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Discussing the Chinese collaboration with Japan: the case of Wang Jingwei’s Nanjing regime

Discussing the Chinese collaboration with Japan: the case of Wang Jingwei’s Nanjing regime

"The history of Chinese foreign relations consists of not just one or two traditions but multiplicity traditions, some dating back several thousand years. These traditions constitute a rich source of instruction, inspiration, and political discourse. They show a Chinese people who have known the best as well as the worst: virtual political hegemony and cultural supremacy over much of Asia as well as repeated subjugation and internecine strife. They hold up many models of statecraft, from the lofty imperial style to shrewd Machiavellian cunning. They teach the use of brute force, of trade and cultural exchange, of secret diplomacy and alliances, of compromise and even collaboration with conquerors."
(Michael H. Hunt, 1996: 8-9)

Collaboration is common in Chinese history. In the Imperial China, for example, when Empress Dowager Cixi declared the war against the major powers during the Boxer uprising in 1900, Governor-General Li Hongzhang and Zhang Zhidong pursued a conciliatory policy toward the imperialists and thus extended the life of the Qing dynasty for another decade. In the Republican Era, when Japanese encroachment was obvious in the 1930s, several Chinese collaborationist governments were established. One of them was Wang Jingwei’s Nanjing regime.

This essay will argue that Wang Jingwei, having realised that a weak China would become extinct if the war with Japan continued, fled to Hanoi in December 1938 to call for peace and China’s appeasement policy towards Japan. However, Wang’s failure during his Hanoi period and the assassination of his confidant, Zeng Zhongming, in March 1939 led to his collaboration with Japan and the establishment of the Nanjing regime in the following year. During his presidency, Wang tried to protect and recover Chinese interests and legitimise his government by identifying himself with Sun Yat-sen’s thoughts, including Pan-Asianism. The essay aimed to consider China’s Japan policy since 1931 and its change after the 1936 Xi’an incident that led to Wang’s peace movement in Hanoi, examine the pursuit of political legitimacy of Wang after his collaboration, and assess Wang’s roles respectively.

China’s Japan policy before the Xi’an incident
From the early 1930s, the Nationalist government was controlled by the coalition of Wang Jingwei and Jiang Jieshi. As the President of the Executive Yuan, Wang pursued the appeasement policy towards Japan. Although he declared, after the Japanese occupation of Manchuria in December 1931 and the establishment of Manzhouguo few months later, that China would not recognise this puppet state, he realised that China was too weak militarily to go beyond nonrecognition. Wang held the view that it would be better for China to sign a truce to gain time to strengthen itself (Boyle, 1972: 31). Wang knew China’s weakness well. As he (cited in ibid.: 32-33) asked:

"At present our armaments compare to those of the Japanese like arrows to machine-guns, and if we should rashly declare war on Japan, we would experience a repetition of the disastrous Boxer Rebellion….Japan can mobilise at short notice 2,500,000 troops and reserves, and by the sea route she can transport her forces to China in two days, while it takes half a month for our troops to move from north to south because of lack of transportation and communication facilities."

Also, Jiang Jieshi supported conciliatory approach. In his lectures delivered to the cadets of the Central Military Academy after the Japanese occupation of Manchuria, Jiang (cited in ibid.: 37) said:

"It would be quite easy – I would only have to declare war against Japan. Then the whole nation would praise me and extol me to the skies. Then why do I not do so? … I do not fear death, but I cannot let the life of the country be lost, nor leave the nation at sake. I must think in terms of the future. I cannot sacrifice China for the sake of my personal reputation."

As a result, several agreements were signed in the following years. The Danggu Truce, by which China relinquished Manchuria and Jehol to Japan in return for cessation of fighting, was signed in March 1933. In addition, according to the He-Umezi Agreement, signed in June 1935, China withdrew troops and officials from Hebei. This agreement made the Central Political Council of the Central Executive Committee passed a resolution of no-confidence on Wang Jingwei; however, after Jiang Jieshi, rushing back from his Communist-suppression activities, stated that he supported Wang’s Japan policy, the Council nullified its vote of no-confidence (ibid.). In addition, Jiang’s support for the appeasement policy was obvious again in his article, “Enemy or friend”, in which Jiang wrote that “Japan cannot be our enemy, and that cooperation with Japan is a necessity” (Lin, 1978: 230). In short, Wang Jingwei and Jiang Jieshi shared the same attitude towards Japan until the Xi’an incident in December 1936.

However, it must be noted that Wang’s appeasement policy and several truces with Japan did not mean that he gradually sacrificed the sovereignty of his country. In his speech in a military parade in Inner Mongolia on March 16, 1937, Wang (cited in Cheung, n.d.) said:
Now both our troops and people have shed their blood in the war of resistance. Their lives have already been dedicated to our country and nation. Their spirits, however, will eternally live in the hearts of all of us who have devoted ourselves to fight the enemies since the war of resistance has started. Their spirits will live in the hearts of all Chinese people. Since their pure blood has been on our bright land, the enemies would not dare to step on even one inch of it. If everyone in our country is ready to shed their blood on our land, not only will the unlost lands of ours always remain intact, but even the lost lands will be recovered, piece by piece, when our blood is shed on them.

The speech reflected that although Wang Jingwei pursued the appeasement policy towards Japan, he aimed to protect his country as a sovereign state as well. During the Hanoi period and after he decided to collaborate with Japan, a matter which will be discussed later, although, unlike the speech above, he opposed the war of resistance, Wang tried to protect Chinese interests and sovereignty as much as possible.

The 1936 Xi’an incident and Wang’s peace movement
Meanwhile, Chinese popular demand for resistance against Japan increased steadily. On December 12, 1936, while living in Xi’an, Jiang Jieshi was captured by Marshal Zhang Xueliang who disagreed with the appeasement policy. Two weeks later, agreeing that he would review the situation, Jiang was released and began to create the Second United Front with the Chinese Communist Party against Japan. Lin (ibid.: 235) notes that: “ Chiang (Jiang) obviously believed his release was the result of popular demand for his leadership against Japanese invasion”. As a result, by the end of 1936, Wang’s appeasement policy became gloomy.

After the Second Sino-Japanese War broke out in July 1937, although Wang’s power was diminished after the Guomindang Congress at Hankou confirmed Jiang Jieshi’s paramount leadership in March 1938, he and his group called “Low-Key Club”[1] still tried to promote the appeasement policy. When Hankou fell and the government evacuated to Chongqing in October 1938, Wang was increasingly dubious of China’s ability to sustain the war and declared that, if Japan offered peace terms which did not hamper the existence of the Chinese nation, such proposals might serve as a basis for discussion (Rosinger, 1945: 35). In addition, Wang feared the threat from the Chinese Communist Party that might use the war of resistance to mobilise the people (Hwang, 1998: 19).

However, Generalissimo Jiang Jieshi seemed not to accept any peace terms. In December 1937, Jiang, believing that he could command the allegiance of the different political groups in China only through the war of resistance (Marsh, 1980: 319-320), rejected the peace terms with Japan, mediated by German Ambassador Oskar Trautmann. On November 3, 1938, Japanese Prime Minister Konoe Fumimaro declared a “new Order in East Asia” that aimed to “create cohesion throughout East Asia” (Miwa, 1963: 105). The declaration further stated that Japan wanted no indemnity or territory from China and that she would not only respect China’s sovereignty but would also consider returning all Japanese concessions to China and abolishing extraterritoriality in China (Lin, 1976: 179). Jiang Jieshi, realising that the moral of his armies was at its lowest point after the fall of Hankou and Guangzhou, responded to Konoe’s proposal on November 13, 1938 that he would continue the war “regardless of cost” (ibid.).

Meanwhile, Wang Jingwei and his confidant, Zhou Fohai, still continued his peace movement by dispatching two members of the Low-Key Club, Mei Siping and Gao Zongwu to conduct the peace negotiations with the Japanese representatives at Zhongguang Mansion in Shanghai in early November 1938. Both sides signed the Shanghai Agreement on November 20, 1938. By its terms (cited in ibid.: 179-180), it was agreed that (1) China recognises Manzhouguo, (2) Japan withdraws her troops from China within two years, (3) Japanese armed forces will be stationed in North China for anti-Communist defense, (4) Japanese concessions in China will be returned, and (5) extraterritoriality in China will be abolished. Wang Jingwei examined this agreement and offered it to Jiang Jieshi but rejected (ibid: 180). In early December 1938, Wang privately urged Jiang Jieshi to reconsider Konoe’s New Order in East Asia but Jiang refused to follow his suggestion (Rosinger, loc.cit.) As a result, Wang decided to launch his peace movement outside the government. As Wang (cited in Lin, 1976: 180) later said: “On December 9, last year (1938), after a great and violent debate in the meeting, I realised that it was impossible for Chiang (Jiang) to adopt Konoye’s (Konoe’s) Peace proposals. I then decided to leave Chungking (Chongqing) on December 18”. Wang departed for Hanoi in French Indochina after leaving the letter with Jiang Jieshi that stated: “Henceforth, you take care of the easy part, and I shall take care of the hard” (Miwa, op.cit.: 127).

In short, it is obvious that Wang Jingwei and Jiang Jieshi supported the appeasement policy until the 1936 Xi’an incident. After that, Jiang held the view that he was demanded by the public to create the Second United Front against Japan and that his power and the moral of his armies would be strengthened by the war of resistance. Therefore, he rejected the peace proposals and made Wang launch his peace movement abroad.

The Hanoi Period
During his stay in Hanoi, Wang continued to promote peace between Jiang Jieshi and Japan. On December 22, 1938, few days after Wang’s departure to Hanoi, Japanese Prime Minster Konoe declared a “New China Policy” based on “Three Principles”—good neighbourliness and amity, joint defense against communism, and economic cooperation. Wang saw this declaration as an opportunity for China to begin peace negotiations with Japan. Therefore, on December 29, 1938, he sent a telegram to appeal to Jiang Jieshi to abandon the war of resistance. His group’s outlook was obvious in the letter of Tao Xisheng, a member of the Wang group, to the Chinese Ambassador to the United States on December 31, 1938. It (cited in Hwang, op.cit.: 26) stated:

"We do not expect to do active plans. However, we, first of all, expect to open a road to negotiation between China and Japan from the side, so that… if China and Japan could make peace, Japan should make peace with the National government under Jiang. We expect to strongly suggest again Mr. Jiang that he makes use of the opportunity that we make now to begin negotiation….Where we only differ from Jiang is that we recognise that, if the war is pursued again, there would be only more annexation of territories and increasingly no hope, so we must consider a conclusion to the war…. Our opinion is that China is already not able to fight, so there is only peace."

It must be noted again that although Wang Jingwei supported Konoe’s Three Principles and peace terms with Japan, he still tried to protect the national interest by rejecting the formal recognition of Manzhouguo (Miwa, op.cit.: 128). And, as we will see later, he continued to protect, and even recover, the Chinese interests after his collaboration.

Wang’s efforts to bring about peace became futile. Three days before Wang sent his telegram to the Guomindang, Jiang Jieshi denounced Konoe’s New China Policy which is, as he stated, “intended for no other purpose but to destroy our state and people” (Miwa, ibid.). When the telegram arrived in Chongqing, the Standing Committee of the Central Executive Committee held an emergency meeting on January 1, 1939 and decided to expel Wang from the Party and remove him from all public offices. The Chinese Communist Party also accused Wang as the Ming general Wu Sangui who opened the Shanhaiguan pass to the Manchus in 1644 (Hwang, op.cit: 29-30). On January 15, 1939, Wang Ming, a CCP member, (cited in ibid.: 30-31) stated:

"Since his (Wang’s – the author) declaration in the last year’s telegram dated December 29, Wang Jingwei has publicly become head of the traitorous Chinese from then leader of pro-Japanese! Wang Jingwei has betrayed the Republic of China, betrayed the Chinese people, betrayed Mr. Sun Yat-sen and his Three People’s Principles, betrayed the Guomindang, and betrayed China’s masses."

In the first few months of 1939, Wang’s pursuit of peace was gloomier. The Konoe Cabinet resigned on January 4, 1939 and was succeeded by the Hiranuma Cabinet which seemed not to support Wang’s efforts. Wang planned to leave for France in mid-March 1939. Boorman (1964: 517) states that Wang wanted to go to abroad to await China’s defeat, when Jiang Jieshi would be discredited, and he himself could return to establish a new government. Meanwhile, Jiang Jieshi, fearing that Wang might establish the Japanese-sponsored regime in China, encouraged Wang to go abroad by providing him with funds and passport (Boyle, 1970: 298).

However, Wang changed his mind after his right-hand man, Zeng Zhongming was assassinated in Wang’s residence by the ‘Blue Shirts’, an extremist wing of the GMD, on March 21, 1939. It has not been clear whether Zeng was the intended victim. Lin (1976: 181) and Boorman (loc.cit.) view that the Blue Shirts wanted to kill Wang but mistakenly killed Zeng. In contrast, Miwa (op.cit.: 131) notes that Jiang Jieshi was pressured by those in his camp who demanded the chastisement of Wang and thus had Zeng killed to intimidate Wang. Anyway, the most important consequence of this incident was that Wang decided not to leave for France but to collaborate with Japan. Zhou Fohai (cited in Lin, oc.cit.) argued that, because of the threat of Blue Shirts, only the establishment of a new government could Wang Jingwei effectively negotiate a peace settlement with Japan. Shortly after the assassination, Wang declared that his peace movement was “not a temporary measure to save the situation”, but aimed to “removing for ever the regrettable causes of the conflict of the two peoples” (ibid.). Wang’s aim was expressed again in his article, The Truth about Resistance, written on March 30, 1939. He (cited in Hwang, op.cit.: 39) stated:

"Today, the Chinese people in China … will not be satisfied until they have conquered Japan… It is right and proper for the Government to foster the spirit of patriotism, but it should guard itself against false pride; it is the duty of the Government to face the hard facts of reality – if war is inevitable, go to war; but if peace is possible, discuss peace. It is right that the Government should endeavour, at all times, to carve out a path of national existence."

A week later, Wang wrote the article, In Memory of Dr. Tseng Chung-ming (Zeng Zhongming), which showed the aim of his peace movement. He (cited in ibid.) wrote:

"The fate of a nation is decided by the question of war and peace. When there is no alternative but to fight, she must go to war. When there is a prospect for peace, then she must choose peace. This is the way of the responsible statesman and patriot, especially so in the case of China. The war-front has extended to nine provinces. Over a million of the fighting forces have either died or been wounded on the battle-fields. An untold number of civilians have also lost their lives. Therefore, we should consider the opportunity to restore peace, in order that the nation may gain breath to recuperate and rehabilitate herself."

In short, Wang viewed that China had been devastated by the war of resistance and might cease to exist if the war continues. When his peace movements in both Chongqing and Hanoi were not accepted by the GMD, he planned to leave for France to wait for his opportunity when Jiang failed to resist Japan. But after his confidant was assassinated by the GMD, Wang became outraged and reversed his plan by deciding to collaborate with Japan. That is why Boorman (op.cit.: 524) characterised him as a “romantic radical” whose “ardent patriotism outran his political judgement”. On March 25, 1939, Wang Jingwei left Hanoi for Shanghai, and later to Tokyo.

The Nanjing regime and Wang’s pursuit of political legitimacy
After deciding to collaborate with Japan, Wang’s group has two tasks to do: to establish the government that protected Chinese interests as much as possible and to find the ideology to legitimise the new regime. Wang Jingwei and Zhou Fohai went to Tokyo on May 30, 1939, to begin discussing the establishment of a new government with Japanese Prime Minister Hiranuma. What Wang got from Japan was that, in order to protect the interests of the Chinese people, Chinese enterprises occupied by the Japanese would be returned to their owners. Moreover, Japan decided to gradually abolish her concessions and extraterritoriality in China. However, Wang had to surrender several Japanese demands. He agreed to recognise Manzhouguo, grant a “relatively large degree of autonomy” to North China (Boyle, 1972: 246), allow the Japanese to use Hainan as a naval base, jointly develop Chinese resources in North and Central China, and employ Japanese advisors and technicians.
It must be noted that during the negotiations, Wang and Zhou tried to use the threat of establishing a new regime to force Jiang Jieshi to make peace with Japan. Three peace missions were sent to Chongqing but failed (Lin, 1976: 184-185).

Searching for political legitimacy, Wang identified himself with Sun Yat-sen. He informed Japanese leaders that his government in Nanjing must be a “Guomindang government in legal continuity with Sun Yat-sen’s party and government” (Chueng, op.cit.). He further demanded that his government would use the “blue-sky-white-sun” flag, which was always associated with the person of Sun Yat-sen, as the national flag rather than the “five-bar” flag. Japan agreed with the flag but required Wang to fly a small pennant with the motto “Peace, Anti-Communism, Reconstruction” (Miwa, op.cit.: 135). In July 1939, Wang published his manifesto, Fundamental Ideas and Prospects concerning Sino-Japanese Relations, in which he (cited in Miwa, ibid.: 136) mentioned Sun Yat-sen’s Pan-Asianism, the idea that encouraged peaceful relations with Japan in order to expel the Western imperialists (see details in Sun, 1941: 141-151), by stating that:

"I see two roads open before us today. One is to follow and continue resistance…. The other road is to sever relations with Chiang (Jiang) and thus, carrying out in practice the dying wish of the late President Sun, endeavour to be a friend instead of an enemy of Japan…. Of these two roads the former will lead our country to ruin and exterminate our race, while the latter will restore China and East Asia."

On August 28, 1939, when it was quite clear that Japan would approve the establishment of the Nanjing regime, Wang summoned the GMD Representative Congress. Matters related to Sun Yat-sen played a central role in the opening ceremony of the Congress, as Inukai Ken, the Japanese official (cited in Cheung, op.cit.), described:

"In front of the conference hall was a large portrait of Mr. Sun Wen (Sun Yat-sen)…. More beautiful flowers were put in bowls and arranged in the shape of Mr. Sun Wen’s appearance. The conference started at 10 o’clock in the morning. The hall was filled by low male voices singing Sun’s national anthem."

In addition, on March 19, 1940, eleven days before Wang’s inauguration, he and Zhou Fohai visited Sun’s tomb. Cheung (ibid.) notes that the visit, having been routine for politicians to assert their legitimacy since the 1929 relocation of Sun’s coffin from Beijing to Nanjing, was not a coincidence.

Finally, the Sino-Japanese Basic Treaty was signed and the Nanjing government was established on March 30, 1940. However, it is known that Japan, in fact, realised that its “New Order in East Asia” could be achieved only through a direct negotiation with Jiang Jieshi. As a result, Japan did not recognise Wang’s regime until November, 30, 1940, when informal peace missions to Chongqing had failed (Boorman, op.cit.: 518).

After the establishment of the Nanjing regime, Vice President of the Executive Yuan and Finance Minister Zhou Fohai conducted many negotiations with Japan to protect and recover Chinese interests in the occupied areas. After several discussions, Japan allowed Nanjing to have its own Central Reserve bank in October 1940 and thus made it could stabilise the currency. In return for Nanjing’s declaration of war on Britain and the United States on January 9, 1943, Japan agreed to grant Nanjing autonomy in local administrative affairs, abrogate extraterritoriality, and restrain Japanese economic monopoly in China (Lin, 1976: 187). Furthermore, Nanjing tried to prevent Japan from exploiting Chinese resources in the Pacific War (Lin, loc.cit.) and, in the last stage of the war, collect raw materials and gold to finance the anticipated counteroffensive of the GMD forces against the Japanese (Marsh, op.cit.: 326). These efforts to protect and recover Chinese interests could explain why there was no violence against the regime when it collapsed in 1945 (ibid.). Zhou Fohai (cited in Hsu, 1983: 586) argues that Wang’s movement could not hurt China; if Jiang Jieshi defeated, the agreements Wang made with Japan would be nullified; if Japan won, Jiang’s future settlement with Japan could not possibly surpass the terms achieved by Wang.

Meanwhile, the pursuit of political legitimacy by upholding Sun Yat-sen’s idea of friendly relations with Japan continued. Zhou Fohai chose November 12, Sun’s birthday, as the opening day of the Central Reserve Bank (Cheung, op.cit.). When the book, China and Japan, natural friends—unnatural enemies: a guide for China’s foreign policy by Sun Yat-sen, was published in 1941, Wang (1941: ix-x) wrote a foreword that emphasised Sun’s thought:

"Racially, geographically and historically, as well as in respect of environment, culture and material development, it is natural for China and Japan to be friends, unnatural for them to be enemies…. This point has been expounded most clearly and most thoroughly in the teachings bequeathed us by our late Leader. Dr. Sun Yat-Sen.… it was his constantly proclaimed hope that they would become friends, joining wholeheartedly in a united effort to promote the glorious cause of Pan-Asianism…. If our comrades had begun earlier to observe these teachings, the unhappy incident of the past three years would certainly not have happened."

Even in Wang’s death on November 10, 1944, the Nanjing regime did not cease to identify Wang with Sun Yat-sen. Sixty four labourers carried Wang’s coffin, the exact number used in Sun’s funeral, and his body was buried to the right of Sun’s shrine (Cheung, op.cit.).

From the Japanese occupation of Manchuria until his death, it is clear that Wang Jingwei aimed to protect his country from extinction. He thought that the situation in China in 1938 was desperate and China could not win the war. Therefore, it would be better for China to make peace with Japan. Before and after his departure to Hanoi, Wang tried to persuade Jiang Jieshi to accept peace terms proposed by Japan but failed. The assassination of his confidant by Jiang’s agents made him decided to collaborate with Japan. During his Nanjing regime, although Wang had to make some concessions to Japan, he and his group tried to protect and recover Chinese interests in the occupied areas as much as possible. As a result, there was no violence against the Nanjing regime by people under its rule when it collapsed in 1945. In short, it is likely that Wang Jingwei was a patriot, not a ‘traitor’, the term his group was branded in the postwar trial and by many historians in both China and Taiwan.


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[1] Members of the Club shared the view that China was not prepared for a long war of resistance and should find a modus vivendi with Japan. The Club met informally at home of its leading members, Zhou Fohai.