The Chinese Civil War (1946 - 49)

Past Questions:

  • With reference to two civil wars, compare and contrast the importance of ideology in (a) causing the civil war, and (b) attracting outside involvement. (Nov 2010)
  • Compare and contrast the causes of two twentieth century civil wars. (May 2009)
  • Examine the impact of foreign intervention on either the Chinese Civil War or the Spanish Civil War. (May 2007)
  • Examine the impact of foreign intervention on either the Chinese Civil War or the Spanish Civil War. (May 2005)


Defining the war: a question of dates!

  • the 'long civil war': 1912 - 1949, starting with the collapse of imperial power until Mao's ultimate victory in 1949 allowed a single ruler of the country to emerge - a sustained 37 year period of conflict.
  • 'the first Chinese civil war': 1927 - 1937, starting with the 'white terror' the decade when Chiang Kai Shek and the KMT tried unsuccessfully to root out the Communists, which was then interrupted by the Japanese invasion and the Second World War, before the 'second Chinese civil war' broke out: 1946 - 1949.
  • Historian Jonathan Spence argues that the Chinese Civil War should refer more narrowly to this latter conflict between 1946 and 1949, as this produced a decisive result.

Be aware of this controversy over when the war actually starts, and what actually constitutes the war, if you choose to answer a question on this topic. It is entirely acceptable to take the view taken by Spence and state that the civil war proper should be seen as the more concentrated period of fighting after the Second World War - but you do, of course, need to be aware of the long-term tensions and divisions leading up to this (as covered in the longer interpretations of the civil war mentioned above).

“Civil war”? A question of definition

Armed disputes between rival factions with radically different ideas about the future shape/direction of a country. Differences do not, however, cause civil war in themselves; also necessary is the lack of a political system with legitimacy or monopoly of force to manage the competing claims in a society. A deeply divided society can erupt into civil war when there is no mechanism to manage those divisions.

Timeline of the war and important events:

1899-1901- Boxer rebellion, was a nationalistic uprising. The uprising demanded the expulsion of foreign powers in China. This rebellion seriously undermines the support of the Qing dynasty, as the emperor takes the help of foreign troops to crush the rebellion. This rebellion exposes how weak the Qing dynasty was, and explains why it got overthrown in 1911.
1911 Revolution of the double tenth, (the emperor gets overthrown)
1912-1916- Yuan Shikai sets up military dictatorship.
1916-27-Warlord era, fragmented society, regionalism, no central ruler
1919-TOV, Japan given former German territory in China. This was a national humiliation for China, and this resulted in a student demonstration called may the fourth movement. The historian Ranna Mitter argues that May 4th movement was the birth of Chinese modern nationalism.
1921-CCP formed
1924-27 “First united front” CCP + KMT tried to exterminate warlords + get rid of foreign influence. They had a common aim and that was to unite China and abolish foreign influence.
1927- White terror in Shanghai, KMT try to destroy CCP (KMT ideology shifts to the right). It can be argued that the CCW started here as it was in 1927 two sides in the country emerged that waged an armed conflict against each other.
1931-Japanese invasion of Manchuria
1934-5 Long march. CCP used it as a propaganda campaign to spread communism through the country. The march shows how the KMT fails to destroy CCP.
1937-44 Japanese invasion of Manchuria, “second united front” between CCP + KMT, they try to oust the Japanese from China.
1945 US drops 2 A-bombs on Japan, and the Japanese troops withdraw.
1945-6 US fails to build coalition gov between CCP and KMT.
1946-Civil war starts again between CCP + KMT. It can also be argued that the civil war started here. If you argue that it started here, you must argue that it was only between 1946-49 that there was a decisive result, i.e. the CCP won. The struggle between the two sides was also more intense in 1946-9 compared to before.


Collapse of imperial power:
Collapse of imperial power in 19th century played a fundamental role in creating the conditions for the later civil war.

The Manchu Qing dynasty had become increasingly fragile during the later half of 19th century because of the major external and internal threats:
China saw an increase in foreign interest in the country after the defeat of the British in the Opium wars 1839-42. The superpowers in the world started to “carve up” China among them and control her trade. The emperor’s inability to resist this influx of foreign involvement in the country contributed to the rising nationalist resentment and internal opposition to the imperial power. As a result, China’s self-image was badly hurt and many nationalists were convinced that the abdication of the emperor was necessary to modernize the country in order to make it a great power again. Despite late attempts at reform, the dynasty was overthrown in 1911 in the revolution of the double tenth (a military nationalistic uprising). As the dynasty was overthrown, a power vacuum arose, which the KMT and CCP fight over later in the civil war. Thus, the collapse of imperial power created the conditions for the later civil war.

Warlords and regionalism:
-The immediate failure to fill the power vacuum in 1911 divided up China into different regions where warlords brutally exercised their power over the peasants. The internal chaos in China that had arisen from regionalism ultimately created the social and political conditions for the civil war.

In 1912 Yuan Shikai set up a military dictatorship, but he failed to resolve any of China’s big problems (such as foreign interest in the country) and when he died in 1916 the country descended into chaos as he had not appointed a successor. For the next decade powerful warlords divided up the country into independent regions. This contributed to outbreak of civil war in three ways.
1) As country was divided up, more people became nationalistic and wanted to unify China
2) The social conditions under the warlords were very poor, and the exploitation of peasants would lead to later significant support for the CCP.
3) As China was internally weak, it had to accept the TOV and grant the former German colony of Shangdong to China’s greatest enemy, Japan. This created more nationalistic feelings.

As a result of the warlord era the Chinese desire for change and modernization was very intense. Thus, two different political parties, the KMT and the CCP, were formed. The two parties both offered a solution to China’s problems and they were willing to fight for it as well.

Ideological divide:
Ideology played a crucial role in bringing about war as KMT and CCP essentially fought over who was going to unify China and solve its problems according to their respective ideology.
Ideological positions of the belligerents
-Communist ideology. Ultimate aim of communism is to create an equal classless society, in which the state has withered away.
-Mao adopts Soviet communism to Chinese conditions. For example, the peasant class is seen as the revolutionary class.
-Mao also wants to revolutionize Chinese society. 1) Eradicate rural poverty through collective ownership.
-Replace traditional Chinese values with CCP values
Abolish foreign influence, and especially western influence.
Starts of with Sun-Yat-Sen as the leader. He is the leader from 1912-1925
Three main principles:
1) Nationalism (take away foreign influence)
2) People’s democracy (establish a democratic state)
3) People’s livelihood (establish socialism, where the poor are benefitted)

Chiang Kai-Shek 1925-1949
-Chiang shifts KMT ideology to the right. He focuses more on nationalism. Chiang’s shift to the right leads to the white terror in Shanghai in 1927
The key difference between the two parties s that CCP want a central economy whilst KMT wants to maintain capitalism

Initially the parties worked together to defeat regionalism in 1926, but Chiang’s shift to the right leads to the white terror (killing of CCP officials) in Shanghai in 1927. This sparks of what some historians have called the “first Chinese civil war” between 1927-37. The ideological divisions were also to become the essential foundation of the conflict that broke out in 1946.

Failure of KMT to secure single party state:

The failure of Chiang Kai-Shek to secure a single party state and unite China under one government meant that civil war was virtually inevitable. Chiang failed to defeat the CCP in 1927, and the CCP were severely weakened and had to flee to the remote parts of China (Jianxi province). During the next couples of years the nationalist government failed to establish control of China. Meanwhile, CCP builts up its strength and emerged as much stronger in the "united front" with KMT in 1937 against the Japanese invasion. After the Japanese invasion, the fighting between KMT + CCP continued, and now CCP had emerged in a much stronger position able to wage war against KMT.


End of WW2 and failure of US diplomacy:

The failure of the US to secure peace in China in 1946 meant that a proper civil war broke out between CCP and KMT in the same year. The end of WW2 with the dropping of atom bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki meant that Japan had to withdraw from China, and the fighting between CCP + KMT could commence. The country was heavily divided between communists and nationalists, and both sides wanted to get us mouch territory in the chaos that followed the Japanese withdrawal. However, as the cold war emerged in Europe, the US sought to stall a communist victory in China. Thus the US intervened to promote a coalition government in China between KMT + CCP. The US war hero General Marshall led the negotiations between CCP + KMT, but both parties were not prepared to honour the terms of the agreement in practice. By Februari in 1946 both sides were fighting again as they moved troops into Manchuria (northern China). Consequently, the failure of US diplomacy has to be seen as a cause of the Chinese civil war.

Course: reasons for Communist victory:

Mao's prestige rose steadily after the failure of the Comintern-directed urban insurrections. In late 1931 he was able to proclaim the establishment of the Chinese Soviet Republic under his chairmanship in Ruijin, Jiangxi Province. The Soviet-oriented CCP Political Bureau came to Ruijin at Mao's invitation with the intent of dismantling his apparatus. But, although he had yet to gain membership in the Political Bureau, Mao dominated the proceedings.

In the early 1930s, amid continued Political Bureau opposition to his military and agrarian policies and the deadly campaigns being waged against the Red Army by Chiang Kai-shek's forces, Mao's control of the Chinese Communist movement increased. The epic Long March of his Red Army and its supporters, which began in October 1934, would ensure his place in history. Forced to evacuate their camps and homes, Communist soldiers and government and party leaders and functionaries numbering about 100,000 (including only 35 women, the spouses of high leaders) set out on a retreat of some 12,500 kilometers through 11 provinces, 18 mountain ranges, and 24 rivers in southwest and northwest China. During the Long March, Mao finally gained unchallenged command of the CCP, ousting his rivals and reasserting guerrilla strategy. As a final destination, he selected southern Shaanxi Province, where some 8,000 survivors of the original group from Jiangxi Province (joined by some 22,000 from other areas) arrived in October 1935. The Communists set up their headquarters at Yan'an, where the movement would grow rapidly for the next ten years. Contributing to this growth would be a combination of internal and external circumstances, of which aggression by the Japanese was perhaps the most significant. Conflict with Japan, which would continue from the 1930s to the end of World War II, was the other force (besides the Communists themselves) that would undermine the Nationalist government.

Hungry for raw materials and pressed by a growing population, Japan initiated the seizure of Manchuria in September 1931 and established ex-Qing emperor Puyi as head of the puppet regime of Manchukuo in 1932. The loss of Manchuria, and its vast potential for industrial development and war industries, was a blow to the Nationalist economy.
The Chinese resistance stiffened after July 7, 1937, when a clash occurred between Chinese and Japanese troops outside Beijing (then renamed Beiping) near the Marco Polo Bridge. This battle not only marked the beginning of open, though undeclared, war between China and Japan but also hastened the formal announcement of the second Kuomintang-CCP united front against Japan. The collaboration took place with salutary effects for the stressed CCP. The distrust between the two parties, however, was hardly hidden. The uneasy alliance began to break down after late 1938, despite Japan's steady territorial gains in northern China, the coastal regions, and the rich Chang Jiang Valley in central China. After 1940, conflicts between the Nationalists and Communists became more frequent in the areas not under Japanese control. The Communists expanded their influence wherever opportunities presented themselves through mass organizations, administrative reforms, and the land- and tax-reform measures favoring the peasants - while the Nationalists attempted to neutralize the spread of Communist influence.

At Yan'an and elsewhere in the "liberated areas," Mao was able to adapt Marxism-Leninism to Chinese conditions. He taught party cadres to lead the masses by living and working with them, eating their food, and thinking their thoughts. The Red Army fostered an image of conducting guerrilla warfare in defense of the people. Communist troops adapted to changing wartime conditions and became a seasoned fighting force. Mao also began preparing for the establishment of a new China. In 1940 he outlined the program of the Chinese Communists for an eventual seizure of power. His teachings became the central tenets of the CCP doctrine that came to be formalized as Mao Zedong Thought. With skillful organizational and propaganda work, the Communists increased party membership from 100,000 in 1937 to 1.2 million by 1945.

Belatedly, the Nationalist government sought to enlist popular support through internal reforms. The effort was in vain, however, because of the raging corruption in government and the accompanying political and economic chaos. By late 1948 the Nationalist position was bleak. The demoralized and undisciplined Nationalist troops proved no match for the People's Liberation Army (PLA). The Communists were well established in the north and northeast. Although the Nationalists had an advantage in numbers of men and weapons, controlled a much larger territory and population than their adversaries, and enjoyed considerable international support, they were exhausted by the long war with Japan and the attendant internal responsibilities. In January 1949 Beiping was taken by the Communists without a fight, and its name changed back to Beijing. Between April and November, major cities passed from Kuomintang to Communist control with minimal resistance. In most cases the surrounding countryside and small towns had come under Communist influence long before the cities. After Chiang Kai-shek and a few hundred thousand Nationalist troops fled from the mainland to the island of Taiwan, there remained only isolated pockets of resistance.

Course: reasons for, and impact of, foreign intervention:

The League of Nations, established at the end of World War I, was unable to act in the face of the Japanese defiance. The Japanese began to push from south of the Great Wall into northern China and into the coastal provinces. Chinese fury against Japan was predictable, but anger was also directed against the Kuomintang government, which at the time was more preoccupied with anti-Communist extermination campaigns than with resisting the Japanese invaders. The importance of "internal unity before external danger" was forcefully brought home in December 1936, when Nationalist troops (who had been ousted from Manchuria by the Japanese) mutinied at Xi'an. The mutineers forcibly detained Chiang Kai-shek for several days until he agreed to cease hostilities against the Communist forces in northwest China and to assign Communist units combat duties in designated anti-Japanese front areas.

In 1945 China emerged from the war nominally a great military power but actually a nation economically prostrate and on the verge of all-out civil war. The economy deteriorated, sapped by the military demands of foreign war and internal strife, by increase in inflation, and by Nationalist profiteering and speculation. Starvation came in the wake of the war, and millions were rendered homeless by floods and the unsettled conditions in many parts of the country. The situation was further complicated by an Allied agreement at the Yalta Conference in February 1945 that brought Soviet troops into Manchuria to hasten the termination of war against Japan. Although the Chinese had not been present at Yalta, they had been consulted; they had agreed to have the Soviets enter the war in the belief that the Soviet Union would deal only with the Nationalist government. After the war, the Soviet Union, as part of the Yalta agreement's allowing a Soviet sphere of influence in Manchuria, dismantled and removed more than half the industrial equipment left there by the Japanese. The Soviet presence in northeast China enabled the Communists to move in long enough to arm themselves with the equipment surrendered by the withdrawing Japanese army. The problems of rehabilitating the formerly Japanese-occupied areas and of reconstructing the nation from the ravages of a protracted war were staggering, to say the least.

During World War II, the United States emerged as a major factor in Chinese affairs. As an ally it embarked in late 1941 on a program of massive military and financial aid to the hard-pressed Nationalist government. In January 1943 the United States and Britain led the way in revising their treaties with China, bringing to an end a century of unequal treaty relations. Within a few months, a new agreement was signed between the United States and China for the stationing of American troops in China for the common war effort against Japan. In December 1943 the Chinese exclusion acts of the 1880s and subsequent laws enacted by the United States Congress to restrict Chinese immigration into the United States were repealed.

The wartime policy of the United States was initially to help China become a strong ally and a stabilizing force in postwar East Asia. As the conflict between the Nationalists and the Communists intensified, however, the United States sought unsuccessfully to reconcile the rival forces for a more effective anti-Japanese war effort. Toward the end of the war, United States Marines were used to hold Beiping and Tianjin against a possible Soviet incursion, and logistic support was given to Nationalist forces in north and northeast China.

Through the mediatory influence of the United States a military truce was arranged in January 1946, but battles between Nationalists and Communists soon resumed. Realizing that American efforts short of large-scale armed intervention could not stop the war, the United States withdrew the American mission, headed by General George C. Marshall, in early 1947. The civil war, in which the United States aided the Nationalists with massive economic loans but no military support, became more widespread. Battles raged not only for territories but also for the allegiance of cross sections of the population.

Effects: what were the main results of the conflict?

For China:

- The CCP with the lead of Mao ultimately consolidated its control over China as a result of the Chinese Civil War.
- The society was militarised and was was given a God-like status.
- China remained a single party state in which individual rights and freedoms were suppressed- in 1989 when young protesters in the Tiananmen Square (Beijing) were forcibly dispersed with guns and tanks, the battles for the Civil War was used to justify the actions of the state.

Challenges facing the Government:
1) In 1949, China's economy and its people were exhausted after years of war and conflict in addition to eight years of war against the Japanese occupation.
2) As peasants had been taken away from land in order to fight, agriculture production had fallen and food shortages was a serious problem in urban areas- industrial production had also fallen.
3) The financial sitation of China had worsened by the fact that Guomindang officres had taken all of China's reserves of foreign currency with them when they fled to Taiwan.
4) The Communist victory had created a rift between China and the Western powers; cut off from trade and contact with the west, China's only source of foreign assistance was from the Soviet Union.
5) Internally, the new government was not yet in full control if all areas of China, especially provinces and semi-autonomous regions. No government since 1911 had managed to break down the power of local landlords or overcome China's deel social and ethnic divisions.

First priority was to stabilize the economic and social situation and extent the Government's control!

  • Inflation was brought under control through strict regulation of the economy; taxes were raised and a new currency introduced- the renminbi.
  • Property of Guodmindand supporters who had fled to Taiwan was confiscated by the state.
  • All foreign assets in China, including those frmo the Spviet Union, were confiscated.
  • Tha banks, gas and electricity supply and transport industries were nationalised.
  • In three "unification" campaigns in 1950 and 1951, the PLA established central government control in three regions; Tiber, Guangdong and Xinjiang.
  • A new system of government was established in which the dominant political position of the Communist Party was recognized.
  • The Chinese People's Political Consultative Committee (CPPCC) which had met in September 1949, drew up a Common Program for China- setting out an agenda for economic, political and social change.
  • Article 5 of the program guaranteed to all (except "political reactionaries") the rights of freedom of speech, thought, publication, assembly, association and religious belief.
  • Emphasis was put on universal and free education as well as economic land reform.
Land refoms:
  • Before 1949, in areas controlled by the Communists, land reform was essential as the CCP had gained the support of the peasants in order to win the Civil War.
  • The land reform meant nothing less than the confiscation and redistribution of land to poorer peasants and landless labourers.
  • However, only land belonging to the rich landlords was confiscated as Mao knew the importance of leaving the holdings of better-off peasants untouched as the food produced by the richer peasants was essential to the country as a whole.
  • Local peasant's associations were created in the "key point" villages to carry out the revolution to more remote areas and local peasants were encouraged to identify their landlords who were then subjected to humiliation and violence.
  • Many landlords and their relatives were sentenced to death.
  • In long term, Mao's aim was to collectivize agriculture as a way to increase food production. In early 1950s however, Mao thought that a policy of forcing peasants into larger collective farms or communes would encounter resistance and threaten to underminre the peasant support for the revolution.
  • It was instead encouraged by teh CCP to peasants to set uo mutual-aid teams (grouping of about 10 families) that shared labour and equippment.
  • Successful as it soon became occurent to the peasants that they could not obtain the tools and equippment that they needed to cultivate their land unless they joined these teams, but there was yet no compulsion for them to do so.
Social reforms:
- Emancipation of women
  • In traditional Chinese society, women had to obey "proper" authority and the practice of footbinding was common.
  • There were arranged marriages, often involving the payment of a dowry and rich and powerful men kept concubines (mistresses).
  • Before 20th century, very few women were able to recieve any kind of education and lives of peasant women was especially hard as they had to carry the burden of child rearing and household as well as labour in the fields and handicraft work at home.
  • The revolution of 1911 had brought some changes for women in terms of equality as during the 1912 constitution, women were not granetd the gith to vote but during the warlord era in the growing cities, educated women were able to challange traditional attitudes and made their way into professional occupations.
  • However, in 1922, women accounted for a mere 2.5% of total number of students recieving university education and on the countryside the progress was almost non-existent.
Under the CCP:
  • In Jiangxi provinces in the 1930s, arranged marriages were outlawed and it became illegal to pruchase wives.
  • Divorce was made easier and women were also given the right to vote! Mao emphasised that at least one quarter of those elected to representative bodies had to be women.
  • However- greater equality also increased their burdens as younger men were taken away to fight against the GMD, women were expected to do the heavy farm labour as well as their previous tasks.
  • In 1949, one of the first reforms addressed the issue of women's rights.
  • New Marriage Law in 1950 outlawed arranged marriages and dowries, concubined were banned and unmarried, divorced or widowed women were given the same rights to own property as men.
  • Even though attitudes in the rural areas was slow to change, the reforms did provide legal and social framewoek for women to establish equal rights with men.
Improvemens in education:
  • Previously entry to school and universities was severely restricted by high costs and the heavy demands on the academic curriculum showed very low pass rates in the imperial examinations (only 5%!).
  • After 1949, the development of an educational professional class in China was promoted by educational opportunities to study at Western universities.
  • In early 20th century only 30% of adults were literate and before 1949, 20% Chinese children attended primary school.
  • Mao rejected the traditional Chinese form of education for its elitism, old fashion curriculum and teaching methods and also opposed Western influence in schools and unis.
  • The shortage of educated people in China in 1949 was a serious problem for the suture development of the country.
  • Emphasis was put on primary education but the progress was slow; by 1956, less than half of children aged between 7 and 16 were in full-time education.
  • Some 20 yeras later, this had reached 96%.
  • The new govt. did not make spending on education a high priority and in 1952 the investment was merely a 6.4% of the budget.
  • Furthermore, education did not entirely break away from the traditional Chinese model as in each district there were "key schools" to where the best teachers were directed.
  • There was a heavy emphasis on testing, examinations and physical education and in practice it was mostly children of high-ranking party and govt. officials who occupied most of the places at these schools.
  • University education was focused on technical and scientific subjects (reflecting the country's need for specialists) and large numbers of students were also sent to study in the USSR until the late 1950s when China became isolated from the West.

West and USA:
· US “Cold War” anxiety- new military budget to fund struggle against the spread of communism.
· Refuses to recognize CCP- seat in UN in Taiwan (KMT) and not PRC (china’s) seat.
· New “front” in Cold War- US interpretations of USSR being the mastermind behind the CCW- cold war context.
· “Ping-Pong” diplomacy- end of cold war tensions and improved relations.