Who lost the battle for Manchuria?

A lot of mythology surrounds the Chinese Communist Party’s peasant origins and guerrilla tactics. But the Communist victory over the Nationalists in the civil war was not a mass uprising around the country, but a military campaign that started with victories in northeast China–Manchuria–and moved south from there. (Of course, when the Mongols and, later, the Manchus, conquered China, they also came from the northeast.) Here is Andrew Walder in his China Under Mao:

Victory was actually attained through conventional warfare fought between large modern armies, involving massive mobilization of material and human support for each side. Guerrilla warfare permitted the CCP to survive and expand during the Japanese invasion, but this survival strategy placed minimal demands on peasants to supply Communist partisans with food, material support, and recruits. Once the civil war began, the CCP abandoned guerrilla operations. As its armies poured into Manchuria after Soviet forces occupied the territory, Mao turned to a strategy of total mobilization for revolutionary war. The Red Army, renamed the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in 1945, grew from 475,000 in 1944 to 2.8 million by 1948. …

The final years of the civil war resembled the Soviet army’s conquest of Eastern Europe in the last phases of World War II. The PLA rolled south from Manchuria and adjacent regions of North China, conquering vast regions that had never before been under CCP control, and regions like Tibet and Xinjiang that had not been governed by any Chinese state since the fall of the Qing dynasty.

Since the Communist victory was truly a military victory, many have looked to military causes to explain it. Chiang Kai-shek himself, in a book published after the war, focused attention on a series of events in 1946, around the city of Siping in Liaoning. Communist forces had occupied the city but were then dislodged by the Nationalists; at the same time, however, both parties were negotiating with the American envoy George Marshall, and a ceasefire was declared shortly afterward the Communist troops fled Siping. Chiang of course agreed to the ceasefire but in hindsight felt it was a mistake that allowed the Communists to regain the initiative:

This was a war that Chiang had lost in 1949, but which might have come out very differently, Chiang argued, if the Second Battle of Siping and its aftermath had been handled differently. The battle itself, Chiang said, had been “another decisive battle against the Communist troops.” As he described it, the three hundred thousand men under Lin Biao’s command had been utterly defeated: “More than half the Communist effectives became casualties.” Reports from the front, he said, “all agreed that barring some special international complications the Chinese Communists would not be able to fight anew after the terrific punishment they had just taken at the hands of the Government forces.”

Then there came the ceasefire and the suspension of [Nationalist general] Du Yuming’s pursuit of the Communist forces. Chiang believed that if his armies had continued their pursuit, “Communist remnants in northern Manchuria would have been liquidated.” Without a base area in northern Manchuria, the remaining Communist forces in Manchuria would have been deprived of Soviet support and “a fundamental solution to the problem of Manchuria would have been at hand.” Instead, “the morale of Government troops in Manchuria began to suffer” and Lin Biao rebuilt his forces in northern Manchuria. “The subsequent defeat of Government troops in Manchuria in the winter of 1948,” said Chiang, “was largely due to the second ceasefire order.” In this view, Siping was the decisive battle that could have been— if only a ceasefire, negotiated by George Marshall, had not intervened. Defeat had been snatched from the jaws of victory.

Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Zedong in 1945

Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Zedong in 1945

That is from Harold M. Tanner’s The Battle for Manchuria and the Fate of China: Siping, 1946, which reconstructs the events leading up to and following the battle, and tries to answer the question of whether Siping was truly the turning point that ensured Communist victory in the civil war. While Senator Joseph McCarthy also blamed Marshall’s intervention for “losing China,” a number of more reputable historians have also seen Siping as a key turning point. Tanner however concludes that Chiang’s hope was a false one, in part because the Soviet Union was quietly but effectively supporting the Communists, and both the Nationalists and the Americans were afraid of getting into a direct confrontation with the Soviets:

The Truman administration had decided that while the United States would support Chiang Kai-shek, there would be limits to the extent of that support. Chiang desperately wanted the United States to take a more active role in supporting his government and his army in their struggle against what Chiang portrayed as the Soviet Union’s imperialist designs on Chinese territory. The Truman administration, however, was determined not to get directly involved in the Chinese Civil War, and especially not to challenge the Soviet Union by getting drawn into the struggle in Manchuria.

America was willing to transport Nationalist armies and to supply substantial amounts of weapons and ammunition, but, as we have seen above, American equipment alone could not give the Nationalists a substantial advantage on the battlefields of Manchuria. Even if the United States had been willing to do so, extending unlimited military aid to an army that was pursuing a fundamentally flawed strategy and a government that was proving incapable of winning the political struggle is not likely to have changed failure into success. In any event, the United States did not have unlimited resources to expend on Chiang’s government. Truman’s decision to limit support for Chiang was based on his assessment of American interests and capabilities, including American commitments elsewhere around the globe, and the very real possibility that American embroilment in China could lead to conflict with the Soviet Union.

Marshall’s decision to push for a ceasefire in June 1946 was made in this context, as well as on the basis of his assessment (backed up by the intelligence reports available to him) that the Nationalist Army was simply not capable of achieving victory in Manchuria. Chiang agreed to the ceasefire not only because Marshall was pressuring him to do so (although this was certainly an important factor), but also because he was aware of the limitations of his own armies, the challenges of further operations in North Manchuria, and the possibility that military operations north of the Songhua could elicit a dangerous reaction from the Soviet Union.

The Communist victory in China’s civil war, in this analysis, is ultimately the result of the Cold War and thus of how the Second World War ended. In fact, Peng Shuzhi, a Chinese Trotskyist, made much the same argument back in 1952:

Placed in an unfavorable position in the international situation created by the Second World War, American imperialism was obliged to abandon its aid to Chiang and its interference with Mao. At the same time, the Soviet Union, which had secured a superior position in Manchuria at the end of the war, inflicted serious damage to Chiang’s government and offered direct aid to the CCP. This enabled the latter to modernize its backward peasant army. Without this combination of circumstances, the victory of a party like the CCP, which relied purely on peasant forces, would be inconceivable.

For example, if Manchuria had not been occupied by the Soviet Union but had fallen entirely under Chiang’s control, Chiang Kai-shek would have utilized the economic resources and the Japanese arms in Manchuria to cut off direct connection between the CCP and the Soviet Union. This would have blocked the USSR’s armed support to the CCP. Similarly, the situation would have been quite different if direct intervention against the CCP by American imperialism had been possible. Under either of these two circumstances the victory of Mao Tse-tung would have been very doubtful.

To approach this from another direction, we could recall the defeat of the CCP’s peasant army in the Kiangsi period, 1930-35, when the bourgeois KMT’s power was considerably stabilized as a result of continual aid from imperialism, while the CCP was isolated from the Soviet Union. From this we can also derive sufficient reason to justify the conclusion that today’s victory of the CCP is entirely the result of the specific conditions created by the Second World War.

China raises its target for private-sector hospitals

Amid the generally disappointing news on economic reform out of China, one signal I have been keeping an eye on is the government’s intentions on healthcare. A significant component of the previous five-year plan for healthcare, which ended in 2015, was a commitment to raise the private sector’s share of hospital beds to 20% of the national total. In the event they didn’t quite make the target–the final figure was 19.4% for 2015–but I still thought it was a promising way to use China’s planning system to drive liberalization and not just higher output. Healthcare is a fast-growing part of the economy and one where the private sector’s role is obviously increasing, so it is one of the more positive stories in China at the moment.

As many of the healthcare system’s problems, such as corruption and inequality, can arguably be traced to the overwhelming dominance of state-owned institutions, some within China have argued for targeting a much larger private-sector role. But there is an active debate: an authoritative report recently questioned the need to have a quantitative target for raising the private sector’s market share. A regulatory system designed for state institutions is arguably not able to ensure quality as private institutions rapidly proliferate, and scandals and public distrust of private hospitals are a clear issue. So it was not at all clear what would happen to this initiative.

Now the 13th five-year plan for healthcare has finally been published (full Chinese text here), and it does retain a target for raising the private sector’s market share. The new target is to raise private hospitals’ share of total hospital beds to above 30% by 2020 (the plan does not actually use the word “private,” which remains a loaded term in China, instead referring to hospitals “managed by society,” i.e. not the state). This is not a radically higher figure that would force drastic restructuring of the whole healthcare system, but it does maintain a clear, transparent and public commitment to a greater private-sector role. I would call this pretty good news, especially given that there has recently been some backward movement on state-owned enterprises and some other issues.

Public and private hospital beds

How stoves and lamps led to a turning point in China’s reforms

Here is a nice little piece of oral history covering some important episodes in the early history of China’s economic reforms. The translation below is an excerpt from a longer interview with Yang Qixian, a scholar who participated in the reform process in the 1980s (Chinese original here). I like it because it includes both some vivid practical experiences and some theoretical insights.

Yang Qixian

Yang Qixian

First, the practical:

In the summer of 1982, Yang Qixian, as a member of the working group formed by the State Commission for Restructuring Economic Systems, went to Changzhou, Jiangsu province to push forward the pilot project for comprehensive reform. At that meeting, there were two things that drew his attention and left a strong impression: the glass chimneys for kerosene lamps, and the “tiger stoves.”

As Yang recalled, because at that time the electricity supply was inadequate, many families used kerosene lamps. The glass chimneys for the kerosene lamps were a commodity whose supply was planned, with the price fixed at RMB0.06. Because they couldn’t make money [at that price], enterprises did not want to produce the lamp chimneys. One residential community could get a quota allocation of one or two every few months, which would then be distributed. The lamp chimneys would first go to the hands of the community leader or production team leader, who could give them to whoever they wanted. Because there was a shortage of lamp chimneys, when people wanted to buy one they would have to treat the team leader to some food and booze; only by having a good relationship could they get the quota. The members of the working group on the comprehensive reform pilot discussed this phenomenon, and decided to liberalize the prices of some small commodities that were not of critical importance, and allow enterprises to organize production according to market demand.

The Changzhou comprehensive reform pilot used the kerosene lamp chimneys as an experiment, and the effect was of course very obvious: the supply shortage was solved very quickly. Yang Qixian recalled that after the price of kerosene lamp chimneys was liberalized, it rose to RMB0.2, a big increase from RMB0.06. “We asked people if they were upset about the price increase, and they said no. The reason they weren’t upset is that before they could sell three eggs for RMB0.06 and buy one glass chimney, now they can sell three eggs for RMB0.2, which can still cover the cost of one chimney,” Yang said. Afterward, the working group wrote a short report about the experiment, and Hu Yaobang [at the time, General Secretary of the Communist Party] immediately approved it; he felt this was a very good example, and that the prices of small commodities should be gradually liberalized.

The situation of the “tiger stoves” was similar to the kerosene lamp chimneys. At that time, for people to boil water they had to fire up the coal stove. Because coal was in short supply, in order to conserve coal they would organize “tiger stoves” [in the area around Shanghai, a traditional name for a local store providing hot water, tea and even baths]. The water jugs were lined up on the stove, and once the water boiled you only had to spend RMB0.01 to fill a jug and take it home.

But tiger stoves could only be run by a collective, and so there were only a few in each city. When people wanted hot water, they would have to walk a long way–it was really not convenient. In the Changzhou reform trial, the working group decided to allow individuals to run tiger stoves, and also allow them to buy coal. Because of this loosening, the number of tiger stoves multiplied, and the price did not rise. People did not have to go so far to get hot water. The working group also wrote up this example in a report, and Hu Yaobang approved it, saying that small businesses should not be excessively restricted, and must be liberalized.

It is quite amazing that a discussion about hot water supply in one city of one province went all the way to the top of the Communist Party hierarchy.

Next, a more theoretical insight:

Another event that made a deep impression on Yang was the International Symposium on Macroeconomic Management held in September 1985, which was a landmark in the history of China’s reform and ideological emancipation. Because it was held on a boat called the “Bashan,” running from Chongqing to Wuhan, the media and scholars have called it the Bashan boat conference. …Foreign experts attending the meeting included Alec Cairncross from the UK, James Tobin from the US, Otmar Etminger from West Germany, Michel Albert from France, Janos Kornai from Hungary, Kobayashi from Japan, as well as Edwin Lim and Adrian Wood from the World Bank. Representatives from China included Xue Muqiao, An Zhiwen, Ma Hong, Liu Guoguang, Gao Shangquan and other scholars and workers, for a total of more than 30 people. As one of the organizers, Yang Qixian drafted the conference synthesis report.

Yang recalled that, although it was only a seminar, and the meeting was not long, it still had a far-reaching impact. The reason is that in the earlier stages of reform and opening up there was a lot of controversy about what the goal of reform should be. In 1984, the Third Plenary Session of the 12th Central Committee clearly put forward the concept of a “planned commodity economy.” But how exactly should a commodity economy be run? What should be the target and the model? What reforms are needed to establish a commodity economy? At that time their views affected us greatly.

For instance, Kornai of Hungary suggested that there were only two kinds of macroeconomic management in the world: one regulates mainly through administrative methods, the other regulates mainly through market methods. The first category can be divided into direct administrative regulation, such as the Soviet model, and indirect administrative regulation, such as the Yugoslav model. The second category can be divided into completely uncontrolled market regulation and market regulation under macroeconomic management. Kornai said that China should follow the model of market regulation under macroeconomic management. “These ideas were a great inspiration to us at the time, and later the target model of our reforms basically followed this line of thought,” Yang said.

These stories are great, and very appealing in their straightforward simplicity, though hindsight probably makes the decisions seem easier than they actually were at the time (the Bashan boat conference and Kornai’s influence have come up before on this blog, in this post).

My year in blogging, 2016

The second year of this blog has been a good one: total pageviews are up about 33%, and I also wrote more (91 posts against 73 in 2015). My top five posts this year in terms of traffic were:

I’m pleased and surprised that my annual book review topped the list (mostly thanks to Tyler Cowen’s link I think), although less surprised that the admittedly clickbait-y posts on McCarthy and Trump did well. Both the Trump and Xi Jinping posts were mainly translations, which I find I really enjoy doing. The main non-China theme on the blog this year was nationalism, the subject of several posts though none of them definitive.

Other posts that I myself liked, but that did not do so well in terms of traffic, include:

On to 2017!

The Soviet Union’s pivot to Asia

I very much enjoyed Chris Miller’s new book The Struggle to Save the Soviet Economy, which explains just how and why the Soviet Union’s economic problems became overwhelming in its last decade of existence. I was too young when the USSR broke up to do much more than just register the news headlines, so the book helped me get a better understanding of the events leading up to its collapse. One of Miller’s themes is that perestroika was not in fact an ill-considered attempt to rapidly introduce Western neoliberal economics, but rather an attempt to emulate the reforms that China was implementing so successfully at the time:

The stagnation and crises of the 1970s and 1980s in Eastern Europe and in the West convinced Soviet leaders that they needed to look elsewhere for models of reform. The rapidly growing economies on the USSR’s eastern border were the obvious place to turn. Most historians have overlooked perestroika’s Asian roots, but they were clear to contemporaries. Leading economist and Gorbachev adviser Stanislav Shatalin, for example, was asked by a journalist which of the world’s economic models the Soviet Union should emulate. Should it copy the West, or learn lessons from its Eastern European socialist allies? The question of international orientation had vexed Russia since Peter the Great, but like many perestroika-era intellectuals, Shatalin believed it was time for something new. “We need to be more attentive to the experiences of Japan, South Korea, and China,” he said. “It is time to unite the Slavophiles and Westernizers, and turn our face to the east.” …

One irony, many Soviet officials noted, was that China’s policies were not actually new. Not only was Deng’s policy of “reform and opening” similar to Lenin’s New Economic Policy, it also mirrored changes to economic governance mechanisms that some Eastern European countries like Hungary tested in the 1960s and 1970s. …But the Soviet officials who embraced China as a model did so not because they thought Beijing’s policies were unique, but because they believed that China provided compelling evidence of what such reforms could accomplish.

Miller’s argument is not that Gorbachev’s reforms were too aggressive or poorly designed, but rather that their effectiveness was undermined by heavy opposition from entrenched interests in the bureaucracy. With the budget in crisis and inflation spiraling, the incomplete reforms could not stabilize the economy and so it collapsed. (This view is similar to the argument made by Jeffrey Sachs and Wing Thye Woo in their classic 1994 article “Structural Factors in the Economic Reforms of China, Eastern Europe, and the Former Soviet Union”). For me, the book had just the right balance of analytical coherence, narrative drive and use of original sources; a great read and now a late addition to my best books of 2016 list.

Another virtue of Miller’s book is how it gives a sense of the socialist countries compared ideas and borrowed from each other, forming a common and distinctive intellectual universe. For more on this kind of cross-pollination, see a previous post on the influence of the New Economic Policy of the 1920s on Chinese economic reforms of the 1980s, and my short account of how China first looked to Eastern Europe for reform ideas before turning to Japan and Korea.

Cormac McCarthy’s contribution to the theory of increasing returns

I really enjoyed this anecdote about the writing of W. Brian Arthur’s classic article on increasing returns from 1996:

As we are wrapping up the interview, he [Arthur] tells me an anecdote about the creation of that Harvard Business Review article. “I don’t know if you know the writer Cormac McCarthy,” he begins, “but I was very good friends with him at the time. I mailed the draft down to Cormac, who was in El Paso or somewhere like that. When I didn’t hear from him, I called him up and said, ‘Did you like my increasing returns article? It’s for the Harvard Business Review.’ There was kind of a silence on the line. And then he said, ‘Would you be interested in some editing help on that?’ Next time he’s in Santa Fe we spent four days on that piece. He took apart every single sentence, deleted every comma he could find. I said, ‘You can add that piece to your Collected Works, it will be somewhere in between Blood Meridian and All the Pretty Horses.’

“Let’s say the piece was better for all the hours Cormac and I spent poring over every sentence. The word got back to my editor at Harvard Business Review. She called me up, in a slight panic, and says, ‘I heard your article’s getting completely rewritten.’ And I said, ‘Yeah!’ She says, ‘By Cormac McCarthy? What did he do to it?’ And I said, ‘Oh, well, you know, pretty much what you’d expect. It now starts out with two guys on horseback in Texas, and they go off and discover increasing returns.’ And for a couple of seconds she was aghast.”

The full piece is from Fast Company, which has more on how the concept of increasing returns was used and abused by the technology industry in the years since its popularization. And indeed Arthur’s HBR article–it’s worth rereading–is extremely well-written, with many more simple, punchy sentences than are the norm for business or economics writing. It is hard to see any way to improve on the clarity of sentences like:

Increasing returns are the tendency for that which is ahead to get further ahead, for that which loses advantage to lose further advantage.

My guess is that McCarthy probably doesn’t deserve all the credit for the virtues of the prose, as Arthur is himself a very clear thinker and good writer (his book on technology is still one of my favorites). But everyone benefits from a good editor.

The best music I heard in 2016

As with my books list, this is music that I listened to for the first time in 2016, not stuff that was necessarily released in 2016. But I’ve put them in approximate order by release date so the more recent stuff is at the top. A lot of promising stuff has come out just in the last few months that I haven’t listened to yet; I’m particularly looking forward to the new Mary Halvorson album. This year was a bit more jazz-centric than 2015:

    • Sun Ra – The Intergalactic Thing. A release of never-before-heard Sun Ra tapes from the crucial year of 1969, and it’s not going straight to the top of my list? Please. A rewarding dose of clattering percussion and spacey keyboards in the master’s inimitable style.
    • Chris Lightcap’s Bigmouth – Epicenter. An excellent combination of smart compositions and groove; Craig Taborn mostly plays electric piano, providing a cool backdrop to the interplay between tenor saxophonists Tony Malaby and Chris Cheek.
    • Tomeka Reid — Tomeka Reid Quartet. A fresh, lively and generally fantastic recording. The lineup of cello, guitar, bass, drums is unique, but this is not just an avant-garde workout: the compositions are strong and tuneful and the group is swinging.
    • Food – This Is Not A Miracle. I’m a sucker for this group’s combination of searching saxophone, guitar skronk and spacey electronics. The latest recording is also very satisfying, atmospheric listening.
    • Icebreaker — Philip Glass: Music With Changing Parts. A powerful contemporary recording of a classic early Glass piece that is otherwise hard to hear.
    • Ran Blake – Short Life Of Barbara Monk. An overlooked classic from the unheralded year of 1986. The lineup is solidly traditional jazz–tenor sax, piano, bass, drums–but the approach is fascinatingly untraditional.
    • Yusef Lateef – The Centaur And The Phoenix. The soulful multi-instrumentalist fronts a larger ensemble with complex arrangements; a lovely session.
    • Curtis Fuller – Blues-ette. A near-perfect masterpiece of hard bop from 1959, featuring the great tenor saxophonist Benny Golson along with trombonist Fuller.
    • Thelonious Monk – Orchestra At Town Hall. The first of only two large-ensemble recordings Monk would make in his lifetime, this 1959 album is a stone-cold classic, every track is gold.
    • Charlie Parker – Charlier Parker. After immersing myself in a lot of Parker this year, I concluded that this is possibly his single finest set of recordings–great sound, and startlingly vibrant performances.
    • The Carter Family – Volume 2: 1935-1941. The Carter Family’s 1928-29 recordings are officially legendary. But these later ones are often more listener-friendly, with better sound quality and more assured performances. An amazing wealth of classic songs.
    • Duke Ellington – The Complete 1936-1940 Variety, Vocalion And Okeh Small Group Sessions. Not just a best of the year, a best of all time–some of the most wonderful jazz ever recorded, at least for my taste. These small-group sessions have the unmistakable Ellington flair for arrangement and color, but often feel looser and more laid-back than the full orchestra. Truly a near-endless supply of casually tossed-off genius.