Would Dai Li the Spymaster Make a Difference in the Chinese Civil War?
By Peter Kien-hong Yu

Would Dai Li the Spymaster Make a Difference in the Chinese Civil War?

May. 26, 2017  |     |  4 comments

In May 2017, the Taipei-based Academia Historica released for the first time 4,683 items of official documents written by Dai Li, also known as Yu Nong, who served under Chiang Kai-shek as the spymaster of the Republic of China (ROC) from April 1, 1932 to March 17, 1946.

To this day, rumors still surround his death in March 1946. First, that it was purely due to a mechanical failure of the US-made airplane. Dai, in April 1939, mentioned in Item 3324 that, due to bad weather, his airplane had been forced to land twice. Item 4221 stated that, in January 1946, the cold weather made the airplane engine difficult to start up. What is not clear is whether he was talking about the same airplane. Bob Bergin, who was a former US Foreign Service officer, pointed out that the bad weather caused Dai’s death, not the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the forerunner to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

Second, after the surrender of Imperial Japan, Chiang’s only challenger was said to be Dai. Hence, some political observers argued that the former must eliminate the latter — if successful, Dai’s vast clandestine empire would collapse. Third, Chiang was suspicious of some of his followers’ loyalty. Hence, he instructed Dai to spy on them. They certainly did not like Dai. Fourth, that the Chinese Communists had sabotaged the airplane.1 Fifth, Stanley P. Lovell, who directed the OSS’ Research and Development department, identified the OSS as the culprit. Sixth, one of Dai’s confidantes was Chen Hua, whose missions were to spy on Wang Jingwei and Sun Ke. In her memoir, she believed that Dai, seeking suicide, killed the pilot(s) and resulted in the crash of the airplane.

Had Dai not died in the airplane crash with nine other passengers on board, would he be able to assist Chiang to defeat the Communist Party of China (CPC) in the Chinese civil war, which erupted on June 26, 1946?2 My hunch is that Dai would only be able to delay the CPC victory by a few years.

First, in July 1946, Mao Zedong mapped out a plan to defeat Chiang in five years. So, he was thinking about the year 1951, and this plan was decided a few months after Dai’s death. In September 1948, Mao said he wanted the People’s Liberation Army to have five million troops. Two months later, we witnessed a turning point, that is, Mao had 3.1 million troops, while Chiang’s dropped to 2.9 million. In retrospect, by the year 1948 or so, we already see that the tide did not turn in favor of Chiang.

Second, the Chinese characters “zhi cai” had often been mentioned by Dai in his instructions. Among the targets was Wang Jingwei, the head of the puppet regime which challenged Chiang’s legitimacy to rule China. Broadly defined, the term could mean assassinate, cripple, capture, punish, interrogate, or imprison. To be sure, the Chinese character “li” in Dai Li refers to the assassin’s hooded veil, reflecting Dai’s ruthlessness and willingness to do anything lethal to accomplish his goals. Would he or his agents have been able to approach and assassinate Mao or other important Communist figures? I doubt it.

Third, the inner circles of Chiang’s ruling party had been infiltrated by the CPC. For example, Chiang trusted Guo Rugui, a spy for the Chinese Communists. Shen Anna was another example. From the winter of 1934, especially between October 1938 and April 1949, she was responsible for taking minutes of almost every important meeting chaired by Chiang.

Fourth, in Item 4022, for example, we can feel how loyal Dai was to Chiang. In late 1927, many politicians perceived that Chiang would not be able to hold on to the leadership. Yet, Dai had faith in him and continued to work under Chiang. There is another example. On December 12, 1936, the Xi’an Incident took place. On the next day, a Japanese newspaper was the first one to report on the kidnapping of Chiang. On December 26 that year, Chiang was released by Zhang Xueliang. On December 23, Dai wrote that if he was not able to see Chiang, he would be discontent.

To this day, rumors still surround Dai’s death in March 1946.

Dai also insisted that his subordinates be equally loyal to him. Official sources claim that he had 45,000 field agents by the end of World War II. Some 18,000 agents had perished over the 13 plus years. Another source said his guerrilla force had grown to 70,000 men. Still another stated 50,000 agents, adding that if informants were included, 500,000 served under him. In Item 3846 dated January 9, 1942, we read that Dai instructed the downsizing of each theater of operations to 3,000 plainclothes agents. It is not clear how many theaters there were in those days, but the figure 3,000 is the biggest one we see in all the Items. Nonetheless, we need to pose a tough question: would that number have been enough to defeat the Chinese Communists in the civil war? It is again doubtful. Besides, there were also power struggles between Dai’s subordinates, as revealed in the archives.

Fifth, many documents said Dai did not have enough budget to carry out his operations and fulfill his missions.

Sixth, there were many corrupt ROC officials after World War II. According to Wu Guozhen, who was Shanghai City mayor from August 1945 to May 1949, Chiang attached great importance on his subordinates’ loyalty. In other words, those who were loyal to him could be somewhat corrupt. However, one of the major reasons for Chiang’s defeat in mainland China was due to corruption. Can Dai have stopped the corruption? It is questionable, as concurred by Wu Ruchuan: “At that time, many young people believed that there was a need to conduct a violent regime change, for the sake of rebuilding the society and the country, and they choose to side with the CPC.”3

In any case, Bergin said Dai’s story is still relevant today. Indeed, a recent news item from May 2017 is of a ROC Army general who was suspected of spying for the Chinese mainland and was removed from his sensitive post and placed under investigation.

What important lessons can we learn from Dai’s rich experience? First, Dai in Item 3339 said all pieces of intelligence must not be casually spread. In Item 4680, Dai specifically named the wife of Zheng Jiemin as not being able to keep secrets. However, we can also question whether Dai himself had been careful, for example, when in January 1941 he allowed that each special staff to receive a military blanket (Item 3264). This is because, under the harsh living conditions, if one were to take home this blanket made of special quality, wouldn’t his or her family members and/or relatives and friends have soon noticed?

Second, health is very important, because, as the head, Dai had to work 24 hours per day, given that he had to fight against the Imperial Japanese, Wang, the Chinese Communists, and internal foes. In August 1935 Dai said his physical strength was bad (Item 4519). Mao Renfeng succeeded Dai as the next spymaster. In Item 4657, we see Mao Renfeng being down with influenza and feeling chilly in May 1945. It was him who suggested that Dai enroll in the Whampoa Military Academy in Guangzhou City, where Chiang was at that time the Superintendent-Commandant.

History does not repeat itself, because even if we had a cloned Chiang, he could not have easily recovered mainland China. Time has indeed changed. We live in the 21st century.

First, we see much fewer assassinations in Chinese politics. The rule of law (or in Beijing’s term, government by law) will prevail on both sides of the Taiwan Strait. In March 2004, Chen Shui-bian staged an incident, that is, he shot himself for the sake of winning the ROC presidential election. That was the first shot. What about the second shot? Did Chen know that someone would fire another shot? More importantly, who fired the weapon? No, the second shot was a warning, reminding Chen not to create the Republic of Taiwan in his second term. The shooter certainly did not want Chen to die.

Second, loyalty to a leader has shifted to loyalty to the country or the political party. Third, decades ago, when the CIA recruited agents, it was publicly acknowledged that 95 percent of their intelligence came from public sources. At that time, there was no Internet. In the years ahead, cyberwar will become more vicious, with talented hackers employed by governments doing their utmost best to steal vital information from their rivals and enemies.


1. See also https://wechatinchina.com/thread-361088-1-1.html and https://read01.com/jyGJn.html.

2. On May 5, 1946, the ROC government announced it would return to the capital of Nanjing. Thereafter, government organizations shifted from Chongqing to Nanjing in succession.

3. Email communication with Wu Ruchuan on May 22, 2017.

4 Comments To This Article

  • pyu

    on May 28, 2017 at 06:52 AM - Reply


    Written by the author on May 28, 2017: Another educated-guess exists, that is, MA HanSan could be the person behind the crash, although denied by his family. Two of the author's classmates said they believed that the airplane crashed due to bad weather. Among them, one said his aunt, who passed away at the age of 101 last year, used to interact with ZHENG JieMin's wife at social functions. This classmate said what he heard from his aunt is that one of the pilots was not skillful in piloting the airplane, adding there was only one senior pilot that DAI Li can trust and no one really know the truth. Under the WANG JingWei category at Academia Historica, Item 1259 mentioned ChongQing's Third ZhanQue/theater of war or operations. One source said that, after the death of DAI, CHIANG, on March 28, 1946, reduced the number of agents from 20,000 to several hundred under his command and control. See https://www.wikiease.com/wiki/%E6%88%B4%E7%AC%A0, accessed on May 25, 2017.

    • pyu

      on May 29, 2017 at 01:30 PM - Reply


      Additional information: According to China Jiangxi Radio and Television Network's program, Classical Legend, which was shown on June 30, 2015, after August 13, 1937, the number of agents under DAI in ChongQing, the wartime capital of the Republic of China, increased from 2,000 to 50,000. On July 1, 1946, the name of DAI Li's bureau was changed to BaoMiJu. ZHENG JieMin, at the recommendation of MAO RenFeng, became the new bureau chief, and MAO, the deputy chief. MAO became the bureau chief a few years later. MAO RenFeng was a relative of DAI.

      • pyu

        on Sep 02, 2017 at 02:04 PM


        When the Imperial Japanese troops in May 1938 planned to occupy Wuhan City, CHIANG Kai-shek established the ninth ZhanQu/war zone. The 12th one was created in June 1945.

  • editor.dianzibao

    on Nov 12, 2017 at 06:55 AM - Reply


    On November 11, 2017, CHEN JunTian presented his work on the Eight-year War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression from the Republic of China perspective in JinMen County, Taiwan area. In his film, he mentioned five ZhanQu/theaters/war zones in the early phase of the war. In November 1938, there were 10 plus two guerrilla warfare zones. In March 1945, we see 12 zones. See https://zh.wikipedia.org/wiki/%E6%8A%97%E6%97%A5%E6%88%98%E4%BA%89%E6%88%98%E5%8C%BA. He reminded the audience that the war erupted on July 8th, not 7th in 1937.

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