The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution 1945-1957 (7 page)

BOOK: The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution 1945-1957
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Shanghai heaved a sigh of relief. There was no looting, raping or requisitioning. As in other cities, the soldiers were on their best behaviour, sleeping on the pavement and refusing even offers of water from sympathetic residents. They seemed more like an army of adolescents than the surly, bellicose soldiers portrayed in anti-communist propaganda. Mariano Ezpeleta, the consul-general of the Philippines, was struck by their youth:


Here they were, the Communist soldiers – mostly teenagers in the first blush of youth, slightly built boys still awkward in gait; others, almost adult country bumpkins trying to steady themselves first on one foot, then on the other. They stood on street crossings, casually held their carbine at rest, looking around open-eyed, obviously bewildered by the ornate and magnificent buildings of the city. One could mistake them for curious cadets from some rural inland town learning their primary lessons in the art of sentinel duty.


Newspapers carried stories on the good behaviour of the soldiers. The
Impartial Daily
in Shanghai trumpeted: ‘Public transportation facilities have been restored, and there is not a single soldier of the Liberation Army who rides the vehicles without buying a ticket, and there are no attempts to disturb the ordinary queues in order to have prior access to the vehicles.’ Similar stories were widely reported and offered reassurance to apprehensive city dwellers.

The population were relieved. They continued to call the soldiers derogatory names and circulated yokel jokes about them. One anecdote described a team who found a white porcelain toilet and tried to wash rice in it. A soldier pulled the rope attached to the cistern, only to look on aghast as the rice vanished with the bubbles in the bowl. At the opulent Cathay Hotel, country bumpkins played with the elevators and tied up their mules in the lobby. Not all such tales were inventions. Feng Bingxing, a veteran who was twenty-five years old when he marched into Shanghai, remembered: ‘We tried to light cigarettes with light bulbs and wash rice in toilet bowls. You know, many of our officers and soldiers came from rural areas and hadn’t seen such things when we first arrived in Shanghai.’

Within a day banners went up near the American Club, proclaiming ‘Welcome to the People’s Liberation Army’. A huge portrait of Mao Zedong was hoisted over the Great World Amusement Centre, Shanghai’s seething six-floor recreational building. Red flags fluttered over shop doorways, and lorries decked with red banners carried students and workers jubilantly waving pennants. Even as machine guns still rattled in the distance, communist songs blared from loudspeakers in the city centre. One day after Shanghai’s fall, trams and buses started running again in parts of the city. Their new allegiance indicated by red armbands, policemen were back on the streets directing traffic. ‘On street corners, hawkers clinked their wares once more, and sidewalk vegetable stands, bare for almost a week, filled up again quickly with produce from the countryside.’


With Nanjing and Shanghai under communist control, those nationalist troops who had not yet surrendered continued their withdrawal further south. Guangzhou, the commercial hub and southern port near colonial Hong Kong, was the city where Sun Yat-sen had first set up a nationalist government after the fall of the empire in 1911. Most of the generals fighting each other in the civil war had been trained at the Whampoa Military Academy, established in 1924. For a few brief weeks, Guangzhou became a boom town, seat of the provisional capital of the nationalists. Officials of the Soviet Union, the first foreign legation to flee when communist troops approached Nanjing, were ensconced on the sixth floor of the Oi Kwan Hotel, a modern art deco building towering high above the Bund. The tenth floor housed American diplomats. The nationalists took up most of the other floors as their headquarters. Further down the Bund, on Shameen Island, government officials bought up plush Western-style homes shaded by banyan trees. As new arrivals vied for the few remaining houses and apartments, cash deposits for a tiny two-room flat shot up to US$4,000. On the outskirts of the city, the poor lived in shoddy houses thrown up almost overnight. The city was creaking under the extra load of a mushrooming population.

The boom was brief. After a pause of a few weeks the communists resumed their march. When Guangzhou fell on 14 October 1949, ‘with scarcely more than a quiet sigh’, the communists completed a 3,500-kilometre march that had started with the fall of Changchun one year earlier.
After a hasty and chaotic retreat to Chongqing, on 10 December Chiang Kai-shek flew to Taiwan, never to return.


As the communists drove south towards Guangzhou, another army followed the railway west of Xuzhou. Ahead lay a vast borderland with frontiers that touched on Tibet, India, Afghanistan, the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of Mongolia. The region was sparsely populated by some 13 million people, less than 3 per cent of the estimated total in China. Deserts, mountains, steppes and lakes formed a harsh but beautiful landscape, hiding valuable resources in oil, coal, gold, wolfram, uranium and other rare-earth metals. A Muslim belt ran through the north-west, with mosques located in all major settlements where Arabic was used in religious services. One visitor noted in 1948: ‘The men’s skull caps and the women’s hoods are identifying marks, of course, but their facial features are quite recognizable also. Their noses are larger and their eyes rounder than those of the typical Chinese, and the men wear luxuriant beards which are distinctive because of their bushy sideburns.’

Many other groups contributed to an extremely heterogeneous population, nowhere more so than in Xinjiang, the westernmost province bordering on Central Asia. In this grazing land cut up by vast deserts and snow-capped mountains, waves of invasion and migration had left behind Uighurs, Kazaks, Chinese, Taranchis, Kirghiz, Mongols, White Russians, Uzbeks, Tajiks, Tatars and Manchus, among others. The Uighurs, ‘with their many-coloured, embroidered skull caps, jackets and leather boots’, were by far the most dominant group in Xinjiang, accounting for three-quarters of a population of 4 million. Relations between these different people could be bitter, at times violent, in particular in the nineteenth century when revolts against the Qing empire had flared up and obliged the Manchus to reconquer the entire region. Not until 1884 was Xinjiang fully incorporated into the empire.

The north-west had some of the most efficient provincial regimes in the country, a stark contrast to what happened elsewhere under the nationalists. Ma Bufang, a trim, burly Muslim general, used an authoritarian hand to transform Qinghai, lining the smooth, metalled highways with willow and poplar saplings, cleaning up the cities, irrigating the countryside and building hospitals and medical facilities. In Xining, the capital, one-third of the population went to school; food, clothing and tuition were provided free to all students. Qinghai thrived when most of China was crushed by civil war.

But Ma Bufang was no match for the army that was moving along the railway from Xuzhou. Peng Dehuai, a stout man with a shaven head and the face of a bulldog, led some 150,000 troops against Ma’s cavalry of 40,000 armed Muslim horsemen, dashing all nationalist hopes in the region. Lanzhou, the gateway to the north-west on the ancient silk road, fell in August 1949, leading to communist control of the Yumen oilfields.

Xinjiang was soon within reach. It had a troubled history of ethnic strife, made no easier by a significant Soviet presence. In exchange for trading privileges and concessions for oilwells, tin and wolfram mines, Soviet forces had repeatedly helped Sheng Shicai, governor of the province from 1933 to 1944, to repress local rebellions. In November 1940 the Soviet Union, which needed a buffer state against Japan, took virtual control of the region. Sheng Shicai, who feared that Xinjiang might otherwise share the fate of Poland, invaded and carved up several years earlier by Stalin and Hitler, signed an agreement granting additional concessions for fifty years. At the end of the war, Chiang Kai-shek successfully negotiated an end to the Soviet presence in Xinjiang as part of the Sino-Soviet Treaty. He also compromised with the Kazaks and Uighurs, agreeing to a coalition government in which the nationalists shared power with representatives of the Eastern Turkestan Republic, a political entity established by rebels with Soviet assistance in the northern part of the province.

The communists subdued Xinjiang through a combination of conquest and negotiation. First Mao Zedong invited five of the key leaders of the Eastern Turkestan Republic to Beijing to attend a Political Consultative Conference. On 22 August 1949 Stalin ordered them to co-operate with Mao. Two days later, they boarded a plane in Kazakhstan and headed for Beijing. The plane crashed near Lake Baikal, killing all on board. Speculation was rife, some suspecting that they had been liquidated on Stalin’s orders in a secret deal brokered with Mao. The remaining leaders agreed to include their republic within the province of Xinjiang and accepted key positions in the new People’s Republic of China. Then, in October, Peng Dehuai surrounded Urumqi, the provincial capital, forcing the nationalists to surrender. Xinjiang was liberated, but by now Peng was running out of steam. On 29 December 1949 he wrote to Mao to explain that he was bankrupt and could no longer feed his troops. ‘I reckon that huge help from the Soviet Union is indispensable in solving our present difficulties and in the future building of Xinjiang.’ Within weeks Soviet traders, engineers and advisers were swarming all over the region. Convoys of lorries with Russian troops in full winter clothing rumbled through the streets of Urumqi by night.

Tibet had to wait for its liberation. Lhasa expelled a nationalist delegation in July 1949 and a few months later sent a letter to the US State Department indicating that it intended to defend itself by ‘all possible means’ against communist intrusion. Copies of the letter were sent to London and Beijing. Beijing waited. Negotiations were opened. Offers were made. As Lhasa deliberated, 40,000 communist troops entered Tibet on 7 October 1950, striking towards the 4,000-metre passes into the bleak Tibetan plateau. They wiped out all armed opposition at Chamdo, placing the weak theocratic government under their control. India, independent since 1947, had just recognised the People’s Republic. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had championed communist China, assuring the world that the Tibetan issue would be settled peacefully. Now China controlled all the major passes through the Himalayas into India and Nepal. Britain remained neutral, having lost interest in the region as a buffer zone since India had become independent. The United Nations did not intervene: they had their hands full with the Korean War.

The communists had now successfully established their borders along the territory reached by the Qing empire at the end of the nineteenth century. Just as the Bolsheviks inherited a realm conquered by the tsars, so the communists could now start building on the empire won by the Manchus. Only Hong Kong and Taiwan still eluded the reach of the People’s Republic.

Part Two

Takeover (1949–52)




Liberation began with fanfare. Communist rule in every important town was inaugurated with a carefully choreographed procession. Soldiers invariably opened the parade, followed by a lorry bearing a huge portrait of Mao Zedong. Dance troupes dressed in blue, red and green dresses and silk scarves, waving red flags and wearing white-towel turbans, performed a traditional harvest dance called ‘rice-sprout song’ (
), swaying their bodies to the music played by waist drums, heavy gongs and trumpets. The fluid dance movements were supposed to celebrate peasants in daily activities such as sowing grain or carrying water with shoulder poles. Here, it seemed, was a form of art by the people for the people, to be seen in every procession and at every meeting.

Even in the north, where the rice-sprout song was popular, ordinary farmers would have been puzzled by the way the troupes performed the folk dance. Some of the melodies no longer had anything to do with local folksong but were borrowed instead from the Soviet army. The traditional lyrics, like folk plays everywhere in the world, were often bawdy and downright obscene, telling stories of love and betrayal, but now they celebrated the abolition of the unequal treaties and the victory of the People’s Liberation Army. The traditionally complex dance steps had been simplified into three or four basic movements. A cast of traditional characters, from fortune-tellers and henpecked husbands to priests, squires and immortals, were replaced by workers, soldiers and peasants. But in many parts of China traditional rice-sprout songs meant little to ordinary people. In Xi’an, spectators were unable to identify any of the characters in the parade, as they had nothing to do with local opera. ‘The only thing that was the same was the ear-splitting banging of the gongs and drums, which reverberated throughout the city so often that most days seemed like New Year’s, an audible sign that times had changed.’ Many onlookers, nonetheless, enjoyed the festivities, as the celebratory sounds announced the end of war.

In the large cities along the coast, these political rallies were much bigger affairs. On 6 July 1949 tanks and howitzers rumbled up Nanking Road, the heart of the shopping district in Shanghai, followed by armies of workers thrusting their clenched fists into the air in the pouring rain. Some companies sent lorries loaded with workers. One Shell Oil Company lorry had a huge papier-mâché capitalist holding a gigantic $5 bill. Others carried groups of female students in neat white blouses and half-length cotton slacks, chanting to the beat of gongs. A few weeks earlier identical lorries had driven through the streets to celebrate the Victory Parade for Chiang Kai-shek. The same faces shouted themselves hoarse again, but this time they shouted for the communists.

BOOK: The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution 1945-1957
9.79Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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