Alternate History

A Brief General History of China (Twilight of a New Era)

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Selected texts from

Fang Píng (1971). A Social and Historical Outline of China. Shanghai, PRC. Editorial Collective for People's Education (English)

China was for a long time considered a country with a tradition and customs centuries old that made it refractory to change. To some observers and critiques the essence of social inertia. However in the beginning of the 20th century it would be perhaps the example of profound political and social transformations that few societies could imagine. The story of China would also affect its neighbors: Japan and Korea, and to a lesser degree the rest of South East Asia.

The Revolution of 1912

In 1912 it was proclaimed the Republic of China marking the end of the Qing Dynasty and ending centuries of Imperial rule. The republic would start a cascade of events that would modernize and bring the standards of the industrialized west to the territories and people of China. Since the First Opium War (Anglo-Chinese War, 1839–42), it was evident or it became an issue the lag of Chinese society at that moment. For many the proclamation of the republic in 1912[1] by Sun Yat-sen would mark the start of a new China. No one could predict at that moment that it would follow in a long period of political disunity, civil wars, wars (Second Sino-Japanese and Great Pacific wars) and revolution.

Flag of the Republic of China (1912-1928)

First Republic of China (Beijing) 1912-1935

Flag of the Republic of China

Second Republic of China (Nanjing) 1916 to date

Although the Republic was proclaimed in Nanjing, power would pass to Beijing where Yuan Shikai, who had effective control of the Beiyang Army, the most powerful military force in China at the time. To prevent civil war and possible foreign intervention from undermining the infant republic, Sun agreed to Yuan's demand that China be united under a Beijing government headed by Yuan. Yuan was sworn in as the second Provisional President of the Republic of China.

In a short time Yuan crushed opposition to his will and became a dictator. It started with the nomination of ministers unrelated to the forces that started the republican revolution. The final stroke was to the National Assembly, elected in 1913 with a Kuomintang majority that was declared on permanent recess by Yuan in 1914. The republicans failed in their intent to start a Second Revolution, that was swiftly crushed by forces loyal to the Yuan regime. In 1915 Yuan re-established Imperial China naming himself the new emperor. The Empire of Japan, already having integrated Korea, issued in 1915 to China issued the Twenty-One Demands. China would accept the gains of Japan in the Shandong Province and the sphere of influence in southern Manchuria and eastern Inner Mongolia. Both events would start the National Protection War (1915-1916) against Yuan. In this turmoil Tibet proclaim its autonomy under the patronage of the British Empire and in the region of Xinjiang (Chinese Turkestan or East Turkestan) local warlords will nominally recognized the rule of Beijing when it suits their interests. Outer Mongolia was already independent since 1911, despite efforts to regain it in 1919-1921 by China.

The defeat of Yuan re-established the Republic of China in Beijing. New elections for the National Assembly would be called. The conflict however permitted the surge of provincial warlords in China proper that most of the time would be independent of the central government in Beijing, financially and military. They would establish their own turfs. Things did not look any better in Beijing, as it was once more ruled by a mixed group of military from the Beiyang Army and former imperial bureaucrats much to the dismay of republican leaders and followers.

Since the failure of the Second Revolution Sun Yat-sen and his allies worked to rebuild the revolutionary movement. In 1914, Sun reorganized the Chinese National People's Party (or Kuomintang) into a disciplined revolutionary party. Sun felt that the failure at building a consistent revolutionary movement stemmed from the lack of cohesiveness among its members. The Kuomintang would become in time the sole party in government and the hegemonic organization in cities and the countryside, only to be challenged in the future by the Communist Party.

In 1916 the National Assembly, dissolved by Yuan, reconvenes in Nanjing and proclaims the re-establishment of the Republic of China. It elects Sun President of China. A provisional constitution, the Five Powers Constitution, is enacted the same year. New elections, restricted to candidates of the KMT, later including the CPC, would be carry out in for the National Assembly in 1917 and every five years in the zones controlled by Nanjing. From 1916 to 1935 there would be two Republics of China, in Beijing (Beiyang clique or First Republic) and Nanjing (nationalists or Second Republic). Quarrels between the warlords and the Beijing and Nanjing governments would lead to minor military engagements or the establishment of independent states. in some cases a truce would be signed that would last depending on the whims of the parties.

The Paris Conference and the New Culture Movement

China reluctantly declared war on the German Empire in 1917. Main battle was the Siege of Qingdao (Tsingtao), then a territory of Germany, by Japan. The Paris Conference of 1920 did not recognize the demands of China. Mainly the conference did not concede:

  • Abrogation of the unequal treaties (concessions) with the Western Powers and the abolition of all privileges of foreign powers in China, such as extraterritoriality;
  • the derogation of the "Twenty-One Demands" with Japan; and
  • the return to China of the territory and rights of Shandong, which Japan had taken from Germany during World War I.

In August 1920 a series of manifestations lead by students of the University of Beijing called not to sign the Treaty of Versailles and demand the return of Shandong to China. Partial success would be the withdrawal of China of the Treaty and desist membership to the league of Nations. However no other gains were made. This would mark the emerge of the New Culture Movement and a broad support to the demands of the nationalist, and a movement to reunite China so it regains control of its international trade and foreign affairs. This movement would in time, with help of the propaganda of the KMT and CPC, have a wide mass support among the middle classes, peasants, workers and university students. Some nationalities (such as Taiwanese, Uyghur, Manchu, Zhuang and Hui) would also show allegiance to the idea of one China. The cultural and social awakening of the New Culture Movement would a radical departure from the past and orientation to the future. The critique of traditionalism would create its own blend of modernization, democratization and social innovation. This would be far different from Japan's Meiji Restoration. Besides the goal of a break with the past and it would also blend with the struggle against western countries and later with Japan.

The Fragmentation of China

China aprox 1921

China, approx 1921

In the South of China important efforts are made by France and UK to maintain the independence or autonomy of that region, protect commercial interest and keep foreign concessions. Ultimately it will result in secession from China proper by the regional military cliques and the proclamation of the United Provinces of China (Chongqing), South Chinese Republic (Guangzhou), and the State of Yunnan (Kumming) in 1920. The Three South States as they were now quickly signed trade treaties and secured loans of France, UK, Japan and Portugal. The United States would remain aloft from the affairs of China, although local sympathies were with the Second Republic. The Three South States would switch alliances to the Republic of China in Nanjing or Beijing depending on the circumstances.

The North of China would be characterized by territories under the Japanese influence and the ones under provincial warlords and their cliques. Of course the capital, Beijing, is ruled by what is left of the Beiyang clique that will have the international recognition (or of any faction that controls it). Constant changes of the President and the government will be a feature the political life of Beijing besides its corruption and ineffectual management of finances and customs duties. The last two won't make any difference since a series of arrangements and deals will relinquish its management and revenues to European countries, the US or Japan. The Ma family warlords would command in Northwestern China (provinces of Qinghai, Gansu and Ningxia) acknowledging whoever controls Beijing. Between the frontiers of the Governments of Beijing and Nanjing the regional warlords would play restless truce and an intricate system of alliances that would turn them into a sort of neutral buffer zone between the two republics (Buffer Warlords). The dominant Fengtian clique would rule over Manchuria most of this period until 1929. From that date Manchuria would be for most of this time under supervision of Japan who would later create the puppet state of Manchukuo (1934). The establishment of Mengjiang would occur on the declaration of independence by the cliques of Inner Mongolia (1932).

See also Fragmentation of China

The South and North Campaigns for National Unity

A de facto stalemate was established between the warring factions. Each faction or clique had enough resources and in some cases international help to flourish. The forces were too evenly balanced and to embark on a military campaign would entitle a certain defeat. For the nationalist this wasn't enough. The KMT successfully extended their influence thru out underground networks in the rest of China. This period also saw the creation of the Communist Party of China (CPC) in 1921 at Shanghai. The CPC principal constituency will mainly be in the coastal areas and industrial hubs. They would embark on creating an underground network, sometimes using the same localities of the KMT. The role of the KMT and the CPC, the two main mass political parties, would make the unification campaign a national epic and the common people's movement. Disagreements were bound to appear between the KMT and CPC on the role of the national building process and party relations. While alive Sun managed to keep both sides happy and cooperative on the task of defeating the clique of Beijing. His death in 1927 would mark the start of strife between them.

Starting in 1923 and with the help of the Comintern and the Russian FSR, the Government of Nanjing would start to assemble the National Revolutionary Army (NRA). As a condition for help, the Comintern would press for a United Front between the KMT and the CPC. The United Front would be agreed in 1925. This partnership would mark the start of the preparations for the Southern Campaign. Approximately in this years the CPC would also start to assemble their military in the future People's Liberation Army (PLA, 1927). One important social innovation of the NRA and PLA was the use of women in administrative and auxiliary services and later in the Second Sino-Japanese War in combat positions (artillery, air force, mechanized combat units, and navy).

The first stage of the South Campaign would be the capture of the province of Guangdong and control the access to French Indochina. Military actions begin in 1927, which would rapidly lead to the occupation. The rest of the South Chinese Republic would capitulate in 1928. The campaigns proceed against the State of Yunnan and the United Provinces of China with the help of local rebellions and guerrilla warfare that would help the military actions in 1929. By 1930 the government of Nanjing had claimed and pacified South China. Campaigns to gain back Hong Kong and Macao by the CPC were ignored by the KMT government in Nanjing. Who however agreed to maintain their foreign ownership in exchange of financial help. The South Campaign would bring closer attention of the American public and government. In cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco demonstrations of solidarity and aid campaigns were common everyday feature. All these would swing diplomatically the interest of the US in the Pacific and a new evaluation of the Japanese threat against the Commonwealth of the Philippines.

The Northern Campaign would start in the same year as the NRA had secured air support for its military actions and the bribed the 'buffer warlords". In 1935 at the outskirts of Beijing the NRA and PLA win over the remains of the Beiyang Army. The National Assembly moves back to Beijing and proclaims itself as constituent assembly to draft the constitution of a united Republic of China. The government is reappointed, now in full control of China.

A power struggle at the death of Sun started in the KMT. Won by the generals of the NRA who followed Chiang Kai-Shek, who would be elected President of the Republic. Chiang, although more concerned with the North and South campaigns, also handled and promoted the expulsion of Communists from the state bureaucracy or send the PLA outside battlefield.

See also


  1. Year 1 in the Minguo calendar. Months and days are numbered in China according to the Gregorian calendar since 1912. The Minguo is used as an epoch marker and only employed in state documents along the Gregorian year, i.e, 2nd of February 1935 (24)

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