Winning Over the Puppets: Intro

This posting is part of a series of postings which comprise a draft dissertation chapter. Read more about it here.

Nowhere in the Japanese Empire was military collaboration more important and carried out on a larger scale than in occupied China. By 1945, there were over 900,000 Chinese men under arms garrisoning towns and strongholds on behalf of the Japanese Expeditionary Army and its Chinese client regime in occupied Nanjing. In accounts of Japan’s conquests on the Chinese mainland from 1931 to 1945, these Chinese soldiers are remembered for their incompetence, their treason, and their cruelty. They not only prolonged the Japanese occupation, but contributed to its brutality as active participants in mop-up campaigns throughout the countryside. While Japanese training and discipline may have curbed some of their excesses, that of violence was not among them.

For the Chinese Communist Party, these military collaborators played an important role in the Party’s postwar political struggle. They served as the most direct link between the repression of the Japanese invaders, and that of a returning Nationalist government which integrated the Chinese collaborationist armies into its own forces. By doing so, Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist government inherited a stain of treason, widely invoked in variations of the phrase, “the Chiang conspiracy to merge with the enemy and puppets” (jiang di wei heliu de yinmou). In Communist propaganda, the Nationalist government was to be remembered not for leading the national resistance, but for colluding with the enemy and reabsorbing its despised henchmen.

This chapter does not fundamentally challenge this portrayal of the Nationalists. No shortage of Chinese war criminals and other unsavory officers made their way from allegiance to Japan to fight for the Nationalists in the civil war of 1945-1949. Indeed, many of them began their careers in units at least nominally loyal to the Nationalist government. Returning to the fold, they found good company and familiar assignments among the executioners of Nationalist pacification teams. Deployed once more into the field, they were asked to exterminate the real traitors: Communist bandits (gongfei).

Instead, the focus here will be on the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) response to military collaboration with Japan both as seen in its central party directives, and as carried out more locally in the Shandong Base Area. The CCP and its resistance forces in Shandong province understood the vital role played by military collaborators in preserving Japanese control over occupied areas, especially after 1942. They also understood how valuable these armed groups could be as sources of information, supplies, and in the end, of fighting men. As the chapter will show, the Party placed tremendous emphasis on “winning over” (zhengqu) or else “disintegrating” (wajie) Chinese units under Japanese command. Historians, including the accepted narrative put forth by the CCP itself, often emphasize the greater success–or treachery–accomplished by the Nationalist party in absorbing these Chinese forces in the immediate aftermath of Japanese surrender. However, this often ignores the considerable numbers of military collaborators who covertly cooperated with or defected to Communist control.

That some of these commanders were responsible for horrendous violence against civilians was no insurmountable problem, even when the Party had helped mobilize rallies condemning these same men for their brutality. Instead of being targeted by the local teams of the “treason elimination bureau,” (chujianbu) which dealt with informers, spies, trotskyites, and collaborationist officials, military collaborators with Japan were wooed by agents of the “enemy work bureau” (digongbu) who offered very generous terms for those who defected in time. After being “won over” collaborationist units were in many cases not dissolved or disarmed, nor was it official policy to do so.

Following a common practice in Chinese military campaigns well into the 20th century, these units were simply renamed and their commanders allowed to remain in control. Following Japanese surrender, reform and trials of those who failed to submit in time were carried out under an official policy of magnanimity, though sometimes, as we shall see, calls for vengeance by the communities who suffered at their hands during the occupation made this a challenge. Those who survived, or by defection avoided the first round of retribution would remain easy targets for every wave of revolutionary violence in the movements to come.

Next: Puppet Soldiers


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