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Diplomacy and Conflict • Negotiating Peace: Diplomacy During WWII

In pursuit of a unified China, Chiang Kai-shek followed in the footsteps of Sun Yat-sen, the father of modern China and the creator of the Kuomintang (Nationalist Party). Chiang, however, was unwilling to build the nation in a way that took the needs of China's peasant majority into account. His strident belief in his military invincibility eventually led to his defeat.

Chiang was born on October 31, 1887, in Zhejiang Province. His father, a moderately prosperous salt merchant, died in 1896. In the time of Chiang's boyhood, China underwent enormous upheaval as the ruling Qing dynasty had been disgraced and weakened by foreign encroachments on Chinese sovereignty. Many Chinese blamed this on Qing traditionalism and backwardness and believed China had to become more modern to expel the foreigners and regain its power and dignity.

Chiang agreed with this. When he traveled to Japan in 1907 to train for a military career at the Shikan Gakko Military Academy, he came into contact with other Chinese students who advocated reform. Chiang even joined the revolutionary group founded by Sun, the Revolutionary Alliance, committed to overthrowing the Qing dynasty and establishing a republican form of government.

Chiang served in the Japanese Army from 1909 to 1911. When on October 10, 1911, revolution erupted in the Chinese province of Wuhan, Chiang returned home to fight under Gen. Chen Qimei against the Qing government. The revolutionaries overthrew the dynasty, and on January 1, 1912, Sun proclaimed the Republic of China. Sun, however, did not have the military power necessary to unite China. Yuan Shikai, a political boss based in the north, possessed the most military might, and so Sun agreed to his becoming president. Yuan quickly ignored the national legislature controlled by Sun's political party, the Kuomintang. Instead, Yuan developed a dictatorship and moved militarily against the Nationalists. In 1913, this aggression produced a "second revolution" in which Sun and Chiang fought against Yuan's forces, but by the end of the year, Sun had lost, and Chiang was forced to flee to Japan.

Chiang led a secretive existence from 1916 to 1917, during which time he apparently involved himself with the Shanghai underworld and associated with a group called the Green Gang. In 1918, he returned to China and rejoined Sun's movement, developing a close relationship with the Nationalist hero. By this time, Yuan had died, and his government had disintegrated, ushering in a chaotic period in which warlords exerted power in various territories. Sun led a Kuomintang government that existed only in name, as he still struggled to unite China under his banner. In the early 1920s, Sun reorganized the Kuomintang along the lines of the communist revolutionaries in Russia. In 1923, Sun sent Chiang to Moscow to study Soviet military methods and the close political arrangement between the army and the Communist Party.

Chiang returned to China late in 1923 and directed the Whampoa Military Academy, established near Canton with the help of Soviet advisers. Such talented Communists as Zhou Enlai headed its political department, and Lin Biao enrolled as a cadet. The organizational skills and nationalist enthusiasm of the Communists convinced Sun to create alliances and admit them into the Kuomintang.

Sun died in March 1925, and Chiang, for some time considered Sun's heir apparent, used the support of the Whampoa Army in a political struggle with his main rival in the Kuomintang, Wang Jingwei, to emerge as the new Nationalist leader. The Communists, however, still posed a threat to his power. In 1927, Chiang took the Nationalist army into northern China, where he gained control of the lower Yangzi Valley. He then moved on Shanghai and captured that city after a Communist-led uprising of workers paved the way for his entry. In a surprise move on April 12, 1927, Chiang attacked the labor unions and captured the Communists, killing several hundred of them. Having betrayed the Communists and the leftist faction in the Nationalist movement, Chiang increasingly allied himself with the right.

In December 1927, Chiang married Soong Mei-ling (he had earlier divorced his second wife, to whom he was still married when he first courted Soong), whose Westernized family convinced him to become a Christian. The marriage drew him closer to the conservatives in Chinese society, and Soong subsequently played a dominant role in Chiang's Nationalist government.

Chiang had feared that the Communists would undermine his power, particularly since many Nationalist troops sympathized with them. He also believed that the Communists were more concerned with promoting the interests of the international communist movement than the interests of China. More pragmatically, Chiang needed the support of warlords who disdained the Communists. It was for these reasons that Chiang broke with the increasingly popular Communists and forced two leading competitors in the Kuomintang to retire: Wang Jingwei, sympathetic to the left wing, and Mao Zedong, Communist head of the propaganda department. After additional military assaults, by October 1928, Chiang's forces had control of nearly all of China.

Chiang claimed he supported economic reform, but he never initiated any major changes. His Nationalist government sided with the business interests and the landed gentry. In a country where most people were peasants who were suffering great hardship, his policies won little popular support. At the same time, his rule became known for its widespread corruption.

Chiang committed a serious blunder in his policy toward Japan. The Japanese captured Manchuria in 1931 and showed every intention of invading northern China and beyond. Rather than prepare his army primarily for this invasion, Chiang decided to concentrate on the Communists and eliminate them from the scene. However, the Communists, led by Mao, eluded Chiang and won a substantial following by focusing their attention on ousting the despised Japanese. Though Gen. Zhang Xueliang captured Chiang and attempted to force him to accept that the Nationalists and Communists should form a common front against Japan, Chiang went back on his word once he was released, and Zhang was imprisoned. Only after the Japanese occupied half the country in 1937 would Chiang submit to the Communist offers of concerted action against the common enemy.

In 1934, Chiang began the New Life movement (Soong played a central role in its creation), trying to get the Chinese to adopt Confucian values mixed with puritanical Protestantism. This ideology paled in appeal next to the radicalism, particularly the land reform, offered by the Marxists.

When Japan finally did invade China in 1937, the Communists rallied the countryside, and the Red Army grew enormously. Millions of Chinese who little understood Marxism found in Mao a hero who would protect China. Chiang worsened his situation by withholding his army from much of the fighting. He let the Communists and later the Allies bear the brunt during World War II, thinking he would save his men for the postwar struggle against Mao. In the meantime, his army grew indolent and overconfident. Chiang was mortified when in 1944, the Japanese attacked Nationalist forces with devastating results: 700,000 men lost, along with 100,000 square miles of territory in seven months.

In 1946, the Nationalists and Communists engaged in fierce fighting, ignited when Chiang blocked Mao's troops, who sought to move from central China to the north, where they could reinforce communist units in Manchuria. For three years, the so-called Chinese Communist Revolution continued, and Chiang made serious military mistakes, the most damaging being his decision to move his army into Manchuria, thus overextending his supply lines. Furthermore, he blundered when he outlawed reform movements and consequently convinced many liberals to support the Communists.

Even Mao expressed surprise at how fast the Nationalists disintegrated. In 1949, Chiang fled to Taiwan, an island near China's southeast coast, where with U.S. backing, he founded the Republic of China. While Mao and the Chinese Communist Party ruled the People's Republic of China on the mainland and developed a cult-like Maoist ideology, Chiang insisted that his Kuomintang constituted the legitimate Chinese government—a claim only the United States took seriously—and for several years, Taiwan held the Chinese seat in the United Nations (UN).

Under Chiang, Taiwan developed a prosperous capitalist economy, helped greatly by massive infusions of U.S. aid and military protection. Although Taiwan had a representative assembly, Chiang ruled the island as his personal domain.

Chiang claimed he would recapture the mainland, but it never came about, and he grew more isolated. In 1972, the People's Republic of China regained the Chinese seat in the UN, and throughout the 1970s, the United States normalized its contacts with the mainland. Chiang did not live to see the United States sever its formal ties with Taiwan in 1979, when it established diplomatic relations with mainland China. He died on April 5, 1975, and was succeeded as Taiwan's leader by his son, Chiang Ching-kuo.

Further Reading

Crozier, Brian. The Man Who Lost China: The Full Biography of Chiang Kai-shek. New York: Scribner, 1976; Hedin, Sven Anders. Chiang Kai-shek, Marshal of China. Trans. Bernard Norbelie, 1975; Spence, Jonathan D. The Search for Modern China. New York: Norton, 1990.

MLA Citation

Hamilton, Neil. "Chiang Kai-Shek." World History: The Modern Era, ABC-CLIO, 2020, worldhistory.abc-clio.com/Search/Display/316975. Accessed 20 Jan. 2020.

Entry ID: 2171547

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