The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution 1945-1957 (3 page)

BOOK: The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution 1945-1957
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But soon the situation deteriorated. Changchun became an isolated island, beleaguered by 200,000 communist troops who dug tunnel defences and cut off the underground water supply to the city. Two dozen anti-aircraft guns and heavy artillery bombarded the city all day long, concentrating their fire on government buildings. The nationalists built three defensive lines of pillboxes around Changchun. Between the nationalists and the communists lay a vast no man’s land soon taken over by bandits.

On 12 June 1948 Chiang Kai-shek cabled an order reversing the ban on people leaving the city. Even without enemy fire, his planes could not possibly parachute in enough supplies to meet the needs of an entire city. But the anti-aircraft artillery of the communists forced them to fly at an altitude of 3,000 metres. Many of the airdrops landed outside the area controlled by the nationalists. In order to prevent a famine, the nationalists encouraged the populace to head for the countryside. Once they had left they were not allowed back, as they could not be fed. Every departing refugee was subject to rigorous inspection. Metallic objects such as pots or pans as well as gold and silver and even salt, seen as a vital commodity, were prohibited. Then the refugees had to cross the no man’s land, a dark and dangerous terrain dominated by gangs, usually army deserters, who preyed on the defenceless crowds. Many had guns and even horses; some used passwords. The most skilful refugees managed to conceal a piece of jewellery, a watch or a fountain pen, but those found to be hiding an earring or a bracelet in a seam of their clothing risked being shot. Sometimes all their clothes were snatched. A few saved their best belongings by bundling them deep inside a burlap bag filled with dirty rags, including urine-soaked baby clothes, in the hope that the smell would repel robbers.

Few ever made it past the communist lines. Lin Biao had placed a sentry every 50 metres along barbed wire and trenches 4 metres deep. Every exit was blocked. He reported to Mao: ‘We don’t allow the refugees to leave and exhort them to turn back. This method was very effective in the beginning, but later the famine got worse, and starving civilians would leave the city in droves at all times of day and night, and after we turned them down they started gathering in the area between our troops and the enemy.’ Lin described how desperate the refugees were to be allowed through communist lines, explaining that they:


knelt in front of our troops in large groups and begged us to let them through. Some left their babies and small children with us and absconded, others hanged themselves in front of sentry posts. The soldiers who saw this misery lost their resolve, some even falling on their knees to weep with the starving people, saying, ‘We are only following orders.’ Others covertly allowed some of them through. After we corrected this, another tendency was discovered, namely the beating, tying up and shooting of refugees by soldiers, some to death (we do not as yet have any numbers for those injured or beaten to death).


Half a century later, Wang Junru explained what had happened when he was a soldier: ‘We were told they were the enemy and they had to die.’ Wang was fifteen when the communists forced him to enrol in the army. During the siege he joined the other soldiers ordered to drive back hungry civilians.

By the end of June, some 30,000 people were caught in the area between the communists, who would not allow them to pass, and the nationalists, who refused to let them back into the city. Hundreds died every day. Two months later, more than 150,000 civilians were pressed inside the death zone, reduced to eating grass and leaves, doomed to slow starvation. Dead bodies were strewn everywhere, their bellies bloated in the scorching sun. ‘The pungent stench of decomposition was everywhere,’ remembered one survivor.

The situation inside the city was little better. Besides the airdrops for the garrison, some 330 tonnes of grain were required daily to feed the civilians, although at best 84 tonnes were delivered by four or five planes, and often much less. Everything was requisitioned in the defence of Changchun. Chiang Kai-shek even prohibited private trading in August, threatening to shoot any merchant who contravened his order. Soon the nationalist soldiers turned on the civilians, stealing their food at gunpoint. They slaughtered all the army horses, then dogs, cats and birds. Ordinary people ate rotten sorghum and corncobs before stripping the bark from trees. Others ate insects or leather belts. A few turned to human flesh, sold at $1.20 a pound on the black market.

Cases of collective suicide occurred all the time. Entire families killed themselves to escape from the misery. Dozens died by the roadside every day. ‘We were just lying in bed starving to death,’ said Zhang Yinghua when interviewed about the famine that claimed the lives of her brother, her sister and most of her neighbours. ‘We couldn’t even crawl.’ Song Zhanlin, another survivor, remembered how she passed a small house with the door ajar. ‘I entered to have a look and saw a dozen bodies lying all over the place, on the bed and on the floor. Among those on the bed, one was resting his head on a pillow, and a girl was still embracing a baby: it looked as if they were asleep. The clock on the wall was still ticking away.’

Autumn saw temperatures plunge, and the survivors struggled to stay warm. They stripped floorboards, rooftops, sometimes entire buildings in the search for fuel. Trees were chopped down, even signboards were pilfered for wood. Asphalt was ripped from the streets. Like a slow-moving implosion, the gradual destruction of the city started in the suburbs and gradually rippled towards the centre. In the end 40 per cent of the housing went up in smoke. Heavy bombardment by artillery at point-blank range added to the misery, as ordinary people sheltered in shanties strewn with debris and decomposing bodies, while the nationalist top brass took refuge behind the massive concrete walls of the Central Bank of China.

Soldiers absconded throughout the siege. Unlike the civilians who were driven back, they were welcomed by the communists and promised good food and lenient treatment. Day and night loudspeakers beamed propaganda encouraging them to defect or rebel: ‘Did you join the Guomindang army? You were dragged into it at a rope’s end . . . Come over to us . . . There is no way out of Changchun now . . .’ Desertion rates soared after the summer, as the troops received a reduced ration of 300 grams of rice and flour a day.

The siege lasted 150 days. In the end, on 16 October 1948, Chiang ordered General Zheng Dongguo to evacuate the city and cut southwards to Shenyang, the first large city along the railway leading towards Beijing. ‘If Changchun falls, do you really think Peiping [the name for Beijing before 1949] will be safe?’ Zheng was asked. He gave a sigh: ‘No place in China will be safe.’

Zheng had two armies to withdraw: the Sixtieth, composed mostly of dispirited soldiers from the subtropical province of Yunnan, and the New Seventh Army, made up of tough US-trained veterans who had fought on the Burma front. The Seventh stormed out as ordered, but failed to break through the blockade. The Sixtieth refused to leave, and in any event the soldiers were too weak to march all the way to Shenyang. They turned their guns against the Seventh and handed the city over to Lin Biao.


Hailed in China’s history books as a decisive victory in the battle of Manchuria, the fall of Changchun came at huge cost, as an estimated 160,000 civilians were starved to death inside the area besieged by the communists. ‘Changchun was like Hiroshima,’ wrote Zhang Zhenglong, a lieutenant in the People’s Liberation Army who documented the siege. ‘The casualties were about the same. Hiroshima took nine seconds; Changchun took five months.’




On 6 August 1945 a B-29 dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Three days later Nagasaki was erased in a blinding flash of light. Within a week Emperor Hirohito had ordered his armies to lay down their weapons.

The unconditional surrender of Japan was met with jubilation across China, ending one of the bloodiest chapters in the history of the country. In Chongqing, the wartime capital of Chiang Kai-shek, shouts and firecrackers erupted all over the city, ‘sporadic at first but growing to a volcanic eruption of sound and happiness within an hour’. Searchlights festively danced across the sky. A flood of cheering, laughing and crying people poured through the streets, overwhelming every US soldier they could find with gifts of cigarettes. After Chiang had read his message of victory over the radio, dressed in a simple khaki uniform without any decorations, he walked out of the broadcasting studio and was engulfed by a joyous crowd. Well-wishers crawled through police lines, others hung from balconies, yelled from rooftops or held their children high above the crowd to see the Generalissimo.

The eight-year war had plumbed the depths of human depravity. After Japanese troops took the capital Nanjing in December 1937, civilians and disarmed soldiers were systematically slaughtered in a six-week orgy of violence. Captives were rounded up and machine-gunned, blown up with landmines or stabbed to death with bayonets. Women, including infants and the elderly, were raped, mutilated and killed by soldiers on the rampage. No accurate death toll has ever been produced, but estimates range from a minimum of 40,000 to an upper limit of 300,000 deaths. During the last years of the war, in retaliation against guerrilla resistance, a pitiless policy of scorched earth devastated parts of north China, as whole villages were burned to the ground. Men between the ages of fifteen and sixty suspected of being enemy were rounded up and killed.

Throughout their occupation, the Japanese had used biological and chemical weapons. Lethal experiments were conducted on prisoners of war in a string of secret laboratories stretching from northern Manchuria to subtropical Guangdong. Victims were subjected to vivisection without anaesthesia after being infected with various germs. Others had their limbs amputated, their stomachs excised or parts of their organs surgically removed. Weapons, including flamethrowers and chemical agents, were tested on prisoners tied to stakes. In Unit 731, a notorious compound near Harbin that came complete with an aerodrome, a railway station, barracks, laboratories, operating rooms, crematoria, a cinema and even a Shinto temple, contaminated fleas and infected clothing were developed to spread plague, anthrax and cholera when dropped on civilians in encased bombs.
To escape the Japanese and their collaborators, tens of millions of refugees fled southwards towards Yunnan and Sichuan, where the nationalists had their wartime bases. But even in unoccupied territory people lived in fear, as massive air raids were mounted on civilian targets in the capital Chongqing and other major cities, leaving millions dead, injured and homeless.

With the prospect of peace, the tide of humanity that had flowed from the coast to the interior started to turn. A rickshaw puller spelled out the meaning of Japan’s capitulation after reading one of Chongqing’s wall newspapers, mumbling, ‘Japan is defeated. Can we go home now?’ Across China’s vast hinterland, millions of involuntary exiles began selling their makeshift furniture, preparing to trek back home and pick up the threads of their former lives, rebuilding families, homes and businesses. Along the banks of the Yangzi River, people searched for boats to float downstream; others pushed carts and trudged on foot in the scorching heat.

The government, too, prepared to return home. The formal surrender ceremony between China and Japan took place on 21 August 1945 at the Zhijiang Airfield in Hunan. In the shade of a cherry tree, Major General Takeo Imai handed over a map showing the positions of his 1,000,000 troops in China. They were allowed to retain their arms and maintain public order until the arrival of nationalist troops, rushed to all the key cities south of the Great Wall in a spectacular sea-transport and airlift operation executed under the command of General Albert Wedemeyer, one of the most senior US military officers in East Asia. In the largest aerial troop movement of the Second World War, some 80,000 soldiers of the Sixth Army were flown to Nanjing to retake their erstwhile capital. In Shanghai, the shabbily clothed soldiers of the Ninety-Fourth Army who stepped out of giant transport aircrafts blinked at the sight of a large crowd waving banners on the runway. ‘The peasant soldiers came timidly down the steep ladders, trying to salute, dazed by this overwhelming glimpse of the people they had come to liberate. The liberated wore silken gowns and leather shoes; the liberators’ feet were dusty in straw sandals.’

On the streets of Shanghai cheering crowds put up huge portraits of Chiang Kai-shek, decorated with garland flowers and crêpe paper. All along the coast, when troops of the national government entered the cities, ‘multitudes of people lined the streets and shouted themselves hoarse to welcome their liberators’. A third army was flown to Beijing, as US air forces landed between 2,000 and 4,000 nationalist regulars daily in a race against the clock. By early November, the last Japanese south of the Great Wall were being rounded up and disarmed.

But Chiang Kai-shek was not the only one making a claim on the territory of China. Two days after Hiroshima had been bombed, the Soviet Union declared war on Japan, keeping to a promise Joseph Stalin had made to Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt at Yalta in February 1945. At the Soviet holiday resort on the Black Sea, Stalin had demanded control of the Manchurian seaports of Dalian and Port Arthur as well as joint control with China over Manchuria’s railways in exchange for breaking his non-aggression pact with Japan. Roosevelt made these concessions without consulting his wartime ally Chiang Kai-shek. Stalin also requested two months’ supply of food and fuel for an army of 1.5 million men. This, too, Roosevelt accepted, as hundreds of shiploads of lend-lease material were sent to Siberia, including 500 Sherman tanks.

BOOK: The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution 1945-1957
2.09Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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