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Reflections by a Chinese Warlord on His Role in the Rise of Communism

Leo Timm
Leo Timm covers China-related news, culture, and history. Follow him on Twitter at @kunlunpeaks
Published: April 30, 2021
Chiang Kai-shek and Zhang Xueliang Xi'an Incident
Chiang Kai-shek (L), leader of republican China, and warlord Zhang Xueliang pictured during the Xi'an Incident in December 1936. The coup against Chiang led to the survival of the Chinese Communist Party and its eventual takeover of China in 1949. (Image: Public Domain)

Events in China’s modern history are often fraught with controversy and lack of clarity, especially since many details have been obscured by the communist regime’s censorship and doctored historical narrative of how the Party “liberated” the country. 

Two such events that had a pivotal impact on China’s fate were the Xi’an Incident of 1936, as well as the earlier September 18 Incident. And historians’ assessment of both incidents is heavily dependent on their understanding of one man’s role in them. 

The September 18 Incident led to the Japanese invasion of China and the Asian theater of World War II, while the Xi’an Incident forced China’s leaders to make peace with the then-insignificant communist rebellion. A little over a decade later, the red flag would fly over the country. 

The man at the center of both incidents was Zhang Xueliang, warlord of Northeast China, also called Manchuria. 

In the 1920s and 1930s, China was nominally united under the Republic of China, with the imperial Qing Dynasty having fallen in 1911. But many regions of the country were in fact held by warlords, who commanded independent armies and ran their own governments. To make matters even worse for the ROC authorities, Imperial Japan was intent on dominating Asia, stationing troops on Chinese territory and constantly demanding more economic and diplomatic rights to China’s disadvantage.  

The ‘Young Marshal’

Manchuria, comprising the three provinces of Northeast China and parts of Inner Mongolia. It was under the control of Zhang Xueliang, the 30-year-old “Young Marshal,” who had taken over from his late father, the “Old Marshal” Zhang Zuolin. 

The expansionist faction of Imperial Japan coveted Manchuria, seeing the area as their gateway to a colonial empire in Asia — with vast fertile land, coal, and iron, it contained much of what overpopulated Japan lacked. Japan already controlled the port of Dalian, and had rights to operate a key railroad in the region. The elder Zhang did business with Japan, but he was too independent for the militarists’ liking. In 1928, a conspiracy of Japanese military officers had him assassinated in hopes that a more pro-Japan general would take power. 

Instead, Zhang was simply replaced by his son Xueliang, a Chinese patriot who declared his allegiance to the central government and its leader, Chiang Kai-shek. 

The younger Zhang’s overtly anti-Japanese policies frightened the Japanese military. On Sept. 18, 1931, the Japanese army stationed in southern Manchuria mobilized and attacked Chinese positions in the region. The Chinese retreated, and the whole of Manchuria fell within a few months. 

‘Chinese do not fight Chinese’

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has always depicted the September 18 Incident as an episode in which the Chinese central government led by Chiang Kai-shek refused to defend the country against Japan. However, the truth of who gave the order to retreat — Chiang or Zhang — is unclear. 

The Northeastern Army, as Zhang’s forces were known, was well-equipped by Chinese standards, and boasted more than 250,000 men. However, it was no match for the Japanese army, which was much better led, trained, and armed. According to oral history, Zhang later admitted to being the one who, in the hopes of preserving his army intact, ordered it to leave Manchuria rather than put up major resistance. 

In addition, on the night of Sept. 18, Chiang Kai-shek was not even in Nanjing, China’s capital, but on a warship traveling to a province in southern China. Only after disembarking in Nanchang on Sept. 19 did Chiang learn, through a report from Shanghai, of the events in the Northeast. 

Meanwhile, the communists, who were waging a full-scale rebellion in southern China at the time, immediately jumped on the September 18 Incident to attack Chiang’s Nationalist Party authorities. Accusing him of fighting a useless civil war while the country lost territory to a foreign enemy, communist propagandists touted the slogan “Chinese do not fight Chinese.”

However, Chiang Kai-shek was determined to quash the communists before they became a bigger threat. He famously wrote that “the Japanese are a disease of the skin, while the communists are a disease of the heart.” 

After four years of fighting, the CCP lost much of its strength and was forced to retreat to a remote region in northwestern China — Yan’an. The Nationalist army followed it there, and for a while, it seemed the communist movement would be destroyed or forced to flee into the Soviet Union. 

The Xi’an incident

While the communist movement lost manpower, its propaganda message proved influential, especially among patriotic Chinese youth who wondered why Nanjing had seemingly decided not to fight Japan. By 1936, the Japanese army had only continued to expand, even crossing the Great Wall and stationing troops in northern China. 

One of the armies tasked with encircling and exterminating the communists was Zhang’s redeployed Northeastern Army. But the recent events made him question his loyalty to Chiang and the Nationalists. Meanwhile, communist agitators worked on his soldiers, manipulating their homesickness for the Northeast. 

The Xi’an Incident took place in December 1936, when Zhang and another general, Yang Hucheng, detained Chiang during his visit to the city (located near the frontline between the CCP and the government armies) in order to force the Nationalist Party to change its policies regarding Japan and the CCP. After two weeks of negotiation, Chiang was released and returned to Nanjing, accompanied by Zhang.

The communists were closely involved in the plot through Yang, who was an underground member of the CCP. Zhang himself admitted that he could be called a CCP member, though he never formally joined the organization. 

While Mao Zedong, chairman of the CCP, and other Chinese communists wanted to see Chiang executed, this plan was stopped by Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, who believed only Chiang had the ability to lead the resistance against Japan — and by extension, keep Japan from attacking Russia. 

Results: CCP escapes destruction

The Xi’an Incident forced the Nationalist Party and CCP to form a “united front” against Japanese aggression. While this seemed like a noble patriotic endeavor, its true effect was to allow the communists an opportunity to build up its strength while the more powerful Nationalists faced almost all of the Japanese military’s aggression. 

The United Front immediately caught the attention of the Japanese, who used it as an excuse to provoke more violent incidents. Six months after the Xi’an Incident, a skirmish broke out between Japanese and Chinese troops in Beijing, starting the full-scale invasion of China in 1937. 

Had it not been for Zhang and Yang’s coup at Xi’an, the Communist Party would likely have been wiped out, rewriting modern Chinese history. While Zhang Xueliang and Yang Hucheng, the direct initiators of the coup, can thus be regarded as responsible for the rise of the Communist Party in China.

Zhang Xueliang was placed under house arrest, and would not regain his freedom for 50 years. Yang Hucheng and his family were eventually executed for their involvement in the plot. 

Over the next eight years, the Nationalist troops fought desperately against the Japanese armies, expending most of their manpower and equipment. Much of the country was occupied and more than 20 million Chinese died. 

The CCP, meanwhile, hardly took part in the war, instead opting to extend its guerilla networks. After Japan’s defeat by the United States in 1945, the communists and Nationalists resumed their civil war. This time, however, the CCP was not the small band of rebels on the verge of collapse, but a well-organized force that counted over 90 million people living in its “base areas.” Four years later, the worn-down Nationalists were driven out of mainland China and retreated to the island of Taiwan.

Zhang Xueliang’s regret 

Zhang was moved to Taiwan along with other Nationalist refugees. Seeing events turn out as they had, he regretted his naive actions, but preferred to keep quiet about them. In mainland China, communist rule would lead to the deaths of 80 million people. 

In 1954, after meeting with Chiang Kai-shek, Zhang Xueliang wrote “A Book of Reflection on the Xi’an Incident.” Zhang defended himself, saying that he did not know the Communist Party well at that time and regretted that he had harmed the country and the people in order to realize his wish to resist Japan. Chiang’s second son, Chiang Wei-kuo, recalled several occasions when he drank with Zhang: “When he was drunk, he hugged me and cried bitterly, saying, ‘My brother, I was wrong!'”

In his later years, Zhang was released, and died in 2001 at the age of 100, having moved to Hawaii in 1991. Having become a devout Christian, he quoted from the Bible, saying “I am a sinner, the worst of sinners.” Zhang is known to have never complained about his imprisonment by Chiang Kai-shek, and in an interview with the New York Times after his arrival in the United States in 1991, Zhang explained why he decided to free Chiang at Xi’an and accept his punishment:  “It was rebellion, and I had to take responsibility for it.”