China and Her New Back Door


By C. T. FENG, Consul of China to San Francisco

Delivered at Commonwealth Club, September 8, 1939

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VI, pp. 42-45.

IN these particularly parlous times, when the entire world is focused on the European situation with all its dreaded catastrophic consequences, I am deeply sensible of this opportunity to speak to you. I am particularly grateful because it permits me to draw attention to the Far East where equally momentous events which, while not fully disclosed in your daily newspapers, are also occurring to alter our various national destinies; events which re-emphasize the fundamental truth that whether for peace or for war, the World Order still remains indissoluble. I am doubly grateful because it also permits me to follow in the footsteps of the many distinguished colleagues from China who have from time to time addressed this important forum of Pacific Coast public opinion on the state of affairs in the Orient, and to pay a fitting tribute to my compatriots who have made the Burma-China Road a modern highway, a feat which I might add that has startled the engineering brains of the world. This, then, is my first reason for welcoming this occasion to speak to you.

This noon, in accordance with the motto of your institution—To Obtain the Facts—I have been requested to tell you something about the new highway that has just beencompleted between British Burma and Southwest China. For most of this audience, I gather, the name of the highway itself is very, very vague, savoring of faint and far off places, of Rudyard Kipling's Mandalay Road, flying fishes and Burmese women with "whacking big cheroots." Despite the increasing articles about its history, construction and recent improvement that have recently appeared in your American newspapers and national journals; I suspect that its real significance to China, to the United States and to the democratic powers of the world, has not been thoroughly revealed. Permit me therefore to outline the following main points which I hope to develop in respect to my subject. For reason of emphasis and in order to conserve time, if I may, I shall word these points in interrogative form.

Let us ask ourselves these questions: In the first place, what do we know of the China-Burma Road, is it an old road, a brand new one, or an old one renovated purely to meet the dire exigencies of war? Secondly, how was it modernized? What sort of terrain does it cover? What are the obstacles encountered in its projection, construction and maintenance? Thirdly, what part does the new road now

play in China's present military plans? Does it fulfill its war function as one of the chief life-lines, supplying China's defenders with the heavier munitions, fighting planes, bombers and heavy mechanized military equipment? And finally, the most important question of all: What will become of the Burma-China Road after the present hostilities are concluded? In other words, what of its future?

If I answer these questions, I believe that I shall be able to give you in the all too brief moments at my disposal some conception of the Burma-China Road; a conception concise and yet comprehensive enough to serve as an adequate framework of reference for all future articles and stories which you may read about it.

In answering the first question as to the history of the New Back Door of China, I should confess at the outset that the road is neither new nor originally projected as a back-door. To be historically accurate, although somewhat paradoxical, I should state that the New Back Door of China was originally its Old Front Door. For centuries, the original road was well-worn with heavy travel. Before China opened her seaports on the China Sea to the Western Powers, most of her commercial and diplomatic intercourse was carried over this route. Ambassadors used this road to Southeastern and Southern Asia. The great armies of Kublai Khan trod its tortuous stretches. And it is a matter of indisputable historical record that during the last quarter of the 13th century, the celebrated Venetian traveler and explorer, Marco Polo, traversed this road from Yunnan to Northern Burma on public missions for Kublai Khan. As Burmese principalities offered tribute to the Chinese Emperors by means of this route, it became also identified as the Old Tribute or Ambassadors Road.

With the opening of the treaty-ports, in the middle 19th century, the introduction and development of maritime commerce with its cheaper freight costs, and with the completion in 1904 of the French railway from Haiphong on the South China Sea to Yunnan, the value of the Burma-China Road rapidly degenerated in importance. It should be added that this hardening of the southern transportational arteries of China was not entirely voluntary. There was a justifiable basis for reciprocal trade between Burma and India with its cotton piece goods, yarns and woolens and Southwestern China with its raw silk, hides, fruits and nuts. There was also a logical need for direct overland connections between Calcutta and Rangoon on the south through Yunnan Province, down to the Yangtze River ports of Chungking, and Hankow, with the route terminating at Shanghai. What was vitally needed, however, was a cheap route of transportation, cheap enough to compete favorably with ocean-bound freight. For almost a century, the British Government, which had meanwhile annexed Burma, seriously considered the possibilities of constructing a railway across the Burmese-Chinese mountainous frontier. From Northern Burma were dispatched innumerable surveying expeditions. Progress was unbelievably slow. By 1902, the railway from Rangoon to Mandalay to Lashio, the terminus of the line in northern Burma, some 90 miles from the Chinese border, was finally completed. After some 37 years, the terminus of the railway line is still Lashio; and, up until 1937, the overland route from Lashio to Yunnan still remained in its primitive, undeveloped state. Not until the Japanese invasion of China and the naval blockade of all her treaty-ports did China turn her eyes inward and undertake the transformation of an immemorial mountain road into a first-class modern highway.

Now, let us consider the second question: How was the road modernized? And what constitute its difficulties of construction and maintenance? I think I can clear up thispoint by summarizing some of the chief statistics as supplied by our own Ministry of Communications. The Burma-China Highway, as now completed, is roughly some 716 to 726 miles long, depending whether one enters Burma from China by Lashio, the northern terminus of the Burmese railway from Mandalay and Rangoon, or by way of Bhamo on the headwaters of the Irrawaddy River. The Chinese section of the highway from Kunming, the capital of Yunnan Province, to Anting, its border city, is some 610 miles.

The topography of the country along the Chinese section of the highway may be likened to that of the area between Los Angeles and Denver. Imagine travelling overland by automobile or truck in a straight-line between these two points, with a goodly section of the Grand Canyon of the Colorado River thrown in, and you can gather some idea of the extremely rough nature of the terrain. There is an abundance of beautiful scenery, as well as snowy mountains, rocky chasms, deep gorges and numerous river crossings. The highest elevation reached is 8,520 feet above sea-level; and it is a mere commonplace for auto-travellers to drop from 7,200 feet levels to 2,500 feet levels, hurdle a suspension bridge and then immediately start in re-climbing a steep grade until a level of 7,500 feet is again reached. Incidentally, I might add that, that intrepid friend of China, your American author of "Four Hundred Million Customers," Carl Crow, has recently in one of your national magazines written of his emotional reactions in suddenly discovering himself in a Chinese army motor truck playing hide and seek with the clouds. His story of the motor journey from Burma to China is so full of human interests that I highly recommend it for those who are interested in pursuing this subject further.

Statistics, I fully appreciate, are very wearying to listeners; yet, if I did not cite them in this instance I would be unable to impress upon you two outstanding facts associated with what Western journalists have described as "the modern miracle of highway building." I have already mentioned in scenic terms the mountainous topography of the country. Let me re-emphasize this in more prosaic terms. Under normal conditions, it takes five full days to transverse the entire route from Yunnan Province to Burma. It was necessary for Chinese engineers, most of whom were educated in this country, to construct some 289 bridges, each possessing a load capacity of 10 to 15 tons. It was necessary to lay 1,959 culverts. It was necessary to vary the surface of the roadbed from 9 to 16 feet, maintaining at the same time a maximum grade of 8 per cent and a minimum curve radius of 50 feet. This constitutes the first outstanding fact —the literally superhuman task of hewing by human labor a modern highway out of the sides of forbidding mountains.

The second outstanding fact is the extremely low cost of highway construction. It is highly doubtful if more than $25,000,000 Chinese currency was expended. I know that there was an extremely small sum set aside by the Provincial Government of Yunnan in 1937 for the improvement of this highway. In the same year the Central Government appropriated $6,000,000 for the same purpose; and later, an additional $10,000,000 sum for meeting the costs of improving the highway, purchasing equipment and for operating the transportation system.

For my American friends who, thinking of the per-mile cost of the building of standard American highways, groan when they pay their gasoline taxes, I should explain that the construction of motor roads in China is radically different from the system followed in the United States. The highways are invariably planned and designed by Chinese engineers educated in American universities. As a matter of record, almost 90 per cent of the Bureau of Highways inthe Ministry of Communications who have received their training abroad, have returned from the United States. The actual construction of the roads is performed by those Chinese citizens through whose territories the new highways pass. The usual procedure is for a district magistrate to send out a call to all the able-bodied adults of his district. The response is immediate and gratifying. They troop in, bringing their own rude tools and implements for machinery, being expensive, is seldom used in highway-building in China. They bring their own food and their families with them. They work long hours, without grumbling and, this is very important, with almost no pay, since road-building, like the payment of taxes in the United States, is a civic duty. When their terms of service are completed, they return quietly to their homes and resume their former occupations.

Some of my American friends have described this method of highway construction as Labor Mobilization. Undoubtedly, it may be thus described; yet it is important to remember that this method is an old Chinese custom, sanctioned by centuries of practice, and doubly justified as a war-measure. In fact, because the new China-Burma Highway passes through an area primarily occupied by non-Chinese aboriginal tribes, the burden of road-building has been heaviest for them. Yet, because of the brutality of the Japanese invaders and the harrowing tales of the thousands of refugees from the seaboard of China, even these non-Chinese tribes have been deeply moved. It is an interesting commentary on the present unification of China that the Lolos, Min Chias, Eastern Lissu and Shans tribesmen are now numbered among her most patriotic followers. Once upon a time they fought against the Chinese but today they are found side by side in the huge army of 200,000 laborers and engineers laboring to build, maintain and improve China's New Back Door.

With regard to the difficulties and defects that still exist in the construction and operation of this highway, I do not wish to deceive my listeners into believing that there are none. In fact, there are many; however, I am glad to add, none insuperable. In the first place, we must prepare for and conquer the forces of nature. Our most formidable enemy is the monsoon season with its torrential rains, which can wash out improperly built roads, make trickling streams into raging torrents, and sweep away everything but the sturdiest of bridges. We have prepared for this enemy by widening all possibly dangerous spots, substituting stone for wooden bridges, strengthening all roadbeds, and most necessary of all, by establishing frequent road maintenance stations with repair crews and necessary equipment and supplies. Our second natural enemy is represented by malaria and other tropical diseases, which we are also subduing by the efficient application of modern public health methods. Our third important enemy is a human one and is found in the subtle propaganda disseminated by Japanese agents and spies among Burmese native population, especially the Buddhist monks. Here, the Japanese version of the doctrine, "Asia for the Asiatics," is worked overtime, and certain newspapers and agitators have been bribed. However, along this front, we are also making good advances. The far-sighted civil leaders of Burma see through this flimsy Japanese propaganda and appreciate that Burma, as well as China, stands to benefit immeasurably from this highway; and they fully recognize the fact that as long as the French hold Indo-China and the British Singapore their own country cannot be physically involved in present hostilities. Today, China, assisted by Great Britain, is doing everything possible to improve trade and diplomatic relations with Burma and Southern Asia. In examining the question as to the military effectivenessof the Burma-China Road, I can only give you the opinion of a fairly-informed layman, since I am not a militaryman. I have been repeatedly informed by both foreign as well as Chinese observers that the highway is truly living-up to its title as the "life-line of China." Let me cite at least one instance. Your ambassador to China, Mr. Nelson T. Johnson, who personally travelled the 2,000 miles between the war capital of China Chungking and Rangoon, in thirteen days this last winter and with whom I had the honor of meeting in Calcutta where he stopped overnight to change aeroplanes on his way back to America told me that "the route is a wonderful feat of road-building, as it has been constructed without the aid of a single piece of modern machinery." And also that he came all the way through by a Ford car without any engine trouble and without a puncture. Since then, fleets of American trucks, numbering into thousands, have been driven into Southwestern China from Rangoon, carrying direly needed munitions, airplanes, war equipment and supplies for China's continued resistance. The hinterland routes, namely the Old Silk Caravan Routes from Siberia through Chinese Turkestan to Siam, and the Burma Yunnan Road, now transport the bulk of war materials formerly imported into China by way of the Canton-Hankow railroad, and the French narrow-gauged railway from Haiphong to Kunming, the capital of Yunnan. As these overland routes are constantly improved and as the Chinese Government proceeds with its plans for constructing railroads to parallel these highways, which it is already doing, it can be readily seen that both the volume of traffic and the speed of transportation of these essential military supplies will be increased.

I might also add that there is no possibility for Japan to impair the military effectiveness of the Burma-China Road; it is to all intents and purposes absolutely invulnerable. Surrounded by the neutral countries of Burma, Siam and French Indo-China, it is thoroughly protected from any direct attack of the Japanese military. The excessively high mountains and the deep gorges through which the highway passes makes the road literally bomb-proof; and the heavy and constant cloud formations, which give Yunnan its name of the Cloudy South Province, as well as the treacherous air-currents and airpockets which characterize this region make this area a literal airplane deathtrap. Now for the last and most important point. What will be the future of the Burma-China Road after hostilities are concluded? Of course, there is a great deal of prophesying. Not being in my own country, I, too, may venture to be a prophet—and perhaps, not without some honor. However, I have seen almost two years of consular service in the Indian-Burma country and I can at least temper some of my prophecies with substantive facts. I have seen miracles in transportations wrought; I have seen Rangoon warehouses stuffed with munitions, trucks and other freight destined for China for the protection of my country and my people; and I have seen my brethren's resistance to Japanese aggression immeasurably strengthened by the creation and modernization of this highway which permits them to exchange the products of their undeveloped Southwest for the non-military products of the Occident.

I am not overly-optimistic in thinking that the new industrial and economic order China is building in her Southwestern provinces under emergency pressure may not in times of peace prove to be a region comparable in wealth of raw materials and industrial productivity to that of the United States west of Chicago. In the six provinces of Kwangtung, Kwangsi, Kweichow, Hunan, Szechuan and Yunnan may be found an area larger than Great Britain, Holland, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, Italy and France combined with an estimated population before Japan's aggression in China of some 150,000,000. To this number have been recently added approximately 30,000,000 extra souls driven by Japanese invaders from their home along the seaboard in the greatest migration recorded in history. For this huge population, the Chinese Government is and has already planned to develop and exploit the economic possibilities of the Southwest, which is immensely rich in coal, salt, manganese, gold, lead, copper, zinc, tungsten, tin and antimony. The Government has already, through its Ministry of Economics, planned for the establishment of 30,000 producer's cooperatives for this region. By means of small loans to cooperative units and the advice of skilled engineers and cooperative administrators, a new social as well as economic order is being created.

What will happen when these men with their proverbial willingness to labor and their individual skills and proficiencies are brought together with their handicraft tools or their modern machines and then supplied with the raw materials of fabrication and the requisite financial credit? I venture to predict that there will come into being an unrivalled industrial and economic center which, even afterhostilities are concluded, will remain fixed in the Southwest. Possibly in time, Kunming, the capital of Yunnan, might even rival Shanghai as Chicago does New York, and with the greater use of China-Burma Road, there may be realized the century-old British dream of Rangoon as the "Liverpool of the East."

Now, to recapitulate the salient points of the Burma-China Road. We have seen how Japan's invasion of China has compelled her to look inward, to develop her old imperial hinterland caravan trails into modern highways for the importation of munitions and supplies for the defense of her national sovereignty and territorial integrity. We have discovered the invulnerability of the Burma-China Highway as a military arterial and we have analyzed some of the economic, social and political factors inherent in the modernization of China's vast and undeveloped Southwest which may in times of peace make the Burma-China Highway one of the greatest commercial trade routes of history. Therefore, I may conclude that successful construction and maintenance of this Highway has taught the Chinese people much—not only an increase in the mechanical means of war resistance, but also a warm and undying faith in China's glorious future.