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China 1946: Lessons for Today
February 23, 2022
by William P. Meyers

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America's bad 1946 decision

A couple of days ago I was telling my granddaughter about propaganda. She did not look interested, but she is eleven years old now, and needs to start thinking about when she is being manipulated. This was in the context of a discussion, among the adults present, of Russia and Ukraine. I grew up (in the 1960s) in a culture where propaganda about both the present and the past was treated as fact. It took me many years to learn to sort out truth from fiction and spin. Given the nature of the world, it is a lifelong project.

Right now we are seeing two contending propaganda machines (and their allies) spew forth about Ukraine. In other words, a pot and kettle calling each other black, and both being right [that is the U.S. and Russia. Ukraine has a right to defend itself]. Taiwan comes up in the discussion quite a bit because the U.S. wants to keep it as a protectorate, while the Chinese government wants to reunite the rebel province. Although I am fairly familiar with how this situation arose, I recently found an old book, published in 1946, that has in it some details that were new to me. The book is Thunder Out of China by Theodore H. White and Annalee Jacoby. Both reporters spent years in China leading up to and during World War II, or more accurately, the war between China and Japan.

Let's start with what China was like, for its ordinary people, before communism. "In China half the people die before they reach the age of thirty. Everywhere in Asia life is infused with a few terrible certainties— hunger, indignity, and violence. In war and peace, in famine and in glut, a dead human is a common sight on open highway or city street. In Shanghai collecting the lifeless bodies of child laborers at factory gates in the morning is a routine affair." [p. xiii]

I see frequent use of the term new cold war to describe the growing hostility between the American block and the Russian-Chinese block. This refers back to the Cold War between the Communist Block and the capitalist states led by the US that ended with the breakup of the old Soviet Union. This new cold war is to be about power, not ideology. If France or Britain or Peru suddenly presented the kind of economic or military threat to US global rule that Russia and China do, we would quickly be in a cold (or hot) war with the new rival. The ruling class of the US (including Joe Biden) do not want a level playing field, or fair competition. When the Chinese beat us, we scream "foul" and demand that they back off, rather than finding a way to do better at business ourselves.

Back in 1946 the world had just finished a nasty war, with the great bulk of deaths suffered by Russians (including Ukraine Russians) and Chinese. Before Japan invaded China the Chinese communists were an important, but not particularly powerful group. What the world called the national government of China was a coalition of war lords augmented by some liberal thinkers, businessmen, and corrupt local landlords and bureaucrats. Despite that, it is possible that if the Japanese had not invaded Chiang Kai-shek might have allowed enough modernization to develop the kind of economy that sometimes leads to some semblance of democracy and honest government. More likely his dependence on warlords and other corrupt figures would have led the nation to revolution or ruin.

So what happened? Chiang and his warlords (now Generals of his armies) ran the war like they had run China before the war. Excepting Chiang himself, they all looked out for number one. They stole from their own soldiers (think Afghanistan and South Vietnam), they stole from peasants, they tried to steal from each other. As a result the Japanese army (usually) could run over the Chinese armies at will. The Japanese did not occupy all of China only because the western parts were not thought to be worth the trouble. A long line separated the opposing armies from 1939 until 1944. It was a stalemate. The parts of China run under a Japanese puppet regime were far better off than the part run by Chiang. The Nationalist army was filled with sick and hungry men, often without rifles, and seldom with a significant number of bullets when they did have rifles. When America became the Nationalist China ally after the Battle of Pearl Harbor, the aid sent by the US disappeared into warehouses. It almost never reached the front.

But some Chinese did fight, and fought well: the Communists. This was the conclusion of American diplomatic and military missions to the areas controlled by the communists. We gave some aid directly to the communists. Interestingly, Stalin recognized the Chiang Kai-shek government and gave no aid to Mao and his communists until late in 1945.

The American government, wanting to win the war, wanted Chiang and Mao to cooperate in fighting the Japanese. Interestingly, when they were young, the two men had served on the same committee of the Kuomintang, before the communists were expelled. The communists were willing to cooperate provided that a democratic framework was set up. Chiang never in his life, despite promises, allowed for an election (the communists did, and allowed non-communists to participate and win offices).

The Americans, represented by General Joseph Stilwell, were aghast when a Japanese push in 1944 cut up Chiang's forces and also captured the forward U.S. air bases that had preyed on Japanese shipping. Stilwell was, in theory at least, in charge of all the allied armies in China, and he knew how corrupt and incompetent the war-lord generals were. U.S. aid (including troops and the Flying Tigers) seemed to give leverage. President Roosevelt wrote Chiang a note, an "untempered demand for immediate and sweeping reform and action to cope with the military crisis." [p. 220] To Chiang "It was obvious that Stilwell in command meant not only a new army but a new China. Chiang had made paper promises for years; now they were to be shoved down his throat." [p. 221-222]

Chiang's own note, in return, said "it was made manifest to me that General Stilwell had no intention of co-operating with me but believed in fact that he was appointed to command me." In fairness to Chiang, he had always been a Chinese nationalist. His primary goal was always to get the imperial powers out of China. Becoming the puppet to America was not on his agenda. Letting America arm the communists was not on the agenda. And so, Stilwell was withdrawn and America decided to abandon the communists in favor of Chiang.

Naturally the communists were upset. Over the course of a few years they had come to like America, to see it more than just a capitalist and imperialist power. They had been willing to try their chances with democracy. Now they were stuck with a corrupt dictator whose troops died more from starvation, mistreatment, and sickness than from Japanese bombs and bullets.

And so a civil war began. The communists won. But towards the end Chiang and friends grabbed what they could and occupied Taiwan. As long as he lived, Chiang said that Taiwan was part of China and some day the people on the Chinese mainland would rebel against Mao and welcome him back as a liberator. It was a nice fantasy, and anti-communists in the U.S. promoted it as the gospel truth.

In diplomacy one generally recognizes the government that exists, even if it is not to your nation's liking. But the U.S. refused to recognize the real government of China, despite the facts on the ground. And so, with no other choice, China got in bed with the Soviet Union, and found itself in the Cold War, with a rebel province lurking in Taiwan.

Empires have their benefits, but they have their drawbacks too. America has tried to have the benefits without marrying the princesses. To some extent it works. It did not work in Vietnam, or more lately in Afghanistan or Iraq. I do not like Vladimir Putin, but I do not accept much of the U.S. and E.U. propaganda. I understand Russians seeing Ukraine as part of their defensive perimeter. But they could not even keep a hold of Afghanistan. I don't see how they can hold Ukraine if they occupy it by force.

Meanwhile, the Slow Motion Apocalypse grinds on. Putin and Biden, or no Putin and Biden. These old men are fighting the last war, and will go the way of everyone who fights the new war as if it were the last war.

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