The Chinese Civil War (1927–37 and 1946–49)

Summary of The Chinese Civil War (1927–37 and 1946–49)
  • Even after the overthrow of the Chinese government, Manchu Dynasty, in 1911 China was still exploited by foreign powers.
  • The Chinese Civil War fought between the Communists and the Nationalists was to restore control over China.
  • It formed two parts, starting in 1927, separated by the Sino-Japanese War in 1937, and started again in 1946 after the war with Japan was over.

For the first half of the 20th century, China faced political chaos. Following a revolution in 1911, which overthrew the Manchu dynasty, the new Republic failed to take hold and China continued to be exploited by foreign powers, lacking any strong central government. The Chinese Civil War was an attempt by two ideologically opposed forces – the nationalists and the communists – to see who would ultimately be able to restore order and regain central control over China. The struggle between these two forces, which officially started in 1927, was interrupted by the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese war in 1937, but started again in 1946 once the war with Japan was over. The results of this war were to have a major effect not just on China itself, but on the international stage.

Long-term causes of the Chinese Civil War


Socio-economic factors

Summary of Socio-economic factors
  • Peasants under the rule of the Manchu Dynasty were poor, worked on land, lived a hard life, and paid all the taxes.
  • Their population grew by 8% but the land cultivated increased only by 1% in the second half of the 19th century, and this imbalance caused famines.
  • Peasants, often driven to the cities by their poverty, had to pay up to 80% of their harvest to landlords, and usually struggled with unemployment and debt due to cheap Western technology.

In 1900, China was ruled by the imperial Manchu dynasty. The vast majority of the population were peasants. Their life was hard, working the land, and most were extremely poor. It was the peasants who paid the taxes that in turn paid for the great Manchu imperial court. It was also the peasants who faced starvation during floods or droughts, as their subsistence farming techniques often left them with barely enough to feed their families. The population in China grew by 8 percent in the second half of the 19th century, but the land cultivated only increased by 1 percent. This imbalance made famines more frequent. Peasants' plots of land were reduced, though at the same time landlords increased rents; some peasants had to pay 80 per cent of their harvest. Peasants would be driven to the cities by poverty, where there was already high unemployment due to improved technology and cheap Western imports.

Political weakness and the influence of foreign powers

Summary of Political weakness and the influence of foreign powers
  • China's destabilised economy was exploited and humiliated through Western imperialism after the mid 19th century Opium Wars and the great Chinese empire had been "carved up into spheres of influence."
  • China had been forced to sign unequal treaties, maintain extra-territorial courts for foreigners who disobeyed Chinese laws, saw inflation, corruption, and financial chaos from imperialist powers.
  • Large portions of the tax revenue did not reach the central government as provisional governments were corrupt.
  • In 1864, the first political reform and religious movement was shut down after the regional armies killed millions of Chinese rebellions.
  • Even the Chinese educated and elite in the Self-Strengthening Movement were divided on how to modernise China.
  • China had lost the war with Japan in 1895, and lost land to Japan in the Russo-Japanese settlement in 1904−5).
  • There was a widespread and popular anti-Western feeling, which started the Boxer Rebellion in 1899, but without modern weaponry, any anti-foreign revolt was futile.

In the century that preceded the Chinese Civil War, the European imperialist powers had humiliated and exploited China and caused the destabilisation of China's ruling Manchu regime. Britain had defeated China in the mid 19th century in the Opium Wars, and subsequently the great Chinese Empire was carved up into spheres of influence by the Europeans, Americans, and at the 19th century, the Japanese.

This photo is of a Chinese Boxer and illustrates the poor levels of armament compared with the contemporary European and Japanese military forces.

China had been forced to sign unequal treaties that gave the imperialist powers extraordinary controls over Chinese trade, territory, and ultimately sovereignty. Foreigners refused to abide by Chinese laws and they had their own extraterritorial courts. In addition, missionaries flooded into China in an attempt to spread Christianity. Inflation and corruption weakened the financial position of the Manchus. Widespread corruption among local and provisional government officials also meant that a large portion of tax revenues did not reach the central government.

In 1850, the Taiping Rebellion spread throughout southern China. The rebellion, which lasted until 1864, was part religious movement and part political reform movement. It was only put down after the death of millions of Chinese by regional armies. This involvement of regional armies began to move away from centralized control, which would result in the Warlord Era in the 1920s.

There had been attempts to resist Western control by sections of the educated elite in China. However, the Self-Strengthening Movement was divided in how to modernize China, and the Manchus did not coherently support reform. China remained subjugated to the West and faced the humiliation of defeat in war to Japan in 1895. China lost more territory to Japan when it was part of the settlement in the Russo-Japanese War (1904–05). The extent of popular anti-Western feeling turned into widespread violent rebellion against Westerners and the Boxer Rebellion in 1899. However, without modern weaponry, the anti-foreign revolt was doomed to fail.

The overthrow of the Manchu dynasty

Summary of The overthrow of the Manchu dynasty
  • Chinese government felt increased tension when the death of the Emperor and succession of two year old Pu Yi in 1908, alongside the ever-growing sensation of imminent 'Westerinisation.'
  • Prince Chun ruled in regent, his incompetence saw the dismissal of Jiang Jieshi, and he increased taxation, contributing to socio-economic downturn.
  • In 1911, the dynasty was overthrown in a revolution known as the Double Tenth and a republic was created.
  • Dr Sun Yixan, who had been in exile in the USA during the revolution, was to become the first president of the new republic in Nanjing.
  • In an attempt to over-throw the rebellion, the imperial government tried to use the Northern Army general, Yuan Shikai, only to be double-crossed. In February 1912, Pu Yi was abdicated.
  • Despite this revolution, there was no establishment of democracy and former imperial officers held their positions.
  • Historian Michael Lynch argues that the revolution was essentially a revolt by the provinces against the center government; "a triumph for regionalism."

By the beginning of the 20th century, China was in a desperate condition and there was a growing feeling that the ruling Manchu dynasty would be overthrown so that China could be Westernized and democracy introduced. The political weakness of the Manchu dynasty intensified with the death of the Emperor and the succession of a two-year-old boy, Pu Yi, in 1908. The former Emperor's brother, Prince Chun, ruled as regent, but was not capable of conducting the essential programme of reform. Indeed, he dismissed the potential troublemaker General Jiang Jieshi, humiliated him, increased taxation and frustrated the business classes without any socio-economic progress being made.

In October 1911, the ruling dynasty was overthrown in a revolution known as the Double Tenth. A republic was created. The revolution began when the government lost control of the military; soldiers in Wuchang revolted and rebellion spread quickly. Most provinces then declared themselves independent of Beijing. The key tensions and issues that led to this revolution would also be significant to the outbreak of the civil war 15 years later: the impact of imperialism, anti-foreign sentiment and political weakness.

In November 1911, in an attempt to seize the political initiative, delegates from 'independent' provinces gather in Nanjing to declare the creation of a Chinese Republic. A political exile, who had been in the USA during the revolution, was invited to be China's first President − Dr Sun Yat Sen (or also known as Dr. Sun Yixian).

The imperial government attempted to use the former influential general of the Northern Army, Yuan Shikai, to suppress the rebellion, but he double-crossed them, arranging a deal with Sun Yixan. Sun agreed for Yuan Shikai to be President of the new republic in February 1912 in exchange for the end of Manchu rule in China. On the 12th of February 1912, Pu Yi abdicated.

The revolution, however, was incomplete. There was no real introduction of democracy and most former imperial officials kept their positions. The impetus for the revolution was wholly Chinese, but had not been led by the middle classes. It had been the military who ignited the rising and Chinese radicals had joined in later. Michael Lynch argued that the revolution was fundamentally a revolt by the provinces against the center:

The Double Tenth was a triumph of regionalism. It represented a particular phase in the long-running contest between central autocracy and local autonomy, a contest that was to shape much of China's history during the following forty years
—Michael Lynch, China: From Empire to People's Republic 1900−49, 1999.

The rule of Yuan Shikai

Summary of The rule of Yuan Shikai
  • Yuan Shikai was military dictator from 1912 to 1915. His military dictatorship was the key obstacle in uniting China.
  • Sun's party reformed to become the Guomindang (GMD) in 1912.
  • To win the political battle for China, a military was required; a lesson learnt by the GMD and the Chinese communists.
  • In an attempt to undermine the influential Yuan Shikai's rule, Sun tried moving him from his power base in Beijing to Nanjing.
  • The GMD were a regional power when Shikai refused, and the republicans were not ready to face resistance from Yuan.
  • The 'second revolution' against Yuan failed in 1913, and Sun fled to Japan.
  • The republicans created regional assemblies, which Yuan abolished and alienated provisional powers, and tax revenues.
  • However, Yuan's ultimate mistake was when he declared himself Emperor in 1916. He lost support from the military and died soon after.

Yuan ruled China as a military dictator from 1912 until 1915. However, the key issues that had led to the revolution in 1911 remained unresolved. Regionalism continued under Yuan's rule and became the key obstacle to a united China. Sun's party reformed as the Guomindang (GMD) in 1912, and declared itself as a parliamentary party.

It is argued that Sun agreed to Yuan Shikai's rule in order to avert the possibility of China descending in to civil war. The republicans were not powerful enough at this stage to take on the military. It was a lesson that both the GMD and the Chinese communists would take on board − to win the political battle for China military power was needed.

Sun attempted to undermine Yuan's power by moving him from his power base in Beijing to the south of Nanjing to set up a new government. Yuan refused to leave. At this point the GMD were a regional power only in the southern provinces and the republicans were not sufficiently organised to mount resistance to Yuan. A 'second revolution' failed and Sun had to flee to Japan in 1913. However, Yuan mastered his own downfall by a series of ill-conceived acts. The 1912 Republican constitution had created regional assemblies, which he abolished in an attempt to centralise power. This act further alienated the provincial powers, especially as tax revenues were centrally controlled. Yuan's final miscalculation was to proclaim himself Emperor in 1916. At this point he lost the support of the military and stood down. He died three months later.

The GMD and the Three Principles


The GMD had been set up by Sun Yat sen in 1912. He wanted to create a unified modern and democratic China. He had returned to China after the Double Tenth Revolution in 1911, and established a government in southern China, in Canton. Sun was not a communist, although he was willing to cooperate with them, and the organisation of the GMD was along communist lines. Sun also saw the need to develop a GMD army.

Sun stated that he and his party had three guiding principles:

  1. Nationalism − to rid China of foreign influence, unite China and to regain its international respect,
  2. Democracy − the people should be educated so that they could ultimately rule themselves democratically, and
  3. People's Livelihood − this was essentially 'land reform,' the redistribution of land to the peasants and economic development.

Short-term causes of the Chinese Civil War


Political weakness: regionalism − the warlords (1916−28)

Summary of Political weakness: regionalism − the warlords (1916−28)
  • After the abdication and death of Yuan, China lost the final degree of unity.
  • China broke up into smaller provinces controlled by warlords which lasted between 1916 and 1928.
  • The warlords ran their areas independently, collected taxes, had their own laws and currencies.
  • The Chinese were highly embarrassed by this, and the peasants suffered.
  • Internal state of anarchy, division, and regionalism and provincialism was to pay for the cause of the chinese civil war

A key cause of the civil war in China was the increasing lack of unity in the country by the second decade of the 20th century. Indeed, regionalism or provincialism was to play a significant role not only in causing the war, but also in its course and outcome.

With the abdication and death of Yuan, China lost the only figure that had maintained some degree of unity. China broke up into small states and provinces, each controlled by a warlord. These warlords ran their territories independently, organising and taxing the people in their domains. They had their own laws and even their own currencies. As warlords extended their power and wealth by expanding their territories, it was the peasants who suffered in their continuous wars. None of the warlords were willing to relinquish their armies or power to the central government.

The warlord period increased the sense of humiliation felt by many Chinese and, coupled with their desire to get rid of foreign influence, led to an increase in nationalism during the decade of warlord rule.

China had all but ceased to exist − it was in a state of internal anarchy. If the warlords remained, China would remain divided.

The May Fourth Movement

Summary of The May Fourth Movement
  • Led by students in 1919, and in response to the Treaty of Versailles, a mass demonstration was held in Beijing, against the warlords, traditional culture, and the Japanese.
  • China had joined the Allies in a "rebirth" as an independent nation inspired by the Bolshevik revolution in 1917.
  • Imperialism was perceived as the main cause for China's problem.
  • China's GMD party had grown stronger during the warlord period.

During this period, two political movements developed in response to both the warlords and foreign influence in China. The May Fourth Movement began in 1919. Students led a mass demonstration in Beijing against the warlords, traditional Chinese culture and the Japanese. The hostility had been ignited by the Versailles settlement, which had given Germany's former concessions in Shandong province to Japan. China, it seemed, had joined the Allies in the war.

The significance of the May Fourth Movement was that it was dedicated to changing and resurrecting China as a proud and independent nation. Some intellectuals and students were inspired by revolutionary ideology in order to achieve these goals. The Bolshevik revolution of 1917 provided a practical example. The new Bolshevik government had also denounced the imperialists and said that all contested border claims would be dropped. Imperialism was perceived by many as the main cause of China's problems.

Other Chinese were inspired by the GMD nationalist party, which had grown much stronger during the warlord period. These two groups − the communists and the nationalists − were to come together in an alliance in 1922.

Attempt to unify China: the First United Front

Summary of Attempt to unify China: the First United Front
  • Both the GMD and the CCP wanted a unified China and took up a united front to fight the warlords in 1923.
  • Sun Yixan's third principle, 'the People's Livelihood,' otherwise known as socialism, convinced Cominterm that this front could be trusted.
  • Though he had been educated in Moscow, and found funding from the USSR to train GMD officers, Jiang became increasingly anti-Communist which nearly broke the front.
  • The GMD and the CCP went on a Northern Expedition (1926−8) to crush the warlords, which was a success.
  • The GMD announced it was a legitimate government and situated the new capital in Nanjing.

Both the GMD and the CCP wanted a unified China. They agreed that the first step to this was to get rid of the warlords, and in 1922 they formed the First United Front. Both parties also agreed that China needed to be free of the foreign imperialist powers. The Third Principle of Sun Yixian's, 'the People's Livelihood,' was often call 'socialism,' which convinced the Comintern that this was a party they could back. In addition, Jiang had studied in Moscow in 1923 and then ran the Whampoa Military Academy, which was set up and funded by the USSR to train GMD officers. Despite his Soviet links, however, Jiang was not a communist. Indeed, he became increasingly anti-communist and began his leadership of the GMD by removing communists from key positions in the party. He stopped short of breaking off the alliance with the communists as he knew that he must first take out his primary obstacle to a unified China − the warlords.

Jiang, now determined to act on the first of the Three Principles, attempted to unify China by putting an end to the warlords' power. Together with the communists, the GMD set out on the 'Northern Expedition' in 1926 to crush the warlords of central and northern China. This operation was a great success; by 1927, the GMD and the communists had captured Hangzhou, Shanghai, and Nanjing. They took Beijing by 1928. Within two years, the United Front of the GMD and the CCP had destroyed the power of the warlords. The GMD announced that it was the legitimate government of China and the new capital and seat of government would be Nanjing.

Immediate causes of the Chinese Civil War: the GMD attacks on the CCP

Summary of Immediate causes of the Chinese Civil War: the GMD attacks on the CCP
  • The tension between the GMD and the CCP was the last of the tension in China and their alliance was of convenience.
  • Their success was as a result of the CCP promise of land to the peasants and GMD ambitions.
  • Jiang was sympathetic to the landlords and middle classes but began to expel all communists from the GMD due to communist support.
  • The 'White Terror' in April 1927 was Jiang's peak attack. Jiang turned the powerful 'workers' party army' under Zhou ENlai against the CCP, 5,000 communists were shot.
  • Jiang's 'purification movement' killed around 250,000 people, including communists, trade unionists, and peasant leaders.
  • By 1927, the CCP were nearly destroyed.

Despite the results of the Northern Expedition, China was still not unified. The United Front was only a friendship of convenience. What had united the CCP and the GMD − the fight against the warlords − was over and ideology divided the two parties. The success of the Northern Expedition had not only been due to nationalist ambitions, but it was also because of the communist promise of land to the peasants; this commitment had given them local peasant support. The communists also had support from industrial workers. For example, Zhou Enlai, a communist leader of the GMD, had organised the workers rising in Shanghai.

The popular support for the communists was a key reason that Jiang decided he could no longer tolerate them in the GMD. There could be no more cooperation. Jiang was sympathetic to landlords and the middle classes, and was far more right-wing than Sun had been. Areas under communist control had seen peasants attack landlords and seize land − this could not be tolerated. It seemed to Jiang that the CCP needed to be crushed before China could truly be unified under the GMD.

Jiang now expelled all communists from the GMD and his attacks on the communists reached a peak in Shanghai in the 'White Terror' in April 1927. A powerful 'workers' party army' under Zhou Enlai had proved very effective during the Northern Expedition and Jiang turned on them, using informants from the underworld of triads and gangsters; 5,000 communists were shot. The GMD carried out similar attacks in other cities in what became known as the 'purification movement' which meant the massacre of thousands of communists, trade unionists, and peasant leaders. About a quarter of a million people were killed. Despite attempts to resist (eg. Mao's failed Autumn Harvest Rising), the CCP was very nearly crushed by the end of 1927.

Ignoring the orders of the Comintern to retain the United Front, the CCP decided that its only hope of survival was to flee into the mountains of Jiangsi. The GMD pursued them, determined to destroy the communists. The civil war had begun.

The course of the war


Timeline of events 1930−50

1930−31 Jiang's First Encirclement campaign attacks Jiangxi Soviet, defeated by the CCP.
1931 Japanese attack Manchuria. Twenty-Eight Bolsheviks take over Central Committee of CCP. Jiang launches Second and Third Encirclement Campaigns against Jiangxi Soviet; both are defeated.
1932 Japanese attack Shanghai. Jiangxi Soviet declares war on Japan. Fourth Encirclement Campaign begins.
1933 Truce with Japan. Fifth Encirclement Campaign.
1934 The Long March begins.
1935 Survivors of the Long March reach Shanxi Soviet base.
1936 Jiang Jieshi taken hostage by warlord Zhang Xueliang in Xi'an. Second United Front established.
April 1937 The Second United Front is formed.
July The Japanese invade China.
November Jiang Jieshi moves government to Chongqing.
December Rape of Nanjing.
August 1940 Hundred Regiments assault on Japanese by Red Army.
January 1941 Anhui incident ends Second United Front.
October 1944 US commander General Joseph Stilwell leaves China at Jiang Jieshi's request.
August−October 1945 US Ambassador Hurley leads talks between GMD and CCP.
October Agreement announced, but both sides send forces to Manchuria.
September Japan formally surrenders in China theatre.
December US General Georce C. Marshall arrives to lead negotiations.
January 1946 Truce between CCP and GMD.
March USSR begins to withdraw from Manchuria. Fighting breaks out in Manchuria between GMD and CCP.
January 1947 Marshall leaves China.
March Jiang Jieshi takes Yan'an.
October Mao announces land reform.
April 1948 US Congress passes China Aid Act − aid sent to GMD again.
November Battle of the Huai-Hai begins.
January 1949 The GMD lose the battle of Huai-Hai.
April The CCP capture Nanjing.
May The CCP take Shangai.
October Mao announces the establishment of the People's Republic of China.
December Jiang flees to Taiwan.

The Jiangxi Soviet

Summary of The Jiangxi Soviet
  • The CCP retreated to Jiangxi, which became known as Jiangxi Soviet.
  • Mao Zedong's writing suggests that the White Terror was proof that the United Front ultimately doomed.
  • Mao also believed that the GMD and Cominterm had the wrong strategy for China; it should be peasant based.
  • Mao said "The peasants are the sea; we are the fish. The sea is our habitat," which shifted the ideological orthodox interpretation of Marxism to Maoism.
  • His tangent ideology was successful with the results of recruitment found in the Jiangxi Soviet.

The CCP were forced to retreat into Jiangxi province in order to survive the GMD onslaught. This territory became known as the 'Jiangxi Soviet.' Mao's writings suggest that the White Terror had only confirmed what he had already thought about the United Front, ergo that this cooperation with the GMD would destroy the CCP. He also believed that the GMD and the Comintern had the wrong strategy for China, basing their revolution on urban areas. Maos' revolution would be based on the peasants. Essentially, this was a more realistic strategy, as the vast majority of Chinese were not urban workers but rural peasants. From a population in China of around 500 million, only 12 per cent were in urban areas, whereas 88 per cent lived in rural regions. From a total workforce of approximately 259 million, 205 million were agricultural workers and a mere 54 million were non-agricultural or industrial workers.

Mao arrived at Jiangxi and organised the Jiangxi Soviet around his idea of the central revolutionary role of the peasant − 'The peasants are the sea; wer are the fish. The sea is our habitat,' he stated. His ideological shift away from orthodox Marxism, which placed the proletariat at the centre of the revolution, put him at odds with more orthodox members of the CCP. But his success in recruiting and organising the peasants in Jiangxi Soviet began to win him the argument.

Division within the CCP

Summary of Division within the CCP
  • Both the CCP and the GMD suffered from 'internal factionalism' during this period of the civil war.
  • Mao's beliefs were, by 1930;
    • Revolution carried out by the peasants,
    • Guerrilla warfare, and
    • Land reform.
  • Li Lisan "misinterpreted" commands and attacked the Jiangxi Soviet in what was thought as a global end of capitalism in the Great Depression.
  • His attacks failed due to the parties influence in rural areas.
  • Lisan was dismissed from leadership in January 1931.

Both the CCP and the GMD suffered from 'internal factionalism' during this period of the civil war. Mao's views on the revolution and how the civil war should be fought could be summarised, by 1930, in the following key points;

  • The revolution will be carried out by the peasant masses, thus the peasants will be mobilised and politicised by the Red Army,
  • The army's tactics will be guerrilla warfare, and
  • Land reform will be carried out in their areas of control.

Yet his views were not shared by the Soviet Union and the Comintern. The USSR saw the Great Depression as the beginning of the end of capitalism, and believed that the world was on the brink of international revolution. In February 1930, the Comintern official Li Lisan used an instruction to all CCP members to attack cities in Jiangxi and Hunan. This order was known as the 'Li Lisan Line.' All the attacks failed, and the communist army was forced into retreat. (The Comintern then blamed Li Lisan by saying he had misunderstood its orders.) The CCP in the cities was shattered, and it appeared that the Party could only hold its influence in rural areas. Li Lisan was dismissed from his leadership of the CCP in January 1931.

GMD attempts to exterminate the CCP

Summary of GMD attempts to exterminate the CCP

From 1928 to 1934, Jiang had the chance to carry out Sun's Three Principles. His government was ineffective, however, and Jiang made no progress towards democracy or land reform. His support came from landlords and the rich, and so initiatives were limited to the building of some roads and the construction of more schools. From 1931, Jiang also had to face the threat of the Japanese, who invaded Manchuria in 1931.

Jiang's main goal remained the elimination of the communists, and during this time he carried out the 'Five Encirclement Campaigns' in an attempt to destroy the Jiangxi Soviet and the CCP. The GMD strategy was to encircle the Reds and cut them off from supplies and resources. The communists focused their strategy on survival, and based themselves and resources. The communists focused their strategy on survival, and based themselves in the mountains between Hunan and Jiangxi provinces. Here they built up their military forces − the Red Army. Mao explained his strategy in a letter to Li Lisan in 1929: 'The enemy advances, we retreat; the enemy halts, we harass; the enemy tires, we attack; the enemy retreats; we pursue.'

Li Lisan was replaced by a group of Moscow graduates known as the 'Twenty-Eight Bolsehviks' and the influence of the Comintern remained strong enough to move Mao as chief commissar of the Red Army. Mao did not like these 'inexperienced men.'

The first three Campaigns were launched between December 1930 and September 1931. The Red Army under Mao and Zhou Enlai faced increasingly strong GMD forces, first 100,000, then 200,000, and finally 300,000 men − and they defeated all three. Using Mao's strategy of revolutionary war, they allowed the GMD to enter their territory and begin to round up communists, and then they attacked the fragmented units. Their knowledge of the terrain and their use of the support of the local peasants meant that they could choose the place and timing of their engagements.

Mao was not involved in the Fourth Encirclement Campaign. Zhu De was commander-in-chief of the Red Army, and he used the same tactics as before with the same results − the GMD was forced back again in March 1933.

The Long March

Summary of The Long March
  • The Fifth Encirclement Campaign saw a force of 800,000 men, air cover and artillery, as a result of German advice.
  • It was successful at Ruijin in 1934, and instead of surrendering Mao decided to break the GMD's lines and set up a new base.
  • This was successful on the 19th of October 1934, when the CCP trekked 9,600km to Shaanxi.
  • It took 368 days, 90% of the 90,000 communists died, and they passed inhospitable territory.

Seven months later, in October, Jiang attempted his fifth and final campaign against the 'bandits.' On this occasion he had taken the advice of a German general to adopt a gradual approach. This time a force of 800,000 men was sent in, with air cover and artillery. The Red Army could not take advantage of its previous strengths of higher mobility and local support. Outnumbered and surrounded by GMD forces, it fought and lost a final battle at Ruijin in 1934.

Military Strategy 1930−1934

1930−31 1932−33 1934
Mao in charge Zhu De in Charge Twenty-Eight Bolsheviks in charge of Red Army
Guerilla warfare Guerilla warfare 'Stand and fight'
GMD Encirclement Campaigns 1−3 GMD Encirclement Campaign 4 GMD Encirclement Campaign 5 (began 1933)
GMD Campaigns 1−3 fail GMD Campaign 4 fails GMD Campaign 5 succeeds − German military advice. Red Army breaks out / Long March

The CCP faced annihilation. Mao decided that the only change the CCP had was to break through the GMD's lines and set up another base. They succeeded in doing this on the 19th of October and then embarked on what became known as the 'Long March.' The Long March took the CCP on a seemingly impossible 9,600km trek to Shaanxi across some of the most inhospitable territory in China. It took 368 days and it led to the death of more than 90 per cent of the 90,000 communists that broke through their encirclement at Jiangxi.

This map shows the route of the Long March between 1934 and 1935.

Key events of the Long March

Summary of Key events of the Long March
  • The 28 Bolsheviks led the CCP to Xiang River, which was strongly defended by the GMD.
  • 50,000 attempting to cross the river died - they were "sitting ducks" for Jiang's forces.
  • In January 1935, the CCP captured the town of Zunyi using Guerilla tactics.
  • At this time, the 28 Bolsheviks were discredited as a result of the disaster at Xiang River.
  • Mao became leader.
  • At Zunyi, Mao declared war on Japan, led the Red Army towards Sichuan and met with 40,000 other communists.
  • Jiang met Mao along the western provinces of Yunnan and Tibet, the GMD destroyed all the boats at Yangtze River, attempting to disrupt Mao's rout.
  • Mao deceived the nationalists by sending units 136km further along, tricking the GMD and crossing another bridge.
  • The CCP covered 134km in 24 hours two weeks later, and came across Dabu River.
  • Local people built a bridge to help the CCP and the GMD should have blown the bridge but this would have caused local outcry.
  • Jiang's forces removed the planks, stopping the CCP.
  • According to the CCP, 22 volunteers threw grenades to take out the machine-gun ready GMD and let the rest of the Red Army cross.
  • The success here led to a massive boost in morale, encouraging members of the GMD to switch sides.
  • With only 10,000 left, Mao met with 45,000 other men at Sichun under the command of Zhang.
  • They quarreled on the next move of te he CCP, and split forces, Zhang taking Zhu De.
  • The GMD attacked Zhang's army, and Zhu De fled to meet with Mao.
  • Mao crossed the deadly Songpan marshes, 3,000 men died across the 400km region.
  • After marching 9,600km, fighting 15 major battles, Mao arrived at Shaanxi province to form the Shaanxi Soviet in October 1935.
  • A new based was formed in the city of Yan'an.

Crossing the Xiang River


The Xiang River was strongly defended by the GMD, and Jiang was determined not to let the CCP escape. Mao criticised the strategy the CCP used at the river, where around 50,000 died. The CCP had not used his tactics of outmanoeuvering and deceiving the GMD; they had also been loaded down with furniture and other unnecessary equipment. The Twenty-Weight Bolsheviks, now in charge of the army, had simply led the CCP in a line into the river, where they were 'sitting ducks' for Jiang's forces.

Zunyi Conference


In January 1935 the CCP, this time using 'guerrilla tactics,' managed to capture the town of Zunyi. The Twenty-Weight Bolsheviks had been discredited due to their disasters at Jiangxi and the Xiang River. At a party conference held here to determine future CCP policy, Mao emerged as leader.

Upper Yangtze River Crossing


At Zunyi, Mao declared that his forces 'marched north to fight the Japanese,' and now led the Red Army towards Sichuan to meet up with the 40,000-strong communist army under leadership of Zhang Guotao. Jiang pursued Mao across the far western provinces of Yunnan and Tibet. The GMD destroyed all the boats at the Yangtze River crossing in an attempt to rout Mao's forces. Mao deceived the nationalists that his army was constructing a bridge to cross, but sent units to a town 136km further along. Thus, while the bridge was being built, the CCP crossed the river in another place. Mao got across before the GMD realised what was going on.

The Luding Bridge

A photograph of Luding Bridge.

Just two weeks later, with Mao forcing the pace, covering 134km in just 24 hours, the Red Army came to the Dadu River. Local people had built a bridge, using their own resources to pay for it, from 13 heavy iron chains covered by wooden planks. The river was very fast moving, but here was the only way to cross. The GMD could, and should, have blown the bridge, but this action would have led to local outcry. Instead Jiang's forces removed the planks that covered the chains. What took place next is disputed, but according to the CCP, 22 volunteers crossed the bridge, clinging on to the chains and throwing hand grenades at the machine-gun posts that fired on them. Only five of the attackers survived, but they managed to take out the machine-gun posts, while those behind them laid new boards so that the Red Army could then rush across. In the ensuing battle, the GMD attempted to set fire to the bridge, but it was too late. The crossing was a great morale boost for the CCP, and their courage inspired many members of the GMD to switch sides.

Disputes between Zhang Guotao, Zhu De and Mao


Mao had 10,000 left in his army, and this force finally met up with 45,000 men under the command of Zhang in Sichuan. The two leaders disagreed on what the Red Army's next move should be. Mao wanted to go north to the Shaanxi Soviet, where they could fight the Japanese. Zhang wanted to stay in western Sichuan, or go further west to have closer access to the USSR. They could not agree and ended up going separate ways. Zhu De decided to go with Zhang, and the two generals took the majority of forces with them. The GMD attacked them, split their forces, and Zhu fled to join Mao. Zhang's forces were virtually destroyed.

Songpan Marshes


To get to Shaanxi, Mao had to cross the unmapped and deadly Songpan marshes, where men sank into the mud and drowned, faced attack from local tribes, and ate poisonous plants in an attempt to fend off starvation. Of the 10,000 that entered the marshes, only 7,000 made it across the 400km region.



After marching 9,600km, and fighting 15 major battles and many smaller skirmishes, Mao's army arrived at the Shaanxi Soviet in October 1935. Here they set up a communist base centred on the town of Yan'an.

Mao and revolutionary warfare

Summary of Mao and revolutionary warfare
  • Not trying to defeat GMD, but impose revolutionary ideology onto Chinese people.
  • Maoism would reconstruct all of society, economy, and government.
  • Nationalism involved maintain the status quo.
  • Mao believed peasants were central to revolution; his priority was to persuade and support them with communist cause.

Mao's war against the GMD can be classed as a revolutionary war, as he was not only trying to defeat the GMD but also to impose a revolutionary ideology on the Chinese people. The choice the Chinese people had was between Maoism, and with its total restructuring of society, economy, and government, and the nationalists' policy, which basically involved maintaining the status quo. Mao believed that the peasants were central to revolutionary war, and so his priority had to be to persuade them to support the communist cause.

Mao's revolutionary warfare consisted of several stages:

Setting up base areas

Summary of Setting up base areas
  • Mao would set up base areas to organize and educate peasants who would accept the new taxes and justice system.
  • Base areas were remote and difficult for the GMD to interfere with.
  • Part of 'Eight Rules of the Eighth Army' was to respect everyone - gained support with peasants.

Mao planned to set up 'base areas' in which he would organise the peasants and educate them in communist ideology. They would then, it was hoped, accept new taxes and justice systems applied by the CCP, which would be better than those they had previously endured. These base areas would be remote and thus difficult for the GMD to interfere with during this 'education process.' Part of the 'Eight rules of the Eight Route Army' was to treat everyone with respect, and this very powerful idea helped to gain the support and trust of the peasants.

The organisation phase

Summary of The organisation phase
  • Once one base was up, CCP leaders sent out to other villages to set up more bases.
  • Aim to take over countryside, isolating cities, slowly taking control of China.

Once a base camp was set up, CCP leaders would be sent out to other villages to repeat the process. Mao called this the 'organisation phase.' The aim was slowly to take over the countryside, thereby isolating the cities to allow the CCP ultimately to take political control of China.

Defending the bases

Summary of Defending the bases
  • Mao organized 'hit and runs' as there was good knowledge of terrain and support from locals.
  • GMD tried to hunt down CCP, drawing them to hostile areas, but guerrilla tactics usually prevailed.
  • Enemy became demoralised and word down and any attempt to destroy CCP (looting villages/massive attacks/etc) only increased hostility and improved CCP status.

The next stage was to defend the base areas, which would not remain free frm GMD attack, especially once GMD taxes were going to the CCP. Mao organised the peasants to use hit-and-run tactics, their advantage being the knowledge of terrain and support of the local population. If the GMD attempted to hunt down the CCP units, they would be drawn into hostile areas, which would enable the guerrillas to attack them attack them again and/or disappear into the local community. In this way, the 'enemy' would become demoralised and worn down. Any attempt by the GMD to wipe out the CCP presence with massive attacks and looting of villages would only increase hostility to the nationalists and improve the position of the communists.

The guerrilla phase

Summary of The guerrilla phase
  • Communists can survive by retreating like in the Long March to new bases or create new bases.
  • This made new guerilla fighters.

The communists could always survive by retreating, as they had in the Long March. Other bases could be set up as they retreated − these would then created more guerrilla fighters. This was the 'guerrilla phase' of the war.

Protracted war

Summary of Protracted war
  • Mao knew this would lead to a longer war, however as the number of guerillas increased, the number of attacks increased.
  • Balance eventually fell in favour of guerillas.

Mao understood that his strategy would lead to a long war; indeed, the idea of a 'protracted war' was central to his thinking. However, as the number of guerrillas grew, and in turn the number of attacks on the enemy increased, the balance would finally tilt in favour of the guerrillas.

Seizing power

Summary of Seizing power
  • Guerillas joined together to form convention army in the 'open or mobile phase'.
  • CCP in last stage of guerilla warfare when second civil war broke out (1946).
  • When the CCP were in power, consolidation occurred; removing remnants of the 'old regime.'

At this stage, the revolutionary war would go into the 'open or mobile phase,' where guerrilla units joined together to form a conventional army. The CCP was in this last stage of guerrilla warfare when the second phase of the civil war broke out in 1946. Once in power, a period of consolidation would be needed to rid China of the remnants of the 'olg regime.'

End of the first stage of the Chinese Civil War – the Second United Front (1937)

Summary of End of the first stage of the Chinese Civil War – the Second United Front (1937)
  • Long March essential for Mao to become unchallenged leader even though Jiang Jieshi still determined to defeat CCP.
  • China was invaded in 1931 by Japan (Jieshi made this deal), taking over Manchuria.
  • Jieshi appealed to League of Nations, as CCP was a greater threat; called the Japanese "a disease of the skin while communists were a disease of the heart."
  • Jieshi attempted to resist Japanese in Shanghai 1932, truced later. This led to an anti-Japanese sentiment.
  • Mao called for another 'United Front' to fight Japanese; all agreed including northern warlords.
  • It was the Comintern and not Mao who ended up pushing the alliance between CCP and GMD as Stalin was worried about Japanese expansion.
  • 1936, Jieshi was the only leader in China who could effectively fight them.
  • Jieshi was kidnapped by warlords, and was released on Cominterm orders after 13 days, forcing the front.

The Long March was essential for ensuring the survival of the CCP and also for making Mao the unchallenged leader. Jiang Jieshi was still determined to defeat the communists, but he also had to deal with the threat of Japan. China had been invaded in 1931 when the Japanese took over Manchuria. Jiang initially did little about this apart from appealing to the League of Nations, as he still regarded the communists as the more dangerous threat. He said that the Japanese 'were a disease of the skin while the communists were a disease of the heart.'

Jiang unsuccessfully attempted to resist the Japanese attacks on Shanghai in 1932, and in May agreed to a truce. The Japanese advanced to the Great Wall in January 1933, however, and their growing control in China led to a great increase in anti-Japanese sentiment.

Mao called for another 'United Front' to fight the Japanese, and this was supported by all who had suffered under Japanese occupation − including the northern warlords Shang Zueliang and Yan Xishan. Yet in the end it was the Comintern and not Mao that pushed the alliance between the CCP and the GMD. Stalin was worried about Japanese expansion in and from Manchuria. By 1936 he saw Jiang Jieshi as the only leader in China who could effectively fight them. The Second United Front was sealed when Jiang Jieshi was kidnapped in Xi'an by the warlord Zhang (he had been there planning his next assault on the CCP.) It shocked both the Chinese and the Soviets − and although some wanted to shoot Jiang, he was released on Comintern orders after 13 days.

In April 1937, the Second United Front was formed. The civil war was suspended, and there was instead a 'National War of Resistance.' The GMD would benefit from support from the USSR, and potentially aid from the USA. The CCP benefited from the legitimacy the alliance gave them − they could no longer be dismissed as 'bandits.' The communists also hoped that they war against Japan would exhaust the GMD.

The Japanese responded to this new situation with a show of force − attacking the Marco Polo bridge outside Beijing in July 1937. This was the beginning of the war proper between Japan and China. In the battle for Shanghai, Jiang Jieshi's forces were forced to retreat after losing around 300,000 troops. The Capital, Nanjing, was relocated 1,200km to the west to Congqing for the remainder of the war. Nanjing was left to face the onslough of the Japanese. The atrocities that were then perpetrated there became known as the 'Rape of Nanjing.'

Why was the CCP able to survive the first stage of the Chinese Civil War?

Summary of Why was the CCP able to survive the first stage of the Chinese Civil War?
  • Long March ensured CCP survival with a defensible base in Yan'an; propaganda victory for CCP; won support for claim to fight Japanese.
  • Mao became leader who consolidated the group of revolutionaries.
  • Mao offered to join a front with GMD won him popularity.
  • GMD's decision to deal with Japanese after CCP lost support.
  • Poor treatment of peasants by GMD degraded their popularity.
  • GMD failed to implement Sun's Three Principles.

The final victory of the CCP after 1945 could never have occurred had it not been for their successes between 1928 and 1936. Why were they successful in this period?

CCP successes

  • The Long March ensured CCP survival and offered a defensible base in Yan'an. It was also a propaganda victory for the CCP, who were able to use the journey to proclaim their policies to many thousands of people. They also won patriotic support for their claim to be going north to fight the Japanese.
  • The march also confirmed Mao as the leader of the CCP, gave the CCP a good deal of fighting experience and welded the survivors into a very tight, dedicated group of revolutionaries.
  • Mao's offer to create a joint front with the GMD against the Japanese again won the CCP popularity, allowing them to pose as the true nationalists.

GMD errors


In contrast to the CCP, the GMD forces made several errors. Their decision to deal with the CCP before the Japanese lost them patriotic support. In addition, the poor treatment of peasants by the GMD forces further degraded their popularity. They had also failed to implement Sun's Three Principles.

The Sino-Japanese War


The events of the war against Japan were key to explaining both the reasons for the outbreak of the second phase of the civil war and also the ultimate victory of the CCP.

The impact of the war on the GMD

Summary of The impact of the war on the GMD
  • GMD gambled on USA defeating Japan, sending best troops to Yan'an, demoralising the army.
  • Jieshi lost tax revenue as Japan occupied land; he printed more money causing high levels of inflation, hurting the middle class - the natural GMD supporters.
  • Corrupt GMD army, low moral, ill treatment, and conscription that alienated peasants.
  • Japanese control ports and key land routes; limited supplies despite American aid.
  • Military failures, internal faction, and inflation caused discontent - Jieshi simply increased repression.
  • GMD only controlled territory around the capital and areas in the south.
  • CCP had light losses with guerrilla tactics, the GMD bore the brunt of Japanese attacks and had been damanged physically and psychologically.
  • GMD lost support for 'sitting back' and waiting for the Americans to win the war.

The GMD withdrew from the capital to Congqing, but did little to resist the Japanese. Jiang Jieshi's best troops were sent to Yan'an, and he gambled on the USA winning the war against Japan for him, a choice that had a bad impact on the morale of his army.

As large areas of the GMD's support base were under Japanese occupation, Jiang Jieshi lost much needed tax revenue. He faced the problem by printing more money, which led to high levels of inflation and in turn impacted badly on the middle classes, who were the natural supports of the GMD. The peasantry were also hardest hit by taxes. Other problems facing the GMD were:

  • Corruption was rife in the GMD army, and its troops were ill-treated and unmotivated. Conscription further alienated the peasantry.
  • Although the USA sent aid to the GMD, Japanese control of the coastal ports and key land routes meant that only limited supplies could come in via the Himalayas.
  • The GMD remained riddle with factions throughout the war. With rising discontent against his rule due to corruption, military failures and inflation, Jiang Jieshi's response was increased repression, which exacerbated hostility towards the government.
  • Territorially, the GMD lacked control over many of China's provinces. It really only controlled the territory around its capital in central China and areas of the south.
  • The war exhausted the GMD physically and psychologically. They bore the brunt of the Japanese attacks in the early stages of the war, and throughout they continued to meet the Japanese in conventional battles, which resulted in heavy losses. Meanwhile, the CCP was fighting a guerrilla war, incurring only light losses.
  • The public lost a lot of respect for the GMD in the later stages of the war, as it appeared it was sitting back and waiting for the Americans to win the war.

The impact of the war on the CCP

Summary of The impact of the war on the CCP
  • Mao: "our fixed policy should be 70% expansion, 20% dealing with the GMD and 10% resisting the Japanese."
  • March 1945, communists had liberated 678/914 country towns, introducing: land reform; village schools/soviets; reducing taxes; abolishing debt.
  • James Sheridan: the reason CCP achieved enthusiastic backing of peasants was "by meeting the local, immediate needs of the peasants through reformist and radical social polices by providing leadership for the defence of peasant communities against the Japanese. In this fashion the communist won peasant confidence and the process began the transformation - the modernisation - of rural China."
  • Women treated as equals for first time in Chinese history.
  • CCP gained support as egalitarians.
  • During Yan'an blockade in 1939, CCP became self-sufficient; taxing goods and holding back inflation.
  • Jack Gray: "by 1945 about 40 per cent of their basic needs were supplied by [the garrison system]".
  • 1941-1945, rectification campaign ensured Maoist ideology, with no deviation, was established.
    • "Mass line" meant polices were taken from the people.
    • Overall successful in removing communist factions and pro-Russian groups.
  • CCP had good military leadership with international reputation - single largest campaign of the Sino-Japanese War that had a brutal retaliation from the Japanese; "kill all, burn all, loot all" policy.
  • Mao used guerrilla assaults with propaganda to promote them as real nationalists.
  • Mao said Jiang was nothing more than a puppet of the Western imperialists - fed the long-held anti-foreign and anti-imperialist popular feeling in China.

Mao used the war against the Japanese to carry out his revolutionary warfare. Indeed, Mao said that 'our fixed policy should be 70 per cent expansion, 20 per cent dealing with the GMD, and 10 percent resisting the Japanese.' By March 1945, the communists had liberated 678 out of 914 country towns and implemented their policies in them: land reform, setting up village schools and village soviets, reducing taxes and abolishing debt.

The historian James Sheridan writes:

that the reason they achieved the enthusiastic backing of the peasants was "by meeting the local, immediate needs of the peasants through reformist and radical social policies and by providing leadership for the defence of peasant communities against the Japanese. In this fashion the communists won peasant confidence and in the process began the transformation − and modernisation − of rural China."
—James Sheridan, China in Disintegration, 1977

The CCP also gained support through its egalitarian policies. Everyone had the same living conditions and the intellectuals had to work with the peasants. Women were treated as equals with men for the first time in Chinese history. Women had been seen as property in traditional Chinese society, having no rights to divorce or inheritance, no education, no political rights, and often being bought and sold to be wives, labourers, or prostitutes. The communists offered them freedom to marry whom they chose and gave them the rights to divorce, education, voting at 18, military service and to form women's associations.

During the GMD's blockade of Yan'an from 1939, the CCP attempted to be self-sufficient. They held back inflation by taxing people in goods. Officials and soldiers had to contribute to agricultural production under the 'garrison' system. To a certain extent this worked, as the historian Jack Gray suggests:

"By 1945 about 40 percent of their basic needs were supplied this way"
—Jack Gray, Rebellions and Revolutions: China from the 1880s to the 1980s, 1990

To establish unity within the party and to spread Maoist ideology further, a series of Rectification Campaigns were launched between 1941 and 1944. The 'correct ideas' were Mao's, and any deviation would not be tolerated. The primary ideas were: the 'mass line,' which mean policies were to be taken to the people and ideas taken from the people, Mao's peasant-based communism and the military strategy of guerrilla warfare. The Rectification Campaigns were successful in ridding the communists of their factions, including pro-Russian groups.

Historians do not agree on the military contribution of the CCP in the war against the Japanese. Some suggest that it was rather more limited than Mao claimed. There is little doubt, however, that there as a general perception within China and internationally that the CCP gave good leadership during the war. This perception led many Chinese to see the communists as the true nationalists, and support the CCP rather than the GMD. Indeed, the CCP's Hundred Regiments Offensive in 1940 was the largest single campaign of the Sino-Japanese War and provoked a brutal retaliation frm the Japanese, expressed in the 'kill all, burn all, loot all' policy.

Mao used his guerrilla assaults on the Japanese as good propaganda to promote the CCP as the real nationalist force defending China. He also emphasised the support that the GMD was receiving from the USA, arguing that Jiang was nothing more than a puppet of the Western imperialists. Such sentiments fed into the long-held anti-foreign and anti-imperialist popular feelings in China.

Second phase of the Civil War (1945–49)

Summary of Second phase of the Civil War (1945–49)
  • CCP powerful enough to exit guerilla tactics and engage in conventional fighting.
  • Polarisation of international political context in Cold War meant China could not be an internal affair, it was part of a larger Soviet-American effort to establish post-war power.
  • Both super powers wanted stable China, weakened Japan, and a coalition GMD-CCP government.

By the end of the war with Japan, the CCP was significantly strengthened, and the GMD weakened, so much so that the communists could move from the guerrilla warfare phase of combat to a phase of more conventional fighting. The first period of civil war (1927−37) was an essentially Chinese war. The second would be more of an international affair. The polarisation of the international political context through the development of the Cold War meant that China's civil war could not be an internal struggle alone. The war between nationalists and communists in China had become part of a larger Soviet-American effort to create a new post-war balance of power.

Both superpowers wanted a stable China, and a weakened Japan, and to this end they both wanted the GMD and the CCP to form a coalition government. The USSR wanted influence in Manchuria, and the USA accepted this desire to a certain extent.

Failure of the USA

Summary of Failure of the USA
  • General Marshall got the CCP and GMD to agree on: preparing to set up a coalition government, temporary council, and a united Army.
  • By 1946 no less, both CCP and GMD were moving troops to Manchuria; outcome would determine leader of China.
  • By this point: CCP had 1 million army, GMD had 4 million army and heavy weaponry.

The Americans worked hard to achieve a diplomatic solution between the CCP and the GMD. Yet neither side was willing to share power. General Marshall was given the responsibility of brokering a deal, and managed to get the GMD and the CCP to agree on the following terms: prepare to set up a coalition government, form a temporary state council, unite their armies in a new National Army and have free elections for local government. But as negotiations were being finalised in February 1946, both sides were moving troops into Manchuria. There would not be a diplomatic solution in China; its fate would be decided on the battlefield.

Despite the growth in strength of the CCP during the Sino-Japanese war, it is important to point out that in 1945, the GMD still had four million troops compared to the CCP's one million. The GMD also had more heavy weaponry. The events of the next three years are thus important for explaining the success of the CPP.

Initial victories of the GMD (1945−47)

Summary of Initial victories of the GMD (1945−47)
  • CCP initially defensive as GMD have more troops and better equipment.
  • Japanese surrender in August 1945, Red Army secure important industrial region.
  • Yalta Conference February 1945, USSR agreed to invade Manchuria following Germany's surrender.
  • Soviets did invade, but CCP already in control, mutual assistance and CCP given Japanese weapons.
  • Despite new weapons, CCP was forced out of cities - December 1945, Mao reintroduced policy of creating bases outside of cities.
  • Mao killed in battle

At first the GMD, with more troops and better equipment, forced the communists onto the defensive. Following the Japanese surrender in August 1945, the Red Army under General Lin Biao entered Manchuria to secure this important industrial region under communist control. At the Yalta Conference in February 1945, the Allies had agreed that the USSR would invade Manchuria following Germany's surrender. The Soviets had duly invaded, and were in control when the CCP forces arrived, whereupon the Soviets gave the CCP large stockpiles of Japanese weapons. The USSR was clearly not neutral. General Albert Wedemeyer, the Allied commander of the South-East Asia Theatre, authorised Jiang to resist the communists by using US ships and aircraft to transport 500,000 troops to Manchuria, and 50,000 American troops were sent north to occupy Beijing. The USA could no longer claim to be neutral.

Although the CCP forces were better armed than before, the GMD greatly outnumbered them. The CCP also had to fight conventionally in Manchuria, defending the holding its position and territory. The GMD was able to force the CCP out of the cities, and in December 1945 Mao reverted to his policy of creating bases outside the cities.

It seemed as though Manchuria had been won by the GMD, but despite their early military achievements they continue to govern the region as they had others during the war with Japan, and this led to political defeat. Indeed, corruption was worse than it had been before, which encouraged Manchurians to support the CCP. President Truman sent General Marshall to mediate in the conflict, attempting to prevent a civil war and to avert US involvement in the fighting. US policy continued to promote a coalition government. The Americans were in a difficult position, as they did not support single-party states, and wanted to retain the position of mediator − even though they continued to arm Jiang Jieshi. The truce facilitated by Marshall broke down in March 1946. By May, the GMD was in control of the central area of Manchuria. The CCP demanded a ceasefire and condemned US support for Jiang Jieshi.

CCP on the offensive (1947−48)

Summary of CCP on the offensive (1947−48)

At this point the US intervention, according to Jiang, played a key role in the outcome of the civil war. In June, General Marshall managed to get Jiang to agree to another truce. The ceasefire worked to the CCP's advantage, as it saved t hem from a final assault on their headquarters. The communists used the time to train their forces and ready them for the war. Mao also introduced land reforms in the area. As it had done in Yan'an, land reform led to the peasants joining the communists, as their victory would mean they could keep their land.

Fighting resumed in July, and the Red Army (now called the People's Liberation Army; PLA) reverted to guerrilla warfare. The GMD recaptured the cities of Manchuria and went on in March 1947 to take the CCP capital, Yan'an. Yet cities in Manchuria were now isolated, and Mao could use guerrilla tactics effectively; the PLA cut the GMD forces off by targeting their supply routes − the railways.

By March 1948, the remaining American advisers told Jiang Jieshi to leave Manchuria to protect his forces. At this point, the GMD and the CCP were quite evenly matched − in terms of their military manpower and resources. Jiang refused to acknowledge that the balance had shifted unfavourably, and that the PLA now had more heavy weapons than the GMD. He fought on, but in March 1948 the CCP was in control of Manchuria. Jiang had lost 40,000 troops.

Collapse of the GMD resistance

Summary of Collapse of the GMD resistance

Capitalising on its successes, the PLA launched an offensive against the vital railway junction of Xushou. Here the communists fought a conventional battle, relying on massed heavy artillery. The defeat of the nationalists was a huge blow for Jiang's men, both strategically and psychologically. In the same month, January 1949, Lin Biao took the cities of Tianjin and Beijing. The whole of northern China, including Manchuria, was now under communist control. In April the PLA launched the final series of offensives, taking Nanjing and then Shanghai in May. In October, Guanzhou was taken, and throughout November the communists crushed the remnants of the GMD resistance.

On the 1st of October 1949, Mao proclaimed the establishment of the People's Republic of China in Beijing, saying; "Our nation will never again be an insulted nation. We have stood up."

What were the reasons for the communist success?


Strengths of the CCP

Summary of Strengths of the CCP

Guerrilla tactics and revolutionary warfare


The CCP used guerrilla tactics successfully in the first phase of the civil war, in the fight against the Japanese and in Manchuria in the second phase of the civil war.

The leadership of the PLA


The PLA was led by Lin Biao, who was an excellent military commander and who was able to transform the PLA from a guerrilla fighting force into a regular army. The PLA was greatly strengthened in the final stages of the war by desertions from the nationalist forces and through capturing enemy weapons. Through better conditions and political indoctrination, the PLA was a much more effective fighting force, with far higher morale than the nationalist troops. In addition, the good behaviour of the communist soldiers attracted much support from the peasantry.

The role of Mao


Mao's leadership was central to the communist success. It was his leadership in the Long March and his innovative guerrilla tactics that allowed the CCP to survive and then to broaden its support base in Yan'an. He was able to take advantage of the opportunity presented by the war with Japan, and also to adapt his ideas and policies to the changing military situation. For example, although revolutionary ideas involved attacking the bourgeoisie, or middle classes, during the war against Japan, he stressed the idea that this was a national struggle in which all classes should cooperate.

The spread of communist ideas


As we have seen, the communists used the period during the war with Japan to spread communist ideas throughout the areas they captured. The policy continued in the second phase of the civil war. Land reform continued in all rural areas captured by the communists.

As the communists moved into the towns, they similarly spread communist ideas. The army would take over the control of the towns, working to prevent crime, control food and establish these activities of support for the CCP.

The role of intelligence


The superior intelligence of the communists in the second phase of the civil war played an important role in their victory. Jiang's assistant Chief of Staff, Liu Fei, was a communist spy, as was the head of the GMD's War Planning Board. This meant that the communists knew all intended GMD moves in advance. In addition, several of the nationalist commanders were in fact communist agents. In Manchuria, for example, the nationalist commander Wei Lihuang was a communist agent, and his actions helped secure the PLA victory there. In contrast to this situation, the nationalists were unable to infiltrate the communists.

Jiang Jieshi's Errors

Summary of Jiang Jieshi's Errors



Jiang Jieshi continued to resist democratic changes, and his increasingly repressive regime alienated liberals and the middle classes. He failed to win mass support and his government relied on a narrow, wealthy section of businessmen and landlords for its survival. The GMD's corruption and inefficiency further alienated the middle classes and also the peasants who bore the brunt of the unfair tax system.



Jiang Jieshi's support base was further damaged by rampant inflation, which had a devastating effect on the middle classes. Jiang only took decisive action to deal with this in 1948, when a new currency was introduced and rationing started. These reforms were too late, however, and there was economic collapse by 1949 in those areas under nationalist control.



US observers continually commented on the poor quality of many of Jiang's troops, and their low morale contributed to the high number of desertions at the end of the civil war. The behaviour of the army towards ordinary Chinese was also in sharp contrast to the communist army, with its strict rules on behaviour.

In terms of military leadership, Jiang also made serious mistakes − for instance choosing to pour resources into Manchuria, far from his real bases of support. His decision to fight it out at Xuzhou was also a disaster. He also tried to interfere too much in the actual running of the campaigns, even though he was far removed from the actual action.

What was the role of foreign support in the final outcome?



Summary of The USA

The Americans, as discussed earlier, had economic and strategic interests in China, and they had supported the GMD from the first phase of the civil war. This support should have given the GMD key advantages over the CCP, and despite the problem of getting effective aid to the GMD, the USA provided Jiang with almost $3 billion in aid and large supplies of arms throughout World War II. At the beginning of the second stage of the civil war, the Americans transported GMD forces by sea and air to the north of China, and US troops occupied Tianjin and Beijing to hold them until the GMD were ready. In short, the USA did what it could to assist Jiang, but his regime was too ineffective to survive.

Yet some historians believe that there should have been more military commitment from the USA, and that this could have 'saved' China from communism. The Americans were held responsible by Jiang for pressuring him to agree to truces at critical times during his war on the CCP. Finally, their mere presence also gave Mao excellent anti-GMD propaganda.


Summary of The USSR

The Soviets had been rather reluctant to support the CCP, and did not in the end give them the military and economic assistance that the GMD received from the USA. The involvement of the Comintern in the early stages of the CCP's struggle with the GMD had led to division and near annihilation in Jiang's final Encirclement Campaign. Mao waged the Rectification Campaigns to oust Soviet supporters from the CCP. The USSR had backed both United Fronts, and Stalin did not see that the CCP could win the civil war until the later stages in 1948.

Some historians view the Soviet assistance in Manchuria, which also included establishing military training colleges and the training of CCP pilots, as essential to establishing the PLA as a more modern and effective force. Nevertheless, Stalin was worried that the USA would involve itself further in the Chinese Civil War, and attempt to limit Mao's successes in the later stage of the conflict. In 1949, Stalin told Mao to consolidate his gains in the north and cross the Yangtze into southern China. Mao ignored his advice.

Results of the Chinese Civil War


For China

Summary of For China

After the civil war, the CCP consolidated its control in China, and pursued the key ideas that they had initiated in Yan'an. The experiences of the long war were a guidebook for the new Chinese communist regime. Society had been militarised and Mao had a god-like status. Society would be changed by short and 'total' campaigns, and all obstacles would be overcome by the power of the people. One of the key legacies of the Chinese Civil War is the continued authoritarian rule by the CCP. China remains a single-party state in which individual rights and freedoms are suppressed. In 1989, when young protesters on the streets of Tienanmen Square, Beijing, were forcibly dispersed with guns and tanks, the battles of the civil war were used to justify the actions of the state.

For Asia

Summary of For Asia

Mao's victory led to the globalisation of the Cold War, which spread from its seedbed in Europe to Asia. Asia was now a region in which the superpowers would struggle for control and influence. The communist victory inspired insurgencies in Indonesia, Malaya, Indochina, and Thailand. It also led to the first 'hot war' of the Cold War − the Korean War (1950−53).

For the USSR

Summary of or the USSR

Although the CCP's victory should have been viewed as a victory for the spread of communism and for the USSR, Stalin feared Mao as a rival for the leadership of the communist world, and he had not wanted the Cold War to spread to Asia. Jiang's GMD would have recognised disputed border territory along frontiers in Manchuria and Xinjiang as Soviet. Fundamentally, Stalin did not view Maoism is 'genuinely revolutionary' and did not agree with Mao's 'hybrid' ideology, which was a mix of traditional Chinese culture and Marxism.

Mao became convinced that Stalin planned to create a divided and weak China, which would leave the USSR dominant in Asia. He saw Stalin's policies as rooted in self-interest rather than true revolutionary doctrine. Mao later said that in 1945 Stalin refused China permission to carry out revolution and told him: 'Do not have a civil war: collaborate with Jiang Jieshi. Otherwise the Republic of China will collapse.' Mao believed that Stalin saw him as another Tito (the communist revolutionary who became the leader of post-war Yugoslavia.)

Nevertheless, once the CCP had won the civil war, Mao visited the Soviet Union in 1950 and this visits produced the Sino-Soviet Treaty of Alliance. This was the first treaty between the USSR and China. The USSR had become excited and enthusiastic about the CCP's victory, and the Soviet press had poured praise and admiration on Mao and the new People's Republic of China (PRC). The US State Department referred to the alliance as 'Moscow making puppets out of the Chinese.' Soviet planners and engineers in China developed 200 construction projects in the 1950s; traditional buildings were pulled down for Soviet-style constructions and Soviet scientific technology was prioritised in China over Chinese technology.

Sino-Soviet relations chilled again during the Korean War. When American forces, under the UN flag, came close to the Chinese border, Stalin encouraged the PRC to send troops into Korea. The Soviets gave material assistance to the one million Chinese troops engaged in battle, but despite this support for PRC intervention in the Korean War, Mao bitterly complained when the Soviets demanded that the Chinese pay for all weapons and materials they supplied.

Relations between the USSR and the PRC worsened dramatically after the death of Stalin. Khrushchev's attack on Stalin's cult of personality was seen by Mao as an attack on his own style of leadership, and the USSR's handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 caused Mao to accuse Khrushchev of being a 'paper tiger.' The Sino-Soviet split worsened, culminating in border clashes in 1969.

China's relations with the USA and the West

Summary of China's relations with the USA and the West

Mao's victory led to much anxiety in the USA, and seemed at the time to shift the balance of power in the Cold War in the USSR's favour. Many in the USA initially saw the communist victory as inevitable given the lack of support that existed for the nationalists in China in 1949; nevertheless, as the Cold War intensified and McCarthyism took hold in the USA, state officials were accused of having 'lost' China. Stalin was now seen as having been the mastermind behind Mao's CCP. The USA failed to understand the different types of communism or that there was increasing tension and hostility between Mao and Stalin. The USA also refused to recognise the PRC as a legitimate state. Instead they backed Jiang Jieshi and the Chinese nationalists, who had fled at the end of the civil war to the island of Taiwan, about 160km off the coast of mainland China. The Americans then ensured that Taiwan and not the PRC was given China's seat at the UN.

The USA initially perceived the CCP victory as opening a new 'front' in the Cold War; there was the iron curtain in Europe and now the bamboo curtain in Asia. Mao's victory was a key reason for the passing of a vast new military budget to fund the struggle against the spread of communism. It also led the USA into the Korean War and conflict over Taiwan. However, by the end of the 1950s there was a radical change by both the Americans and the communist Chinese in their policies sand strategies towards one another. During the late 1960s, China and the USA entered into a period of dialogue, known as 'ping pong diplomacy.'