THE CW ALMANAC: August 1998

by Benjamin Garrett Ph.D.

The Chinese Warlords' Chemical Arms Race
In August, 1921, Zhao Hengti in Hunan received a shipment of 'gas-producing shells'. Although the shipment was modest (two cases, weighing a mere 5,000 pounds), its arrival in China helps to fuel a chemical arms race among various Chinese warlords, eager to gain a technological advantage through modern weaponry .

Assorted attempts are made at creating a chemical arsenal. One warlord, Cao Kun, has his agents approach Woolen, Vosy and Company, a British chemical firm operating in the French concession in Tianjin. In 1923, they propose a straightforward cash purchase of 'large bombs filled with poisonous gas'. It is uncertain how Woolen, Vosy reacted to the proposal .

Another warlord, Feng Yu-hsiang, approaches the situation differently. In 1925, he sets about creating an arsenal from the bottom up, employing German and Soviet chemists to develop and manufacture chemical weapons of their own design .

The most ambitious warlord, however, may have been Zhang Zuolin. In 1925, he has a chemical plant built in Shengyang by a German contractor, Witte, and hired German and Russian chemists to supervise production of chlorine, phosgene and mustard gas. A Norwegian firm, A. L. Gran, ships specialty equipment for this factory, and Gran himself plus his Swedish assistant Carl Brakenhielm arrive in November, 1927, to oversee its installation.

In an effort to attract chemical warfare experts, Zhang has advertisements posted in places frequented by foreigners. One such ad, in the Ex-Servicemen's Association, Shanghai, produces at least one response. R. S. Piggot, an Irishman on temporary assignment in China as a chemical expert for the British firm McAndrew, Forbes, and Company, considers Zhang's offer but declines. The ads as well as the mounting evidence of Chinese warlord interest in chemical weaponry prompts the British garrison in Shanghaiguan to issue protective masks to its troops .

Zhang's ambitious chemical weapon plans inspires his followers in Jinzhou to attempt construction of a chemical weapons factory, using German contractors, although there is no information on the results of their attempt.

Despite all these preparations for offensive chemical warfare, there is little evidence of its use and scant evidence suggesting such use proved decisive. One report records aerial delivery of otherwise unspecified 'gas bombs', causing the attacked party, the warlord Wu Pei-fu, to label the use of chemical weapons "inhumane". The authoritative SIPRI study series reports that in the early 1930s "[c]hemical weapons are said to have played a decisive role in northern China...[but] there is no information about the source of the weapons." Thereafter, chemical weapons appear to have ceased to be of interest to the Chinese warlords.

Editorial note: The presence in the People's Republic of China (PRC) of what might be old or abandoned chemical weapons has been widely reported. Negotiations continue between the PRC Government and the Government of Japan regarding a satisfactory basis for ensuring the safe, secure recovery and disposal of these chemical weapons as well as the effective remediation and cleanup of any environmental insult resulting from the prolonged storage of these weapons under less-than-ideal circumstances.

Personal communications from individuals tracking these negotiations suggest that the Japanese are reporting discovery of chemical weapons of other-than-Japanese origin. If these reports are accurate and such non-Japanese weapons do exist, their presence in modern-day China might be reminders the role played by the British, Germans and Soviets during the Chinese Warlords' chemical arms race of the 1920s. (BCG)

98-4, issue no. 67