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This week I read Strategy and the Chinese Civil War by my friend, Adam Elkus. The piece appeared in a special edition, “Strategic Misfortunes,” of Infinity Journal. IN a private communication, Adam told me the piece “dispense[s] with some of the CPP’s own myth-making,” which I agree with. It’s a fascinating article, and one that knee-caps the idea that Mao Zedong was particularly unusual in his knowledge of agrarian guerrilla warfare. (Mao certainly, however, was a fantastic self-promoter.)
KMT China Was A Failed State
I think I disagree with Elkus’s article in one area. Throughout the article Adam writes as if the KMT was an effective government; that is, as if China was not already a failed state by the time that Chiang Kaishek seized power. While this point does not problematize Elkus’ assertion that the rise of the Communists was result of KMT military failure, it should clarify that KMT military failure was primarily a result of KMT political failure, and not simply the result of a few bad strategic decisions.
In the rest of this post I want to take issue with several points of the KMT chronology laid out by Elkus, including
1. The “KMT” that ran mainland China between and 1949, and Taiwan from 1946-2000, is a successor to the “KMT” founded by Sun Yatsen in Beijing.
2. The KMT conducted a White Terror in mainland China in the 1920s
3. The KMT attempted to use the NRA to eliminate the Communist Party
4. The KMT embarked on the Strong Point offensive for primarily military, and not political, reasons
The [Chinese] KMT Was Never A Secret Society
China’s defeat in the first Sino-Japanese War motivated the Qing leaders to create a powerful and bureaucratic military organized around European lines with the aid of German advisers. The 1911 revolution was not won by mass mobilization; Sun Yat-Sen’s GMD was a secret society that focused its efforts on winning over intellectuals, economic elites, and soldiers in Qing military forces. Yuan Shikai, Marshal of the Qing’s forces, defected with his elite Beiyang Army to Sun’s side and tilted the military balance in favor of the rebels. A lack of political consensus over the structure and distribution of political power helped fragment the military balance and thus create the impetus for China’s infamous ‘warlord period’.
In Chinese histories there are two political parties known as “KMT,” which Adam calls “GMD.” The first, known in simplified hanzi as 國民黨 and literally translated as National People’s Party, was a reorganization of secret societies founded by Sun Yatsen for the purpose of overthrowing the Qing dynasty and institution an anti-Manchu race war in mainland Chinese. The others, sometimes known as the “KMT” or the “Chinese KMT,” known in traditional hanzi as 中國國民黨, and literally translated as the “China National People’s Party,” was founded by Sun Yatsen in 1919-1923 with Soviet Assistance (in nearly the same time and place and with nearly the same cast as the founding of the Communist Party), for the purpose of overthrowing the Beijing Government and reconquering the foreign concessions on Mainland China.
More seriously, the and its predecessors (the Revolutionary Alliance, the Revive China Society, etc) played only a marginal role in the collapse of the Qing. The Qing collapsed because of an outbreak of racial violence (including genocide) along Rwandan lines against the Manchu minority, combined with the military coup by the Yuan Shikai. Sun, the foreign face of the intervention, was not involved.
(Throughout this article I will reference to both parties simply as “KMT.” Elkus uses the term “GMD,” based on the pinyin transliteration of the name, that was never used at the time to refer to the KMT, and is only rarely used to refer to the Chinese KMT.)
The KMT Was Incapable of Conducting a White Terror
German influence may have been eventually eclipsed by the Soviets, but German ideas still figured strongly in GMD doctrine and operations. GMD and CCP political-military commanders both had military training in Europe and received training from Soviet advisers in the Whampoa Military Academy, before the White Terror suppression of CCP forces in Shanghai and beyond by the GMD that ended their putative alliance in the late 1920s. Both the GMD and the CCP adopted political commissar systems and were strongly influenced by the Soviet idea of the party army
Adam Elkus is not alone is calling the April 12 Incident a “White Terror,” but the term “White Terror” dramatically exaggerates the scale and competency of the KMT at the time.
Here is are some comparisons of other “White Terrors”
While the April 12 incident was aimed at destroying the urban wing Chinese Communist Party, the KMT had neither the capability or will to enforce a “terror.”
The KMT Allowed the Communists to Escape
The final encirclement campaign severely reduced the CCP base areas. The GMD’s aggressive pursuit of the Communist remnants during the torturous Long March destroyed nine tenths of CCP military power. Were it not for the onset of Japanese aggression, it is quite likely that the GMD would have completely destroyed the weakened CCP forces. The Second Sino-Japanese War not only provided breathing room for the CCP, but also allowed the CCP the opportunity to finally compete for political authority on a national scale. CCP forces infiltrated behind Japanese lines to organize the masses against the Japanese and build up a power base.
As in contemporary mainland China, the relationship between the Army, Party, and Government is ambiguous. As this is the only section of my post that deals primarily with military matters, I will refer to the armed-wing of the KMT’s State-Military-Party triarchy by its name at the time, the “National Revolutionary Army” or NRA.
The only area where Elkus succumbs to Communist myth-making is in two sentences, where Elkus claims
1. The National Revolutionary Army aggressively persued the remnants of the Chinese Soviet Republic. Thus, the collapse in Communist personnel from 86,000 to 7,000 in one year was because of successful attacks by the NRA on the CSR troops
2. The Japanese invasion for the major obstacle to the NRA destruction of the CSR in Yan’an
Both of these claims are incorrect.
First, the CSR military was composed of informally conscripted troops, the majority of whom defected as soon as they were able. The collapse of the CSR terror apparatus during the beginning of the long march thus began wave after wave of escapes, leaving the CSR to be composed exclusively of (a) a small group of fanatical believers and (b) warlords and fighters who had death sentences from the KMT that they were unable to negotiate away. The KMT’s decision to have the NRA allow the CSR forces to escape is in keeping with Sun-Tzu’s maxim to avoid a victory of annihilation, and instead allow one’s enemy a means of escape.
Second, the NRA was unable to destroy the Communists, not because of the Japanese, but because the NRA was a simply the strongest of many militias operating in mainland China at the time. The true battle was not military, but political. Rival claimants to KMT supremacy, such as the “Christian Warlord” Feng Yuxiang (and his confusingly named “KMA,” or Nationalist Army), Wang Jingwei (who may or may not have been the legitimate President of the Republic of China), and Song Qingling) (the ultra-hot widow of Sun Yatsen), and the father-and-son duo Zhang Zuolin and Zhang Xueliang (who kept Mussolini’s daughter as a mistress and later was powerful enough to kidnap Chiang Kaichek, eventually going on to the longest-serving political prisoner in recorded history) prevented Chiang and the KMT from being able to consider the liquidation of any one faction as either necessary or desirable.
The KMT Was Fighting For Bargaining Position, Not Victory
Thus, the GMD decided to embark on the Strong Point offensive, an attempt to destroy the CCP’s political apparatus to the west in Yan’an as well as the trapped CCP army in the east.[xxxi] The Strong Point offensive was based on the tenuous assumptions that the GMD had secured its conquered territory and could afford to shift its effort away from the northeast and northern theaters. It failed to finish off the CCP, even though it came close enough that the party headquarters in Yan’an were evacuated.[xxxii] By the end of the Strong Point offensive in 1947, the CCP still had its strategic base in the northeast, and the GMD had failed to fully pacify a single region or completely destroy the Communist mobile armies. The GMD’s strategic reserves were exhausted, and it lacked the resources to properly defend all of its gains. The GMD held the coastline and all of the major cities and railroads from Shaanxi to Shandong, but this counted for little as long as Communist armies remained intact.
The Strong Point offensive was founded on a political, and not military, assumption: that a partition of China was now inevitable. China in 1947 was believed to be divided by three large patrons, each with client regions
The KMT correctly concluded that it was inconceivable any of the major foreign powers would completely abandon all of their Chinese clients. Thus, national reunification was impossible. The KMT’s strategy at that point was to abandon attempts to reunify by force any area in the zone of a patron state, and instead attempt to consolidate the zone within the patronage of her patron, the US. The KMT also realized that time was not on its side: in the absence of a home-grown military solution, the large powers would likely partition China at the Yellow River.
Thus, the Strong Point’s assumption was not that the Communists had been defeated in Manchuria, but that the Communists were about to win a political victory everywhere north of the Yellow River unless the facts on the ground changed, rapidly.
Elkus’s Strategy and the Chinese Civil War is a vital piece, in that it shatters the myth that Mao was a particularly insightful guerrilla leader, or that Communism was particularly attractive to the Chinese people in the 1930s and 1940s. It can be improved by further recognizing that the KMT, another Leninist Party, was likewise unpopular, ill-equipped, and indecisive.
Yesterday I finished The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future by Victor Cha. Dr. Cha is a professor at Georgetown University, and former Director for Asian Affairs at the National Security Council, during the George W. Bush administration.
The Impossible State can conceptually be divided into three parts. The book’s approach combines a focus on the political economy of North Korea, with some discussion of the ideology of that state. The book implies a small number of important decisions should be made regarding North Korea.
North Korea was the Normal Korea
First, Cha argues that up through the early 1980s, North Korea was the “normal” Korea. Not only was North Korea the most industrialized state per capita during its founding, even after being leveled in the Korean War, and it was behind only Japan in per capita industrialization by 1970s. When North Korea sent a peace envoy to Seoul in the 1960s, South Korea executed him. That’s the sort of craziness we expect from North Korea these days!
South Korean per capita electric consumption did not exceeded that of North Korea until 1988. Even in the early 1980s the White House appeared to consider the possibility of a peaceful unification of Korea under Northern hegemony. Even though the North had as strong cult of personality throughout this period, Kim Il Sung (the founder of North Korea) used this as a tool for political control under a seemingly technocrat state along the East German or Romanian models.
The North Korean State Collapsed in the 1980s
The collapse of the North Korean state in the 1980s appears to e the result of several severe blows
1. North Korea’s was nearing the limit of State-led heavy-industry development
2. The focus on heavy industry created a distorted economy that could not deal with the collapse of the Communist trading bloc
3. South Korea was meanwhile engaging is a better developmental model that was overtaking the North’s economy
4. The South Korean government’s policy of “Nordpolitik” diplomatically encircled the North
5. The International Olympic Committee handed Seoul the 1988 Summer Olympic Games, which prompted an incredibly poorly thought-out campaign of Northern terrorism against the South
6. The North Korean leadership transition was contested, and distorted the political leadership away from a focus on economic growth
The weakest part of The Impossible State, in my opinion, is Cha’s discussion of “Neo-Juche Revivalism.” Part of this may be because it seems the book went to press about a week or so after Kim Jong-Il’s death, so page upon page will go into explaining the particulars of Kim Jong-Il’s experience, and then there will be a paragraph or so about Kim Jong-Un, Jang Sung-taek, or some other leader.
“Neo-Juche Revivalism” is the term that Cha uses to describe Kim Jong-Il’s suspicion of political reform, and desire to return to the position of strength last seen in the 1970s. While to Kim Jong-Il recent North Korean weakness of an aberration, it is not clear that the new leadership actually believes it. Nor is it clear if Cha simply uses this term to refer to the focus on power and fear of outsides that has characterized the North Korean regime for decades.
What to Do
I was surprised from reading online that Cha is considered to be “hawk.” The approach implied by The Impossible State is that any sanctions regime that does not include China will not work, as China will just increase her aid accordingly. Likewise, China is unlikely to engage in sanctions, because China’s interest is in extracting North Korea’s natural resources and using North Korean ports to help develop land-locked Jilin province (a province which has a larger population than the whole of North Korea).
China’s colonization of North Korea, therefore, should be matched by South Korean colonization of North Korea. The point is to speed up the economic connectivity of the North while containing its militarily. The regime is too self-interested to attack other countries if it believes it will be attacked in return. This, all that’s left is to rot North Korea away from within.
Cha is clearly a Korean subject matter expert, but he neglects important aspects of both Chinese and Japanese politics.
With regards to China, he states that China nearly removed Kim Il-Sung from power. But the context of this claim, Cha later writes, is General Peng Dehui’s speech against Kim Il-Sung during a Communist conference. But Peng’s speech against “Kim Il-Sung” was in fact targeted against Mao Zedong, both of whom were famous for their personality cult. Thus, Peng’s speech was not a serious call to invade North Korea, but a coded call to end the Mao Zedong personality cult.
Likewise, Cha largely blames Japanese outrage against North Korea for the abduction of Japanese civilians (most of whom were females) on the Japanese.
1. North Korea’s announcement of the abductions was made in good faith
2. North Korea cannot be expected to account for missing or executed Japanese civilians
3. Japan exhibited bad faith by not forcibly returning visiting captured Japanese civilians back to Japan
4. Japanese politicians cynically exploied far-right-wing outrage for their own ends.
I really don’t know what to make of these claims. They are not only morally repulsive, they don’t even fit the tone of the rest of the work. They display an ignorance of both Japanese (and Korean!) view of women, which is more chivalrous than in the west.
The Impossible State contains a fascinating brief history of the Koreas since the Second World War. It persuasively argues that North Korea is the target of economic colonization. South Korea should exploit this, and work with China in absorbing its north neighbor while developing Jilin province.