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Did Zhang Xueliang do the right thing?


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Currently I am reading a biography of Madame Chiang called The Last Empress by Hannah Pakula. Like any book concerning the Chiangs, it touched upon the Xian Incident and Zhang Xueliang.

The book says that Zhang in 1974 released his memoirs about the Xian Incident. Zhang wrote in his memoirs that immediately after the Xian Incident, he felt elated in his belief that the country and its internal factions will cooperate harmoniously against the Japanese.

He said he met with Zhou Enlai before the kidnapping to discuss the terms for fighting the Japanese. He said Zhou Enlai promised him that the Communist troops would be disbanded as soon as the war with Japan was over and that all the CCP wanted was to be allowed to function as a legitimate political party. Zhou was one shrewd diplomat with a strategic mindset. 38 years later, Zhang acknowledged how naive he was.

When Zhang was asked at the end of his life whether Chiang Kai shek was a success or a failure, he called Chiang a failure who was too conservative and rigid in his righteousness.

Zhang credits Song Meiling for saving his life after the Xian Incident. He said that "the longer Madame Chiang lives, the longer I will live". Song Meiling's compassion for him was genuine, but Chiang Kaishek's magnanimity was not. Chiang never forgave him for the kidnapping.

Actually Zhang had a decent life in house arrest in Taiwan. He was not confined in his house 24 hours a day. Song Meiling often took him out of his residence to attend social and daily events, even though she was not supposed to. Occasionally he would have dinner with the Chiangs. Jiang Jingguo even took him to nightclubs in Taipei filled with women. Zhang was a known womanizer.

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Here is one way to look at it:

The generally accepted range for the number of non-ordinary deaths (i.e., the number of deaths above a normal death rate of about 1%/year) during the war with Japan is between 15 and 20 million. The number of non-ordinary deaths during the Great Leap Forward alone has been estimated to have been 40+ million by reputable historians and demongraphers. It seems to me that in hind sight, perhaps Zhang made the wrong decision.

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Another alternative would have been for the Nationalist government to continue the offensive against Xi'an that it had started after the kidnapping. No compromises to save Chiang's life. The offensive was called off in the negotiation to save Chiang's life.

It's interesting to think about how history would have worked out if Chiang had died in Xi'an after the kidnapping. If saving Chiang wasn't an issue, the Nationalist army would have easily defeated Zhang Xueliang in Xi'an. They probably would have been finished off the Communists in Yan'an. The question then would have been what would have happened with the Japanese? Wang Jingwei probably wanted to reach some kind of compromise with the Japanese. Would the Japanese have continued their march on the rest of China no matter what?

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The consequence of launching an offensive against Xian was depriving China of the only leader who could hold the country together at the time. Chiang, despite his many fallacies, had a ruthless understanding of domestic politics and the external foe. He had studied in Japan and knew Japanese capabilities well. He knew the Communist leadership's mindset and intentions. Even Stalin knew that Chiang was the only man capable of navigating a united front against the Japanese, which was why he instructed the Communists to negotiate with Chiang. Mao, wanting to use the opportunity to eliminate Chiang, flew into a rage when he heard of Stalin's instructions.

Chiang had the misfortune of being in the unenviable position of leading China against a strong, external enemy and dealing with Machiavellian domestic opponents simultaneously. At that time Chiang was operating on his own and had no external support; while Mao and the Communists were basically operating under Stalin's influence.

It was a Catch 22 situation with two outcomes. Commit all your resources to fight the Japanese, concentrate on the Communists later, and you prevent China from turning into a Japanese puppet regime. The massive resource commitment, large number of fatalities, and no surrender policy by the Nationalists were necessary to enforce China's sovereignty. But by doing so, the Nationalists sacrificed control of China to the Communists.

The other course of action was eliminate the Communists and fight the Japanese later. This action results in a a "gray" outcome, rather than a "black and white" outcome. Eliminating the Communists would allow the Nationalists to retain control of China, but they would be appeasing an external enemy. Anti-Japanese public opinion would have pressured Chiang to act firmer against Japan. It's difficult to foresee how far the Japanese would have advanced into China without full-scale war or a united front. The massive human toll wouldn't be there, but the humiliation and loss of dignity would be.

It's either pride and control of one's destiny with the human suffering; or subservience and docility without the human suffering. This is more of a perception issue. You could pretend to be subservient while plan an attack plan against an external opponent. That was most likely in Chiang's mind.

In hindsight, it's interesting to ponder Chiang's statemment "The Japanese were a disease of the skin, but the Communists' ideology were a disease of the heart"

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