When the war against Japan ended, there was a brief period of uncertainty about the future. Could the uneasy truce between Mao Zedong and Chiang Kai-shek be extended? Could some sort of power-sharing agreement avert the renewal of hostilities? Or would these two old and bitter enemies renew their longstanding civil war?
Hurley’s Mission to Form a Coalition Government
For the United States, a top priority after the defeat of Japan was to stabilize the political situation in China and prevent an open rupture between the two sides. Toward this end, Ambassador Hurley flew to Yan’an for a second time in the summer of 1945.
Hurley’s mission was to coax Mao Zedong to return with him to Chongqing, to hold talks with Chiang Kai-shek about creating a new coalition government. For their own reasons, both Mao and Chiang were eager to portray themselves to the world as cooperative, peace-loving democrats; and so both men readily agreed to Hurley’s proposal.
When Mao deplaned in Chongqing in late August, he was welcomed by the Generalissimo. A famous photo taken on that occasion showed Mao and Chiang drinking a toast together with Hurley.
But even as the two leaders smiled and toasted, Chiang Kai-shek was preparing to deal a severe blow to Washington’s hopes for a coalition government.
With major logistical support from the U.S. military transport services, Chiang ordered his armed forces to reoccupy major Chinese cities just as soon as the defeated Japanese forces withdrew. By the autumn of 1945, Nationalist troops had occupied Shanghai, Nanjing, Hankow, Tianjin, and Beijing.
This is a transcript from the video series The Fall and Rise of China. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
New Problems for Chinese Nationalists
But even as they recaptured these (and other) cities, the Guomindang faced a host of new problems. For one thing, Communist partisans in the urban areas (the White Area Communists), rather than actively contesting the Guomindang’s return, simply melted away into the countryside, where they began to operate among the peasants.
By way of contrast, the Nationalist forces, lacking any base of popular support in the rural areas, became increasingly ghettoized, confining their operations exclusively within their secure urban enclaves. But even within these urban strongholds, trouble was brewing for them.
The Guomindang’s reoccupation policies had been hastily conceived and haphazardly implemented, with precious few safeguards against predatory behavior by occupying Guomindang forces. Consequently, within a very short time, the recovery of Japanese-held cities and towns degenerated into an undisciplined, opportunistic exercise in looting, profiteering, and embezzlement.
Learn more about the domestic and international conflicts that disrupted Mao’s Socialist vision.
Nationalists/Guomindangs and How They Acted
Acting more like scavengers than liberators, Guomindang officials grabbed for themselves and their associates all the confiscated Japanese properties, factories, food, and funds they could get their hands on. And they further indulged themselves in such pastimes as gambling, opium, and prostitution.
In north China, a foreign reporter noted shocking acts of pilferage committed by occupying officials:
There has been great confusion in the takeover. First, there was a scramble for industrial equipment, then for public buildings and real estate, and now government officials are competing for furniture. A certain army officer has already taken over several thousand houses.
Nationalist Officials and the Problems Created by Them
Compounding the problems created by predatory Nationalist officials and army officers was the sharp inflationary surge that followed the Guomindang’s reoccupation of China’s cities. In many cases, opportunistic officials from Chongqing brought truckloads of Nationalist currency with them when they returned to the eastern seaboard.
Because coastal cities were in dire financial straits due to the collapse of the Japanese puppet currency at the end of the war, Nationalist carpetbaggers (who were euphemistically called ‘reconversion officials’) were able to buy up vast tracts of residential real estate and distressed commercial property at fire-sale prices.
These urban predators were also able to reap huge windfall profits by purchasing gold at low fixed prices and then hoarding it while the prices went up. With inflation surging ever upward, by the beginning of 1946, the cost of living index in Shanghai had spiraled to 900 times its pre-war level.
Learn more about Mao’s offensive against class struggle and capitalist thinking.
Nationalist Policy toward Chinese Officials
Further compounding the Nationalist reconversion difficulties was their policy of lenient treatment toward Chinese officials and military officers who had collaborated with the Japanese. With post-war anger against Japan running very high, the Nationalists were caught in a dilemma:
If they punished all high and middle-ranking Chinese civil and military collaborators, they risked driving large numbers of experienced administrators, policemen, and army officers into the arms of the Communists. Yet, if they embraced the collaborators, they risked further alienating the general public.
So Nationalist reconversion authorities tried to have it both ways. Publicly, they renounced former collaborators as criminals and traitors and executed several high-profile quislings.
Among those executed was Chen Gongbo. After defecting from the Communist Party in 1922, Chen Gongbo had become a key associate of the left-wing Guomindang leader, Wang Jingwei.
Like Wang, Chen despised Chiang Kai-shek; and after the Japanese invasion, the two men decided to collaborate with the Japanese rather than join Chiang’s government in exile in Chongqing. After the war, Wang died in disgrace in Japan, while Chen was executed in China for treason.
Common Questions about the Urban Reconversion Project of Chinese Nationalists
A top United States priority was to stabilize the political situation in China and prevent an open rupture between the two sides. Hence, the United States sent Ambassador Hurley to persuade Mao Zedong to return with him to Chongqing to hold talks with Chiang Kai-shek and create a new coalition government.
One of the problems of Chinese Nationalists after reoccupying major Chinese cities was that Communist partisans in the urban areas (the White Area Communists), rather than actively contesting the Guomindang’s return, simply melted away into the countryside, where they began to operate among the peasants.
Chinese Nationalists faced a dilemma. Whether to punish middle and high-ranking Chinese military collaborators or embrace them. Publically they renounced them as traitors and executed several high-profile military collaborators.