Democracy with a Tommygun by Wilfred Burchett
The story of the Pao-An guerillas is the story in miniature of the struggle of young, virile and democratic elements in China trying to rise from the morass of feudalism, privilege and reaction still entrenched in high places, at the same time spearheading the military and political resistance to the Japanese aggressor. It is a story that has been repeated dozens of times during the past 30 years, ever since Sun Yat Sen and his followers overthrew the Manchu dynasty in 1911. It is the counterpart of the story of the Generalissimo's relentless pursuit of the Eighth Route Army, of the New Fourth Army's forced retreat from south of the Yangtse river in 1940. It is a story that reveals all that is best in China and all that is worst. A story of greed, treachery and criminal governmental stupidity and of selfless courage, ingenuity and devotion to the cause of liberty. The spirit which sustained the Pao-An guerillas in their dual warfare against the Jap invader and the local oppressor is the spirit which made possible China's steadfast war of resistance, despite the shortcomings of the police-state rule of the Kuomintang.
In Chungking we began to hear of the activities of guerillas in the Canton and Hong Kong areas from the first days of the Pacific war. When the Japanese attacked Hong Kong news quickly came of guerillas attacking the rear and flanks of the Japs trying to link up with the British troops. There were reports of large-scale sabotage on the Canton-Kowloon railway on which Jap supplies greatly depended.
The guerillas did make a valiant attempt to break through to the British and Canadian troops, desperately fighting their way back through the New Territories towards the strip of water that separated them from Hong Kong island, but events moved too fast. Unfortunately no contacts had been established between the British military and the guerillas in the pre-war days, except insofar as partisan soldiers were disarmed and interned whenever the Japs pressed them across the border into British territory. In one case three guerillas were turned over to the Japs for punishment.
There was no machinery for liaison between Chinese and British troops when the Japs attacked on 7th December. Within three days all British territory on the Asiatic mainland was lost, and on Xmas Day, less than three weeks after the Japs attacked, Hong Kong itself surrendered.
The Central government spokesman in Chungking had no information for correspondents about those guerillas operating in the Canton-Kowloon area, but Communist General Chou En Lai told us he was in contact with the partisans and had ordered them to give every assistance to Allied troops.
The next we heard of them was in connection with the dramatic escape from Hong Kong in motor torpedo boats of a group of Chinese and British government and military officials led by a colourful one-legged Chinese Admiral, Chan Chak, Chief Ceneral Chinese government official in Hong Kong. After a running fight with Jap patrol boats and attacks by enemy planes, Chan Chak's party reached the mainland, expecting to have to fight their way through Jap patrols or at best bribe their way through regions infested with bandits. Instead they were received by well-disciplined fighters who passed them on from post to post, gave them food and clothing, and eventually escorted them to Free China without the loss of a man.
The guerillas were organised right in the heart of Japanese occupied territory, and seemed to operate under the noses of Jap troops. But still it was difficult to get any details of how they came into existence, from where they got their arms and financial support, what was the extent of the area they controlled, what were their political aims, and how they were viewed by the government.
It was not until I contacted some of their representatives in a filthy, bug-ridden inn at Shaokwan, the temporary capital of Kwangtung province, that I heard the full story of their birth and growth. Most of the latter part of the story — dealing with events since the Pacific war — has since been confirmed by Chinese and British refugees from Hong Kong, who owe their lives to the existence of this ragged band of peasants, workers and intellectuals.
The official name of their organisation is the Kwangtung People's Anti-Japanese Guerilla Corps, the name Pao-An Guerillas from the territory between Hong Kong and Canton in which they mainly operate is better known in China. The force comprises two battalions, the Third and Fifth, organised originally in the days before the fall of Canton in October, 1938. The two battalion commanders — gentle, scholarly Wang Tso Yao commanding the Fifth and rugged, knobbly Chin Sheng — both graduated as revolutionaries in the Canton Students' Movement in the early 1930's. In their own humbler roles, Wang Tso Yao, the frail theoretician and the fighting leader Chin Sheng, have been compared with the two great Communist leaders at Yenan — Mao Tse Tung, the almost effeminate-looking political director, and Chu Teh, the granite-hard, rough-hewn guerilla chief.
Both Wang and Chin had been persecuted in the mid-1930's for leading the students in their demands for an end to internal strife and the forging of national unity against the Japs. By 1935 students' strikes and agitation were nation-wide, universities from Peiping in the north to Canton in the south were boiling over with indignation as the government continued to devote its energies to oppressing China's liberal-leftist leaders and ignored Japanese inroads into Manchuria. Chin Sheng's prominent part in the anti-Japanese movement earned him a high priority place on the local Chinese war-lord's execution list, and eventually he slipped away from Canton to go to sea as a merchant seaman. For three years he sailed up and down the China coast as an ordinary sailor, his talent for organisation and his ingrained sympathy for the underdog prompting him to start a Seamen's Mutual Aid Organisation — a sort of co-operative trade union.
When Canton fell in late 1938 Chin felt it was time he did something practical about the war. He left the sea and, with some members of his Seamen's Aid Organisation, who persisted in following him, he started volunteer service groups to help the regular Chinese Army in Kwangtung. This was the beginning of his career as a guerilla leader.
Wang Tso Yao's part in the student movement was less conspicuous and he remained, through the early stages of the Sino-Japanese war, in Canton, organising students and intellectuals in a "Model Militia Unit," which should set the example for people's resistance if the Japs actually attacked the Kwangtung capital. In those days the Popular Front between Communists and Kuomintang was still in its heyday and the formation of people's militia units was encouraged by the Central Government. Wang stressed the need to carry on political education in his Model Unit in the hope that it might provide the nucleus for leaders in the fighting which was sure to come.
Treachery and corruption amongst the regular Chinese Army leaders lost Canton after a fortnight's sporadic "token" resistance, and it was left to the irregulars to carry on the fight as in North China. Wang's detachment, with an initial thirty rifles, fought Japs wherever they met them, laying ambushes, making night attacks and avoiding day combat when they were heavily outnumbered. The troops were dispersed among the villages and were supported by the local inhabitants. Gradually the detachment built up a supply of arms from ambushed Jap patrols, and by purchase from deserters from the Chinese regular army. Villagers, whose security depended on the protection received from Wang's militia, contributed gifts and money to feed the troops and buy more guns. The militia, when they were not engaged in fighting, helped the farmers with work in the fields. From the beginning the closest unity was established between peasants and fighters. Unlike the soldiers of the war-lords' armies, who robbed and raped and were despised and hated by the villagers, Wang's men were adopted as their sons and brothers.
The main requisites for effective guerilla warfare, as shown by results of the Maquis in France, the guerillas in the Philippines, the partisans of Tito in Yugoslavia is, first, the will to resist, and, second, complete solidarity between the warriors and the people. These conditions were immediately established in the area of operations of the Pao-An guerillas.
Chin's service groups had meanwhile expanded into regular partisan units, and for months after the fall of Canton the two leaders worked in co-operation with regular government troops, but most of the latter soon withdrew from the area, some to be interned by the British in Kow-loon, others to be incorporated in General Yu Han Mou's Kwangtung army, operating many miles to the rear of the Canton-Kowloon area. For nearly a year the guerillas operated with the full blessing of the government. The area in which they were active was recognised as the Fourth Guerilla area; contact was maintained with the regular army; detachments multiplied and grew in numbers, experience and audacity.
Several times they raided into the outskirts of Canton, securing valuable supplies of weapons and information. One of their chief tasks, which they performed very successfully, was the permanent disruption of the railway out of Canton by destruction of the rolling stock and the removal of long stretches of rails. Farmers and even the landlords had confidence in these ragged bands, who forced the Japs to keep their distance, allowed the peasant to reap his harvest, and the landlord to collect his rent without interference. The policy of the guerilla chiefs was to fight the Japs and leave the long-vexed problem of landlord-peasant relations and agrarian reform to be solved after the invader was expelled. Unity in the fight against the Japs was their slogan for victory.
By the beginning of 1940 relations between the Kuomintang and Communists had greatly deteriorated. The fine revolutionary ardour of the first years of China's resistance had been quenched and the hunt was on for anyone who had liberal, leftist, or even democratic leanings. History was repeating itself. In 1927 Chiang Kai Shek had taken advantage of Sun Yat Sen's death to turn against the former communist collaborators of the great founder of the republic. Chiang had massacred them by the thousands in Shanghai and hounded them until the day of his kidnapping by Marshal Chang Hsueh Liang, when he agreed to call off the chase and unite with them against the Japs. By early 1940 the Kuomintang seemed to fear the local resistance movements were becoming too strong and might have too great an influence on post-war developments in China.
The theory of the one-party feudal-landlord state would be endangered if peasants became organised, politically conscious and with weapons in their hands. Orders were given for the disbandment of all the guerillas, as well as the retreat of the Communist New Fourth Army from south of the Yangtse river. That the areas wherein the guerilla and communist troops had been operating would fall into the hands of the Japs didn't seem to worry the government. They were gambling on the Western powers seeing to it that the Japs would be defeated and expelled, but who would expel the people from their own land if they became too strongly entrenched with their own militia? Any political or military organisation not under the direct control of the Kuomintang could not be tolerated. They must be disbanded or destroyed.
The commander of the Fourth Guerilla region was ordered to disband his forces. Before there was even time to pass on such an order to the various partisan organisations Central Government troops, under General Hsiang Han Ping, were ordered to attack the guerillas, just as farther north, in Anhwei, the instant the Communist New Fourth Army carried out its orders to retreat north of the Yangtse river, Central Government troops attacked them in the rear.
Wang Tso Yao decided that his battalion would not disband, but to avoid clashes with the government troops he would retreat from the area and leave its defence to the Kuomintang troops. His Fifth battalion commenced a three hundred mile march to Hoifung up the coast from Canton with a whole division of General Hsiang's Kuomintang troops in pursuit.
During the withdrawal the guerillas tried to negotiate with General Hsiang to try and reach some agreement whereby both sets of troops could continue the fight against the Japs. At Hoifung Wang sent a delegation of two men, escorted by a company of troops to make an eleventh-hour appeal to unity and to ask that the battalion might return to the defence of the Pao-An area. On the pretext that it would help along the "peaceful negotiations" by showing confidence in General Hsiang's good intentions, the escort allowed itself to be disarmed. In typical war-lord style Hsiang invited the two delegates to dinner, had them both shot, and the whole company thrown into a concentration camp, where they were allowed to starve to death.
For a couple of months Wang still hoped the government would change its policy and then, after continued rebuffs, decided to march the guerillas back to Pao-An and resist by arms any further attacks by General Hsiang's men. Hsiang was not making any attempt to fight the Japs in the Pao-An region, and Wang and Chin Sheng who, with his Third battalion had followed the Fifth to Hoifung, decided they must return and justify the faith the peasants had invested in their powers of protection. By August, 1940, both battalions were back in the area, where they were eagerly received by the peasants as they took up their old duties of helping in the fields and attacking the Japs whenever they ventured too close.
Early in 1941, after the remaining forces of the Fourth Guerilla Region had been liquidated, Wang and Chin's two battalions united to form the Kwangtung People's Anti-Japanese Guerilla Forces. Shortly afterwards General Hsiang set out, not only to crush the guerillas, but also to wipe out all the villages that supported them. The whole Pao-An region was declared "Red," and Hsiang's troops, with supporting artillery that must have been badly needed on fronts against the Japs, started a clean-up campaign, burning every village en route, massacring and torturing peasants, destroying livestock and crops. It was a typical old-time Chinese war-lord campaign of the pattern waged in pre-republic days. The troops were mercenaries, whose reward for faithful service was the pleasure and profit from rape and plunder. Hsiang had a special "guerilla" force recruited from coastal bandits to act as guides through mountain trails and to spearhead the advance, so the rape and plunder could be more efficiently executed.
Hundreds of Chinese families, whose only crime was their patriotism, that they had helped feed and hide compatriots who protected their villages from the enemy, were tortured and murdered. Refugees from Hong Kong, passing through Pao-An a year later, saw the ruins of once prosperous villages along the path of Hsiang's advance.
The effect, however, was the opposite to that intended by the Kuomintang. Instead of frightening the villagers away from the guerillas, it made them turn more than ever towards them. Thousands of peasants, with no farms left to till, offered their services to the guerilla battalions; village craftsmen turned their talents to forging weapons. They would go into battle with scythes and pikes, using rifles only as they became available from their own casualties or taken from enemy dead. The entire populations of some of the wrecked villages attached themselves to the rag-tag and bob-tail army, turning into nomads ready to pack up and move from one mountain outpost to another as movements of Japs or Hsiang's mercenaries determined. The whole countryside teemed with their spies and supporters, and they were always a move or two ahead of both Japs and Central troops. On one occasion two companies were hemmed in between Jap and Hsiang's troops, but they managed to slip away, and for once Hsiang had to fight it out with well-armed Japs.
Word leaked out to Chinese communities abroad, by the queer "grape-vine radio," which seems to operate particularly well in Chinese circles, that things were not as they should be in South Kwangtung. In Malaya, the Philippines, Indo-China, Burma, the Dutch East Indies and Hong Kong, there were excited meetings in the various societies which existed for the support of the war against the Japs.
By devious means and routes delegates slipped through the Japanese lines to visit the guerillas and report back to their organisations. Some brought money and arms with them and promised more support when they had reported to the committees which had sent them.
When they discovered that the General Hsiang Han Ping, whose "guerilla" organisation they had been financing, was fighting his own people instead of the Japs, they were furious. When they returned to their homelands hundreds of angrily-worded telegrams — including some from Chinese societies in Australia and the United States — were sent to the Generalissimo demanding the dismissal of Hsiang Han Ping. When the requests were ignored they ceased sending money to Hsiang and arranged for help to be sent direct to Wang and Chin Seng's fighting men. Who knows what innocent-looking junks and sampans slipped through the Jap blockade to glide ashore at dead of night along the tree-lined Kwangtung coast to bring in arms for the guerillas, bought with money from market gardeners and merchants, bankers and laundry men?
The guerillas had good fortune early in 1941 when they ambushed a large Jap force in a narrow mountain file. Despite artillery and planes sent to their rescue, over 400 Japs were wiped out and the guerillas captured a rich bag of weapons.
With contributions from abroad they were able to arm most of their members, also to establish a military training centre to turn out better officers, and a college to step up the general education and political knowledge of the peasants. By the time the Japs attacked Pearl Harbour and Hong Kong at the end of 1941 most villagers who had contact with the Pao-An guerillas knew something of the world situation, the significance of Chinese resistance, and especially that of their own guerillas in the whole pattern of the war against Fascism. Shortly after the Pacific war spread out to include Britain and America, General Hsiang Han Ping's forces were weakened by the defection of two companies of his mercenaries, who went over to the Japs, so the guerillas were left alone for a few months.
When the Japs attacked at Kowloon the Pao-An guerillas went into action immediately, following hard at the heel of the Japs as they pressed the British troops back off the mainland to the island of Hong Kong. They made big hauls of booty, including light and heavy machine guns, mortars and a few artillery pieces, abandoned by the British as they retreated.
As soon as Hong Kong fell Wang and Chin decided their most important task for the near future was to make use of their connections inside the city and their exceptional knowledge of the country between Hong Kong and Free China to help refugees escape. During the first three months after the surrender of the city they rescued or helped to safety thousands of Chinese and more than 30 British or Americans. The only requests they made to the first British soldiers rescued was to show them how to handle the machine guns and other unfamiliar weapons they had acquired, and to lecture them on the world situation.
The mere existence of the guerillas had a good tonic effect on Chinese and foreigners alike. Their morale, shaken by the loss of the great British stronghold after eighteen days' fighting, the refugees were given a renewed feeling of hope to encounter these well-organised troops eager to continue the war and unfaltering in their belief in victory.
Officers and troops from the Hong Kong garrison stayed behind to teach the guerillas how to use British Army equipment. Chinese doctors and nurses organised clinics and lectured on treatment of recurrent fever, dysentery, malaria, typhus, and other diseases common to the region. Writers and artists contributed their talents by organising propaganda classes. The guerillas drew strength from their guests, and the refugees were immensely heartened by the attitude of their tattered hosts. They went on their way with fresh hope, promising to urge support for the Pao-An guerillas when they arrived at the capital. Many Chinese and a couple of British stayed with the guerillas, believing they could do most for the war effort by placing their technical skill at the disposal of the peasant fighters.
Amongst the British helped by the guerillas were Professor Gordon King and an Australian, Professor Ride, both from Hong Kong University, Major Munro, of the Royal Artillery, Captain A. G. Hewitt, Lieutenants Trevor, Wedderburn, Passmore and Fairclaugh, of the British Army, Lieuts. Douglas and Hurst, R.N.V.R., several R.A.F. officers, half a dozen officials of the Hong Kong government and the British Ministry of Information, and Miss Elsie Fairfax-Cholmondley, formerly with the Institute of Pacific Relations. I met many of these escapees as they arrived in Kweilin or Chungking, and all were enthusiastic in their praise for the Pao-An guerillas and their work for China and the Allied cause. Most of them directly or indirectly owe their lives to Wang's and Chin's organisations.
Sometimes the guerillas contacted refugees in Hong Kong itself, sometimes not till they had reached the bandit and pirate infested Kwangtung coast — usually by junk from Portuguese Macao. They kept a close watch on those parts of the coast where refugees were most likely to land, and often had advance information from contacts with the pirates. Sometimes people would fall into the hands of bandits, who would hold them for ransom until the guerillas obtained their release by money or threats according to the respective size of the bandit and guerilla forces.
Refugees usually spent the daylight resting in some forest hideout, plied with the best food the guerillas could provide. It was the guests who fed on chicken and pork if there were any available — the guerillas and villagers were content with rice. Travelling was mostly done at night, and if there were Japs in the area the guerillas would stage a diversionary attack while an escort slipped through some well-hidden trail with the evacuees. With the whole population acting as eyes and ears, the Japs could hardly send out a patrol or change a guard without the guerillas knowing of it, and they were able to sneak their charges through the Jap lines with rarely a challenge.
In Chungking and Kweilin, as the refugees began to arrive in a steady stream, the activities of the Pao-An guerillas were passed on by word of mouth till everybody in the foreign communities were discussing them. Correspondents were not, however, allowed to refer to them in news stories. We could only write vaguely about "assistance rendered by Chinese villagers." Everyone of consequence who passed through their territory tried to win support for the guerillas from the government. At least one foreign embassy, supported by Madame Chiang Kai Shek, pressed for immediate financial and military aid to be given them. But to strengthen the guerillas was one thing the Kuomintang leaders were determined to avoid. In fact, they were drawing up quite other plans of their own.
In May, 1942, the guerillas were still helping Chinese political refugees out of Hong Kong. They didn't question a person's background too closely. Anyone that wanted to get way from the Japs was a potential active supporter of the anti-Japanese war, and was thus entitled to help. Early in May there had been more people than usual in Hong Kong seeking contact with the guerillas for a passage on the "underground" to Free China. They were passed along the usual route, from one company headquarters to another, till they reached the headquarters of either Wang's or Chin's battalion, where some would stay a few days before continuing on to Shaokwan, thence to Kweilin or Chungking.
By the end of May several newcomers told the guerilla leaders they had been sent in by the Kuomintang as spies. The Central Government was annoyed by the rising popularity of the guerillas and was frightened that if they were not nipped in the bud they would blossom into problems of the same magnitude as the New Fourth and Eighth Route Armies. Accordingly, General Yu Han Mou, Commander of the Kwangtung War Area, was going to attack them with two divisions early in June.
The agents had been sent especially to Hong Kong to pose as refugees so they would learn the secret routes used by the guerillas. Then they were to continue to Yu Han Mou's headquarters to act as guides for the punitive expedition. They had been told that the Pao-An guerillas were bandits working for the Japanese, but now they had seen for themselves that they were true Chinese fighting against the Japs, several of them decided to warn the guerillas of what was afoot. But some of their less patriotic colleagues had already left the guerilla area and were probably already at Yu Han Mou's headquarters.
Ironically enough, only a couple of months earlier the partisans had organised the escape of Madame Yu Han Mou, the War Area Commander's wife, had passed her through the Japanese lines, and refused a gift of money she had tried to press on them. She had gone on her way singing the praises of the Pao-An guerillas, promising to do all she could to gain them the whole-hearted support of the Central Government. Now her husband had been chosen to deal the final blow to wipe out the whole of the guerilla movement.
There were only a couple of weeks left before Yu Han Mou was to start the attack, and during those days the guerillas made their preparations. Old men and children were escorted out of the villages to mountain fastnesses from where they could be moved further if the necessity arose. The rest of the villagers in some scores of little hamlets were kept on a mobile basis ready to withdraw with their livestock and goods when the line of advance of Yu's troops became clear.
The attack came in mid-June, as expected, but Yu Han Mou's divisions found the guerillas as elusive as the Japs did. The few villagers who had stayed behind were butchered without mercy; men, women and little children were first tortured to try and force them to disclose the guerilla hideouts, and then killed.
Yu did not succeed in destroying the guerillas, but he did succeed in laying waste to hundreds of square miles of farmland and burning scores of villages which were the bases from which the guerillas drew their strength. Wang and Chin's policy, like that of the partisans all over China, was to go to any length to avoid armed conflict with their Chinese troops. If the Central Government armies occupied their territory — well and good. They would have to fight the Japs and were much better equipped to do so.
This is a story without an end, like so many other stories one finds in China. At the time I spoke with those fierce, earnest delegates in Shaokwan, the Pao-An guerillas were still in existence, driven out of the area where their resistance was most effective back into the hinterland. They were still fighting the Japs because it was impossible for them to live and equip themselves without making frequent forays into enemy positions. A black-out censorship on guerilla activities has made it impossible to find out what has been their fate since late 1942. One finds out about these things only by first-hand investigations, and few people can elude the vigilance of the Kuomintang officialdom long enough to visit guerilla territory to make first-hand investigations.
Only one thing we know from newspaper reports. After the guerillas were driven out of the area they had so well defended, the Japs had no difficulty in beating down the Central Government troops and occupying the area right through to Shaokwan, the provisional capital of Kwangtung. As in many other places the Kuomintang troops have proved themselves incapable, despite their vastly superior equipment, of holding from the Japs an area they have taken from the guerillas. Without the support of the peasantry, which was the whole basis of partisan defence, the regular troops are as helpless as a man fighting without eyes or ears and only one arm.
Although the Kuomintang regime tried to brand the Pao-An guerillas as "bandits" (the synonym for communists) this is not correct. Long after they were organised, and at a time when they were not getting financial or military support from the Central Government, the Communists sent out advisers, and what financial aid they could spare, rather than see the guerillas go down through lack of support. They made no attempt to put anything in the nature of a socialist or communist programme into practice, and some of their most enthusiastic supporters were the landlords whose properties they protected.
By their treatment of such organisations as the Pao-An guerillas, however, the Kuomintang is driving them all into the arms of the Communist Party as the only source to which they can turn for assistance. The Kuomintang seems to be determined that there shall be no middle way in China by persecuting any movement of a democratic nature until its members are either wiped out or assimilated into the increasingly powerful Communist Party — the only existing alternative to the Kuomintang.