The British set out to capture the Bogue forts on the Bocca Tigris River between Canton and Hong Kong. A Chinaman at Macao told a British army surgeon: ‘Same time you Englishman take that fort, same time that sky make fall down.’ But the forts were taken, the sky did not fall, and the Chinese were forced to sign, on 20 January 1841, an agreement known as the Convention of Chuenpi.


IN the preceding century and until the end of the wars with France it had been the Royal Navy which had been the most important arm of Britain. In Queen Victoria’s reign it was the Army which played the key role in building and preserving the Empire. Still, the Royal Navy had its part to play, not only in transporting troops and supplies and sometimes providing naval brigades to fight side by side with the soldiers on land, but occasionally taking a direct active role in the growth of the Empire, as it did in Syria in 1840 when, in conjunction with Austrian and Prussian ships, it thwarted the expansionist tendencies of Mohammed Ali.

A year earlier a smaller but in the long run far more important naval operation took place in southern Arabia. In December 1836 a British ship was wrecked and plundered on the coast of Aden, then an independent sultanate. After prolonged negotiations, the sultan promised compensation, but he died and his son refused to honour the agreement. So on 19 January 1839 a military and naval force under Captain H. Smith in the 28-gun frigate Volage captured Aden, and this small but strategic piece of real estate was added to the Empire. Captain Smith then sailed off to Hong Kong where, on 4 September, he fired the shots which began the Opium War.

The cause of the Opium War has been attributed simply to the greed of the British merchants in China, but the real causes of the war were cultural rather than commercial: British opium smuggling and the vigorous attempts of the Chinese government to suppress it only sparked the war, which would have taken place sooner or later in any event.

The Chinese and the British were alike in that both regarded their own culture, civilization and way of life as infinitely superior to all others. It was only natural, then, that where the two cultures met there was friction: Chinaman and Briton were astonished at the pretensions of each other; to each, the other was a barbarian. Neither made much of an attempt to understand the other, and doubtless it seems surprising to most Englishmen even today that the Chinese regarded them as inscrutable.

The Chinese wanted foreign merchants to obey Chinese laws, submit to Chinese justice, and to conform to stringent Chinese regulations regarding their export-import business, demands that do not seem unreasonable considering that the foreigners were trading with Chinese in China. The foreign merchants, principally British and Americans, did not like Chinese laws, which they flouted; they thought Chinese notions of justice were unjust, preposterous and barbaric; and they felt unduly constrained by the, to them, peculiar restrictions put on their trading methods. But what annoyed them most was that they were treated, every day, in word and deed, as if they were the inferiors of the Chinese. And the British found this hard to bear. They complained, but they did adjust to the situation. All might have gone on peaceably enough had the Chinese government been strong enough to enforce its rules and had the British government not appeared on the scene in the shape of a series of envoys, consuls and trade commissioners, who were followed in due course by soldiers and sailors.

The war might have been called with greater propriety the Kowtow War, for, as John Quincy Adams told the Massachusetts Historical Society, opium was ‘a mere incident to the dispute, but no more the cause of the war than the throwing overboard the tea in Boston harbour was the cause of the North American revolution’. Adams correctly diagnosed the case when he said, ‘the cause of the war is the kowtow’.

When the first British official arrived in Pekin in 1792 he refused to kowtow when presented to the emperor. That is, he refused to make the prostrations, face touching the floor, which protocol required in the presence of the Son of Heaven and Emperor of China. It was an attitude much admired at home and was copied by later official British representatives. The British thought the kowtow humiliating; the Chinese regarded their refusal to perform it as inexplicable and decided that it would be better if they simply avoided seeing the ill-mannered barbarians altogether: British diplomatists were not even permitted to meet provincial governors. Consequently, British officials joined the merchants in complaining of the humiliating treatment they received at the hands of the Chinese, and, as the complaints of officials, being addressed to other officials and to politicians, always carry more weight than the cries of mere merchants, there was a good deal of irresponsible talk by responsible men about teaching the Chinese a lesson and putting them in their place.

When Lord Napier (William, 8th baron, 1786–1834) went to China as Chief Superintendent of Trade in 1833 he was not even allowed to stay in the country, except at the Portuguese colony of Macao, and he indignantly wrote home asking for ‘three or four frigates and brigs, with a few steady British troops, not Sepoys’. The ships and soldiers were not sent, but there was a growing feeling in England that something would have to be done to defend British prestige in China.

Meanwhile, the harvests continued in the poppy fields of Bengal and the opium clippers, in the season, swiftly and efficiently carried their chests to China, off-loading on the coasts, in the rivers or on islands just offshore. Often accused of being hypocritical, Victorian Britons rarely were, although they often succeeded in honestly deceiving themselves. Regarding the shipment of opium to China, however, they were indeed hypocritical. The East India Company, which then ruled most of India, refused to allow opium to be transported in their own ships, but they encouraged the trade, and for a very good reason: export taxes on opium came to provide more than 10 per cent of India’s gross revenue. As to the morality of the business, many Britons tried to justify it by saying that opium smoking in China was really no worse than gin drinking in England (although gin drinking in England had grown out of hand and at best this was a poor excuse).

At Canton, where foreigners were allowed to establish their offices and warehouses (called factories), the opium trade flourished. All the great British trading companies in China indulged in it and the local Chinese officials were easily bribed. Then, in January 1839, the Emperor sent an unbribable mandarin, Lin Tse-hsu, as Imperial High Commissioner to stamp out opium smuggling. Lin gave fair warning, then he struck.

Lin first tried to show the foreigners in little ways that he was indeed serious in his determination to stop the opium trade: in Macao and Canton some smugglers were publicly strangled in front of the British and American factories. An Imperial edict was issued flatly stating that opium smuggling must cease and that stocks now in store must be surrendered. When the foreigners refused to comply with the edict, they were shut up in their factories without Chinese servants or workers, forcing them to cook their own food and clean their own houses. It was considered a great hardship. This incident in May 1839 became known as the Siege of the Factories. It ended when the British, greatly humiliated, gave up 20,000 chests of illegally imported opium. Obviously the British could not go to war over this issue, even though dignity and prestige were involved; a larger issue was needed.

Six weeks after the Siege of the Factories, some British and American sailors started a brawl in a village near Kowloon and a Chinaman was killed. The Chinese authorities demanded that the murderer be given up; the British refused, maintaining, perhaps correctly, that it was impossible to discover exactly who had done the deed. Commissioner Lin withdrew all supplies and labourers from British homes and factories and ordered the Portuguese governor of Macao to expel all the British from his territory. Men, women and children were loaded on British ships, which sailed over to Hong Kong, then a virtually uninhabited island, and anchored. Here floated the entire British colony, a westernized version of the sampan communities commonly found in Chinese ports. It was at this juncture that Captain Smith arrived in the Volage, fresh from his successful operations against the Arabs at Aden, and he was presently joined by the 20-gun frigate Hyacinth.

Without British officials and the samples of British power on the scene all might have ended peaceably enough, for both the Chinese and the merchants wanted to trade, but now merchants, officials and sailors were delighted by the opportunity to humble the arrogant Chinese and to pay them back for the years of indignity. Chinese were found who were willing to supply the floating British community with food under the protection of the frigates. When the Chinese government sent war junks to stop the trade, Captain Smith drove them off with the fire of the Volage. The Chinese then sent a fleet of twenty-nine war junks against the two frigates, and in the battle that followed four junks were sunk and others were badly damaged at no loss to the British ships. The war had begun.

There was the usual debate in the Commons, in which the Palmerston government pointed out that not only had British property been confiscated but British officials had been insulted; Gladstone protested that ‘a war more unjust in its origin, a war more calculated to cover this country with permanent disgrace, I do not know and I have not read of’; still, the approval was given for the government to prosecute the war. Troops were sent out from India – the Royal Irish, the Cameronians, men from the Hertfordshire regiment, and some sepoys: 4,000 men in all – and more warships were provided. Captain the Honourable Sir George Elliot was in charge of the naval operations, joining his cousin, Charles Elliot, who was the ranking civil official in China; they were shortly to be joined by Major General Sir Hugh Gough, who took charge of the army. Their orders were to occupy Chusan, blockade Canton, deliver a letter of protest to the chief minister of the Emperor, and force the Chinese government to sign a treaty. All this was done. Chusan was occupied without a fight and British troops were left there to die in great numbers of oriental diseases; eventually a Chinese official was forced to accept the letter from England; then the British set out to capture the Bogue forts on the Bocca Tigris River between Canton and Hong Kong.

A Chinaman at Macao told a British army surgeon: ‘Same time you Englishman take that fort, same time that sky make fall down.’ But the forts were taken, the sky did not fall, and the Chinese were forced to sign, on 20 January 1841, an agreement known as the Convention of Chuenpi. In it the Chinese agreed to give Hong Kong to the British, to pay them six million dollars, to reopen trade at Canton and to deal with British officials as equals, but both the Emperor of China and Her Majesty’s government repudiated the treaty: the Emperor because his representative gave too much and Palmerston because his representative had not got enough.

The British government’s policy on China was debated in Parliament and came under attack by Gladstone, ever the champion of the noble savage, who horrified his opponents by maintaining that it was even right for the Chinese to poison wells to keep away the English. But Queen Victoria agreed with her ministers. She took such a keen interest in China that Palmerston sent her a little map of the Canton River area ‘for future reference’.

Palmerston was thoroughly disgusted with Elliot, and as for the barren little island he had acquired Palmerston told him: ‘It seems obvious that Hong Kong will not be a mart of trade.’ But the Royal Family was fascinated by the acquisition of a territory with such a quaint name as Hong Kong, and Queen Victoria wrote to Uncle Leopold to say that ‘Albert is so much amused at my having Hong Kong, and we think Victoria ought to be called Princess of Hong Kong in addition to Princess Royal’. But the Queen, reflecting Palmerston’s views, was not pleased with Charles Elliot, and in the same letter to King Leopold she expressed her displeasure: ‘The Chinese business vexes us very much and Palmerston is deeply mortified at it. All we wanted might have been got, if it had not been for the unaccountably strange conduct of Charles Elliot . . . who completely disobeyed his instructions and tried to get the lowest terms he could.’ Clearly, more war was wanted.



The Emperor of China, being closer to the scene, was naturally able to register his displeasure sooner than Palmerston and Queen Victoria. Elliot had not yet learned of London’s reaction to the Convention of Chuenpi, but when he saw the Chinese preparing for action he decided to strike first. Captain Elliot moved up the Bocca Tigris River, sending off landing parties to subdue the forts and defeating a squadron of forty war junks sent to stop him. The British did not hesitate to prepare an attack on the great city of Canton itself with its one million hostile inhabitants nor to pit their small force of 2,500 soldiers and 1,000 sailors and marines against a Chinese army of 45,000. They successfully occupied the heights overlooking Canton, the Chinese army retired in some confusion, and the inhabitants began to evacuate the city. At this point, much to General Gough’s disgust, Charles Elliot stopped the war and entered into negotiations with the Chinese, who agreed to pay six million dollars and to compensate the merchants for the destruction of their factories if the British would not press the attack on Canton. This deal, generally known as the ‘ransom of Canton’, was accepted.

Aside from the superior leadership and discipline of the British force, the main reason for the success of the British over such large numbers of the enemy was the inadequate weaponry of the Chinese. The army of the Manchus was not much better armed than it had been when it conquered China more than two hundred years earlier: antique muskets and even bows and arrows were in use. While the sepoys were armed with old flintlocks – which made it almost impossible to fight in the rain – the British marines were equipped with percussion-lock Brunswick muskets which, although invented thirty years earlier, had just been adopted for issue and were far superior to anything the Chinese carried.

There was a pause in the war after the ransom of Canton – and a change of faces on the China station: Charles Elliot, who had displeased his Queen and her ministers by signing the Convention of Chuenpi, was exiled to the newly created Republic of Texas, where he was appointed chargé d’affaires; he was replaced by Sir Henry Pottinger, uncle of the ‘Hero of Herat’; Captain George Elliot was invalided home and was replaced by Rear-Admiral Sir William Parker, a veteran sailor who had commanded a frigate under Nelson. Only General Gough remained. A fresh regiment, the 55th Foot (later 2nd Battalion, Border Regiment), newly equipped with Brunswick muskets, was sent out to him from India, and by August 1841 the British were ready to resume the war; an expedition was made ready and sent up the coast to attack Amoy.

It was a bold adventure. As the Duke of Wellington later told the House of Lords:

Little was known of China except its enormous population, its great extent, and its immense resources; we knew nothing of the social life of the country; we knew nothing of its communications than a scanty acquaintance with its rivers and canals; and whether their roads ran along rivers, or in any other way, nobody in this country could give any information, nor could any be acquired.

Nevertheless, Amoy was easily taken with only two killed and fifteen wounded on the British side. Moving further north, Gough took Tinglai, Chinhai and Ningpo; then the British went into winter quarters at Ningpo and Chinhai.

The spring campaign of 1842 was opened by the Chinese, who launched a massive counter-offensive, attacking the British both at Ningpo and at Chinhai. The Chinese were defeated at both places with heavy casualties. No attempt was made to count the bodies of the Chinese left on the battlefields, but old Peninsular veterans maintained that they had not seen so many dead since the siege of Badajoz. The British then moved out to attack the forts guarding the port of Hangchow. There they encountered the strongest resistance they had met within China from Tartar troops, but they captured the forts with a loss of only fifteen killed and fifty-five wounded. It was estimated that the Chinese lost more than 1,200 men, not counting the hundreds of civilians, men and women, who killed themselves rather than fall into the hands of the British barbarians. Shanghai was occupied without a fight in June. There was a last battle at Chinkiang, and then the army stood before the walls of the great city of Nanking.

By now it was obvious, even to the Emperor, isolated as he was at Pekin, that the ‘foreign devils’ must be appeased, and so three Imperial Commissioners were sent to soothe the barbarians. Pottinger had his treaty terms ready and, as he would not tolerate any discussion, there was nothing for the commissioners to do but sign, which they did in August 1842. This, the Treaty of Nanking, was the first of a series of such treaties, giving special privileges to foreigners, which are known in Chinese history as the ‘unequal treaties’; they were to be a source of grievance and humiliation to the Chinese for a hundred years. The Treaty of Nanking gave the British 21 million dollars, the right to trade in five ports – the ‘treaty ports’ of Canton, Amoy, Foochow, Ningpo and Shanghai – moderate tariff rates, legal jurisdiction over British residents, and other points concerned with trading methods. Opium was not mentioned.

What the British did not get, however, was the respect of the Chinese. Some nationalities respect naked military power, but the Chinese, at least in the last century when the most venerated man was the scholar, did not. Instead, they regarded the British much as the Romans regarded the Goths in the last days of the Empire. So, even after the war was won, the humiliating indemnification paid, and the special privileges obtained, the basic thorn of prejudice remained embedded in Anglo-Chinese relations.

From a military viewpoint, the most remarkable thing about the Opium War is that it was one of those rare occurrences when a war was successfully directed by a committee. There was no supreme commander: Gough, Parker and Pottinger were practically independent agents in China for their own branches of government. That they cooperated so well, the military, naval and diplomatic functions meshing almost perfectly, was undoubtedly due to the great tact and diplomatic skills of Sir Henry Pottinger.

Queen Victoria was pleased with the turn of events in both China and Afghanistan, and on 25 November 1842 she wrote to Sir Robert Peel saying,

The Queen wishes Sir Robert to consider, and at an early period to submit to her, his propositions as to how to recompense and how to mark her high approbation of the admirable conduct of all those meritorious persons who have by their strenuous endeavours brought about the recent brilliant successes in China and Afghanistan.

After the Treaty of Nanking, General Gough returned to India to fight the Sikhs and Mahrattas, but the Royal Navy remained on the China station throughout what historian Edgar Holt called the ‘gunboat years’. On 10 December 1846 Palmerston wrote Sir John Davis, then the British plenipotentiary in China, a significant dispatch: ‘Wherever British subjects are placed in danger, in a situation which is accessible to a British ship of war,’ he said, ‘thither a British ship of war ought to be and will be ordered, not only to go, but to remain as long as its presence may be required for the protection of British interests.’

Even when British subjects were not directly threatened, gunboats were needed on the China station to fight pirates. Between 1843 and 1851 the Royal Navy captured or destroyed about 150 pirate junks – at a considerable profit to the sailors who were paid £20 for each ‘piratical person’ killed or captured. British warships ranged as far south as Borneo in their search for pirates, and in 1845 landing parties even went ashore to destroy pirate lairs. Here they were aided by James Brooke, an Englishman who, acting on his own and without support from his government, carved out a country of his own, Sarawak, becoming its rajah in 1841.

Gunboats were also necessary from time to time to impress the Chinese afresh by seizing a fort or making menacing gestures. After 1851, when the Taiping Rebellion started, the Chinese had too many domestic problems to be over concerned with the foreigners perched on their shores, but the two races did sometimes get in each other’s way and the result was often bloody, as it was in April 1854 when the Battle of Muddy Flat was fought – on absolutely dry ground.

When an Imperial army camped on Soochow Creek near Shanghai and started to molest Europeans as well as Chinese, Rutherford Alcock, the British consul in Shanghai, demanded that the Chinese move their army elsewhere. Although Alcock had practically no force at his disposal, he couched his demand in imperious language: the camp must be moved by 4.00 p.m. the following day. The Chinese did not reply but moved a fleet of war junks up Soochow Creek to defend the camp. Alcock, with typical Victorian audacity, at once put together a tiny army of European civilians from the International Settlement, merchant seamen and a few sailors, including about a hundred men from the USS Plymouth. With two field guns and two howitzers, a drum and British and American flags, he marched off for the camp of the Imperial army. The war junks fired on them from Soochow Creek but, as Alcock had rightly anticipated, the Chinese soldiers fled when he brought his own guns into play. The battle was short and ludicrous, but 300 Chinese and four Europeans were killed.


Conflict on the Ussuri

In November 1967, there were border skirmishes between Chinese and Soviet troops, and the first Chinese fatalities were recorded in January 1968. In February 1969, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) decided to ambush Soviet troops on Zhenbao or Damansky Island, and on 2 March, twenty-nine Soviet soldiers and two officers were killed, and the Chinese lost seventeen men. In all, forty-nine servicemen were wounded, and one captured Soviet soldier was tortured to death. Between 2 and 21 March, the Soviets lost forty-four soldiers and four officers with eighty-five soldiers and nine officers wounded. On 15 March, the Soviets had counter-attacked but had not attained their objectives. The exact number of Chinese casualties is unknown, but the Soviets reported over 800 Chinese dead. Why did the Chinese attack Soviet border guards? The Chinese move was defensive in the sense that its aim was to shock the Soviets into stopping their border skirmishes. The ‘offensive deterrence concept involves the use of a pre-emptive strategy not so much to defeat the adversary militarily as to deal him a psychological blow to cause him to desist’ (Kissinger 2012: 216). On 21 March, Aleksei Kosygin, the prime minister, attempted to speak to Mao on the telephone, but the operator refused to put the call through, cursing Kosygin as a ‘revisionist element’. In August, Soviet troops wiped out a Chinese battalion on the border with Xinjiang, and war became a possibility as over a million soldiers were stationed along the Sino-Soviet border.

There were some Soviets who were in favour of drastic action. Marshal Andrei Grechko, the minister of defence, was one of those who wanted to obliterate China’s nuclear potential. In August, a Soviet diplomat asked what the Americans would do if the Soviet Union wiped out China’s nuclear installations. How would Washington react if Beijing asked for assistance to repel Soviet attacks? Soviet diplomats posed the same questions in other countries. Moscow then thought of a conventional attack.

During this tense period, Mao set up a study group of four marshals on relations with Moscow and Washington. Marshals Chen Yi and Ye Jianying concluded that the best response would be for China to play the ‘US card’. This was because the US would not favour a Soviet conquest of China. This led to secret talks with the Americans which concluded with President Nixon’s visit to Beijing in 1972 (Andrew and Mitrokhin 2005: 281). The Soviets engaged in the same exercise but concluded that the main adversary remained the US.

In August 1969, President Nixon, at a National Security Council meeting, argued that the Soviet Union was the more dangerous party and it would run counter to US interests if China were ‘smashed’ in a Sino-Soviet war. Kissinger put out a directive stating that the US would remain neutral in the case of a Sino-Soviet conflict but would lean towards China to the greatest possible extent. This was revolutionary after two decades of enmity between Beijing and Washington, as capitalist America wanted the second most powerful communist state to survive and would assist it to do so. Recent research indicates that the Soviets came very close to launching an attack, and it was only uncertainty about America’s reaction which held them back. Mao expected an attack, on 1 October, the anniversary of the revolution, and ordered all leaders to disperse around the country (except Zhou who was to run the government), and the military was placed on ‘first degree combat readiness’ alert (Kissinger 2012: 218–20).

Zhou met Kosygin at Beijing airport in late September, and they agreed to seek a negotiated settlement to the conflict. On 11 December, border talks failed again, but on 1 May 1970, Mao received the head of the Soviet border negotiation team and told him that the two sides should only fight with words. An uneasy truce ensued.

The Chinese version is as follows:

The US had been sending U-2 planes from Taiwan over central and western China and located Lop Nor, in south east Xinjiang, as the nuclear test facility. Washington expected China to test a nuclear device in in 1962 and a nuclear bomb in 1965. President Kennedy feared, in 1961, that a nuclear armed China would gobble up South East Asia. As a result, on 14 July 1963, in Moscow, an American official gave a detailed presentation of China’s nuclear potential and proposed a joint attack to eliminate it. Khrushchev refused, stating that China posed no threat. The US considered other options: an attack by Taiwanese and American paratroops, conventional and nuclear bombs.

In August 1964, the US predicted that China would explode its first nuclear bomb in 1965 but the Middle Kingdom exploded it in October 1964. President Johnson called it the ‘blackest and most tragic day for the free world’.

In October 1969, all party and military leaders were told to leave Beijing, and Mao moved to Wuhan. Liu Shaoqi ordered 940,000 soldiers, 4,000 aircraft and 600 ships to scatter, airport runways were blocked and workers were given weapons to shoot Soviet air force personnel when they landed. Major archives were moved from Beijing to the south west, and the Chinese were told to prepare for war (South China Morning Post, 12 May 2010, quoting a Beijing scholar). An underground city of 85 km 2 was built under the capital. By the end of 1970, the country’s seventy-five largest cities had enough underground shelters to house 60 per cent of the population. Over 1,800 factories were transferred to remote areas to protect them from attack, but economically it was a colossal waste of resources (Dikötter 2016: 212, 214, 218).

Soviet ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin informed Henry Kissinger of Soviet plans to launch a nuclear attack on China and requested the US remain neutral. The White House leaked the story to the Washington Post, which wrote that the Soviet Union planned to attack Beijing, Chongqing, Anshan and its missile launch centres at Jinquan, Xichang and Lop Nor.

On 15 October, Henry Kissinger informed Dobrynin that if the Soviet Union launched nuclear missiles at China, Washington would launch nuclear missiles against 130 Soviet cities. President Nixon was also concerned about the effect of a nuclear war on the 250,000 US troops in the Asia-Pacific region.

Nixon viewed the Brezhnev leadership as a collective whose main concern was to stay in power. A collective leadership was less likely to engage in rash judgements. The president rated Mao and Zhou Enlai more highly than the comrades in Moscow. Another explanation would be that Moscow wanted to signal to Beijing that it was serious about ending the border conflict but never had any intention of launching a nuclear attack. Leaking the information to the Washington Post provided the Soviet leadership with global publicity, and this is precisely what it wanted.

The People’s Republic faced the threat of a nuclear attack five times: once by the US and the USSR in 1963 (if we accept Chinese information on this), three by the US (in 1950, 1955, and 1958) and one by the Soviet Union in 1969.

In January and February 1955, the PLA captured two islands opposite Fujian. The Taiwanese, helped by the US Navy, evacuated 25,000 soldiers and 15,000 civilians to Taiwan and centred their defences on Quemoy and Matsu. On 6 March, John Foster Dulles, the US secretary of state, made it clear that if the PLA took over Quemoy and Matsu, it would be a disaster for Taiwan and the rest of Asia. Nuclear weapons might be used to defend the islands.

In late March, B-36 planes in Guam were loaded with nuclear weapons ready for action. However, there was worldwide criticism of the decision to use nuclear weapons to defend these small islands. The US pulled back and began discussions at ambassadorial level with the Chinese in Geneva later that year.

The next nuclear threat occurred after the PLA launched 45,000 shells at Quemoy on 23 August 1958. The following day, it attacked ships leaving the island for Taiwan and enforced a blockade. Five B-47s were put on standby to launch a nuclear attack on Xiamen airport. However, like President Truman, President Eisenhower decided not to use nuclear weapons to defend the islands and instead rely on conventional weapons.

In October 1969, Deng, his wife and stepmother were exiled to Nanchang. They spent three and a half years there where Deng engaged in ‘corrective’ labour at a tractor repair plant alongside his wife. Political re-education consisted of reading the works of Mao and newspapers, but their children were permitted to visit them. Mao was shocked when Lin Biao, his anointed successor, suddenly attempted to flee to the Soviet Union, but the plane crashed in Mongolia and all aboard were killed. The KGB severed Lin’s head, boiled it to remove the hair and skin and placed the skull in its museum in the Lubyanka (Dikötter 2016: 252).

Mao began to see Deng in a better light, and, in February 1972, his party membership was restored. In February 1973, Deng and his family were rehabilitated and returned to Beijing. A major reason for this was that Zhou Enlai was dying of cancer. He was irreplaceable, and Mao judged that he needed Deng’s expertise and experience.

In December 1973, Deng returned to the Politburo, headed the Party Secretariat and became a member of the Central Military Commission. Jiang Qing was not amused as Deng’s rise weakened her political influence. Economic difficulties led Mao to appoint Deng deputy prime minister in October 1974, and he was also made chair of the Central Military Commission and Chief of the General Staff. He became a member of the Politburo Standing Committee in January 1975 and began to implement the four modernisations: agriculture, industry, defence and science and technology laid down by Zhou Enlai in December 1964. The goal was to attain the present development level of advanced countries by the end of the century. Jiang Qing and the left (with three others, they were labelled the Gang of Four) began chipping away at Deng’s power base.

In January 1976, Mao appointed Hua Guofeng as acting prime minister and head of the Party Central Committee. The next month Hua (read Mao) declared open season on Deng. Jiang Qing called him a ‘counterrevolutionary double dealer, a fascist, a representative of the bourgeoisie, a betrayer of the fatherland and an agent of international capitalism in China’. Mao tried to rein her in, but she controlled the press and pilloried him there. Rumours that Zhou Enlai had been a capitalist roader ignited protests which became violent and had to be suppressed. Jiang blamed Deng for heading the ‘counterrevolutionary uprising’, and he was dismissed from all his posts but remained a party member and was placed under house arrest. When Mao passed away on 9 September 1976, Deng was apprehensive as things could get worse for him.

A secret plan was devised, on 26 September 1976, to depose the Gang of Four by Hua Guofeng. On 6 October, the Politburo Standing Committee convened, ostensibly to discuss Mao’s legacy, and two members of the Gang of Four were arrested as they arrived. Another was taken into custody at his home. Jiang Qing was in bed when the troops arrived, and she realised it was a coup. There was some fighting between the military and local radical militias, but the radicals had no hope of success. Ye Jianying, the minister of defence, was offered the top post but declined and passed it on to Hua Guofeng, who thus stepped into Mao’s shoes. The Gang of Four were not charged with ‘ultra leftism’ but ‘ultra right opportunism’! (Pantsov 2015: 308).

Within a month after Mao’s death, the Cultural Revolution was over. It had devastated the economy and led to between 1.5 and 2 million deaths (Dikötter 2016: xvi), but it had also ruined the lives of millions more.

Defending the Indefensible – Hong Kong I

While some British military officials had doubted that the Japanese were capable of challenging the mighty British Empire, more farsighted leaders realized as soon as full-scale war broke out with Germany in 1940 that Hong Kong could not be defended. But they also stressed the need to hold on to the colony to maintain face and to prevent the harbor from falling into enemy hands. Prime Minister Winston Churchill decided against reducing the local garrison, which would weaken both the prestige of the empire and the morale in China. Yet the Hong Kong government was in a weak position to prepare for an invasion. The huge number of refugees from China drained resources (by early 1941, the colony’s population was well over 1.5 million), while the colony’s status as a free port, coupled with its open border with China, made controlling immigration—not to mention the movement of Japanese agents and sympathizers—impossible.

The colonial government was thus in the unenviable position of preparing to defend a colony that could not be defended, even while maintaining its neutrality. In September 1938 the government reinstated the Emergency Powers Ordinance of 1922, which allowed the police to deport anyone not employed; prohibit public meetings and organizations; censor Chinese newspapers, pamphlets, and placards; and call up a special force of constables. They also allowed the government to control food prices, intern Chinese and Japanese soldiers taking refuge in Hong Kong, and prohibit repairing and provisioning Japanese or Chinese vessels involved in the hostilities.

Even as the government was professing Hong Kong’s neutrality, it was preparing to defend the colony against a Japanese invasion. In July 1939, all British male subjects of European origin between the ages of eighteen and fifty-five were made liable for compulsory service in the Defence Reserve. After criticism from the local press and Chinese unofficial members of the Legislative Council, in summer 1940 the government began a program of air-raid tunnels. In 1940, the colonial government evacuated a number of British women and children to Australia. Among the evacuees were Eurasians holding British passports, who because of the Australian government’s White Australia policy were dropped off in Manila. This provoked an outcry from Eurasian and Chinese leaders in Hong Kong. In July 1941, Japanese assets in Hong Kong were frozen (as they were in Britain and the United States), although barter trading continued for a while.

Like all British colonies, Hong Kong became part of the British war effort once Britain declared war on Germany for invading Poland in September 1939. Hong Kong had already been part of the Chinese war effort, its formally neutral status notwithstanding, but the fact that both China and Britain were now at war joined the Chinese and the British communities in common cause. In April 1940 the colony contributed to the British war effort through new taxes and several gifts of cash. The South China Morning Post organized a Bomber Fund, while both Chinese and expatriates contributed to campaigns such as the British Prisoners of War Fund, the British War Organization Fund, the Chinese Relief Association, and the Hong Kong and South China Branch of the British Fund for the Relief of Distress in China. Under the Chinese Defence League’s “Bowl of Rice” campaign, donors ordered meals at participating restaurants but ate only a bowl of steamed rice, donating the price of the meal to the Chinese war effort. Robert Ho Tung, the Eurasian tycoon, donated a vessel to the Hong Kong Naval Volunteer Force.

Despite the Chinese community’s generous contributions to both war efforts, the colonial government doubted that it could rely on the Chinese to help defend the colony. The official view was that because most Chinese considered Hong Kong a temporary home, they were incapable of making any sacrifice for Hong Kong. Yet the government had done little over the previous century to evince the type of loyalty that it now sought from its Chinese subjects. Nor had the government shown that it trusted the Chinese enough to enlist them to defend the colony. Only in May 1938 was a Chinese company added to the Volunteer Defence Corps, founded in 1855 before the Second Opium War. And only after the Chinese members of the Legislative Council had assured the governor of Chinese support were British subjects of Chinese extraction allowed to register for the Defence Reserve. Although the British War Office finally agreed to accept Chinese infantry forces in October 1941, the minimum height and weight restrictions kept many of them out: of the six hundred who applied, only thirty-five were accepted.


On December 8, 1941, Hong Kong time, Japanese bombers attacked Hong Kong, Malaya, Pearl Harbor, and the Philippines. Within as many minutes, five Royal Air Force aircraft at Kai Tak airfield in Kowloon had been destroyed. As Japanese troops moved swiftly across the New Territories and into Kowloon, propaganda leaflets declaring “Asia for the Asians” called on Chinese and Indians in the colony to rise up and drive out their British exploiters. Within seventeen days, the Japanese took Hong Kong Island, occupying the entire colony until August 30, 1945. On Christmas Day, one week after the Japanese launched a three-pronged attack on Hong Kong Island, Governor Mark Young, who had arrived in the colony in September from Barbados, surrendered unconditionally to Lieutenant General Sakai Takashi. By February 1942, after the fall of Malaya and Singapore, the sun had set over Britain’s empire in East Asia.

Why did the British resistance fall apart so quickly? A better question might be, given the overwhelming strength of the Japanese forces, why did Hong Kong not fall even earlier? Although critics later complained that the British should have put up a stiffer resistance, both regular troops and volunteers followed Churchill’s orders to fight to the end. When Governor Young finally surrendered, he did so after rejecting three earlier offers of surrender and partly to prevent the Japanese invaders from committing the kind of atrocities they had inflicted on the city of Nanjing in 1938. On the eve of the invasion, the Hong Kong side, led by Major General Christopher Maltby, had approximately ten thousand forces—including two British battalions, the Hong Kong Volunteers, two Indian infantry battalions, and two battalions of infantry offered by the Canadian government—and a small number of airplanes and ships, with no chances of any naval reinforcements. A false announcement by the British military on December 20 that some sixty thousand Chinese troops were on their way may have raised morale, but it could not alter the fact that the Japanese side enjoyed clear superiority at sea, on land, and in the air. The Japanese had more than twenty thousand troops as well as more and better planes and ships and could always count on reinforcements from within China. By the time three of Chiang Kai-shek’s divisions arrived in Canton to attack the Japanese forces there, Hong Kong had already fallen. As the title of Tony Banham’s recent study of the invasion suggests, the colony had “not the slightest chance.”

Whereas the British commanders were almost all new to Hong Kong (Maltby had arrived only in August) and the two battalions of Canadian infantry were still being trained, the Japanese had several years of experience fighting in China, and many of their troops had been training together for the assault on Hong Kong. British defense plans changed late in 1941 from defending only Hong Kong Island to holding down the Japanese at the Gin Drinkers’ Line—a series of pillboxes running eleven miles from Gin Drinkers’ Bay in western Hong Kong to Port Shelter in the eastern region—and then retreating to defend Hong Kong Island. This did not leave enough time for effective planning and training. The British also failed to use the local Chinese effectively; the some 450 who volunteered were used primarily in service positions. The British, who moved mainly by road, were hamstrung when their military transport system fell apart. Helped by spies along the way, the fit, organized, and well-equipped Japanese moved quickly by foot, often at night.

The British had weak, outdated, and insufficient artillery and ammunition. Their persistently weak intelligence underestimated the size and quality of the Japanese forces. The Japanese had much better intelligence, obtained over several years by placing agents throughout Hong Kong in various civilian positions. (Several Japanese residents suddenly appeared in Japanese military uniforms shortly after the surrender.) Large numbers of Japanese merchants had been in Hong Kong since the 1930s, and almost one hundred Japanese remained in Hong Kong in late 1941. A Japanese intelligence map, now housed in the Harvard University Map Collection, shows just how well the Japanese knew their target. Based on British maps, this meticulously detailed map includes administrative boundaries, railway tracks, roads and paths, telephone and telegraph lines, wireless transmitters and underwater cables, police stations and post offices, telegraph and telephone offices, schools, hospitals, churches, temples, pagodas, cemeteries, wells, orchards, marshes and wetlands, uncultivated and barren areas, and both deciduous and coniferous forests.

The human costs of the invasion are unclear. British sources estimated 2,311 troops killed or missing and around the same number wounded, but a recent study places the number closer to 1,560 dead or missing. Japanese figures are less reliable, ranging from initial reports of only 675 killed or missing and 2,079 wounded to the equally dubious report by Tokyo later of 7,000 killed and 20,000 wounded; a more realistic estimate is around 2,000 killed and between 5,000 and 6,000 wounded. As in most wars, it is impossible to tell how many civilians were killed in the invasion. One estimate places the dead at 4,000 and the wounded at 3,000, but the actual numbers were probably much higher.

Rensuke Isogai


Thus began the three years and eight months of “The Captured Territory of Hong Kong,” which although touted as part of Japan’s “Great East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere” was little more than Japanese colonialism. Despite their anticolonial rhetoric, the Japanese quickly transformed Hong Kong from a British colony into a Japanese one. Statues of British royalty were removed, while street and place names were replaced with Japanese names (Queen’s Road, for example, became Meiji Road). Even the racehorses at Happy Valley were bestowed with Japanese names. The new rulers also Japanized the landscape with various monuments and a cemetery in Causeway Bay for the Japanese horses killed during the invasion, to which Chinese residents were forced to bow. Replacing the Gregorian calendar with the Japanese calendar (based on the contemporary emperor’s reign), the Japanese introduced their own holidays, such as the emperor’s birthday, the Yasukuni Festival for Japanese war dead, and Empire Day or National Foundation Day. In May 1943, the new authorities established the East Asia Academy to introduce potential government servants, teachers, and businessmen to Japanese morals and customs. As an official Japanese publication explained, since Hong Kong was now a “Hong Kong for the East Asians,” it was time for the “poisonous remains of British cultural leftovers” to be “thoroughly eradicated.”

Although they portrayed their invasion as liberation from colonialism, as elsewhere in their new empire the Japanese in Hong Kong soon showed that they could be far more brutal than the British had ever been. On January 4, 1942, all of Hong Kong’s British, American, and Dutch residents were arrested. The Japanese displayed their victory over the British for Hong Kong’s non-European population to see, parading prisoners of war through the streets and forcing Allied captives to bow to Chinese, pull rickshaws, and clean the streets. Most of the British civilians were imprisoned in Stanley, on the south side of Hong Kong Island, while the military prisoners were held at a former British camp at Sham Shui Po in Kowloon. Although most of the Americans were repatriated, the head of the Stanley internment camp, Frank Gimson, who had arrived as colonial secretary the day before the Japanese invasion, insisted that the British civilians remain in Hong Kong as a show of force. Many civilian and military prisoners were executed; others died of disease and malnourishment. But even though Prime Minister Tojo Hideki ordered that the European prisoners have only the barest of rations, the British in Hong Kong had it better than their counterparts in some of the Japanese camps in Southeast Asia. In Hong Kong, writes historian Philip Snow, “the keynote of their treatment was humiliation rather than brutality for the sake of it.” Still, the “combined shock of the defeat and internment” undermined the “entire pre-war edifice of British supremacy in Hong Kong.”

Those who suffered the most, both in the invasion and during the occupation, were the same people the Japanese repeatedly insisted were not their enemies: the Chinese. The Japanese authorities tried to reduce Hong Kong’s population by repatriating the refugees who had come from China in the years leading up to the invasion. In early January 1942, they announced that anyone without residence or employment would have to leave. Although the Japanese had a hard time enforcing this policy, within a year Hong Kong’s population had dropped from more than 1.5 million to 1 million. By the end of the occupation in August 1945, it was under six hundred thousand. In three and a half years, at least ten thousand Hong Kong civilians were executed, while many others were tortured, raped, or mutilated. Army officers were even more vicious than their men, but the most systematically brutal were the Kempeitai, the notorious Japanese military police who routinely performed executions by beheading at King’s Park in Kowloon and used Chinese for shooting or bayonet practice. Dorothy Lee, a social worker, recalled how everyone lived “in fear of the ‘midnight knock.’ The Japanese might come to your door at any time to take over your house or flat and, in the early days, they came into rape.” Lee saw one Japanese corporal known as “the killer” personally behead twelve civilians within several minutes.

Although the Japanese created countless atrocities throughout their empire, Hong Kong’s unique situation may have encouraged the scope and intensity of this brutality. As they did in Malaya, Indochina, and Indonesia, many Japanese administrators and soldiers resented the Chinese of Hong Kong for supposedly having served their European overlords so willingly. Unlike the colonies of Southeast Asia, however, Hong Kong lacked the natural resources to make conquest worthwhile. Although the new regime introduced a program for reopening factories to produce goods such as shoes made with rubber from Indochina and Malaya, the Japanese economic record was disastrous. Shortages and price increases were exacerbated by orders from Tokyo to confiscate anything of value and send it to Japan. By late 1942, when the war was going badly for Japan, the governor tried even more vigorously to restrict Hong Kong’s scarce resources for the Japanese troops. In January 1943, the Kempeitai set two German shepherds on a group of Chinese women who had been gathering grass for fuel. Only after the dogs had chewed pieces of flesh out of them were the women released. As the colony’s overseas trade suffered, by mid-1943 the food shortage became even more unbearable. Several hundred corpses—some with parts of their thighs and buttocks removed for food—littered the streets every day, and many residents survived only by eating rats. The weakening of central government control and the expansion of corruption that accompanied Japan’s failing war effort made conditions even worse and “opened the way to an orgy of private greed.” Uncontrolled and free to do as it pleased, the Kempeitai in Hong Kong created an “empire unmatched by the Kempeitai branches in any other Japanese-occupied zone” and “waxed fat on the narcotics trade.”

Despite some provisions under the Japanese for educating Hong Kong’s poor, the education system practically fell apart. Whereas more than one hundred thousand children were enrolled in school before the war, by the end of the war this number had plummeted to around three thousand. Yet any account of the Japanese occupation must also include some of the more positive changes. Snow argues that the Japanese brought more Chinese into the “central administration of the colony than the British had ever done.” The Japanese practice of delegating tasks gave Chinese a larger role than under the British, while the Japanese also created a network of district bureaus, which the British never had. Unlike the British, the Japanese went to great lengths to publicize and explain their policies to the Chinese. The Japanese also made some positive changes in public health and agriculture. With “something close to a mania” for preserving public health—mainly to protect the health of Japanese soldiers—they kept outbreaks of smallpox and cholera minor compared with the prewar years.

Defending the Indefensible – Hong Kong II

The Royal Navy cruiser HMS Swiftsure, entering Victoria Harbour, Hong Kong, through North Point on 30 August 1945.

The document of surrender was signed by Japan on 16 September 1945 in Hong Kong.

Collaboration took different forms and assumed various levels of intensity. As soon as the Japanese flag was raised in Central District on December 27, Japanese flags appeared all over the area, and Hong Kong’s new rulers had no trouble finding recruits for their administration. Some Chinese may have believed in Japan’s rhetoric of “Asia for the Asians,” but most people in Hong Kong, relieved that the invasion was over, collaborated simply to get by. For the Eurasians who were recruited for the same kinds of clerical and secretarial posts that they had held under the British and had nowhere else to go, collaboration must have seemed a rather logical choice. The writers for the Hong Kong News, which had been published before the war by Japanese businessmen and was revived by the occupation authorities, were mainly Eurasians and Indians. Many Eurasians and Portuguese became brokers between the Japanese administration and the Chinese population, running various black or gray markets. The Japanese also tried hard to win over the Indian population, promising to help them drive the British out of India. Some Britons also worked with the Japanese; for example, high-level bankers chose to collaborate to ensure some level of financial stability. Similarly, P. S. Selwyn-Clarke, the former director of medical services, worked with the Japanese for the sake of the Chinese community and the interned Europeans and prisoners of war.

To consolidate their rule, the Japanese tried to recruit the same community leaders who had worked with the British. On January 10, 1942, two weeks after the British surrender, Lieutenant General Sakai invited some 130 of the leading Chinese and Eurasians to a formal luncheon at the Peninsula Hotel in Kowloon. Sakai insisted that the war in Hong Kong was against Britain, not China, and that the Chinese and Japanese should work together for the prosperity of all the races of Greater East Asia. Lieutenant General Isogai Rensuke, who became governor later that month, established two councils consisting of Chinese and Eurasian leaders for managing the Chinese population. On the Chinese Representative Council were Robert Kotewall, the chair; Lau Tit-shing, manager of the Communications Bank and chairman of the Chinese Bankers’ Association; Li Tse-fong, manager of the Bank of East Asia (which had maintained extensive contacts with Japanese firms before the war) and former unofficial member of the Legislative Council; and Chan Lim-pak, who had once been comprador to the Hong Kong Shanghai Bank in Canton. The Chinese Cooperative Council, whose 22 members were selected by the Chinese Representative Council from the leading professionals, was chaired by Chow Shouson.

Some Chinese leaders were enthusiastic about working with the Japanese. Lau Tit-shing, for example, was president of the Chinese-Japanese Returned-Students Association and, according to sociologist Henry Lethbridge, was “very pro-Japanese,” having been “thoroughly brainwashed by his early education in Japan.” When Lau died in April 1945, he was honored by the Japanese governor. Chan Lim-pak had been arrested by the British during the Japanese invasion on charges of “defeatist talk” and aiding the enemy. He was killed in 1944 by an American bomber while en route to Japan. But most Chinese and Eurasian leaders probably collaborated with the Japanese in the same way the majority of Hong Kong’s population did: “with reluctance and misgiving, and as a matter of physical survival.” Fear and pragmatism were no doubt strong reasons for collaborating, as was preserving their own class interests. And many collaborated with the Japanese to help the local community. Indeed, three colonial officers testified after the war that they had met secretly with Chow Shouson and Robert Kotewall shortly before the fall of Hong Kong and requested that they cooperate with the Japanese to protect the interests of the Chinese community. That there was so little Chinese resentment toward the two Chinese councils during the occupation suggests that most Chinese understood that the Chinese and Eurasian leaders had to cooperate.

Just as collaboration during the Japanese occupation took many forms, so did resistance. As they had under the British, many Chinese simply ignored the regulations and proclamations issued by the Japanese authorities. Chinese staff in the governor’s office often failed to show up for their mandatory Japanese classes; clerks at Chinese-run department stores refused to sell goods to Japanese, pretending that they were out of stock; and entire schools moved to unoccupied parts of the mainland rather than comply with the new curriculum. By summer 1943, people in Hong Kong realized that the war no longer favored the Japanese. By 1944, Chinese and Eurasian leaders started to avoid their duties on the two Chinese councils.

Given Hong Kong’s urban nature, most organized resistance occurred in the rural New Territories, especially along the Chinese border. Led by Lindsay Ride, a professor at the University of Hong Kong and a member of the Volunteer Defence Corps who had escaped from the Sham Shui Po prison camp, and with help from local Chinese such as Paul Tsui, a recent graduate of the University of Hong Kong, the British Army Aid Group (BAAG) helped European and Chinese residents escape from Hong Kong, gathered intelligence, and rescued Allied airmen shot down by the Japanese. Based in Guilin in southern China, the BAAG was technically a noncombat unit of the Indian Army. By late 1942, the Chinese Nationalists had revived an underground movement, while the Communist guerrillas of the East River Column were active in the New Territories and in the urban areas of Hong Kong. Despite the mutual suspicions among the British, Nationalists, Communists, and their respective agendas, this joint resistance helped to break down racial divisions between Britons and Chinese and to create a “camaraderie unimaginable in the pre-war years.”


British planning for postwar Hong Kong began almost immediately after the fall to Japan, which, compounded by the loss of Singapore and Malaya, was a terrible blow to British morale. As the Colonial Office began to reassess the British failure to defend Hong Kong, one of the conclusions was that the British should have relied more on local Chinese and accepted help from Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist forces. Some wartime planners argued that the invasion might even be a chance for the British to start afresh in Hong Kong after the war by building a better sense of community between the British and the Chinese, including by opening higher-level government positions to local Chinese. They were especially eager to prevent the type of anticolonial nationalism that had erupted in India and would eventually lead to independence in 1947.

The British plans for recovering Hong Kong, however, faced opposition from both China and the United States. With help from American president Franklin Delano Roosevelt (whose grandfather had been a partner in the American firm of Russell and whose mother had once lived in Hong Kong), in January 1942 Chiang Kai-shek became the supreme allied commander of the China-Burma-India Theater. Chiang hoped to use the war to recover Hong Kong and to end the embarrassing unequal treaties. Supported by the United States, in mid-1942 Chiang’s Nationalists approached Britain to give up Hong Kong, or at least the New Territories. In late 1942, Sino-British negotiations began for abolishing extraterritoriality in China and revising the status of the New Territories after the war. At the Cairo Conference of November 1943, Roosevelt promised to help Chiang recover Hong Kong if he agreed to help the Chinese Communists fight the Japanese.

Even while wartime planners in Britain were committed to restoring Hong Kong to British rule after the war, they also realized that the Chinese Nationalists’ demands would have to be taken seriously and that conditions in postwar Hong Kong would have to be different. Although the Nationalists suddenly aborted their campaign to recover the New Territories—content for the time being with the agreement that China would reserve the right to raise the issue at a later time—some British officials believed that Hong Kong might have to be surrendered for Britain to focus on its other possessions, especially India and Egypt. Realizing that many American officials supported China, some British officials even suggested giving up Hong Kong before the United States applied pressure on Britain to do so. In mid-1942, the Colonial Office conceded that Hong Kong might have to be surrendered after the war. Even in late 1945, George Kitson, head of the China Department at the Foreign Office, suggested that Britain return Hong Kong for both symbolic and practical purposes: as a token of gratitude for China’s help in defeating Japan, as a gesture of friendship in a new postwar world, as proof that British colonialism was entering a new phase, and as a preemptive move to prevent possible confrontation with China over the region.

As the war turned against Japan’s favor, however, by early 1943 the Colonial Office resolved to retain Hong Kong after the war. The Colonial Office became particularly optimistic in February 1944 when Li Shu-fan, a prominent Chinese surgeon who had made his way to London, assured the Colonial Office and the Foreign Office that most members of the Chinese upper classes would prefer British rule to Chinese rule after the war. That summer, the Hong Kong Planning Unit was established under Frank Smith, the former colonial secretary. After 1944 the unit was led by David MacDougall, a Hong Kong cadet who had escaped during the Japanese occupation. By mid-1945, Winston Churchill realized that Chiang Kai-shek could not try to recover Hong Kong without support from the United States, which now considered the continuation of the British Empire vital to its own interests in the postwar world. As victory became imminent, in the summer of 1945 the Hong Kong Planning Unit and the China Association, a powerful lobby representing British business interests in China, began to consider various proposals for constitutional reform, among them giving a greater role to local Chinese. Churchill now declared that Hong Kong would be removed from the British Empire “over my dead body.”

As the British planned for recovering Hong Kong, the problem of what to do with the old business and professional elite arose. The British needed a local support base, but some of the Europeans interned during the war had criticized leaders such as Robert Kotewall and Chow Shouson for being too compliant with the Japanese. Yet the returning colonial government would have great difficulty finding anyone to replace these old leaders. Furthermore, there was the problem of convincing the local Chinese population that Britain, rather than Nationalist China, deserved to rule Hong Kong after the war. This explains both why the British, who could not afford to lose the people they had depended on for so long, decided to keep the old leaders and why these leaders worked so hard to restore British rule. The Colonial Office eventually decided that Chow and Kotewall had been acting in the colony’s best interest.

Just as victory against Japan became certain, a more immediate challenge arose. Japan surrendered on August 14 1945, earlier than most British military planners had predicted. American and Nationalist Chinese troops were making progress in China, getting closer by the day to Canton. Knowing that Roosevelt wanted Chiang Kai-shek to accept the Japanese surrender as supreme commander in almost all of the China Theater, the British feared that Chiang’s troops would try to accept the surrender in Hong Kong. Although Chiang assured them that he would not try to retake Hong Kong after accepting the surrender, the British dispatched Rear Admiral Cecil Harcourt from Sydney with a fleet to reach Hong Kong first. When Britain and China asked the United States to help them resolve the matter, Chiang proposed delegating surrender authority to a British official in Hong Kong, but only if Britain agreed not to accept the Japanese surrender until after Chiang had formally accepted the surrender for the China Theater. Britain agreed, and on September 16 Harcourt accepted the Japanese surrender on behalf of Britain and China in the presence of a Chinese and an American official.

This arrangement briefly soured Sino-British relations, but it was as pragmatic as it was symbolic. It also helps explain why Hong Kong remained a British colony after the war. Although there were loud calls in China for recovering Hong Kong and although he had almost sixty thousand troops within three hundred miles of Hong Kong when the Japanese surrendered, Chiang realized that Britain would not give up Hong Kong easily and that a failure to recover Hong Kong would discredit him in China. Furthermore, he needed the support of both the United States and Britain to be a major player in the new world order. Preoccupied with recovering northern China and keeping Chinese Communist troops from recapturing Japanese-held territory, he did not want to provoke the Communists into entering the race for Hong Kong, especially since their East River Column was closer to Hong Kong than were his own troops. Concerned about the postwar order, the United States had now softened its stance toward colonialism. Harry Truman, who became president after Roosevelt died in April 1945, was less committed than his predecessor to restoring Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty, while General Douglas MacArthur, commander of the Allied forces in the Southwest Pacific, supported outright the continuation of the British Empire in East Asia. The British realized that they could not prevent Chiang’s troops from recapturing Hong Kong and that the United States, regardless of its new attitudes toward colonialism, would not help the British resist such an attempt. They also realized that such an arrangement would play out better among the Chinese population of Hong Kong, some of whom, proud of China’s new status, thought that this might be a chance to get rid of the British.

China’s Final Victory, 1943–5

These Nationalist troops are undergoing specialist training at a US-run commando training school in May 1945. The school ran courses in irregular warfare and also a paratroopers’ course with selected Nationalist volunteers. US instructors came from the Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner of the Central Intelligence Agency, and several training camps were set up in western China. Uniforms, weaponry and equipment are of US origin with P-17 rifles and Thompson sub-machine guns.

A young Communist cavalryman in 1945 shows an elite soldier of the Chinese Red Army. The Communists made great use of their cavalry arm during the Sino-Japanese War, especially in the latter years of the conflict. This soldier’s relatively smart uniform, equipment and modern Mauser 98k rifle indicate that he belongs to one of the better cavalry units. However, the lack of clips for his rifle in the canvas bandolier over his shoulder is evidence of the shortage of ammunition suffered by the Communists.

By 1943 the Sino-Japanese War had been fought for six long years and both the Japanese and the Chinese were exhausted. War weariness amongst the Japanese in China had become a major problem with no end to the war in sight. The ever expected Nationalist collapse had never materialized and all Japan’s efforts to subdue the Chinese had failed. Some Chinese had collaborated with the Japanese but they were despised by the vast majority of the population. The Japanese population’s enthusiasm for the war had also faded as more and more of their sons’ ashes were returned home for burial. However, the Japanese were still committed to their occupation of China and over 1,000,000 men were still serving there. With no hope of further reinforcements for China, especially in terms of weapons and equipment, the Japanese Imperial army could not defeat the Chinese. The Japanese were unable to defeat Nationalist China before they had commitments to their Pacific War, from December 1941. Now with Allied aid supporting China, even if in limited quantities, the Chinese were getting stronger as the Japanese were weakening. A stalemate now existed in China and the Japanese Imperial army no longer had the will to try and defeat the Chinese. At the same time, the Nationalist and Communist forces could not hope in the short term to defeat such large Japanese forces stationed in China. Japanese tactics had also changed since 1941 with the emphasis now on holding onto what they had gained rather than trying to conquer more territory. When they went out on operations the main aim of the Japanese was to take food and other supplies from the population. As time went on, the Japanese Imperial army was less willing to confront Chinese forces, whether regular or guerrilla. At the same time, the average Chinese soldier had lost their inferiority complex towards the Japanese army and its soldiers.

Although the Chinese theatre was still important to the Japanese, the situation with the Allies was to take on more significance. Their struggles in the Pacific from 1942–5 and with the British in Burma from 1943–5 became more important. Much of their heavy equipment had, however, been transported to other theatres and in particular the Pacific Islands. Because of their weaknesses the Japanese Imperial army had now to concentrate on trying to control the guerrilla threat in China until 1945.

In one final desperate effort to reverse their decline in China the Imperial army launched a large-scale offensive. In April 1944, the ‘Ichi-Go’, or ‘Number One’, offensive was begun and was to be one of Japan’s last major operations in China. Huge Japanese forces were marshalled for the offensive with 400,000 men, 1,500 artillery pieces and 800 tanks taken from all over China. Ichi-Go was divided into two separate operations with the first, ‘Ka-Go’, aimed at destroying all Nationalist forces still north of the Yangtze River. One of Ka-Go’s aims was to surround and destroy the Nationalist army that held part of the Peking–Wuhan railway. This objective was easily achieved, although the Japanese advance was limited by lack of supplies once they out reached their supply lines. A second phase, known as Operation ‘U-Go’, was to be launched once Ka-Go had got underway. The aim of U-Go was to knock out the airbases of the US 14th Air Force which were being used to bomb the Japanese mainland. After destroying these airbases the combined Japanese force was to advance into Szechwan province with the ultimate aim of capturing the wartime capital Chungking. Nationalist divisions facing the offensive were made up of poorly trained and armed conscripts who were soon demoralized and fell back in front of the advancing Japanese. U-Go was a great success and the US air bases fell in quick succession as the Nationalist forces retreated in confusion. On 8 August the city of Hengyang, to the east of the Chinese capital, fell to the Japanese and it seemed that an advance on Chungking was now inevitable. As the campaign in southern China dragged into November 1944, however, the Japanese began to run out of food and other supplies. Vital air cover was also lost when the Japanese had to send its fighters to Japan to defend their homeland. Over the next few months Ichi-Go ground to a halt and the Chinese finally began to make some successful counter-attacks. Chiang Kai-shek had been proved right when he said that ‘The Japanese will run out of blood before the Chinese will run out of ground’.

In April and May 1945 the Japanese launched what was to be their last offensive in China with the aim of capturing a US air base at Chihchiang. The Chihchiang Offensive was launched from territory recently taken during the Ichi-Go operation. Large Nationalist forces were stationed to halt the advance and after being reinforced to a strength of four divisions they threw back the Japanese. In early 1945 the Japanese Imperial High Command had already introduced plans to consolidate their positions in China. By withdrawing units from outlying garrisons in southern China they intended to concentrate them in central China in the region of Wuhan. Other formations would be gathered in the Canton region and in the Peking region, where they faced less opposition from guerrilla forces. As the Japanese tried to move their forces into these fastnesses they came under attack by Chinese guerrillas. In August a new threat had to be faced in Manchuria, which although not strictly involved in the Sino-Japanese War, was to influence its end greatly. The Soviet Union’s victory in Europe in April 1945 released huge numbers of troops to take part in a new offensive in Manchuria. Since the 1900s Japan had always feared an attack in the East by the Red Army but a neutrality pact signed between the Soviet Union and Japan in the 1930s had held. Now that Japan was on the verge of defeat, the Soviet Union decided to renege on this agreement and on 8 August they struck. With an overwhelming army of 1,500,000 men, 26,000 artillery pieces, 3,700 tanks and 500 combat aircraft, they launched a blitzkrieg offensive that swept the Kwangtung Army away. The Kwangtung Army was a substantial size on paper but out-of-date tanks, obsolete artillery and depleted units were the reality. Soviet claims of 84,000 Japanese dead and almost 600,000 prisoners taken were not disputed. Although not really part of the Sino-Japanese War, this was a devastating defeat for the Imperial army in East Asia.

However, the end in China was be dictated by events elsewhere and with Japan’s defeat in the Pacific and the dropping of atomic bombs in August 1945, the war was over. On 2 September all Japanese military forces in China officially surrendered to the victorious Chinese, both Nationalist and Communist. Most Japanese military and civilian personnel were repatriated quickly with a surprising lack of violence from the triumphant Chinese. Nationalist China’s victory was to prove illusionary as within a short time conflict was to break out with the Communists. After a brief interlude and attempts at mediation between Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Tse-tung, the civil war between the Chinese Nationalists and Communists was to resume in 1946.


China’s contribution to victory had been in tying down vast numbers of Japanese aircraft, military vehicles and above all troops. In 1945 about two million, half of them in Manchuria, awaited surrender and repatriation. Both the Nationalists, with their promise of a ‘Free China’ now backed by the USA, and the communists, with their ambitions for a People’s Republic backed by the Russians, swooped to secure the surrendered munitions and to claim the abandoned infrastructure, the mines, the factories and the teeming territories. In this race, Manchuria, now a heavily industrialised region thanks to Japanese investment and less devastated by the late war than the rest of China, constituted the greatest prize. It had been invaded by the Russians in the dying months of the war, which handed the advantage to the communists. When Nationalist and communist armies both converged on it, the Nationalists, while much the stronger, found their progress slowed by the Russians. The communists, joined by local partisans and some Koreans, were allowed to help themselves to the stockpiled Japanese weaponry and establish themselves in the far north. It was thus in Harbin, the first city run by the CCP, that Lin Biao reorganised his forces as the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and in late 1946 began to push south.

By then American attempts to get the two sides to accept a ceasefire and some form of power-sharing under Chiang Kai-shek’s leadership had collapsed. ‘The greatest obstacle to peace has been the complete, almost overwhelming suspicion with which the Chinese Communist Party and the Guomindang regard each other,’ began General George Marshall’s report on the failure of his mediating mission. ‘They each sought only to take counsel of their fears.’ The fears proved real enough when in early 1947 the fighting flared into open war and each side assumed its true colours. The communists no longer disguised their revolutionary intent. Lands were confiscated and redistributed, landowners held to account, informants encouraged, and mass indoctrination campaigns organised. The Nationalists, on the other hand, betrayed their old preference for corporate croneyism, indifference to popular sentiment and economic incompetence. A collapse in morale as a result of rampant inflation (500 per cent a month in 1948), famines, rural unrest and student protests undermined the Nationalist regime more fatally than the communist victories. By 1948 the PLA had inflicted a series of disastrous defeats on the Nationalists in Manchuria, leading to mass desertions. All over northern China the CCP’s peasant guerrillas were simultaneously making the countryside a no-go area. More victories and desertions meant that by the end of 1948 most of China north of the Yangzi was in communist hands.

Jonathan Spence likens Chiang Kai-shek’s plight to that of the Ming pretenders after the Manchus had overrun the north in 1644–45. Chiang himself might have been more reassured by those earlier dynasties, stretching back through the Song and the Eastern Jin to the Wu of the Three Kingdoms period, which had made a greater success of their southern sojourn. He certainly considered standing firm south of the Yangzi, while he investigated the alternative possibility of again withdrawing to Sichuan and Yunnan. But in the end he opted for the greater safety of Taiwan, which had been restored to the republic after the defeat of Japan. Art treasures and texts from the Imperial Palace in Beijing, the nearest thing to regalia that he could lay his hands on, were removed there in 1948; and in early 1949, as the PLA overran the south in a series of lightning advances, Chiang himself fled across the Taiwan Strait with about a million of his troops. Other Nationalists were driven into Thailand, Laos and Burma. Many emigrated overseas.

As president of his rump ‘Republic of China’, Chiang ruled on in Taiwan until his death in 1975. In good dynastic tradition he was then succeeded by his son until Taiwan adopted a parliamentary form of government in the late 1980s. Mao, who would die in 1976, outlasted Chiang by just a year. But his ‘People’s Republic of China’, officially proclaimed from Tiananmen, the Heavenly Gate, in Beijing in October 1949, proved markedly more resistant to parliamentary representation.

China: Warlords, regionalism, and national unity, regional devolution

Wu Pei-fu, the ‘Jade Marshal’ or ‘Scholar Warlord’, was the dominant commander in the Chihli Clique throughout the early and mid-1920s. Wu was probably the best field general during the Warlord Period, but politically he was relatively naive, and was betrayed on several occasions.

Wu Peifu mediate a peace with Zhang Zuolin.


C1: Trooper, 2nd Cavalry, 8th Division, 1923

This cavalryman mounted on a Mongolian pony has a padded cotton jacket and trousers worn with a pair of fur-lined boots, and his peaked cap has sewn-in ear flaps. He has been lucky to receive a pair of motoring goggles, as used by several warlord armies to protect the eyes from dust on the march. The orange armband has the Chinese character for his commander’s surname, ‘Wang’, stencilled In black. In the service of the ‘Jade Marshal’, Wu Pel-fu, General Wang Ju-ch’un commanded the 9,000-strong 8th Division in Hupeh province in 1923. The trooper is armed with a 6.5mm Mannlicher Carcano 91TS carbine, probably imported by Wu Pei-fu as part of a $5.6 million supply shipment negotiated with an Italian arms dealer in 1922. He also has a sword, based on the rna-tao sabre of medieval China; these were used at various times during the early 20th century, and special units of Nationalist troops armed with them fought the Japanese in Jehol province as late as 1933. Some cavalry also used the da-dao fighting sword, but this longer-bladed weapon was more suitable for slashing at the enemy from horseback.

C2: Military courier, 3rd Division, 1924

This boy, aged about 12, is one of those taken out of the officer training school set up by the Chihli Clique leader Wu Pei-fu to help with his army’s communications. During the 1924 campaign Wu was desperately short of reliable troops, and took the officer cadets from their academy to release other men for the front line. Although Wu had a reputation as a relatively humane commander this sacrifice of his army’s future officers would not have worried him unduly; he was reported at the time to have 30,000 boy soldiers in his army, who were all orphans of soldiers killed in previous battles. The boy is wearing the same grey cotton uniform as his adult comrades and has a leather despatch case to carry his messages. For self-protection he has been given an Italian 10.35mm Glisenti M1889 revolver.

C3: Infantryman, 11th Division, 1922

This soldier is about to leave for the front during the fighting against the Fengtien Army of Chang Tso-Iin in 1922; at this stage his grey cotton uniform is still in good condition, but it will soon show wear-and-tear. His infantry-red collar patches indicate, in Roman numerals on his left, his division; his right patch would show his personal details in Chinese characters, such as his number within his unit. This complicated system of identification was occasionally seen, but the exact protocol varied from region to region. His rank of private first class is shown by the stars on the shoulders of his tunic, but again, shortages meant that many soldiers lacked rank insignia. The red armband was described by Edna Lee Booker, a correspondent who saw Wu Pei-fu’s troops leaving for the war. The infantryman is well equipped, with a Japanese backpack and other accoutrements including ammunition pouches designed to carry clips for the Japanese Arisaka rifle, although this soldier is in fact armed with the common Mauser M1888 or a local copy. Booker also described the paraphernalia carried by the troops fastened to their packs; in this case the soldier has a teapot, but others are described as carrying trench picks, shovels, oiled-paper umbrellas, hot water bottles, lanterns and alarm clocks. 

C4: Sergeant, ‘Big Sword Corps’, 1924

This NCO belongs to an elite unit of Wu Pei-fu’s army. The ‘Big Sword Corps’ acted as a bodyguard for their commander and were responsible for keeping order, when necessary beheading officers and men who had failed in their duties. (During the fighting against Chiang Kai-shek’s NRA in 1927, Wu had to send this elite corps into battle to try to stem their advance.) As with most soldiers responsible for discipline in Chinese armies, the men of this unit were picked for their stature and strength – the big executioner’s sword needed a pretty strong man to wield it efficiently. The rank of chung-shih is indicated by the stripe and two stars on the shoulder straps, and he has collar patches in the pink of the military police. The red armband with a central yellow disc is one of several types recorded as being worn by warlord troops at the time. Besides the sword – which was not really intended for combat use – he is armed with a Mauser M1896 automatic pistol with a wooden holster-stock, and he has spare clips in the leather pouches at his waist. 

After the death of Yuan Shikai in 1916 unified military rule from Peking gave way to disseminated military rule. Within a few months the country was divided into a great number of what were known then as satraps, none of them stable or lasting, all based on regional ties, all dominated by warlords. China had become, as Sun Yat-sen had predicted it would, a sheet of shifting sand. Though there continued to be national governments in Peking they wielded very little power, and came and went with bewildering frequency.

China is a vast and diverse country. The regional diversity is expressed in dialects, often mutually unintelligible, in cuisine, in traditions and customs – and in identity. Before there was an empire there were many independent states, whose names survive in the alternative names of provinces (QiLu/Shandong, ShuBa/Sichuan, Yue/Guangdong).

In the many periods of disunity since the founding of the first state in the third century BC, regional power holding always emerged to fill the void left by a collapse at the center. The process of devolution and fragmentation was one that China knew well. The most famous period of disunity came after the end of the Han dynasty, when China was divided into three. The Romance of the Three Kingdoms (Sanguo yanyi), an immensely popular novel written more than 1,000 years after the events it described (and almost certainly apocryphal), told of the anguish of division and civil war through a string of stories of courage, treachery, and intrigue. The stories were known to every Chinese, whether educated or not; they appeared as opera plots, as oral stories, and in cartoons. Disunity was as inevitable as unity, said the Three Kingdoms stories. Some people behaved badly in times of troubles, others came into their own – but the evil men often won; the most evil of all, Cao Cao, triumphed over the greatest strategist, Zhuge Liang, a man of brilliance and humanity.

It may seem a stretch to use a novel as a guide to understanding reactions to disunity and uncertainty – but the mentality portrayed in The Romance of the Three Kingdoms had a formative influence on young men of the early Republic, men such as Mao Zedong, who had all read the novel as boys. Theirs was a Three Kingdoms reaction to disunity: think things through carefully, devise stratagems, and know that the solutions will require force as well as intelligence. The answer was to combine Zhuge Liang’s brilliance with Cao Cao’s ruthlessness.

Warlords and their armies

The rise of regionalism and regional identities had been encouraged by the disappearance of universal examinations in 1905, and by the loss of the law of avoidance. After 1916 the center’s ability to make appointments at the provincial level disappeared, and regional rulers came to power, often soldiers, who called themselves military administrators (dujun); other people called them warlords.

These men saw disunity as opportunity for their particular regions. The negative reactions to warlordism in the civilian world reflected the fear of chaos, of the country falling apart – the fear that had haunted China’s rulers since the beginning of the empire. This fear lived in the metropolitan world of the emperors and the bureaucrats. It was not shared by warlords, men who focused on one region only, nor by many of the people whose lives they controlled, whose horizons did not extend beyond a region and its culture.

In the civilian elite’s stereotype, a warlord was a deceitful, devious, illiterate man, sunk in backward patterns of behaviour, uncouth and filthy. Zhang Zongchang, the “Dog-Meat General,” who ruled Shandong for many years, fitted the stereotype. He was uneducated, a bandit by origin, loud-mouthed, cruel. His proudest “possession” was his large harem, in which there were women from China, Japan, Russia, and western Europe. He lived by violence, he lost his power by violence, and he died violently (after he had lost power), shot at the station of his former capital, Jinan.

Few warlords were as awful as Zhang. Some were progressive figures, complex men who blended self-interest with a genuine interest in the future of China. The most famous of this type was Feng Yuxiang, a mass of contradictions, blunt and devious, a personal power seeker and devout nationalist.

Other warlords were local strongmen who looked after their own regions, and in some cases gave them the most secure and stable periods of rule they were to know in many decades. In Shanxi, Yan Xishan, who ruled the province for more than three decades, is remembered as a model ruler; in Guangdong, Chen Jitang, who controlled the province for most of the 1930s, is considered a local hero; in Guangxi, the rulers of the province from 1925 to 1949, the “Guangxi Clique,” are revered for their martial spirit, which gave the province the name of “China’s Sparta.”

Tuzi buchi wobian cao. “The rabbit doesn’t eat the grass beside its nest.” Source: traditional

The better warlords understood the old proverb about a rabbit not eating the grass beside its own burrow, and they tended to show concern for the people of the region they controlled. They provided stable government, which, even though it came with tax swindling and rampant corruption, was preferable to chaos or anarchy. Tax income stayed in the region – except for the amounts that warlords salted away in Tianjin, Shanghai, or Hong Kong (cities under foreign control) – for the time when their rule came to an end.

The men referred to as “petty warlords” did the most damage to Chinese society. They really were bandits, uncouth and crude. They exploited and vandalized the regions they controlled. Their rule was often short. When they were overthrown by other warlords they went back to banditry or joined local militias.

The number of men under arms expanded dramatically in the early Republic. By the early 1920s there were at least 1.5 million soldiers, and an equally large number of armed men not serving in formal military units – irregulars, militiamen, bodyguards, and bandits. There was a two-way traffic between the organized and the informal armed worlds.

Warlordism had a strongly inhibiting effect on one aspect of Chinese society where there might otherwise have been change. The emancipation of women, which had just begun in China’s cities, was impossible in areas under indifferent or bad warlord control. Girls had to be protected by their families from the unthinkable – rape – and so many of them lived cloistered lives at home.

The warlord system provided immense numbers of jobs – either directly, as soldiers, or indirectly, in the manufacturing and service industries that catered to the military. The continuing growth of China’s population facilitated the expansion of the military. As the population grew, employment opportunities did not. Most of the jobs in the new factories were for young women. There were more and more young men in the rural areas for whom there was no work. A few could emigrate – to Manchuria, Southeast Asia or North America – but the closed nature of migration flows limited this solution to a few regions of China, all of them coastal.

Young men from regions with no established migration chains had only a few opportunities for off-farm employment – peddling, moving to the city, or going into the military.

Warlord finances

The foreign banks, like the concessions, contribute largely to the amenity of Chinese civil war and political strife. Once loot is turned into money and deposited with them by the looter, it is sacred and beyond public recovery. Cases have been known in which generals, far from expecting interest on their deposits, have been eager to pay the banks a small percentage for the privilege of being allowed thus to cache their gain. At a town up the Yangtze [Yangzi], a Chinese military commander visited the American- Oriental Bank and said that he wished to deposit with them, instead of in his own headquarters, what he politely called his records, and left thirty large trunks with the bank. He was presently defeated, and the bank manager was a little disturbed as to what he should do if the incoming conqueror were to demand that these records be handed over. But the in-coming conqueror felt equally insecure, and was more concerned to get his own records safely in to the bank than to obtain those of his enemy. Another huge batch of trunks was brought in, and the bank manager, much relieved, had both sets of trunks piled one beside the other.

Arthur Ransome, The Chinese Puzzle (London: Allen and Unwin, 1927), pp. 123–4.