After the establishment of a new Nationalist Government of the Republic of China in 1940 under Wang Jingwei (Wang Zhaoming), a growing mix of Chinese soldiers, bandits, and militias fighting with the Japanese military were claimed to constitute a national army for the new regime. In reality, these units bore dozens of different titles and served hundreds of largely independent commanders. Though some were directly recruited and eventually commanded by graduates of military academies established during the occupation, the majority were not created under Japanese military or Nanjing sponsorship. These forces were often units that had been encircled, captured, or that had defected to the Japanese, often abandoning a proclaimed loyalty to Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist army. The Japanese military referred to these as the “surrendered units” (kijun butai). To the resisting Nationalists and the Communists, all of the Chinese armies under Japanese command were collectively known as the “puppet armies” (weijun).
For convenience I will continue to employ the widely used term puppet armies here, without scare quotes, despite its derogatory and political nature. The term does accurately reflect the degree to which these diverse forces were dependent upon Japanese tolerance, supplies, and occasional financial sponsorship to survive. The term falls somewhat short, however, in accounting for their changeable loyalties. They did not blindly serve any master but actively sought to retain or expand their power within the limiting parameters of a tactical alliance with the Imperial Japanese Army. When this proved stifling or dangerous, they were often content to switch sides whenever the opportunity presented itself. As Liu Hsi-ming has argued in a detailed study of the weijun, these soldiers were “pawns vacillating among hegemonic powers” who chose their own preservation over the presiding ideological or nationalist causes of the day.
The regional character of these forces is important. The puppet armies are closely tied to, and operated for the most part within, narrow local boundaries. Units that operated in the Yangzi valley in relative proximity to the Nanjing capital were more likely to conduct themselves as parts of a national army under the Wang Jingwei regime. In northern China, the multiple layers of political and military power that emerged out of years of Japanese encroachment made for a complex environment. Japanese military influence stretched back to the Manchurian incident of 1931, and well beyond that to the years of Japanese presence along the South Manchurian Railroad. In addition to its sponsorship of a new Manchurian nation in the northeast, in the early 1930s the Japanese military cultivated a number of local autonomous political bodies to fragment Nationalist control including the Hebei-Chahar Political Council and the East Hebei Autonomous Council. The Japanese military and its intelligence operatives also developed relationships with local military commanders and semi-independent warlords, including the powerful Yan Xishan of Shanxi.
These efforts were not always unified in purpose or in approach. Japanese policies in northern China reflected the competing visions of the occupation of the various Japanese forces taking part. This was especially true after 1937 when the conflict expanded. The Manchuria based Kwantung army, the North China Army and the Central China Army all jockeyed for influence in planning. Until the defection of Wang Jingwei provided the Japanese with a compliant Nationalist party leader of unquestioned stature, a collaborationist government in the north under Wang Kemin, supported by the North China Army, competed for legitimacy with that of a regime in the south with sponsorship of the Central China Army. These appointments and changes had only limited bearing on the ground however. Under occupation, provincial governments operated more or less autonomously under officials either reconfirmed in their pre-war positions or appointed with the blessing of the Japanese military. Similarly, at the level of local districts throughout North China, local collaborators approved for membership on Committees of Public Safety operated in coordination with local Japanese units.
The Japanese military was reluctant at first to allow its collaborators to raise an armed force beyond a few local police and personal bodyguards. Part of this fear grew out of the revolt of forces belonging to the ostensibly pro-Japanese East Hebei Army in Tongzhou in late July, 1937. Official support for the creation of a national Chinese army that was capable of working with the Japanese military came while the battle for the large city of Wuhan raged in the summer of 1938. In northern China, a military academy was established at Tongzhou in May, and some recruitment and direct training was carried out. The North China Army referred to these soldiers as the Peace Preservation Corps (J: chiangun C: zhi’anjun) while in Chinese it sometimes went by the name North China Pacification Army (huabei suijingjun). By October, 1940 this new army, which was to become the nucleus of a new national military, had been granted responsibility for security in two counties of Shandong and ten counties of Hebei province.
The Peace Preservation Corps was given the greatest proportion of training and supplies but the North China Army placed greater confidence in another collection of more local forces: provincial and county level garrisons (J: keibitai C: jingbeidui). By 1940, Shandong province had 4,000 provincial level garrison forces and there were a reported 72,000 at the county level throughout occupied territory in the north; a reported average of 200 per county. As we shall see, Communist enemy work teams found these local garrisons to be, by far, the easiest to win over, but a 1940 Japanese report on their development was strangely optimistic. Aiming to eventually have 300 in every county in northern China, the fact that these forces were locally recruited was assumed to ensure that they would take an active role in preventing infiltration by resistance guerrillas.
Unfortunately, this tidy picture of the structure of collaborationist forces composed of local garrisons and a nascent national army rapidly breaks down. The Peace Preservation Corps (zhi’anjun) could be found operating in areas with other peace preservation units (baoandui) of various scales. The new national army is sometimes referred to as the “Peace and National Salvation Army,” (heping jiuguojun) but elsewhere we find armies going by variations such as the “Peace and national construction army” (heping jianguojun) and “Peace and Communist Extermination Army” (heping chaogongjun). Its other local title, the North China Pacification Army made it one of many other units supporting Japanese operations that included “pacification” (suijing) in their title that may have had no direct connection to it. The Japanese military apparently attached the name “Communist Extermination Army” to stronger units within the Peace Preservation Corps, but some of the large and small units found in accounts of the war in northern China went by similar terms, including the similar “Communist Annihilation and National Construction Army” (miegong jianguojun), and may have arrived at their name separately. The title “Assist the Emperor Army” (huangxiejun), also found throughout contemporary sources, was apparently attached by the Japanese to surrendered Chinese forces that were of a particularly poor quality. These units were to be temporarily supplied while being reorganized or demobilized. At Japanese surrender, over a dozen units including this title were operating in Shandong alone. These included five divisions operating in the plains of northwestern Shandong under the title “Assist the Emperor and Protect the People Army” (huangxie huminjun).
In the end, it is futile to reconstruct any sense of organization on these armies, nor did their unity improve significantly with time. Quite the opposite is true, especially in the aftermath of Japanese mopping-up campaigns in northern China in 1941 and 1942. During this time, the most active and the strongest of the puppet armies to fight for Japan came into being from a growing number of surrenders of units of Nationalist forces, former bandits or small scale warlords. These units ranged in size from a few dozen to over 20,000, and Communist guerrillas simply referred to them by the names of their most important commanders, many of whom were well-known military figures in the districts and provinces they operated in.