China's Last Line of Defense


KUNMING, capital of Yunnan Province, picturesquely situated on a plateau which lies over a mile above sea level, is a city of amazing and fascinating contrasts. Ten years ago the riksha was an innovation and a rarity in this sleepy, opium-sodden centre of a remote and neglected province. Now the fast and remarkably safe airplanes of the Eurasia Company, a joint Chinese-German corporation, transport one in a few hours from Kunming over the mountains to Chungking, the new nationalist capital, to Hanoi, in French Indo-China, or to Kweilin, the much-bombed city of fighting Kwangsi Province.

Much of the life in Kunming still moves at the water-buffalo pace of the Chinese interior. Put the riksha puller, who vents his wrath in picturesque imprecations on the mother of anyone with whom he collides, may look up and see foreign airplanes of various makes, piloted by Chinese cadets, circling over the city. The typical Yunnan small shopkeeper still drowses over his opium pipe. But next door to his shop one may meet the energetic, wide-awake engineers of the bureau that is working day and night drawing up blueprints for the new Burma-Yunnan railway.

A foreigner is linguistically lost without some guidance in the colorful streets and alleys of Kunming, with their penetrating smells and their choking dust. But one may step off one of these streets, enter an unostentatious gateway, and find oneself in the highly intellectual company of a score of university professors and other educated men, late of Peiping and Tientsin, who are ready and eager to discuss, in most admirable English, the problems of war and reconstruction, the outlook in Europe, the philosophies of Communism and Fascism.

For Kunming ranks with Chengtu, in Szeehuen, as one of the two chief cultural centres of nationalist China. Three universities — the National and Chinghua, of Peking, and Nankai, situated in Tientsin until it was bombed and burned down in the summer of 1937 — are now established there as a common unit, with over two thousand students and most of their professors. And two or three more universities are on their way to the Yunnan capital.

All these contrasts are symbolic of the great changes that are coming over China’s neglected and little-known interior under the stress of a war that has given the enemy the main ports and rail and river arteries of communication, together with the most industrialized parts of the country. During a meeting with the sympathetic British Ambassador to China, Sir Archibald Clark Kerr, after the fall of Canton and Hankow, Chiang Kai-shek outlined his plans for the future in approximately the following terms: —

We retain control of a vast inland empire, where the Japanese cannot follow us, except at ruinous cost. Hitherto provinces like Szeehuen, Kansu, Shensi, Yunnan, and Kweichow have been primitive and undeveloped. Now we shall make out of wartime necessity an unrivaled opportunity to modernize these regions, to enrich our country materially and culturally. New highways, to be followed by railways, mines, factories, schools, will change the face of our hinterland. We possess both the technical skill and the capital for this task, because so many of our educated classes have left the cities which are under Japanese occupation. Our capitalists also are looking for new places in which to invest their funds. Not for a moment shall we abandon the provinces where the Japanese have penetrated. Guerrilla warfare will make it impossible for them to exploit profitably what they have seized. And when we return, as we certainly shall, to take back our lost territory we shall be a stronger, richer country than we were before the war began.

I have heard the same ideas expressed by General Wu Teh-chen, former Governor of Kwangtung Province, with whom I talked shortly before the fall of Canton, and by many other Chinese. And, as it becomes increasingly clear that this war is not so much a mere trial of military strength (in that case Japan could already be considered the victor) as a supreme test of national endurance, the significance of the Chinese effort in national reconstruction becomes all the more evident.

One should not imagine that the building up of a new China in the deep interior is as easy as it may sound on paper. The difficulties which must be overcome are prodigious. The provinces which are under the undisputed control of the nationalist government are almost without railways, and without large factories or modern industrial experience and technique. Illiteracy is very high. About three fourths of the population of Yunnan (estimated at eleven or twelve million) consists of aboriginal tribes. Indeed, as the government is pushed to the West the problem of tribal and religious minorities becomes more important. Extensive regions in the West and Southwest are inhabited by Miaos, Lolos, and other tribes, while there are large blocks of Moslem territory in the Northwest and far West.

Not only are China’s Western provinces deficient in any industrial base; they are also landlocked. War materials and industrial equipment, together with the exports which must pay for these imports, must be dispatched by slow, roundabout, and inconvenient routes. To be sure the Chinese have displayed remarkable ingenuity and resourcefulness in evading the rather loose Japanese blockade and conveying goods to foreign purchasers. Little-used creeks and rivers, together with the backs of innumerable patient coolies, have brought silk and cotton and wood oil over devious routes to points of sale. But the whole foreign trade of nationalist China is being carried on under abnormal conditions, which tend to limit the volume and to make deliveries slow and uncertain. Trucks are never a satisfactory substitute for freight trains; and it is on trucks that China must mainly rely for the transportation, over vast distances, of its munitions and essential supplies.

Moreover, almost all the reconstruction projects must be undertaken under a constant and frequently realized threat of Japanese air bombing. There is not a large town in China to-day that is out of range of what the Japanese like to call their ‘wild eagles.’ Kunming is geographically about as favorably situated as any place; but it was attacked from the air last September. During my stay there the neighboring town of Kweiyang was severely bombed. There have been air raids on Chungking, the nationalist capital; on Sian and Lanchow, in Shensi and Kansu; on Wanhsien, a large town on the upper Yangtze; while Kweilin and other towns in Kwangsi have been devastated by bombings. And, while air bombing is not necessarily decisive, it is an effective means of disorganizing normal activity.

I received an object lesson in this connection when I landed at the South China port of Pakhoi. The town seemed almost dead, with more shaggy dogs than people in the streets. The majority of the remaining inhabitants had gone out into the near-by hills during the morning and early afternoon hours which were the favorite time for air raids. Foreign ships were obliged to lie over for days before frightened coolies could be induced to load and unload cargo.


The Japanese are convinced that the maintenance of their grip on China’s normal ways of access to the outside world, combined with merciless air bombing of strategic points and routes of communication in the interior, will thwart any military or economic revival on the Chinese side. But a visit to Yunnan furnishes abundant evidence that a genuine Chinese reconstruction effort is being made and that the results are by no means negligible.

Yunnan has now become China’s last line of defense, and also one of its chief windows to the outside world. Since the fall of Canton, China has been obliged to rely largely on three limited and roundabout routes of communication for foreign supplies. These are the narrowgauge railway from Hanoi to Kunming, the new motor road from Burma, and the long caravan trail, now adapted to motor transport, from Siberia through Chinese Turkestan to Lanchow and Sian. The first-named routes both converge at Kunming.

One has only to travel over the HanoiKunming railway — a superb piece of mountain engineering on the Chinese side of the frontier, where the line traverses some magnificent scenery during its climb from the tropical jungle at the Indo-China frontier to Kunming — to realize that its possibilities as a carrier are limited. The railway has a narrow gauge and cannot be operated at night on the Chinese side of the border because of the danger of accidents. Its total capacity is about 90,000 tons a month. The tremendous congestion at Haiphong, chief port of northern Indo-China, where goods are so heaped up that it is often difficult to find shipments, is clear proof of the inadequacy of the Indo-China railway.

The usefulness of this French-owned line to China is further diminished because of the nervousness of the French authorities in Paris and Hanoi in the face of Japanese pressure. Despite the existence of a Franco-Chinese treaty, signed in 1930, which provides for the unrestricted importation of arms into Yunnan, a ban on munitions shipments has been proclaimed and, especially since last November, rigidly enforced. Small quantities of arms, purchased before the outbreak of the war, have been run into South China ports by junks from Haiphong. But the railway has remained closed to such shipments. It was generally understood that this ban on munitions was the price of Japanese abstention from seizing Hainan Island. In view of the clouds on the European horizon, however, it seems doubtful whether the Indo-China frontier will be opened for munitions shipments even now, when the Japanese have fulfilled their navy’s long desire to take over Hainan.

For a time French restrictions and red tape also held up large numbers of trucks which China had purchased in America. Now these trucks are gradually filtering into China. The French authorities — with a rather juvenile attempt at concealment which deceives no one, least of all the Japanese, whose intelligence service is quite well informed — at the time of my visit to Indo-China were allowing these trucks to depart in small groups and only at night.

There are no administrative obstacles to munitions shipments over the Burma highway. But there are formidable natural handicaps in connection with this route. The rapid building of the road, running over seven hundred miles, part of the way through difficult mountainous country, is a monument to Chinese energy. About 150,000 laborers were pressed into service for its construction. But solidity was sacrificed to speed. The stone surfacing of the highway is not thick enough, and some of the bridges have proved unequal to the strain of heavy traffic.

According to the director of military transportation in Kunming, about one hundred trucks arrived in that city over the highway during the month of January. This would not provide the equivalent of a single normally loaded freight train. The director expressed confidence that a two-way service, with forty trucks daily arriving at Kunming and at the Burma terminus of the highway, would soon be installed. One could not but feel that this forecast is somewhat optimistic. It is generally agreed that during the rainy season in spring and summer the road, built in many places out of soft, crumbling rock, will be liable to interruption through washouts.

It was interesting to find in Kunming that work is being vigorously pushed on the new Burma-Yunnan railway. The roadbed has been laid down for a considerable distance from the town and work has started on the first tunnel. The railway will run from Kunming to Nantai, on the border, thence to Lashio, the Burma railhead, for a total distance of over six hundred miles. The line will run parallel to the general course of the highway for the first half of the route, subsequently deviating in a more southerly direction. The estimated cost is 100,000,000 Chinese dollars, of which about 25,000,000 dollars (approximately 7,500,000 American dollars at the pre-war rate of exchange) must be paid in foreign currency for material and equipment which must be purchased abroad. Credits for this sum have been arranged or are in prospect from British sources.

Were this railway now in existence, it would go far toward solving China’s problems of supply. Such a line, in the extreme southwestern corner of the country, would be reasonably assured against military attack and even against air bombing. But, as every ton of rails must be brought up over the Indo-China railway, there is no prospect of completing this new line before the end of 1941.

China’s third means of communication with the outside world, the ‘Red route’ from Russia, is so long that trucks are often handed over to the Chinese at the end of the run, since it is not profitable to operate them on the return run of over two thousand miles of rough road. It cannot, therefore, add much to the supplies which are reaching China through Indo-China and Burma.

Defective communications do not represent an immediate threat to China’s military position. A fair quantity of arms, imported before the fall of Canton, is stored in temples, caves, and other places throughout the interior. Arsenals at Chungking, Sian, Nanning, and other towns can turn out weapons of light calibre. The need for a regular supply of heavy arms is not pressing, because positional warfare has virtually ceased since the fall of Hankow. But of course transportation difficulties retard the progress of economic construction.

Nevertheless new factories are going up in Kunming, as in other cities and towns of the interior. The National Resources Commission, a state organization, is investing 25,000,000 Chinese dollars in a group of tin and copper mines and industrial plants. The latter include a copper refinery, a copper-ware factory, an electrical power plant, a chemical works, and a factory for the manufacture of electrical equipment. All except the chemical factory are supposed to be completed during the present year.

On the outskirts of Kunming, not far from a textile factory which is soon to be enlarged considerably, one finds an airplane factory, carefully guarded by sentries, with its roof camouflaged in neutral colors to avert the attention of hostile bombers. This plant was built, curiously enough, with German technical aid, and is equipped to turn out airplane bodies. These will be supplemented by motors from the electrical equipment factory. The Curtiss-Wright interests are associated with the construction of another airplane works, still unfinished, near the border of Burma.

Some six hundred Chinese military pilots are in training in three schools at Kunming, at Mongtze, to the south, and at Talifu, to the west. There are about fifteen American instructors in the Kunming school. So far Chinese aviation has labored under severe handicaps. The airplanes have been of varied foreign makes, and damaged parts have been hard to replace. By the general testimony of foreign instructors, the Chinese are fair pilots but poor mechanics, and they have probably cracked up more of their own airplanes than the Japanese have shot down. There is now a determined effort to build up a new air force, however, with centres not only in Yunnan (conveniently remote from Japanese air attack), but also in Szechuen and Shensi.


One of the most interesting developments in Yunnan is the impact of the educated outsiders on the province. It was both striking and symbolic to hear a composition by Liszt being played on the impromptu campus of the ‘universities in exile.’ Going into the chemical and biological laboratories of the universities, one found some plucky experiments in practical research being carried on with pitifully inadequate equipment. A mobile oil substitute was being extracted from the wild castor beans which grow abundantly in Yunnan Province. Glycerine and vaseline substitutes were being extracted from the same source as part of a general effort to utilize vegetable instead of mineral oils, as the latter must be imported. The chemical laboratory looked like a kitchen: pots, kettles, meat grinders, were being pressed into service for lack of regular equipment.

Another scientific experiment is the artificial insemination of tung-oil trees, which are being transplanted into Yunnan from other provinces. Research is being advanced in such fields as combating insect pests and developing better grades of cotton in connection with efforts to make Yunnan more self-sufficient by introducing new crops, such as cotton and tea, to replace the opium poppies, the cultivation of which is being discouraged.

The aboriginal tribes of the province are being studied as never before, because of the influx of intellectuals from outside. Newspapers and magazines are multiplying. There can be little doubt that the present mass migration of educated Chinese will change many aspects of China’s remote interior, even though progress will inevitably be slow.

Although Yunnan has become far more important for China than it ever was before, both because it represents a last line of defense and because its frontiers march with those of Indo-China and Burma, it is not under the direct control of the Central Government. There are no Central Government troops in the province. The Governor, Lung Yun, is the last surviving old-fashioned war lord in the sense that he concentrates all military, political, and financial power in his own hands. Together with a small group of local well-to-do families, he holds an interest in almost all the industrial, mining, and commercial enterprises of Yunnan.

When Wang Ching-wei left the nationalist camp, he departed from China by way of Kunming, and there are rumors that he endeavored to persuade Lung Yun to enter a secessionist movement which would have embraced the southwestern provinces of China. There have also been rumors of friction between Lung Yun and Chiang Kai-shek, in which T. V. Soong played the part of a mediator. The Yunnan governor was said to have resented the loss of two armies which he had sent to the front. Outwardly, however, Lung Yun has maintained an attitude of complete loyalty to Chungking. At the time of my visit, recruiting was proceeding vigorously in Kunming; the old walls and gates of the city were plastered with posters calling for resistance to the end and depicting Japanese outrages. General Pai Chung-hsi, on a visit from Kwangsi, had just made a fighting speech, declaring that the Japanese could never reach Kunming, giving an optimistic picture of the prospects of guerrilla warfare, and pronouncing himself ‘for the Generalissimo, in peace as well as in war.’ The loyalty which both Pai Chung-hsi and his associate have displayed toward their formerly bitter political opponent, Chiang Kai-shek, has unquestionably been an unpleasant surprise to the Japanese and one of many proofs of a new-found Chinese unity.

It may well be that those observers who believe that Chinese public opinion is too strong to tolerate any secessionist movement will prove correct in the future, as in the immediate past. In this case Lung Yun may be expected to remain loyal, despite the absence of visible means to coerce him. On the other hand, should Chinese resistance be destined to crumble (and Chinese defeat would most probably assume the form of a slow crumbling, whereas Japanese defeat would be in the nature of a sudden spectacular break), Yunnan would perhaps be one of the first places where this crumbling could be observed.

Yunnan Province is therefore an interesting laboratory for the double experiment, first of organizing reserves of resistance, and secondly of building up economically by throwing large numbers of educated Chinese among the masses with whom they have hitherto had little contact.