Tim Starr: China was vastly better off under Chiang Kai-Shek (before Japan invaded) than under Mao.
Tim, you ignorant fuck.
The “before Japan invaded” is an interesting little clause there. I don’t know whether this is supposed to refer to Japan’s 1931 invasion of Manchuria (in which case we’re only talking about three years total, from Chiang’s capture of Beijing in 1928 to 1931), or the beginning of the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1937. In either case, I’m not sure whether mentioning the Japanese invasion here is meant to make it seem as though Chiang and the KMT weren’t responsible for any of the mass murder in China while fighting the Japanese (which is absurd; they personally killed millions of people), or if it’s meant to suggest that the mass killing carried out by the KMT’s forces should be blamed on the Japanese invasion rather than on Chiang’s regime (which, if so, is as ridiculous as blaming the Allied military advance for the Holocaust, or blaming U.S. foreign policy for Castro’s repression).
In any case, let’s take a look at what life was like in “vastly better off” China under Generalissimo Chiang and the KMT:
In many ways, the Nationalists were no different than the warlords. They murdered opponents, assassinated critics, and employed terror as a device of rule. Moreover, the Nationalist soldier, like many warlord soldiers, was considered scum, lower than vermin. They were beaten, mistreated, often fed poorly and ill paid; and if wounded or sick they were left to fend for themselves, often to die slow and miserable deaths. In turn, soldiers often treated civilians no better. Looting, rape, arbitrary murder, was a risk helpless civilians faced from passing soldiers or those occupying or reoccupying their villages and towns.
But killing by the Nationalists was also strategic and ideological. After the initial cooperative period, they especially sought out communists or communist sympathizers for execution. When defeating the communists in a particular region and occupying or reoccupying it, they went so far as to kill anyone they felt had cooperated with the communists or had been tainted by them. In one military drive against the communist in 1934 to 1935, they slaughtered or starved to death perhaps as many as 1,000,000 people.2 Moreover, especially during the 1940s, landlords and former officials who had fled from communists or Japanese would follow in the train of Nationalist soldiers and under military protection murder those peasants who they feared or had a grudge against. While such killing may have numbered a few from village to village, when these victims are added up over all the villages and districts involved for well over a hundred-million people, than hundreds of thousands were probably killed, just from this cause alone.
Then there was the process of conscription. This was a deadly affair in which men were kidnapped for the army, rounded up indiscriminately by press-gangs or army units among those on the roads or in the towns and villages, or otherwise gathered together. Many men, some the very young and old, were killed resisting or trying to escape. Once collected, they would be roped or chained together and marched, with little food or water, long distances to camp. They often died or were killed along the way, sometimes less than 50 percent reaching camp alive. Then recruit camp was no better, with hospitals resembling Nazi concentration camps like Buchenwald.3 Probably 3,081,000 died during the Sino-Japanese War; likely another 1,131,000 during the Civil War–4,212,000 dead in total. Just during conscription.
Although this fantastic total is overwhelming enough, we still must add those that died from famine. Famine was treated as a state of nature for China, something to be expected as an Act of God. But where famine was indeed a natural calamity during these Nationalist years, the greed of Nationalist officials, the continued imposition of impossible taxes, the seizing of all the peasants grain, the refusal to provide aid for political reasons, all contributed massively to the death toll. In Honan Province during the famine of 1942 to 1943, Nationalist officials took grain by force from the starving peasants to sell for their own profit, and officials in a neighboring province refused to release their store of grain because of a “delicate local balance of power.”4 Quite likely the Nationalists overall were responsible for 1,750,000 to 2,500,000 famine deaths.
While these deaths from conscription and famine may seem to be the residual of a thoroughly corrupt and incompetent political system, the Nationalist in fact did kill en masse with cold blooded calculation. Perhaps the most remarkable example of this is their dynamiting of the Yellow River dikes in order to stall a Japanese offensive during the Sino-Japanese War. The resulting, calamitous flood likely drowned or otherwise killed 440,000 people, even possible 893,000 according to a Chinese Social Science Institute.5 The flood having washed out a new channel, leaving the old one for peasants to farm and develop. Indeed, over the following years villages and towns were established in or near the old river bed. Then during the subsequent Civil War, near nine years later, to create a barrier between two communist armies by forcing the river to flood back into its old channel, the Nationalists repaired the dikes. As those peasants downstream tried to build dikes against the coming flood, they were bombed by Nationalist planes.
From the earliest years to their final defeat on the mainland, the Nationalist likely killed from 5,965,000 to 18,522,000 helpless people, probably 10,214,000. This incredible number is over a million greater than all the aforementioned 8,963,000 war dead in all the hundreds of wars and rebellions in China from the beginning of the century to the Nationalist final defeat. It ranks the Nationalists as the fourth greatest demociders of this century, behind the Soviets, Chinese communists, and German Nazis. This democide is even more impressive when it is realized that the Nationalists never controlled all of China, perhaps no more than 50 to 60 percent of the population at its greatest.
Of course he might point out that, while Chiang and his thugs killed 10 million, the Chinese communists and their thugs have killed even more — somewhere around 40-60 million. But if Tim Starr’s notion of “vastly better off” is being starved and tortured and murdered by a regime that killed 10 million in the course of 20 years with effective control over half of China, rather than being starved and tortured murdered by a regime that killed 40-60 million in the course of 60 years of effective control over all of China, then I have to wonder what sort of real difference this is supposed to make for the millions of people dead at Chiang’s hands. In any case, this ridiculous nostalgia for the fourth greatest mass murderer in the history of the world is deeply regrettable.
As for whether Zinn’s stupid comments about the Communist victory in China are some kind of decisive reason for rejecting Zinn’s work out of hand, of course they are not. They are evidence that he was wrong about the Chinese communists. They are not evidence that his work is worthless. Individual claims can be assessed on their merits, and the notion that Zinn’s work as a whole ought to be treated as worthless, or that everything Zinn said ought to be rejected, if he was wrong about one thing — even really wrong about one thing that really mattered — is of course idiotic.