The Ending of the Second World War in China

Written by: Diana Lary

China's Civil War

Diana Lary, the author of China's Civil War, reveals how the end of World War II left China in devastation.


Seventy years after the Japanese defeat in the Second World War, China looks back at a tragic victory, the end of a bitter eight year war during which China had been brought close to despair. Victory could not disguise the terrible state that the war had left China in, her society in chaos, her economy in tatters. Much of the infrastructure was destroyed. The unoccupied cites had been bombed by Japanese planes in the first years of the war; in the last year of the war American planes bombed Japanese-occupied north, east and south China. Tens of millions of people were refugees. Agricultural yields were right down, and several parts of the country were stalked by famine. The country seemed almost destroyed.

Victory did not bring peace. The reestablishment of the political order was fragile. The Guomindang (GMD) central government now technically regained control of all the areas occupied by Japan, but in fact did not. It was far away, in the west. In many of the small towns and villages of northern China it was the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) that took control, or were already in control. Manchuria was under the control of Soviet armies. The GMD’s opportunity to re-establish its leadership of the nation was compromised by the delays and uncertainties that accompanied the end of the war, and by the need to deal with a host of other compelling issues.

The defeated Japanese

One of the first issues was the millions of soldiers of the defeated Japanese armies. The units in China Proper surrendered to the GMD, over a period of several months, during which some continued in service until the GMD could take over. Over half a million soldiers were captured in Manchuria by the Soviet Red Army and taken as slave labour in to the USSR. The rest of the Japanese forces had left ahead of the Red Army. The Japanese military had been severely shaken by its defeat by the Soviets at Nomonhan (1939) and feared a return engagement. The Japanese armies led the rush out of Manchuria in August, 1945. Japanese civilians in Manchuria were repatriated to Japan over the next year and a half, largely by the US. Eventually more than two million Japanese civilians were repatriated. The future of the two million or more Koreans who had been brought in to Manchuria as peasants by their Japanese colonial masters was still up in the air. Many of the Taiwanese (Japanese citizens until the end of the war) left China precipitately at the end of the war.

There was a relative lack of vengeance towards Japanese in China, certainly as compared to the Soviet vengeance on Germany earlier in 1945. Retreating Japanese forces had destroyed much of the evidence of war crimes; large parts of the Unit 731 chemical and biological weapons station outside Harbin were blown up just before the retreat. In Shenyang and other places in Manchuria the archives were burnt.There was a parallel process in Asia to the Nuremberg Trials for the prosecution of Japanese war criminals. The International Military Tribunal for the Far East (the Tokyo Trials) started work in January 1946, with an international panel of judges. Twenty-eight men were indicted as Class A war criminals, including Generals Matsui Iwane and Doihara Kenji, indicted for crimes in China. Both were executed.

The tribunal satisfied few people. In China it seemed that too few people had been held responsible for eight years of suffering. In Japan the accusation was levelled that the tribunal represented `victor’s justice’. The dissatisfaction has continued. The commemoration of Matsui and Doihara in the Yasakuni Shrine in Tokyo, and official government visits to the shrine, has led to recurrent friction between Japan and China, most recently in January 2013, after Prime Minister Abe Shinzo’s visit.

Chinese who had worked with the Japanese

Another immediate problem for the Chinese government was what to do with Chinese who had worked with the Japanese. The most egregious were those labelled traitors (hanjian). Wang Jingwei, the leader of the puppet government in Nanjing, made things easy for the GMD. He died in Japan in 1944, and could not be prosecuted. His remains were not spared; in 1945 his grave near Nanjing was vandalised.

The number of hanjian executed was quite small. Their trials were given enormous media coverage, with full and often grisly details of the manner of their deaths, so that although the executions were not public, there was little doubt about what had happened. Dealing with those people not formally labelled as hanjian, but who had worked for or lived quietly under the Japanese, and with the puppet forces (weijun), was problematic. These two categories amounted to a huge number of people. Many officials were dismissed from their positions, though others were allowed to stay because they were needed. Others whose record vis-à-vis the Japanese was dubious suffered only embarrassment; one such was the writer Zhang Ailing (Eileen Chang) whose husband Hu Lancheng was a major collaborator. 

Confiscation and looting

In late 1945 and in to 1946 there was a tidal wave of confiscation throughout the once-occupied regions. Confiscation technically referred to enemy and hanjian property, but it quickly degenerated in to general looting. Many people with dubious records had their property expropriated. Within the once-occupied areas the stigma of having lived with the Japanese was used to squeeze people. This was a common practice in Shanghai, Nanjing and other once-occupied cities. The GMD return felt more like the onslaught of a plague of locusts than a liberation. The take-over of Japanese property – factories, businesses, houses, vehicles – was one thing, the expropriation of Chinese property was quite another. And yet within a short time, so many houses, businesses, cars and private possessions had been lost by the locals to the in-comers from Chongqing that there was general disillusionment.

In Taiwan the take-over was particular harsh. All Japanese property was confiscated, giving the incoming government enormous assets, including as much as a third of the arable land, railways, government buildings, factories, schools, hospitals and a huge supply of housing. This was not enough for the incomers. The government and its soldiers treated the entire local population as active collaborators with the Japanese, which meant that they could be fired from their jobs, stripped of their property, their businesses and their farms.

The people of Manchuria suffered as harsh treatment as the Taiwanese, as if they were being punished for the fact that they had suffered less than other parts of China during the war. Expropriation was exacted not by Chinese but by the Soviets. Starting in the `August Storm’ Soviet troops took over all Japanese property as war booty, and began a mass shipment of industrial machinery back to the USSR. Thousands of plants, the largest the steel mills at Anshan, were completely dismantled and their machinery sent off to the USSR. The Soviets focussed on machinery and railway equipment. The incoming Chinese soldiers and civilians who started to arrive in the late autumn, after the Soviets had had their pick, confiscated and looted anything else – houses, furniture, cars, chattels.

Occupation currencies

One of the most damaging decisions of the GMD in the immediate post-war period impoverished all those who held money in Occupation currencies, principally the middle classes of the occupied areas,. At the end of the war the Occupation currency and the fabi, China’s official currency, were almost at parity. Then the official exchange rate was suddenly changed, to 200:1. The Occupation money was almost worthless, bank balances melted away. Holders of fabi, that is those people who were returning from the west or were connected to the government, were suddenly at a huge advantage over those who had stayed in the occupied areas. Those who lost their money saw the new exchange rate as a vengeful act by their liberators, for the time they had lived under the Japanese; they were being punished by the in-coming GMD.

Economic collapse

Immediately after the end of the war, the wartime inflationary spiral reversed itself briefly. Prices of consumer goods fell suddenly as hoarders unloaded their stashes, in panic. But within two months prices were on the rise again. The hope that the end of war would bring a resumption of manufacturing and trade proved to be illusory. The peace brought a brief upsurge in both in late 1945 and early 1946, but by the end of 1946 it was over, the result of currency confusion and of inflation. Inflation roared out of hand.

Inflation and currency confusion were enough on their own to damage manufacturing and trade; to make matters worse China’s transport system was in shambles. Water travel was tremendously limited by the fact that the Japanese had taken every vessel they could lay their hands on as they fled in the summer of 1945. Vessels still available were needed to bring back refugees from the west and to repatriate Japanese civilians. The railway system was heavily damaged. Bridges and tracks had been destroyed by Allied bombing towards the end of the war, and locomotives and rolling stock had disappeared, many of them to the USSR.

The modern economy was in ruins. Inflation, coupled with the breakdown of the communications system, brought with it insecurity, uncertainty and above all corruption. The beneficiaries of the economic chaos were primary producers (i.e. peasants), who could either demand higher prices or barter what they produced, and profiteers, who could do very well though hoarding, corruption and currency manipulation.

Stranded foreigners

China had to deal with a large number of stranded foreigners. There were 16,000 stateless refugees in Shanghai, 67% German, 23% Austrian, almost all Jewish. They were being supported temporarily by Jewish charitable organisations in New York. They wanted to leave, for the USA, Australia or Canada; gradually most were able to do so. Thousands of liberated Western internees from the Japanese camps at Weixian and in Shanghai were going home; most were repatriated quite rapidly. Many of the citizens of Japan’s allies, Germans, Austrians, Italians and Vichy French had to be repatriated. In Manchuria and in the great cities, there was the question of what to do with the White Russians. The USSR encouraged them to go home to Russia, the last thing many wanted to do. They too started to leave China, making not for the hated USSR but for the USA and Australia. One thing was clear to all. The days of foreign dominance and privilege in China were gone for good.

Political polarisation

In late 1945 political polarisation was acute. The GMD and the CCP were both gripped by an equally steely determination to use the end of one war to start an even more vital one, for control of China. The stakes were enormous. From early in Chinese history it was understood that the way to power was through success in war. Zhuangzi, the Daoist philosopher (4th Century BCE) put it one way:

竊鈎者誅 竊國者候

Qiegouzhe zhu, qieguozhe hou

Steal a hook and be executed. Steal a country and become a marquis

Almost three millennia later Mao Zedong put it more bluntly (1938):


Qiang ganzili chu zhengquan

Political power comes from the barrel of a gun

The determinations of the two sides to fight ignored the wishes of the vast majority of the population. The GMD made no effort to be popular. The lack of popularity started at the top. Chiang Kai-shek was stiff and remote. He embraced the military and traditional elite culture, neither of which spoke to the mood of a nation recovering from war. He promised nothing to the nation – no democracy, no peace bonus, no stability. His lack of popularity as a national leader meant that the GMD could not rebuild itself as a popular party, nor could it count on its one-time constituencies in the middle and upper strata of society. Its social capital was diminishing. In the toxic atmosphere of internal GMD politics, dominated by virulent gossip and back-stabbing, the almost suicidal loss of morale could not have been more apparent.

As the GMD’s morale declined the CCP’s was increasing. Mao Zedong controlled the whole CCP; all internal opposition had been suppressed. Its strength was now considerable. It controlled at least 100,000,000 people, had an army of 910,000 men and another two million militiamen. It was concentrated in poor, rural areas, not in towns, but this was an advantage in times of inflation. The rural economy could function at a low level, through self-sufficiency and using bartering to replace monetized trade. The CCP’s spartan, self-confident ideology made it attractive to people already going through hard times. The CCP was taken seriously by foreign observers, its leaders regarded by some as moderate reformers rather than real revolutionaries.

One of the CCP’s strengths was on the propaganda front. To the urban populations, through covert propaganda, it presented a carefully-constructed image a combination of equity, decency and patriotism. This image won discreet support from left-leaning intellectuals and artists. For the peasants the focus was on traditional folk culture. The CCP’s cultural arm adapted traditional folk arts (songs, wood block prints, theatre) to enhance the political message. The cultural workers used the tales of earthy heroism contained in the Sanguo yanyi (Romance of the Three Kingdoms) and the Shuihu zhuan (Water Margin) to draw to them the vast population who knew and loved these works. The CCP continued to benefit from the back-handed advantage it had acquired during the war; communism had been virulently and continuously attacked by the Japanese. The enemy’s enemy appeared in a favourable light. The CCP also had the huge advantage of Mao Zedong’s boundless confidence in ultimate success, and in himself.

In its relations with foreign countries, the CCP benefitted greatly from the charm of one man – Zhou Enlai, the CCP’s negotiator in Chongqing. He was suave, sophisticated and handsome. He had been in France, and spoke French. He seemed to be a voice of moderation, a man who made communism seem unthreatening. He and his beautiful interpreter Gong Peng captivated everyone, from grizzled veterans like General George Marshall to young and idealistic Chinese. Zhou and his team were the public face of the revolution.

Equally important in its success was the CCP’s highly efficient intelligence arm, under the sinister and dreaded Kang Sheng, known as Mao Zedong’s Beria. He collected detailed information on the GMD and on his colleagues in the CCP, information that allowed Mao to exercise an iron grip on the party. The GMD lost its equally fearsome intelligence head, Dai Li, in a mysterious plane crash in March, 1946. Its intelligence network did not recover. Its agents were thugs rather than ideologues, capable of brutality but without vision. The GMD lost the secret war with the CCP.

In the polarised political world in China there was no place for intermediate positions. Both the GMD and the CCP were taking increasingly hard positions. In between their two poles those who believed in liberal, democratic and open politics were seen as soft and naïve. Some organisations such as the Democratic League existed, but they were not influential in politics or the military. The CCP ignored them, the GMD regarded them as proto-communists. Chiang Mon-lin (Jiang Menglin), former president of Peking University and the leading proponent of a middle way, was the face of a loose group that saw itself as representing the exhausted Chinese people, who wanted only peace. Both sides were determined on fighting each other. Hard-line protagonists had no interest in the middle ground. The sudden end of the world war had come as a surprise to both, but both were determined on civil war. The two sides knew each other only too well, and bound together by deep animosity, often hatred, that had to do with their past together over two decades.

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About the Author: Diana Lary

Diana Lary is the author of China's Civil War (2015)....

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