Bai Chongxi (1893–1966)

Guomindang (GMD, Kouomintang, Nationalist) Chinese general. Born in Guilin (Kweilin), Guangxi (Kwangsi) Province, on March 18, 1893, Bai Chongxi (Pai Ch’ung-hsi) was a Muslim of Hui ethnicity. He entered the Guangxi military cadre training school in Guilin but on his parents’ request withdrew for a time to study at the Guangxi Schools of Law and Political Science. When the Xinhai Revolution began in 1911, Bai fought in the Students Dare to Die Corps.

In 1914 Bai graduated from the Second Military Preparatory School at Wuchang. Following precadet training, he entered the third class of the Baoding (Paoting) Military Academy in June 1915. Upon graduation in 1916, he returned to Guangxi and served in his native provincial forces. In 1924 Bai cooperated with fellow Guangxi officers Li Zongren (Li Tsung-jen) and Guang Shaohong to create the Guangxi Pacification Army and gain control of Guangxi.

Bai supported the GMD, joining it in 1925 and taking part in the Northern Expedition of Jiang Jieshi (Chiang Kai-shek) between 1926 and 1928 while at the same time maintaining his power base in Guangxi. Bai was chief of staff of the GMD army during the expedition and was credited with using speed and maneuver to surprise and defeat larger warlord forces. He also commanded the forces that took Hangzhou and Shanghai in 1927. Bai took part in the purge of communist forces and other leftist elements in Shanghai. He also commanded the advance GMD elements that captured Beijing in June 1928.

In 1929, Bai, Li, and Guang, known as the Guangxi Clique, rebelled against Jiang for having concentrated too much power in his own hands. Although Bai waged a brilliant campaign, the resulting struggle ended in stalemate, as national unity seemed more important with the threat posed by the Japanese following the September 1931 Mukden (Shenyang) Incident. Bai also played a key role in the reconstruction of Guangxi, which boasted a progressive administration. In late 1931 Bai and Li rejoined the GMD, working to create a reformist provincial government and resolving their differences with Jiang. In mid-1936 their forces were reorganized as the GMD government’s Fifth Route Army, with Bai as deputy commander.

In the 1937–1945 Sino-Japanese War, Bai was both deputy chief of staff of the Military Affairs Commission and a member of the National Aeronautical Council, responsible for devising military strategy for the Nanjing (Nanking)–Shanghai area in Jiangsu (Kiangsu) Province. Given the heavy losses sustained by GMD forces during October and November 1937, Bai opposed the stand at Nanjing and argued for keeping Chinese forces intact. Jiang accepted Bai’s strategy, known as “trading space for time,” and moved the GMD government to Chongqing (Chungking), Sichuan (Szechwan) Province.

In Chongqing, Bai continued to participate in strategic planning that led to the first Chinese victory in the Tai’erzhuang (T’ai-erh-chuang) Campaign of March–April 1938 in Jiangsu. That July, Bai commanded the Fifth War Zone, covering Shandong (Shantung) and part of Jiangsu north of the Changjiang (Yangtze) River. In December, Bai personally commanded Chinese forces that were to halt the Japanese drive on Guangxi. Failing to accomplish that, he was recalled in January 1939.

Bai remained in Chongqing until the end of the war as deputy joint chief of staff, director of the Military Training Board, and chairman of the Military Inspection Commission. Despite his growing opposition to the Chinese communists, he strongly supported the protracted war strategy developed by Mao Zedong (Mao Tse-tung) in 1940 to fight the Japanese. Bai’s Quangxi soldiers were regarded as some of the most effective Chinese troops in the war against Japan. Jihad against the Japanese was declared a religious duty for Chinese Muslims.

During the 1946–1949 Chinese Civil War, Bai, first as defense minister and then as director of the Strategic Advisory Commission, grew frustrated by Jiang’s refusal to yield any authority and by his military policy. Bai resigned in 1948. He returned later that year to command an army group of four armies in central China but again disagreed with Jiang’s military policies that led to the disastrous defeat of the GMD. Bai joined other Chinese leaders in demanding that Jiang step down in order to allow a peace agreement with the communists.

When World War II ended, the United States was anxious to avoid a renewed civil war in China between the Communists and the Nationalists. General George Marshall, one of America’s most respected generals, went to China to try to negotiate a peaceful compromise between the two sides, but his efforts were doomed by the deep suspicions on both sides based on their long history of lethal conflict and feigned “cooperation.” Having suffered through an eight-year war that left twenty million Chinese dead and millions more wounded, sick or starving, the Chinese people desperately wanted peace. But Chiang Kai-shek was not about to tolerate an independent Communist army in China, and Mao would never again agree to lay down arms and trust the goodwill of Chiang.

On paper, the Nationalists had about a four-to-one advantage in numbers of armed troops (four million to one million); overwhelming technical superiority in terms of tanks, aircraft, and weapons; and the clear and strong support of the United States, which provided Chiang’s forces with about $2 billion in military aid from 1946 to 1949. But Chiang was overconfident in thinking the United States could not and would not let him lose a shooting war with his Communist rivals. Against American advice, Chiang used U.S. air transport to fly his best forces into northeast China and Manchuria in 1946–1947 in order to try to prevent the Communists from taking the Japanese surrender and establishing Communist power in those areas. When full-scale civil war broke out in early 1947, the Communists abandoned their wartime capital of Yan’an, scattered into the countryside in classic guerrilla fashion, and renamed their forces the People’s Liberation Army.

Chinese Communist forces had moved into Manchuria with some tactical help from the Soviet Union (which had also sent troops into China on the request of the United States when the overwhelming concern was to force Japan’s quick surrender). In mid-1947, the Communists seized the initiative in Manchuria, surrounded the Nationalist forces in the cities, and cut railway and communication lines. Chiang refused to recognize the looming defeat of his troops there and sent in reinforcements. In late 1948, the Communist general Lin Biao led a final massive assault in Manchuria, capturing in two months’ time 230,000 rifles and 400,000 of Chiang’s best soldiers.

Even then, the Nationalists still enjoyed numerical superiority in men and a virtual monopoly on tanks and planes. That changed in the central Yangzi valley battle of Hwaihai (Xuzhou) from November 1948 through January 1949. When the Nationalist general at Hwaihai found himself encircled and cut off by Communist forces, he heard that Chiang Kai-shek was preparing to bomb his troops to keep them and their equipment from falling to the Communists. He quickly surrendered his force of 460,000 troops to the People’s Liberation Army. The Nationalist effort was further undermined by rampant inflation that swept through Nationalist-controlled territory with the force of a hurricane. From January 1946 to August 1948, prices multiplied sixty-seven times. In late 1948, all confidence in the Nationalist government collapsed. Prices multiplied 85,000 times in six months, and the Nationalist currency became as meaningless as a Qing dynasty copper coin. Chiang Kai-shek fled first to Sichuan Province in the far west and then to Taiwan, along with nearly two million Nationalist troops and officials and their families. (Taiwan, a Japanese colony from 1895 to 1945, had been returned to the Republic of China upon the surrender of Japan in August 1945.) On October 1, 1949, Mao Zedong stood atop the Gate of Heavenly Peace in the center of Beijing and proclaimed the founding of the People’s Republic of China.

At the end of 1949 Bai fled to Taiwan (then known as Formosa), where he became vice chairman of the Strategic Advisory Committee and a member of the Central Executive Committee of the GMD until his death in Taipei on December 2, 1966. Bai was one of the finest generals on either side during the Chinese Civil War and was also a highly effective military strategist whose excellent advice was often ignored.

Further Reading

Chassin, Lionel Max. The Communist Conquest of China: A History of the Civil War, 1945–1949. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1965.

Cheng, Siyuan. Bai Chongxi Chuan [The Biography of Bai Chongxi]. Hong Kong: South China Press, 1989.

Melby, John F. The Mandate of Heaven: Record of a Civil War, 1945–1949. London: Chatto and Windus, 1989.