Chinese Civil War
Chinese Communist victory over the Nationalists
1946 - 1950
author Paul Boșcu, August 2019
The Chinese Civil War was a war between the Chinese Nationalist Party and the Communists. Although the war had started in the late 1920's the Japanese invasion of China in 1937 forced the two sides into a temporary agreement in order to resist the Japanese. After the end of the Second World War and Japan's defeat the civil war resumed and the Communists were eventually victorious.
The Chinese Civil War was fought between the Nationalists and the Chinese Communists. The conflict initially started in 1927, but a decade later the two sides banded together to defeat the Japanese invasion of China. After the defeat of the Japanese Empire and the end of the Second World War, the civil war resumed between the two Chinese factions. The war ended with a Comunist victory and the establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949. The remaining nationalists, representing the Republic of China, had to retreat to Taiwan.

The victory of 1949 marked the Communist accession to national power. The extent of the revolution can be defined by the massive social changes put into effect between 1946 and 1952: the abolition of landlordism and the extermination of the landlord class, the mobilization of the peasantry, and the severe limits placed on capitalists, not to mention the takeover of government by a new Party-military machine that would soon impose new controls over all elements of society. It can also be defined by the ability of the new government – once again in Beijing – to command the resources of the country and the loyalty of its citizens.

The civil war between 1946 and 1949 that finally brought the Communists to power was hard-fought, and the final outcome was by no means preordained. In hindsight, one can see the fundamental strengths of the Communist military machine and government-in-waiting. The Nationalist weaknesses were laid bare by defeat – although they were obvious enough at the time and provoked US doubts about its ally.

Intellectuals and urban populations did not turn to the Communists en masse, but inevitably, as the power-holders, the Nationalists received the lion’s share of the blame. Civil war was far more demoralizing than the anti-Japan war. At the same time, the Nationalist Party’s endemic corruption not only cost it popular support but also allowed Communists to infiltrate its ranks by buying positions in government offices and even the secret police.

On the international stage, the Communist victory on the Chinese mainland shaped the politics of East Asia, and of US-China relations, for decades. In the US, the loss of China as an ally began to poison the political atmosphere of the early Cold War.

The United States supported the Nationalists by requiring Japanese forces to surrender only to official Nationalist armies, except in Manchuria, where they were to surrender to the Soviet Union. Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek ordered Japanese troops to continue fighting the Communists a full month after Japan’s official surrender, while Nationalist troops were readied to return to eastern China. Although officially neutral, the United States helped transport half a million Nationalist troops out of the southwest; the majority of Japanese arms and equipment went to Nationalist armies.

The civil war created a dynamic that the government, for all its police powers in the cities, could scarcely control. Blame for the foreign presence – US troops being the most obvious – fell on the government. The foreign soldiers quickly lost their mantle as liberators; stories were spread of American soldiers driving over pedestrians, beating rickshaw pullers, and even shooting at people they suspected of robbing them. A rape case involving US soldiers in Beijing in 1946 provoked Chinese students to take to the streets.

As 1945 turned into 1946, US President Harry Truman made it clear that he would not allow American military forces to fight for the Nationalist government.

The basis of the Chinese Communists’ strength lay in the revolutionary mobilization of society. The Communists emerged from the war with Japan with no less than ten base areas across north China. Though they soon lost control of these bases, they maintained their military machine. They were able to take advantage of the Soviet Union’s presence in Manchuria to build up a strong presence there, and to inherit Japanese arms.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) began to consolidate its position in the north-east of China, at first attempting to secure the whole region. But the Communists clashed with some of the Nationalist troops being flown back into the region with American help. As it became clear that this might spark a civil war almost at once, the CCP scaled back its ambitions - at least for the moment.

The Nationalists had 2.5 million troops, more than double the Communist forces, better arms and equipment, and even a rudimentary air force. They resumed control of all of the major cities and the eastern China industrial base – where they quickly gained a reputation for corruption. The government’s attitude toward collaborators was, at best, inconsistent. A few were prosecuted, while many who had worked as officials under the Japanese continued to do so under the re-established Nanjing government. Yet the government also stigmatized whole populations that had simply lived under Japanese rule, especially in Manchuria. Students and teachers in all occupied areas were presumed corrupted and required to pass ideological tests that were simple enough, but insulting. Even more important were the disastrous effects of the Nationalists’ economic policies.

The Nationalists also lost the support of key groups. Intellectuals and students did not, for the most part, ally themselves with the Communists. But they sought democratic reforms – hoping, perhaps naïvely, that these would bring the Communists into a new political sphere, but in effect attacking the undemocratic Nationalists.

The behavior of the Nationalists hardly reassured the Chinese people that their fate was in safe hands. The economy was in a precarious situation at the end of the war against Japan, but it was not irrecoverable. From 1947, inflation, which had been bad during the last years of the war, ran fatally out of control. The government also lost much of the goodwill of victory by its arbitrary and corrupt actions, regularly expropriating property and acting with arrogance in the territories it had reconquered.

Property was seldom returned to its rightful pre-war owners, but uncertainty over legal ownership hindered the efficient use of economic resources. Factories which were shut down in the last moments of the war remained closed for months or even years. Money was printed to pay for the civil war; speculators and hoarders simply ignored price controls. Profiteers flaunted their wealth amid the acute suffering of the many.

There were real achievements made under the Nationalists in the immediate post-war period, but more in the international arena than the domestic. China's wartime contribution meant that it was defined as one of the five permanent powers on the Security Council of the new United Nations, each of which had the right to veto resolutions put before the council. China also had a place within a whole range of other new international organizations. In 1945 there were very few non-Western nations that had full and equal sovereignty in world affairs. China's status was significant well beyond the country itself, and formed a startling contrast to the semi-colonized and prostrate state that had gone to war in 1937.

Inside China, Chiang Kai-shek’s prestige was at an all-time high. While many people resented the way the Guomindang (GMD, Chinese Nationalist Party), had conducted the war — the unnecessary losses, the economic mismanagement, the lack of democracy — little of this clung to the Generalissimo himself. Chiang was seen, across the country, as a genuine national hero, who had known when to fight the war and had had the courage to persist against all odds. Of course Chiang’s and China’s international standing furthered his domestic prestige.

Chiang made a significant move in August 1945, signing a Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, which gave various privileges to the Soviets in northeast China, as well as renouncing any claim to Outer Mongolia. The very next day he invited Mao to come to Chongqing to negotiate a post-war settlement. Mao was reluctant until the US ambassador, Patrick Hurley, himself agreed to accompany him. Mao stayed for six weeks in Chongqing, and in their discussions both sides made some show of compromise. Overall, the meetings did not produce a firm agreement that would have maintained stability.

Mao was shell-shocked. He had never imagined that Stalin would betray him by signing a separate agreement with Chiang. However, Stalin did not have faith that the CCP really could defeat the Nationalist armies. Focusing on building his new empire in Europe, he did not want to waste time and energy supporting allies who would be pitting themselves against the might of the US, and Mao was left in a weak position. Still, the encounter between Mao and Chiang was historic. It was nearly two decades since they had met.

The Soviets, now aware that the Americans had no intention of allowing a joint Allied command structure in Japan, were less inclined to follow the Sino-Soviet agreement with the Nationalists to the letter. At the same time, they were at pains not to force a showdown with the Americans.

Mao did not insist on a full coalition government, and Chiang conceded that the CCP could maintain twelve divisions of its own. Both Chiang and Mao knew it was vital that they should be seen to attempt to negotiate a solution, but they were also convinced that a civil war was inevitable.

August 1945 was probably the darkest moment in Mao Zedong’s political life. All of the visions he had drawn up at the party’s Seventh Congress had come to nothing. Mao had expected a continued expansion of CCP power, which would have enabled the Communists in the post-war era to achieve autonomy for the territory they controlled and the ability to compete politically with the GMD elsewhere. Instead he had to force the party to accept negotiating with the GMD from a position of weakness and to make concessions to Chiang so that the Communists could earn a momentary reprieve.

The summer of 1946, as the world was sliding toward a Soviet-American Cold War, was the time of decision in China. Under pressure from both the United States and Britain, Stalin had ordered a full Soviet withdrawal from Manchuria in late spring, arming CCP forces while leaving. With the Soviet troops gone and with Stalin no longer insisting on negotiations with the GMD, Mao ordered his troops to resist the government’s advance into Manchuria and to fight for ‘every inch of territory’.

Workers were badly hurt by the combination of industrial recession and inflation. In the wake of Japan’s surrender, they flocked back to the cities, where the more skilled and better-off workers were in a position to take militant action. In the winter of 1946-7, Shanghai department store workers pretended to be too tired to wait on customers. When the Japanese withdrew from the city, Communist labor organizers were able to pick up where they had left off seven years before. The Party still faced suppression, but the Nationalists were losing control. Students were caught in a similar kind of crossfire: Communists versus anti-Communists.

As the civil war began to turn against the Nationalists, more labor leaders and even gangsters in Shanghai switched to the Communists.

When the war with Japan ended, students flocked back to the educational centers of Beijing and Shanghai. Communist students and intellectuals were able to take advantage of general discontent with the Nationalists. Student movements in the post-war years were ongoing, although there was no specific climactic incident. Rather, protests against the civil war emerged gradually. Perhaps most students condemned both the Nationalists and the Communists, and feared the imperialism of the United States and the USSR equally.

Students did not merely risk expulsion or arrest. State-sponsored violence was a part of protest. For example, when police raided a Wuhan campus to arrest radicals, they fired several rounds of dumdum bullets into a dormitory on their way out, killing three and wounding five. The secret police were vigilant and omnipresent. In her memoirs, Jung Chang recounts her mother’s experience as a schoolgirl distributing secret pamphlets. ‘One day a copy of one of the pamphlets my mother had been distributing, Mao’s On New Democracy, ended up with a rather absentminded school friend of hers, who put it in her bag and forgot about it. When she went to the market she opened her bag to get some money and the pamphlet dropped out. Two intelligence men happened to be there and identified it from its flimsy yellow paper. The girl was taken off and interrogated. She died under torture.’

Intellectuals involved in ‘third force’ politics, trying to bring about peaceful compromise between the Nationalists and the Communists and establish a democratic system of government, were also subject to government persecution. Their homes were searched and ransacked, meetings disrupted, newspaper offices smashed. Several were simply assassinated – the poet Wen Yiduo, for example, became a well-publicized martyr.

From the moment Japan surrendered, sporadic fighting between Communist and Nationalist troops flared, and for all practical purposes all attempts to find a compromise were over within a year. Nationalist planes bombed Yan’an in August 1946, and within another year had captured Manchuria and the major cities of the north. Communist armies retreated and base areas were abandoned. They had been taken by surprise, but they did not surrender. Renamed the People’s Liberation Army, Communist troops initially dispersed into small units to pursue guerrilla attacks on the enemy’s weak points. The goal was not to gain territory but to destroy enemy units, destroy or seize equipment, and damage the infrastructure.

The Communists’ strategy was enormously costly in terms of abandoned territory – which meant abandoning peasant supporters. Villages recaptured by the Nationalists suffered cruel reprisals; landlord militia following the government’s troops took back the landlords’ original fields, or appropriated new land, and killed thousands of peasants.

Truman decided to send to China the most prestigious envoy possible: General George C. Marshall, who had just left his post as the Chief of Staff of the US Army, would try to negotiate an agreement between the two sides. Both sides agreed an armistice in January 1946, yet Marshall found it impossible to get them to settle on the next steps. During the first six months of 1946, Marshall's attempts to achieve a real breakthrough were undermined by the escalation of fighting by both the Nationalists and Communists. By the summer of 1946 the Communists were firmly entrenched in the northeast.

By putting virtually all of his troops in a nationwide offensive chasing down fast-moving Communists, Chiang Kai-shek lost his source of replacements. Nanjing’s offensive had begun to seize up by mid-1947. Spread too thinly, the Nationalists could not move on beyond northern China’s cities and county seats to occupy the smaller towns and rural areas. Following the long-planned second stage of their strategy, larger Communist armies then began to abandon guerrilla tactics and counterattacked in limited offensives in Manchuria and Shandong. By the end of 1947, the military balance had shifted in the Communists’ favor.

The Communists built larger and larger armies by encompassing militia and recruiting defeated Nationalist troops. Under Lin Biao, Communist armies of up to 400,000 men in Manchuria pushed the Nationalists back into heavily protected cities. Although the Nationalists retained superior numbers, training, and equipment on paper, the Communists outfought them.

In the key region of Manchuria, few Nationalist soldiers were originally from the area. Manchurian troops who might have fought harder for the Nationalists were still loyal to Zhang Xueliang, who had been the effective ruler of northern China from 1928 onwards. He had kidnapped Chiang Kai-shek in Xi’an in 1936 in an attempt to force him into a truce with the Communist Party. Instead of releasing Zhang, Chiang kept him in prison, sending him to Taiwan for safekeeping. Meanwhile, as they built new base areas, the Communists were able to recruit local people to their cause – taking advantage of the growing resentment against the Nationalists.

The Communists also attacked Nationalist forces in Shandong and northern Jiangsu, thus threatening critical transportation and communication links to the lower Yangzi region.

As 1947 ground on, the Communist general Lin Biao's brilliant campaigning in northern China drove the Nationalists further and further back. While major cities were still under Nationalist control, along with the rail lines, the territory was now Communist - an echo of the situation under the Japanese just a few years earlier.

In early 1948, Communist troops under Peng Dehuai reconquered old bases in the northwest and moved into Henan. In Manchuria, even as the Communists began their final advance, Chiang refused to withdraw his armies, which were then lost. By mid-1948 the military forces of the two sides were roughly equal. The final rout of the Nationalists occurred with astounding speed once Manchuria and the northern China plains were firmly in Communist hands. Command of nearly 900,000 troops was unified under Lin Biao. Tianjin and Beijing were captured in January 1949. At this point, Chiang’s main forces had been destroyed, and the PLA began moving across the Yangzi in the spring of 1949. Lin Biao captured Wuhan and Guangzhou. Chiang’s only recourse was to retreat to Taiwan, where the remnants of the Nationalist military were preserved.

In the autumn of 1948, General Wei Lihuang found himself with some 300,000 Nationalist troops facing some 700,000 under Lin Biao. By November the major city of Shenyang had been lost, and the northeast region with it. Lin's troops of the PLA drove on further, taking northern China, and were poised for the conquest of central China too.

During the first half of 1949, Chiang transferred his naval and air-force headquarters to the island of Taiwan; many civilians followed suit. In May Chiang set sail for Taiwan. He would never return to the mainland. The war continued through the summer, but Chiang knew that the game was up, and all sides expected a Communist victory, as cities fell one by one - Nanjing, Shanghai and Chongqing. On 1 October 1949, the People's Republic of China was declared, with its capital once more in Beijing.

As he had foreseen the eventual defeat of Japan by US forces even in the darkest days of the Japanese occupation, so now Chiang decided to wait for a war between the United States and the Soviet Union that would allow him to retake the mainland, a war that never came. In order to preserve his power, he even undercut attempts to defend Nationalist territories south of the Yangzi during the first half of 1949. By December, some two million Nationalists had fled to Taiwan, leaving only mop-up operations for the Communists on the mainland.

By December 1949 the GMD was defeated in Sichuan and kept fighting on the mainland only in limited zones in the far west and south. Xinjiang was conquered, with Soviet assistance, by April 1950. In October 1951 the PLA entered the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, and all of former Qing China — except Outer Mongolia, which had its own socialist regime, and Taiwan, where Chiang Kai-shek prepared his last stand — was in Communist hands.

On 1 October 1949, at Tiananmen Square in Beijing, in his heavy Hunan accent, Mao Zedong proclaimed the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. It was a cold and clear autumn day. The Chairman’s voice was thin and shrill; he was ill and felt faint, and perhaps the significance of the occasion overcame him. Instead of a memorable inaugural-type speech, Mao simply listed his closest comrades and the positions they would hold in the new government.

The key to the Communists’ triumph was their mobilization of the peasantry. Millions of rural folk were brought into political participation for the first time by the revolution. Moderation during the war with Japan largely succeeded in mobilizing the peasantry while minimally disaffecting rural elites. These were in any case weakened by the Japanese invasion. The main burdens placed on northern Chinese peasants were not rents but chiefly taxes and the difficulty of securing credit. By dealing specifically with these issues in individual village contexts, the Communists found supporters – first in village activists and then in the bulk of the peasantry. Once the civil war was under way in 1946-7, the CCP returned to radical land reform. Rural elites were again expropriated, sometimes attacked, and peasants were encouraged to voice their grievances at ‘speak bitterness’ meetings. These were emotionally charged events that local cadres carefully prepared for. But they also gave rise to spontaneous expressions of traumas and grievances that energized entire villages.

Taxes were hardly irrelevant to social divisions. The CCP thus worked to redistribute the tax burden, which fell disproportionately on the poor. Making taxes fairer went a long way toward meeting peasant grievances without the disruptions and divisiveness of land reform. Taxes were not reduced overall, but they were rationalized and a degree of progressivity was introduced. This ultimately encouraged a kind of indirect land reform, as wealthier villagers sold land to reduce their taxes.

The Communists’ goal was to appeal both to elites, as far as possible, and to the poor, while also improving the economy. Only if the economy of the base areas was developed could the army continue to fight, while the elites, who were needed for their skills, would stay, and the poor would be able to think about questions beyond sheer survival.

Peasant egalitarianism, suppressed during the Sino-Japanese War, was allowed to come to the fore again. Landlords and usurers were often accused of murder, if only because it seemed unfair they had lived (relatively) well while poorer villagers starved. Many were beaten to death. Such ‘excesses’, as they were later officially designated, roused villagers to a more and more intense, shared participation. The killings often occurred during land reform when it was discovered that there was simply not enough land to go around. Even if a village’s ‘landlords’ – or simply above-averagely rich peasants – were entirely expropriated, many peasants still could not reach the middle peasant status of self-sufficient holdings.

Given the success of the moderate policies of the war years, why would the Communists return to radical land reform? Part of the answer lay in the view that rent reduction was only a first step, inevitably to be followed by a stricter land-to-the-tiller program (which would in turn eventually be replaced by collectivization). But more important was the situation on the ground. After the Japanese were defeated and the civil war was underway, the CCP faced the possibility of counter-revolution as some land lords began discussing the possibility of supporting the Nationalists. The CCP knew that many peasants feared the return of the Nationalists. The civil war was thus a class war and a rural-urban war; the alliances of the preceding era were no longer useful.

In the strategically critical province of Manchuria, where the Japanese had successfully prevented base areas from being formed, the CCP had little time to cultivate peasant support when the civil war broke out in 1946. Land reform tended to be carried out directly by cadres under the protection of Communist armies. This naturally gave traditional rural elites opportunities to subvert land reform, while ordinary peasants simply remained unmobilized. Nonetheless, anti-Communist forces in the Manchurian countryside remained unorganized and leaderless. Communist-led violence across 1947 weakened traditional patterns of dominance and deference and destroyed community cohesion.

Land reform did not wait for victory in the civil war but occurred as part of the war, making it a revolutionary war. By pitting villager against villager, in the words of the historian Yung-fa Chen, the CCP ‘undermined and destroyed almost all of the traditional and particularistic relationships, while it harnessed localism by linking it to larger causes.’ The old alliances between clan members and local elites were smashed, while the avenues of individual advancement were all controlled by the CCP. The point is not that the Communists justified violence in the name of class struggle, though they did, nor that peasants took the law into their own hands, though they did. Rather, the revolution on the ground – in village after village – set have-nots against haves.

In northern China (outside of Manchuria), the CCP did not march into a village, determine the socioeconomic status of each household, and order a new division of resources. Its goal was to have local activists, under Party guidance, lead the people themselves in these revolutionary acts – a process designed to create these very activists. The situation in central and southern China in the late 1940s was different. There, the CCP came in as a conquering army, and land reform was a task of government rather than popular revolutionary forces. Established procedures and class definitions tended to be followed more closely. Although the government still wanted to create a revolutionary experience, and landlords were targeted for expropriation, land reform was basically controlled from the top down. Violence was still widespread, but the revolution became ritualized.

One of the most important conclusions we can draw from China's wartime history may still be unwelcome in China: the contingent nature of China's path to modernity. The three men who sought to rule China during the war - Chiang Kai-shek, Mao Zedong and Wang Jingwei - each embodied a different path to the same goal: a modern Chinese state. There was nothing inevitable about the Chinese Communist Party's coming to power in 1949. Without the war with Japan, there would have been a greater possibility of an anti-imperialist, anti-Communist Nationalist government consolidating power. It would still have been an immensely hard task, not least because of the Nationalists' own huge flaws, but the war made it near impossible.

The political conditions of China today are not the only possible ones that history could have produced. One of the great lost opportunities of the war was the tentative move toward pluralism both by the Nationalists and the Communists. The increasing harshness of the war, along with a reluctance by either party to surrender ultimate power, made this a green shoot that withered quickly.

Having (against US advice) overextended his supply lines, Chiang entrusted battlefield command to generals of proven incompetence. When Chiang did allow good generals in the field, he refused them needed supplies, as with Bai Chongxi’s attempt to save Hunan in 1949. When the initiative passed to the Communists, the Nationalists’ retreats turned into routs, and defense became entirely passive. The Communists, on the contrary, had a battle-hardened command that was unified and flexible, quick to react to changing battlefield situations.

Most Nationalist generals – often former local warlords, it should be remembered – mastered neither mechanized warfare nor air power, thus negating two of their advantages over the Communists. The Nationalist armies repeatedly suffered from a lack of planning and coordination. When they were on the defensive, Nationalist generals tried to use the ancient tactic of holing up behind city walls, as if twentieth century artillery had not yet been invented.

It is almost as if the Communists were able to graft guerrilla principles onto large-scale positional warfare, attacking the enemy’s weak points, able to retreat when necessary, and making efficient use of primitive logistics like horse carts and wheelbarrows. They also took full advantage of civilian support, especially in the countryside.

The Chinese revolution, with its roots in the northern Chinese peasantry, defeated the materially stronger Nationalists through a combination of professional military actions and popular mobilization. At the same time, it is important to note that ‘the Chinese revolution’ was not one revolution but hundreds, even thousands, of local revolutions. Nor was there a single ‘peasantry’ or even a single homogeneous Communist Party. Since the 1920s thousands of students, intellectuals, professional revolutionaries, soldiers, and ultimately millions of farmers were mobilized in a process that brought them onto the political stage in villages and counties across rural China. And for the first time, in 1949, it brought them to the national stage.

The Civil War, once started, went badly for the Nationalists, in large part because of Chiang Kai-shek's judgements. During the war against Japan, Chiang had played an appallingly bad hand much better than might have been expected. During the Civil War, his judgement appears to have deserted him. In particular, his decision to extend his lines to try and recapture the northeast - the region which was the Communist heartland where Mao was underpinned by strong support from the neighbouring USSR - was ill-judged.

To the Communists, their almost miraculous victory in the civil war had confirmed their view of themselves as China’s men of destiny. They had conquered the country and would now set out to cleanse it of its ills. They had a charismatic leader in Mao Zedong. The goodwill and prestige they enjoyed among most groups of Chinese at home and abroad were unlike anything enjoyed by any Chinese government after the fall of the Qing dynasty. Internationally, they had broken with Western imperialism and allied themselves with the Soviet Union, as they had always aimed to do.