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.

Long- term causes of the Chinese Civil War


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.

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.

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."

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.

Short-term causes of the Chinese Civil War


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

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.

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.

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.

The course of the war


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.

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.

GMD attempts to exterminate the CCP

  • Between 1928 to 1934, Jiang failed to carry out Sun's Three Principles and his support (the rich and landlords) were of no help to his ineffective government.
  • In 1931, the Japanese invaded Manchuria.
  • Still trying to destroy the Communists, Jiang initiated the 'Five Encirclement Campaigns;' circling the reds, cutting off supplies and resources.
  • Mao's strategy, in a letter to Lisan in 1921 was: 'The enemy advances, we retreat; the enemy halts, we harass; the enemy tires, we attack; the enemy retreats; we pursue.'
  • After Lisan, he was replaced with 28 Moscow graduates known as the 28 Bolsheviks with the influence of Cominterm.
  • Mao did not like these "inexperienced men."
  • The first 3 campaigns were between December 1930 to September 1931 who were all defeated under Zhou Enlai.
  • The CCP's knowledge of the area and support of local peasants helped.
  • Zhu De was involved in the fourth encirclement campaign, using the same tactics forcing back the GMD in 1933.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 guerrilla phase

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

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.

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.'

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.

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 Sino-Japanese War


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 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.

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.

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.

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

CCP on the offensive (1947−48)


Collapse of the GMD resistance


What were the reasons for the communist success?


Strengths of the CCP

  • Soviet troops in Manchuria gave PLA forces training
  • Supported by peasantry who feared revenge
  • Used propaganda to win support
  • Had a good reputation at controlling the struggle against the Japanese
  • Mao’s personality cult, inspired confidence
  • Carried out guerrilla warfare and began conventional warfare in 1948
  • Were able to capture transport links to isolate GMD forces in cities

Jiang Jieshi's Errors


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



  • The Americans had economic and strategic interests in China, and they had supported the GMD from the first phase of the civil war.
  • USA provided Jiang with almost $3 billion in aid and large supplies of arms throughout WWII.
  • 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.
  • Some historians believe that more military commitment from USA may have 'saved' China from communism.
  • Americans were held responsible by Jiang for pressurizing him to agree to truces at critical times during his war on the CCP.
  • Americans' mere presence gave Mao excellent anti-GMD propaganda.



Results of the Chinese Civil War


For China

  • After civil war, CCP consolidated its control in China
  • CCP pursued key ideas they had initiated in Yanan
  • One of key legacies of Chinese Civil War is continued authoritarian rule by CCP
  • China remains a single-party state in which individual rights and freedoms are suppressed
  • In 1989, when young protesters on streets of Tienanmen Square, Beijing, were forcibly dispersed with guns and tanks, the battles of the war were used to justify the actions of the state

For Asia

  • Mao's victory led to globalization 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
  • Communist victory inspired insurgencies in Indonesia, Malaya, Indochina, and Thailand
  • Communist victory also led to the first 'hot war' of the Cold War-- the Korean War (1950-1953)

For the USSR

  • Although 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 recognized disputed border territory along frontiers in Manchuria and Xinjiang as Soviet
  • Fundamentally, Stalin did not view Maoism as '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
  • Mao saw Stalin's policies as rooted in self-interest rather than true revolutionary doctrine
  • Nevertheless, once CCP had won the civil war, Mao visited Moscow in 1950. This produced the Sino-Soviet Treaty of Alliance: the first treaty between the USSR and China
  • USSR and Soviet press praised Mao and the new People's Republic of China (PRC), excited about their victory. To the US, the USSR-China alliance was 'Moscow making puppets out of the Chinese'
  • Such good relations between USSR and China prompted a change in the construction of China: traditional buildings were pulled down for Soviet-style constructions and Soviet scientific technology was prioritized over Chinese technology
  • Sino-Soviet relations chilled again during the Korean War, however
  • 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
  • After death of Stalin, Sino-Soviet relations worsened dramatically

China's relations with the USA and the West

  • Mao's victory led to much anxiety in the US, and seemed at the time to shift the balance of power in the Cold War in the USSR's favor.
  • Many saw the Communists' victory as inevitable; 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.
  • USA failed to understand the different types of communism or that there was increasing tension and hostility between Mao and Stalin.
  • USA also refused to recognize the PRC as a legitimate state.
  • USA backed Jiang Jieshi and the Chinese nationalists, who had fled at the end of the civil war to the island of Taiwan.
  • 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, and also led USA into Korean War and conflict over Taiwan
  • However, by end of 1960s there was a radical change by Americans and communist Chinese in their policies and strategies towards each other... this period of dialogue became known as 'ping pong diplomacy'.