Category Archives: China

Trans-Siberian Railway to 1916

From Dreams of a Great Small Nation: The Mutinous Army that Threatened a Revolution, Destroyed an Empire, Founded a Republic, and Remade the Map of Europe, by Kevin J. McNamara (PublicAffairs, 2016), Kindle Loc. 2982-3019:

A LITTLE MORE than one hundred years ago, two elements were introduced into Russia without which the Russian Civil War would not have been so consequential or so deadly. One element was the Czecho-Slovak Legion, which quickly emerged as the most disciplined fighting force in that conflict. The other was the Trans-Siberian Railway. According to Harmon Tupper’s history of the railway, “The Trans-Siberian is inseparable from the history of this bloodshed.”

Virtually completed as the war dawned over the neighboring continent of Europe, the Trans-Siberian was designed chiefly to move settlers and soldiers across distant lands Russia first claimed in 1582, when Vasily Timofeyevich, the Cossack known as Yermak, embarked on an expedition beyond the Urals with an army of 840 men. Although Yermak was paid by the wealthy Stroganov family, he claimed Siberia for Tsar Ivan the Terrible, with whom he hoped to make amends for past crimes. Siberia gave the tsarist kingdom at Moscow the world’s largest land empire and the reach and resources of a great power, without which she would have remained just another European power on a par with France or Italy.

The Trans-Siberian infused this empire with a thin metal spine that extends from the Ural Mountains to the edge of the Pacific, stretching almost five thousand miles. Siberia’s 5 million square miles are bounded by the Urals in the west and the Bering Sea, the Sea of Okhotsk, and the Sea of Japan in the east. To provide perspective, Siberia could contain the United States (including Alaska) and all of Europe (excepting Russia) and still have 300,000 square miles to spare.

In 1891 Tsar Alexander III’s ministers announced their intention to build the Trans-Siberian Railway, and the heir apparent, Grand Duke Nicholas—the future Tsar Nicholas II—broke ground for the rail line at Vladivostok on May 19, 1891 (OS). The line would connect Vladivostok with Chelyabinsk, the frontier town on the eastern slopes of the Urals, which was already connected with European Russia’s rail network. To save money, the designers adopted building standards far below those used elsewhere. Plans called for only a single track of lightweight rails laid on fewer, and smaller, ties and a narrow, thinly ballasted roadbed, while timber was used for bridges crossing three-quarters of the streams. All this parsimoniousness raised safety concerns, though Italian stonemasons built the massive stone piers supporting the steel bridges over Siberia’s widest rivers, most of which still stand. While most Siberian towns and cities were built on rivers, further cost saving dictated that the Trans-Siberian cross those rivers at their narrowest point, which placed most train stations one to fourteen miles from towns. Three miles outside of Chelyabinsk, construction of the eastbound route was begun on July 19, 1892, eventually linking the city with the cities (west to east) of Omsk, Novosibirsk, Tomsk, Krasnoyarsk, and Irkutsk.

Discouraged by the rough terrain between Sretensk and Khabarovsk—where steamships along the Shilka and Amur rivers filled a gap in the railway, but frequently ran aground—the Russians in 1896 negotiated a loan and treaty of alliance with China to build a line from Chita to Vladivostok across Manchurian China, reducing the length of the rail journey by 341 miles. China surrendered a strip of land more than nine hundred miles long to the Russian-controlled Chinese Eastern Railway Company and construction began in 1897. The Chinese Eastern lines connecting Chita with Vladivostok, through the city of Harbin, and a branch line south from Harbin to Port Arthur, opened in 1901. With the start of regular traffic on the line in 1903, the Trans-Siberian Railway was complete—except for a 162-mile missing link around the southern tip of Lake Baikal.

Russia was still putting the finishing touches on that link on February 8, 1904, when Japan opened a torpedo-boat attack on Russia’s naval squadron at Port Arthur. Competing with Russia to dominate Manchuria and the Korean peninsula, Japan decided to strike at Russia before the completion of the Trans-Siberian would allow for easier shipment of Russian troops into China—due to the gap at Lake Baikal that was not yet closed. In the peace treaty signed on September 5, 1905—mediated by US president Theodore Roosevelt, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts—Russia had to surrender to Japan its lease of the Chinese Eastern’s branch line south from Harbin to Port Arthur; the southern half of Russia’s Sakhalin Island, which sits north of Japan; and an exclusive sphere of influence in Korea. Fearful that Tokyo might one day seize the Chinese Eastern Railway, Russia later built the stretch of the Trans-Siberian between Sretensk and Khabarovsk. The five-thousand-foot-long bridge across the Amur at Khabarovsk completed this stretch in October 1916, as well as the original dream of a railway crossing Russia entirely on Russian soil.

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Projected World War II Casualties after Sept. 1945

From Tennozan: The Battle of Okinawa and the Atomic Bomb, by George Feifer (Ticknor & Fields, 1992), pp. 571-574:

American anticipation of the bloodbath [awaiting them when they invaded the main islands of Japan] was evident in the forty-two divisions they allotted to the invasion. Seven had fought on Okinawa.

The planners calculated the landing alone would cost a hundred thousand American lives. The full securing of the home islands was expected to cost ten times that number, or four times the combined losses of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. General MacArthur, whose estimates of casualties in previous battles had been uncannily accurate, made a careful study of the mainland operation at President Truman’s request and predicted one million men would be killed or wounded in the invasions of Kyushu and Honshu alone…. Final victory might easily cost more American casualties than in the entire war until then, in both the Atlantic and Pacific theaters.

The predictability of the [Okinawa] veterans’ renewed love of the bomb when they saw what it saved them from at mainland landing sites is no reason to dismiss arguments for its use. Of course it killed many people, but the equation, if there is one, must include the people it saved, to the extent that saving now seems likely and the number can be estimated. Although the American fighting men who cheered Little Boy and Fat Man did not care as much about others’ survival as their own, consideration of the larger issue must include possible Japanese losses.

The ratio of Japanese combat deaths to American was well over 10 to 1 on Okinawa. It might have been marginally different during fighting in the enemy’s heartland rather than on isolated islands, where Japanese garrisons were often cut off from reinforcements. Civilian deaths assuredly would have been much higher, if only because the mainland had many more civilians with a commitment to die for Emperor and country. The best estimates of probably total Japanese deaths in a mainland campaign are around twenty million; if civilian suicides and suicidal resistance had generated hysteria – a likely prospect in light of the experience on Guam [sic; Saipan?] and Okinawa – the toll would have been higher. The country would have been leveled and burned to cinders. Postwar life, including economic recovery, would have been retarded if Russia, a full Allied partner during the ground combat from 1945 to 1947 or 1948, would have insisted on dividing Japan like Korea and Germany.

Any estimate of lives saved by the atomic bombs must include hundreds of thousands of combatants and civilians in China, Manchuria and other territories still fought for and occupied, often viciously, by Japan. There would have been tens of thousands of British casualties among the 200,000 set to invade the Malay Peninsula – to retake Singapore – on September 9, a month after Nagasaki. Six divisions, the same number as at Normandy, had been assigned to that operation. It was expected to take seven months of savage infantry fighting, over half the time required to defeat Hitler’s armies in Europe.

The total number must also include European and Eurasian prisoners of the Japanese, chiefly from English, Dutch, and other colonial military and civilian forces. Okinawa was the most important prelude to the climax because its terrain most closely resembled the mainland’s, but non-Japanese elsewhere in Asia would have suffered even more during the new Tennozan. After the fall of Okinawa, Field Marshal Count Hisaichi Terauchi issued an order directing his prison camp officers to kill all their captives the moment the enemy invaded his southeast Asia theater. That would have been when those 200,000 British landed to retake Singapore, less than three weeks after the Japanese surrender. There was a real chance that Terauchi’s order would have been carried out, in which case up to 400,000 people would have been massacred. Even more were doomed to die soon after of “natural” causes. The Japanese treatment of their prisoners grew more brutal as the military situation worsened and their hatred swelled. Laurens van der Post, who had been a prisoner for more than forty months, was convinced that the majority of the half-million captives in the hellish camps could not possibly have survived the year 1946. Dying every day in droves throughout the summer of 1945, nearly all would have perished of disease and starvation in the months that followed.

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Wordcatcher Tales: Kampouyaku

From The Roads to Sata: A 2000-Mile Walk Through Japan, by Alan Booth (Weatherhill, 1985), pp. 141-142:

The city of Toyama is nationally famous for the manufacture of patent medicines, usually sold door to door by elderly enthusiasts in small wooden chests (the medicines, not the enthusiasts), and these chests become part of the household furniture. The preparation of and sale of the medicines, called kampoyaku [漢方薬 kan-pou-yaku ‘China-method-medicine’] (Chinese concoctions), bear all the signs of a small-scale cottage industry, but the entrepreneurial genius of the people of Toyama has parlayed this unlikely source of fortune into a business with an annual wholesale value of more than 190 billion yen. The city’s oldest and best-known kampoyaku manufacturer is Kokando, and I arranged to pay them a visit.

The Kokando factory—opened in 1876 and rebuilt shortly after the war—stands in the southern sector of Toyama near the old tram stop named after it. The who showed me round spoke slowly and precisely and with the solemnity of a preacher who has the undivided attention of a disarmed infidel.

“Before the war our ninety-nine medicines—the widest range of kampoyaku in Japan—were manufactured and packed entirely by hand. Nowadays, of course, we use machines, but the traditions and process remain the same, and the recipes continue to derive from thjose which were imparted to Lord Maeda in the seventeenth century.

“The botanical ingredients include Korean ginseng (a very expensive kind of carrot) and the roots of the Indian ginkgo tree. But more highly prized are the items we obtain from the internal organs of animals. There is, for example, the dried glandular fluid of the male musk deer, drawn off during the rutting season and employed in the manufacture of a powerful stimulant. Originally, in order to obtain this fluid, it was unfortunately necessary to slaughter the deer, but nowadays, thanks to the development of new methods, it can be obtained humanely through plastic tubes. Then there is the bile of the Japanese bear, a pain killer and an agent in the reduction of fevers. The secretion from the poison gland of the Chinese toad is mainly used in the treatment of heart diseases, though it, too, kills pain with remarkable efficacy. And gallstones produced in the bladders of cows are a restorative and an antidote to several toxic substances.”

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What’s the Matter with Cambodia?

From Cambodia’s Curse: The Modern History of a Troubled Land, by Joel Brinkley (Public Affairs, 2011), Kindle Loc. 258-289:

Ask any Cambodian leader why the nation remains so stagnant while most of its neighbors prosper, and he will blame the Khmer Rouge years. “We are a war-torn country just now standing up from the ashes,” Nam Tum, chairman of the provincial council in Kampong Thom Province, said in 2009, echoing similar remarks by dozens of officials, thirty years after the Khmer Rouge fell from power. In Phnom Penh at that time, the United Nations and Cambodia were putting several Khmer Rouge leaders on trial. But so much time had passed that the leaders were old and frail. Some of them were likely to pass away before they could stand trial. Pol Pot was already long dead.

At the same time, though, Vietnam’s experience over the same period complicates Nam Tum’s argument. Vietnam suffered a devastating war with the United States in the 1960s and ’70s that killed 3 million Vietnamese and destroyed most of the nation’s infrastructure, just as the Khmer Rouge (and the American bombing of eastern provinces) did in Cambodia.

The war in Vietnam ended just four years before the Khmer Rouge defeat in 1979. Yet today Vietnam’s gross domestic product per capita is almost ten times higher than Cambodia’s. Only 19 percent of the economy is based on agriculture, compared to more than one-third for Cambodia. Vietnam manufactures pharmaceuticals, semiconductors, and high-tensile steel. Cambodia manufactures T-shirts, rubber, and cement. Life expectancy in Vietnam stands at seventy-four years. In Cambodia it is sixty-one, one of the lowest in the world. (In the United States it is seventy-eight years.) [But see Note 1 below.]

Most Vietnamese students stay in school until at least the tenth grade. By the tenth grade in Cambodia, all but 13 percent of the students have dropped out. Vietnam’s national literacy rate is above 90 percent. UN agencies say that Cambodia’s hovers around 70 percent, though available evidence suggests that may be far too generous. Most Cambodians over thirty-five or forty years of age have had little if any schooling at all. The explanations behind these and many other cultural and economic disparities lie in part in the nations’ origins. Vietnamese are ancestors of the Chinese, while Cambodians emigrated from the Indian subcontinent. [Not! Emphasis added. See Note 2 below.] From China, the Vietnamese inherited a hunger for education, a drive to succeed—attitudes that Cambodian culture discourages.

Author David Ayres wrote in his book on Cambodian education, Anatomy of a Crisis, that in Vietnam, “traditional education provided an avenue for social mobility through the arduous series of mandarin examinations.” In contrast, “Cambodia’s traditional education system had always reinforced the concept of helplessness, the idea that a person was unable to determine their position in society.” Village monks taught children that, after they left the pagoda school when they were seven or eight years old, their only course was to make their life in the rice paddies, as everyone in their family had done for generations.

The two nations have fought wars from their earliest days, when the Vietnamese were known as the Champa [Not! Emphasis added. See Note 3 below.] and lived only in the North of the country. The rich, fertile Mekong Delta in the South was part of Cambodia for centuries—until June 4, 1949, in fact, when France, which was occupying both nations, simply awarded the territory to Vietnam. And North Vietnam, where most Vietnamese lived, early in the nation’s history, was not blessed with the same fertile abundance as Cambodia. As a result, the Vietnamese never acquired a dependence on “living by nature.”

Even with Vietnam’s fertile South, an accident of nature has always given Cambodia an advantage. The Tonle Sap lake sits at the center of the nation, and a river flowing from it merges with the Mekong River, just north of Phnom Penh. Each spring, when the Mekong swells, its current is so strong that it forces the Tonle Sap River to reverse course, carrying tons of rich and fertile mud, as well as millions of young fish, back up to the lake. When the lake floods, it deposits new, rich soil on thousands upon thousands of acres around its perimeter. The fish provide meals for millions of people through the year. Cambodian civilization was born on the shores of the Tonle Sap. The wonder and reliability of this natural phenomenon still encourage many Cambodians to “live by nature.” Even now, many Cambodians say they have no need for society’s modern inducements.

Notes: Brinkley’s book does a good job of assembling evidence of thoroughgoing corruption throughout Cambodian society, based on his own personal interviews and on reading what government officials and fellow journalists have written. This is how most journalists seem to work. They don’t appear to read much history, and thus have little frame of reference for anything that happened before their lifetimes. (They don’t even check Wikipedia!) The introductory passage quoted above contains the worst examples of garbled history that I have encountered so far in this book.

1. The Khmer Rouge specifically targeted and killed most of their urban, educated, and entrepreneurial population, forcing everyone into autarchic, agrarian, rural communes, committing excesses even by the standards of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. North Vietnam, by comparison, may have imprisoned, killed, or driven into exile large numbers of urban, educated, entrepreneurial southerners, but they had from early on adopted Russian-style industrial models of building socialism, which depended on cadres of educated technicians. Furthermore, within its decade of economic chaos and stagnation after absorbing the south (1975-1986), Vietnam began reforming its Stalinist centrally planned economy and moving toward a Deng Xiaoping-style socialist-oriented market economy (called Doi Moi). These reform efforts began in the south, which had had a free-wheeling colonial- and military-oriented market economy until 1975. In Vietnam: Rising Dragon (Yale, 2010), Bill Hayton argues that unified Vietnam owes its economic dynamism primarily to the former South Vietnam.

2. The Cambodian (Khmer) and Vietnamese languages are both classified as Austro-Asiatic (also known as Mon-Khmer), thought to be indigenous to mainland Southeast Asia (roughly centered on the Mekong River Valley), with scattered outposts in northeastern India. “Cambodians” never migrated from India, nor were Vietnamese the ancestors of the Chinese. All of Southeast Asia was heavily influenced by South Asian culture for many, many centuries, but only northern Vietnam was ever conquered and ruled by China for a thousand years (111 BC to AD 938). Like Korea and Japan, Vietnam long ago adopted Chinese as its language of scholarship and all three languages retain thousands of words borrowed from Chinese. All three countries belong to the Confucian-influenced East Asian cultural sphere.

3. Cham peoples occupied most of the central coast of present-day Vietnam for at least a thousand years before they were finally conquered by the Vietnamese between 1471 and 1832. They were maritime peoples who spoke Malayo-Polynesian languages and had wide trading ties across the Malay world and beyond. During the 12th century, the Kingdom of Champa sacked Angkor Wat, but it was gradually diminished and its people dispersed by constant warfare with Khmer and Vietnamese kingdoms. Like most of the Malay world, the Cham absorbed much Hindu religion and culture during early times, and much Islamic religion and culture in later centuries.


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Reassessing Blame for the Khmer Rouge

From Cambodia’s Curse: The Modern History of a Troubled Land, by Joel Brinkley (Public Affairs, 2011), Kindle Loc. 581-609:

Much of the scholarship on the Khmer Rouge was written in the first few years after their reign. And most of that was colored by the general disdain, endemic among journalists and authors, for Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger, and America’s misadventure in Vietnam. It’s hard to overstate the contempt so many people felt, especially Europeans. The more recent broad, scornful view of George W. Bush seems mild in comparison.

In this climate William Shawcross, a British journalist, wrote his seminal book, Sideshow: Kissinger, Nixon, and the Destruction of Cambodia. It concluded that the American bombing of Cambodia, intended to destroy Vietcong sanctuaries there, drove the peasantry to the Khmer Rouge and ensured their victory. The liberal media (and I was a card-carrying member; I read and admired his book while flying to Cambodia in 1979) heaped adulation on Shawcross.

Now, thirty years later, with passions cooled, it is quite clear that his conclusion was wrong. The American bombing began a year before the Lon Nol coup. Sihanouk had quietly acquiesced, saying he wanted to be sure the Vietnam War did not spread into his own country. And in 1970 the Khmer Rouge was still a negligible force.

At the same time, since the late 1950s Sihanouk had spent a decade cultivating the Chinese leadership, Mao Tse-tung and Zhou Enlai. They grew to be Sihanouk admirers and friends—at a time when China had very few friends. Mao gave Sihanouk a magnificent mansion on Anti-Imperialist Street in Beijing and feted him every time he came to town—which was often. The Chinese also happened to be the Khmer Rouge’s primary patrons and advisers. Would Mao and Zhou have authorized Pol Pot to overthrow their very good friend, Prince Norodom Sihanouk?

Lon Nol was, of course, a different animal with different motivations. He gave the Americans carte blanche to bomb wherever they pleased. In 1970, shortly after Sihanouk was thrown from office, he told an American television interviewer why he thought Lon Nol was so eager to give the United States whatever it wanted: “Some officers in our army and many deputies and many members of government want to be your allies because they want your dollars. They don’t think about the destiny or the fate of our homeland.” Even angry and embittered, his words rang true. As before, he called them “more patriots for dollars than for Cambodia.”

When Lon Nol took power, the Khmer Rouge controlled little more than the areas around their jungle redoubts. More recent scholarship has suggested that the American bombing, for all its wanton, deadly results, so disrupted the nation that it delayed the Khmer Rouge’s ultimate victory until after the B-52 campaign had ended, in August 1973.

If Lon Nol had not staged his mercenary coup, most likely the Khmer Rouge would never have come to power. That is, of course, Sihanouk’s view, but other Cambodians hold it, too. Hem Heng, the Cambodian ambassador to Washington, said, “If not for the Lon Nol coup, there would be no Khmer Rouge.” But in his view, that did not let the United States off the hook. “They supported the coup,” he said. “They supported Lon Nol.” The available evidence suggests but does not necessarily prove that theory.

Years later Sihanouk told James Garrand, an Australian television documentary maker: “We cannot remake history,” but “I don’t think I made serious mistakes. You should see Mr. Lon Nol because if we have to go back to the starting point, would he still like to destroy his country by a coup d’état against Sihanouk? Or would he like to restore Sihanouk as head of state? I think your question should be put to Mr. Lon Nol.”

Sihanouk is partially correct: Lon Nol does share responsibility for what was to come. But it is beyond question that after the prince was thrown from office, by allying himself with the Khmer Rouge and urging his countrymen to join, Sihanouk condemned his people to damnation.

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Reassessing Chiang Kai-shek

From Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific, by Robert D. Kaplan (Random House, 2014), Kindle Loc. 2610-2703:

In 2003, Jonathan Fenby, former editor of the London Observer and the Hong Kong South China Morning Post, published a rather revisionist biography, Chiang Kai-shek: China’s Generalissimo and the Nation He Lost. Fenby partially challenges the received wisdom about Chiang, that he was a corrupt and inept ruler, who dragged his heels on fighting the Japanese despite all the aid he got from the United States during World War II, and who lost China to Mao because he was the lesser man. Fenby notes, in passing, that had Chiang not been kidnapped for a few days in 1936, he would have been in a political circumstance to launch an offensive against the communists right there and then when they were still weak, and the twentieth-century history of China might well have been different.

Then, in 2009, Jay Taylor, former China desk officer at the U.S. State Department and later research associate at the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard, followed up with a stronger revisionist biography of Chiang, The Generalissimo: Chiang Kai-shek and the Struggle for Modern China, which more so than the Fenby book took apart many of the preconceptions about the founder of Taiwan. Both authors, Taylor especially, blame the unduly negative image of Chiang on the journalists and State Department foreign service officers who covered China during World War II. The pivotal character in this story was the wartime American military commander in China, Army Lieutenant General Joseph W. Stilwell. Stilwell quite simply hated Chiang, calling him “Peanut” behind his back, and passed on his bile to the journalists and foreign service officers, who, courted by Stilwell, naturally took the American general’s side. Taylor mentions Time’s Theodore H. White, Newsweek’s Harold Isaacs, and the New York Times’s Brooks Atkinson in this regard. It was they especially who began a legend that poisoned Chiang’s reputation for generations to follow.

Indeed, Theodore White writes in his memoir that Stilwell “wanted us to know that from the day of Pearl Harbor on, ‘this ignorant son of a bitch has never wanted to fight Japan.… Every major blunder of this war is directly traceable to Chiang Kai-shek.’” Actually, what really turned White against Chiang was his coverage of the Honan famine in 1943, when he saw how Chiang’s soldiers were, by collecting grain as taxes, literally starving masses of peasants to death. Another factor was the glowing reports that journalists such as White were filing about the communists, including Mao and his number two, the “suave, engaging” Zhou Enlai, with whom, as White admits, he “had become friends.” The “wine of friendship flowed,” White recalls about his relationship with Zhou. White admits from the vantage point of 1978—three and a half decades after the war—that in Zhou’s presence he had “near total suspension of disbelief or questioning judgment.… I can now see Chou for what he was: a man as brilliant and ruthless as any the Communist movement has thrown up in this century.” Then there was the heady experience of actually meeting Mao himself in his northern China lair in Yan’an during World War II. “What scored on my mind most was his [Mao’s] composure,” White writes. “There was no knee jiggling as with Chiang Kai-shek.… The indelible impression was … a man of the mind who could use guns, whose mind could compel history to move to his ideas.” About Chiang, White writes of his “rigid morality … animal treachery, warlord cruelty and an ineffable ignorance of what a modern state requires.” It would have been better had Chiang been removed from the Chinese leadership early enough in the war, White says.

Historians Jay Taylor and Jonathan Fenby go a significant way toward dismantling the worldview of White and his colleagues.

Taylor’s book, published by Harvard University Press, is particularly trenchant, given what we in the West think we know about Chiang. Precisely because Taylor (and Fenby, too) do not engage in a whitewash, after finishing their books we feel that we know Chiang from the inside, rather than through a Western journalistic prism unduly influenced by Stilwell.

Taylor admits that Chiang (unlike Mao) “had little charisma and was generally not liked by his peers.… He was an inhibited man … a staid seemingly humorless individual who had a terrible temper.” More crucially, Chiang from early on, as a result of his studies, was consciously Confucianist, a worldview that emphasized political order, respect for family and hierarchy, and conservative stability. It is this belief system that has ultimately triumphed—whether admitted to or not—throughout much of East Asia and in China itself, accounting for the region’s prosperity over recent decades, even as the communism of Mao and Zhou Enlai has been utterly discredited.

Besides Confucianist thought, Chiang in his early years was also deeply influenced by the culture of Japan, which to Chiang embodied “disciplined efficiency,” from the train system to education to manufacturing. Japan’s fierce modernism infected Chiang with the need to fight corruption. But here he encountered fierce resistance, like when Nationalist army commanders rejected Chiang’s calls to centralize military financing. Chiang, according to Taylor, “soon realized that he had to give the fight against corruption much lower priority than that of retaining cohesion and loyalty among his disparate supporters … both civilian and military. He had no choice.” Chiang has often been accused of tolerating corruption, but the alternative in the warlord age in which he operated was to become an extremist ideologue, like Mao. Chiang was far from perfect; but neither was he as deeply flawed as his detractors, applying the standards of the West to a chaotic early-twentieth-century China, demanded. “Craftiness and suspicion are the usual marks of successful political leaders in Chiang’s circumstances,” Taylor explains. No doubt, years of warfare in the 1920s and early 1930s established Chiang as an exceptional military commander, maneuvering multiple army corps over thousand-mile fronts, without tanks, maps, and trucks, and with only a few rail lines, often in circumstances of personal bravery. He used bribery and divide-and-rule tactics against the warlords, even while, “as an expression of rote neo-Confucian self-cultivation,” Chiang complained in his diary of his personal shortcomings.

A map of China during this period establishes the formidable circumstances facing Chiang, as well as his considerable achievement: the whole of central and coastal China divided into massive puddles of warlord control, over which Chiang slowly, painstakingly, established a very tenuous primacy. And he did it without foreign aid, unlike Mao’s communists. He was paying for weapons and training from Germany, even as there is no evidence in his statements or in his diary that he ever subscribed to Hitler’s fascist ideology, according to Taylor. Under Chiang, says Taylor, the power and authority of the central government was greater than at any point since the mid-nineteenth century, while the rate of illiteracy among government troops diminished over these years from 70 to 30 percent. Fenby concurs, pointing out that Chiang’s Nationalist ascendancy in parts of the country “was a time of modernization such as China had not seen before … there was a flowering of thought, literature, art and the cinema,” and the repression used by the regime was not comparable to what the communists would later unleash. Without Chiang, Fenby writes, “the odds would have been on a continuation of the warlord era, and the fragmentation of China into eternally conflicting fiefdoms.” It was Chiang who kept in check pro-Japanese elements in his administration, which on their own might have allied China with Japan, opening up an attack on the Soviet Union from the east while Hitler attacked from the west. After the fall of Nanjing to the Japanese in 1937, Taylor writes, “Chiang Kai-shek issued a proclamation as rousing as that which Churchill would give twenty-one months later and with some similar imagery.”

Stilwell missed all of this. “In Stilwell’s mind,” writes Taylor, “Chiang had no values; no skills in government or generalship; no real interest in the modernization and welfare of China … no human qualities worth noting.… For Stilwell, life was categorical, nuances nonexistent.” While American officials, influenced by Stilwell, believed Chiang wanted to avoid fighting the Japanese in order to store arms to fight the communists later on, during the 1941–1942 Burma campaign Chiang’s troops suffered eighty thousand killed and wounded, whereas total American casualties around the world at that point were 33,000. By the end of fourteen years of war with Japan, China would sustain three million military casualties, 90 percent of them Chiang’s troops. Meanwhile, Mao’s communists were pursuing the very strategy Chiang was accused of: avoiding major military entanglements with the Japanese in order to hoard their strength to later fight the Nationalists. But this did not prevent foreign service officers like John Paton Davies and John Stewart Service, who were working for Stilwell, from describing Mao’s communists as “agrarian democrats” and “much more American than Russian in form and spirit.” Mao would go on to kill tens of millions of people—sixty million perhaps—in government-induced famines and other atrocities, which in absolute terms—along with the Mongol Conquests of the thirteenth century—counts as the second largest man-made carnage in history after World War II. What these foreign service officers and journalists overlooked was that Mao’s talent for creating a mass organization—the very thing that Chiang distrusted, according to Fenby—made Mao’s movement more dynamic, and thus more impressive to Western visitors, but also more dangerous should that mass organization pivot in a totalitarian direction.

Chiang would be proven right in his assessment, made near the end of World War II, that rather than agrarian democrats, Mao’s forces would prove to be “more communistic than the Russian communists.” Indeed, the Great Leap Forward and the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution would both occur within a quarter century of that statement. And yet Chiang’s Guomindang army failed utterly to meet Stilwell’s expectations, and thus remained the corrupt, inefficient force that went on to be vanquished by Mao. Barbara Tuchman, Stilwell’s sympathetic biographer, may have caught the imperfections of Chiang best by labeling him a master of “plots” who “governed for survival,” rather than for social change, even as among the Nationalists there was—as one Chinese academic put it—“no one better in sight.” Chiang’s seeming “infuriating absence of conscience” in the eyes of the Americans was, in part, Tuchman says, a consequence of Chiang’s resentment at China being treated as a minor theater in the war, with most of the aid and attention going to Europe.

Tuchman grasps what Stilwell didn’t. “The Kuomintang military structure could not be reformed without reform of the system from which it sprang,” but China was not “clay in the hands of the West.” Or as Fenby puts it, Stilwell “was behaving as if he were in a stable democracy, where a professional army is answerable to an elected government, fenced off from interference in politics.” Nobody understood China and Chiang’s tragedy as much as Chiang himself. In what Taylor calls his “remarkably candid” assessment, penned in January 1949, following the communist takeover of the mainland, Chiang wrote, “we are in a transitional period where the old system has been abolished but the new system is yet to be built.” He implies that the blame falls with the incoherent and fractious system he himself had managed, in turn a product of the warlord era.

Because this revisionist retrospective is so long, it will be the last passage I quote from this book.

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Nationalist, not Moralist, Conflict in Asia

From Asia’s Cauldron: The South China Sea and the End of a Stable Pacific, by Robert D. Kaplan (Random House, 2014), Kindle Loc. 322-333, 585-592:

There is nothing romantic about this new front line. Whereas World War II was a moral struggle against fascism, the Cold War a moral struggle against communism, the post-Cold War a moral struggle against genocide in the Balkans, Africa, and the Levant, as well as a moral struggle against terrorism and in support of democracy, the South China Sea shows us a twenty-first-century world void of moral struggles, with all of their attendant fascination for humanists and intellectuals. Beyond the communist tyranny of North Korea, a Cold War relic, the whole of East Asia simply offers little for humanists. For there is no philosophical enemy to confront. The fact is that East Asia is all about trade and business. Even China, its suffering dissidents notwithstanding, simply does not measure up as an object of moral fury.

The Chinese regime demonstrates a low-calorie version of authoritarianism, with a capitalist economy and little governing ideology to speak of. Moreover, China is likely to become more open rather than closed as a society in future years. China’s leaders are competent engineers and regional governors, dedicated to an improving and balanced economy, who abide by mandatory retirement ages. These are not the decadent, calcified leaders of the Arab world who have been overthrown. Rather than fascism or militarism, China, along with every state in East Asia, is increasingly defined by the persistence, the rise even, of old-fashioned nationalism: an idea, no doubt, but not one that since the mid-nineteenth century has been attractive to liberal humanists.

Truly, in international affairs, behind all questions of morality lie questions of power. Humanitarian intervention in the Balkans in the 1990s was possible only because the Serbian regime was not a great power armed with nuclear weapons, unlike the Russian regime, which at the same time was committing atrocities of a similar scale in Chechnya where the West did nothing; nor did the West do much against the ethnic cleansing in the Caucasus because there, too, was a Russian sphere of influence. In the Western Pacific in the coming decades, morality may mean giving up some of our most cherished ideals for the sake of stability. How else are we to make at least some room for a quasi-authoritarian China as its military expands? (And barring a social-economic collapse internally, China’s military will keep on expanding.) For it is the balance of power itself, even more than the democratic values of the West, that is often the best preserver of freedom. That also will be a lesson of the South China Sea in the twenty-first century—one more that humanists do not want to hear.

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