During the late 1930s and World War II, it was common to call Dai Li “China’s Himmler,” as if Chiang Kai-shek’s secret police and intelligence chief during that period performed functions similar to the head of the Gestapo and the SS under Hitler. But as becomes clear after reading Frederic Wakeman’s absorbing and intricately detailed study Spymaster, the apparent parallels between China and Germany quickly fade. Dai Li was not China’s Himmler, any more than Chiang Kai-shek was China’s Hitler. Rather, as Wakeman shows, both Chiang and Dai Li were intensely and indissolubly Chinese: their natures and their fates, like their successes and their failures, were drawn from profound Chinese roots.
Indeed, Dai Li in particular drew much of his power from his deep dislike of those Chinese who had given up their traditional values to pursue a Westernized curriculum of foreign languages and mathematics in China’s new schools, which Dai considered irrelevant to China’s true needs. In his ambitious book—ten years in the making—Wakeman not only unveils the singular trajectory of the Chinese spymaster’s road to power in the chaotic early years of China’s republic; but in doing so he also helps us to understand Chiang Kai-shek, surely the most elusive and least studied of all the political figures who had a major impact on the history of the first half of the twentieth century.
As one might expect of a future spymaster, the exact steps of Dai Li’s ascent to power are by no means easy to track. Bits of his background are known. He was born in the southern part of the east coast province of Zhejiang (also Chiang Kai-shek’s home province) during late May 1897 and attended local village and county schools. After Dai Li finished his elementary and county schooling, he had, in 1914, an arranged marriage to a neighboring landowner’s daughter—they had one child, a son, born in 1915.
Dai Li’s forebears had been minor officials and owned a good deal of land, but his father was a wastrel and a layabout, who lost most of the family holdings, and it was Dai Li’s mother who saw him through school with her own savings. But not even his mother could deal with Dai Li’s restless energies. In the years just after his marriage Dai Li seems to have made a precarious living from gambling, which led to accusations of cheating and of theft. He had fights, in one of which his nose was broken, leaving him with sinus problems for the rest of his life. He did a brief stint of military service in a regional Zhejiang infantry unit, was charged with desertion, and worked at part-time jobs in Ningbo, Hangzhou, and Shanghai. Somewhere during this time, Dai Li made connections with members of one of Shanghai’s toughest groups of racketeers, the “Green Gang.” It was probably through Green Gang contacts that Dai was introduced to members of the anti-warlord Nationalist Party, who were playing the Shanghai Stock and Commodity Exchange as a way to help finance Sun Yat-sen’s revolutionary political organization in the south. By some accounts it was in 1921 that Dai Li first met Chiang Kai-shek, who was a Sun Yat-sen loyalist and an associate of the Shanghai speculators. But according to conflicting accounts, Chiang Kai-shek later could not recall meeting with Dai at this time. In any case, if there were contacts they were fleeting, and between 1922 and 1925 Dai Li seems to have spent time with his family in Zhejiang, and to have had a couple of jobs: one in the local educational bureaucracy, and one as the leader of an anti-bandit local militia group.
In late 1925 Dai Li was alerted by a friend to the career possibilities being held out by the Whampoa Military Academy near Canton, where Chiang Kai-shek had been appointed commandant. Dai Li made his way south, successfully passed the admissions requirements, and in early 1926 was enrolled in the sixth class of Whampoa cadets. By chance, at the age of twenty-eight, Dai Li had found the ideal environment for a future spymaster. The Whampoa academy had been founded by Sun Yat-sen as part of a united front with the Comintern (the Third Communist International), to train China’s future army leaders for their role in the Nationalist revolution. But the Communist–Nationalist alliance had always been an uneasy one, and after Sun Yat-sen died of cancer in 1925 the alliance began to collapse. Chiang Kai-shek started to curb the Communists’ power and to strengthen his own base. Though the sources on Dai Li’s early career are exasperatingly skimpy and contradictory, and even all Wakeman’s knowledge cannot put them together again into a tightly structured narrative, it seems to have been in the spring of 1926 that Dai Li—though merely a junior cadet—somehow used his prior contacts to gain some kind of access to Chiang Kai-shek. Once he had this opening, Dai exploited it by passing on, at first quite unofficially and without any formal permission, brief intelligence reports on the identities and activities of the pro-Communists within the sixth Whampoa class.
In the spring of 1927 Chiang, who had advanced north with many of his best troops, unleashed a bloody suppression of the Communists and labor unions in Shanghai. Sensing the opportunities in the air, Dai Li joined a group of cadets heading north—he never did finish his courses or graduate with the sixth class—in order to reestablish contact with Chiang. This Dai managed to do, and over the ensuing months he sent Chiang detailed intelligence reports on the comparative strengths of the various military forces in central and northern China, with which Chiang would have to do battle in the future if he was to successfully reunify the country. With his impassioned eye for detail, Wakeman tells us that the reports were written with rice gruel, and the messages only became legible when they were treated with iodine.
Dai Li was in no sense a member of any conventional Chinese elite, either by birth, education, or marriage, or by specialized training, and he did not even have any especially influential sponsors. Furthermore, Chiang Kai-shek placed his deepest trust in a small group of the Whampoa-trained officers from the first three classes, and Dai Li had not even finished his courses with the sixth class. But in this chaotic period of China’s history, formal elite status was not necessary for success. What Dai Li did have was more important: an intensely tuned sense of what Chiang wanted to know, an extraordinary ability to convince Chiang of his absolute personal loyalty and his deep hatred of communism, and a sense of personal destiny inspired by the great Chinese tales of the heroic bands of the past who had united to right great wrongs.
Wakeman gives many examples of these stories, their origins, and the ways they could inspire action. What was especially important about these values was that they coincided with Chiang’s own sense of his personal destiny, and his determination—as the self-declared heir of the Nationalist leader Sun Yat-sen—to play the role of “leader” (lingxiu) in the single-party government that alone could give China the strength to smash the Communists once and for all, before marshaling the nation’s strength to oppose the Japanese and the other foreign imperialists.
Dai Li had begun to prove his usefulness to Chiang by sending intelligence reports—sometimes obtained at considerable risk. He seems to have consolidated his position by offering his services as a bodyguard to Chiang during the dangerous later months of 1927, when Chiang’s own power was in eclipse. When Chiang returned to power in 1928, he retained Dai Li as a bodyguard and also appointed him to serve in the cumbersomely and innocuously named Nanjing Office of the Whampoa Alumni Association Investigation Department. This group was in fact, as Wakeman demonstrates, the “security unit for Chiang Kai-shek’s military training system” and gave Dai Li consistent access to the ranks of the most loyal Whampoa cadets—now purged of all known Communists—who were later to become the nucleus of one of Chiang’s key front organizations, the Society of Chinese Revolutionary Comrades, one of the many components of Chiang’s notorious Blue Shirts.
Having also been rewarded with promotion to senior captain of Chiang’s personal bodyguard, Dai Li was able to use the regular access to the leader that this afforded to pass on a steady stream of information about the political loyalties of those close to the inner circles of power. Given a monthly stipend by Chiang of three thousand yuan (Chinese dollars) for “activities expenses,” Dai Li used the money to recruit nine young officers and former cadets to construct—under his own leadership—a “League of Ten” to perform “special services.”
As staff liaison officer of this group, confirmed by Chiang himself in his dual roles of commander in chief and head of the Nationalist Party, Dai Li had a base that was to grow into the (again innocuously named) Bureau of Investigation and Statistics within the Military Affairs Commission. In the early 1930s, Wakeman is able to demonstrate, Dai Li on his leader’s orders was allowed to hire ever more agents, and granted ever more financial resources (including access to effective modern weapons and the use of automobiles). He was gradually assigned to move beyond domestic surveillance, loyalty checks, and anti-Communist counterespionage to the assassination of certain of the leader’s enemies: these ranged from hostile militarists and suspected Communists to human rights advocates and those who pushed too vigorously for anti-Japanese countermeasures, since Chiang was fanatically determined to curb the desire to contain the Japanese until the Communists had been exterminated.
Wakeman reminds us that whatever formal titles Dai Li may have held as he advanced toward his goal of being the indispensable spymaster, he was himself very aware that he was only one part of a complex system of intersecting secret service groups that Chiang could manipulate at will and pit against one another if necessary, as he consolidated his own personal power as leader. Similarly the Blue Shirts—seen by many at the time and since as a deliberate copy of the Nazi Brown Shirts or the Italian Black Shirts—were but one element of an intricate apparatus of tight secretive groupings, all of which were pledged in loyalty to their leader’s service, and which all had their own pecking orders, recruitment procedures, and usually overlapping jurisdictions and spheres of operation.
Of these groups, the most important was almost certainly the Society for Vigorous Practice (Lixingshe), composed of Whampoa cadets from the earliest classes, who were passionately loyal to Chiang Kai-shek and his goals of anti-Communist Nationalist reunification. Many of them had studied in Japanese colleges and military academies, as had Chiang Kai-shek himself in his youth. The Society for Vigorous Practice took form during 1931 and swiftly became what Wakeman calls