Chinese Civil War

From Academic Kids

The Chinese Civil War was a conflict in China between the Kuomintang (the Nationalist Party; KMT) and the Communist Party of China (CPC). It began in 1926 with the takeover of the KMT by General Chiang Kai-shek as well as purges of leftist and Communist members from the KMT. It ended in 1949 with an unofficial cessation of major hostilities, with the Communists controlling mainland China and the Nationalists controlling Taiwan Island, Penghu, and several outlying Fujianese islands.


The First United Front

To defeat the warlords who had seized control of much of Northern China since the collapse of the Qing Dynasty, Kuomintang leader Sun Yat-sen sought the help of foreign powers. His efforts to obtain aid from the Western democracies were ignored, however, and in 1921 he turned to the Soviet Union. For political expediency, the Soviet leadership initiated a dual policy of support for both Sun and the newly established Communist Party of China. The Soviets hoped for consolidation but were prepared for either side to emerge victorious. Thus the struggle for power in China began between the Nationalists and the Communists.

In 1923 a joint statement by Sun and a Soviet representative in Shanghai pledged Soviet assistance for China's national unification. Soviet advisers — the most prominent of whom was an agent of the Comintern, Mikhail Borodin — began to arrive in China in 1923 to aid in the reorganization and consolidation of the KMT along the lines of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. The CPC was under Comintern instructions to cooperate with the KMT, and its members were encouraged to join while maintaining their party identities, forming the First United Front between the two parties. The CPC was still small at the time, having a membership of 300 in 1922 and only 1,500 by 1925. The KMT in 1922 already was 150,000 strong. Soviet advisers also helped the Nationalists set up a political institute to train propagandists in mass mobilization techniques and in 1923 sent Chiang Kai-shek, one of Sun's lieutenants from Tongmeng Hui days, for several months' military and political study in Moscow. After Chiang's return in late 1923, he participated in the establishment of the Whampoa Military Academy outside Guangzhou, which was the seat of government under the KMT-CPC alliance. In 1924 Chiang became head of the academy and began the rise to prominence that would make him Sun's successor as head of the KMT and the unifier of all China under the right-wing nationalist government.

Northern Expedition (1926–1928) and KMT split

Just months after Sun's death in 1925, Chiang, as commander-in-chief of the National Revolutionary Army, set out on the long-delayed Northern Expedition against the northern warlords to unite China under KMT control.

By 1926, however, the KMT had divided into left- and right-wing factions, and the Communist bloc within it was also growing. In March 1926, after thwarting a kidnapping attempt against him, Chiang abruptly dismissed his Soviet advisers, imposed restrictions on CPC members' participation in the top leadership, and emerged as the preeminent KMT leader. The Soviet Union, still hoping to prevent a split between Chiang and the CPC, ordered Communist underground activities to facilitate the Northern Expedition, which was finally launched by Chiang from Guangzhou in July 1926.

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Government troops round up prisoners.

In early 1927 the KMT-CPC rivalry led to a split in the revolutionary ranks. The CPC and the left wing of the KMT had decided to move the seat of the Nationalist government from Guangzhou to Wuhan. But Chiang, whose Northern Expedition was proving successful, set his forces out to destroy the Shanghai CPC apparatus. Chiang Kai-shek, with the aid of the Shanghai underworld, arguing that communist activities were socially and economically disruptive, turned on Communists and unionists in Shanghai, arresting and executing hundreds on April 12, 1927. The purge widened the rift between Chiang and Wang Ching-wei's Wuhan government (a contest won by Chiang Kai-shek) and destroyed the urban base of the CPC. Chiang, expelled from the KMT for his actions, formed a rival government in Nanjing. There now were three capitals in China: the internationally recognized warlord regime in Beijing; the Communist and left-wing Kuomintang regime at Wuhan; and the right-wing civilian-military regime at Nanjing, which would remain the Nationalist capital for the next decade.

The Comintern cause appeared bankrupt. A new policy was instituted calling on the CPC to foment armed insurrections in both urban and rural areas in preparation for an expected rising tide of revolution. Unsuccessful attempts were made by Communists to take cities such as Nanchang, Changsha, Shantou, and Guangzhou, and an armed rural insurrection, known as the Autumn Harvest Uprising, was staged by peasants in Hunan Province. The insurrection was led by Mao Zedong.

But in mid-1927 the CPC was at a low ebb. The Communists had been expelled from Wuhan by their left-wing KMT allies, who in turn were toppled by a military regime.

The KMT resumed the campaign against warlords and captured Beijing in June 1928, after which most of eastern China was under Chiang's control, and the Nanjing government received prompt international recognition as the sole legitimate government of China. The Nationalist government announced that in conformity with Sun Yat-sen's formula for the three stages of revolution — military unification, political tutelage, and constitutional democracy — China had reached the end of the first phase and would embark on the second, which would be under KMT direction.

Agrarian Revolution (1927–1937)

During the Agrarian Revolution, Communist Party activists retreated underground or to the countryside where they fomented a military revolt (Nanchang Uprising on August 1, 1927), combined the force with remnants of peasant rebels, and established control over several areas in southern China. Attempts by the Nationalist armies to suppress the rebellion were unsuccessful but extremely damaging to the Communist forces.

A Communist leader addressing Long March survivors.
A Communist leader addressing Long March survivors.

After Chiang Kai-shek had foiled the coup to oust him launched by Feng Y-hsiang, Yen Hsi-shan, and Wang Ching-wei (1929–30), he immediately turned his attention to rooting out the remaining pockets of Communist activity. The first two campaigns failed and the third was aborted due to the Mukden Incident. The fourth campaign (1932-1933) achieved some early successes, but Chiang’s armies were badly mauled when they tried to penetrate into the heart of Mao’s Soviet Chinese Republic. Finally in late 1933 Chiang launched a fifth campaign orchestrated by his German advisors that involved the systematic encirclement of the Jiangxi Soviet region with fortified blockhouses. By the fall of 1934, the Communists faced the possibility of total annihilation. It seemed that the time was now ripe to finish off the CPC, then turn against the remaining warlords, before finally retaking Manchuria from the Japanese.

In October of 1934, the Communists decided to make a massive military retreat to the west to escape the ensuing KMT forces. It was under this yearlong, 6000 km retreat, called the Long March, which ended when the Communists reached the interior of Shaanxi, that Mao Zedong emerged as the top Communist leader. Along the way, the Communist Army confiscated property and weapons from local warlords and landlords, while recruiting peasants and the poor, solidifying its appeal to the masses.

Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek (pictured here in March 1945) was severely weakened in power by the Second Sino-Japanese War.
Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek (pictured here in March 1945) was severely weakened in power by the Second Sino-Japanese War.

Second Sino-Japanese War (1937–1945)

During the Japanese invasion and occupation of Manchuria, Chiang Kai-shek, who saw the Communists as a greater threat, refused to ally with the Communists to fight against Japanese. On December 12, 1936, Kuomintang Generals Zhang Xueliang and Yang Hucheng kidnapped Chiang Kai-Shek and forced him to a truce with the Communists. The incident became known as the Xian Incident. Both parties agreed to suspend fighting and form a Second United Front to focus their energies against the Japanese.

However, the alliance was in name only. The level of actual cooperation and coordination between the CPC and KMT during the Second World War was minimal. In the midst of the Second United Front, the Communists and the Kuomintang were still vying for territorial advantage in "Free China" (i.e. those areas not occupied by the Japanese or ruled by puppet governments). The situation came to a head in late 1940 and early 1941 when there were major clashes between the Communist and KMT forces. In December 1940, Chiang Kai-shek demanded that the CPC’s New Fourth Army evacuate Anhui and Jiangsu Provinces. Under intense pressure, the New Fourth Army commanders complied, but they were ambushed by Nationalist troops and soundly defeated in January 1941. This clash, which would be known as the New Fourth Army Incident, weakened the CPC position in Central China and effectively ended any substantive cooperation between the Nationalists and the Communists and both sides concentrated on jockeying for position in the inevitable Civil War.

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Chiang and Mao met in the wartime capital of Chongqing to toast to the Chinese victory over Japan, but their shaky alliance was short-lived.

Post-war power struggle (1945–1947)

Dropping of the atomic bomb and the Soviet entry into the Pacific War caused Japan to surrender much more quickly than anyone in China had imagined. Under the terms of the unconditional Japanese surrender dictated by the United States, Japanese troops were ordered to surrender to KMT troops and not the Communists.

With the sudden end of WWII in East Asia, Soviet forces flooded into the Manchurian Provinces to seize Japanese positions and to take the surrender of the 700,000 Japanese troops still stationed in the region. Later in the year Chiang Kai-shek came to the painful realization that he lacked the resources to prevent a CPC takeover of Manchuria following the scheduled Soviet departure, he therefore made a deal with the Russians to delay their withdrawal until he had moved enough of his best-trained men and modern material into the region. The Soviets spent the extra time systematically dismantling the entire Manchurian industrial plant and shipping it back to their war-ravaged Motherland.

General George Marshall arrived in China and was part of negotiations over a cease-fire between the KMT and the CPC, the terms of which would build a coalition government that would include all of the contending political/military groups in China. Neither the Communists (represented by Zhou Enlai) nor Chiang Kai-shek’s representatives were willing to compromise on certain fundamental issues or relinquish the territories they had seized in the wake of the Japanese surrender. The truce fell apart in the spring of 1946, and although negotiations continued, Marshall was recalled in January 1947.

Final stage of fighting (1946–1949)

With the breakdown of peace talks, an all out war resumed. To the Communists, this stage was called the War of Liberation (解放战争). While the Soviet Union provided limited aid to the Communists, the United States assisted the Nationalists with hundreds of millions of dollars worth of now surplus military supplies and generous loans of hundreds of millions of dollars worth of military equipment.

Belatedly, the Nationalist government sought to enlist popular support through internal reforms. The effort was in vain, however, because of the rampant corruption in government and the accompanying political and economic chaos including massive hyperinflation. By late 1948 the Nationalist position was bleak. The demoralized and undisciplined Nationalist troops proved no match for the communist People's Liberation Army. 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.

After numerous operational set-backs in Manchuria, especially in attempting to take the major cities, the Communists were ultimately able to seize the region and then focus on the war south of the Great Wall. In January 1949 Peking was taken by the Communists without a fight, and its name was changed back to Beijing. Between April and November, major cities passed from Nationalist to Communist control with minimal resistance. In most cases the surrounding countryside and small towns had come under Communist influence long before the cities.

Ultimately, the Communist Party was victorious. On October 1st, 1949 Mao Zedong proclaimed the People's Republic of China. Chiang Kai-shek and a few hundred thousand Nationalist troops and 2 million refugees, predominantly from the government and business community, fled from the mainland to the island of Taiwan, and there remained only isolated pockets of resistance. In December 1949 Chiang proclaimed Taipei, Taiwan, the temporary capital of the Republic of China and continued to assert his government as the sole legitimate authority in China.



Communist Party


The War after 1949

Most observers expected Chiang's government to eventually fall in response to a Communist invasion of Taiwan and the United States initially showed no interest in supporting Chiang's government in its final stand. Things changed radically with the North Korean invasion of South Korea in January 1950, thus triggering the Korean War. At this point, allowing a total Communist victory over Chiang became politically impossible in the United States, and President Harry S. Truman ordered the U.S. 7th Fleet into the Taiwan straits, ending any possibility for a successful Communist invasion.

Some American historians have theorized that the loss of mainland China to the Communists enabled Joseph McCarthy to purge the "China Hands" from the U.S. State Department. In turn, it is possible that John F. Kennedy lacked the advice of any real experts on East Asia when he was trying to formulate a policy on Vietnam, which would imply that the Chinese Civil War can be linked causally to the Vietnam War.

Meanwhile, on Taiwan, throughout the 1950s and 1960s, intermittent skirmishes occurred throughout mainland's coastal and peripheral regions, though American reluctance to be drawn into a larger conflict left Chiang Kai-shek too weak to "retake the mainland" as he constantly vowed. ROC fighter aircraft bombed mainland targets and commandos, sometimes numbering up to 80 and sent by the U.S. military, landed repeatedly on the mainland to kill PLA soldiers, kidnap CPC cadres, destroy infrastructure, and seize documents. The ROC lost about 150 men in one raid in 1964.

The ROC navy conducted low intensity naval raids, and lost some ships in several small battles with the PLA. In June 1949, the ROC declared a "closure" of all mainland ports and its navy attempted to intercept all foreign ships, mainly of British and Soviet-bloc origin. Since the mainland's railroad network was underdeveloped, north-south trade heavily depended on sea lanes. ROC naval activity also caused severe hardship for mainland fishermen.

After losing the mainland, a group of approximately 1,200 KMT soldiers escaped to Burma and continued launching guerrilla attacks into south China. Their leader, General Li Mi, was paid a salary by the ROC government and given the nominal title of Governor of Yunnan. Initially, the U.S. supported these remnants and the CIA provided them with aid. After the Burmese government appealed to the United Nations in 1953, the U.S. began pressuring the ROC to withdraw its loyalists. By the end of 1954, nearly 6,000 soldiers had left Burma and Li Mi declared his army disbanded. However, thousands remained, and the ROC continued to supply and command them, even secretly supplying reinforcements at times. Raids into mainland China gradually ended by the late 1960s as PLA infrastructure improved. Remnants of these KMT loyalists remain in the area and are active in the opium trade.

Though viewed as a military liability by the United States, the ROC viewed its remaining islands in Fujian as vital for any future campaign to retake the mainland. On September 3, 1954, the First Taiwan Strait crisis began when the PLA started shelling Quemoy and threatened to take the Dachen Islands. On January 20, 1955, the PLA took nearby Yi Kiang Shan, with the entire ROC garrison of 720 troops killed defending the island. On January 24 of the same year, the U.S. Congress passed the Formosa Resolution authorizing the President to defend the ROC's offshore islands. Instead of committing to defend the ROC's offshore islands, President Eisenhower pressured Chiang Kai-shek to evacuate his 11,000 troops and 20,000 civilians from the Dachen Islands, leaving them for PLA takeover. Nanchi Island was abandoned as well, leaving Quemoy and Matsu the only major islands remaining. The First Taiwan Straits crisis ended in March 1955 when the PLA ceased its bombardment, amid U.S. threats of escalation and use of nuclear weapons.

The Second Taiwan Strait Crisis began on August 23, 1958 with another intense artillery bombardment of Quemoy and ended on November of the same year. PLA patrol boats blockaded the islands from ROC supply ships. Though the U.S. rejected Chiang Kai-shek's proposal to bomb mainland artillery batteries, it quickly moved to supply fighter jets and anti-aircraft missiles to the ROC. It also provided amphibious assault ships to land supply, as a sunken ROC naval vessel was blocking the harbor. On September 7, the U.S. escorted a convoy of ROC supply ships and the PRC refrained from firing. On October 25, the PRC announced an "even-day ceasefire" — the PLA would only shell Quemoy on even-numbered days. By the end of the crisis, Quemoy had been struck with 500,000 artillery rounds and 3000 civilians and 1000 soldiers had been killed or wounded. Quemoy and Matsu were major campaign issues in the 1960 United States Presidential elections. Gradually through the 1960s live artillery was replaced by leaflets.

In January 1979, the PRC announced it would stop shelling Quemoy and Matsu. Though the PRC conducted missile tests in 1995–96 and escalated tensions, armed clashes between the two sides have ceased. Since the late 1980s, there has been growing economic exchanges on both sides while the Taiwan straits remain a dangerous flashpoint. The political dynamics across the Taiwan straits have changed with Taiwan's democratization and an more vocal Taiwan independence movement throughout the 1990s. Ironically, in Taiwan itself, the Kuomintang has become one of the more active supporters of a conciliatory policy toward the PRC and the Communist Party.

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