USM Open Source History Text: The World at War: World History 1914-1945

The Rise of Chiang Kai-shek

Perhaps the principle advantage the nationalists got from the alliance with the CCP was the gaining of Soviet military training and aid, desperately needed if Sun was going to make any attempt to bring order to the huge and quickly de-centralizing country. The first stage of this military reorganization was the training of an elite officer corps under the leadership of General Chiang Kai-shek, who had studied military organization for seven months in Moscow. Chiang was a strong leader and quickly commanded the loyalty of those under him. With a newly organized force and with military equipment flowing into his hands, Chiang was ready to start taking on the warlords. During the next three years, and following the death of Sun Yat-sen in 1925, Chiang Kai-shek led the Guomindang armies from their stronghold around Canton in the south on the so-called Northern Expedition to capture the key cities of Wuhan, Nanjing, and Shanghai. He succeeded, and by 1927 controlled much of eastern China. It seemed as if the Guomindang, in cooperation with the CCP and thus with Soviet Russia, would succeed in reestablishing order in China under an allied nationalist-communistic government.

Why didn’t this happen? The short answer is that the marriage of the nationalists and communists was born of necessity, not real friendship, certainly not love. The nationalist movement, the movement of Sun Yat-sen, was by its nature much to the political right of communism. The nationalists’ central constituencies were industrialists, capitalists, and other members of the Chinese middle class, who wanted economic liberalism on the European model and who were deeply hostile to Soviet-style communism. In 1927, Chiang Kai-shek, fresh off his successful Northern Expedition, turned on his allies. Nationalist forces attacked communists and other leftist sympathizers and organizations, arresting, disbanding, and killing their members. CCP members turned to Stalin for support, but the party leader, embroiled in his own political battle for control over the Bolshevik machine, provided self-serving and contradictory decrees, basically hanging the Chinese communists out to dry.

By the end of 1927, Chiang Kai-shek (evoking the legacy of Sun Yat-sen) seemed to have eliminated the internal threat of communism. The communists were in disarray. Their urban operations had been largely wiped out, and their leadership had fled underground, abroad, or deep into the countryside. The next order of business for Chiang was to continue to drive north into the wasps’ nest of warlordism. The main warlord in the area, Zhang Zuolin, eventually retreated in the face of Chiang’s advance, abandoning Peking to the nationalists. With that, Chiang Kai-shek seemed destined to be the next great ruler of China.

In the coming years, he built on the legacy of Sun Yat-sen, taking the iconic leader’s message in new directions that emphasized modern centralized control. In fact, Chiang’s politics were democratic or socialistic in name only. In reality, they were highly capitalistic and increasingly fascistic. His signature program, the so-called New Life Movement, called on the government to thoroughly “militarize the life of the people of the entire nation. It is to make them nourish courage and alertness, a capacity to endure hardship, and especially a habit and instinct for unified behavior. It is to make them willing to sacrifice for the nation at all times.” Along with these ideals came a military movement called the “Blueshirts,” cadets who emphasized strong military, strict discipline, and authoritarian control. The most attractive political examples for Chiang, especially in the wake of the Great Depression, were no longer Western democracy and constitutionalism. Authoritarian regimes seemed to him to be better responding to the crises of the day: Stalinist Russia, Mussolini’s Italy, Nazi Germany under the leadership of Adolf Hitler. The Blueshirts formed a domestic secret service, further widening the divide between nationalists and their perceived enemies on the left, foremost the Chinese Communist Party.

By the middle of the 1930s, it seemed like Chiang Kai-shek and his authoritarianism would be China’s future. Yet it was not to be. There were two principle reasons, one internal and one external, for Chiang’s ultimate failure: 1) internally, Chiang’s mismanagement of political and economic affairs provided room for the re-emergence of Chinese communism as a mass movement; 2) externally, the reason was the belligerence of neighboring Japan. Indeed, Chiang and the increasingly authoritarian Guomindang would have most likely weathered the internal storm, albeit violently, had it not been for the sudden and cataclysmic Japanese attack on China in 1937.

This page has paths:

This page references: