Democracy with a Tommygun by Wilfred Burchett
By the time I arrived in Chungking the capital was decking itself out for a fitting welcome to the late Wendell Willkie, who was on the last leg of his world trip and would reach Chungking via Soviet Russia and Chinese Turkestan.
Preparations were made to give him a reception such as no other foreign visitor had had in modern China. Each outlying village, each hamlet, was expected to provide its quota of flag-waving welcomers, and the flag-makers and slogan-painters were jubilant about the unprecedented boost to their trade. Fathers, mothers and children were to turn out with one flag each for the Kuomintang and the Chinese Republic. Such decorations in the shops, such throngs of cheering, waving people, such energy of cheer leaders had not been seen since the Generalissimo returned from the Sian kidnapping incident. Military testified with bands at the airport, civilians with slogan-painted streamers in the streets, officials with banquets and tea-parties that China welcomed Wendell Willkie.
One began to fear that Mr. Willkie was being so banqueted and feted that he would have no chance to see life in Chungking, or to talk to people other than officials. But he was a man of prodigious energy and enquiring, unprejudiced mind. Despite the time-consuming ceremonies, he saw a great deal and learned much about China in his brief stay. His two fellow-travellers, Gardner Cowles, publisher of the Des Moines "Register" and "Look" magazine, and Joe Barnes, Office of War Information representative, skipped many of the banquets, saw and learned even more. With a greater background of foreign affairs, they knew better where and how to look for their information.
"Old China hands" were amazed at their grasp of the situation after a few days in the capital. Willkie, to his great credit, seemed to have a flair for sensing — and avoiding — "stooges" primed to sell him a certain line of talk.
The scenes at Mr. Willkie's arrival in Chungking were mainly staged by the efficient Information Ministry, but no one could have stage-managed his subsequent receptions. He radiated goodwill towards China, and the people felt that and reciprocated. Wherever he went and spoke he was wildly acclaimed. After all, he was a symbol of the genuine friendship and sympathy American people had for China, and the determination of his government to stand by China through this war against Japan. His visit was a cleansing wind that swept away many fears and suspicions that the Allies were going to leave China high, dry and defenceless.
There was already plenty of goodwill towards America at that time. Best of all, for the first time since the Chinese capital had been established in Chungking, the bombing season had come — and almost gone — and there were no signs of Jap bombers. The only planes seen over the city were American. A few weeks earlier the Japs had come to bomb Kweilin; people retreated to their shelters as usual, waiting at the entrances to watch the fat bombers leisurely circle the town selecting their targets. Out of the sky swooped American "pea-shooters." Within a few minutes all nine Jap bombers were plummeting to earth in flames. For the first time in memory foreigners saw normally impassive and undemonstrative Chinese folk dancing up and down for joy, shouting and yelling and hugging each other like children at a Punch and Judy show.
Despite the loss of the Burma Road, supplies were still coming in, flown over the "hump" by American transport planes. More and more U.S. military personnel were seen around Chungking. U.S. troops had appeared for the first time in the Pacific war since their defeat in the Philippines, with the landings at Guadalcanal. Despite academic discussions in Chungking military circles as to whether this was a "defensive" or an "offensive" move, it was generally accepted as proof that America was ready to stage a comeback against Japan. Small wonder that this representative American leader was popular.
Mr. Willkie's naivete, his sentimentality and lack of real political knowledge were assets in his favour. He said many flattering things as well as hard things that needed saying, and got away with some criticism of Chinese political disunity, financial dealings, inflation and black-marketing that would have been ill-taken if proffered by anyone else. His candour and honest desire to learn about China were two things that impressed all correspondents.
The highlight of his visit, as far as newspaper men were concerned, was the opportunity to accompany him on a short trip to the Yellow river front, China's "sitz-war" area, where the Yellow river and General Hu Tsung Nan's troops separated Kuomintang China from both the Communists and the Japanese.
We flew via Chengtu to Sian — capital of Shensi province and scene of the most momentous incident in Chiang Kai Shek's career. Willkie visited the Military Academy where the Generalissimo, in December, 1936, scolded students for their lack of fervour in the fight against the Communists, and their unruliness in questioning the rightness of his policy. We banqueted in the governor's palace where the Generalissimo was held prisoner by the "Young Marshal," Chang Hsueh Liang, and to which Madame Chiang, Australian adviser W. K. Donald, and Communist General Chou en Lai were flown to assist in the negotiations which led to the Generalissimo agreeing to call off the fight against the Communists and help them fight the Japanese instead. Chang Hsueh Liang has been in detention ever since for his "insubordination."
Joe Barnes extracted from the Shensi governor the admission that although the Red area adjoins Shensi and the Communist capital at Yenan was not far to the north, there was virtually no intercourse between the two areas, and special troops were stationed along the border to ensure no trade was possible.
Before the discussion could enter deep waters, we were called away to be entertained at a medieval type banquet, with a brass band playing behind screens, a fantastic procession of succulent Chinese dishes, interminable pewter kettles of steaming yellow wine, and in the background chestnuts popping on glowing charcoal-filled pans. Toasts were drunk, food was stuffed away, soft-footed waiters padded to and fro like shadow dancers, bringing more rice, more food, above all, more wine.
Frequently-brought warm towels only temporarily postponed the inevitable lapse into a hazy coma in which all thoughts of political, economic or military problems were dissipated.
Many of the participants lapsed into a floating dream world from which they only emerged next morning to find themselves on a train bound for Tungkwan on the Yellow river bend — their best chance for probing into Shensi politics lost for ever. Whenever was more pleasant pepper so skilfully thrown into one's eyes than at that sumptuous Sian banquet? On our return journey we were hustled straight from railway station to airport.
We travelled by train till we reached a point where only the half-mile wide "River of Sorrows" separated us from Jap guns, and here we transferred to a half dozen trolley cars. Most of the track was protected from enemy observation by thickly-planted trees and along these sections our operators proceeded in a more or less leisurely fashion, but worked up terrific energy, their arms pumping like valve tappets, when we came to gaps in the hedges.
It was early morning when we sped along in the trolley cars, and either the Japs weren't awake or they thought the things that flashed past the gaps in the hedges were not worthy of their shots. They did a few shells into Tungkwan station, however, and strafed a "blue coach" similar to the one in which we had travelled, just to show us they knew something was afoot. At a point a couple of miles from Tungkwan we left the trolley cars due to the shelling ahead, and walked along a sunken road parallel to the railway, into the town itself. The road was cut deep into the rich Shensi soil and was protected by the railway embankments so that traffic could circulate freely without being spotted by the Japanese.
Tungkwan is a stage set of the Chinese war produced for visiting foreigners. "Life" editor, Harry Luce, had been up here before us, a British parliamentary delegation followed us. It bore as much resemblance to the real war as a streamlined motor-launch does to a sampan. The whole town was a labyrinth of underground defence works, complete with medical stations and a few batteries of big guns overlooking the Japanese positions. It was possible to look from an observation post and see Japanese strolling around nonchalantly on the far bank. We asked if they ever fired their big guns, and the commanding officer said:
"No. If we start firing the Japs only fire back, and that would do neither of us any good." It was a reasonable answer.
In the afternoon we were treated to a first-class military manoeuvre, with a couple of battalions of Chinese troops, protected by a creeping barrage, advancing up a valley to take an "enemy" strong point. The whole thing was well done. Our military experts proclaimed the artillery fire accurate, machine-gun supporting fire well placed, and troop movements excellently co-ordinated. Later we attended a mass review of one of General Hu Tsung Nan's crack divisions.
One could hardly believe that those troops which we saw at the Yellow river review could be part of the same organisation that provided those I had seen on the fighting fronts of Hunan, Kiangsi, Chekiang and in Burma. These were big, well-fed looking chaps. Uniforms were of excellent quality. Company after company marched on to the parade ground, complete with supporting weapons. There were Italian, German and Russian tanks, Krupp field pieces, American howitzers and anti-tank guns, a plenitude of American army transport and Jeeps. That one division had more fire power than all the rest of the troops I had seen in China. For the first time I saw soldiers equipped with tin hats and gas masks.
I remembered an unhappy, half-blind soldier from the Kiangsi front who explained how, when the Japs used gas, the soldiers had to urinate on the ground, spread a urine and dirt paste on a piece of rag, and wrap it round their faces till the gas had dissipated. But here in Shensi troops who had never seen action were provided with everything a modern army needs. To cap off the whole spectacle they took the salute by strutting past the review stand — doing the goose-step. The last time I had seen that was at a military review in the Sportspalast Stadium in Berlin. General Hu Tsung Nan was a great admirer of German methods, and Nazi advisers had much to do with the training of his troops.
Hu Tsung Nan is one of the most powerful men in China, and one of the trio of leaders from whom the successor to the Generalissimo would be chosen should that become necessary. A question I often asked in China is: "What would happen supposing the Generalissimo died to-morrow?"
The reply would always name, according to the person's viewpoint, either General Hu Tsung Nan, General Ho Ying Chin (then War Minister) or General Cheng Chen (in charge of the Yangtse armies on the Ichang front) as the obvious successor. Those three men between them virtually control all the armies in Free China through a system of allegiances to one or the other of them, by the various war area or army commanders. Each has his own following among military and political cliques in Chungking. Each hopes to extend his spheres of influence as the Japanese position in China weakens. Each hopes to keep as intact as possible the armies upon whose support he could count in the post-war scramble for power, and this partly explains such retreats as that of Ku Chu Tung's troops in Chekiang.
The Yellow river area and north China for Hu Tsung Nan; the Yangtse and Shanghai for Cheng Chen; Canton and South China for Yo Hing Chin. These are more or less the areas in which the generals are expected to stake their claims according to many officials with whom I spoke.
Hu Tsung Nan is not even a war area commander, and only a major-general, but he commands China's powerful First Army and has the support of some of the best generals. He has long been waiting for the go-ahead signal from the Generalissimo to cross into the Communist territory, try out his troops against those of General Chu Teh and Mao Tse Tung, and wipe out a potential threat to his post-war plans. He was prepared to move in April, 1942, but the Japanese broke through to Yunnan from Burma and some of Hu's troops and equipment were rushed down to defend Chungking whilst troops from Chungking were pushed down into Yunnan.
Hu is an impressive-looking fellow, shrewd and cold, but with a massive head and a certain similarity to the Prussian generals he so much admires. There was a gleam of satisfaction in his eyes as he stood on the dais, with Wendell Willkie at his side, taking the salute from those steel-helmeted, goose-stepping automatons, who paraded past in the magnificent natural stadium, flanked on three sides by brooding dark mountains. It was a setting fit for a Wagnerian opera. As General Hu watched the last division of tanks and battery of artillery rumble past, he was probably thinking: If only I could persuade this fellow Willkie that I have everything I need except planes, he will get his government to send me those, too.
Returning to Sian by train, we were served a good meal aboard and, to our amazement, the first beer and imported wine most of us had seen in China. Slim, dapper and intelligent Captain Chiang Wei Kuo, the younger son of the Generalissimo, attached to Hu Tsung Nan's staff, made a short speech in excellent English, explaining that a Chinese raiding party had crossed the Yellow river and stumbled across several cases of Tientsin and Tuborg beer and some French wines. Who could doubt such a story when there was the excellent proof in the bottles? Even the cynics, who suggested the liquor was acquired through the large-scale trading that went on between the Chinese military and the Japs in this area, admitted the stuff was of fine quality and were not behind the rest in sampling it.
Captain Chiang Wei Kuo is the antithesis of his brother. Perhaps the one quality they have in common is their good humour, Ching Kuo is serious, thoughtful, quiet-living, slow-speaking, even a little stolid. Wei Kuo is light-hearted, gay, a good conversationalist in English and German, as well as Chinese, and obviously a "bon viveur." It was easy to believe the stories of his high living in Germany, and during his return to China via the United States. He was eager to discuss good night clubs and other places of interest in Berlin and Vienna, but was shy of talking about anything touching on local politics. He asked me a good deal about Ching Kuo, and how he was getting on down in South Kiangsi.
Settling back against the comfortable cushions of one of China's de luxe, wagon-lit type "blue coaches" after another magnificent feast, with the debris of crisp, spiced duck, shark-fin soup, creamed fish, doves' eggs, chickens' blood, sweet and sour pork, and a dozen unclassifiable delicacies, with bowls of magnificent Sinkiang apples, pomegranates, luscious white grapes and slices of melon still on the table, Paul Yupin, Catholic Bishop of Chungking, who had joined our party at Tungkwan, began to tell a few of us an unforgettable story of horror.
He had just returned from a tour of Honan and brought with him the first news of a famine which had been developing there for several weeks. As our train whisked merrily through fertile fields of wheat and kau liang, millet and maize, through country as colourful as an artist's palette where ragged white puffs of cotton, crimson chillies, yellow mustard mingled with the green of crops sprouting through the yellow Shensi soil, the Bishop told us of a mass exodus of peasants from a land stricken with death, of peasants eating bark and grass and bunches of leaves brought in from distant areas and sold at exorbitant prices; of people collapsing by the roadside and dying by thousands; of families too weak to drag themselves out to greet him when he called.
The combination of Yellow river floods, conscription of peasant labour, wholesale army requisitioning of grain, plus the newly-ordered collection of taxes in rice, had proved the last straw. Their last reserves gone, even their seed rice for next harvest eaten, tens of thousands of them had left the land and were flocking to neighbouring provinces. Trains were jammed top and bottom with clinging, starving humans who often dropped to their death from weakness. Children were being sold for a few cents or a bowl of rice. Yupin cited one case of parents binding their children to a tree as they wandered on, so they would not endure the pain of watching them die before their eyes.
Reports were beginning to trickle in from outlying districts and it seemed almost the whole province was affected, and Yupin estimated that at least 18,000,000 people were endangered. He was hurrying to Chungking to try and organise relief, but was pessimistic that action could be effective before tens of thousands of people died. The total number of deaths in that great Honan famine will never be known, but it certainly ran into millions, and was eclipsed only by the Bengal famine of the following year as the worst in the Orient for a generation. It was the greatest disaster for China since the Japanese invasion, and upset the peasant economy in Honan for years to come.
At Sian Mr. Willkie was again welcomed by what must have been almost the entire population of the city. The enthusiasm seemed spontaneous and genuine, and although some people of whom we enquired believed Mr. Willkie was President of the United States, the rousing reception was nevertheless a striking demonstration of friendship for America. We were hurried straight through to the airport, thence by plane to Chengtu, where we stayed overnight in the fine hostel for U.S. army flyers, still bearing signs in Russian over the doors from the days when Soviet airmen fought in China. Early next morning Mr. Willkie and party left for the United States via Siberia, and the rest of us returned to Chungking.
It was time for me to jog Hollington Tong's memory again about my interview with the Generalissimo. Teddy (Theodore) White, from "Life" and "Time" magazine, had come to China with the same half-promise that he could interview the Generalissimo, so Holly told us he would try and arrange both at the same time. It would be the first interview with correspondents that General Chiang had given since the Pacific war started, so we were both keen to pull it off. One Saturday evening an excited Holly raced down to our rooms at the Press Hostel, waving an impressively be-sealed piece of parchment at us, which he said was our invitation to see the Generalissimo the following morning at 8 o'clock at Political Training Institute, not far from the Press Hostel. Holly had come down to brief us on how to conduct ourselves with the Generalissimo.
"Now, Teddy, you have just come from India recently. You saw all the disturbances and interviewed Indian leaders. The Generalissimo will want to know all about that. Don't mind that he asks you a lot of questions. He is very interested in India. Went there himself earlier in the year, you'll remember. Tell him all you know about Indian production, Indian leaders' ideas about the war. The more you can tell him the more inclined he will be to talk to you later. And you, Burchett. You have just returned from that long trip through the war areas. You were with the Chinese armies in Burma. Tell the Generalissimo all you saw. Tell him what you think about the different Chinese generals you met. Answer all his questions fully. Speak frankly; he will be interested in your impressions. Be patient, and when the Generalissimo has finished asking you questions, then you can both start in on him. But don't have too many questions. You'd better get together and decide what you're going to ask beforehand."
Teddy and I stayed up most of the night working out our questions. We worked out a series that would give each of us what we wanted without wasting time and duplicating our work. Teddy was mainly interested in Chiang's ideas for post-war China. I was more interested in current questions of politics and strategy to beat Japan. After several hours' work we felt we had evolved a masterly dozen questions framed in such a way that the Generalissimo had only to say "yea" or "nay" and we would have a few pages of good copy. We knew the reputation of General Chiang for brevity, and also the difficulties of interpretation, and felt it would be more satisfactory to have questions that could be turned into replies merely by an affirmation or negation. Holly called for us next morning in his new sedan. After we entered the grounds of the Political Training Institute we were stopped every hundred yards by guards, who held their Mauser pistols at the ready until Holly produced our magnificent document of invitation. Guards were stationed at about 20 yards' intervals on each side of a half-mile drive. Ubiquitous Chinese camera-men were waiting to take our pictures as we mounted the steps to an anteroom where we should await the arrival of the Generalissimo. Also waiting were many of China's top-ranking military and political officials. War Minister Ho Ying Chin, Information Minister Wang Shih Chieh, the "Christian General" Feng Yu Hsiang, Minister for Overseas Chinese Wu Te Chen, and half a dozen other notables.
A brass band began to play "San Min Chu I," the Chinese National Anthem, the Generalissimo's bullet-proof limousine drove up, and a slim, white-gloved figure stepped out and hurried up another set of steps to a room on our left.
After a few minutes Holly went down our steps and up the others, to reappear shaking with the nervous excitement for which he is noted when in the company of the Generalissimo or Madame, and told us that China's military and political leader would see us immediately.
Down the steps and up the steps into a room where the Generalissimo was already rising from a broad, smooth-topped table. I was amazed to see how much older he looked without the military cap in which I had usually seen him. Shaven-headed and smiling, dressed in his general's uniform, he uttered a few welcoming "hao hao's" (good, good), which in the abbreviated way he pronounces them sound like short, dry coughs, like the beginning of the German "hoch hoch." Holly began the introductions:
"Jeh shih Bai Shensheng..." (This is Mr. White...) and reminded the Generalissimo that Teddy worked for that good friend of China, Mr. Harry Luce, of "Life" magazine. General Chiang interjected with a few more approving coughs, "hao hao hao . . ." and when Holly came to the end of his speech the Generalissimo gave vent to a whole series of "hao, hao, hao, hao's," nodding his head and shaking Teddy's hand. Then I was introduced as "Jeh shih Bae shensheng... Ingwodi paokwan" (this is Mr. Bay from an English newspaper), reminding the Generalissimo that my paper was owned by Lord Beaverbrook. I was in turn treated to several "hao hao's" and shaken by the hand. We were all waved to seats.
Chiang turned to Holly with a short burst of Chinese. Holly turned to us and said, "The Generalissimo wants to know how long you boys have been in China."
Holly turned back to the Generalissimo, explained that I had been there this time for five months, Teddy for a few weeks. "Hao, hao, hao."
Another question from the Generalissimo. Holly asked us how long we intended staying in China, then interpreted to General Chiang that Teddy hoped to stay a year; I would stay only a few more weeks.
"Hao, hao, hao."
Teddy and I exchanged glances, each hoping the other hadn't forgotten the questions allotted him, and both of us thinking the interview was going pretty well so far.
But what was that? Some more "Hao, hao, hao's," unprovoked this time, and there was the Generalissimo rising from his seat looking at his wrist watch. "Hao, hao, hao. Hao, hao."
We rose automatically, and before we had time to recover our balance Holly was pushing us out of a door which magically had opened.
"That's all, boys, that's all," Holly was saying.
Then, as we were nearly out on to the stairs beyond, another staccato outburst from the Generalissimo, who was looking at us smiling benevolently, and Holly said, "The Generalissimo says you can stay and watch the swearing-in ceremony of the new political academy graduates if you wish."
Teddy looked at me unsmiling through his thick-lensed glasses and said:
"Well, there's obviously only one comment you can make to all that, and that is 'ho, ho, ho,' ", imitating the Generalissimo's dry bursts.
We stood stiffly at attention on a concrete floor for an hour watching the ritual of the swearing-in ceremony at which General Chiang presided, and I thought back with some bitterness to that three months of tramping around China living on rice and sleeping on boards, getting dysentery and malaria, endured mainly so that I would have a worthwhile interview with China's leader when I returned. The Generalissimo read the last page of the text, then the graduates swore oaths to do faithful service to China, and the show was over. Information Minister Wang Shih Chieh came running over towards us with an anxious expression and Holly whispered in his ear.
"I am sure there must be some mistake," said Wang. "The Generalissimo probably wants to see you again now. Don't worry, boys, I'll go and see him."
Two minutes later he came sheepishly down the steps. "I'm afraid that is all," he said, adding weakly, "I am very sorry, but the Generalissimo is very busy these days."
As compensation, Holly arranged for me to see Madame Chiang a few days later, but warned me it would be in the nature of a courtesy call rather than an interview.
Slim, soignee and beautiful, dressed in a dark frock with white pin-point stripes that made her appear taller and contributed to the illusion of a commanding presence, Madame Chiang did not have the happy knack of putting one at ease that her plumper and elder sister, Madame Sun Yat Sen had. The first time I met Madame Sun it seemed natural to clasp both hands outstretched in welcome. When Madame Chiang advanced into the room I had the absurd feeling I was expected to drop on one knee and kiss a skirt hem. There was no smile on the beautiful face as we shook hands. Our discussion was on a formal basis, and the atmosphere hardly warmed up, even when cups of green tea were brought in and Madame Chiang lit a cigarette.
Holly, whose services as interpreter were, of course, not needed with Madame Chiang, withdrew soon after introductions were made. Conversation centred around generalities for a while, how long I had been in China, whether I had been there in pre-war times, etc. A few days previously the British Ambassador, Sir Horace Seymour, had presented a substantial cheque from the London Lord Mayor's Fund for War Relief in China. I asked Madame Chiang if there was anything I could cable my paper about the way the money would be used, and she gave me a list of orphanages, soldiers' homes and other war charities that would benefit. I reminded her that I thought there had been some request with the gift that part of the money would be used for Industrial Co-operatives, and Madame Chiang agreed that "of course, the Co-operatives will get their share."
I mentioned having seen Chiang Ching Kuo's "Model Children's Village" at Kanchow, but after volunteering several pieces of information about his progress without eliciting response, decided that was a poor subject, too. I asked if plans had been made for the absorption of China's millions of soldiers due for demobilisation after the war, and got a better reaction this time.
"Yes, we have plans. There will be a great deal of developmental work to be done in China after the war. There are new areas to be opened up in the north-west, for example."
"Does that include Sinkiang, too?"
Madame Chiang considered a moment, then said: "'Yes, of course. Sinkiang is part of our north-west." (At that time there was great excitement in Chungking about developments in Sinkiang where Russian influence had been extensive.
The Generalissimo was taking advantage of Russian preoccupation with the battle of Stalingrad to bring Sinkiang within the orbit of Kuomintang China. Central Government troops have since entered this vast and wealthy province for the first time since the Chinese republic was founded.)
Commenting on China's pleasure that Britain and the United States had agreed to the abolition of extra-territorial rights, Madame Chiang said special areas such as the International Settlement in Shanghai would have no reason for existence after the war. About Hong Kong she concluded, "That is a subject for later discussion." I felt with my mention of Hong Kong I had struck off the first sparks that could have been fanned into a warm exchange of ideas, but at the moment Holly entered, Madame Chiang arose — and it was time for me to bow my way out.
My story was submitted to Madame Chiang for revision, and two alterations were made. The reference to Sinkiang was deleted altogether, and the word "gratitude" in a sentence that "Madame Chiang had expressed the gratitude of the Chinese people for the gift from the people of London," was changed to "appreciation." That was a fair-enough change, and was indicative of the new feeling of dignity China had about herself in relation to the outside world.