Contributor: C. Peter Chen
ww2dbaseJapan had violated Chinese sovereignty as early as 1931, when the Japanese Army staged the Mukden Incident as an excuse to deploy troops in Chinese territory. In 1932, the establishment of the puppet state of Manchukuo in northeastern China and the First Battle of Shanghai clearly reflected Japan's intention to carve out a piece of China. Despite these signs of aggression, Nationalist Chinese leader Chiang Kaishek continued to focus the bulk of his energy on unifying China, particularly to eliminate or to contain Communist influence, before he though he would have a chance against the superior Japanese.
ww2dbaseThe Communist leadership, headed by Zhou Enlai, Mao Zedong, and others, also shared a similar sentiment. It cared little about Japanese advances, as each Japanese victory weakened the Nationalist forces a little bit further, thus giving the Communists a bit more breathing room. At this time, the Communists, which was viewed no more than a bandit force, were contained in a desolate region in China, staying alive only because the Soviet Union (USSR), which held Chaing Kaishek's son a virtual hostage in the Russian capital of Moscow, had the influence to stop Chiang from launching any decisive offensives.
ww2dbaseIn Moscow, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin had a long term goal of establishing a puppet regime in China, but for the short term, he backed the Nationalists as Chiang's force was the only force that had a chance of holding ground against Japan. Should the Nationalists fail, Stalin feared that Japan would be able to devote its entire military machine in a campaign against Russian holdings in Asia should Japanese leadership decide to do so.
ww2dbaseZhang Xueliang, an influential former Chinese warlord of northeastern China and now a general in the Nationalist Chinese Army, was a support of a united Nationalist-Communist front against Japanese aggression. Because of this tendency, he secretly had contacts with the Communists despite of his position with the Nationalist military. In mid-1936, he approached the Communist leadership and suggested an idea of kidnapping Chiang Kaishek in order to force the Nationalists to enter discussion with the Communists. Mao, who wanted to see Chiang killed in order to achieve his personal ambitions, told Zhang to proceed with his plans, while telling Zhang that the Soviets would back his plans as well, which was naturally a lie.
ww2dbaseOn 22 Oct 1936, at Xi'an, China, Chiang announced his new plan for the suppression of Communists. Zhang and Yang Hucheng, a like-minded fellow general, publicly opposed the new policy, and over the following month attempted to persuade Chiang to change his mind. In early Dec, they decided that the time for discussion was over, and it was now time to execute the kidnapping plan. In the early morning of 12 Dec, Zhang's bodyguards attacked the place of Chiang's residence in Xi'an, which was relatively lightly guarded as Chiang suspected no treachery. During the brief confrontation, Chiang's nephew and bodyguard Jiang Xiaoxian was killed on the scene, and Propaganda Minister Shao Yuanchong sustained injuries which would lead to his death days later. In the subsequent confusion, many Chinese leaders thought Zhang and Yang were committing a coup d'état. Some of Chiang's opponents began calling for Chiang to be executed for his failures to deal with the Japanese. Chiang was able to escape from his residence into nearby woods, dressed only in his pajamas as he had just waken up when the plan was execute, but ultimately he was found and captured.
ww2dbaseHours after the kidnapping, Zhang released a list of eight demands to Chinese political leaders in China and abroad.
- Establish a coalition government that would contain both Nationalist and Communist members
- Halt all fighting between Nationalist and Communist forces
- Release all politicians being kept captive in Shanghai
- Release all political prisoners
- Allow anti-Japanese demonstrations
- Guarantee political freedom to all Chinese citizens
- Govern China according to the will of Dr. Sun Yatsen
- Immediately gather leaders of both parties to discuss ways to deal with Japanese aggression
ww2dbaseNationalist Party leadership was split on what to do next. While the more radical factions within the Nationalist Party, namely the Blue Shirts Society and Whampoa clique, prepared troops to attack Xi'an to rescue Chiang, some others began to discuss the possibility of executing Chiang for his failure to deal with the Japanese. Chiang's wife Song Meiling, on the other hand, personally sent her Australian advisor, who had previously worked under Zhang in the same capacity, as her personal representative for negotiations on 14 Dec.
ww2dbaseThe Communists were split as well. While Mao publicly called for the execution of Chiang, Zhou Enlai and Zhang Wentian thought Chiang's reputation would be damaged after this incident and supported Zhang Xueliang's plan for discussion (thus allowing a politically weakened Chiang to remain the Nationalist leader, preventing a potentially stronger figure from stepping up). As the Communists debated internally, Stalin stepped in, ordering the Chinese Communist Party to cease demands of Chiang's execution and to begin negotiations. The Communists depended on the USSR for their existance, and quickly acknowledged Soviet demands. A Communist delegation was dispatched on 17 Dec.
ww2dbaseOn 22 Dec, Song Meiling and her brother Song Ziwen arrived in Xi'an to partake in the negotiations.
ww2dbaseOn 24 Dec, Zhang Xueliang and Yang Hucheng managed to establish a delicate agreement between the Nationalist Party and the Communist Party. The two sides agreed to unite in the fight against the Japanese and agreed that Chiang and the other Nationalist leaders under arrest were to be released. As revealed by Chiang's diary, Chiang thought this event was the most humiliating episode of his life. Although he had little influence during the negotiations, for the most part he held up his end of the bargains, halting all suppression operations against the Communists until Second Sino-Japanese War ended in 1945. During the war, however, Chiang still undermined Communist efforts whenever he was presented with the opportunity; the Communists would do exactly the same during the war against Japan.
ww2dbaseOn 25 Dec, Zhang personally escorted Chiang back to the capital of Nanjing, where a large crowd gathered to welcome him. Upon arriving in Nanjing, Zhang was arrested and tried for treason; upon Chiang's insistence, Zhang was tried in a military court rather than a civilian court, which practically guaranteed Zhang being found guilty. Shortly after the trial, however, Chiang granted Zhang amnesty, but Chiang would keep Zhang under house arrest indefinitely. Zhang was not released from house arrest until 1990; Zhang passed away in 2001 without revealing any further detail about his motivations behind the Xi'an Incident, thus sprouting several conspiracy theories. While Zhang was placed under house arrest, Yang Hucheng was sent to a prison; in 1949, when the Nationalists was on the verge of losing the civil war to the communists, Yang, along with his wife and two children, were executed on Chiang's orders.
ww2dbaseThe Xi'an Incident was generally believed to have three major consequences. In the short term, the uneasy alliance provided the Chinese in general a stronger foundation, at least in theory, to counter Japanese aggression which would soon escalate within months. The second consequence was that the Chinese Communist Party, up until this point was but a group of bandits, was now recognized as a legitimate opposition political party which would soon be given territory to govern by the Nationalist government. Finally, looking far down the road, the Xi'an Incident gave the Communists the time and opportunity to build their strength into the force that would one day challenge the Nationalists in a full scale war.
Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, Mao
Xi'an Incident Timeline
|12 Dec 1936||Xi'an Incident: Chinese generals kidnapped Chiang Kaishek in an attempt to force the Nationalist and Communist forces to form an unified front against the Japanese.|
|17 Dec 1936||Communist Party of China sent a delegation to Xi'an under the urging of Joseph Stalin.|
|22 Dec 1936||Song Meiling and Song Ziwen arrived at Xi'an for negotiations to free kidnapped Chiang Kaishek.|
|24 Dec 1936||General Zhang Xueliang succeeded in achieving an uneasy alliance between the Nationalist and Communist forces against the common foe, Japan.|
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