The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution 1945-1957 (5 page)

BOOK: The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution 1945-1957
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As Zhang Junmai, a veteran diplomat, campaigner for parliamentary democracy and unsparing critic of the nationalist government, later noted, even if an efficient government had existed it would have been no match for the combined forces of Moscow and Yan’an. But Chiang’s government barely functioned. The nationalists faced a mammoth task in taking over a country the size of a continent, and one that had been laid waste by eight years of warfare. Even south of the Great Wall, they endured constant harassment from guerrilla troops: the communists plundered towns, looted villages and left behind millions of homeless people. They controlled large parts of the countryside in Hebei and Shandong, cutting off fuel, energy and food supplies to the cities and feeding inflation. Transport, the key to recovery, had been gravely impaired by the Japanese and was now shattered by the communists, who blew up railways and dynamited bridges. In pitiless partisan warfare, everything that tore society apart operated to the communists’ advantage.

Most of all, the nationalists were caught in a vicious cycle that predated their clash with the communists. Ever since Japan had invaded China in 1937, they had been unable to finance the war by selling bonds. Taxation covered only a small portion of the cost of the war. The only way forward was to issue paper currency. This meant that the brunt of the war effort fell on the middle class, undermining the standard of living of people on fixed incomes such as schoolteachers, college professors, government employees and, of course, nationalist soldiers and officers. ‘In 1940, 100 yuan bought a pig; in 1943, a chicken; in 1945, a fish; in 1946, an egg; and in 1947, one-third of a box of matches.’ By 1947 the cost of living was approximately 30,000 times what it had been in 1936, a year before Japan attacked China. Chiang tried to tame inflation in 1947 by banning the export of foreign currency and gold bullion, imposing a ceiling on interest rates and freezing all wages, but these measures had no lasting effect. By 1949 people could be seen wheeling their money in carts.

For army officers or tax collectors alike, the salaries of government employees were held down to extraordinarily low levels. Soldiers were grossly underpaid, and even officers could not support their wives and children on their regular income. Graft, embezzlement and corruption therefore became rampant in many forms. Tax collectors accepted bribes. The police extorted money by threatening the poor with arrest and imprisonment. In the army, officers withheld salaries, inflated the bills or sold military equipment on the black market. There was no easy solution to the problem. Raising government salaries would have increased inflation, which in turn would have affected the cost of living, leading quickly to the absorption of salary rises and the reappearance of corruption.

The nationalists needed help. They required financial assistance to curb inflation, rebuild the country and buy arms and munitions. Beginning in April 1948, the Marshall Plan, designed by the very man who had tried against all odds to engineer a coalition between Chiang Kai-shek and the communists, provided US$13 billion in economic and technical assistance to help the recovery of Europe. This sum did not include the $12 billion in aid that Europe had received between the end of the war and the start of the Plan. Even after Truman had been obliged to abandon the arms embargo on China, which was no longer consistent with the Truman Doctrine – proclaimed by the president in March 1947 and committing the United States to supporting Greece and Turkey with economic and military aid to prevent their falling under Soviet influence – support for the nationalists was minimal. The United States failed to deliver a paltry $125 million of military help in time even after a Republican majority finally pushed Congress to provide an aid package, which was only passed in April 1948, bringing the total military aid received by China after Victory over Japan Day to something between $225 and $360 million.


The tide turned in 1948. For months on end the communists had launched one assault after another in Manchuria, continually hammering the nationalist-held cities. Chiang, determined to hold on at all costs, kept on pouring more troops into the region to make up for the dead and wounded. The loss of Manchuria, he confided in his private journal, would open all of north China to the communists. He was staking everything he had on one huge gamble rather than retreating and holding the line along the Great Wall.

In December 1947, in more than a metre of snow and a temperature of minus 35 degrees Celsius, Lin Biao launched a massive assault across the frozen Sungari River. The People’s Liberation Army, as the communist troops now called themselves, had no air cover, but a thick, icy mist and glacial weather severely limited the nationalists’ use of aeroplanes. Pressing their military advantage, most of the 400,000 troops swarmed south and laid siege to the cities along the railway, destroying several government divisions.

Shenyang, just south of Changchun, was Manchuria’s stronghold, and one of the country’s best arsenals. Lin Biao cut the railway between Beijing and Shenyang and laid siege to the city. Inside this island of dwindling resistance, a civilian population of 1.2 million, swollen to 4 million by people fleeing the communists, was blockaded for ten months. Also trapped were 200,000 nationalist soldiers. Droves of people soon abandoned beleaguered Shenyang. Planes of General Claire Chennault’s commercial airline shuttled in and out, evacuating about 1,500 passengers to safety each day, but few could afford to bribe their way on board. Fights broke out at the airfield, as the crack of artillery could be heard in the distance. At night people huddled together in a bomb-blasted hangar. The majority, over 100,000 a month, left by train, rattling west towards the edge of the city’s defence perimeter where the line came to an end.

People who were too poor or too sick to leave were soon starving. As early as February, Shenyang was short of food, fuel and ammunition. Vitamin deficiencies caused thousands to go blind, while countless others, many of them children, were wasted by noma, a gangrenous disease that destroyed the face, by pellagra, by scurvy and by other diseases of malnutrition. As a foreign reporter noted: ‘I walked down the desolate streets past the emaciated bodies of the dead in the gutters, pursued by unbearably pitiful child beggars and women crying out for help.’ Shops along empty streets were boarded up, the red-brick factories standing derelict, many of them bombed during the war and then looted by Soviet troops in 1946. People survived by eating bark and leaves and by pressing soybean cakes, normally used as fertiliser or as cattle fodder. Others picked through the debris on the streets.

A flood of misery poured out of Manchuria – refugees escaping from beleaguered cities, farmers fleeing a bloodied countryside, most of them stumbling forward on foot, a few hobbling on crutches or sticks. In the summer of 1948, some 140,000 pressed their way through the military lines around Shenyang and joined the exodus every month. Then they had to trek across a stretch of wilderness infested with armed gangs who capitalised on the chaos of civil war. But an even greater danger loomed 30 kilometres north of Jinzhou, where the railway crossed the Daling River. The nationalists stood guard on the opposite shore, and fired on anybody who tried to wade, swim or take a boat towards them. The only way across the river was through the twisted girders of the blasted railway bridge. For a fee, local guides would strap the refugees on their backs with rope and pick a passage over the broken bridge, their human burden looking down in terror at the swirling waters far below. From Jinzhou they were packed on refugee trains to Shanhaiguan, where the Great Wall dipped into the Bohai Sea. Here they found a makeshift refugee centre serviced by a single tap with running water. Many people quickly moved on to Beijing and Tianjin, even though few could be housed or adequately fed.

The coup de grâce came in September 1948. Lin Biao staged a frontal attack on Shenyang and deployed close to 300,000 men to encircle Jinzhou, the lifeline to Manchuria. Military engineers blew holes in the city walls. After sustaining 34,000 casualties, Jinzhou fell on 15 October, its remaining 88,000 prisoners being marched off by the People’s Liberation Army. A rescue force of 90,000 men, hacking its way through enemy lines outside Shenyang, walked straight into a trap: they were outnumbered and crushed a week later by Lin Biao. In Changchun, the remaining 80,000 troops handed over the city to the communists. Fighting continued in Shenyang for a week, often in bloody hand-to-hand combat inside the city after the walls had been demolished by artillery fire. When the senior remaining officer surrendered on 1 November, the battle for Manchuria was over.


Overnight prices in Shanghai rose four- or fivefold. On the international market the gold yuan sank to a tenth of its original value. A wave of defeatism swept nationalist China. The United States began to ship out the wives and children of its military personnel and advised its citizens as far south as Nanjing and Shanghai to evacuate the area. All over the country panic set in, as an army of 750,000 communist fighters, reinforced with tanks, heavy artillery and other weapons captured from the nationalists, marched across the frozen plains of Manchuria through the Great Wall in a southward thrust against Beijing.

General Fu Zuoyi, the nationalist commander in the north, stood little chance as the communists swiftly moved to cut the railway lifelines along the Northern Corridor, which stretched from Kalgan to the port of Dagu. They surrounded Tianjin, China’s third largest city, in November 1948, and soon forced Fu Zuoyi to pull his troops back inside the walls of Beijing. Lin Biao drew a siege ring around the city and cut off electricity and water supplies. Within a week the airfields outside the city walls were in communist hands. Soon a strange silence set in over the imperial capital, only occasionally disturbed by shell explosions or machine-gun bursts. At first Fu, one of the most distinguished military leaders in the war against Japan, seemed determined to defend Beijing. Trenches were dug and street barricades hastily erected as soldiers went from house to house commandeering billets. To allow cargo planes to deliver supplies, an airstrip was built on the polo ground of the old legation quarter, in the very heart of the ancient city. In the freezing winter, gangs of padded-gowned forced labour pulled down telephone poles, trees and even buildings on the approach to the runway. Martial rule was imposed. Lorries with teams of policemen and soldiers carrying sub-machine guns and broad swords careened through the streets, reminding the population of their military presence. Outside the city walls, thousands of homes were needlessly levelled, ostensibly to provide a good field of fire for the defending troops.

But everybody in Beijing knew what had happened to Changchun, turned into a ‘city of death’ by the very general who was now camping outside the city walls. Fu Zuoyi fell into a depression, tormented by the prospect of seeing Beijing, the cultural heart of China, desecrated for no good reason. At first he asked Chiang for permission to resign, but when the Generalissimo refused, he resumed the secret negotiations he had opened with the People’s Liberation Army through his daughter, who was a member of the communist party. After a forty-day siege, a surrender document was signed on 22 January 1949. All of the 240,000 troops under Fu were absorbed into the communist army. The treatment that he and his troops received served as an inducement to other nationalist commanders and officers to defect.

For eight days the imperial capital seemed to float in a twilight zone, as the nationalists, some of them still armed, wandered about the city freely as it awaited the communists. Very little changed. In this strange vacuum, Beijing celebrated the Chinese New Year as best it could. Shops were crammed with lanterns traditionally placed outside front doors to welcome the New Year – in the shape of lions, brilliant green rabbits or yellow tigers. But Chiang Kai-shek’s portrait on Tiananmen Square was removed.

On 31 January 1949 a vanguard of the People’s Liberation Army finally entered the west gates of Beijing. A lorry opened the procession, its loudspeakers blaring the continuous refrain, ‘Welcome to the Liberation Army on its Arrival in Beiping! Welcome to the People’s Army on its Arrival in Beiping! Congratulations to the People of Beiping on their Liberation!’ Then came the soldiers, marching six abreast in full battle regalia, red-cheeked and seemingly in high spirits. Students followed the soldiers, carrying two large portraits, one of Mao Zedong, the other of Zhu De, commander-in-chief of the army. A military band, more soldiers and government employees closed the parade. Most of Beijing was relieved to have survived the siege, but people were cautious with the soldiers, ‘watching them from the kerbs along their route [and] expressing no emotion more intense than curiosity’. Scattered nationalist troops looked on in silence. Jia Ke, then a young communist soldier, remembers that ‘Everyone crowded around our boys as they sat quietly on the ground. They wanted to get a good look at us. They were very curious. I felt very proud.’

The communists had fervent supporters. Dan Ling, a schoolboy of sixteen, was one of them. All classes were cancelled on liberation day, and Dan was among those selected to carry either a banner flag or a star-shaped paper lantern on a sorghum stem to welcome the People’s Liberation Army. He joined the crowd with his fellow students at Xidan, an important shopping area a kilometre west of Tiananmen Square. As the crowd swelled with thousands of curious onlookers, the students were pushed back and forth and soon became separated. Dan tried to elbow his way forward but did not manage to catch even a glimpse of the parade. Abandoning his flag, by now torn to shreds, he spotted a trolley bus and climbed on board, the conductor too distracted by the spectacle to notice that he did not have a ticket. His face pressed against the window, Dan saw the rifles, the bayonets, the bandoliers and the simple but neat uniforms devoid of rank insignia. He witnessed the discipline of the troops and was filled with joy.

BOOK: The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution 1945-1957
10.64Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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