The Soviet Union and the Chinese Civil War

When we look at how historians treat the history of the Chinese Republic, we run up against a basic inconsistency. The historical record, including the Soviet and Comintern archives, tell us that from the foundation of the Chinese Communist Party through the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, the Chinese communists did nothing without Moscow’s explicit approval. But when we get to the final communist victory, received wisdom seems otherwise. We are told that the communists won because of the corruption of the Kuomintang (KMT) and the superior morality of the communists which meant that people laid down their weapons and welcomed the inevitable wheel of history as it rolled over them. It was a purely indigenous Chinese thing and the evil Russians had nothing to do with it.

This view of history doesn’t stand up to close examination. Soviet sources demonstrate that the Chinese communist victory, far from having nothing to do with the Russians, actually had everything to do with the Russians, with some negative American assistance.

Let’s briefly recap on the relations between the KMT and the communists. After the great break of 1927, the communists retreated, first to the mountains and then, after the Long March of 1934-35, to north-west China. The Xi’an Incident of December 1936, where Chiang Kai-shek was released from captivity only on the agreement that he stop fighting the communists, heralded the start of the second united front between the KMT and the communists. The KMT and Red armies were united under the command of Chiang Kai-shek. The Red Army was reorganised into the New Fourth Army and the Eighth Route Army. There were some examples of co-operation, albeit with little success, against the Japanese. In September 1937, Lin Biao’s communist Eighth Route Army fought side by side with Yan Xishan’s KMT troops against Japanese and Mongol forces in the battle of Taiyuan. Communist and KMT troops also fought side by side in the 1937 Central China campaign known as the Battle of Wuhan.

But co-operation and lines of command were fuzzy and grudging. Both sides kept contending for territory in the areas not under Japanese control. In particular, the communists tried to gain control of guerrilla forces fighting behind Japanese lines. If a guerrilla band refused to switch allegiances, the communists would declare them to be collaborationists and attack them. For example, the Red Army attacked and wiped out a brigade of Chinese militia in Hebei in June 1939.

Chiang Kai-shek continually ordered the comm­unists to abandon positions they had taken from the KMT. Particular problems arose in Henan, Jiangsu and Anhui provinces in East China where, in 1939 and 1940, communists attacked KMT forces. In December 1940, Chiang Kai-shek ordered the communist New Fourth Army to evacuate Jiangsu and Anhui provinces towards the north of the old bed of the Yellow River. The communists rejected this, only agreeing to move to north of the Yangtze.

Chiang decided to resolve the problem of the New Fourth Army in a more direct way. On January 4, 1941, a 9000-strong force of the New Fourth Army set out to cross the Yangtze. On January 5, 80,000 KMT troops ambushed and attacked the New Fourth Army at Maolin Town, Anhui Province, inflicting heavy losses. This battle, known as the New Fourth Army Incident, signalled the effective end of co-operation between the KMT and the communists.

Stalin had a complicated attitude to the Chinese communists and their strategy. During the Second World War, Stalin’s interest was to avoid fighting on two fronts, so he had to avoid war with Japan until Germany had been defeated. His interests were also served by having the strongest possible Chinese army fighting the Japanese and keeping them in check. Japan had always had designs on the Soviet Far East, and just keeping the minimum of Russian and Mongol forces on alert in the East detracted from Russian strength in the West. Stalin thought the best chance of keeping the Japanese at bay lay with Chiang Kai-shek. Chinese communist adventurism worried him. He wanted to keep Chiang onside. He also recognised that the Americans had certain interests in China and for the moment they were his allies. Added to this was the great difficulty of supplying Chinese communist forces over land. Soviet specialists embedded with Chinese communist forces after 1945 commented on how poorly equipped they were, and how poor their morale was.

The American support for the KMT was equally confused. There had always been a strain of missionary interest in China which tended to colour thinking. Roosevelt’s Delano ancestors had been prominent in the China trade. Madame Chiang Kai-shek’s triumphant tour of America during the war had been a sensation and had provoked widespread support for the Chinese cause.

But within the American administration there were contrary winds. General Joseph Stilwell, “Vinegar Joe”, who led the US and Chinese forces in the China theatre during the early part of the war, had scant regard for either the fighting ability of Chinese forces or for Chiang Kai-shek, who he believed to be corrupt and incompetent. Stilwell called Chiang “Peanut” and in his despatches constantly criticised the Chinese war effort. He even ordered Office of Strategic Services officers to draw up contingency plans to assassinate Chiang Kai-shek. As a result of his constant feuding with Chiang, Stilwell was recalled to the US in October 1944, probably because of Chiang’s direct requests to Roosevelt, but he continued to campaign against Chiang from afar.

It is also interesting to note that the main US official dealing with China, Roosevelt’s economic and China adviser, the Canadian Lauchlin Currie, was a covert agent of Moscow. But he was not alone in being pro-communist. The China hands, US State Department officials who had seen service in China, were generally opposed to Chiang. For example, John Service, although relatively junior as Second Secretary of the US embassy in China, caught the ear of John P. Davies, a more senior State Department officer attached to Stilwell’s staff. Service had long criticised Chiang’s government as “fascist”, “undemocratic”, and “feudal”. Service was the only State Department officer to accompany the US “Dixie Mission”, an observation group which travelled to Yan’an in 1944 to take a view on the communist regime there. His reports were widely read in Washington. He praised Mao and the communists as “progressive” and “democratic” and pushed the absurd position that the “agricultural reformer” communists were quite independent of Moscow, but that if the US were to continue to support Chiang, the communists might be pushed into Moscow’s embrace. These views became influential in many circles in Washington. Together with journalist Edgar Snow’s 1937 sympathetic portrait of Mao and Yan’an, Red Star over China, the view that the communists might be a better alternative than Chiang and the KMT also became fashionable in some Washington circles. With Roosevelt’s death in 1945, Truman came to power and, while recognising the need to contain Moscow, he was much less wedded to the critical importance of keeping Chiang in power. Indeed the American mission led by General George Marshall seeking an accommodation between the KMT and the communists may have been the turning point in the fortunes of both sides.

From the Russian perspective, the invasion of Manchuria was the key to bringing the Chinese communists to power. On April 5, 1945, one month before final victory over Germany, the Soviet Foreign Office told the Japanese ambassador in Moscow that it could not continue with the non-aggression pact between the two nations. At ten past midnight on August 9, 1945, three days after the Hiroshima bomb, 1.5 million Soviet and Mongol troops invaded Manchuria. They were a formidable force, with 26,000 field guns and mortars, 5500 tanks and 3800 combat aircraft. On the second day of the offensive, coinciding with the dropping of the second bomb on Nagasaki, the Japanese Foreign Minister, Togo, told the Soviet ambassador in Tokyo that Japan was prepared to accept the terms of the Potsdam Declaration and surrender. You may wonder, then, why the Soviet invasion continued for another week until they had completely routed the Japanese Kwantung Army (the second-biggest Japanese Army group) and occupied all of Manchuria.

Soviet sources cited “stubborn resistance” as their reason for continuing to fight until August 17, 1945, two days after what is generally considered VJ Day. An important element in the decision to continue fighting was, first, to help beleaguered Chinese communist forces in Manchuria, and second, to gain as much territory as possible before the final settlement.

The defeat of Japan resolved Stalin’s problem of the possibility of fighting on two fronts, but relations with America and KMT China, two of the wartime allies, remained a problem. The post-war settlement was to be governed by the treaty signed by the Allies at Yalta in February 1945, an agreement, it should be said, that was very favourable to the Soviets. One element of the treaty was that all parties, including the Soviets, recognised Chiang Kai-shek’s government as the sole government of China. Stalin also promised under this agreement to hand back all Soviet-occupied territory in China to nobody but Chiang Kai-shek. The US was a signatory to the treaty, and Stalin didn’t see himself as being in a position to take a position in China which was overtly supportive of communist expansion. The Americans had the bomb; Stalin didn’t.

The area of north-east China which the Soviets had occupied was bigger than the whole area they had occupied in Europe, and they proceeded to clandestinely invite communist forces in. Russian sources reported that by mid-1946, “‘democratic’ governments’ … had been formed in all provinces of Manchuria”. By this they meant communist governments. Chiang Kai-shek was not fooled. Addressing the People’s Political Council on April 1, 1946, he declared all such governments illegal and told an American correspondent that he was going to destroy the Communist Party (CCP).

The original proposal had been that Soviet troops would withdraw in December 1945, but this was extended to March 1946, and Soviet troops were not fully withdrawn until May. Russian sources said, “The decision was received with satisfaction in Manchuria, for the presence of Soviet troops there was conducive to the consolidation of the people’s revolutionary forces that was in progress at the time.” Communist forces from all over China converged on Manchuria. The Russians carefully co-ordinated their withdrawal with the CCP so that it could take over the area’s assets including major cities. Communist troops and cadres moved quickly into Manchuria from other areas of China. Soviet sources say that by the end of November there were already 20,000 communist troops in Manchuria. This number rose rapidly to 334,000 troops by mid-December. In that number were 100,000 regular Chinese Red Army troops and 50,000 cadres, the rest being supplied by Russian conscription in Dalian and Port Arthur, which the Soviets controlled. By October 1947, the CCP had 465,000 troops in Manchuria including 240,000 regulars and 220,000 “locally raised” forces. Chinese sources say that 100,000 of those troops were Kwantung army troops pressed into communist service. This included many Japanese. By that time, the North-East Group of the Chinese Red Army had gone from nothing to be by far the strongest of the communist forces, and the only one which was a consolidated group as opposed to wandering bands of guerrillas.

 But were they up to the fight? There is considerable evidence that during the Anti-Japanese War, the communist forces hadn’t made much of a dent in the Japanese, preferring to manoeuvre against KMT forces for territory. When the first Chinese communist troops arrived in Manchuria, the Soviet forces had taken them for bandits. They did not have regular uniforms and couldn’t handle modern weapons. Churchill’s envoy to Chongqing, Sir Adrian Carton de Wiart, was scathing about the war effort of the communists. He advised London that there was no alternative to the KMT as an ally against the Japanese, and in a memorable dinner conversation with Mao Zedong in Chongqing, criticised him and the communists for holding back from fighting the Japanese for domestic political reasons. His view was that Mao’s troops had “nuisance value but not much more”.

Even more scathing, possibly because his job took him much closer to the action than anybody else, was TASS correspondent Pyotr Vladimirov. Between 1942 and 1945, Vladimirov was TASS correspondent and Comintern liaison officer in Yan’an. He commented in his diaries:

Mao engaged in political manoeuvring and refrained from actively fighting against the occupying forces … The occupying forces plundered the country, the people lived in poverty, but Mao waited for the hour when he would be able to employ his entire military strength to seize power … the Chinese people paid a heavy price for Mao’s insidious policy: they sustained inestimable human and material losses as a result of connivance at the Japanese invasion.

As the Soviets withdrew, Mao’s forces attempted to take their place. Unlike previous strategies of avoiding the cities and occupying the countryside, the orders were now to hold the cities and especially the railways. I am tempted to say that these were Mao’s orders but they are so far from previous strategies and the army’s actual capabilities that one has to conclude that Mao was acting not in the interests of the CCP but those of Stalin. The Soviets had taken control of the Trans Manchurian and South Manchurian railways, which they considered critical strategic assets.

Mao’s main general, Lin Biao, and his number two, Liu Shaoqi, didn’t believe that this strategy would hold. Chiang Kai-shek threw into the field millions of US-equipped troops who had actually been fighting modern battles against the Japanese. By mid-June 1946, the communists held only Harbin among the major cities of Manchuria. The communists were deeply unpopular among the population of Manchuria, not the least reason being their association with the Russians who had raped and plundered their way into Manchuria. Soviet Red Army troops were notorious for rape during the war. Montenegrin communist Milovan Djilas had been foolish enough to complain directly to Stalin about this during 1944 discussions in Moscow. Stalin laughed Djilas’s concerns off—he felt hard-working soldiers needed some fun.

By June 1, 1946, Lin Biao was pleading with Mao to allow him to abandon Harbin. The communist armies were close to collapse. On March 19, 1947, Chiang’s forces even took Mao’s capital, Yan’an. Communist sources tend to minimise this as a mere strategic retreat and suggest that Mao had a merry time of it ducking and weaving his way through the mountains of northern Shanxi, but this does not mesh with what Mao’s wife of the time, Jiang Qing, had to say about it. In Roxanne Witke’s controversial 1975 biography of her, Jiang Qing records that period as one of the most difficult of her life.

The saviour of the communist position was General George Marshall. Throughout the war there had been a strong faction in America which had been hostile to Chiang and, at a minimum, neutral towards the communists. Truman, as Roosevelt’s replacement, despite being anti-communist, had little time for Chiang. Truman wanted a negotiated settlement in China, and to that end sent Marshall as his envoy. Marshall arrived in December 1945. He had served in China in the 1920s alongside Chiang’s greatest American critic, General Stilwell. Although he had signed the order recalling Stilwell, he remained sympathetic to him and accepted all Stilwell’s views about the corruption of the KMT ruling clique. His only real concern with the communists was how close their relationship with Moscow was. The Soviets had been helpful in this regard, denying any contact with the CCP and even criticising them to the Americans. Indeed, contacts between the CPP and Soviet agents were classified so secret that Mao had ordered that any reference to them be expunged even from top-secret CCP documents. For his part, Zhou Enlai consistently pushed the line with naive American diplomats and reporters that the CCP were mere agrarian reformers and that they would rather deal with the Americans than with the Russians.

Anybody who has been involved in a state visit to Communist China will tell you that they are the masters of putting their guests at ease with food and flattery until all critical faculties are suspended, and that is exactly what happened to General George Marshall. On March 4 and 5, 1946, Marshall visited Yan’an, where he got the full treatment—flags and banners, the Potemkin village clean-up, big dinners with lots of booze. Marshall’s report to Truman was almost fawning. Marshall said that Mao gave him “every assurance of co-operation” and assured him that communist forces in Manchuria were mere wandering bands over which he had no control or even means of communication. All was for the best in the best of all possible worlds.

At the same time, Marshall put heavy pressure on Chiang to stop his attacks and pull back. He wrote to Chiang, “I request you to immediately issue an order terminating advances, attacks or pursuits by government forces.”

Despite the fact that communist forces were very close to defeat, Chiang felt that he had little option but to co-operate. He was dependent on American military aid in weapons and money. On June 6, 1946, just five days after Lin Biao had been begging Mao to approve an abandonment of Harbin, Chiang agreed to a fifteen-day ceasefire. Mao immediately reversed his approval for Lin Biao to evacuate Harbin. Marshall then proposed that the ceasefire be extended to four months, that it should apply to all of Manchuria and that the communists be allowed to keep northern Manchuria. Chiang then proceeded to queer his own pitch when two prominent intellectuals, members of the China Democratic Party which was anti-Chiang, were assassinated in a KMT area. Truman took deep exception to this act and became even more questioning of Chiang. Chiang agreed to the four-month ceasefire.

This hiatus was a godsend for the communists. Russian experts immediately moved in. No fewer than sixteen training camps were set up to try to turn the scruffy communist troops into a proper army. Officers were sent to Russia for training. The enormous Russian territories on the Liaodong Peninsula, where Russian sovereignty applied, became bases for rest, recreation and rearmament. Airforce, artillery and engineering schools were set up. The army was re-armed with weapons confiscated from the Japanese Kwantung army including the Kwantung air force. Japanese pilots from the former Kwantung air force gave training to communist pilots. Whole units of the Kwantung Army were handed over to the communists—in some cases Japanese officers actually participated in hostilities. Japanese medics gave communist troops their first real battlefield medical service.

The Soviet occupation of North Korea was also a factor in the communist success. If you look at the history of Soviet interference in civil wars, a common factor has been the use of puppet troops who the Russians believe can be confused with locals. In Africa, the Soviets used Cuban troops, mainly black. In Vietnam, the main Chinese general, Wei Guoqing, was a Zhuang, a minority who could possibly be identified as Vietnamese. In Manchuria there is a large Korean minority in Liaoning Province. The Soviets took advantage of this fact to raise an army of 200,000 in North Korea which fought alongside the Chinese communists. Harried communist bands were able to take refuge in North Korea, and when the KMT split the communist forces in 1946, communications between the two wings of the communist forces was maintained via North Korea, where the KMT couldn’t chase them. From North Korean ports, it is also a quick hop to Shandong Province where the Soviets were able to directly aid communist bands.

Above all, as in the very first days of Russian intervention in China, in Canton in 1923, it was in intellectual resources, in military strategy, economic construction and engineering that the Russians made their mark in Manchuria. Because of the ceasefire, Harbin, which was already a Russian city, took on the same role as a revolutionary base in Manchuria as Canton had in the 1920s and Russian experts flooded in. These experts played the same role as the Sovietniks, the Russian military and civil experts, had played in Canton. The new class of Sovietniks included some interesting names. A.F. Zhuravlev gave military advice and leadership. Sladkovsky of the Soviet Foreign Trade Ministry lived in Harbin and negotiated a “trade agreement” with the communist authorities; actually it was an aid agreement under which the Soviets supplied food for civilians in communist-controlled areas, as well as military and civil equipment for reconstruction of infrastructure. We have lengthy records of conversations between Sladkovsky and Zhang Jia’ao, the KMT politician and diplomat who the KMT appointed Economic Commissioner for Manchuria. Sladkovsky’s main role in these discussions seems to have been justifying the removal by the Soviets of a large proportion of Manchuria’s industrial plant as part of their war booty.

The greatest Soviet contribution to the communist success was in the rehabilitation of the Manchurian railways which, as well as being critical to the delivery of military supplies from Russia to the communist forces, were also seen by the Soviets as their own property. The Trans Manchurian railway and the South Manchurian railway had both been Russian enterprises before the Russian revolution. The importance Stalin attached to the reconstruction of the Manchurian railways is underlined by the fact that his personal envoy to Manchuria during this period was I.V. Kovalev, who had been Soviet Minister for Railways. Kovalev was accompanied by 300 Soviet railway engineers.

Six thousand kilometres of railway in Manchuria had been destroyed during the war. Soviet engineers converted strategic Manchurian railways to the five-foot gauge, rebuilt bridges including some very long span bridges (the biggest, the Sungari II, was nearly a kilometre long) and restored the water supply. They provided rolling stock. By the end of 1948, 10,000 kilometres of railway in Manchuria was usable.

Kovalev’s main role was as liaison between Stalin and Mao. The fact that Stalin was prepared to despatch an envoy of Kovalev’s status underlines the importance Stalin attached to victory in China. There is a large body of correspondence available between Kovalev and Stalin, much of it translated into English, which gives a fascinating picture of the times. Kovalev was a very successful diplomat. Mao had such respect for him that when he was preparing to go to Moscow to pay his respects to Stalin after the communists’ final victory, he requested that Kovalev should accompany him.

The result was a transformed Chinese Red Army, newly renamed in accordance with Stalin’s post-war strategies as the People’s Liberation Army. They were no longer a scruffy rabble split into wandering bands and unable to use modern weapons. Soviet trainers had put strength into their backs. They had modern weapons and even an air force. Soviet expertise had restored their infrastructure and given them supply lines to the Soviet Union, something which had been the aim of communist forces in China since the beginning, but which they had never been able to achieve. They had mechanised divisions which were the match of any the KMT had.

Meanwhile, American support for the KMT, which was essential if they were to match the Soviet-armed and -trained communist forces, was fading away. Far from winning the war with guerrilla tactics, the communists were now in a position to take on the KMT in set-piece and mechanised mobile warfare. This they proceeded to do.

Ted Rule lives on the Central Coast of New South Wales. He contributed “Chiang Kai-shek: A Fighter, Not a Lover” to the November 2019 issue.


Post a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.