East of The Mountains

Readers familiar with the Western European tradition of political science probably have some vague recollection of the ‘social contract’ theory of government.  One formulation of this thesis can be found in John Locke‘s Second Treatise on Government, which asserts that government’s legitimacy originates in citizens’ delegation to government of their right of self-defense (of “self-preservation”).  In Locke’s view, the implicit bargain between rulers and ruled is this:  in return for a quasi-voluntary financial contribution (taxation), the governing regime promises to preserve the physical safety –the lives and existence– of its populace.

Of course, in truly repressive regimes the greatest threat to physical security is often the government itself, but even in these cases the enforcers of order frequently are viewed as the least of several alternative evils.

So what happens when government is unable to deliver on its promise of physical security?  In the absence of a credible best effort to do its utmost –when the implicit guarantee of life itself is revealed as hollow– the regime forfeits its claim to legitimacy.  This is the point at which regime change will become acceptable to a non-negligible portion of civil society.

Regime change happens.  Current events, recent history, the distant past and the looming future all show that it’s usually a messy business.   Even after regimes change, successful consolidation of the new order is rarely swift, almost always contentious, sometimes bloody, and generally requires serious breaches of etiquette.   Clearly, the human race would benefit from a ‘how-to manual’ that could smooth the transition from the old to the new.   Something that could compile a set of ‘best-practice’ examples from history’s most successful regime changes into an Idiot’s Guide to Regime Change.   Because all too often, regime change is left to a nation’s idiots –they’re the only ones reckless enough/desperate enough to confront entrenched power and –somehow– win.

Well, Lunghu has not yet written The Idiot’s Guide to Regime Change, but he’s claiming copyright to the title here and now:  (as Andrew Jackson once observed in a different context, “Now let him enforce it!”).  And he’s going to get the ball rolling on this project by pointing to some source material that perhaps warrants inclusion in a chapter or two of the finished volume.  But first and foremost, Lunghu is gonna lead off with banal, all-too-obvious observation: before you can have regime change, you gotta have an insurgency.  First, break eggs.  Second, make omelette.

So, how does an insurgency succeed?  And how does a successful insurgency transform itself into a successful new regime?  Where can one find the poster-children of successful revolution?  These are rhetorical questions for which Lunghu has an answer readily prepared:  China.   This ‘China’ we speak of need not necessarily be construed as the current People’s Republic.  When you have 4000+ years of history from which to select relevant examples, there’s plenty of material to be found.  Just look at Luo Guanzhong‘s classic Sung Dynasty tale ‘Water Margin.’  But in this particular case it is indeed the PRC experience that is most helpful, and it’s thanks to Water Margin that Lunghu encountered an obscure PhD dissertation which deserves much broader recognition:  Sherman Xiaogang Lai‘s “Springboard to Victory: Shandong Province and Chinese Communist Military and Financial Strength 1937 – 1945.”



The link between Water Margin and the PRC is two-fold:  first, both Song Jiang’s insurgency and the Communist guerrilla war were played out in the mountains and marshes of Shandong Province  –separated by (only) ten centuries of Chinese history.  Secondly, both stories contain valuable lessons in methods used by insurgencies to recast themselves in the public eye as agencies of legitimate governance.  For those reasons, Lunghu recommends reading both Water Margin and Sherman Lai’s  Springboard to Victory  –probably in that order.  Maps of Shandong Province will come in handy.  Dr. Lai  –an emigre Chinese historian now working at Oxford University–  examines a (previously) little-known chapter in 20th C. Chinese history:  the story of how the People’s Liberation Army managed to gain control of Shandong during WWII in a three-way struggle with the Japanese Imperial Army and Chiang Kaishek‘s Nationalist forces.  Almost, but not quite, a how-to manual.


Lunghu stumbled across the work of Dr. Lai while engaged in a tangentially related project: a half-assed historical inquiry into the origins of and influences on modern-day U.S. counter-insurgency policy.   Superficial pundits with short historical memories usually trace the lineage back through the Vietnam War to the British experence in colonial Malaya, and then just stop there.   Historians within the U.S. armed forces often cite additional precedents:  the U.S. Civil War, the Philippine Insurrection, and the work of French counterinsurgency specialist Col. Bernard Trinquier.   Almost nobody likes to take a long, hard look at what the British have done in Ireland, India, Palestine, Kenya and Cyprus  –partly because what little documentation may still exist is probably still covered by the Official Secrets Act.   And also because that kind of behavior is considered to be ‘crimes against humanity’ in this day and age.

Euro-American understanding of counterinsurgency doctrine in the mid-20th century Japanese Imperial Army is also rather limited.   Beyond mental images of bayoneted babies and “The Rape of Nanjing,” there’s not much available.   Japanese scholars have penned a few monographs based on surviving archives of Imperial Army intelligence echelons, but the record is very much incomplete (and completely one-sided).   However … in a brief online description of a Harvard University conference on the Sino-Japanese War (aka the War of Resistance), Lunghu spotted an even briefer reference to some guy named Sherman Lai, who was writing his dissertation on Communist guerrilla resistance to the Japanese.   Mediated by the modern-day miracle of internet search engine algorithms, a PDF of the dissertation was soon in Lunghu’s electronic possession … Several days and five hundred thirty-two double-spaced pages later, valuable insights and priceless inferences cascaded out of Lunghu’s ears.

Read the next blogpost if you would know more …


Tags: , , , , , , ,

%d bloggers like this: