Dangers Faced by China during Chiang Kai-shek’s Rule


By Richard Baum, Ph.D., University of California, Los Angeles

With Chiang Kai-shek at the helm, the early 20th-century saw a rapid increase in China’s socio-political and military scenarios. China was not only facing threat from Japan, but the Chiang Kai-shek regime was also fighting the Communists in the Jiangxi Soviet Republic.

Image showing Japanese troops on Chinese territory.
By 1931, Manchuria was under the control of the Japanese. (Image:  Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

Japanese Occupation of Southern Manchuria

In 1928, a group of Japanese army officers assassinated the Manchurian warlord Zhang Zuolin by planting a bomb on his railroad car. This led to a series of events that resulted in the capture of the city of Mukden (now called Shenyang), in southern Manchuria by the Japanese army.

For reasons of his own, Chiang Kai-shek ordered the commander of his Northeast Army, General Zhang Xueliang, to retreat rather than fight with the advancing Japanese army. Meeting scant Chinese resistance, the Japanese pressed on, and by the end of 1931, all of Manchuria was under their control.

By then the seeds of a bitter conflict had been sown between General Zhang Xueliang and his commander-in-chief, Chiang Kai-shek. Zhang Xueliang was the son of the Manchurian warlord Zhang Zuolin, whom the Japanese had assassinated three years earlier. After his father’s death, Zhang had joined the Nationalist Army to fight against the Japanese. Hence, when Chiang gave him the order to retreat, in effect handing his Manchurian homeland over to the Japanese without a struggle, Zhang Xueliang was furious.

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A New Puppet State

Image showing Japanese plan for new city of Hsinking, Manchukuo.
After occupying the province of Manchuria, the Japanese created a new puppet state there named Manchukuo. (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

A few months after the Japanese army occupied Manchuria, Tokyo announced the creation of a new puppet state there, which they named ‘Manchukuo’ (meaning ‘Manchu country’).

To lend a semblance of legitimacy to this act of territorial aggression, the Japanese installed a native Manchurian as chief executive of Manchukuo. As their puppet ruler, the Japanese chose the 26-year-old Puyi, the last Manchu emperor.

In response to Japanese actions in Manchuria, the United States government introduced the so-called ‘Stimson Doctrine’, named after Herbert Hoover’s Secretary of State, Henry L. Stimson. The new doctrine called for preserving the Open Door in China and stated unequivocally that the United States would not recognize any territorial gains seized by force of arms.

Although it was a very bold statement of moral principle, the Stimson Doctrine was not followed up by any concrete American disciplinary sanctions against Japan. The doctrine thus lacked real strength.

In a similar fashion, the League of Nations, created by the victorious allies after World War I to protect world peace, also failed to enact meaningful economic or military sanctions against Japan’s aggression in Manchuria. In consequence, Japan’s militarists were neither deterred nor punished, with the result that they were further emboldened to commit further acts of aggression against China.

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The Red Army’s Tactics

A second source of concern for Chiang was the burgeoning revolutionary mass movement being orchestrated by Mao Zedong and Zhu De in their Jiangxi Soviet Republic.

Under massive assault by the Nationalist army, General Mao’s guerrilla fighters pulled back, giving ground willingly, with the Nationalists in all-out pursuit. Soon, the attacking Guomindang troops overextended their supply lines, outpacing their logistical support. At that point, the Red Army introduced the tactics of mobile warfare to confuse the enemy and throw them off balance.

Not only did the highly mobile Red Army seize the tactical initiative against a confused and overextended enemy that had no prior experience with guerrilla warfare, but the Communists also enjoyed the support of the local civilian population.

Because of their successful land reform techniques, and because of the Red Army’s Three-Eight Work Style, which mandated benevolent treatment of civilian non-combatants, the Communists had truly become ‘fish in water’. The water was the Jiangxi Soviet itself, within which friendly peasants housed Red Army fighters, fed them, and provided them with vital intelligence about enemy troop movements and concentrations.

The German Advisor General Hans von Seeckt

Image showing a photo of General Hans von Seeckt.
General Hans von Seeckt helped Chiang Kai-shek to fashion a new approach to eliminating the Communists. (Image: Sandau/Public domain)

Chiang threw almost half a million well-armed troops against 100,000, or so, lightly armed Communist defenders in Jiangxi.

However, a combination of superior guerrilla tactics and unanticipated external contingencies, including Japan’s 1931 invasion of Manchuria, made it possible for the Communists to repel a succession of Nationalist military offensives.

Exasperated by his failed military campaigns, Chiang, in 1933, brought in a German military adviser, General Hans von Seeckt, to fashion a new approach to eliminating the Communists. Under Seeckt’s guidance, the Nationalists planned their fifth encirclement campaign.

They first built a network of airfields and roads around the entire perimeter of the Jiangxi Soviet war zone. They then constructed a ring of brick blockhouses around the Communist base. These interconnected, multi-purpose blockhouses served as defensive fortifications, supply storehouses, field hospitals, and forward operations bases. Once the outer perimeter was secured, an effective economic blockade was imposed on the Communists.

The Nationalist forces would then move forward in limited, measured advances, pausing to consolidate their gains and to create a new ring of blockhouses inside the first one. As Chiang’s armies repeated this process several times, the Communists found themselves being squeezed into a smaller and smaller space at the center of their shrinking Soviet Republic.

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Split in the Communist Leadership

By mid-1934, the stresses of five successive Nationalist encirclement campaigns had engendered serious internal divisions within the Communist leadership. The most significant of these splits were between the survivors of the 1927 Autumn Harvest Uprisings, including Mao, Zhu De, and Zhou Enlai, and a group of late-arriving Chinese Communists who had been sent to the Jiangxi Soviet from Moscow in 1930, on Stalin’s orders.

Their instructions were to take control of the Soviet government from General Mao. Dubbed the ‘Twenty-Eight Bolsheviks’ because of their extended sojourn in Moscow after Chiang’s bloody Shanghai coup of 1927, these pro-Moscow latecomers viewed the Autumn Harvest veterans, and Mao in particular, with deep suspicion and hostility.

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The Red Army’s Long March

By the autumn of 1934, the Communists had seen their base area in Jiangxi shrink from 12,000 square miles to a little over 1,500. At that point, the Red Army faced a critical choice—either break out of the tightening Nationalist stranglehold or stay and die. On October 15, the Red Army executed a hastily planned, two-pronged escape. With 85,000 soldiers, 15,000 party and government officials, and only 35 women accompanying them, the evacuees managed to break through the Nationalist defense lines in two places, escaping toward the southwest.

Because of the physical risks and hardships involved, the vast majority of Communist women and children, including wives of Red Army soldiers, were left behind. Thus began the Red Army’s fabled Long March. Although it began as an urgent and rather chaotic retreat, by the time it ended some 15 months later, the Long March had been transmogrified in Chinese popular folklore from a desperate escape to a feat of legendary strategic brilliance and heroism.

Common Questions about the Dangers Faced by China during Chiang Kai-shek’s Rule

Q: What was the name of the puppet state created by Tokyo in Japanese-occupied Manchuria?

The puppet state created by Tokyo in Japanese-occupied Manchuria was named ‘Manchukuo’ (meaning ‘Manchu country’).

Q: Why did the United States introduced the ‘Stimson Doctrine’?

The ‘Stimson Doctrine’ called for preserving the Open Door in China and stated unequivocally that the United States would not recognize any territorial gains seized by force of arms.

Q: What was the Red Army’s Long March?

The Red Army’s Long March was a hastily planned, two-pronged escape to break through the Nationalist defense lines in two places, escaping toward the southwest.

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