I haven’t blogged in a long time, but since Google+ doesn’t seem to have too wide an audience, maybe I’ll write more stuff here.

I went to Taiwan a few weeks ago and was surprised, once again, how un-Chinese it is in so many ways.  I’ve been reading some more stuff about Asia and politics in general (recommend “The Dictator’s Handbook”, if you have a chance) and started thinking more about the crazy and often times illogical approach the US has taken towards China, and specifically the Republic of China (ROC).  I wanted to lay out the history as I see it.  I’ll do it in 3 posts, 1 about the mainland days of the ROC, 1 for Taiwan days of the ROC, and 1 for recommendations on how both the US and Taiwan can improve their relations.  Yes, I’m a complete nerd.

Just to clarify, here are the main parties:

  • US, or America which I use interchangeably.  Apparently that makes some people angry. Oh well
  • Republic of China (ROC) , the name of “China” from 1911 until the 1970s.  During the early years of this period, the country was run by a single political party called the KMT (Kuomintang) or Nationalist Party.  In 1950 they lost a civil war against the Communist Party and 2 million of them fled to the island of Taiwan.  They set up a government there independent of the mainland.  I will use ROC and Taiwan interchangeably after 1950.  Some people like to think of Taiwan as only a province in the greater Republic of China (which includes the Communist-occupied mainland), but in reality, the ROC government administers Taiwan only (and a few outlying islands).
  • People’s Republic of China (PRC), the name of “China” from the 1970s to today.  The Communist party won a civil war against the Nationalist Party in 1950 and took full control of the mainland, what we think of today as China.  The PRC claims that Taiwan is part of their country, but in actuality the Communist Party has never administered the territory.  For all intents and purposes, it’s a different country from Taiwan.  I will use China and PRC interchangeably after 1950.
  • Hong Kong (HK), former British colony until 1997, now part of the PRC, although they retain their own currency and passports/immigration system
  • Macau, former Portuguese colony until 1999, now part of PRC, though like Hong Kong has a different political system from the mainland, and issues its own currency and passports.

OK, now for a facetious outline of the weird relationship between the ROC and the US.

Part 1: Mainland Days

1911: The Qing Dynasty is overthrown by mistake.  A bomb went off accidentally in a rebel workshop, the emperor’s authorities went to investigate, and boom, the revolution begins. The man who had been trying to push China towards revolution and a modern state, Sun-yat Sen, was in the US.  Sun, a Christian doctor from Guangdong province, who had spent time studying in Hawaii and Japan, went back to China to try and steer the revolution along his path.

US reaction at this time?  Unenthusiastic.  A few decades before, the empress of China supported an anti-foreigner movement that led to a bunch of Americans living in China getting killed.  Since Dr. Sun spoke out often about cancelling unfair treaties imposed on China by foreign powers, there was a good chance that the US could lose out with Sun in charge.  The US and Europe had mostly subdued the Qing Dynasty officials, so they preferred to deal with them than the new guy.

Sun Yat-sen was unable to get any money or support from the US or Europe, so he made friends with the Soviet Union.  The Soviets helped him reorganize the Kuomintang along the lines of the Communist Party of the USSR, and gave him money and weaponry.

1911-1928: Warlords period.  After the dynasty fell apart, the provinces broke into more or less individual kingdoms.  Sun’s power base was in the south, in Guangdong province, but it was only one province among many.

The warlord that eventually took control of Beijing, Yuan Shikai, seized the presidency from Sun Yat-sen, then declared himself new emperor of China.  US reaction?  Sounds good! They recognized Yuan as the leader of China, until he died in 1916.  After that, more warlords fought and seized Beijing, and the US recognized the ruler of Beijing as the ruler of China.  This time also known as the Beiyang Government.

With no support from the US or Europe, Sun continued to get money from the USSR.  This led to Sun essentially giving modern day Mongolia to the USSR.  Previously it had been a part of China.

1928: Finally the arguing slows down a bit.  A general named Chiang Kai-shek, an old protege of Sun Yat-sen, successfully leads his forces from Guangdong province and seizes most of China in the Northern Expedition.  Chiang changes the capital from Beijing to Nanjing in central China, and the international community recognizes this as the new legitimate government of the Republic of China.

US reaction at this time? Still unenthusiastic.  Chiang was still taking money from Soviets, but who could blame him? It’s not like the US was doing him any favors.  At the same time, the US was doing slightly better than Europe in one key area: international education.  After the Boxer Rebellion mentioned above, China was forced into paying indemnities to all the countries whose citizens were killed in the violence.  Europe + Japan pocketed the cash.  The US took a different approach and used the money to fund scholarships for Chinese citizens.  So a lot of Chinese got to study at US universities at this time, which helped build ties.  One of these study abroad students, Soong May-ling, graduated from Wesleyan University and later married Chiang Kai-shek, becoming China’s First Lady.

1928-1937: Called the “Nanjing Decade”.  Things were actually going pretty well.  China was developing, and the country was dealing with foreigners on an equal basis for the first time in decades.  It was probably the most open time in modern Chinese history (see Frank Dikotter’s “The Age of Openness”).  Arts and sciences flourished.  Thousands of foreign businesspeople, entertainers, and missionaries were living and working in Shanghai and other cities

1937: Marco Polo Bridge Incident.  OK, so things weren’t going terribly well.  In 1931, Japan faked an international incident that allowed them to occupy a huge part of northeast China, and created a puppet country called “Manchukuo”.  This obviously irritated China, but because Japan was so much stronger economically and militarily, there wasn’t much they could do.  In 1937 the situation finally broke out into all out war at a location called Marco Polo Bridge.  Japan invaded in full force and eventually moved to occupy Beijing and Shanghai.

US reaction at the time?  In 1937, China finally gets a sympathetic response.  After the land grab of 1931, the all out war effort in 1937 (which eventually led to the Nanjing Massacre in the same year), the US finally started to turn away from major trade partner Japan, and became more sympathetic to the Chinese cause.  The US and Europe began loaning money and material to the Chinese army.  The presidential election of 1932, in which Franklin D Roosevelt won, also helped.  FDR was strongly anti-imperialist, so the imperial actions of Japan were appalling.  The US reduced trade with Japan, but did not cut oil supplies until 1941, after Japan invaded Vietnam.  This was considered an extremely aggressive act, since Japan had no oil to speak of, and it’s industry would collapse without it.  Of course, after cutting the oil supply, Japan promptly declared war on the US via the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941.

1941: The US enters World War 2.  Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, and simultaneously invaded the Philippines, then a US colony.

US and China relations at the time?  Suddenly they became best friends.

The US gave lots of money and weaponry to the Chinese army, and based an Army Air Force unit out of Kunming, Yunnan province.  The “Flying Tigers” flew raids against Japanese held targets, since the Chinese had no air force to speak of.

Still, it wasn’t perfect.  There were at least four major irritants to Sino-US war cooperation.

  1. The US’s European allies, specifically the UK and Free France, were still very strongly pro-imperialist powers.  This meant they were not so enthusiastic about helping the Chinese become very strong, for fear that a strong post-war China might exert influence on their colonial holdings.  British Hong Kong, Burma, and French Indochina (Vietnam) were thought to be at risk.  Of course they didn’t want Japan occupying their colonial holdings either.  The plan just seems to have been to keep all of Asia weak and pliable.  Of course that plan didn’t work out, as the post-war history shows.
  2. Another irritant was corruption in the KMT.  Though Chiang Kai-shek was not particularly corrupt, a lot of advisers and family members were.  The US and Europe were hesitant giving money that would end up in Swiss bank accounts instead of being used to defend the country.  To be sure, there were also Chinese generals and officials who could be bought off by the Japanese.  Why risk giving weapons and money to a general who might defect the second the Japanese arrive?  Then those guns would be turned against the people who made them.
  3. Many leftists in the US and Europe were sympathetic to the Chinese Communist Party, who they saw as an un-corruptable counterexample to the KMT.  They wanted to give weapons and money to the CCP instead, seeing them as a more reliable ally against Japan.  The KMT hated the CCP, and wanted to exterminate them as soon as possible.  The CCP held similar feelings towards the KMT, although they pretended not to throughout the war.  In the end, a lot of money and supplies were delivered to the CCP, despite the KMT’s objections.  For the most part, the CCP held on to these supplies and didn’t fight Japan at all.  They later used them to attack and destroy the KMT.  The KMT didn’t have this luxury – it was either “fight Japan NOW” or they wouldn’t receive any supplies.  The CCP could claim weakness and hide in the mountains, which is what they did.  One of the KMT’s biggest problems was claiming the role of head of the  “national army”.  The CCP’s armed wing never claimed to be the national army, so it didn’t really have much of a responsibility to defend the nation.  It was a serious catch 22 that later came back to haunt the KMT.
  4. Joseph Stillwell was an American army officer who got along terribly with Chiang Kai-shek.  He was in charge of dispersing American supplies to the Chinese, yet he would withhold them unless Chiang would agree to his often draconian terms.  Stillwell wanted sole control of the entire 3 million-man Chinese army.  Chiang, of course, wouldn’t relinquish control.  Stillwell eventually got fired because of his poor relationship with Chiang.  His actions probably led to some reduced corruption among the KMT (since he wouldn’t give away the goodies as easily as Chiang), but it also probably led to lives being lost and directly hurt the war effort.

So the relationship between the US and China was often tumultuous.  Chiang’s wife Soong May-ling, frequently made trips to US Congress to ask for additional aid.  Occasionally she was successful, but much of Congress agreed with Stillwell’s assessment that the KMT was still too corrupt to be fully trusted.  Chiang often bent over backwards to please his European allies as well, sending his best equipped, best trained division to fight the Japanese in Burma, which was a British colony.  He did this even when the rest of his country was being overrun by Japanese troops, but he hoped it would improve his standing among the Allied forces.  Chiang himself was a huge admirer of FDR and would write letters flowing with praise.  Had FDR been unconstrained by figures like Stillwell, US Congress, Communist-sympathizing Americans, and his European allies, the KMT war effort may have received a lot more support, and could have been much more effective.  Obviously this wouldn’t solve all the problems with KMT corruption, but I believe if FDR and Chiang had more freedom to negotiate directly, the KMT probably could have won the subsequent civil war.

1945: World War 2 ends in the Pacific.  After the US used atomic weapons against Japan, they surrendered.  But what about China? To put it simply, it was a mess.  There were probably something like 1 million Japanese soldiers still in China.  The national army was weak, and corruption was rife throughout the KMT.  Many cities lay in ruins (Changsha was destroyed at least twice).  In the midst of this, the CCP had supplies and high morale.  At the urging of the Soviet Union, they began to expand their territory.  Soviet transports helped move CCP troops to northeastern China, where they occupied the industrial heartland of Manchukuo.  By this time, the US had fully realized the Cold War with the USSR was inevitable.  They panicked, and moved several of Chiang’s best divisions to Beijing near the former Manchukuo border, to prevent the CCP from taking over too much land and wealth.  The US made several critical errors at this stage that led to the CCP, and the Soviet Union, to getting the upper hand.

1) The US was unwilling or unable to station troops in China to defend key areas.  As a result, the very weak KMT was forced to use surrendered Japanese soldiers to help control garrisons and defend against the CCP.  The Japanese, already very anti-communist, were willing to do this, but to most Chinese it looked like a huge betrayal.  The mortal enemy was now colluding with the KMT to control China.  The CCP could very easily point to this and say the KMT was so power hungry, they were willing to let Japanese occupation continue.

2) The US was unwilling or unable to continue funding the KMT.  The KMT was extremely corrupt, and many US officials thought it was only a matter of time before they would crumble.  So while the KMT armed forces had few supplies, the USSR continued to give the CCP lots of supplies, training, and money.  This allowed the CCP to win the support of the people in their base areas.  The KMT forces were poor and sometimes resorted to looting villages to get by.  So obviously the KMT began to look like more of a burden, while the CCP came with money, disciplined troops, and promises for reforming the economy.  The fact that there was genuine communist sympathies in the US and Europe also aided the CCP in gaining international support, or at least stealing the spotlight from the KMT.

3) The US was unable or unwilling to confront the Soviets regarding their interference in Chinese affairs.  The US had an agreement with the Soviet Union, that after the fall of Germany, the Soviets would wait 3 months then enter the war against Japan.  This took the form of invasion of Manchukuo in northeast China.  The Soviets were supposed to leave once the war had ended, but of course it didn’t turn out that way.  And why would they leave?  They had allies in the CCP who welcomed their arrival. They also looked at US-occupied Japan and figured that the USSR should also gain some territory in this arrangement.  The major question here is “who agreed to this idea and why?”  Many would agree that the atomic bombs were responsible for the Japanese surrender.  If that was the case, then why bother with a Manchukuo invasion at all?  Seems like an unnecessary waste of human lives.  Chiang Kai-shek must have certainly seen this coming also.  Why would he want to exchange one occupier for another?  Let alone an occupier that was directly allied with the KMT’s mortal foe?  Perhaps no one knew that the atomic bomb would be effective on coaxing Japan to surrender, so they needed to have a backup plan.  The Soviet invasion of Manchukuo was probably the single most significant event that led to the CCP taking power and KMT losing the civil war.

1945-1950: The Chinese Civil War.  Hostilities broke out almost immediately upon the war’s conclusion.  The CCP had a direct line to the Soviet Union where they could get supplies.  The US and European attitude towards the KMT was that of frustration.  They were happy the war was over and not ready to get involved in yet another foreign conflict.  The USSR did not have this same fatigue, and supported the CCP wholeheartedly.

At the same time, the Chinese people themselves were very tired of war.  They knew the KMT was corrupt, and thought the CCP could fix the economy and bring stability to the country.  The CCP could also afford to be ruthless.  The USSR wouldn’t stop funding the CCP if they burned a few villages or killed civilians.  The CCP in fact did kill over 100,000 civilians in a single siege at the city of Changchun.  Yet if the KMT was caught doing this, US public opinion would push the US Congress to cut funding.

The Communists’ ideas were probably more attractive to the peasantry, to be sure.  But I believe the key factor here was the availability of guns and money to the CCP, in a way that the KMT did not have.  Once the CCP gained control of the industrial heartland in Manchukuo, they could buy off KMT officers and soldiers.  If the soldiers wouldn’t defect, they could be as ruthless as they needed to be.  Such is the benefit of being an insurgent rather than a national army.

So the war-weary US and Europe withdrew support from the KMT.  The CCP took village after village, and in 5 years’ time had seized the whole nation.  In 1950, Mao Zedong proclaimed the founding of the People’s Republic of China, with Beijing as its capital.  The USSR and its allies promptly recognized this government as the sovereign government of “China”.  The US and its allies continued to call the KMT the legitimate government of China, until well into the 1970s.

The defeated KMT, with 2 million supporters, fled to Taiwan, and island off the coast of mainland China.  Once there KMT officials killed tens of thousands of suspected communists in a movement known as the White Terror.  With Taipei as its capital, the Republic of China maintained that it was temporarily in Taiwan while awaiting plans to invade the mainland.  Of course, this invasion never came to pass, and the Republic of China is in Taiwan and Taiwan alone to this day.

Next post I’ll talk about the life of Chiang Kai-shek and the KMT in Taiwan, and how the US’s back-and-forth policy gets even more schizophrenic.