China’s contribution to Japan’s defeat


An estimated 14 million to 20 million Chinese died during this epic struggle of resistance against Japanese aggression in a war that produced a staggering 80 million to 100 million refugees. Despite the prolonged onslaught of Japan’s modern military machine for eight long years, a divided China, mostly on its own, put up a heroic fight against steep odds, pinning down 600,000 of its troops and playing a crucial role in weakening Japan by inflicting heavy casualties on forces that were better armed, supplied and trained. The official death toll for Japanese soldiers killed in China between 1937 and 1945 is 480,000.

CHINA’S WAR WITH JAPAN, 1937-45: The Struggle for Survival, by Rana Mitter. Allen Lane, 2013, 458 pp., £25 (hardcover)

China was a quagmire that forced Japan to squander vast amounts of resources that put it on a collision course with the Allied powers and undermined its Pacific War effort. To secure the resources it needed to win the war in China, Japan attacked resource-rich Western colonies in Southeast Asia and fatefully, the U.S. at Pearl Harbor.

Historian Rana Mitter points out that China’s key role in World War II is often overlooked, usually portrayed as a sideshow. Here we are given a magnificent rendering of these horrific years and a sense of the terrible price the Japanese exacted before their ultimate surrender.

The Sino-Japanese War began in July 1937, somewhat haphazardly in the vicinity of Beijing at the Marco Polo Bridge. After deadly skirmishing, local commanders had arranged a cease-fire and it seemed unlikely that the incident would flare into all out war, but Tokyo wanted to settle matters.

Mitter draws on a wide array of sources to give us a flavor of war in all its merciless manifestations. He presents a relatively sympathetic account of the Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek, the generalissimo who led Chinese resistance, pointing out that his forces did much more of the fighting than Mao Zedong’s Communists. But in 1949 Mao won the civil war against Chiang and thus the victor’s history that has prevailed until recently in China greatly inflates the role of the Communists while the far more crucial role of the Nationalists has been marginalized. Here they get their due, perhaps overly so.

In a war that was marked by awful atrocities inflicted by the Japanese marauders, the myth that Tokyo was out to liberate Asia is a cruel joke in China.

Perhaps one of the most devastating episodes was when Chiang ordered the breaching of dikes that held back the Yellow River. The deliberate flooding of vast stretches of Henan, Anhui and Jiangsu in 1938 was aimed at slowing the Japanese advance and was done without warning to preserve the element of surprise. Some half a million Chinese died in the deluge and another 4 million were displaced from their homes. It was a ghastly price to pay, but is emblematic of the determination and sacrifices that enabled the Chinese to prevail. True, Chinese battlefield victories were few, but by trading space for time and avoiding decisive defeat, Japan’s proud warriors were worn down by a nation that would not surrender.

The devastating impact of the war has shaped modern China in profound ways. It marked a huge setback for China’s nascent modernization, scarred society by inflicting humiliation and privation on an extraordinary scale and provided the template for the mass mobilization and ruthless suppression that marred Mao’s China. Mitter also points out that the wartime demands of the state intensified — grain requisitioning, forced labor, conscription — and as a result people came to expect more from the state.

Amidst a savage war, he argues that the Nationalists laid the foundations for a modern welfare state by providing food for millions of refugees while improving health care and sanitation. Yet the constant air raids on Free China’s capitol at Chongqing and the generalized scourge of war hampered such efforts.

Moreover, the needs of the peasant farmers clashed with those of the Nationalist troops who conscripted their sons and eventually seized their grain as “tax.” In Henan Province this lead to famine in 1942-43 that claimed 4 million lives, an avoidable tragedy that exposed incompetence and corruption among the Nationalists. This led to a bitter backlash in 1944 when peasants surrounded Nationalist troops sent to counter a Japanese offensive in the region, beating and killing officers while stripping soldiers of their weapons.

Chiang never had good relations with Roosevelt, Churchill or Stalin and resented that China was never accorded the respect or gratitude he felt it deserved. But during the first years of the war, it was Soviet military assistance that helped keep China in the war. In 1942 the U.S. sent Gen. “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell to advise Chiang, but their relationship proved disastrous, souring bilateral relations and undermining China’s war effort. Here we learn that Stilwell was an incompetent “know-it-all” officer with no command experience who recklessly gambled on disastrous forays into Burma.

In the first campaign he deserted his Chinese troops and fled to India and thereafter sought redemption in a second debacle during which 80 percent of his troops, some of China’s best, suffered casualties. Stilwell was obsessed with his media image and always backstabbing Chiang to divert attention from his own ineptitude. Mitter makes a compelling case that Stilwell’s foolish actions made Chiang’s battle to survive Japanese onslaughts even harder.

Chiang may have won the war, but Nationalist corruption and depredations alienated the war-weary Chinese and thereby facilitated Mao’s victory in the civil war. Because the Japanese had caused so much damage, a poor country became even more afflicted while the Nationalist troops bore the brunt of Japanese attacks. In this sense, Mitter concludes, Japan was handmaiden to Mao’s China and all the horrors that unfolded.

Jeff Kingston is the director of Asian Studies at Temple University, Japan Campus.

  • This is the best articulated opinion that I have read so far in the Japan Times.

  • echykr

    Mao Zedong, when meeting PM Tanaka Kakuei during his landmark visit to Beijing, was actually quoted THANKING the Japanese invasion for bogging Chiang Kai-shek down, allowing the Communists to take over the country in the chaos following the war, and thus Japan need not apologize for anything. (A simple Googling will give you plenty of such sources)

    Thank you for this article for setting the record straight, exposing decades of false Communist propaganda of attempting to take credit away from the Chiang’s Nationalists, who did most of the fighting, and who paid a price, ending up marooned in Taiwan, because of it.

  • shinjukuboy

    It is good that recently the contribution of both Russia and China to victory in WWII is getting notice. Along with the carnage, there were a lot of Japanese raised under the Emperor-based education system who were “true believers” and really thought their mission was to drive Europeans from Asia because they thought (correctly I think) that Japan was next to be conquered. Of course, there were also the new industrialists who wanted the raw materials and criminals put into uniform and sent to Asia where they did what we all know they did.

  • 思德

    Chiang Kai Shek was no saint. He had his own secret police and was a huge fan of Benito Mussolini; he fashioned himself after Il Duche. When he went to Taiwan, the White Terror ensued. He was little better than Mao; the difference was he was merely a more successful warlord than all the others in the modern period up to that point, with no particular ideology except to make himself look good- whereas Mao was backed by a harmful ideology that hamstrung China for decades. CSK starved 4 million; The Great Leap Forward starved 50 million.

    There were no winners in early modern China. Just the power hungry, the ideologically brainwashed, and those caught between.

  • Yosemite_Steve

    Barbara Tuchman won one of 2 Pulitzer prizes for her “Stilwell and the American Experience in China” in which she paints a very balanced account of Stillwell’s arguments with Chiang and US chief of Chiang’s airforce, Gen. Claire Lee Chennault. Stillwell was in China from the 1920’s and spoke fluent Mandarin. It’s well accepted that Chiang hoarded war materiel sent by the allies for use against the Communists instead of using it to fight the Japanese. This review makes Mitter’s book sound quite counter to Tuchman’s very well researched book which contrasts Stillwell’s professionalism with Chiang’s vanity and foolishness. Maybe readers need to read both books and see who is more accurate and better researched.

  • Larry

    Read the excellent book “Retribution” which gives a great overview of the last 2 years of the Pacific War. It states that neither the Nationals or Communists in China exerted much effort to fight the Japanese, but were both preparing for the control of China after America had defeated the Japanese. The Russians waited until both bombs had been dropped and then went on a land grab against a skeleton army in Manchuria; but their entry in the war undoubtably had great effect in Tokyo where leaders had been trying to arrange a negotiated settlement through the Soviets (who had no interest in helping the Japanese prior to getting territory they coveted). Once the Soviets declared war the Japanese lost what they thought was their best chance to negotiate, and knew the Russians would occupy their northern islands. Everything I have learned about the Chinese Governments (nationalist and communists) efforts during WWII promoted the tragedy to the Chinese people.

  • John L. Odom

    I had many dear friends who were in China as Missionaries at the time. Chang was no saint, but there were few saints in China at the time. Japan’s war with China lead directly to the wider Pacific war.