Photograph of Kuomintang soldiers

Wikipedia Commons

The Kuomintang (Guomíndang) was the political apparatus of the Nationalist Chinese government, which was essentially a military dictatorship.  Founded in 1912 under Sun Yat-sen, brother-in-law of Chiang Kai-shek, it originally advocated parliamentary democracy and moderate socialism.  During the power struggles that followed, the party line hardened into a program of military government, to be followed by Kuomintang tutelage and (at some bright future day) popular sovereignty.

The notion that China was unprepared for liberal democracy in the early 20th century may sound illiberal to readers living in the early 21st century. However, there was no tradition of democracy in China; the literacy rate, especially in the vast rural countryside, was appallingly low; and the collapse of the Qing Dynasty had led to political chaos and warlordism. Under these circumstances, it is hard to imagine what better alternative there was to the authoritarian program of the Kuomintang — certainly not the brutal personality cult of Mao Tse-tung under the Chinese Communists.

Ironically, the embryonic Communist Party had originally been part of the Kuomintang, a "party within a party." However, Chiang had become resentful of the Russian advisors brought in by the Communists to advise the Kuomintang, and when the left wing of the Kuomintang proclaimed its own national government in Wuhan in March 1927, Chiang moved quickly to liquidate the Communists.

The Kuomintang set up the trappings of a modern state, with five Yuans dividing government responsibilities between them. Three of these corresponded closely with the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of the United States federal government. However, Chiang dominated the Executive Yuan and the Legislative Yuan did little more than rubber stamp his directives. Nevertheless, the Kuomintang had enough credibility abroad to attract foreign capital investment and loans and to renegotiate some of the "unequal treaties" that had infringed Chinese sovereignty and wounded Chinese pride.

Following the Long March of 1934, which put the Communists and the Kuomintang beyond each other's immediate reach, the Kuomintang had control of about a quarter of Chinese territory and two-thirds of the population. Considerable progress was made in improving education, the financial system, and the national infrastructure. By 1935 the national currency was stable and the budget balanced. However, progress in rural areas remained very limited, and it was here that the Communists would build their power base during the war years.

The Japanese invasion in 1937 put an end to the Kuomintang's reform program and prevented Chiang from finishing off the Communists. The massive effort to build an army capable of standing up to the Japanese destabilized the currency and the efforts of sympathetic powers to extend aid ended up feeding a growing culture of corruption. By the time the United States entered the war against Japan, the situation in the areas of China still controlled by the Kuomintang was parlous, and newly arrived American observers were shocked by the ineffectiveness of the badly weakened Kuomintang administration. Americans became particularly suspicious of Chiang's Minister of Transport and Supply, Yu Fei-peng, who they suspected of diverting Lend-Lease trucks and fuel to transporting civilian goods for profit.

Most American observers came to have a very low opinion of Chiang Kai-shek, whose veneer of Westernization was very thin and who resented his foreign advisors (particular "Vinegar Joe" Stilwell), understandably believing that he should be running the show in his own country. There was talk of overthrowing Chiang in favor of a more capable subordinate, but this nowhere, in part because Chiang had an effective secret police and in part because Chiang probably was the most capable military leader the Kuomintang had: He had received a formal military education, and he had already proved himself a superior strategist to most of the proposed alternate leaders during the warlord struggles of the 1920s and 1930s. That was why he was the Generalissimo and they the subordinates.

The Japanese surrender in August 1945 came too late and too suddenly for the Kuomintang. The country' infrastructure had been wrecked to such an extent that Chiang was forced to ask the Japanese Army to continue maintaining order in the occupied areas until Kuomintang troops could arrive. Meanwhile the Communists had gained control of much of the rural countryside on both sides of the front lines. The Russians saw to it that the Kuomintang were kept out of Manchuria long enough for the Communists to get there first and supply themselves from captured military stores, and the loss of Manchuria eventually meant the victory of the Communists over the Kuomintang in the civil war of 1945-1949.


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