Middle to late 20th century China was dominated by three men.
Wang Jingwei was the most educated. He spoke English with his friends and went to graduate school oversees. Predictably, he cast in his lot with the Japanese.
Chiang Kaishek was an adolescent in a Japanese military academy. He was the first publicly known Chinese “Red,” famous for an early attack on the middle class in Canton. Predictably, he became famous fighting both the Japanese and the Communists and was a pro-American leader.
Mao Zedong was a librarian who hated to travel. Into his old age, he would quote classical poetry, and he spent the least time abroad of any of these men. Predictably, he launched the anti-intellectual Cultural Revolution and throw in his lot with the Soviet Union’s “internationalism.”
I begin this way because of a recent thread on Chicago Boyz, “CHINA-BURMA-INDIA: Remembering the Forgotten Theater of World War II” by onparkstreet. The discussion of this post revolved around two American Generals, Claire Chennault and Joseph Stillwell, who had dramatic impressions of Chiang Kaishek’s commitment to the American cause during the Second World War.
Chennault (whose wife was a Beijinger) believed that Chiang was a brilliant leader willing to take risks to drive back Imperial Japan and its client, the Nanjing Regime of Wang Jingwei. Stillwell (who spoke Chinese and lived in Beijing for four years during the 1920s) believed that Chiang was a corrupt imbecile who refused to engage in any real fighting against the Empire of Japan.
Both were half right. Chiang was a brilliant leader who refused to engage in any real fighting against the Empire of Japan.
The reason for this is that Chiang, like Wang (But unlike Mao) was not a romantic fool. Chiang and Wang both quickly realized that China was so weak and divided that no Chinese faction could seriously influence the fate of the great powers, but all were in danger of extinction. Therefore Chiang and Wang both bided there time and let fate have its way.
In this way, Chiang and Wang shared a perspective with Deng Xiaoping, who in his old age wrote to his senior followers:
Observe carefully, secure our position, cope with affairs calmly; hide our capabilities, and bide our time; be good at maintaining a low profile, and never claim leadership. Enemy troops are outside the walls. They are stronger than we. We should be mainly on the defensive.
Sickness took Wang Jingwei’s life in 1944. After Mao’s reckless pro-attack stance lead to the liquidation of the Communist Party in Hebei during Japan’s “Three-Alls” reprisal campaign, the Communists also took the defensive.
The fall of Japan spelled the end of the Wang Regime, but both the Communists and the KMT benefited from their defensive posture. Because cadres of both parties (the CCP and the KMT) and armies (the CCP’s People’s Liberation Army, or PLA, and the KMT’s National Revolutionary Army, or NRA) were largely intact, both were able to radically remake post-war society following the establishment of the Communist Regime in Beijing and the KMT Regime in Taipei Regime in 1949.