Political Pressures in Asia



THERE have been changes, during the war, in the prestige of every country now at war. In each case, the military factors of the prestige have interacted with political factors. We are now in a new phase of the war in Asia and the Pacific; in fact the political pressures that are arising from the certainty of military victory are making it a new kind of war. These developing pressures are a warning that we should look into the way in which political and military prestige interact, lest we find ourselves baffled politically by the results of the victory we are winning militarily. Most important of all, we must realize in time that the political problems of China, about which we are now much concerned, are linked up by the war itself with political problems in colonial Asia of which we are still almost unconscious.

China’s prestige was at its highest from the end of 1938, when the loss of Hankow and Canton failed to break Chinese resistance, to the end of 1942, when it began to appear certain that so much of the work of defeating Japan would be done by America that China was in increasing danger of appearing at the peace table as a beneficiary rather than a full partner of victory. During the period of high Chinese prestige there was an unfortunate tendency in America toward undiscriminating praise of China, its government, and its armies. A great part of the total volume of praise contented itself with referring to China’s continuing resistance as a “miracle.”

Accurate analysis of the factors of Chinese resistance did not have a wide general circulation. Now that China’s prestige has markedly declined, criticism of the Chinese, their government, and their armies is equally undiscriminating. Extreme swings of the pendulum of American public opinion are dangerous. They make difficult the practice of a wise national policy. They encourage the obscurantism which is the occupational disease of diplomats, and which can only be checked by the steady pressure of an informed public opinion which knows what it wants, and why.

China’s prestige was highest when the whole world could feel, though few people knew the details of Chinese politics, that the Chinese were determined to resist Japanese conquest, with or without aid from abroad. Had China’s resistance not been of this kind, one nation after another would have come to terms with Japan in time to sell to the Japanese militarists enough equipment to win the decisive victory which they were in fact unable to win without foreign complaisance. As long as the Chinese neither wavered nor split up, public opinion, confused though it was, would not allow deals at the expense of China, and the worst that the most appeasement-minded governments could do was to see that China got enough to keep up resistance, while allowing Japan enough to keep on attacking.

As a footnote to history, it is worth adding that perhaps there was one decisive difference between the brave Czechoslovaks, who cracked only when intolerable German pressure was backed by France and Britain, and not opposed by America, and the Chinese, who did not crack even when their country was invaded. The Czechoslovaks felt unable at the final crisis to call for Russian help in the face of the disapproval of the Western powers, while the Chinese government, in spite of its cold hostility to Communism, realized that the acceptance of Russian supplies, military advisers, and aviators would keep up a minimum of American and British aid.

There was a setback to Chinese prestige late in 1940 and early in 1941 when Chinese unity was broken by tension between the New Fourth Army and the Chinese High Command, ending in an attack on the New Fourth by government troops. The New Fourth was a half-regular, half-guerrilla army. It was not a Communist army, but it contained Communist elements and its deputy commander was a Communist; the formation of such an army had been possible only under the conditions of enthusiastic unity in 1937 and 1938.

Once the major fronts had begun to settle into a deadlock, this army, which was linked with the Chinese front but also operated behind the Japanese lines, could remain active only if it relied more and more on organizing the peasants. War in this manner ran counter to the Chinese landlord interest because, if the deadlock were to end in a war between Japan and other countries, the landlords might return, after the eventual defeat of Japan, only to find that the peasants had become organized so strongly that landlord control could not be reasserted.

Chinese prestige rose again, however, after Pearl Harbor, though not at once. At first the ominous procession of defeats from Pearl Harbor to the Philippines, Singapore, the Netherlands Indies, and Burma induced a panicky fear in America and Britain that China might collapse. Undoubtedly this fear was linked psychologically with an old, complacent habit of thinking that America and Britain were superior nations and China an inferior nation. If the Japanese were strong enough to knock the lords of creation so cavalierly, how could China not collapse? Yet China did not collapse, and as a matter of fact it needed no mysterious inside knowledge to explain why China did not collapse.

The Chinese were terribly disappointed by the first setbacks to their new allies; but they never for a moment doubted that these allies would recover. The major element of uncertainty in hanging on through several years of stalemate war had now settled in China’s favor: China had allies. The time it might take for these allies to recover from their defeat and take the offensive was only a minor uncertainty. Not even the most conscienceless traitor would now sell out to Japan, because there is no point in selling out to a certain loser. And the fact that the Chinese did not collapse raised their prestige once more.


THE more recent decline in Chinese prestige is related to a change in the character of the war in the Chinese theater, not to be confused with any supposed doubts about who is going to win the war. No Chinese have any such doubts. In fact, it is the certainty of Allied victory that has changed the character of the war in China, because it has changed both the relations between China and other countries and the scope of political maneuver within China.

Before Pearl Harbor, China was trying to get as many supplies as possible from countries which were free to make their own choice between avoiding war with Japan and risking war with Japan. China’s bargaining position could be phrased somewhat as follows: We are going to keep on fighting. We are not going to negotiate any halfway peace with Japan. You must deal with that determination of ours. Perhaps your trade with Japan in war materials is very profitable. Perhaps you do not want to risk war with Japan. Even so, you want to preserve your own bargaining position against Japan. You know that if the Japanese win an overwhelming victory they will never bargain with you about the balance of power in East Asia — they will just lay down the law. Therefore you dare not let your booming trade with Japan lead to an overwhelming victory. To protect your own interests, you must also let us have at least enough to keep on holding out.

Russia must be excepted from this description of China’s bargaining position. The Chinese knew that the slightest advantage won by Japan increased the danger to Russia. Therefore the Russians would give the Japanese as little as they possibly could and the Chinese as much as they possibly could, and would take the risk of being attacked by Japan, though they would not take the risk of attacking Japan themselves.

After Pearl Harbor, China’s bargaining position with regard to America and Britain — especially America — was completely different. It could now be phrased somewhat as follows: You are now the ones who want help against Japan. You need a continental base to supplement your naval offensive. You need as much Chinese military activity as possible in order to commit Japanese land forces and material. If you want us to go over to the offensive, you must give us artillery and you must either build up the Chinese Air Force or increase the number of your own planes in China, or both. It is true that the Burma Road has been lost, but that was not our fault. It is up to you either to substitute a “Burma Road of the air” or to recover the old Burma Road, or both.

With regard to Russia there was also a change. From the moment of the German attack, the Russians had both to avoid a two-front war and to strengthen their position in the event that Japan should attack them. If it was to their interest not to provoke Japan, it was also to their interest not to weaken China. The acute state of emergency, however, only lasted until Pearl Harbor. From then on, the Russians were relatively safe.

These changes in China’s bargaining position have inevitably raised within China itself the question of a choice between two fundamentally different strategic concepts, which may be called the sidelines concept and the front-line concept. According to the sidelines concept, China should virtually “sit out ” the rest of the war. Japan is going to be defeated anyhow. China cannot undertake regular offensives without artillery and tanks, which Chinese factories cannot make and China’s allies have not yet provided. To improvise an offensive by extending the area of guerrilla warfare and stepping up its intensity would demand too much additional sacrifice from a people which has already made much greater sacrifices than its allies and which is still containing more Japanese ground troops than America and Britain are engaging. True, a war fought only in this passive way will leave China a beneficiary of the final victory, with a voice not fully equal to those of America, Britain, and perhaps Russia in discussing the terms of peace in the Pacific; but power politics will go on after the war, as they did before, and China will have a strong bargaining position because of the need of a strong continental power in Asia to balance the otherwise unduly strong position of Russia.

The front-line concept, on the other hand, maintains that this is the time for China to exert superhuman efforts to make her own share of the common victory as big as possible by helping to defeat Japan as quickly as possible. Otherwise China will miss the full reward for her long fight for independence. China dare not be satisfied with merely a legal status of equality. She desperately needs to make herself a free agent in fact. Short of this, reliance on the rivalries of other countries is a delusion; China would still be economically and politically the pawn of others. Therefore, even if a regular offensive is impossible, an improvised “people’s war” must be fought; and if this involves far-reaching political concessions to the peasants, then the concessions must be made.

These two strategic concepts have political consequences which account for the recent heightening of political tension in China, and which link up with the changing composition of the Kuomintanglandlord right wing in China and the Communistdemocratic-United Front left wing. The balance between these two wings creates a crisis for Chiang Kai-shek himself. Can he halt the trend of the Kuomintang toward domination by the landlords? Or can he once more make the Kuomintang a coalition, by reviving and strengthening the other groups which were once powerful in it?

To evaluate the crisis, and the American interest in it, we must consider the terms in which the crisis is now being presented in China. By far the most powerful presentation of the position of the Kuomintang and the legally constituted government in China is the one which argues that normal political negotiations are impossible with a party, like the Communist Party, which maintains an independent armed force and is prepared to resort to civil war if its political terms are not accepted. The Communists, according to this view, should first submit their armies to government control — which would of course imply the right of the government to break up or redistribute the Communist units. Only then could democratic measures be safely discussed in a normal way, as in the established democracies.


UNTIL recently, the Communists’ statements of their own views were subject to heavy discount as propaganda. There were responsible Communist representatives in Chungking; but their assertions could not be checked against public knowledge of conditions in the Communist-controlled area, because that area was tightly blockaded by government troops. A few Americans and Europeans, men who were undoubtedly free of pro-Communist bias, had escaped from Japanese-controlled territory through Communist-controlled territory, but their reports, favorable to the Communists, fell somewhat short of providing both information about Communist-controlled territory and a comparison of that information with authentic information about Kuomintang-controlled territory.

Recently, however, there has been a considerable volume of reports from foreign newspapermen, already thoroughly acquainted with Kuomintang China, who have been allowed to visit Yenan and have traveled through considerable stretches of Communist-controlled territory. Their reports give us the following data for a comparison: —

1. The Communists hold control, or exercise the dominant influence, in a territory inhabited by more than 80 million people, partly in Free China and partly behind the Japanese lines. (The Free China territory administered by the National Government contains a population of about 200 million, while another 170 million or so are under Japanese control.)

2. The Communists have survived, and have even expanded the territory they control, not because they subdue the people by armed force, but because the people support them.

3. Basic economic conditions as to food and clothing are better in Communist-controlled China than in Kuomintang-controlled China.

4. The incidence of conscription and taxation is more equally distributed in Communist-controlled territory than in Kuomintang-controlled territory.

5. Many progressive, educated middle-class Chinese have somehow got through the blockade into Communist territory, but not many have fled from that territory.

6. The political structure under the Communists is more nearly democratic than it is under the Kuomintang. It is a fact that governing committees and representative committees are elected, and that the Communists limit themselves to one third of the representation; whereas in Kuomintang-controlled territory it is increasingly difficult to hold a public position without joining the Kuomintang and accepting its discipline.

Pending the development of a larger body of knowledge about the Communist area, we can draw certain tentative conclusions: —

1. The Communists have done well enough in the territory they control to stand comparison with the Kuomintang.

2. There is a case for negotiating a political compromise with the Communists before pressing the question of military control.

3. Once there is uniformity of political rights throughout China, under a government elected by the people, that government should enforce unity of military command and uniform conditions of military service.

4. The present tendency in America to believe that Chiang Kai-shek is “losing control” is not warranted. Political compromise would make necessary a coalition government. The Communists are not strong enough to nominate a candidate of their own as President of the Republic of China, and therefore Chiang Kai-shek would be nominated by all parties, which would confirm him in the position which he now holds by appointment of the Kuomintang.

It should be added that current American public opinion and expert opinion greatly underrate China’s ability to make a comeback and to influence the winning of the war. Thus Hanson W. Baldwin has recently gone to the extreme of saying that China “is in no sense unified” and “is not now and will not soon become under Chiang or any other leader a unified nation capable of unified effort on a scale necessary to play much part in a great offensive against Japan.”1

This is nonsense. Even on the relatively small scale of the Philippines it has already been demonstrated that it makes a world of difference in fighting the Japanese if the population turns against them. China’s guerrillas, as well as China’s regular troops, even without great increase in equipment, can enormously increase the number of casualties inflicted on the Japanese and can even recover territory from them if political morale is restored. The fact that political morale can be restored in China should never be left out of military calculations. The overwhelming majority of the people, i including those who do not belong to political parties, want to recover the sense of unity and invincibility which they had in 1926 and again in 1937, which so much astonished the experts and the world.

The necessary political agreements are easier to reach now than they were in 1925 and 1936. The recent Cabinet changes are a cautious approach to main decisions not yet made. The most important appointment is that of General Chen Cheng, the new Minister of War, who represents the generals and armies closest to the tradition of national unity dating from 1926.


CHINA of course is not the only country whose prestige has undergone changes during the war. Equally important for Asia as a whole and for the balance of influences between Asia and the Western world are changes in the prestige of the imperial powers holding colonial possessions in Asia. Britain may be taken as the representative of all these powers. France is a case apart, because the restoration of a French government in France itself involves a regrouping of political and social forces which may have novel results in colonial policy.

The Dutch Empire is essentially a satellite empire. It could not exist without the British Empire, and developments within it after the war will move parallel to developments within the British Empire, whether the movement be toward emancipation or toward an attempted permanent stabilization of the institution of empire.

If the Dutch Empire is a satellite, the Portuguese Empire, with its main holdings in Africa and only decaying sentry-boxes in Asia and the Pacific, like Macao and Timor, is a mere shadow. The Portuguese, even more lackadaisical and corrupt in their colonies than under their fascist government at home, have very little indirect influence with which to work. The Dutch, however, have developed important economic resources in their empire. Powerful financial and industrial groups in America, as well as in Britain, have invested in these resources, and working through them the Dutch can maintain a nominal Dutch colonial policy which is actually in large part the foreign policy of exported American and British capital.

During the Munich period, Britain suffered an even greater loss of prestige in Asia than in Europe. It is important to recall that Munich was only the climax of a period of appeasement stretching back behind the Chamberlain administration into the Baldwin administration. During this period one of Hitler’s most skillful maneuvers was to skirmish around the fringes of colonial questions without ever coming to grips with them. By so doing he induced the British to reveal that tension in Europe was only part of a complex and slowly mounting crisis that extended also throughout the colonial world and into Asia. Influential British quarters were maneuvered into giving broad hints of their willingness to re-establish Germany as a colonial empire, while Hitler tantalizingly evaded coming to terms with them.

A number of schemes were aired in this period. There was talk of the restitution of old German colonies. There was even talk of compensating Hitler with other people’s colonies, like Portuguese territory in Africa, in order to avoid handing back territory which the British and French had acquired as mandates under the Versailles settlement. While these offers were not official, they did not need to be official to create in Asia the impression that “ peace in our time” could be translated into Asiatic and colonial languages as “empire in our time.”

It appeared that the Conservative Party, with only incoherent opposition from the Labour Party, was permeated with a defeatism definite enough to be called a policy: it no longer believed that it could hold the Empire against all comers; it clung desperately to the institution of empire; there was no part of the colonial empire which it was willing to emancipate, but in order to preserve the institution of empire it was willing to allow others to build up competitive empires, and even to surrender to them, in the colonial status, bits of territory and consignments of human beings which it was unwilling to emancipate from the colonial status.

The resultant decline of British and Dutch prestige was of the corroding kind that works under the surface when subject peoples no longer fear the strength of their masters, but still fear the local violence of the servants of their masters, the armed police and the colonial garrisons. The inner decline of prestige was revealed externally when Japan struck. Obtuse believers in the old myth that backward colonial peoples do not understand what politics is all about should look beyond the fact that colonial possessions were lost to the Japanese, and study the way in which they were lost. I do not see how it can be doubted that the colonial peoples proved their aptitude for political arithmetic in adding up the score. The score was not exactly correct, because not all the facts were known to them; but within the limits of their knowledge they computed very shrewdly.

According to the evidence before them, the war in Asia, except in China and the Philippines, did not have enough to do with the difference between freedom and subjection to make it worth their while to participate. According to the evidence at their disposal, the war was between their old masters and would-be new masters. The new masters, if they won, might turn out to be worse than the old masters; but was that a difference worth dying for?

In such a situation, if the old masters are confident and strong, there will always be some of the colonial subjects who will fight for them, because rewards from strong masters are tangible, while future independence, if the masters are strong, is only a distant hope. In this case the invaders appeared to be the stronger; consequently it was to them that the hasty levies of adventurers rallied. On the British and Dutch side there was enough of the habit of discipline among the mercenary colonial troops to make most of them enter battle; but nowhere was there the ardor of patriotism, the inspiration of a cause, or the passion of a “people’s war.”

Since then British prestige has somewhat revived, with Dutch prestige flitting after it like a thin shadow. The recuperation, however, is only in military prestige, and may therefore be described as partly a token of respect to the British and Dutch as people who have powerful allies. Politically, neither the British nor the Dutch can ever hope to restore a colonial “loyalty” which never really existed. This alone means that even if the colonial structure is outwardly restored after the war, it can never expect to have inner security.

The way in which the colonial possessions were lost — including the virtual loss of Indo-China by France, before Pearl Harbor—differed from the way in which the Philippines were lost in one allimportant respect. It established in the colonial possessions themselves, and throughout the rest of Asia, the conviction that the imperial powers would surrender possession of their colonies to an aggressor strong enough to take them, but would not surrender freedom to the colonial peoples and ask them to fight for it. We may be sure that colonial peoples have drawn the inference, which we must reckon with in Asia after the war, that where freedom is not planned for, as it is planned for in the Philippines, the unfree peoples have no hope but to take freedom for themselves.


ONE way of rating the prestige of any country is to compare what it does with what it says. With Russia, more than with any other country, what is done counts relatively more and what is said relatively less. What Russia says, more than what any other country says, is subject to distortion. Some believe that everything Russia says is the exact opposite of what she means; others are oversubtle in their interpretation of what Russia “really” means; and still others accept everything that Russia says about Russian concerns as the only true gospel for other countries in their own concerns. Because of these distortions Russian prestige is relatively hazy at the end of any period in which Russian action has been confined to domestic affairs, and relatively clear in any period when Russia is acting in direct contact with other countries.

In Asia, Russia has changed in repute from being a land of instability to being a land of stability. All through the early years of the U.S.S.R., and through the bitter social conflicts associated with the Five-Year Plans, industrialization, and collectivization, refugees from the Asiatic fringes of Russia fled into China’s Northeast Provinces and into Sinkiang, Afghanistan, and Iran. As industrialization passed from experiment and many local mistakes and failures to general and increasing success and prosperity, Russia began to acquire a reputation for stability, reinforced later by her firm handling of Japan, and especially by her decisive repulse of Japanese incursions against her frontiers.

Americans themselves know less than anyone else how disastrously American prestige in Asia fell during the 1930’s. American prestige fell because people in Asia understood better than people in America that the American method of “keeping out of war” was building up the strength of Japan and endangering the interests of America. A discount must of course be applied to the wishful thinking of many in China and elsewhere who knew that America had the power to save them, and hoped that somehow America could be persuaded to save them; but even when this discount has been made, the fact remains that the trend of events was better understood in Asia than in America, and that American prestige fell accordingly.

On the other hand America’s Philippine record and policy saved American motives from being criticized as those of Britain were. People in Asia were realistic enough not to disregard the fact that tariff questions and the lobbying of special interests had an influence on America’s Philippine policy; but they were also realistic enough not to lose sight of the fact that America was the only great power with a potentially rich colonial empire in which special interests were not aligned in support of the retention of empire.

It was because of our Philippine policy, and the joint defense — not colonial defense — in which Americans and Filipinos fought side by side, that America did not suffer the loss of political prestige that Britain and Holland suffered, though Pearl Harbor was as hard a blow to our military prestige as the fall of Singapore was to that of the British. Our military prestige has long ago recovered; our political prestige — and this ought to be a matter of much more serious concern to all Americans than it is — is undergoing a sharper scrutiny than ever before.

Our political prestige and our political motives are under scrutiny because they are involved with the prestige and the motives of our allies. It is perhaps possible that after the war in Europe has been won, Britain will have enough strength to spare to recover her still occupied Asiatic possessions and those of the Dutch without our aid, leaving us to attack Japan in her home waters. The war is not being fought that way, however. It is a coalition war, and because it is fought as a coalition war, the overwhelming majority of people in Asia will believe that we are largely, perhaps primarily, responsible for the restoration of the British and Dutch Empires east of India, and of French rule over Indo-China, if it is restored. Our prestige is now linked just as closely with the prestige of others as our policies interact with the policies of others.

There is, however, a missing link in our policy. To restore this link, and to make our policy conform with our involvement in terms of prestige and politics, we should show sympathy and support for democratic concessions in the colonial areas equivalent to the democratic and progressive measures we advocate in China.

  1. New York Times, Nov. 5, 1944.