“World powers did not want another major player to appear. And played China and Japan off against each other”

A series of interviews for the 80th anniversary of the Second World War. Part 7: China

Realnoe Vremya continues the series of interviews with Russian scientists dedicated to the 80th anniversary of the Second World War. While Europe in September 1939 was just beginning to sink into chaos, in Asia China had been blazing for already 2 years repelling the aggression of Japan. In the interview with our publication, historian Maksim Sinitsyn told about what happened on the eastern borders of the USSR in the second half of the ‘30s, what is the role of the world powers and why Japan could not conquer China.

“Chinese historians estimated that their country lost 35 million people in the war with Japan”

Maksim, not everyone knows that by the time the Second World War began the Japanese-Chinese war had already been going on for 2 years. Why do we rarely remember about it?

It so happened that both Russian and foreign historians research primarily the issues related to the history of the country where they live and work. For example, for the Americans, the Great Patriotic War, and the war on the Eastern Front of the Second World War in general, for many years remained unknown. Even a documentary television series about these events, filmed jointly by the United States and the Soviet Union in 1978, was called — The Unknown War.

The same can be said about the USSR and Russia in relation to the research of the Pacific War and the conflicts in China of the ‘30s. Another thing is that these conflicts were not small in scale and the number of victims. Western and Russian historians say that China lost in the war with Japan 20 million people, the Chinese themselves name the figure of 35 million victims, which is more than the Soviet official losses in the Second World War.

The conflict in China was protracted — the country had long been under the rule of the British crown, but in the 20th century, there begins the movement for independence, in which there appears the independent Chinese state. However, in the ‘20s, when the state was finally created, the world powers were not going to help China — none of them wanted another major player to appear. Moreover, both Britain and the United States began to strengthen relations with Japan, so that it could weaken China.

Russian fascists in Harbin, 1934. Rodzaevsky — in the centre. Photo: wikipedia.org
When Manchuria was conquered in 1931, and Rodzaevsky's party held a congress there, the USSR simply had no choice but to support Chiang Kai-shek in the broadest possible way

The first conflicts between China and Japan began not in the ‘30s but in 1928. Then the leader of the main party of China Kuomintang, Chiang Kai-shek, just after the long civil war managed to unite the country, but then he stands against Japan, which sought to divide China in their own interests. In the end, Chiang Kai-shek did not get a centralized government — here and there, with the support of Japan, there began to emerge independent autonomous regions that were not subject to the head of the republic. Moreover, in 1929, China had a conflict with the USSR on the Chinese Eastern Railway. In 1931, Japan in its interests conquers Manchuria, where he creates the state of Manchukuo with a puppet Japanese government. Then China turns to the USSR for help.

What was remarkable about Manchuria? The fact that since post-revolutionary times there settled Russian white immigrants, including Ataman Semenov. The Japanese consciously supported the creation in this region of the same All-Russian fascist party under the leadership of Konstantin Rodzaevsky. Therefore, when Manchuria was conquered in 1931, and Rodzaevsky's party held a congress there, the USSR simply had no choice but to support Chiang Kai-shek in the broadest possible way. Loans were issued to China, military equipment was supplied — it would be impossible to fight the Japanese threat alone.

“A key factor in the weakness of the Chinese army was the fragmentation of the country”

Did China seek the help of other powers to defend itself against Japan? Were any lucrative offers put forward to Western countries?

China asked the League of Nations to intervene in the situation with the capture of Manchuria, but everything ended there. Japan was recognized as an aggressor, but the League of Nations evaded the imposition of sanctions against it, and the United States continued to supply Japan with important products for the country, the same oil. Again, the fear of the emergence of a strong power in the East, with which it was unknown what to do then, forced the West to implement the policy of non-interference.

The wife of Chinese Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, Soong Mei-ling, speaking to members of the House of Representatives of the US Congress calling for maximum efforts in the war with Japan. Photo: photochronograph.ru

Did China try to reach a mutually beneficial agreement with the Japanese in order to avoid bloodshed?

There couldn’t be any negotiations with the Japanese in principle — they did not recognize the centralized government of China, and that was the main problem. You see, Japan had the fundamental task to divide China and make it a puppet state, no one was going to negotiate with Chiang Kai-shek. So, the Japanese had no other options besides war, and they were ready to go in this plan all the way. The Chinese side also declared war until the final victory — neither the Communist Party of China nor the ruling nationalist party Kuomintang could recognize the dominance of any foreign forces on its territory.

China could not build a system of collective security with the USSR until 1937?

Since 1931, China had been in a state of undeclared war with Japan because of Manchuria, and collective security could not work out there. It could receive only aid — volunteers, equipment, loans.

The Chinese army outnumbered the Japanese one, but it was weak. Why? Because of technical backwardness?

Not only. A key factor in the army's weakness is its fragmentation. Besides, the Chinese government sought first to resolve internal issues, that is, to create a centralized government with real power at the local level (which the government of Chiang Kai-shek did not have), and then to deal with external ones. Chinese leaders never solved the internal issues, which eventually led to the victory of the Communists in 1949 and the creation of the People's Republic of China. Well, besides, the state of China in the ‘30s was very young, which allowed the Japanese to influence the situation.

Chinese soldiers in the service during an inspection in Beijing. Photo: photochronograph.ru
A key factor in the army's weakness is its fragmentation. Besides, the Chinese government sought first to resolve internal issues, that is, to create a centralized government with real power at the local level (which the government of Chiang Kai-shek did not have), and then to deal with external ones

How did the USSR perceive the war between China and Japan in 1937-1939?

As well as the capture of Manchuria in 1931 — as the hotbed of tension at the borders. If Japan had gained a foothold in a significant area of China, since June 1941 the question would have arisen about the second front, and it did come up to the moment when Richard Sorge sent a telegram to Moscow that Japan was not planning offensive actions against the USSR.

But before that, the Soviet Union kept military units in the Far East, which, of course, could well be used from the beginning of the war on the Western front, and it was these units that ensured victory in the battle for Moscow. The main thing for the USSR was to minimize its risks of war at the expense of China.

“Japan in the East has become an instrument of pressure of leading powers on the USSR. Like Germany in the West”

What did the years 1937-1939 give Japan? The Japanese did not manage to capture all China, and it was with the weakened Chinese army.

The purpose of Japan was domination in the East, and for this, it was necessary to create a network of puppet states in China, Indonesia, Malaysia. No one seriously interfered it in this for the most part. The policy of non-interference of Western countries, the inclusion of China in the zone of Japanese interests led to the fact that Japan in the East became an instrument of pressure of the leading powers on the USSR, as Germany was in the West. It so happened that anti-Communist countries could be formed in those years anywhere — both in the West and in the East, and Western diplomacy made great efforts to create an anti-Communist axis, which would carry out external pressure on the USSR. As a result, as we know, not only the USSR suffered but also the Western countries themselves.

With the beginning of the war in China, it was important for the Japanese to control industrial areas, but the Japanese could not go further — their 200-thousandth forces were not enough for this. The western regions of China were of no interest to the Japanese state: there were no resources, no industry there, only peasant farms. But it was quite difficult to control even the eastern coastal area of the country for the Japanese. There successfully, especially on roads, the Chinese guerrillas acted, and the Japanese military contingent was in a mode of constant skirmishes with the guerrillas who broke to it many plans. But the partisan factor played a big role only after 1939 when both the USSR and the USA began to help the partisans.

Photo: wikipedia.org
The Japanese practiced in the war the same as the Germans did — gas cameras, the use of chemical and bacteriological weapons

These guerrilla groups were mainly Communist?

No, they were different forces because, due to fragmentation, each region of China had its own leader, he led his own independent policy, and there was no centralized ideological tinting of the guerrillas.

Is the Japanese presence in China akin to the crimes of the German Nazis? After all, in the then capital of China, Nanjing, 200,000 people were massacred, and this is not an isolated case.

The Nanking massacre was an act of intimidation. Besides, it is the result of resistance — seeing the practice of resistance, the Japanese decided to arrange a massacre as a warning to everyone else. Yes, the Japanese practised in the war the same as the Germans did — gas cameras, the use of chemical and bacteriological weapons. For this purpose, special teams and concentration camps were created. Everything was the same for these two aggressors.

What conclusion can be drawn from the bloodshed in China in the second half of the ‘30s?

There is one conclusion: the attempt to create pockets of resistance to the Soviet Union led in end to the Second World War. The pumping, primarily by the British, of Germany and Japan with the anti-Bolshevik policy, the attempt to appease the aggressors (and in fact, the policy of unleashing their hands), unwillingness to see independent Poland and China, could only lead to sad consequences.

By Sergey Kochnev