Thursday, March 31, 2016

War is Rice

The major narratives of the Pacific War are Navy gun battles and the heroism and ultimate sacrifice of Marines on countless islands. The big story I've started to learn about is the war in China, which set the stage for the bamboo curtain in the Cold War.

China had essentially been engaged in regional civil wars since the Boxer Rebellion and the reign of the last emperor. While the Republic of China was established in 1911 as Asia's oldest democracy (that being a loose term), the government's power wasn't consolidated until 1928. Ten years later, Japan invaded south of Manchuria, leading China into war again. The Chinese people endured great numbers of casualties, including the Rape of Nanking. This would lead China's generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek to make the difficult decision to divert the Yellow River in 1938 to stop the advance of the Japanese into central China.

Had Chiang done nothing, the Japanese could've surrounded China's key military elements, forcing a surrender. The other option was to break the dykes of the Yellow River, flooding millions of acres of cropland and displacing over a million people. It was Chiang's last option, like sacrificing a queen on the chessboard. Detractors say that China's gain was minimal, and led to the rise of Communist activity  in the flooded areas. Others noted that the critical region was defended for six more years until Japan's final offensive. The peasants who died in the flooding were damned either way- death by the invader or death for a greater good. Belated appreciation for their sacrifice came at the end of the war.

The Yellow River was China's sorrow that kept giving, though: a 1942 famine in the Henan province- memorialized in a recent movie-  was partly attributed to the river's diversion. This famine was documented in Time Magazine, and the author remarked that he never had difficulty finding an open restaurant- highlighting an income inequality that Mao derided. Remembering what Joseph Needham, the "man who loved China", said about life in Nationalist versus Communist china, the photos- despite the desperation of the people- show a colorful China, where people retained their traditions and manner of dress, be it a large coat or an animal skin. The effects of a bad harvest were amplified by the war. Chiang's government was reluctant to reduce tax revenue in the form of rice; he had millions of troops to feed. Upon hearing that peasants were forced to sell tools and animals, the government ensured that they would take no more than the peasants had produced. Great relief.

China hobbled onwards to victory in 1945, assisted by Allies like an elderly man I met while attending Kings Point. During the War, he had been in the US Army Air Force in China. Japan's surrender should've held much promise for China; however, ceasefires between Mao's Communist troops and Chiang's Nationalists troops failed. Still at war, China suffered hyperinflation, squeezing the poor yet again. More troops defected to the Communists. Mao, after all, was an "agrarian reformer". The peasants didn't know that the Great Leap Forward would kill millions of their countrymen, nor the restrictions on civil liberties would inhibit social life.They just wanted to eat.

Sun Yat Sen's,  'Three Principles' carried by the Nationalist government, held little sway with the hungry masses. Over in India, Gandhi struck a chord with fellow subjects of colonial rule. He knew the poor could care less about abstract freedom, so he attacked the salt tax, an essential ingredient of life in India. 1947 and 1948 were the years that the world's two most populous countries were democracies. Had China followed Chiang Kai-Shek's course, I image that China would've resembled the diversity in wealth and culture that India offers.

 In January 1949, Mao took Peking, and by the end of the year, had conquered most of the mainland. He had to build up an amphibious force to take over the last two island provinces. Hainan fell, but, with the start of the Korean war, Taiwan's defenses were strengthened. For Chinag Kai-Shek, Taiwan was a manageable piece of China. With the help of international aid and American protection, the last holdout of Republican China became an economic miracle, where famine is a distant memory.

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