For the past few years, Professor Rana Mitter, one of the co-editors of our China blog, has been engaged in a research project aiming to better understand the process and relevance of the Sino-Japanese War between 1937 and 1945. Recently, he published his main findings in a volume that discusses the social, political and economic repercussions of the Japanese invasion and the Chinese response. We sat down with him to discuss it in more detail.
OxOn China (OC): What is the most important thing we need to know about the war with Japan?
Rana Mitter (RM): What distinguishes the Sino-Japanese war is that it really provides a breakpoint for Chinese modernity. A whole variety of longstanding traditions, patterns of landholding, and economic structures, changed forever. The fact that large swathes of Chinese territory were invaded and occupied was enormously disruptive. Local elites, for example, found themselves refugees, supplanted by an alien power. The political powerbase changed very suddenly, paving the way for the Communist revolution.
OC: That is an interesting point: in what sense is the Communist victory in 1949 part of the war’s aftermath?
RM: It’s not news to say that the Communist revolution comes as a consequence of war. What is new in this book, however, is that I argue against the idea that the Communists won because they had a secret recipe for governance, and that their competition, the Guomindang or the collaborationist Wang Jingwei government were failures. The fact is that researchers have been looking at new sources, which demonstrate that the picture is more complex. I argue in the book that you get three different types of modernity, each with elements of binding the state closer to its people. The Nationalists create a modernity which is authoritarian, but which seeks a new international role and a strong element of social welfare. The former is exemplified by the fact that Chiang Kai-shek managed to negotiate the end of extraterritoriality (the application of foreign law on Chinese territory) with the allied powers. On the latter: the progressive occupation of large amounts of Chinese territory, including previous Nationalist powerbase resulted in a severe refugee crisis. This, in turn, brought a new impetus towards social welfare. The Collaborationists try to persuade the people that collaboration with Japan might even lead to greater prosperity. It is in this context that the Communist offer is developed, which is more complete in its reform agenda, more egalitarian and more radical. This did not come out of nowhere, but reacted against and competed in an area of different political possibilities.
OC: How did the war influence that competition for political legitimacy?
RM: During the war, there are several areas for legitimacy competition. One is the issue of sovereignty. A sense of national identity begins to flourish through the war. This identity is flawed but also spreads widely, and both the CCP and the GMD share the objective of achieving national sovereignty. The fact that the Republican government negotiated a permanent seat for itself among the victorious allies, as well as the end of extraterritoriality is a direct consequence of that. It does not win you a lot of friends in the CCP to say this, but it is the fact. Other real gains were made by the Nationalists. In terms of social welfare, as the relationship between state and citizens changed deeply. In the Thirties, people faced a choice between a corrupt and minimal Republican state and bands of wandering Communists, operating from rural bases, who lacked strong political power. By 1945, two competing models of government had emerged. Both of these demanded great contributions from the population for renewal and development, but in the case of the CCP, this came with the promise of a full-fledged social revolution in waiting.
OC: How does the war resonate today?
RM: The war has domestic and international implications, many of which are still felt today. At the international level, many difficulties with today’s political settlement in the Asia-Pacific are the direct consequences of loose strands remaining after 1945. In Europe, structures such as NATO and the precursors to the EU arose in order to prevent war. The post-war turmoil in Asia, including decolonization and the Chinese Civil War, prevented that sort of thing from happening, and no post-war comprehensive settlement was made. As such, all flashpoints from the disputes over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands to North Korea can be attributed to the inability of the global community to settle the crisis ending in 1945.
Inside China, many of the questions that are asked in wartime China are questions that are asked today: what does the state owe citizens and what do citizens owe the state? While there is no real prospect of war, despite the apparent desires of many angry youths in China, these questions remain urgent and unsolved. Debates over the welfare state and provision of public services, for example, are legacies of conversations that started in the Thirties and Forties, and that remain unresolved.
OC: Karl Marx once wrote that men make their own history, but not under self-selected circumstances. To what extent has the history of the Sino-Japanese war been shaped by the leading characters, Mao Zedong, Chiang Kai-shek, etc.?
RM: Let me throw another quote right back at you. Before setting off to join Wang Jingwei’s collaborationist regime, Zhou Fohai, his second in command, wrote a question in his diary: do heroes make circumstances, or do circumstances make heroes? Obviously, we must first ask whether Zhou is a hero or not, but it is quite necessary to see the interaction between characters and circumstances. Japan had no Hitler, for example. There was a variety of civilian and military interests that interacted in a toxic manner, which led in the end to Pearl Harbor. However, Tojo was not the charismatic, all-overwhelming character that Hitler was. China’s crisis in the Thirties comes from abstract forces, such as a desire for sovereignty, a social crisis, the difficulty of state-building, and so on. Nevertheless, China produces great and charismatic personalities. To a certain extent, for example, Chiang Kai-shek echoes Churchill by making it very clear early on that he will never surrender. This very commitment creates a very important turning point in the war. Suppose that China had surrendered in 1938, the lowest point of its crisis. Japan would have created a malleable puppet state on Chinese territory, and would be able to turn its view towards other territories, Burma, Indonesia, perhaps even India and Australia, much sooner and much more easily. In that sense, more credit should be attributed to Chiang Kai-shek as well as the Communists who fought the Japanese. We tend to discuss these things in extremes: for instance, the perception that Chiang Kai-shek was a corrupt failure. But how could such a complete failure maintain resistance and keep China going, on its own, for so long? Equally, in the light of recent reassessments of Mao, which blame him for the creation of a terror regime in the Communist base areas, we should not forget the fact that the Communists carried out important acts of resistance. A black and white view is not appropriate here; we are talking about Greek tragedy instead of melodrama.
OC: How did the war influence China’s economy?
RM: The Chinese economy had to be reshaped at great speed because of the sudden outbreak of war. It was a major undertaking to move an entire war economy 800 miles upriver to Chongqing. The wartime Chinese economy was on its uppers, there was a continuous shortage of essential supplies and tools. By the end, the only supply route was the dangerous cargo route over the Hump, across the Himalayas into India. The economy became crippled and inflation was rife, undermining Nationalist attempts towards stabilization. It is at this point that you see the emergence of socio-economic factors that remain of relevance after the war and into the Communist era: a drive for economic self-sufficiency, social welfare stimulated by the refugee crisis – the government needed to cope with 80 million refugees. This changed the nature of the State-society relationship. It also created a China that remained militarized in many of its elements. People thought of themselves, and were often organized as part of target-oriented campaigns, which are elements that remained present during the Communist period.
OC: Are there also military factors that remain present? Is there, for example, influence on the Korean War?
RM: That is an interesting area, and some people should perhaps look into it. Certainly, the Communist experience of guerrilla warfare strongly influences the Korean War. It may also have influenced decision making by people who took part in and staked their reputation on victory in the Sino-Japanese war, and who saw events in Korea as a challenge to the new regime. In terms of tactics, the training of the Red Army set the stage for generals such as Lin Biao and others, who would become politically important later on.
OC: Could matters have been otherwise? Would it have been possible for the Nationalists to continue to rule China after the war?
RM: Obviously, you never know in case of counterfactual history. However, my sense is more and more that, when you look at the shattered state in which China found itself, especially after operation Ichi-go (the large Japanese offensive in the second half of 1944 – red), it would have become very difficult for the Republican government to go on without the injection of huge amounts of American cash. A sort of Marshall plan, if you will, that would have enabled Nationalist China to recover. The Republic was utterly exhausted in 1945, in the first place because of having resisted Japan. Although Nationalist China had refused to surrender, the state had burned all its political fuel. You see similar things in the region with the French colonies, where the Indochina crises start soon after, and the British and the Dutch empires, which also start breaking apart. There is a huge power vacuum, into which Mao and the Communists stepped.
OC: Many thanks for speaking with us.
RM: My pleasure.
Rana Mitter is a Professor of the History and Politics of Modern China and a Fellow of St Cross College, Oxford. He is one of the editors of our series, OxOn China.
Dr Mitter recently discussed his book with The Economist, which you can watch here.
This post is part of OxOn China, a collaborative project between Politics in Spires and the Oxford China Centre, this blog provides academic analysis on the economic, political and cultural transformations taking place in China.