[Author’s Note: A special word of thanks is due John Malch and the Webmaster at the Full-Spectrum-Dominance docking site for forcing the questions that needed asking.]
For 2,000 and more years China lived under imperial rule. China’s silk, tea and the sciences
brought home to Europe by Western explorers donated fuel to restart the engine of Western civilization after the dark ages. Thanks to China’s development of the compass, gunpowder, paper making, and printing, we in the West have been able to find ‘the war’, wage it, record it and get the word out to everyone else about how well it all went. Like any other large central government, Chinese imperial rule bred massive corruption, a military turned inward on the people, a nanny-state to keep the citizenry predictable and rebels easily identifiable, and the required surveillance to calm the state’s paranoia. And then, in 1912, the 2,000 years of imperial rule was over; ousted by a few insiders that liked the ring of the word ‘republic’.
The embryo of the Chinese republic was an interesting hybrid. As the cells of the new body politic came alive, “the embryological processes of differentiation of cells, tissues, and organs and the development of organ systems according to the genetic “blueprint” of the potential organism and environmental conditions” began to unfold; the morphogenetic creation that is China today was underway. China’s imperial rule ended bathed in corruption rather than blood. The Qing/Manchu Dynasty’s Aisin-Gioro PuYi, China’s last emperor, abdicated the Dragon Throne by proxy; the Empress Dowager Longyu, the mother who adopted him, signed the paperwork.
China was up to its imperial neck in debt when the toddler, PuYi, assumed the Dragon Throne in 1908. Foreign entanglements, particularly with Britain, had “humbled the Qing in
battle, carved out rich territories and extracted huge payments”. The imperial goods were pawned for state income because income from other sources had slowed to a trickle. Provinces separated from the empire, citizens revolted and demanded a republic. The revolutionaries were rewarded on October 10, 1911 in Nanjing when Sun Yat-sen was installed as the first president of the Republic of China. In a last ditch effort to regain central control, General Yuan Shikai became the court appointed prime minister. General Yuan Shikai wasn’t overly attached to the idea of a republic but he did want the Qing dynasty gone by whatever means necessary.
Shikai made an offer the imperial family could not refuse. When faced with beheading, Empress Dowager Longyu, Prince Yikuang, and the Empress Dowager’s head eunuch, Xiao Dezheng each took over $1.6 billion in silver to the bank. The rest of the royal court was given the leave-or-lose-your-head option only. PuYi left the Forbidden City, and as he grew into manhood ruled a Japanese controlled corner of North East China briefly. Later, Chairman Mao allowed PuYi to work in the Botanical Gardens until his death in 1967, from complications of kidney cancer and heart disease. We know this history through Jia Yinghua’s, The Extraordinary Life of the Last Emperor. An historian and former government official, Yinghua, compiled the fascinating history of China’s pivot point between imperial rule and a republic from the secret archives at Zhongnanhai, the Chinese leadership compound, and from interviews with relatives of the imperial courtiers.
The Portal of Change
No nation changes its basis of governance by walking through a magic portal. China with its
incredible population base, geographical barriers, multiple cultures struggling to re-emerge, regionally based military, and 2,000 years of imperial rule was no exception. The process was messy, eventually very bloody, and China’s body politic today in no way resembled anyone’s preconceived idea in 1911.
From 1911 through the start of China’s Civil War we see a whirlwind of activity as lines of power are forged, broken and forged again. Sun Yat-sen was a medical doctor and a revolutionary with a plan for his people. He advocated for China as a nation, representative democracy as a mechanism, and economic opportunity for all Chinese
people. Before the last of the Manchus had left the Forbidden City, Yuan Shikai entered into negotiations with Sun Yat-sen regarding various mechanisms to keep China together as a nation. Shikai must have argued convincingly because Sun Yat-sen voluntarily allowed Shikai to assume the reins of the new republic. The process was completed when, on 14 February 1912, the Nanjing Provisional Senate elected Shikai as the Provisional President of the Republic of China; he was sworn in on March 10th. Shikai had never shared Sun Yat-sen’s vision and, when he lost the general election the following year, Shikai stayed in power anyway, disbanding the Senate. From 1913 until Shikai’s death in 1916 China devolved back to a monarchy. In fact, for the last 83 days of his life, Shikai declared himself emperor.
With Shikai gone, the military rose and that was good and bad news for the fledgling country
of China. The good news is that China had never really consolidated its military preferring a provincial approach unified by the strength of formidable commanders like Shikai. Naturally, when the leader that bound the armies together was gone, the armies reverted to their provincial nature; each province vying for dominance. Every province had its own war lord. The war lord situation did not change until after the Civil War in 1950. The good news is that the many foreign governments, including the Soviet Union and the U.S., sniffing around China’s revolutions for a toe hold also faced those same war lords.
Early in the war lord period two political parties pushing for a republic emerged as dominant. Sun Yat-sen’s KMT, Kuomintang of China, which literally means Chinese National People’s Party and the CCP, Chinese Communist Party, also called the CPC (Communist Party of China). If you are keeping a plot card, the KMT morphed into the ROC, the Republic of China headed by Chiang Kai-shek and the CPC eventually became the PRC, the People’s Republic of China and the PLA, Mao’s People’s Liberation Army.
The Civil War
In 1923, Sun Yat-sen returned from exile once more and assumed leadership of the KMT, which he reorganized along Leninist democratic centralism to allow an alliance with the CPC, Communist Party of China. The alliance was known as the First United Front. Together they re-entered the fray to form a republic and journeyed to Beijing to negotiate reunification with the war lords of Guominjun, Fengtian, and Anhui. Sun Yat-sen died in 1925 and with him the reunification effort in Beijing.
Within two years, in 1927, the alliance between the KMT and the CPC exploded. The Communists were purged and KMT General Chiang Kai-shek, who had become the leader of the National Revolutionary Army in 1926 was on a military roll. According to Peter Carter’s 1976 book Mao, by May 1927, tens of thousands of communists and their sympathizers were killed by nationalists, with the CPC losing approximately 15,000 of its 25,000 members.
From the political vacuum of swirling cultures and societal chaos coupled with the sheer size of the country, two primary competing forces emerged; Mao Tse-tung who would be at the helm of the Peoples’ Republic of China (PRC) with a Communist agenda and Chiang Kai-Shek who would lead the Republic of China (ROC); the forces that did not want communism.
Both leaders were nasty pieces of work. Each was brutal and inhumane during their respective rule. Mao Tse-tung, wins the prize for the greatest mass murderer the world has even seen. According to the Heritage Foundation’s Lee Edwards, Ph.D., “…an estimated 65 million Chinese died as a result of Mao’s repeated, merciless attempts to create a new “socialist” China. Anyone who got in his way was done away with — by execution, imprisonment or forced famine.”… Chiang Kai-Shek, with about 10 million deaths on his soul, is no piker. The battles between Chiang and Mao raged for a decade between 1927 and 1937. Chiang Kai-shek finally pushed Mao Tse-tung into Shaanxi, a remote rocky, barren site in northeastern China when, in July 1937, Japan invaded China. Chiang Kai-Shek won the first round. Back in the west, the upsets in China were noted and then fell into obscurity with the burning challenges of the Great Depression, the advent of WWII and the early portents of the Cold War (1947-1991).
World War II
WWII signaled the rise of the United States as a major player on the military stage. China was viewed as a ‘victim’ of the Japanese. The U.S. and Britain were practically giddy over the dream that, after the war, China would become the lynchpin of stability in East Asia and a strong western ally. Beginning in 1941 the U.S. pumped millions of dollars into the region. By 1943, treaties between the U.S., Britain, and China were rewritten, signed and the U.S. had boots on ground. About then harsh reality settled in as the U.S. tried, without success, to mend the Chinese fences between Mao Tse-tung’s Communist factions and Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist factions. By the end of WWII, the Marines were told to hold Beiping (Beijing) and the northern city of Tianjin against a possible Soviet incursion. Recently retired General George C. Marshall attempted to negotiate a truce between the PRC and ROC factions in 1946. It quickly fell apart as neither the Communists nor the Nationalists were of a mind to compromise and the U.S. withdrew to deal with the European challenges of reparation. Back in the U.S., the division over whether to intervene on behalf of Chiang Kai-shek or not was beginning to deepen and harden.
The Civil War Resumes
Beginning in 1949, Mao Tse-Tung made two smooth moves. First he named Zhou Enlai the first Premier of the People’s Republic of China. Zhou Enlai who helped formulate the KMT was strong in areas where Mao was less effective and together they were much stronger. Mao ran the inside effort and Zhou the diplomatic side. Henry Kissinger, who worked with both men wrote in his book On China, “Mao dominated any gathering; Zhou suffused it. Mao’s passion strove to overwhelm opposition; Zhou’s intellect would seek to persuade or outmaneuver it. Mao was sardonic; Zhou penetrating. Mao thought of himself as a philosopher; Zhou saw his role as an administrator or a negotiator. Mao was eager to accelerate history; Zhou was content to exploit its currents.” Zhou Enlai left a large footprint on China. He was a paradox; a conservative and radical, pragmatic and ideological, possessed by a belief in order and harmony as well as a faith in the progressive elements within the power of rebellion and revolution.
Secondly, Mao activated the military plan he had been formulating for years in his virtual
prison in Shaanxi. By October 1949, Mao had bowled over Chiang Kai-shek’s forces, which fell like ten pins, and Chiang retreated to Taiwan where he formally established the Republic of China. Meanwhile in the rest of the world; Russia detonated its first nuke…gasp… and, in the U.S., the Republicans and Democrats were at it hammer and tongs over the victory of Mao’s Communists on mainland China and the Nationalists’ fate on Taiwan. Nuclear War became a real specter and the U.S. was anticipating the silly season, election time. It would not be the last time nuking China would be considered by both the United States and the Soviet Union.
In the 1950s the CIA got busy in mainland China with an operation labeled the Third Force Project. Two CIA agents, John Downey and Richard Fecteau, were shot down over China, captured and remained prisoners for over 20 years. In dealing with China, what you think you know is not always what you actually know and Allen Dulles discovered this the hard way. Another lesson learned. The CIA file contains an excellent operational analysis:
“…This Third Force project received new emphasis after the Communist Chinese intervened in the Korean War. At that point, the project aimed to divert Chinese resources from the war in Korea by promoting domestic antigovernment guerrilla operations. This was to be accomplished by small teams of Chinese agents, generally inserted through airdrops, who were to link up with local guerrilla forces, collect intelligence and possibly engage in sabotage and psychological warfare, and report back by radio. The operational model was the OSS experience in Europe during World War II, which assumed a cooperative captive population—a situation, as it turned out, that did not prevail in China…”
Richard Fecteau was released in 1971, but Downey remained in imprisoned. John Downey was released in March 1973 after President Nixon appealed to Beijing on humanitarian grounds based on Downey’s mother’s health coupled with his admission the previous month in a press conference that Downey was a CIA employee.
In 1954, Chiang Kai-shek’s ROC occupied the islands of Taiwan and, further north, the Dachen Islands; these island groupings are very close to mainland China and the waters between them are known as the Taiwan Straits. To this day, both sides of the Chinese Civil War still view the Islands as strategically important because they present a launch platform from which to invade mainland China. From time-to-time in the early 1950s they bombed each other.
The Korean War kept the Chinese warring factions separated through the presence of the U.S. Fleet. The U.S. ‘maybe’ switch of sentiments that would have allowed Mao to retake the islands turned to a definite ‘No’ as a result of Korea. After the Korean War in September 1954, the PRC tried the U.S.resolve when it began bombing the northern islands. The United States signed a Mutual Defense Treaty with Taiwan, which promised support to the ROC if the PRC broadened the conflict. Like pieces on a chess board forever advancing and retreating, the confrontations continued throughout 1954. In 1955, Congress passed the ‘Formosa Resolution’, giving President Eisenhower the authority to defend Taiwan and the northern islands. The U.S. let it be known far and wide that Taiwan would be defended against communist attack. A quiet deal on the side was struck with Chiang Kai-shek to defend Jinmen and Mazu, in trade for his exiting Dachen. By 1955, the PRC inexplicably backed down and the pressure was off.
By 1958, the U.S. was center stage with its decision to intervene in Lebanon. Mao and the PRC took full advantage of the spotlight to resume bombing of Jinmen and Mazu. When Taiwan could not re-supply their military bases on the off-shore islands, the U.S. did so. The U.S. intervention brought an abrupt end to the bombardment and, once again, eased the crisis. “Eventually, the PRC and ROC came to an arrangement in which they shelled each other’s garrisons on alternate days. This continued for twenty years until the PRC and the United States normalized relations.”(See Footnote 8).
Recently released documents illustrate the internal contest Eisenhower fought to control the military. On January 12, 1954, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles announced that the United States would protect its allies through the “deterrent of massive retaliatory power” during a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations. This doctrine was a reflection of the deep divide that opened with the perception that the Truman administration was weak on Communism. The Air Force was anxious to proceed with strategic ‘massive retaliation’ and had battled the other branches of the military that argued for a more tactical approach.
The Dragon Vexes Two Superpowers
Two serendipitous events, one on the U.S. side and one in the Soviet Union, kept the world from a headlong dive into the shallow pool of total nuclear annihilation in the 1958 Taiwan Straits Crisis. First President Eisenhower required the Air Force to plan initially to use conventional bombs against Chinese forces if the crisis escalated. Secondly, the Soviet Union’s Khrushchev’s war-like notes to Eisenhower backing the PRC with nuclear threats came on September 6, 1958 only AFTER the Chinese resumed the Sino-American talks and the threat of war was winding down. The timing of the Soviet war noises was not lost on either the Chinese or the Americans.
The Chinese may have driven the Americans to the brink of nuclear frustration but they were an equal opportunity country. Within a decade after the Cuban missile crisis, China drove the Soviets to the brink of nuclear distraction. According to The Telegraph’s Andrew Osborn in Moscow and Peter Foster in Beijing, the U.S. planned a nuclear attack on China in 1969 in response to a border dispute. They report:
“…Liu Chenshan, the author of a series of articles that chronicle the five times China has faced a nuclear threat since 1949, wrote that the most serious threat came in 1969 at the height of a bitter border dispute between Moscow and Beijing that left more than one thousand people dead on both sides.
He said Soviet diplomats warned Washington of Moscow’s plans “to wipe out the Chinese threat and get rid of this modern adventurer,” with a nuclear strike, asking the US to remain neutral….”
Again cooler heads prevailed and nuclear annihilation was averted.
What Happens Next?
Today China is on a forward charge and is a force to be either reckoned with or reconciled. China is engaged in global trade; tying up available rare earth mineral deposits, securing
petroleum resources, building extravagant resorts in the Bahamas, securing shipping assets and procuring manufacturing assets from all the global nooks and crannies. China is engaged militarily; its probe landed on the moon right on time, it is a nuclear power, and its naval and air platforms have been developed faster than anyone could possibly have imagined. China’s population has made unimaginable economic strides and the people like it so much they are now forcing political change from within to continue their growth.
Today’s China is a morphogenetic creation that has the world scratching its head and wondering what comes next-war or peace?
[Author’s Note: A special word of thanks is due John Malch and the Webmaster at the Full-Spectrum-Dominance docking site for forcing the questions that needed asking.]
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 The Heritage Foundation; February 2, 2010; Lee Edwards, Ph.D.; The Legacy of Mao Zedong is Mass Murder; http://www.heritage.org/research/commentary/2010/02/the-legacy-of-mao-zedong-is-mass-murder
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 The Wall Street Journal; Jan. 3, 2014; Chuin-Wei Yap; China Moves to Tighten Rare-Earths Control, Pave Way for Consolidation; http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702303870704579298810741503846
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 Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies, Renmin University of China; 27 October 2013; John Ross; China has the world’s fastest growth in living standards; http://ablog.typepad.com/keytrendsinglobalisation/2013/10/china-has-the-worlds-fastest-growth-in-living-standards.html