Articles

They Died for 7 Cents a Day

Here’s a behind-lines view of China’s cruel war, where enemy has sold to enemy so that both might fight on

DR. ROBERT B. McCLURE February 15 1949
Articles

They Died for 7 Cents a Day

Here’s a behind-lines view of China’s cruel war, where enemy has sold to enemy so that both might fight on

DR. ROBERT B. McCLURE February 15 1949

They Died for 7 Cents a Day

DR. ROBERT B. McCLURE

as told to Ian MacKenzie

SIX WEEKS ago I left Hankow, the Chicago of China. Hankow, in Nationalist hands, was surrounded by Communist forces. Let me tell you something of the civil war in China as I saw it.

Get out of your mind the picture of war as we knew it between 1939 and 1945, of armies advancing and retreating along controlled lines, exchanging artillery fire, engaging each other with infantry and tanks, according to orthodox military textbooks.

When I left the war was a hotchpotch of small fronts, few of them more than five miles long. You got pools of Communist territory in the middle of Nationalist territory, and vice versa. It was often simple to pass from one zone to another. Even in battle areas industry, commerce, education, medicine and the arts were practiced with some degree of normality.

With a few heroic exceptions most of the fighting was half-hearted. The Communiais won not by frontal assault but by internal boring.

After Japan wns beaten, Chiang Kai-shek advanced against the Communists into what had been Japanese-occupied China. He used the same tactics as the Japanese had employed against him. Owing to the expanse of the country a clean sweep on a continuous front was impossible. Therefore he sent columns forward to seize key points, generally in towns and cities.

When the Communists saw the setup they returned, not to give open assault, but. to surround the Nationalist garrisons. Nationalists held the cities. Communists held the country. The Communists developed an aggressive spirit while the Nationalists went more and more onto the defensive.

From time to time there would l>e a ferocious battle between Nationalistsand Communists, with both sides lighting well. In winter I have Been corpses stacked in side streets, 10 feet high, like cordwood, awaiting burial in the spring.

But the great mass of the Nationalist Army lacked spirit. Nationalist generals had to l>e military tacticians, politicians and provincial governors all at the same time. Their diverse responsibilities made them Jacks-of-all-trades, masters of none. Field officers were so badly paid—a full colonel received the equal of 12 dollars a month—that they took to selling army supplies to keep Continued on page 46

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Here’s a behind-lines view of China’s cruel war, where enemy has sold to enemy so that both might fight on

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out of debt. Junior officers implemented their pay by charging refugees fares for rides on army trucks.

The average foot soldier, on two dollars a month—about 7 cents a day— saw these things going on and could find no opportunity for graft himself. He was for the most part a human hulk, suffering from malnutrition, suppurating with scabies and riddled with malaria. There were no cheers for him. He was kicked off people’s doorsteps for begging a bowl of rice.

Gradually the war degenerated into Gilbertian futility, interrupted by spasms of unspeakable brutality. Crossing the line was a daily occurrence. Thousands were forced to do it out of economic necessity. Since the food was under the Communists and the commodities under the Nationalists both sides needed to exchange goods.

In Hankow the Nationalist tradesmen had a special committee for striking bargains with the Communists.

I remember a British social worker coming down from 150 miles inside Communist country. He was bewildered. It seemed he was getting a lift on a Communist truck when a Nationalist colonel in full uniform and insignia flagged them to stop. Without concern the Communists picked him

up and drove him to within walking distance of his own lines. When the Englishman asked the Communists what was the idea they said, “Oh, he’s a very good man. We get all our gas from him.”

To townsfolk the war was no longer a patriotic crusade; it was an intolerable nuisance grinding down their standard of life. A sense of frustration and humiliation began to sweep over Nationalist China early last year. All but the very rich, with property to lose, were ready for peace at any price.

Three Potatoes a Day

The ordinary workingman in Hankow lived in a mud-floor shack about six feet by 10. During the rainy season the floor was always two or three inches deep in slime. The middle-class man lived in a house about as wellbuilt and spacious as the average Canadian garage. One of my laboratory workers, a university graduate, would have been very proud to live in my Toronto garage. The affluent businessmen lived in homes corresponding to a six-room house on a modern Canadian avenue. Even the millionaires did not live in fabulous luxury, as is commonly supposed.

Poorer people lived on three potatoes a day. Middle-class folk had three bowls of polished rice a day. Rich people had meat and fish in their food, but only about as much as the British ration. Ninety per cent of the average income went on food.

Chinese doctors practicing ethical medicine earn half as much again as a garbage man and the same as a laborer in a laundry. One of my assistants at Hankow, a graduate in tropical medicine from Liverpool, could not afford to buy his necessary books.

On the other hand many less scrupulous Chinese doctors got rich. I know a Roman Catholic missionary who had to undergo an operation on the prostate gland. The surgeon got him on the table, opened him, and then told him he wanted 900 U. S. dollars to complete the operation. Other missionaries had to subscribe to help pay the fee. Many doctors get a rake-off

on sales of blood plasma and salines.

In Nationalist China, agriculture was on a share-cropping basis. The share cropper split with the landlord 50-50. The split was grossly unfair to the share cropper who also paid all taxes out of his half.

Nearly 80% of the national income was poured into the Nationalist army. Little was spent on social services.

It is an exaggeration to say the Chinese hated the Americans but they did hate American equipment as a symbol of continued warfare. A schoolmaster would look from his tumbledown building onto an airfield and see a Canadian Mosquito. “For one of those,” he tells his class, “we could have a new school building.”

Over all this travail Chiang Kai-shek reigned. His edifice was at best a paternal feudalism. There were aspects of his Government which were despotic. If his regime is still in power when this article appears, within five days a clipped copy of Maclean’s will go into my file held by the Nationalist political police. Chiang Kai-shek has agents throughout the world. In every factory, hospital and school in the state he maintained stool pigeons, reporting on the views and movements of their colleagues.

Yet I do not consider Chiang a malignant man. I don’t believe he was ever mixed up in large-scale graft with

his brother-in-law, the millionaire T. V. Soong. His wife, of course, was accustomed to throwing her money about a bit, but on the whole he lived quietly. I can think of 50 men in Toronto who have a higher standard of living than his.

Chiang would sacrifice his life for China. He loved the people in a sort of lofty way. He was like a remote father, so busy at the office he never notices the kids are without shoes.

The trouble was, he was extremely right wing and many wrongs went unvoiced in his council chamber. He threw everything into the war against the Communists and offered the people nothing to sustain them. The Americans gave the Nationalists everything to fight with; Chiang gave them nothing to fight for.

Chiang and his wife shared a loathing for “Communist bandits” that amounted to an obsession.

I used to meet Madame Chiang Kai-shek frequently. But not since the day early in 1945 when I asked her permission to run medical supplies through to Communists then fighting the Japanese. I appreciated her husband’s order that no military equipment of any kind was to be channeled to them. “But,” I told Madame, “there is strong feeling in my church and elsewhere that since the Communists are fighting for us at the moment we should at least send them some drugs and bandages.”

She walked up and down the room shaking with rage, clenching her fiste,

and when she recovered her composure sufficiently to speak she began, “Do you mean to tell me you have the effrontery to come here and suggest that we give medical supplies to those . . . those dogs!” I left, hurriedly.

The Chinese mind is almost inexplicable to the West. The time has not yet come when the West can impose its own ideas of democracy on China. (Russia, I might say, will find the Chinese ju»t as difficult.)

I was at a dinner party before I left China and the conversation gives some idea of what democracy is up against there. The guests were all well-educated. One of them said: “Come on, give me the low-down on Churchill. Why did he quit?”

I said: “There is no low-down. The British decided they wanted one type of man to win the war and another type of man to win the peace. They just voted against Churchill ... so he went.”

The guest thought about it for a long time, then said: “Do you mean to tell me that after six years in arms, and then victory, Churchill could not stay on?”

“That’s so,” I said.

“Well, thank God the British Empire is not ruled by a man who doesn’t know how to get rid of the opposition,” said the guest.

The Nationalists have failed to get rid of their own opposition by force, even with the United States helping them. Perhaps this method is getting a bit old-fashioned. ^