The fun of asking "What if......?"
A few things that might have changed the course of 20th Century Chinese history.
(A focus on post WW1. Maybe someday I will do a pre WW1 edition)
1. Japan not having to withdrawal from China.
There was no way Japan was going to win WW2. But what if as part of the surrender that Japan did not have to withdrawal from it’s conquered territories? What if Japan could have kept Korea, Taiwan and China? Would it still be there? Would China’s KMT and CCP have finally united to push the Japanese out? History has shown that part of Japan’s success in the 30’s and 40’s in China was it’s pure brutality and unapologetic violence towards the Chinese people. Would this have been enough to keep China down after the War?
2. Xian Incident
Chiang Kai Shek went to Xian. Two generals, Zhang and Yang, had become frustrated at Chiang’s unwillingness to fight the Japanese. When Chiang, along with most of his Senior leadership visited Xian, Zhang and Yang promptly had him and his people arrested, until they agreed to fight the Japanese. Chiang always felt that the most urgent enemy was the CCP, not the Japanese. He felt he could out last the Japanese. Remember this was several years before America entered the War against Japan.
Considering how incompetent Chiang turned out to be, one can only wonder what would have happened if Chiang was not freed, after only a 2 week period. What if he was executed? Or exiled? Or imprisoned? Would the KMT still have lost the Civil War to the CCP? Would Zhang(a CCP sympathizer) have than joined the CCP and created a true resistance army against Japan? Maybe Zhang would have replaced Mao as leader of the CCP?
We will never know because after Zhang stupidly freed Chiang, he compounded his error by flying back to Nanjing with Chiang, and guess what? Zhang than got arrested! As for Yang…? He and his family, including children were all eventually executed by Chiang.
When you got the tiger by the tail, you can’t afford to let go….
3. First wife not getting killed….
Mao’s true first wife(not counting the arranged marriage he had) was with Yang Kaihui. By all accounts his true love, and he had 4 sons with her. Her early, untimely death was again another consequence of war. If she had lived a normal, long life like Mao, would she had influenced Mao?
There is no question, that her sway over her sons would have been strong, and that they would have willingly done her bidding. Looking at the marital history of the other Chinese leaders though, it is doubtful she would have been Mao’s only wife, even if she did survive the war. Still her backdoor influence very well could have reined in Mao all the same. It is doubtful he would have been as disdainful towards her as he was with Jiang Qing.
4. The death of Anying.
Mao had 4 sons with his first wife. One died as a child. Another only recently, but was known to have been unstable(perhaps due to the trauma of having lost his mother). Yet another was lost during the chaos of war. Finally, another was named Anying, and he had just returned from the Soviet Union, before the outbreak of the Korean War. He had a promising future, and surely in the tradition of Asian rulers, would have succeeded Mao as supreme leader of China. However, Anying died an early, untimely death, far from the front lines.
Further, one can only speculate, but one wonders if Mao would’ve stepped down sooner if said son had survived the Korean War? Would there have been a Cultural Revolution? Further, Anying would have been one of the very few to give his father the unfiltered(if unwanted) advice he would have needed to rule the vast nation of China. In short, he would’ve stood up to Papa Mao. With his untimely death, China lost one more option for reining in the Chairman.
5. Payback at Lushan, 1959.
There was a major CCP retreat and conference in the resort of Lushan in 1959. It was here that Peng Dehuai, one of the Party elders, and the Commander of Chinese Forces in Korea wrote a critique criticizing some of Mao’s policies. Up to this time, Mao was officially merely first among equals. Mao took umbrage at the criticism, threatened to resign as leader and raise a new army(here we go again, another Civil War).
There is no question that Mao held Peng responsible for his son’s untimely death. Getting rid of Peng must have felt like sweet revenge to Mao. Further, this was really the last great opportunity for courage amongst the party leadership. As a collective, they could’ve dumped Mao than and there. Yet no one had the courage, pure and simple. And they can blame themselves. They looked the other way as Mao built his cult of personality. Even if they had dumped him, there is a possibility the army would’ve broke into factions. Getting rid of Mao would have been the equivalent of Thomas Jefferson removing George Washington from power. Unthinkable. And like Mao, George could’ve called upon the people.
6. Some folks weren’t happy with that…..
A fellow named Wu Han, who just happened to be the deputy mayor of Beijing, wasn’t too thrilled to see Peng fired. So he wrote a play about it. The play was entitled “Hai Rui Dismissed from Office”. Having a scholarly background and previously already written about the Ming Dynasty, no one really looked at Wu Han as a troublemaker.
Who was Hai Rui? This fellow was a relatively honest official that had been dismissed from office by an allegedly intolerant Ming emperor. The play was written in 1959, the same year Peng Dehuai was fired from office. Mao obviously knew the play was a poorly disguised comparison between himself and Peng. And he didn’t like it. How to respond? Mao was adept enough to know that he himself could do nothing untoward, towards the author Wu Han.
So he did the next best thing and had someone stand in for him, and publish an article expressing Mao’s feelings on the matter. The problem was no one would publish the article. Resistance towards Mao was so subtle, yet growing very strong. Both Deng Xiaoping and the current President of China(the official leader of China), both had done their utmost to minimize Mao’s influence, and actually were on the verge of creating more of a capitalist economy, in order to save China from the policies of Mao, such as the Great Leap Forward, etc.
Power struggles can tend to be subtle, and in China at this time, that was especially the case. Publicly opposing Mao was out of the question. Mao finally got the article published in Shanghai, via his wife. Once the article came out, it changed everything. The original author of the play was denounced and soon arrested. His chief supporter, the mayor of Beijing, was also a goner. And his key supporter? Well that happened to be none other than the President of China himself! Even he was disposable and he soon died after removal from power. Again, Mao had used his cult of personality to get his way, and remove his enemies from the scene.
But what if that article criticizing the play was never published? Would Mao still have been in power? Would China have created a more capitalist economy faster? Would the Cultural Revolution been averted? All we can say for sure is that China would probably be richer today, and the world quite possibly a better place, if China had gone capitalist in the 60’s, rather than the 90’s.