China Lost World War II

Forget Beijing's victory parade: in 1945, China was a failed state.


On Sept. 3, China held a military parade — the 15th since its founding and the first to celebrate its victory over Japan in World War II. Highlighting Beijing’s commitment to “preserving world peace,” according to official pronouncements, this parade showcased China’s most advanced military capabilities, including ballistic missiles, tanks, and fighter jets. Twelve thousand troops marched past Tiananmen Square in view of the assembled dignitaries, including 30 visiting heads of state. The parade was more than a display of raw power: It projected a narrative that placed China, especially the ruling Communist Party, at the center of the global anti-fascist and anti-imperialist struggle.

The parade also represented a shift of focus. It was the first military parade held on any day other than Oct. 1, the anniversary of the 1949 founding of the People’s Republic of China. Past parades reflected the moment of triumph when the Chinese Communist Party defeated the Nationalists in a four-year civil war — ending the “century of humiliation,” which had begun in the 1840s when the British defeated China in the Opium Wars. The year 1949, in Chairman Mao Zedong’s words, was when the Chinese people “stood up.”

The new message, however, is that in the 1937-1945 war against Japan, China not only stood up, but stood tall among the world’s great powers. China paid a hefty price for defeating a mighty enemy — according to this new narrative — and the world should be grateful for the selfless sacrifice it made in the process of taking its rightful place among leading nations. In President Xi Jinping’s words, China undermined “strategic coordination between Japan’s fascism and German fascism” and by doing so “significantly raised China’s international position.”

However, the message of Chinese-led anti-fascist solidarity in Asia, while it suits Beijing’s present-day agenda of benevolence and global responsibility, is a profound misreading of history. For China, 1945 did not bring glory — just more suffering and humiliation. In that year, China lay prostrate after years of devastation and misery. Although on paper China was a great power — with U.S. insistence, it was made a permanent member of the newly formed U.N. Security Council — in reality it was treated little better than a defeated nation: its fate decided in its absence, its territory partially occupied, its industry looted, and its internal politics subjected to relentless and decisive meddling from the outside.

There were, of course, victors in the war against Japan. But China was not one of them. Although China had fought the Japanese the longest (since July 1937), it was the American onslaught across the Pacific that ultimately brought the Greater Japanese Empire to its knees. And to finish the job, the United States didn’t need China’s help — it needed the Soviets. At the Yalta Conference in February 1945, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt asked for Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin’s participation in the Pacific War, and promised to recognize Soviet gains in Asia, which included military basing rights, a railroad across the Chinese northeast, and the “status quo” in Mongolia — by which Stalin meant its final separation from China.

Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek was furious when he learned about the terms of the agreement. These were questions that concerned China’s sovereignty, and he was not even consulted — worse, he was not informed for weeks. He might have expected that from the Soviets, but the Americans going behind his back to sign off on Stalin’s imperialist demands was truly painful. “It’s an insult,” Chiang wrote in his diary. “They really see China as their vassal.”

In June 1945, Chiang dispatched his brother-in-law, China’s Premier T.V. Soong, to Moscow to negotiate a treaty of alliance with Stalin and, so Chiang hoped, wrestle concessions from the Soviet leader. In these grueling, bitter, late-night discussions in his Kremlin office, Stalin left the Chinese no hope for compromise.

Some of the toughest discussions concerned the future of Mongolia. A vast country the size of Western Europe, sandwiched between China and Russia, Mongolia — or as the Chinese called it, Outer Mongolia — had once belonged to the Qing dynasty. Until 1945, Stalin at least on paper recognized that Mongolia was part of China. Now he wanted a complete renunciation. He needed Mongolia, he said, to prevent a future Japanese invasion of Siberia, telling the Chinese to eliminate “this sore point.” Soong protested that Chinese public opinion would not allow Chiang to give away such a large swath of territory. “Chinese people,” he pleaded, “[have been] brought up on [the] integrity of Chinese territory. I do beg Stalin to reconsider this.” Soong voiced his hope that “Stalin will understand our difficulty and help us.”

The Soviet leader was not moved. “Sign treaty now,” he snapped.

Soong deferred to Chiang, and on July 9, 1945, the Chinese leader made the painful concession, renouncing rights to Outer Mongolia. Stalin was equally uncompromising with regard to the Manchurian railroad — which the wily dictator had actually sold to the Japanese in 1935 for 140 million yen — approximately $682 million today — but now wanted back for free. Stalin insisted on the right to transfer troops across Chinese territory and to maintain his naval base near the northeast Chinese city of Dalian on the strategically important Liaodong Peninsula, which Tsar Nicholas II ignominiously lost to the Japanese after the 1904-05 Russo-Japanese War. What the tsar had lost, Stalin now gained.

Chiang knew that he had no leverage. Soviet troops were poised to overrun Manchuria: The Soviet invasion of the area began on Aug. 9 while the treaty was still being negotiated. He felt helpless in his wartime capital of Chongqing. His tired armies looked bigger on paper than they were in reality. The economy was on the brink of collapse; the government struggled to cope with plummeting tax revenues, a shortage of goods, and runaway inflation.

Chiang’s only hope was that Stalin was already beginning to see the United States as its enemy, and so would not see China as a major object of his appetites. On July 28, Chiang wrote in his diary, “I can do a Turkey” — by which he meant preserving some freedom of maneuver by pursuing neutrality, as Turkey had done near the end of World War II. Doing like Turkey was not the most dignified scenario for postwar China, but Chiang thought that the alternative was Stalin recognizing the Communists and slicing up the country, just as Japan had done after 1931 by setting up puppet states across northern and eastern China.

In 1945, China was on the verge of falling apart. The Communists were moving swiftly to fill the vacuum left by Japan’s departure from northern China — but they were not the only threat. Ethnic groups living along China’s northern fringes, from the Mongols in north China to the Kazakhs and Uighurs in the vast northwestern region of Xinjiang, sensed that China’s weakness offered them a rare opportunity to achieve independence. Most worryingly for Chiang, Stalin supported these national liberation movements.

In late 1944, the Uighurs, a predominantly Muslim ethnic group concentrated in the Chinese northwest, had captured power in the northern part of the vast territory of Xinjiang. Stalin effectively directed the insurgency — the Soviet Union supplied not only weapons and ammunition, but also advisors and troops. Newly declassified documents from the Russian archives show that by the summer of 1945 the Politburo, the top policymaking body in the USSR, resolved to “spread the national liberation movement” across the region in order to “create intolerable conditions for the Chinese troops in Xinjiang,” and help insurgents and other discontents “carry out sabotage, mainly killing personnel and destroying equipment, and disrupting lines of communication.”

In the nearby region of Altai, which bordered Western Mongolia and what is now Kazakhstan, the Kazakh bandit-turned-revolutionary Osman Batur launched guerrilla operations against Chinese troops. Stalin did not want to directly help Osman. But Stalin asked the Communist leader of Outer Mongolia, Khorloogiin Choibalsan, to supply the Kazakhs with guns, which Choibalsan did in February 1944. Some 105 camels transported Soviet weapons across the desolate, frozen Mongolian frontier, as Choibalsan, following Stalin’s instructions, urged Osman to fight on: “Comrades, if your honest struggle reaches its goal, the Kazakh state can become like our state.”

Choibalsan did not confine himself merely to helping the Kazakhs in their anti-Chinese insurgency. As the Soviets entered the war against Japan in August 1945, thousands of Mongolian soldiers joined them. Their goal was not to liberate China, but to liberate the nearly 900,000 ethnic Mongols living there. “Many centuries of hope and primordial aspirations of our Mongols have been to win for ourselves freedom and independence as a sovereign state,” Choibalsan announced on Aug. 10, declaring war against Japan. “Our declaration of war will be a revenge of our peoples. On the other hand, it is quite important to liberate our blood brothers, groaning under the yoke of the Japanese samurai.”

Archival documents show the scope of Mongolian ambitions: The leaders of the then-still-unrecognized republic dreamed of a “Great Mongolia” extending as far south as the Great Wall and the Pacific Ocean. The head of the Soviet diplomatic mission in Mongolia, Ivan Ivanov, who witnessed these sentiments, reported to Moscow that although such expansion was bound to bring a large number of ethnic Chinese within the borders of an enlarged state, this was not seen as a problem because Mongolia would “obtain [a] cheap work force, which it will use in the interests of the Mongolian people for the work at construction, at factories and in the agriculture, while keeping the leading role to the Mongols.”

If these prophets of anti-Chinese liberation had their way in 1945, the consequences of the Second Sino-Japanese War would have been even more disastrous for China. Chiang was not in a position to prevent the establishment of the Republic of East Turkestan in Xinjiang or Great Mongolia across much of northern China, short of going to war against the USSR, as he had gone to war against Japan in 1937, a war that he could not possibly win.

Fortunately for China, Stalin, after toying with Choibalsan’s proposals for some months, finally turned him down in February 1946. Similarly, the newly proclaimed Uighur homeland, the “Republic of East Turkestan,” enjoyed only a few months of quasi-independence: In October 1945, Stalin forced the Uighur insurgents to negotiate peace with the Nationalists and, later, with the Communists. In August 1949, he had the leaders of the uprising flown out for additional consultations in Beijing in a Soviet government plane, which then conveniently crashed in Siberia, killing all aboard. In the meantime, Osman also lost Soviet and Mongolian support, then tried briefly to cooperate with the Nationalists in the Kuomintang. In 1951, the Communists finally captured and executed him. These voices of aborted liberation are scarcely remembered nowadays, but they provide a useful counterpoint to the China-centered narrative of anti-Japanese resistance that was on display in Beijing’s Sept. 3 parade.

Stalin had good reasons to pull the plug on the national liberation movements in Inner Mongolia and Xinjiang. After Chiang made all the concessions Stalin asked him to make, the Soviet premier felt his position in China was secure. Even China’s Communists were no longer deemed a very important asset: to Mao’s extreme annoyance, Soviet troops in the Chinese northeast began to hand over control over occupied cities to the Kuomintang rather than the Communists. After months of uncertain maneuvering between the two warring parties, the Soviet army withdrew in May 1946, having dismantled much of Manchuria’s industrial capacity for carting back to Russia as a war trophy.

In the summer of 1946, after less than a year since Japan’s capitulation, China fell into all-out civil war, which meant more misery and privation for the long-suffering Chinese people. The odds were stacked against Chiang for, unlike the Nationalists, the Communists escaped the Sino-Japanese War practically unscathed. By 1946, Mao was in a position to reap the fruits of victory that fell from Chiang’s feeble hands.

Chiang was unfortunate to lead a country during a brutal dual war, but he presided over a government and a party ridden by factions that he barely managed to reconcile. The sheer incompetence and corruption of the Chinese government added millions of victims to the millions raped and murdered by the Japanese. Indeed, some of the worst tragedies of the war — from blowing up the Yellow River dikes in 1938 (intended to stop the Japanese advance but which lead to immense flooding, and killed over half a million Chinese civilians) to the awful famine in the province of Henan in 1942-1943, when as many as 3 million people starved to death — were largely self-inflicted. By the time it was all over in 1945, Chiang — and his China — were practically finished, and Mao stepped in to claim his laurels.

Mao’s moment of triumph arrived in 1949, when he finally chased Chiang to Taiwan, and the Communists consolidated their control over most of the mainland. For decades, the Communist Party blotted out the memories of the Sino-Japanese War as secondary to the narrative of the Communist revolution. Mao even liked to “thank” the Japanese for the war in China, because the invasion “educated” the Chinese people. Without the war, the Chinese Communists would never have defeated the Nationalists.

The Sino-Japanese War killed between 14 and 20 million Chinese people. But the Communist revolution, which the war precipitated, dwarfed this gruesome toll: Between 1946 and 1976, tens of millions died from fighting, repression, and starvation.

According to the organizers, the Beijing parade aimed to “remember history and cherish the memory of martyrs.” Shedding Mao’s earlier and simpler message, President Xi Jinping wants to wed the Communist triumph in 1949 to the notion of China’s victory in the war against Japan in 1945, and project this victory as part of the global anti-fascist struggle. This interpretation simply has no basis in fact. It mystifies, glorifies, and simplifies China’s arduous struggle — a struggle that was as much with itself as with Japan, that was lost as much as it was won, and that left very little glory in its wake, only boundless misery to feed the cauldron of the Chinese revolution.

ChinaFotoPress/ChinaFotoPress via Getty Images

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