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 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 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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.