The Great Dictator

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Review of 'Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek and the China He Lost', Jonathan Fenby, The Free Press £9.95

The evil that men do doesn't always live on after them. Chiang Kai-Shek, who was the dictator of China for 20 years before 1949, is pretty much forgotten today. We now know so much about the crimes of Maoism that they overshadow the fact that the revolution of 1949 was massively popular. This new book usefully reminds us why that was, and just how vicious, corrupt and murderous the pre-1949 regime was.

Modern Chinese nationalism started in the first decade of the 20th century, and Chiang Kai-Shek was there at its inception. He led a military detachment in the abortive 1911 revolution, and then settled in Shanghai, where he began what was to be a lifelong collaboration with the leaders of the city's criminal underworld. As the old empire crumbled, it proved impossible for any government to replace it, and real power passed into the hands of brutal local warlords. Chiang was adept at negotiating with them, and a combination of military power and utter ruthlessness propelled him into the leadership of the nationalist movement.

By the mid-1920s the nationalist movement dominated much of southern China, and Chiang was able to lead an enormous military expedition which aimed to defeat the northern warlords and reunify China. But their success was based on a wave of workers' and peasants' struggles which went beyond simply national demands to class demands. The mass movement from below threatened imperialism as never before, but it also threatened Chinese landlords and capitalists. Chiang used the mass movement to expand the power of the nationalist movement, while preparing to crush it when the time was right.

In this he was crucially aided by Stalin's Comintern and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Stalin insisted that nothing except a nationalist revolution was possible in China, and told the CCP that they had to do 'coolie work' for the nationalists. As the movement grew, the nationalists became increasingly frightened of it and looked to do a deal with the imperialist powers.

The tensions finally exploded in the spring of 1927. As Chiang's Northern Expedition neared Shanghai the city's workers rose and took over much of the city, but were then disarmed as Chiang entered it. Within days a murderous repression erupted across Shanghai, which spread by the end of 1927 to all nationalist-controlled territory.

Fenby's account adds little to the histories of the 1920s revolution. He constantly stresses the military side of the revolution and downplays the workers' and peasants' movements. He's much better on the 1930s and 1940s, and in particular the tangled military history of those years.

For Chiang's victory over the CCP in 1927 left him still facing powerful warlords, and after 1932 the Japanese army - which invaded north eastern China and moved steadily south. Yet he insisted on concentrating his armies against the CCP guerrillas who had taken to the mountains after 1928, until a revolt by junior officers forced him into an anti-Japanese alliance with the CCP. Even then his hatred of the CCP led him to focus more on them than on fighting the Japanese.

For the people of China, these were desperate times. The Japanese invaders wantonly pillaged, murdered and raped their way across the land, and the nationalist troops were often little better. The war further ravaged a society which was already falling apart.

This was the period when Mao's guerrilla armies really forged their power - fighting a purely nationalist war against the Japanese, they nevertheless held out the promise of a better life free from famine and the greed of landlords. After the Japanese surrender in 1945 their victory was inevitable.

Fenby's focus on Chiang as an individual leads him to tell the story of these years as a backdrop, yet he captures very well the utter corruption and barbarity of the nationalist regime. He doesn't really explain it, though, beyond painting a picture of Chiang as one of the worst dictators of the 20th century (which he undoubtedly was). What's missing is any real account of class relationships - Chiang's power seems to hinge solely on his personality.

Mao's revolution of 1949 was one of the great world-changing events of the last century. There are better books on it, but this is a comprehensive examination of how and why Chiang, and the landlord and capitalist classes he represented, sowed the seeds of that revolution.