Chinese Civil War
|It never changes|
|A view to kill|
“”As everyone knows, our Party passed through these twenty-eight years not in peace but amid hardships, for we had to fight enemies, both foreign and domestic, both inside and outside the Party. We thank Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Stalin for giving us a weapon. This weapon is not a machine gun but Marxism-Leninism.
|—Mao Zedong, "The People's Democratic Dictatorship", 30 June, 1949.|
The Chinese Civil War, which occurred between 1927 and 1949, was one of the most consequential wars in history, as it led to the establishment of the modern People's Republic of China (PRC). The PRC is a dictatorial and authoritarian regime that emerged from the victory of Mao Zedong and his Chinese Communist Party over the nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) forces of Chiang Kai-shek. The nationalists fled to Taiwan, where they ruled a dictatorship that eventually reformed into a genuine democracy. Unfortunately, the war never officially ended, and China still maintains hostility with Taiwan to this day.
The first phase of the war was a total clusterfuck, as China was split into myriad warlord factions. At first, the KMT and the CCP allied against the warlords, but Chiang's decision to betray the communists and attack the CCP brought Mao into prominence and began the proper struggle between the two factions for control of China. Chiang's surprise attack was initially successful and led him to control most of China, but the nationalists were gravely weakened when Japan invaded China proper from their puppet state of Manchukuo (Manchuria) in 1937, shortly before World War II.
The KMT and CCP temporarily formed a "united front" against the Japanese invasion, both horrified by the Japanese forces' murderousness. However, one of the pivotal moments in the allied war against Japan came in 1945 when the Soviet Union invaded Japanese-occupied northern China. The Japanese, weakened by many years of war, fell easily, and the Soviets promptly handed all of their liberated territory to Mao's communist faction in 1946. Greatly strengthened by the Soviet parting gift, Mao resumed the civil war against the KMT immediately. The KMT was also critically weakened due to taking the brunt of the resistance war against Japan, and the communist forces quickly overran the entire country. They took Beijing in 1948, and Mao proclaimed the People's Republic of China in 1949. Chiang's government retreated in disarray to the island of Taiwan, where they enjoyed protection from United States president Dwight Eisenhower due to Cold War concerns.
In 1911, China's last imperial dynasty, the Qing dynasty collapsed due to the Xinhai Revolution, which happened in large part due to the empire's misrule. Revolutionary leader Sun Yat-sen established the first Republic of China, which would theoretically be a mostly democratic regime. However, military strongman Yuan Shikai launched a coup against the republic in 1914 and then declared himself to be a new Chinese emperor. Opposition to Yuan's new "empire" combined with the shattering of the national government caused any semblance of Chinese national government to collapse.
Known as junfa, the warlords were former members of the Qing or republican military who saw the opportunity to seize parts of China as their own personal fiefdoms after the collapse of the central government. The warlords had no interests beyond their own power, and they constantly formed alliances and fought wars among themselves with the effect that nobody could become strong enough to win control of China for many years.
The warlords were also brutal sons of bitches, which wasn't surprising considering their harsh military backgrounds. The people they ruled were often little better than slaves who would be terrorized with threats of execution, torture, or mutilation. Their dictatorial greed also tended to lead to stupid policymaking. Many warlords printed their own currency, and they got so excited at this prospect that they just printed more and more until hyperinflation set in and their local economies collapsed. Other warlords turned their armies into huge bandit forces which would raid territory to loot, burn, and murder. The shining prize of the era was Beijing, as whoever ruled Beijing tended to get foreign recognition and thus lucrative trade deals; many of the era's bloodiest conflicts happened over the issue of Beijing.
One of the most notable warlords was Yan Xishan, who ruled the Shanxi Clique. Yan was a modernizer who flirted with communist ideals and thus formed an alliance with the nascent Chinese Communist Party and won sponsorship from the Soviet Union.
Northern Expedition and United Front
In 1926, another powerful figure emerged, Chiang Kai-shek, who leveraged his military connections to seize control of the Kuomintang warlord state in the south. The KMT at the time was allied to the Chinese Communist Party, as both the communists and the KMT hoped to unify China to put an end to the Warlord Era. This was the First United Front, and the alliance launched the Northern Expedition in 1926 in order to destroy the various warlord states and reestablish a true national government in Beijing. They proved to be quite successful as, due to communist links, they enjoyed training and received equipment from the Soviet Union.
During the course of the advance, however, Chiang became suspicious that the Soviets and the communists were using his military as a means to spread communism and plant spies throughout China. This was actually sort of true, as Mikhail Borodin, the KMT's liaison with the Soviets, was covertly trying to win the KMT's leftist supporters over to the CCP cause. Communist partisans also started seizing land in areas that they occupied and executing landlords, which angered the KMT leadership since many of them tended to be rich landlords. This emphasized for everyone the fact that an alliance between wealthy military men and hardline communist peasants could not stand for long. Finally, Borodin tried to have Chiang removed from power in late 1926, an attempt which failed miserably but did succeed in pissing Chiang right the hell off. He went from being suspicious to actively plotting mass murder against the communists.
Despite Beijing being within reach, Chiang halted the allied advance in 1927 in order to consolidate the KMT's strength for its inevitable and already-planned turn against the communist faction.
First phase (1927–1937)
Shanghai massacre and White Terror
“”I would rather mistakenly kill 1,000 innocent people than allow one Communist to escape.
On 12 April, 1927, Chiang and the KMT made their move, as much of the communist leadership had moved into the recently-taken city of Shanghai. KMT forces aided by local gangsters attacked the communists in Shanghai in an orgy of violence that resulted in somewhere between 300 and 5,000 communists either murdered or rounded up for torture and execution.
Mao Zedong had always taken a harsh stance against the KMT and Chiang, and his views were validated after the massacre and betrayal. His rise to prominence was aided significantly by the KMT, which eliminated many of his competitors during their purges and then killed even more in the failed communist counterattack at Nanchang. Mao then took control of communist forces and led the retreat from KMT-occupied China after another failed counterattack in September. For this, the Soviets denounced him as a coward.
Those communists who remained were caught up in Chiang's "White Terror". KMT forces spent months rounding up and executing somewhere between 5,000 and 50,000 communists across China, notably capturing and executing CCP co-founder Li Dazhao. Zhou Enlai also fell into KMT hands, but managed to escape before his execution.
The unleashed violence plunged the alliance-held Chinese territories into civil war, weakening both sides and allowing the northernmost warlords time to launch a counterattack. Nice job. The communists received the worst of the fighting, being either massacred totally or being forced to go underground. It took the KMT until 1928 to take Beijing and establish a new Republic of China, which was actually a brutally authoritarian one-party dictatorship.
Mao might have been a real son of a bitch, but his reorganization and revival of the CCP military was genuinely impressive. He and his lieutenant Zhu De had the communist forces retreat into the mountainous southern provinces of Jiangxi and Fujian, establishing by 1930 a new holdout called the Jiangxi Soviet. Mao ruled the state as a tyrant, consolidating his power by murderously purging anyone he considered disloyal. Still, despite the CCP almost facing annihilation, the Jiangxi Soviet proved a defensible base of operations.
From 1931, Chiang adopted a strategy called the "Encirclement Campaigns", where he had the KMT forces attempt to surround the entire region of 3 million people in order to block its supplies and starve the communist army into submission. The communists used the mountainous landscape to their advantage, though, and they held out against the nationalist onslaught for years. Things took a turn for the worse for Mao's forces when the Soviet Union sent a military advisor who wanted the communists to launch an open attack against the KMT. Against the overwhelming superiority of the KMT, that was damn near suicide, and the CCP's attempts to follow the Soviet Union's advice resulted in their lines being overrun. The KMT had also adopted a more intelligent strategy of advancing slowly and constructing fortified siege lines in order to tighten the noose bit by bit.
The end result of these factors was the collapse of the Jiangxi Soviet in 1934. Realizing their situation was untenable, Mao Zedong led his army on a 6,000 mile (10,000km) march northwards in order to evacuate the ruins of the Jiangxi Soviet and find a different region of China to hide in. Once again, Mao was a bastard but still deserves acknowledgement for using his administrative skills to relocate an entire revolutionary movement thousands of miles away.
Undertaken in terrible conditions and under constant bombardment from artillery and air forces, the long retreat had a ruinous effect on troop morale. However, although they got chased out of several places (especially Tibet, where they were repeatedly ambushed), many peasants across China viewed it as a valiant and heroic effort, and their admiration greatly boosted the CCP's prestige and recruitment. Peasants also appreciated Mao's "Eight Points for Attention" policies which instructed communist soldiers to always be polite and respectful of peasants and their property. It was tough to maintain in a time of such desperation, but it did create a sharp contrast between the communists and the other factions who frequently looted goods and murdered peasants.
The march ended when the communists reached the rugged landscape of Shaanxi province. The province was mountainous and surrounded by remote rural landscape, giving the communists the isolation they needed to recuperate from the previous defeats.
During all of this, Chiang maintained his obsession with destroying the communists despite the evidence becoming clear that Japan was the real threat that every Chinese person should have been worried about. In his private writings Chiang indicated he clearly knew Japan was increasing its power, but refused direct confrontation since his army stood no chance against the Japanese. Nationalist military leaders such as Generals Zhang Xueliang and Yang Hucheng were dissatisfied by this, as they realized that a continued war against the CCP would only serve to weaken and distract the Republic of China from the inevitable assault from Japan. Rather than allow things to continue, they decided to stage an intervention.
In late 1936, Chiang visited his generals' headquarters at Xi'an in order to present a new battleplan for an all-out invasion of Shaanxi. Instead, the generals had him arrested and then harangued him until Chiang finally acknowledged that he was being a moron and that China really needed to prepare for the Japanese onslaught ASAP. Chiang finally voiced his agreement to begin negotiations for a Second United Front with the communists against Japan, and the generals released him. Not about to let things go that easily, Chiang turned around and had them placed under house arrest.
Second Sino-Japanese War (1937–1945)
Second United Front
Shortly after the Xi'an Incident, communist official Zhou Enlai helped negotiate the cease-fire and temporary defensive alliance against the Japanese; the communists were more than happy to see the fighting end since they needed the break more than the nationalists did. This pact became the Second United Front, this time aimed at an external rather than internal threat. The communists also benefited politically from the pact. In their propaganda, they portrayed themselves as setting aside political disputes for the greater good while Chiang was reluctant to do the same. This made them even more popular with the peasantry.
Why can't we be friends?
The war might have been paused for the Japanese invasion, but that didn't mean that the nationalists and communists actually liked each other. Even after the Japanese launched their full offensive against China, the two sides barely cooperated. This was in part due to the two factions' different tactics, as the communists preferred guerrilla strikes and the nationalists tried to fight the war as a regular army.
There were times when the two factions fought together, though, such as in the defense of Wuhan and the Battle of Taiyuan. In 1940, the communists also launched the Hundred Regiments Offensive, one of the only instances in which the communists made open battle against the Japanese. In areas where the Japanese weren't an immediate threat, the two factions instead chose to fight each other. Chiang and the other nationalist leaders still bitterly hated the communists. One of the early signs that the alliance was doomed came in 1941 when the Chinese Communist Fourth Army under Su Yu attacked nationalist forces in Jiangsu province, killing thousands. The nationalist counterattack was furious and resulted in the deaths of nearly the entire Fourth Army.
Civil war resumes
When the United States joined the war, they were infuriated to discover that the two Chinese factions were turning against each other again. They were especially frustrated to find that Chiang was occupying all of his time planning to wipe out the Chinese communists instead of fighting the Japanese. The US and the USSR coordinated with both sides to make sure that the civil war wouldn't hinder further efforts to fight Japan.
The US commander advising Chiang Kai-shek, General Stillwell, hated the job because Chiang wanted more and more Lend Lease, but for the purpose of fighting the Chinese communists rather than the Japanese. Stillwell was there to fight the Japanese, though, and he told Chiang that; Chiang retaliated by trying to have him reassigned and replaced with a more pliable US commander.
Still, while Mao ensured the CCP made few actual efforts against Japan, their image as resistance fighters resulted in them recruiting millions of new soldiers over the course of the war and occupying much of China. The CCP benefited from their general reliance on guerrilla tactics, as they suffered far fewer losses against the Japanese. The nationalists, meanwhile, suffered a horrific defeat against Japan in 1944, suffering more than half-a-million losses and having the remnants of their armies cast into disarray.
Soviet invasion of Manchuria
In 1945, the Soviet Union violated their non-aggression pact with Japan in order to launch a full-scale invasion of Japanese-occupied Manchuria. By this time, Japan had suffered major losses against the United States, and their last hope was for a negotiated settlement through a neutral Soviet Union. Not only did the Soviet invasion kill that hope, but it also caught Japanese forces in Manchuria totally by surprise. It was a major factor in the Japanese decision to surrender.
The Soviet occupation of Manchuria left them totally in control of the region. While Japanese forces elsewhere in China surrendered solely to the KMT, the Soviets made sure that the spoils of war in Manchuria were passed on to Mao Zedong.
Second phase (1946-1949)
Communist upper hand
“”It was perfectly clear to us that if we told the Japanese to lay down their arms immediately and march to the seaboard, the entire country would be taken over by the Communists. We therefore had to take the unusual step of using the enemy as a garrison until we could airlift Chinese National troops to South China and send Marines to guard the seaports.
Chiang and Mao agreed to a truce in 1945 on the basis that they would share power in a democratic republic. The agreement was a farce, however, as neither side wanted anything more than to buy time to prepare for the resumption of the war. By 1946, the fighting had resumed in full force.
At the time when fighting resumed, the CCP controlled roughly one-quarter of China's land and one-third of its population thanks to the Soviets handing them Manchuria along with all the Japanese weapons the Russian forces had captured. They didn't control any major cities (by far the largest was Harbin), but they did hold the loyalty of most of the Chinese countryside thanks to their previous actions in the war and before.
The nationalists, on the other hand, were critically weakened by years of resistance against Japan as well as their own regime's corruption and inefficiency. The US had done their best to deny the communists any of the land in the rest of China that had been occupied by Japan, mostly by, as Harry Truman put it, "using the enemy as a garrison". Under the terms of the Japanese surrender, Japan had their forces stay put until nationalist Chinese could arrive to relieve them. That was about the only factor in Chiang's advantage. Aid from the US was less than Chiang would have liked since Truman thought that America's time and energy would be better spent on Europe. On some level, Chiang realized that his situation wasn't good, as he had some of his ministers investigate the possibility of retreat to Taiwan as early as 1947.
The nationalists made themselves even more unpopular by seizing business assets and forcibly conscripting peasants in the areas they controlled. Chiang then ordered an advance against the communists in 1946 on the theory that a quick attack would deny them time to prepare resistance. Unfortunately, the communists adopted a Russian-style defensive strategy that allowed them to inflict heavy losses against the nationalists before retreating to avoid losses of their own. Using that strategy, the communists shredded the nationalist armies while preserving their own strength.
The communists then counterattacked southwards in 1947, inflicting further losses on the disorganized nationalists and seizing multiple strategic cities. So successful was the bloody counterattack that the communist forces actually outnumbered the nationalists for the first time ever. One of the most significant communist victories was the Siege of Changchun in 1948, which starved around 200,000 civilians to death and also resulted in the destruction of the KMT's First Army. The loss of the First Army meant that the KMT had lost its best troops along with much of its modern equipment. This was one of the most brutal parts of the war, but it paid off handsomely for the communists (and it wasn't the first or last time that communists had deliberately starved shitloads of people).
In early 1949, the final phase of the war began when the communists struck further south with the Huaihai campaign, seizing central China and destroying much of the rest of the nationalist armies. They were aided significantly by all of the equipment they had taken from the First Army, which just means that starving all those people paid off for them again. That campaign fully cost the nationalist side the war, as it convinced the US that aiding Chiang was a lost cause. Total troop losses for the nationalists from death or imprisonment by that point hit some 1.5 million troops.
On 23 April, 1949, having swept aside most nationalist resistance, the communists captured the Republic of China's capital Nanjing. The city's population itself were mostly apathetic, since they had no love for the communists but were also fed up with the nationalists' incompetence and economic crises. During the retreat to and from Nanjing, Chiang ordered a scorched earth policy in an attempt to deprive the communists of food and supplies. By that point, it was too late for any strategies to pay off for the nationalists, and Shanghai fell soon after.
By August 1949, the nationalists had lost control of nearly all of China. Evacuation to Taiwan was the last hope, and that plan would be carried out over the rest of 1949.
Invasion of Xinjiang
Meanwhile, the mostly Turkic Muslim region of Xinjiang had used the wars as an opportunity to attempt independence from China as a whole. Xinjiang during this era suffered from neglect and repression at the hands of warlord rulers. The Soviet Union invaded Xinjiang in 1934 on behalf of their client warlord Sheng Shicai, dividing the region in two. Sheng's regime, emulating his superior Joseph Stalin, went on a Stalinist purge of the region of pan-Turkics and other "enemies of the people", and set up an ethnicity policy which arbitrarily divided the non-Han people into separate nationalities, which led to further problems decades later. Sheng eventually became paranoid and turned against the Soviets, and also purged the government of CCP representatives, in order to appease the KMT. One of those killed was Mao Zedong's younger brother Mao Zemin, and we doubt the Chairman liked this one bit.
Sheng was eventually removed from power after his attempts to reconcile with the Soviets failed and was left at the mercy of the KMT, which forced his resignation in 1944. Pro-independence Uighurs in Xinjiang formed the East Turkestan Republic in the same year with Soviet aid and hoped to retain that independence while the Chinese duked it out. That was a good plan, except at some point the Chinese would stop duking it out.
Mao viewed Xinjiang as a priority because he feared that the nationalists could use it as a base of operations and also feared that the devout Muslims of the region would continue opposing his rule on their own. Any invasion was originally slated for 1950 or later, but the rapid communist successes over the nationalists made it possible for the invasion to occur much sooner.
The communists also received vital aid from the Soviets during their fall 1949 invasion, as it couldn't have happened as quickly as it did without the Soviets providing airplanes, fuel, and food to facilitate a rapid blitzkrieg attack. The invasion was thus rapid and successful, as no one in Xinjiang could have predicted that the communists would show up in that remote province so quickly. The CCP now refers to the campaign as the, get this, "Peaceful Liberation of Xinjiang". Amazing.
Evacuation to Taiwan
In December 1949, the nationalists were mostly done evacuating their military and government out of China and into Taiwan using both naval and air assets. The nationalists also did their best to encourage scholars and intellectuals to join them on Taiwan.
All of this occurred concurrently with one of the greatest acts of looting in Chinese history, albeit one that was probably justified. When Chiang made the decision to leave China, he was determined to take the country's gold reserves with him, and he successfully made off with some 113.6 tons – 115.2 tons of bullion. That's a shitload of money, and it went a long way towards stabilizing Taiwan's economy and finally putting a halt to decades of inflation problems that had haunted the nationalists.
The nationalists also made off with a big portion of China's cultural heritage dating all the way back to Imperial China and before. The horde of artifacts taken to Taiwan amounted 46,100 antiquities, 5,526 paintings and calligraphies, and 545,797 rare books and documents. While impressive, that was only about 22% of the heritage left in Beijing. It was also probably lucky that those artifacts made it out, as Mao's Cultural Revolution later resulted in the destruction of other irreplaceable Chinese artifacts.
Taiwan's legality has been disputed ever since. Chiang and his successors always maintained that they were and are the Republic of China in exile while the People's Republic has always declared Taiwan to be occupied by a rogue military force.
The People's Republic
Even before the fighting was over, Mao Zedong felt confident enough to declare himself in charge of all of China. On 1 October, 1949, Mao proclaimed in Tiananmen Square, Beijing that China was now the People's Republic of China. During the ceremony, he also had the country's new flag unveiled and presented to the crowd.
Mao had been entirely preoccupied with fighting the war, and he had few ideas on how to actually form a new government. Mao initially promised a democratic government, but he soon ended up creating a Soviet-style one-party dictatorship. He also proved totally insufficient in dealing with the many crises China had to face after the war. Around one third of its transportation infrastructure was destroyed, the economy had collapsed, and the national currency was worthless due to hyperinflation. And that was without mentioning the older problems of poverty, illiteracy, disease, and what have you. These problems would occupy Mao's attention for decades, and his responses quickly became absurd such as the Great Leap Forward or the Cultural Revolution.
Mao also never forgot the Soviets' support of the KMT and attempts to force him into a coalition government with Chiang, and Nikita Khrushchev's De-Stalinization campaign was the final straw which led to eventual Sino-Soviet split.
Meanwhile, the PRC hoped to extend their war against the ROC to Taiwan itself. In 1950, Harry Truman delivered a speech disavowing any intent to intervene in the event of a Chinese invasion of the island. This infuriated anti-communists in the Republican Party and among Truman's own political allies. Truman eventually changed his mind once the Korean War got started and China became part of a broader communist threat, and he dispatched the Seventh Fleet to protect Taiwan.
There would be two more military conflicts over Taiwan as the PRC hoped to retake islands held by the Republic of China closer to their shore. Both had to be dealt with by Dwight Eisenhower with threats and diplomacy.
Taiwan was also transformed into a repressive dictatorship by Chiang Kai-shek and the Kuomintang. The nationalist regime immediately put Taiwan under prolonged martial law, and they used it to impose harsh political suppression measures, massacring tens of thousands of Taiwanese out of fear that they might be communists or liberals. The KMT regime murdered as many as 140,000 dissidents.
Chiang attempted to restart the civil war and invade mainland China in the 1960s with Project National Glory, which failed due to lack of US interest and Chiang's own incompetence.
The "Loss of China", as it was called, gave a substantial boost to the Red Scare and McCarthyism. The China Lobby in the US Congress had wanted Truman to send troops to stop the Chinese communists, and his refusal pissed them off. After Mao's victory, Truman's critics blamed his inaction for it, calling Chiang's defeat an "avoidable catastrophe." US Senator Joseph McCarthy went around giving speeches claiming that "Communists and queers" had infiltrated the State Department and sabotaged the US' attempts to aid the Nationalists. These conspiracy theories were inflamed further with the publication of The Shanghai Conspiracy by General Willoughby, a book which claimed that a Soviet-aligned cabal was taking over the US government and had been responsible for Mao's victory.
Among those targeted by McCarthyism were members of the Dixie Mission, an US diplomatic mission sent to Mao's guerilla base in Yan'an from 1944-47. The mission argued that the CCP would prove to be more efficient allies than the KMT, and allying with them first could also prevent it from allying with the Soviet Union. There would be no diplomatic relations between the two countries until Richard Nixon's 1972 visit to China, which ironically, took advantage of the worsening relations between China and the USSR.
- Korean War
- Taiping Rebellion
- Imperial China
- Tiananmen Square Massacre
- Uighur genocide
- Russian Civil War
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