Questioned Liberators: Guerrilla, Mobile, and Base Warfare in Communist Military Operations in Manchuria, 1945-1947

The years from 1945-1947 were a complex transitional period in the development of Chinese Communist military, political, and diplomatic strategy. While not yet facing the dilemmas of transforming wholesale an insurgent movement into a governing state, the Party was still beset on every side with new dilemmas, contingencies, and existential threats. It feels obvious to state but it bears repeating that during the early stages of the Chinese civil war (1945-1949/50), the Party was simultaneously attempting to do many, many things. Among these things were attempts to negotiate with the United States and the Nationalist Party, garner marginal amounts of subversive support from the Soviet Union, engage in land reform in areas under its control, and peel off supporters on the Chinese periphery and amid cities, all the while fighting the massive and far better-equipped forces of the National government of the Republic of China.

To look at base areas and guerrilla warfare strategy, then, is simply to break off and examine a single piece of a much larger picture. Perhaps we should not feel too bad for having to segment our knowledge this way — after all, there were few Chinese individuals alive at the time, much less itinerant and productive Anglophone journalists, who had enough personal experiences that cut across this huge gamut of activities and the far-flung regions in which they took place. But if we must choose to grasp the end of a wedge of a key element in the Chinese civil war, you might argue, the CCP policy toward base areas could be considered the most important piece.

The Chinese Communist Party has traditionally argued as much in its academies, and some classic books (i.e., William Hinton’s Fanshen, or Jack Belden’s China Shakes the World, or Harrison Forman’s Report from Red China) delved into communist land reform and base areas in north and northwest China in the mid/late 1940s.

For Manchuria, Mao’s late December 1945 directive to the newly-established Northeastern Bureau of the CCP tends to be the jumping-off point for such treatments, in which the base areas inevitably proliferate in the countryside and Maoist genius filters downward and inward. But we need not be pure converts in order to be convinced of this narrative —  if Maoist doctrine of first establishing rural redoubts and the Chinese Communist use of ‘peasant nationalism’ was vital for the growth of Maoist base areas during the war with Japan, the same strategy might be said to have been at the core of CCP success in the civil war in northeast China.

Tanner provides a clear clarification and ultimately a dissent to such a narrative in his article ‘Guerrilla, Mobile, and Base Warfare in Communist Military Operations in Manchuria, 1945-1947.’

Unlike his counterparts writing on the mainland, the author wastes very little time paying homage to Mao’s seminal writings of the late 1930s on guerrilla warfare. Indeed, Mao himself does not really play a central role in the policy debates that play out in this article. Perhaps this is actually a problem of the piece? Tanner leans — too readily, I think — upon the vague locution of the ‘Party Center’ giving orders from Yan’an, only on one or two occasions taking care to note that Mao was not, in fact, giving those orders, tied up as he was in negotiations with the Nationalists and their dapper and whooping American patrons in Chongqing. ‘Party Center,’ in some cases, then, actually meant a group led by Liu Shaoqi. Liu Shaoqi in Yanan 1946

Tanner does note that Mao had foreseen a transition in the 1930s toward what was inevitably happening in 1944 and 1945, that is, a move by the communist armies from guerrilla to ‘mobile warfare.’  What does that mean, precisely? A matter for some more investigation, for Tanner it connotes ‘greater emphasis on urban areas, concentration of troops, and standard, mobile warfare’ (p. 1180). Later, he notes that a transition from guerrilla tactics to ‘mobile warfare’ would ostensibly mean that ‘the Communists made the transition from being inferior in both numbers and weapons, and therefore more likely to use guerrilla tactics, to being powerful enough to meet the Nationalist enemy on equal terms in conventional mobile warfare’ (p. 1184).

Being somewhat gloriously bogged down in the military side of things, Tanner does not pick up the extension of this point, namely that the CCP’s aspiration to engage in and triumph against the Nationalists in the domain mobile warfare was an extension of its larger impulse and the trend toward state-building. If the Party was to be a legitimate contender for the title of sovereign, at some point it would need to wipe out or force the surrender of the great body of Nationalist troops, occupy the cities, and take up the mantle of China’s foreign relations as a whole. That particular transition is an important one, and every communist movement that succeeded did things in a slightly different way.

Back for a moment to  defining terms (‘Party Center’ or ‘mobile warfare’) etc. If doing so, perhaps we could lean upon our comrades at the Central Translation and Compilation Bureau in Beijing, who note the official taxonomy today of similar terms:

持久战 – protracted war

游击战 – guerrilla warfare

运动战- mobile warfare

地道战- tunnel warfare

地雷战- landmine warfare

抗日根据地 – [anti-Japanese] resistance base

解放区 – liberated area

游击区 – guerrilla area

It seems a bit strange that ‘anti-Japanese’ is omitted for English-language readers, does it not?

After a first-rate and pithy introduction to the broader context and historiography — with nods to Lloyd Eastman’s Seeds of Destruction, Steven Levine’s Anvil of Victory and Arthur Waldron’s entertaining and smooth counterfactual essay ‘China Without Tears’ —  the author dives into his examples.

It is perhaps confusing that he begins with the anecdote of Wang Shoudao. Wang is a commissar, but as the story sets out on 22 August 1945, he is not drinking in celebration with Soviets in the northeast or smashing Manchukuo collaborators in their faces with a handgun of vengeance, but is stuck in rural Jiangxi. In other words, he is 1900 kilometers south of Shenyang, the main urban prize in Manchuria, is confused by the local dialect and finally urged to head north. In short, Tanner begins his narrative with a bit of southern misdirection, which is brilliant, because it moves against the Party’s preferred historiography and the sense that all communist bodies and strategies were mobilized in advance through some tactical genius to take the Northeast. In fact, there had been some emphasis in the CCP in 1944 and early 1945 to build up bases in the South (p. 1186), probably in part anticipating that the war with Japan would drag on well into 1946 and that the Party might need to prepare for major US amphibious landings along the southern and southeastern coasts of China as the first point of attack against Japanese armies. Obviously, the entry of the Soviets into the war and the advent of the US atomic bombs scuttled those plans.

In terms of the situation that the Communists face with respect to the Soviet Red Army, Tanner provides some excellent data and texture. He describes how the Soviets were by turns distrustful, partially helpful, and the spur for hopes which were dashed, but also how the USSR’s physical embrace of Manchuria on three sides gave the CCP a strong sense of safety on the margins of that large landmass. He gives the example of Li Yunchang, who arrives in Manchuria by boat with his troops via Shandong and is ultimately deeply insulted by Soviet troops in Shenyang who forbid him from even getting off of the train.

Soviet Denkmal in Andong, via Dandong Archives
Memorial to the Soviet Liberation of Andong / Liaodong, circa 1946, via Dandong City Archives

A second example of Soviet difficulty is seen in the experience of Xiao Hua, who tries to cross over the Yalu River from northern Korea but who cannot escape Soviet suspicions that he and his men are common bandits. Only a rendition of the ‘Internationale’ allows them in.

Ultimately Tanner’s military interests lose for the reader a sense of one of the prevalent contradictions at play in the article: namely, the failings of socialist internationalism in the early Cold War. The Soviets were far from ideal comrades — but what about the North Koreans? Tanner unfortunately has little time to even mention them, even rendering the critical North Korean border city of Sinuiju in pinyin as ‘Xinyizhou’ (p. 1190), which is not going to help anyone looking for it on Google. (My co-authored article about Sinuiju in that febrile autumn of 1945 , which was published five years after Tanner completed his study, might fill the gap and be of interest to the truly dedicated borderlands types, and fans of the Wilson Center’s Chuck Kraus.)

Tanner aptly describes how small the CCP footprint was in Manchuria prior to the Japanese defeat in 1945. There was the ‘Northeast Anti-Japanese United Army’ arriving along with the Soviet Red Army, having spent the past five years sidelined entirely in the Russian Far East and recuperating from devastating counterinsurgency campaigns run by the Japanese in 1940-41. As Tanner is surely aware, among these few hundred men were many Korean communist fighters, including Kim Il-Sung, the future leader of North Korea.

Socialist internationalism and the bonds built up during this time — in effect the seeds planted for later events — is of little interest to the author. This is particularly sad when characters like Lin Biao emerge, the military hand behind many of the CCP’s large-scale successes in the Northeast who would become so central to the Cultural Revolution and ultimately would die during a suspected coup attempt against Mao in February 1971. Odd Arne Westad’s discussion of Lin Biao calls out his ‘tactical abilities’ and noted that he had a ‘dramatic advantage [in] his ability to rapidly integrate a host of other groups into his army: Manchurian exiles returning from the Soviet Union and Mongolia; Korean units; adherents of the former Manchurian warlords; bandits and brigands; and those few Manchurian Communists who had survived underground during Japanese rule’ (Westad, Decisive Encounters: The Chinese Civil War, 1946-1950 [Stanford University Press, 2003], pp. 122-123). Korean troops! Westad’s focus not on military doctrine but more on social conditions and the macro level of political change in the cities along with Cold War manueverings gives his work a breadth which distinguishes it from Tanner’s more focused examination.

So much for tactics and internationalism, what of the Northeastern Bureau? Tanner delves into its composition and some of the debates within it about how to approach taking cities, or beginning the process of taking cities. It is quite interesting that Chen Yun believes that a communist presence in the trade unions of Shenyang’s behemoth factories is one of the first pathways to success in the city .

Here, this reader was longing for more hints of recognition of a type we might associate with Mark Selden’s revisiting of The Yanan Way for Philip Huang’s journal Modern China. Namely, to mingle in some presentism — to tell us where the story is going, in other words. When looking at the Northeast Bureau in 1945-46, the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) indeed looms. In the 1960s, acts of vengeance will be carried out against Peng Zhen for his errors twenty years prior. Liu Shaoqi, the ‘Party Center’ trying to direct the fluid events in the Northeast from Yanan in the 1940s, will be denounced in 1967 for having done so. (See Carroll Robbins Wetzel, Jr., “From the Jaws of Defeat: Lin Piao and the 4th Field Army in Manchuria” [Ph.D. dissertation, George Washington University, 1972], p. 52).

But to return to our initial question. If events were indeed contingent, then what about Mao and his theory of revolution and guerrilla warfare? Maybe we just need to take Mao’s advice to Liu Shaoqi in 1948 about doing land reform in xinjiefangqu, or newly-liberated areas:  ‘太急了,必办不好’, or, ‘here, haste will do no good either.’ (Full text of that document here in Chinese, here in English.) In short, take some more time to figure it out, with a bit of help perhaps from Andrew Kennedy. and his article ‘Can the Weak Defeat the Strong?’

Ultimately Tanner’s great contribution is to restore a sense of contingency to events, and to strip away the notion that CCP victory in the civil war in the northeast was somehow inevitable. He brings us back to a wide range of disturbing events — the looting of weapons by citizens of Shenyang (p. 1196), Huang Kecheng’s virtual scream at Mao that the CCP troops in Manchuria had ‘no Party organization, no mass support, no political power, no grain, no money, no medicine, no shoes or clothing’ (Huang Kecheng, ‘Cong subei dao dongbei [From North Jiangsu to Northeast China],’ Zhonggong dangshi ziliao 16, pp. 63-64, quoted in Tanner p. 1196).

Finally, to reveal some new aspect of it, it is sometimes a useful exercise to treat a monumental (or at least hefty and respectable) piece of research like a bit of a puzzle. If you wanted to have some fun with it and had written it yourself, what would you title the article? Using that method I have stripped out a syllable and coined the term ‘questioned liberators’ from Tanner’s on p. 1195: ‘the forces of the Northeast Democratic United Army were unable to reap the political rewards that would have been theirs had they appeared as the unquestioned liberators of Manchuria.’

The communists were indeed ‘questioned liberators’ of the northeast. More research is yet to be written which will describe all the areas where they faced their own forms of resistance.

Source: Harold Tanner, ‘Guerrilla, Mobile, and Base Warfare in Communist Military Operations in Manchuria, 1945-1947,’ The Journal of Military History, Vol. 67, No. 4 (October 2003), pp. 1177-1222.


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