Even if the period after 1928 was not marked by wars of the same size and intensity as in the previous years, the following years saw a number of military campaigns which bled the country. For example:
1929: Attempts to disband the swollen armies failed, the Kwangsi army’s insurrection and a revolt in Hunan were suppressed.
1930: A bloody war involving a million men erupted in North China from March to September 1930. Between 1931–1935 several campaigns against the troops of the Communist Party were launched.
Even if warlordism receded slowly in the early 1930s, a real unification of the country was never achieved, and the more force the centralised government gained, the more militarised the regime became. The weight of armed conflicts in society can be gauged by the fact that military government expenditure in China never fell below 44% of the State budget between 1928-1934.
The civilian population – hostage of all rivals
Following the offensive of the Nanking government troops against the CCP forces, some 90,000 poorly equipped Red Army forces were chased across the country and had to embark upon the “Long March”. After this military hunt only 7000 Red Army troops reached the remote area of Yennan in northern Shaanxi. In this war between two “unequal” forces, the CCP systematically applied a military tactic which was going to mark the military conflicts during the 20th and well into the 21st century. As a typical weapon of the “underdog”, which is unable to recruit a “standing army” with the full equipment of an army financed and run by a State and its government, the Red Army forces started to develop a guerrilla war. Although in previous wars of the 19th century there had been some limited partisan activities, this phenomenon took on a new proportion in the deluge in China.
The Red Army turned civilians into a human shield, i.e. targets to protect the movement of the regular “Red Army”. At the same time, the brutal terrorisation of the peasants and the extraction of enormous taxes through the Nanking government forced millions of peasants either to abandon their land and flee or this drove many of them into the arms of the Red Army. They became cannon fodder between two opponents. War started to ravage almost permanently not only around the big cities but above all in the country.
The war rages
What was mystified by the Maoists as a heroic war was in reality the plague of “moving” (rolling) war with millions of refugees and a policy of scorched earth.
The more imperialist tensions sharpened internationally, the more China also became involved in these. At the time, when inside China the military expeditions against different warlords continued after 1928, the first major clash with a foreign country occurred with Russia in 1928/29. No sooner had a “central government” been set up in Nanking, then it claimed and occupied the Northern Manchurian railway, which until then had been under Russian control. In a first violent confrontation of Stalinist Russia with its imperialist rival in the far East, Russia mobilised 134,000 soldiers and succeeded in defeating the Chinese troops, which could not offer any major resistance due to the dispersal of their forces in the combats against different warlords.
The Sino-Japanese war: internationalism
“Supporting the 'just' war of China today means linking up with English, American, French imperialism. It means to work for the 'Holy Union' (Union Sacrée) in the name of a 'revolutionary future' which will be illustrated – as in the case of Spain – by piles of dead bodies of workers and the triumph of the 'order'.
On both sides of the fronts there is a rapacious, dominant bourgeoisie, and which only aims at massacring workers. On both sides of the fronts there are workers led to the slaughter. It is wrong, absolutely wrong to believe that there is a bourgeoisie which the Chinese workers could – even temporarily – side with to 'struggle together even for only a short time', since only Japanese imperialism must be defeated in order to allow the Chinese workers to struggle victoriously for the revolution. Everywhere imperialism sets the pace, and China is only the puppet of the other imperialisms. To find their way to revolutionary battles, the Chinese and Japanese workers must return to the class struggle which will lead to their unification. Their fraternisation should cement their simultaneous assault against their own exploiters (…). Only the Fractions of the International Communist Left will oppose all the currents of traitors and opportunists and will hold high the flag of the struggle for the revolution. Only they will struggle for the transformation of the imperialist war which pours blood over Asia into a civil war of the workers against their exploiters: fraternisation of the Chinese and Japanese workers, destruction of the fronts of ‘national wars’, struggle against the Kuomintang, struggle against Japanese imperialism, struggle against all the currents which mobilise the workers for imperialist war.” (journal of the Italian Left, Bilan, n°44, October 1937, p1415)
However, the main antagonism was unfolding between China and Japan. In 1931/32 Japan occupied Manchuria and proclaimed the new state Manchukuo. Early 1932 Japan attacked and bombed Shanghai. At that time – i.e. after Japan had occupied Manchuria – the KMT led government still pursued the policy of trying to eliminate other warlords and above all the Communist Party. It was only in 1937, once Japan had started its war drive from Manchukuo into China, that the Chinese bourgeoisie united and pushed its own rivalries temporarily into the background – but this unification could only be that of a united war front against Japan.
The need to develop a “united war front” against Japan also meant that the Chinese bourgeoisie had to reposition itself in its relationship to foreign imperialists.
Until 1937 each wing of the Chinese bourgeoisie pursued a different foreign policy orientation. While the CCP was oriented towards Stalinist Russia and received support from Moscow, the KMT counted on the help of Germany and other states. Chiang Kai-shek himself, who after 1920 had received support from the degenerating Comintern and rising Stalinism until 1927, tried to avoid a head-on confrontation with Japan. In the early 1930s he signed a factual “truce” with Japan, only to give him more leeway to attack the troops of the Communist party. But with the advance of Japanese troops from Manchukuo to Beijing and towards Shanghai in 1937, Chiang had to drop his alliance with Germany – which was establishing an alliance with Japan. Global imperialist rivalries compelled every local rival to choose his allies and the historic course on a world level towards war was also going to determine the antagonisms in the far East.1
1 Already by 1921 Germany had started delivering arms to China. Arms of all types were needed for the continuing Chinese wars. Most of the German arms reaching China in the early 1920’s were clearly from the stocks that Germany had hidden from the Versailles arms inspectors. A former Chief of Staff to Ludendorff – Max Bauer – became military advisor to Chiang-Kai-shek in 1926. In 1928 while the Chinese army had some 2.25 million men under arms, the German military adviser Bauer recommended that China retain only a small core army and integrate the rest of the soldiers into militia forces. German army advisers trained a central army of 80.000 men, which soon grew to a crack force of 300.000. In the battle for Shanghai in 1937 German military advisers were dressed in Chinese uniforms and directed Chinese troops right up to the Japanese front lines. German military advisers recommended Chiang to fight a war of attrition against Japan and employ guerilla tactics against the Japanese army. Only by summer 1938 were German military advisers recalled from China once the Nazi-regime chose to work towards an alliance with Japan. Just before German advisers left, Chiang had signed a treaty whereby German advisers should train the whole Chinese army until 1940. (German Military Mission to China 1927-38, Arvo L. Vecamer, see also https://www.feldgrau.com/china.html)