Review: Compelling narrative about Chiang, Mao, birth of modern China

Ruling a Quarter of Mankind is political science professor Paul Tai’s comparative analysis of the personalities of Chiang Kai-Shek and Mao Zedong — two most important figures in China’s modern history — based on meticulous research.

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Tai drew not just from western sources, but from more than twice as many Chinese sources from both sides of the Taiwan straits. He also laboriously reviewed Chiang’s voluminous diaries covering nearly every day of his life for 55 years. The end result is a highly readable narrative.

The book is not just about comparing the leadership qualities of Chiang, who took overall control of a fragmented and virtually disintegrated China and united it to resist the invasion of Japan’s imperial troops, and Mao, who seized control of a consolidated China from Chiang after WWII.

Woven into Tai’s story are numerous facts and anecdotes involving other major figures, some from inside China and some from the global arena who played critical roles in the struggle between Chiang’s KMT and Mao’s CCP.

Written in elegant yet gentlemanly non polemic style, Tai’s book is one of those rare scholarly treatises that is easy to read and fascinating for anyone interested in understanding how today’s China came to be and the key roles played by Chiang and Mao. Because he drew heavily from Chinese sources, Tai’s book presents a more complete presentation of the birth of modern China than heretofore available from western sources.

Chiang, being five years older than Mao, began his rise to power earlier, first being appointed the head of the Whampoa Military Academy, China’s first West Point-like institution. Many of the Academy graduates trained by Chiang became the core team of officers under his command later.

From Guangzhou, Chiang proposed and led the Northern Expeditionary force with a modest sized force to unify a country riven with warlords. En route to Beijing, at the time the nominal capital of China, he defeated regional warlords having forces much larger than his and convinced others to join his command rather than to oppose him. His success amazed the nation and by late 1920s, Chiang secured his position as a national leader.

Chiang, the unifying force

His indispensable role as one capable of leading the nation against Japanese aggression was evident from the aftermath of the Xian Incident in 1936. He was held captive by the two generals under his command that rebelled against him. The two generals invited Mao’s CCP to the confab in order to jointly persuade Chiang to stop fighting each other and to unitedly fight the Japanese. Even Mao realized that Chiang was the only national leader capable of uniting all the Chinese factions against the invading Japanese.

Chiang’s strategy with Japan was to “trade space for time” with measured retreat and force the Japanese troops to expend blood and resources as they occupy increasing portion of China and as they move to the interior from northeast to southwest. After Pearl Harbor drew the US into the war, Chiang’s strategy was the obvious. American forces needed China to tie down the Japanese forces while the GI’s fought across the Pacific.

Chiang’s greatest contribution to modern China was to become Franklin Roosevelt’s trusted wartime ally. Roosevelt overcame Churchill’s disdain for Chiang and insisted on including Chiang at the Cairo conference and treating China as a great power thereby earning it a permanent seat at the UN Security Council after WWII. From the author’s point of view, China was a country in total disarray before the war, and it regained its sovereignty after the war because of Chiang’s leadership.

Chiang’s failings caused his “loss” of China. First, he valued loyalty over competence and ability. One victim of his bias was General Sun Li-jen, who was trained at VMI in the US and not at Whampoa. In Burma, Sun saved the fleeing British forces from the pursuing Japanese troops and became Stillwell’s favorite KMT general. Once he followed the KMT retreat to Taiwan, his payback was house arrest because Chiang feared Sun as America’s designated leader to replace him.

General Xue Yue was another case. He was known as the defender of Changsha and the only KMT general to consistently check and defeat Japanese advances. Claire Chennault was a sworn brother and called Xue the “Patton of Asia.” After following Chiang to Taiwan in 1949, he lived to a ripe old age of 101 in “leisure” and was only given honorific types of postings. He was Chiang’s student at Whampoa but fell out of the inner circle when he vocally supported national unity to fight the Japanese after the Xian Incident.

During the civil war that ensued after WWII, KMT generals trusted by Chiang got preferential treatment and the troops suffered from jealousy and poor coordination among their commanders. This was a critical flaw that led to their rapid disintegration on the battlefield.

Chiang’s second failing was his lack of comprehension and appreciation of the importance of financial discipline. He did not care about amassing money to his personal account but regarded the printing press of the central bank as his to use freely. He would send bundles of cash along with arms to sway warlords to his side. He also sent cash awards to his line officers to ensure their loyalty.

Tai observed, “He (Chiang) considered his under-the-table monetary operations entirely legitimate and necessarily secretive. Such perception of the fusion of power and money is perhaps one factor accountable for the widely known corruption in his regime.”

Post WWII, keeping Chiang’s government afloat depended on keeping the printing presses running leading to runaway inflation. Coupled with his inconsistency in dealing with corruption, the outcome was disastrous. Execution with a bullet in the head was levied on lower rank and file but he was more lenient with senior officials in his inner circle who committed more egregious offenses. The uneven treatment led to the widespread belief that corruption was acceptable. Rampant inflation mixed with endemic culture of corruption accelerated his loss of power and hastened his retreat to Taiwan.

The author pointed out that Chiang learned his bitter lesson and once he settled down in Taiwan, he entrusted the running of the economy to technocrats and experts and the result was a long booming economy that put Taiwan in the ranks of the four little tigers second only to Japan. Tai suggested that Beijing’s policy makers might have benefited by following Taiwan’s experience. I think that might be a bit of stretch. (When Beijing began its economic reform under Deng Xiaoping, its officials held many exchanges and survey visits with Japan and Singapore to learn from their practices. Official exchanges with Taiwan came much later.)

Portrait of Mao not so sympathetic

Arguably, Tai’s greater familiarity of Chiang’s life from his academic studies and his careful reading of Chiang’s diary enabled him to form a more sympathetic portrait of Chiang. Despite his intention to be impartial and objective, Tai was not as familiar with Mao’s life. He relied heavily on the words of Li Zhisui, Mao’s longtime personal physician, and on the biography by Chang and Halliday. Both sources were quite critical of Mao. Inevitably, I think, his portrait of Mao was not as sympathetic.

Nevertheless, the consequences of Mao’s mistakes were colossal. Like Chiang, Mao was also illiterate in science and economics, but his ignorance did not keep him from making policies with disastrous outcomes. His campaign of backyard furnaces that consumed pots and pans made no sense, put the economy on negative growth and led to a famine that killed tens of millions.

Mao’s Great Cultural Revolution was designed to keep him in power but denied an entire young generation of proper education, and disrupted the functioning of the government and the national economy. His lack of respect for learning was particularly ironic and appalling. He actually thought the uneducated ruling class of workers, peasants and soldiers can take over and run the country.

His biggest mistake in foreign policy was to not object to Stalin’s directive to support North Korea’s invasion of South Korea. Mao gave up on his own plan to invade Taiwan at a time when momentum was all on his side and the US had given up on Chiang and would not have interfered with the PLA assault on Taiwan. By sending Chinese volunteers across the border and fighting the American-led troops, Mao created the stalemate that still stands today, i.e., a divided Korean peninsula and a divided China.

Mao’s place in history can be attributed to his brilliance as a military strategist, in particular, the practice of guerrilla warfare. He effectively dodged the superior forces of the KMT until after the Xian Incident when the two parties agreed to unitedly fight the Japanese. After WWII, his PLA again overcame the numerically superior force and better weaponry with guerrilla-based tactics to systematically cut the KMT forces to pieces. (Tai had a fascinating section describing Mao’s success in embedding his secret agents in Chiang’s command structure. Mao knew about a particular plan of surprise attack on his home base three days before Chiang’s commanders of the forward elements were given the plan.)

After his PLA consolidated the takeover of the mainland, Mao declared on Oct. 1, 1949 that China had stood up. This was a major psychological milestone for the people of China after a hundred years of humiliation in the hands of the western power. For the next quarter of a century until his death, Mao worked on strengthening China and boosting the national pride of its people. In 1964 despite the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution underway, China became a nuclear power by detonating its own atomic bomb.

In 1972, at Mao’s invitation, Nixon went to China as the first step to normalizing relations between the two countries. Nixon saw that admitting the nation of a quarter of mankind to the community of nations was necessary and inevitable. Mao too saw that Nixon needed help to extricate the Americans from the Vietnam quagmire and he represented an opportunity to strike a bargain. Out of the visit came the Shanghai Communiqué that must be considered an extraordinary document in the chronicles of world diplomacy. Indeed to this day, every US president refers to the Shanghai Communiqué as the tie that binds the two nations.

The author concluded that the two leaders were more similar than different. Mao was a visionary who saw China’s eventual place on the world stage. Chiang did not, perhaps because he had to focus on fighting for his country’s survival against Japan. At the end of WWII, Chiang strived hard on regaining China’s sovereignty. Mao completed the tasks that Chiang had left incomplete. Both were ruthless in seizing and keeping control. Both wanted a strong, unified China.

Professor Tai’s study on Chiang and Mao, the subtitle of his book, is an excellent starting point for anyone wanting to understand today’s China. His treasure trove of bibliographic references will enable anyone to explore further any aspect of the early days of China as a republic.

Dr. George Koo recently retired from a global advisory services firm where he advised clients on their China strategies and business operations. Educated at MIT, Stevens Institute and Santa Clara University, he is the founder and former managing director of International Strategic Alliances. He is a member of the Committee of 100, and a director of New America Media.

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