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The Battle for Manchuria and the Fate of China: Siping, 1946

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In the spring of 1946, Communists and Nationalist Chinese were battled for control of Manchuria and supremacy in the civil war. The Nationalist attack on Siping ended with a Communist withdrawal, but further pursuit was halted by a cease-fire brokered by the American general, George Marshall. Within three years, Mao Zedong’s troops had captured Manchuria and would soon drive Chiang Kai-shek’s forces off the mainland. Did Marshall, as Chiang later claimed, save the Communists and determine China's fate? Putting the battle into the context of the military and political struggles fought, Harold M. Tanner casts light on all sides of this historic confrontation and shows how the outcome has been, and continues to be, interpreted to suit the needs of competing visions of China’s past and future.

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1 Siping, 1946: Decisive Battle or Lost Opportunity?

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Siping (pronounced SUH-ping) is a small city of 3.2 million people. On a contemporary map, it lies just inside Jilin Province in China’s great Northeast, or Manchuria, on the main rail line, roughly halfway between the provincial capital cities of Changchun to the north and Shenyang to the south. The railway line itself bisects the city, dividing it into two districts, Tiexi (west of the railway, pronounced “tia-see”) and Tiedong (east of the railway, pronounced “tia-doong”). In the economic development zones on the outskirts of town are the construction companies, warehouses, factories, and a state-of-the art brewery that make the backbone of Siping’s modern industrial economy. At night, the city’s main shopping district comes alive with stalls and vendors selling clothing, fruit, vegetables, snacks, household goods, electronics, and more. Along the boulevard running west from the railway station, elderly men offer to tell your fortune (always good) for a moderate fee. Around the corner, down a nondescript street, a restaurant serves up the city’s local culinary specialty: Li Liangui’s Big Marinated Pork Buns, praised by Communist Party leaders including Deng Xiaoping (“economical, simple, and tasty!”) and former premier Li Peng (“Comrade Xiaoping likes them. I like them too.”).

 

2 The Manchurian Chessboard, August–September 1945

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Chinese chess, or xiangqi, like Western chess, is a game of strategy, based on war and played with pieces laid out on a board.1 But while the kings, queens, bishops, knights, castles, and pawns of Western chess move from square to square, Chinese chess is played on a grid of ten horizontal and nine vertical lines, with the vertical lines interrupted in the middle by a space representing a river. The players move their generals and advisors, ministers, elephants, chariots, horses, cannons, and soldiers along the vertical and horizontal lines of maneuver, advancing and retreating, blocking, pinning, capturing, and skewering in an attempt to checkmate or stalemate their opponent.

To understand Chinese chess, it is important to understand the board, the pieces, and their positions. The same holds true for understanding the civil war in Manchuria. Siping became a focal point in that war in the spring of 1946 not because of its size, but because it happened to be located at a key strategic point on the map. In order to understand the battle of Siping and the lines of retreat and advance that brought the Communists and the Nationalists to a showdown in this otherwise unremarkable railway town, we need to look carefully at the major natural and manmade geographical features of China’s great Northeast, or Manchuria. We need also to consider the ways in which Japanese and Soviet occupation established the context in which the Communists and Nationalists took their initial positions on the map and in which the early days of the struggle for control over Manchuria was played out.

 

3 The Communist Retreat, October–December 1945

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While the Communists were staking their claim to the Northeast, they were also conducting a series of negotiations with the Nationalist Party leaders in China’s wartime capital of Chongqing. No real agreements were reached there. The negotiations are significant because they established a pattern of “talking and fighting” in which each side tried to use the peace talks in order to gain advantage on the battlefield while, at the same time, they used military operations to gain leverage at the negotiating table. The military operations of this period, in which the Nationalists drove Communist forces out of the Liaoxi Corridor, are interesting for what they reveal about both Communist and Nationalist strategic thinking and operational capabilities, and for the insights they give us into the relationship between Mao Zedong and his commander in Manchuria, General Lin Biao.

If they had been left to their own devices, Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Zedong would not have attempted to negotiate with each other. The fact that the talks took place at all was due to the fact that both sides felt that both the Soviet Union and the United States wanted them to avoid an all-out civil war.1 Chiang initiated the talks on 14 August 1945 when he sent a telegram to Mao:

 

4 George Marshall’s Mission, December 1945–March 1946

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The fight for control over the Liaoxi corridor had repercussions not only in China, but also in Washington, D.C. America’s grand strategy in the emerging Cold War with the Soviet Union called for a united, pro-American China to help secure American influence in East and Southeast Asia. A civil war between Chiang Kai-shek’s government and the Soviet-sponsored Chinese Communist Party threatened to undermine the American vision of China’s future. Therefore President Truman asked General George Marshall to go to China as his personal representative and negotiate a settlement between Chiang Kai-shek and the Chinese Communist Party.

George Marshall’s mission to China extended from his arrival in Shanghai on December 20, 1945, until the recall of the mission on January 6, 1947. The Marshall Mission itself has been documented and analyzed in a number of excellent books and articles.1 The purpose of this chapter is not simply to retell the familiar story of the Marshall Mission, but rather to explore the interplay among American, Chinese Nationalist, and Chinese Communist strategic goals, Marshall’s negotiations, and the development of the military situation in the Northeast. Marshall’s presence in China, his daily, personal assertion of American interests, and his attempts to use diplomacy to influence the course of events in China became important parts of the framework within which both the Kuomintang and the Communist Party made tactical decisions on the ground in Manchuria. Ultimately, both the decision to fight at Siping in April–May 1946 and the handling of the aftermath of the battle were intimately linked to Marshall’s negotiations.

 

5 The Second Battle of Siping: Phase One—From Outer Defense to Stalemate, March–April 1946

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It was the continued presence of the Soviet Red Army, and not Marshall’s 10 January ceasefire, that prevented a renewed outbreak of civil war in Manchuria in the first two months of 1946. Just by being there, the Soviet forces had kept the two sides apart, forming a screen behind which the Communists could build their strength, deploy their forces to control small and medium towns and cities, and begin working to establish a presence in the rural areas and to win the support of the masses.1 This constraint was removed in mid-March when the Soviets began to withdraw from the Chinese Northeast. As they withdrew their forces, the Soviets were once again (as they had back in October 1945) urging their Chinese Communist comrades to take a more aggressive stance toward the Kuomintang in Manchuria.

That message played well among the leaders of the Northeast Bureau, who had always had a strong interest in capturing the “Three Big Cities” of Shenyang, Changchun, and Harbin.2 After some debate, and Mao Zedong’s return to the leadership after months of illness, the Party leadership in Yan’an, too, came to support a more aggressive strategy in the Northeast.3 As the Soviets withdrew, Communist forces moved into strategic areas from which they would be able to attack key cities, railway junctions, and mining and industrial centers. At the same time, Chiang Kai-shek was airlifting troops and officials to set up provincial and municipal governments and to garrison the major cities as the Soviets pulled out. Chiang was also ordering his armies in Shenyang to begin a major offensive against the Communists in order to consolidate his government’s control over the Northeast. The heightened aggressiveness of both sides ultimately led to the First and then the Second Battle of Siping.

 

6 The Second Battle of Siping: Phase Two—From Defense to Retreat, April–May 1946

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From the beginning, the Nationalist assault on Siping had been accompanied at the same time by an attack on the Communists at Benxi, an industrial city south of Shenyang. As we noted in chapter 5, both General Du Yuming and his subordinate, General Zheng Dongguo, suggest (in their memoirs, written well after the fact) that Chiang Kai-shek and Xiong Shihui were responsible for the decision to fight the Communists on two fronts. When he returned to Manchuria in mid-April following his kidney surgery, Du Yuming had come to the conclusion that the Communist forces at Benxi were more vulnerable than those at Siping. Du then decided to set Siping to one side and to focus first on defeating—and ideally destroying—the Communist forces at Benxi so that he would then be able to transfer more troops north to capture Siping and press onward toward Changchun.

The Communist leaders, for their part, realized full well that the fighting in the Northeast was not over. The public declarations of a great victory at Siping were accompanied by continued planning on the part of the Communist Party Center, the Northeast Bureau, and Lin Biao, still commanding the Communists’ Northeast Democratic United Army from his headquarters at Lishu, north of Siping. Mao Zedong, now fully recovered from his own health problems and back in control of day-to-day business at the Party Center in Yan’an, told Lin Biao on 1 May that since Chiang Kai-shek still refused to accept proposals for a ceasefire agreement in the Northeast, “[the Nationalists] will continue to advance toward Changchun. Therefore, we must continue to fight at Siping and Benxi, to exhaust the enemy forces at these two places, to attrite their troop strength, to destroy their will to fight, and to cause them to greatly deplete the men, weapons, and ammunition that they have transferred over the past six months so that they don’t have time to replenish them, while, by taking Changchun and Harbin, we gain ample sources of men and materiel, and then we may be able to pursue peace on terms that are beneficial to us.”1

 

7 The Chase and the Ceasefire, May–June 1946

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Those who suggest that George Marshall’s June ceasefire cost Chiang the opportunity to recover the entire Northeast base their arguments on assumptions about the aftermath of the Second Battle of Siping. In order to analyze those arguments, we too need to look at what happened in the weeks after the battle, and to answer a series of questions: How badly defeated was Lin Biao? How many casualties had the Communist forces suffered? How did Lin and the Party Center intend to deal with the situation following the defeat at Siping? Could they have survived a Nationalist advance on Harbin? On the Nationalist side, could Du Yuming’s pursuit of Lin’s forces have been handled differently? If they had tried, could the Nationalist forces have utterly destroyed the Communist forces and secured all of Manchuria? When and why did Chiang Kai-shek suspend the pursuit and agree to the ceasefire? In what ways did Marshall, the Soviet Union, and the situation on the ground in the Northeast and in China Proper influence Chiang’s decision to agree to a ceasefire?

 

8 Visions of the Past and Future

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The brown cement Martyrs Monument to the Four Battles of Siping stands quietly in a small park in the middle of a traffic roundabout west of the railway station. Children play happily nearby, unaware of whatever the monument might mean. Old folks play there too, endless games of cards and xiangqi on tables in the shade of the trees. Even in the summer of 2010, some of them remember those bitter times when the city was torn by war, but they are reluctant to talk about them. Why ruin a perfectly nice afternoon and a fine game of Chinese chess with unhappy memories?

A few minutes’ walk away in Martyrs Park, the Memorial Hall of the Four Battles of Siping struggles to keep the memory of the events of 1946 alive and to give them significance in a world that seems to have changed beyond recognition. The Memorial Hall, opened in 2007, and the monument, which dates back to the 1950s, are both attempts to capture the memory of the past and to preserve it in concrete, steel, inscriptions, and (in the case of the Memorial Hall) displays of artifacts and illustrations. But despite the best attempts of the architect and the museum designer, memory cannot be captured and preserved. The meaning of events changes from generation to generation, from decade to decade, even, at times, from year to year. Incidents buried deep in the past and seemingly forgotten may be brought to life again and given new significance in a new context.

 

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