitulationism,” as he did later during the cheng-feng campaign. Then, Mao would resurrect this slogan and use it as the basis of his drive to eliminate the Internationalist group from leading positions within the party. At this time, since it was vital to keep the Kuomintang fighting against the Japanese, Mao tempered his remarks.
As part of its deliberations, the plenum noted the defection of Chang Kuo-t’ao the previous April and adopted a resolution expelling him from the party. Chang’s personally expressed motive for leaving the party was his disagreement with Mao and others who “tried to maintain factional independence in disregard of national interests. That was why I had left Yenan and came to Wuhan.”11 No replacement was elected to fill his now vacant position on the Politburo standing committee, which was reelected at this time. Actually, by his defection Chang assisted Mao Tse-tung, for now the standing committee membership was reduced from nine to eight, which narrowed Wang Ming’s voting majority.
While the Chinese Communist Party’s Sixth Plenum sat, Japan increased pressure on the Chinese Nationalists to capitulate. Chiang’s government, relocated in Chungking, Szech’uan, in southwest China, was almost totally cut off from outside manpower assistance. Supplies, however, were still reaching the Nationalists along three principal routes: overland, through Sinkiang from the Soviet Union and through the “Burma Road” from the west, and by sea through northern Indochina and Canton. After the Munich conference, the Japanese surmised correctly that neither the British nor the French would be willing to react antagonistically to a further Japanese thrust against China. Therefore, in order to squeeze off one of the major supply routes still open to the Nationalists, the Japanese attacked and occupied Catiton on October 21. On the 25th, they completed their territorial acquisitions in China with the occupation of the Wuhan cities.
By year’s end, the Japanese controlled the Yangtze River valley up to Wuhan, all of Manchuria, all major coastal cities, and had established a position in western Inner Mongolia. Some attempt had been made to establish a political framework for the conquered territories, but with minimal success. The “United Council of China,” essentially a liaison committee of representatives from the Peking Provincial Government and the Nanking Reformed Government, had been established on September 22. On December 22, after Japan made public her conditions for peace in China, Wang Ching-wei left Chungking for Japanese occupied territory and announced his intention to collaborate with Japan. However, Wang’s “Government of China” did not replace the “Council” until March 30, 1940.
When the Kuomintang did not collapse, but instead expelled Wang Ching-wei from the party on January 1, 1939, it became clear that Japan, by her own action, would be unable to bring about the downfall of Chiang’s regime. The “China Problem” would have to be solved by events occurring outside that country, principally by means of the German advance against the colonial powers. The weaker the colonial powers became, the less support the Chinese would have and the less resistance there would be to Japan’s “New Order.” Therefore, the New Order was tied directly to German success. Apart from the drive to capture Nanchang, Kiangsi, in late March, and the perfunctory attempt to take Shahsi and I Chang (cities to the west of Wuhan on the Yangtze River) in May, the Japanese undertook, with two exceptions in 1944,12 no further major offensives against the Nationalists. They continued extensive “mopping up” actions against guerrilla forces in north China and in the Yangtze valley, and air attacks against Nationalist-held cities—especially Chungking—but they concentrated on building up their armed forces for a different battle. The war in China settled into a wait-and-see effort.
In May 1939 a major military clash occurred between Japanese and Soviet forces at Nomonhon (where the Outer Mongolian People’s Republic forms a salient on the Manchukuoan border). Initially a small skirmish, the fighting expanded during June, July, and August as Soviet-Outer Mongolian and Japanese-Manchukuoan legions clashed. The conflict was apparently precipitated by the move of the Japanese army in Manchuria to shift the Manchukuoan border westward to the Khalka River. The army hoped to establish a protective buffer zone for the projected railroad line which was to be constructed from Hailar to Halunarshan. Fighting raged through the summer as both sides employed aircraft and crack first-line units, but the introduction of flame-throwing tanks tipped the balance in favor of the Soviet Union. Japan admitted to 18,000 casualties; the Russians claimed more.
From the Nazi-Soviet Pact to the Fall of France
The clash at Nomonhon formed the backdrop to the Soviet-Nazi rapprochement; heavy fighting continued up to the day the pact was concluded—August 23, 1939. A final settlement of the Nomonhon incident was not reached until September 16. The Soviet-Nazi pact significantly altered the international situation. Its immediate eff’ect was the German invasion of Poland and the embroilment of Great Britain and France in World War II. The pact gave the Soviet Union a breathing space of twenty-two months during which to build up its forces; from the way Soviet forces performed when attacked in 1941, Stalin undoubtedly expected more time than he got. Perhaps most important for the Soviet Union, the pact drove a wedge between Germany and Japan and made unlikely an alliance between them against the Soviet Union. (Discussions for just such a military alliance were in progress at the moment of the signing of the Soviet-Nazi pact and were dropped.) The pact also provided the first major impetus for a Russo-Japanese rapprochement which culminated in the Neutrality Pact of April 13, 1941, extracting the Soviet Union from involvement in war on two fronts. For the Soviets, the Soviet-Nazi pact was an undeniable stroke of strategic genius.
Sino-Soviet relations must be interpreted in terms of the new situation in the Far East. Since the Soviet Union was now less afraid of a war with Japan, it was, therefore, less important to maintain the united front in China. And, indeed, although the form and rhetoric of a united front continued from August 1939 onward, the Chinese Communists, responding to this shift in Soviet strategic priorities, vigorously began to expand into territories under Nationalist control. The result was continual, increasingly serious, armed clashes between Nationalist and Communist forces. At the same time, and for the same reasons, Chinese Communist leadership moved to redefine its public position concerning the Chinese revolution, its relations with the Nationalists, and the future form of China’s government.
The Chinese Nationalists and Communists both clearly recognized the significance of the Soviet-Nazi pact for the united front. Each realized that despite what might be said publicly about it, the united front had ended. Each continued to espouse an all-encompassing united front against Japan, but the Chinese Communists embarked upon a policy of military and political expansion at the expense of the Nationalists, which the Nationalists attempted to block. From the fall of 1939 the Communist Eighth Route Army pushed directly eastward from Yenan (the Shen-Kan-Ning base) in an effort to build strength in north China, primarily in Shansi, Hopeh, and Shantung. Regular troop strength grew to around 150,000 at this time (some estimates were as high as 400,000, but this figure is doubtful). The New Fourth Army, which had been established with Nationalist permission in January 1938, also moved into the Yangtze River valley, primarily into Kiangsu and Anhwei, and quickly established north and south Yangtze commands under Chang Yun-yi and Ch’en Yi, respectively. By mid-1940 the New Fourth Army had expanded from a force of 25,000 (in late 1939) to one of between 75,000 and 100,000. It was made up principally of small units scattered over the provinces of central and southeast China (Kiangsu, Anhwei, Hupeh, Chekiang, Fukien, Hunan, and Kwangtung).
Anticipating the Nationalist reaction and attempting to place respon-sibihty on their shoulders for the ensuing military clashes, euphemistically termed “friction,” the Chinese Communists began an “anti-fric-tion” propaganda campaign designed to depict its forces as guiltless and acting only in self-defense. On September 16, in a newspaper interview, Mao reiterated the call, made initially on September 1, to “prepare for the counteroffensive,” while admitting only to measures for self-defense. “Our attitude,” he said, was that “we will not attack unless we are attacked; if we are attacked, we will certainly counterattack. But our stand is strictly one of self-defense.”13
The fact is that the period from the fall of 1939 to mid-1940 was one of intense base-building by the Communists in north and central China—an activity which went hand in hand with military expansion into these areas. It was during this period that the north and central China base areas, which had previously been nothing more than administrative expressions, reached the zenith of their development. These bases were the Shansi-Chahar-Hopeh, centered around Fup’ing county; the South Hopeh base, which, after mid-1940, was renamed the Shansi-Hopeh-Shantung-Honan border region; the Shantung base; and the Shansi-Suiyuan border region.
With this political and military expansion, the Chinese Communists were again contending with the Nationalists for leadership of the Chinese revolution. Mao Tse-tung, himself, threw out the challenge in a series of public statements made from early October 1939 through the spring of 1940. In the first, an introduction to the new internal party journal Communist, Mao proclaimed the party’s intention to “build a bolshevized Chinese Communist Party which is national in scale, has a broad mass character, and is fully consolidated ideologically, politically, and organizationally.”14 In discussing further the party’s three “magic weapons”—the united front, armed struggle, and party building—Mao went on to state that “the united front is a united front for carrying on armed struggle. And the party is the heroic warrior wielding the two weapons . . . to storm and shatter the enemy’s positions.”15
In December, the party published the textbook The Chinese Revolution and the Chinese Communist Party, written by Mao and “several other comrades.” In it, the conception of dual revolution was resurrected in terms of the thesis of the “new democracy,” along with a reassertion of the leading role of the party. Mao linked the Kuomintang by implication to the old semi-feudal, semi-colonial society, claiming the leadership of the “new democratic revolution” for the Communist party. “Except for the Communist Party,” he said, “no political party (bourgeois or petty-bourgeois) is equal to the task of leading China’s revolutions, the democratic and socialist revolutions, to complete fulfillment.”16
In January 1940, Mao reinforced this position in another publication. Chapter two of The Chinese Revolution and the Chinese Communist Party was revised, expanded, and entitled “On New Democracy,” and included as the lead article in the inaugural issue of yet another party journal, Chinese Culture. While ostensibly proclaiming a “liberal” program for China’s future government, “On New Democracy” was a quiet declaration of war on the Nationalists. Compared with orthodox Marxism-Leninism, or even with the party’s pronouncements of the Kiangsi era, Mao’s statements in “On New Democracy” were, indeed, quite mild: economic and cultural policies would be relaxed; capitalism would even be “encouraged” for a time.
Compared to Mao’s statements made at the Sixth Plenum in October 1938, however, “On New Democracy” was an open repudiation of his earlier position. There would be no “bright future” of cooperation between Nationalists and Communists. Gone was the self-effacing stance toward Chiang Kai-shek. The Nationalists were no longer the leaders of the Chinese revolution. The bourgeoisie was “flabby.” The future Chinese state form during the period of “new democracy” would be “a dictatorship of all the revolutionary classes over the counterrevolutionaries and traitors,” in which the Chinese Communist Party would play the “leading role.”17
By March 1940, the Chinese Communists had achieved striking success in building a position in north and central China. This was primarily because the presence of the Japanese hindered an effective Nationalist response to the Communist moves, which were undertaken in occupied territory behind Japanese lines. The process of establishing bases was the tried and true one of “armed propaganda” employed in Kiangsi days. The entry of an armed force into an area would be accompanied by the establishment of party organs and followed by the formation of “governmental agencies,” which the Communists termed “democratic regimes.” Under this banner party functionaries would carry out recruitment for the army, requisitioning of food and supplies, and the mobilization of manpower for other required services, both political and logistical.
Communist control, of course, was fluid and depended entirely upon the strength of the local Japanese garrison force. In inaccessible villages the Communists operated more openly than in the cities and towns controlled by stronger contingents of Japanese troops. In the latter the Communists engaged in the practice of what they called “double dealing,” which was simply another name for collaboration with the Japanese. According to one post-revolutionary Communist account, the border regimes “made deals with the enemy and took advantage of the little lawful protection under enemy rule to conserve the anti-Japanese strength and protect the interests of the people.”18
The success of the Communist expansion drive resulted in the availability of more administrative positions than there were cadres to fill them. In an effort to stretch the Communist presence in the newly created base areas and border regimes as far as possible, as well as present the appearance of the united front, the party instituted the practice of the three-thirds system. As Mao stated it in an inner-party directive written on March 6, 1940, “in accordance with the united front principle concerning the organs of political power, the allocation of places should be one-third for Communists, one-third for non-Party left progressives, and one-third for the intermediate sections who are neither left nor right.”19 Not to be misunderstood about the nature of the system, Mao went on in the next paragraph of his directive to emphasize that the party “must make sure that the Communists play the leading role in the organs of political power, and therefore the Party members who occupy one-third of the places must be of high calibre. This will be enough to ensure the Party’s leadership without a larger representation.”
By May, the Communist expansion offensive was in high gear. In still another directive, Mao exhorted: “Freely expand the anti-Japanese forces and resist the onslaughts of the anti-communist die-hards.”
. . . in all cases we can and should expand. The Central Committee has pointed out this policy of expansion to you time and again. To expand means to reach out into all enemy-occupied areas and not to be bound by the Kuomintang’s restrictions but to go beyond the limits allowed by the Kuomintang, not to expect official appointments from them or depend on the higher-ups for financial support but instead to expand the armed forces freely and independently, set up base areas unhesitatingly, independently arouse the masses in those areas to action and build up united front organs of political power under the leadership of the Communist Party. . . . We must stress struggle and not unity; to do otherwise would be a gross error.20
Mao’s “expansion” directive was also his latest move in the internal party struggle, which entered a new phase after the Soviet-Nazi pact. The directive itself was addressed to Hsiang Ying, political commissar and de facto leader of the New Fourth Army, instructing him to shift his main forces eastward to the coastal provinces and then north of the Yangtze. Mao’s objective was twofold. He sought, on the one hand, to build a strong position in an area which was historically a crucial strategic battlefield, a roughly 150- by 300-mile sector bounded by the coast in the east and by the cities of Hsuchow, Nanking, and Hangchow along its western edge. On the other hand, he sought to bring the New Fourth Army more directly under his control. As part of this latter effort, in January 1940 Mao dispatched 20,000 troops of the Eighth Route Army, as he later put it, to “reinforce” the New Fourth Army’s anti-Japanese activities.21 Hsiang Ying stubbornly resisted executing Mao’s directives. Their conflict was part of the larger struggle between Mao and the Internationalists, specifically Wang Ming, who commanded the New Fourth Army and the party’s organizations below the Yangtze River.
The problem facing both Mao and Wang at this time of stupendous expansion of the party’s forces was how to capture the allegiance of the new cadres. The decision to emphasize struggle over unity gave Mao the advantage over Wang, whose position was based on continued cooperation between the Soviet Union, the Nationalist Government, and the Communist-Kuomintang united front. In far off Chungking, Wang Ming found himself increasingly at a disadvantage as regards affecting events in north China, where the major expansion of forces was taking place. Mao, in Yenan, as chairman of the Revolutionary Military Committee, was gradually emerging as de facto chairman of the Politburo standing committee. It was as chairman of the Revolutionary Military Committee that he would consolidate his own position in the military and undercut Wang’s control of the New Fourth Army. And it was from this position that Mao would initiate the consolidation of the party, which at this time was termed simply the “bolshevization” of the party.
In directives from Yenan, Mao called on the party to exercise vigilance against informers, traitors, and die-hards within its own ranks. Particularly in the Southeast Bureau, that is, in the one controlled by Wang Ming, all “personnel (from Party secretaries to cooks) must be strictly scrutinized one by one, and no one open to the slightest suspicion should be allowed to remain in any of these leading bodies.”22 The policy of internal scrutiny would shortly become the cheng-feng rectification campaign, the opening steps of which were taken at this time. Paralleling this drive was an extensive indoctrination of the party, indicated by the increasing number of party periodicals emanating from Yenan. Some of the more important “central” publications which were started at this time were: Communisty begun on October 4, 1939; Chinese Culture, in January 1940; and Chinese Worker, inaugurated in February 1940.
Wang Ming reacted to the challenge of Mao’s expansion drive with moves of his own. In September 1939 Wang convened a conference of the South China Bureau in Chungking, attended by responsible cadres from all Communist organizations in south China. Espousing support for Mao’s directive on the consolidation of the party, Wang Ming set up his own “screening” apparatus.23 Earlier, as part of the united front policy, Wang had established “united front departments” at district, provincial, and regional levels. He now sought to tighten his grip on this organizational apparatus, for it was by means of these departments that Wang sought to capture control of the party in areas under his jurisdiction. The establishment of his own screening apparatus permitted him to install followers and remove opponents.
Wang Ming’s united front departments were functionally analogous to Li Li-san’s “action” committees of 1930 and suffered the same result, being paper organizations dependent wholly upon the power position of the leader. Wang lost the organizational battle with Mao, but the outcome was not decided until the “New Fourth Army Incident” of January 1941. It was at this time that Wang lost control of his military force, which determined the fate of the Internationalist group. In the meantime, however, another unpredictable turn in the international situation forced the Chinese Communists to revert once again to the tactics of the united front and gave Wang Ming his final opportunity to build an independent position within the party.
Strategic Impact of the Fall of France
German control of the entire West-European continent after the unexpectedly rapid fall of France starkly resurrected the specter, which the Nazi-Soviet pact had been designed to alleviate, if not eliminate, of a two-front war against the Soviet Union. Whatever the information Soviet leaders did or did not glean from their various intelligence sources over the next few months concerning Hitler’s plans, their actions indicate that they immediately perceived the danger inherent in the strategic situation.24 The Soviet objective, now as before the Nazi-Soviet pact, was to prevent a settlement of the Sino-Japanese war. This presumably would keep Japan mired in China and incapable of mounting a full-scale war against the Soviet Union. The Chinese Communists played a predictable role in this effort.
The Chinese Communists, pursuing a policy of unbridled expansion in a direct challenge to the Nationalists, suddenly, on July 7, announced the reversal of that policy and a return to the anti-Japanese pro-Kuomin-tang united front!25 The abrupt policy reversal, inexplicable in terms of the Chinese Communists’ astoundingly successful expansion, was an immediate consequence of the drastic change in the international situation affecting the Soviet Union. It continued only as long as the two-front war danger persisted and was abandoned when the threat of a German-Japanese combination against the Soviet Union evaporated in December 1940. Actually, it was the Chinese Communist leadership which formally stressed unity during this period; military units in the field continued to fight.
Hitler, having made the decision to attack the Soviet Union, proceeded to link Japan into his plans without, however, informing the Japanese of his true intentions. From the end of August onward, German and Japanese authorities negotiated what shortly became the Tripartite Pact of September 27, 1940. Despite public and official protestations by Germany and Japan that there was no intention to combine against the Soviet Union, Soviet leaders could not afford to ignore the probability that if Germany were to attack the Soviet Union, Japan would do likewise. It was on the basis of this probability—which, as it turned out, did not materialize—that the Soviet Union acted.
The key piece on the diplomatic chessboard was the Nationalist Government. Both Germany and the Soviet Union employed every means at their disposal to persuade the Nationalists to act in their respective interests. From October through November 1940 Germany attempted to mediate a settlement of the Sino-Japanese conflict. The German ambassador in China, O. P. Trautman, informed Chiang Kai-shek that Germany would guarantee the terms of any peace settlement, but, if the Nationalists refused to accept Japanese terms, Germany and Italy would formally recognize Wang Ching-wei’s regime as the government of China.
On the other hand, the Soviet Union offered additional trade credits to keep the Nationalists fighting. Its minions, the Chinese Communists, although a negligible factor in determining the outcome of these international maneuvers, nevertheless faithfully supported Soviet policies by initiating an intense propaganda campaign against “capitulationism,” taking the field of battle against Japan, and within ten days of the announced policy change of July 7, negotiated a plan, approved by Chiang Kai-shek, for the settlement of all outstanding issues between the Nationalists and Communists.26 The plan, which was never put into effect, reapportioned spheres of operations, defined political controls in occupied areas, and clearly demarcated the Nationalist and Communist positions in contested areas.
The Chinese Communists took to the field against the Japanese on August 20, launching the so-called 100 regiments campaign. The campaign was not nearly as grand an affair as the name suggests; it was primarily a harassing action. The principal objectives were strategic, to force a continuation of the conflict between China and Japan, and tactical, to decommission Japanese-held railroads and motor roads in north China. In 108 days of battle, lasting through the first week in December, the Chinese Communists suffered heavy casualties proportionate to their numbers.
Concerning the settlement of all outstanding differences, the Chinese Communists procrastinated, exchanging plans with the Nationalists and dragging out the discussions in the hope that the international situation would resolve itself. Chiang Kai-shek resolved the crisis for the Communists by rejecting the Japanese peace terms for the merger of the Chungking and Nanking regimes. Therefore, on November 13, the Japanese Imperial Conference sanctioned Wang Ching-wei’s regime and on November 30 formal instruments of recognition were exchanged in Nanking. These acts were a recognition of Japan’s failure to bring the war to an end. The danger of Nationalist “capitulation” had passed. The Chinese Communists, therefore, dropped all further pretense of negotiating a settlement with the Nationalists and resumed their policy of expansion.27 This step led to the most severe clash between Nationalists and Communists to date, the “New Fourth Army Incident” of January 1941.
Part of the plan for the settlement of all outstanding issues had included the Nationalist demand that the Communists move the New Fourth and Eighteenth Group Armies (the Nationalist designation for the Eighth Route Army) north of the Yellow River into Hopeh and Chahar. On September 19 the Nationalist Government sent a telegram to Yenan ordering the move to be completed by the end of October.28 The Chinese Communist leadership delayed until November 19 before replying. In the meantime they moved no troops. On December 8 the Nationalist Government sent another telegram, again ordering the troop transfer, but on the following day Chiang Kai-shek extended the deadline for the completion of the troop move. He set December 31 for the completion of the move across the Yangtze and January 30 for completion of the move north of the Yellow River.
Although the Chinese Communist leadership in Yenan agreed (for reasons of its own) to the transfer of the New Fourth Army northward, Hsiang Ying, the political commissar and de facto commander, refused to comply.29 Instead, he began to move his troops southward with the intention of establishing a sphere of operations in south Kiangsu. In doing so, however, his forces encountered local Nationalist forces and fighting erupted on January 4. Hsiang Ying then attempted to retreat with his forces northward across the Yangtze, but was encircled by pursuing Nationalist troops. In over a week of pitched battle, the Nationalists annihilated the entire unit of 10,000 men. The Nationalist military council immediately on January 17 declared the disbandment of the New Fourth Army on the ground of a breach of military disciphne. The Chinese Communist Party’s Revolutionary Military Committee replied on January 20 and 22, condemning the Nationalist action as part of an extensive “anti-Communist onslaught” perpetrated by the pro-Jap-anese clique which sought to cooperate with the Japanese against the Communists.30 There followed an intensive anti-Nationalist propaganda campaign in which the Kuomintang was accused of sabotaging the united front.
The New Fourth Army Incident was a windfall for Mao Tse-tung, but a stunning blow to Wang Ming, resulting in his loss of control over that military force and the party bureau which commanded it. Mao quickly took advantage of the opportunity afforded him by Hsiang Ying’s intransigence and defeat; he ignored the Nationalist order to abolish the New Fourth Army and immediately assigned Ch’en Yi as commander and Liu Shao-ch’i as political commissar.31 By early February, Mao had reorganized the party bureaus south of the Yangtze and established branch number five of the Anti-Japanese Military and Political Academy, also under Ch’en and Liu.32 He created the Central China Bureau by merging the Central Plain Bureau (commanded by Liu Shao-ch’i) and the Southeast China Bureau (formerly commanded by Hsiang Ying). Liu was designated secretary of the combined bureau, with Ch’en Yi as director of military affairs. Jao Shu-shih was made deputy secretary.
By mid-February 1941, Mao was in the position to take a major step toward eliminating the Internationalist group entirely, his opponents having been seriously weakened by the New Fourth Army Incident. Although commanding the party’s united front departments and the newspaper in Chungking, Wang Ming had lost control of two of the three principal bases of his strength: the New Fourth Army, and the party apparatus of southeast China. True, he still commanded an apparent majority in the Politburo standing committee, but the organizational bases of power in the movement—the party, army, and state apparatuses—were firmly in Mao’s hands. Finally, the third element of Wang’s power position, the departments of the united front, was meaningless since the policy of the united front had been abandoned by the party leadership.