China’s New Vassal
How the War in Ukraine Turned Moscow Into Beijing’s Junior Partner
NOW that the war in China is nearing the end of its fourth year we have settled down to the habit of thinking of it as not only a stalemate but a permanent stalemate. We may be wrong. Forces already at work in Asia, and forces hitherto latent but capable of coming into operation now that China and Japan are more and more being left to themselves, may break the stalemate in the Far East before the struggle is over in Europe.
The degree to which China and Japan are now being forced to test, develop and improvise from their own resources fixes the main outlines of the present picture. The Chinese and the Japanese fought each other to a standstill after several years in which both were able to draw on outside munitions and resources -- the Japanese much more than the Chinese. Will the stalemate hold now that no outside Power can supply the finished munitions or war materials to enable either to force a decision in a few months? For the first time since 1937 no outside Power can do much more than urge the desirability of its own particular views or policies. Negative pressure can be applied. Decisive aid cannot be supplied.
For Japan this means an uneasy choice between using her accumulated but largely irreplaceable stocks in a prolonged war against China, or temporizing with China and proceeding to gamble her whole future in Southeastern Asia. A great deal, obviously, depends on China. Will she accept a compromise peace that would suit Germany, thereby enabling Japan to turn south against the Dutch East Indies and Singapore? Or will she split up in civil war between the Kuomintang and the Communists, which would incalculably increase the freedom of manœuvre of both Germany and Japan? Or will she endure indefinitely the stalemate, which would suit the present trend of Anglo-American policy? Or will she choose to find a way to break the stalemate on her own terms and primarily to her own advantage? These questions open up a range of possibilities that can best be understood if we first examine the strategic geography of China, her economic geography, her internal political tensions.
No conquest of the whole of China has ever succeeded without the conqueror having in his possession three strategic keys. This is as true of conquests by armies gathered within China as it is of invasions from beyond the Great Wall. The three keys are: the province of Shansi, the crossing of the Yellow River at T'ungkuan, and the Han River valley. As far as I know, American students of the war in China have failed to realize that after three and a half years of hostilities not one of these keys is held by Japan.
The three keys of strategic geography control China in the following ways:
The northern mountains of Shansi offer the only good "defense in depth" against an invasion of North China from Inner Mongolia, and by far the best base for a counter-attack against Inner Mongolia. The eastern mountains of Shansi dominate the North China plain, and are the only safe position from which either to defend or threaten that plain if Manchuria and Jehol are in hostile hands. The southern Shansi mountains flank the approaches to T'ungkuan, the second key of strategy. All of these mountains are held by Chinese forces, which are able to keep the Japanese garrisons in the central basin of Shansi under perpetual siege.
T'ungkuan stands at the great "elbow" where the Yellow River, after flowing almost straight from north to south, turns at right angles to the east. The crossing of the Yellow River at this point offers the only good passage between the major plain of North China and the inner basin of Shensi. Command of the T'ungkuan passage is absolutely necessary for the movement either of large bodies of troops or of economic transport on a large scale, if the deep hinterland of China is to be controlled. Only from Shensi can Szechwan, on the south, be invaded. The approaches are not easy, but they are beyond all comparison easier than an attack up the Yangtze gorges.
The Han River valley, from the southern mountains of Shensi to the Yangtze at Hankow, is the only way of turning the T'ungkuan position, as T'ungkuan is the only way of turning the Shansi position. The founder of the great Han dynasty won an empire by marching up this valley at the end of the third century B.C., while the Mongols turned the T'ungkuan position by marching down it in the thirteenth century. These comparisons are a sufficient commentary on the fact that major Japanese forces have failed in at least four determined attempts to advance up the Han valley in the past year.
Against the importance of these three keys must be set the impressive but still not decisive successes of the Japanese. South of the Great Wall, in the fertile plains astride the lower Yellow River and the lower Yangtze, they have penetrated and partly occupied ten Chinese provinces. Here they have both coastal control and communication by land between their main lines of invasion. They also hold footholds in the three southern provinces of Fukien, Kwangtung, and Kuangsi; but here their garrisons cannot communicate freely by land as well as by sea. Though they have nothing like full control, the Japanese have deeply penetrated an area which compares formidably with the area left to Free China. Chiang Kai-shek has full control of only the five provinces of Szechwan, Shensi, Kansu, Kweichow and Yunnan, together with almost all of Kwangsi and -- through the Eighth Route Army -- the commanding strategic positions in Shansi. In addition he has authority, but not direct control, over the border regions of Ninghsia (the western extension of Inner Mongolia), Sinkiang or Chinese Turkestan, and the three provinces into which Tibet is officially divided.
Japan also controls the four greatest cities of China, which in 1937 were the most prosperous ports and the centers of China's finance and nascent industry. These are Shanghai, Tientsin, Hankow and Canton, with a total urban population of about seven million. (Peking, with nearly a million inhabitants, is not so important either strategically or economically.) Moreover the provinces most affected by the Japanese invasion are notable for their natural fertility, high agricultural production and dense population. Chekiang and Kiangsu, on the Yangtze, have densities of 554 and 813 inhabitants to the square mile, and Shansi and Hopei in the Yellow River drainage area have densities of 183 and 583.[i]
China has a total population of very nearly 440 million. Leaving out of consideration Manchuria, Inner Mongolia and the extreme southern provinces in which Japan has only footholds, the Japanese have penetrated and partly occupied, in the Yangtze and Yellow River valleys, about one quarter of China's territory, with a population approaching 250 million. Putting it very conservatively, and allowing for 40 to 60 million people who have fled to Free China, the area directly invaded contains about half of the Chinese people. Japan does not control them all, for the wide guerilla areas must be taken into account. Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to underestimate the number of Chinese that Japan does control south of the Great Wall. In order to make due allowance for the magnitude of the problem faced by the Chinese in freeing their country, it would be best to work on the assumption that Japan has more control than the Chinese Government does over about 150 million people in China Proper. It is remarkable enough that China could suffer losses like these without being stunned. It is even more remarkable that Japan, supposedly a country of imperial stature, could win so much and still fall short of victory.
Japan's failure to make even a passable colonial conquest out of all the raw material of empire in the rich areas of China she has penetrated is only partly explained by the fact that she has been defeated in every attempt to grasp the three keys of strategy in Shansi, at the T'ungkuan crossing and in the Han valley. An important German criticism of Japan's military mistakes, obviously based on the opinions of the German military advisors withdrawn from China by Hitler in 1938, adds other details.[ii] Instead of striking at China once for all with really overwhelming forces, Japan attempted in the summer of 1937 to finesse a cheap conquest. Enough men were sent to China for a break-through, but not enough to round up and annihilate the Chinese armies, which time and again evaded encirclement. The consequences of the original mistake multiplied by geometrical progression. Each time that reinforcements were brought in, the problem had already grown beyond the proportions that could be handled by the total Japanese forces in the field. The Japanese now have at least a million men in China -- and they are enough only to maintain a stalemate. To double the number and attempt to break the stalemate would demand a prodigious effort. The men could be found -- even trained men; but to equip and maintain them on the scale of a huge campaign would take the last ounce of Japan's reserve strength. So desperate an effort Japan is not yet prepared to make.
Even so, a military analysis does not explain everything. To attribute the mistakes and failures of Japan entirely to a second-rate general staff or gross over-confidence is inadequate. Something else lay behind Japan's initial willingness to gamble on a quick, cheap conquest. Japan desperately needed success with the minimum loss of manpower and expenditure of money and material, because neither her wealth nor her industrial resources warranted a major war. Unconsciously, and perhaps to a certain extent consciously, the military experimentalists who gambled and won in Manchuria in 1931 and in Jehol in 1933 and in Inner Mongolia in 1935 had been living and planning and thinking in an atmosphere of taking chances and trusting to the luck of the Imperial Army.
When the analysis has been carried to this point it is easy to understand the interaction of economic and strategic geography. The part of China in which Japan holds areas of control and partial control is the part which has always yielded the largest revenues, because of its high agricultural development both in food crops and in technological crops like cotton, silk and soybeans. But Japan -- more nearly self-sufficient in food than in anything else -- did not need an agrarian empire. Even China's cotton and silk were not entirely satisfactory for Japan's needs, for technical reasons such as the unevenness of their quality.[iii] What Japan needed therefore was to get hold of China's crops as cheaply as possible in order to convert them into free exchange on the world market. With this money Japan hoped to buy, in other markets, the raw materials needed for her existing export and munitions industries. With the surplus, she could gradually improve and standardize the quality of Chinese cotton and silk and purchase machinery both to round out and diversify Japanese industry and to establish a subordinate colonial industry in Manchuria and China. Only in this way could the raw material resources and horsepower capacities of the "Manchukuo-China-Japan bloc" be diversified enough to give Japan anything like an "autarchic" empire.
Such a program needed time, stability in China, and a tranquil world market. It was essential to carry out a stage-by-stage development in such a manner that each stage would be profitable in itself and help to finance the next stage. This explains both why Japan is hampered as well as benefited by a world war concurrent with the China war, and why the guerillas in the part of China that Japan has penetrated but does not control are even more important economically than they are militarily. They keep agriculture down to a level which provides food for the farmers whom the guerillas organize, but not an exportable surplus for Japan. In spite of her net of garrisons Japan can neither draw a revenue of land tax and grain tax, like the conquerors of China in the past, nor set up a modern and profitable colonial economy of exchange between the raw materials of industry and the finished products of manufacture.
Invaded China and Free China must be studied in comparison, not in isolation. In parts of Szechwan, Yunnan and Shensi, Free China has an intensively developed irrigated agriculture. These areas provide the surplus of grain traditionally necessary to a strong Chinese government. Much greater areas, however, are eccentric to the traditional Chinese structure of heavy production per acre and close settlement per square mile, and permit only "extensive" or mixed or marginal farming, or grazing, or the exploitation of forests or minerals. Free China's mineral resources, though as yet only haphazardly worked, include tin, tungsten and at least a certain amount of oil, in addition to coal and iron in quantities much larger than are accessible to Japan in Invaded China.
Thus Japan, with a greater industrial capacity and a much larger force of skilled labor and trained technicians, has access only to that part of China with the highest agricultural potential and the lowest industrial potential, while China, which is critically short of skilled labor and technicians, holds by far the most important mineral and industrial reserves. When such conditions are part of the complex which in its military aspect is a stalemate, everything depends, in making comparisons, on whether it is assumed that the balance will be constant or that there are trends of change inherent in the balance. It need hardly be pointed out that a country like Japan, with a relatively high productive capacity but poor raw material resources, is extremely vulnerable to the dwindling of supplies for its industrial plant. On the other hand a country like Free China, with varied and ample raw materials, can always in time increase its inadequate industrial plant, even under the anxious conditions of a military stalemate.
It is important in this connection that the undeveloped areas of Free China, totalling hundreds of thousands of square miles, have always been underpopulated rather than overpopulated. Americans, who habitually think of all China within the Great Wall as overpopulated, are almost universally oblivious to this fact. Yet it is a key fact in the present situation. Refugees from Invaded China to Free China, estimated at from 40 to 60 million, are not burdening an overpopulated land but bringing needed labor to all kinds of latent opportunities. This is because the old China not only neglected mining and failed to develop industry, but avoided as far as possible any farming that could not be done with close cultivation and as much irrigation as possible. Failure to develop the thinly-peopled hinterland was mainly due to a strong social tradition with a fixed psychology of its own.
In this respect the present emergency is bringing about revolutionary changes. Though China is pitifully short of technically trained men, the ideas and possibilities of the Western world and the twentieth century have penetrated China much more deeply than actual machines and practices. When it is known that mining and manufacture are things that can be done, and that the traditional Chinese farming methods are not the only methods, men's minds and ambitions are stimulated. New ways of using land are especially potent in a time of invasion and emergency. They help to break up the old standards of land tenure and the rigid and often downright vicious landlord-tenant relationship which hampers the improvement of Chinese agricultural economy. Agricultural reforms, when the focus of attention is the changing of a social system established for centuries, are often resisted as politically subversive. The same reforms, when attention is focused on new kinds of profit, can be quite differently regarded -- especially when the opprobrium for shattering the old social system is largely directed against a foreign invader.
Strategic and economic geography lead to political geography. From the deep hinterland, guarded by the three strategic strongholds of Shansi, the T'ungkuan crossing and the Han valley, Free China can harass the Japanese and make it impossible for them either to exploit the old agricultural economy of Invaded China or to create a new colonial economy. Within Free China, at the same time, the Chinese can begin what the Japanese cannot accomplish: they can diversify and modernize their own economy, make machinery, teach new methods of production, and create the social and political organization indispensable for the maintenance of modern armies and efficient governments. This will not happen suddenly in a series of miracles. It will be slowed up by political quarrels, social conservatism, lack of primary equipment, and the fact that millions and millions of people are illiterate. Nevertheless a way out of the stalemate can be found in Free China and not in Invaded China, and this is bound to shape the future. Unskilled labor will be an especially potent factor. Labor, in the quantities in which it is available in China, can to a remarkable extent take the place not only of machinery but of capital. The Japanese cannot use Chinese forced labor efficiently, because this kind of labor has its own techniques of sabotage. The Chinese themselves can employ forced labor, however, because the usage is anciently accepted. They are a people who know how to coördinate human labor by the tens of thousands; they work well and smoothly at what they understand; and when their enthusiasm has been won, they work with a sustained devotion.
Finally, the China of today should not be divided simply into Free China and Invaded China. There is also a third category -- Marginal China. The geographical focus of this Marginal China is in the guerilla areas where the Japanese have penetrated without winning control. It has also an economic focus in the margin between the traditional agriculture of China and all the new kinds of economic activity; a military focus in the margin between the conscript soldier and the guerilla volunteer; and a political focus in the margin between the official Kuomintang or Nationalist Party and such minority parties and groups as the Communists, the Moslems of the Northwest, the Mongols of Inner Mongolia, the various guerilla formations, and others.
Indeed, the characteristics and issues of both Free China and Invaded China can be tested better by this scale of marginal values than in any other way. Economically, for instance, there is the question of the degree of China's dependence on the outside world. Which is the more important, the Burma Road or the Turkestan-Siberia Road? If both were cut, could China survive? If all values in China were fixed and unchanging, these would be decisive questions. Actually, they are questions whose urgency is qualified by time and the rate of change. Because change is at work, the ways in which China is dependent on communications with the outer world are variable, and so is the degree of dependence in every case. The Industrial Coöperatives now being formed in Free China are, for instance, intermediate between state enterprise and private enterprise, and at the same time marginal both to the old handicraft manufactures of China and to the former functions of foreign trade. They are being organized partly to provide employment for refugees, partly to set to work again machinery salvaged from cities abandoned to the Japanese, partly to decentralize industry because of the bombing danger, and partly to prevent Japan from "invading" China with goods the Chinese desperately need. As they spread, they alter not only the magnitude but the nature of many problems, by modifying the demand for the kinds of things that have to be imported over the Burma Road and the Turkestan Road.
Freedom from complete dependence on imported munitions and supplies tends to break down the stalemate between the Chinese and Japanese armies and increases the amount of offensive power which Free China can develop within her own territories. Strategically, again, the guerilla armies are marginal both to the regular armies of the National Government and to the Eighth Route Army of the Communists, which also has its nucleus of trained and disciplined veteran regulars. There is a close link here between military and political problems. At times the hostility toward the Communists of some at least of the Government armies is acute. This would be extremely dangerous for China as a whole if Free China were in fact sharply divided between a major area fully controlled by Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek and a minor area dominated by the Communists. Fortunately for China, the cleavage is not of this kind.
In the first place, the Kuomintang, though larger than any other party, is by no means a true majority party. It is a carefully recruited "élite" party. In the second place, it is a mistake to assume that the guerillas are all Communists. There are Communist organizers and even units at work among them, but in the main they are local peasants, fighting locally to defend their homes. Thus between the Kuomintang as the largest organized political party and the Communists as a much smaller organized party there spreads the vast majority of the Chinese people. Some of them have other organizations of different kinds -- regional, political, religious or national, like the Kuangsi Faction of Li Tsung-jen and Pai Tsung-hsi, the Moslems, the Mongols, and so on. But the most important thing is that hundreds of millions of people are not members or even direct adherents of any party, though they are united by the idea of national independence and a democratic republic.
Both Kuomintang and Communists are for this reason obliged to compete not so much in asserting unquestioned control over the majority that lies between them as in winning the confidence and support of as many people as they can. The necessity for winning assent and support and the inability to enforce obedience without assent are in themselves guarantees of essential democratic processes. It is in the light of this kind of competition that the recent attack of Chinese government forces on the Fourth Route Army should be judged. This army, unlike the Eighth Route Army, never had more than a minority of Communists. The attack on it, bringing back in a time of acute national danger the shocking idea that Chinese could still fight and kill Chinese, was probably the greatest mistake made on the Chinese side in the course of the war.
Nevertheless, the very nature of the incident shows that the situation may supply its own remedy. If the Communists continue to appeal for support by persuasion, while such reactionary generals as Ho Ying-chin simply demand unquestioning obedience and attempt to enforce it by shedding Chinese blood, there will undoubtedly be strong movements in favor of the Communists within the marginal groups between the Communists and the Kuomintang. It is therefore not impossible that Ho Ying-chin may yet turn out to be the military equivalent of Wang Chingwei the politician; for like Wang Ching-wei he was closely linked with the Japanese even before 1937. It should also be remembered that the climactic point in the career of Chiang Kai-shek was his release after the "Christmas kidnapping" at Sian in 1936. Demonstrations throughout China then showed that Chiang Kai-shek had won a popularity greater than ever before; but they were partly, also, demonstrations of approval and relief at the settling of a great crisis by negotiation and without civil war. It should be remembered also that at that time both Ho Ying-chin and Wang Ching-wei urged that Sian be bombed, even if it meant risking the life of the Generalissimo. Many Chinese disapproved of this fervor, since it was quite clear that if the Generalissimo had been harmed Ho Ying-chin and Wang Ching-wei would probably have divided between them military and political control of the Kuomintang.
In short, the marginal and unorganized majority is probably becoming as much a political determinant to China's future democracy as the highly organized Kuomintang and Communists. There are comparable marginal values in the international relations of China. Because China is a rapidly changing country, because the changes that are going on are potentially capable of breaking the military stalemate against Japan, and because the position of China in the world is of steadily growing importance, no country in the world can plan its policy toward China simply according to its own desires and needs. China's desires and needs, the trends of change within China, and those "marginal" values which modify the position and aims of the recognized political parties, must also be considered and accommodated. This is as true for the United States, lying across the Pacific, as it is for Russia, the only Great Power with a non-colonial land frontier on China within reach of major railway systems.
From this analysis conclusions emerge which are quite at variance with what one may call the "orthodox" view of China. Most Americans, like most Europeans, are still inclined to think of an "unchanging China." This idea involves the basic assumption that China is a static quantity, and that the dynamics of such change as takes place must be supplied by the policies of Powers interested in China. If this were true, even the "policies" of Chinese parties would be secondary and subordinate to the direction, pressure or suggestion of foreign sympathizers or backers. Indeed, it is probably not too much to say that most people outside of China really assume in their thinking-whether they are conscious of it or not -- that the Kuomintang "represents" the democracies of America and Great Britain, while the Communists "represent" the Russian Communists, and Wang Ching-wei and the other puppets "represent" the Japanese. If this were true, it would again follow that the future of China depends on which -- the democracies, the Communists, or the Fascist Axis -- backs its "representatives" most effectively.
But are these assumptions necessarily true? Given the indisputable changes that are actually going on in China, and the still greater potential changes that can be foreseen, it would seem that the "orthodox" view and its implications are much too rigid. What of "marginal" China? Its geographical focus includes thousands of square miles and millions of people in the guerilla areas where none of the supposed "representatives" are definitely ascendant -- neither the Kuomintang nor the Communists, and certainly not the Japanese invaders and their puppet régimes. Here changes are taking place which are unmistakably Chinese in character -- mutations of the "unchanging China," influenced but certainly not controlled by the various contestants. What is taking place in the focal guerilla areas radiates its own influences far into the foreland actually controlled by the Japanese as well as into the hinterlands of actual Kuomintang and Communist (Eighth Route Army) control. The fringes of "marginal" China are immeasurable.
Who is to win them? Not to conquer and assert control of them, at a time when all foreign intervention is increasingly limited, but to win them?
Probably not the Japanese, for in recent years they have shown that their political inflexibility is -- from the point of view of their own interests -- appalling. As between the great democracies and Russia, however, there is a possibility which most Europeans and Americans would have considered absurd a few years ago, though there is evidence that the Russians have been aware of it ever since the days of Sun Yat-sen. The foreign Power whose interests will in the end win out will be the one which is most ready to identify its interests primarily, not with those of its own supposed "representatives" in China, but with those of changing China as a whole. The only symbol of this changing China which has vitality and a survival value is the United Front. It represents the people as a whole more than it represents a compromise between organized forces. To give moral and material support to any one of its component parties would split China -- which is the hope of both Germany and Japan. Only by supporting the United Front as such -- whether the support comes from Russia or from the democracies or both -- can Japan be defeated and China kept whole and independent.
[i] Warren H. Chen, "An Estimate of the Population of China," XIXe Session de l'Institut International de Statistique, Tokio, 1930, Shanghai, 1930.
[ii] See Wolf Schenke, "Vast Area as an Instrument of War," Amerasia, January 1939. (Originally published as "Raum als Waffe," Zeitschrift für Geopolitik, September, 1938.)
[iii] North China cotton is rough in fiber and short in staple.