Chinese Civil War: History, Causes & Effects

The Chinese Civil War was a protracted conflict that took place in China from 1927 to 1949 between the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the Chinese Nationalist Party (Kuomintang, or KMT). Here are the key aspects of the Chinese Civil War:

Demise of the Qing Dynasty and the rise of regionalism

The Chinese Civil War can be traced back to the power struggles and tensions between the CCP and the KMT, which began in the early 20th century. After the overthrow of the Qing Dynasty and its last ruler Emperor Puyi in 1911, the KMT, led by Sun Yat-sen, sought to establish a modern and unified China.

Believing the 1911 Revolution had achieved its goal, Sun stepped down as provisional president of the Republic of China (ROC) and handed power to Yuan Shikai, a former military officer in the Qing Dynasty.

It turned out that Shikai was only interested in amassing power and reestablishing monarchy in China. This was evident in his decision to crown himself emperor of China. As a result of Shikai’s poor management of the country, China was plagued by regional warlords and increased foreign intervention. Sun was basically expelled from the government in Beijing and had to go into exile.

Sun Yat-sen (1866-1925) was Provisional President of the Republic of China from January to March 1912.

Sun Yat-sen’s forced alliance with the Soviets

After the death of Shikai in 1916, Sun returned from exile and took up the task of restoring order to the country by getting rid of the various warlords that controlled large parts of China.

Operating from his headquarters (HQ) in Guangzhou in southern China, Sun and the KMT went to great lengths to see to it that China was reunified, even if it meant securing assistance from the Soviet Union.

The Sun-Joffe Manifesto, also known as the Sun-Joffe Declaration, was a joint statement issued in January 1923 by Sun Yat-sen, the leader of the Chinese Nationalist Party (Kuomintang or KMT), and Adolf Joffe, a representative of the Soviet Union. The manifesto outlined their shared vision for cooperation between the KMT and the Soviet Union. Here are the key points of the Sun-Joffe Manifesto:

  1. The manifesto emphasized the importance of cooperation between the KMT and the Soviet Union, recognizing the shared interests and goals of both parties.
  2. The manifesto affirmed the commitment of the KMT and the Soviet Union to the principles of nationalism and anti-imperialism. They aimed to oppose foreign imperialist powers and secure China’s independence and sovereignty.
  3. The manifesto expressed solidarity with the workers and peasants of China, advocating for their rights and improved living conditions. It highlighted the importance of agrarian reform and protection of workers’ rights.
  4. The manifesto called for military collaboration between the KMT and the Soviet Union to strengthen China’s defense capabilities. It proposed the establishment of a military academy in Guangzhou (Canton) to train Chinese officers.
  5. The manifesto called for political and economic reforms in China, including the establishment of a democratic republic, protection of civil liberties, and modernization of industry and agriculture.
  6. The manifesto emphasized the importance of international cooperation and the need for China to actively participate in international affairs. It sought diplomatic recognition and equal treatment from other nations.

Quote by Sun Yat-sen, founder of the Republic of China

Did you know…?

Many western nations, including the United States, initially turned down request for aid from the KMT. As a result, Sun Yat-sen had to look for assistance from the Soviet Union. However, the cooperation between the KMT and the Soviets faced challenges and eventually led to disagreements and conflicts, particularly with regard to ideological differences and power struggles within the KMT.

Rise of Communism and the Communist Party in China

The Sun-Joffe Manifesto represented a significant moment in Chinese history, as it marked the early collaboration between the KMT and the Soviet Union. The manifesto also included pledges by the KMT and the Comintern (i.e. the Communist International) to corporate with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) for the purpose of China’s unification.

The CCP, founded in 1921, gained traction during the 1920s and 1930s, particularly in rural areas, where they garnered support from peasants by advocating for land redistribution and social reforms. The CCP, led by Mao Zedong, developed strong guerrilla warfare tactics and formed rural base areas, such as Yan’an, which served as a center for Communist activities.

The First United Front – a KMT-CCP alliance formed to end warlordism in China

In the same year the Sun-Joffe Manifesto was declared, Chiang Kai-shek, a protégé and one of Sun’s trusted lieutenants, was sent to Moscow to acquire both military and political skills.

Upon his return, Chiang was placed in charge of the Whampoa Military Academy where military officers and generals were trained to vanquish the various warlords and steer China towards unification. One of such military officers was Zhou Enlai, who would later become a leading member of the CCP and the first premier of the People’s Republic of China.

Formed in 1924, the First United Front would see KMT collaborate with the CCP in order to vanquish the various regional warlords that had sprung up following the demise of the Qing Dynasty. Under the guidance of Sun, the military arm of the KMT – the National Revolutionary Army (NRA) – included some members of the CCP.

Third Plenum of the KMT (Kuomintang) Central Executive Committee. Mao is third from the right in the second row.

Upon the death of Sun in 1925, Chiang became the leader of the KMT. He would spearhead a shakable KMT-CCP alliance and lead the National Revolutionary Army in its military campaign to remove the Beiyang (Beijing) generals and other warlords from power.

The Beiyang generals were members of the Beiyang government who rose to power beginning around the rule of Yuan Shikai in 1912. Following the death of Shikai in 1916, those generals began competing for power, ushering in the Warlord Era (1916-1928).

Ultimately, the NRA, under the leadership of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek, would go on to defeat the Beiyang Army in 1928, marking the start of the Nanjing decade (1928-1937). However, Chiang had to contend with growing resentment from some left-wing members of the KMT, many of who were based in Wuhan.

It must be noted that CCP sort of tagged along with KMT because it hoped to use the military might of the KMT as a means to spread its communist ideologies. Basically, the KMT-CCP alliance was a marriage of convenience as both sides had ideological differences.

The White Terror and the Onset of the Chinese Civil War

The death of Sun in 1925 in so many ways caused cracks to appears within the KMT. Ideological differences and power struggles within the KMT caused the KMT to splinter in two – the right-wing, which was led by Chiang in Nanjing (Nanking), and the left-wing, which was led by Wang Jingwei in Wuhan.

Chiang’s faction was of the view that the Soviets were in cohort with the left-wing of the KMT and the CCP in order to destroy the KMT from within.

On the other hand, the Soviets feared that China under the leadership of Chiang would slip into the orbit of Western capitalists; therefore, the Soviets channeled a lot of aid, including military, to the CCP.

In the first few months of the Northern Expedition, leadership of the KMT began to slip into the hands of the left-wing. This was evident in the decision of the KMT to transfer their HQ from Guangzhou to Wuhan.

KMT-CCP conflict and the Chinese Civil War

In April 1927, Chiang and the right-wing of the KMT deemed Communist activities as threats to the Nationalist revolution. Prior to that, there were even rumors of a plot to arrest Chiang.

Fearing the worse, Chiang and his allies began a brutal purge of Communists and left-wingers in the KMT. The April 12 Purge, which came to be known as the Shanghai Massacre or the White Terror, saw Chiang’s Nationalist faction round up and eliminate many leading Communists, especially in Guangzhou and Changsha.

In Shanghai, Chiang solicited the help of Du Yuesheng, the leader of the criminal organization Green Gang, to carry out attacks against the Communists. Using an emergency decree, Chiang disarmed the military wing of the Communists in Shanghai as hundreds of union workers were arrested.

It’s been estimated that the White Terror claimed the lives of several thousands of people, with many of them being peasants. Many atrocities, including public beheading, were perpetrated by the KMT and its allies against people they deemed radicals.

Shanghai Massacre

Undoubtedly, the Chiang-led purge of Communists in the KMT was the number one reason why China was plunged into a civil war in the late 1920s.

Owing to the sheer horror unleashed by the KMT, the Soviet Union severed its ties with the Chiang-led government. Wang, the leader of the Communist faction in the KMT, was left with no option than to flee China, leaving the Wuhan government to die out.

With the Communist wing removed from power, Chiang and his right-wing nationalists ushered in the Nanjing government, which had the full support of the NRA and western powers and businesses.

The KMT government prided itself with following Sun Yat-sen’s Three Principles of the People (also known as the San-min Doctrine) – nationalism, welfarism, and democracy. As a result, it received a quick approval as the legitimate government of China from the international community aligned to the west.

On the other hand, Chiang was denounced by the exiled Communist members as a big traitor to the revolution and the ideals of Sun Yat-sen. Despite being vastly outnumbered and outgunned, the few surviving Communists banded with the CCP and began an armed conflict with the KMT.

In late 1927, communist insurrections sprouted in quite a number of places, including Changsha, Nanchang, Hunan, and Guangzhou. However, they were quickly put down by the Chiang regime. In Hunan, Mao Zedong’s Communist uprising in September was crushed, and thereafter many Communists retreated to the mountains of Jiangxi. There, they formed the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) that would champion the cause of the CCP in the decades that followed.

KMT defeat of Beiyang warlords during the Northern Expedition

KMT-CCP conflict: 1927-1937

In the immediate aftermath of the White Terror, many CCP leaders, including Zhou Enlai, Zhu De, and Liu Bocheng, came together to form the Red Army (also known as the Chinese Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Army) to end what they saw as the tyrannical reign and suppression of dissent by the KMT.

The left wing of the KMT collaborated with the CCP to stair up resent among the peasants in rural areas. Known as the Nanchang uprising, the conflict was the first major conflict between the Red Army and the KMT’s National Revolutionary Army.

Zhu De (second from right) photographed with Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai (second from left) and Bo Gu (left) in 1937.

The Nanchang Uprising – August 1927

The Nanchang Uprising took place on August 1, 1927, in Nanchang, the capital of Jiangxi Province, China. At the time, the CCP and the KMT were in a tenuous alliance against warlords and foreign powers. However, the alliance quickly disintegrated due to growing tensions and ideological differences between the two parties.

The primary objective of the Nanchang Uprising was to seize control of Nanchang and establish a revolutionary base area for the CCP. The uprising aimed to spark a larger armed rebellion against the KMT government and promote the spread of communism.

Nanchang Uprising

CCP military commanders of the Nanchang Uprising (L-R): Ye Ting, Zhou Enlai, and Zhu De

The uprising was led by a group of communist military officers, including Zhu De, Zhou Enlai, and He Long. Zhu De was appointed as the overall commander of the rebel forces.

The uprising began with the rebels seizing the Jiangxi Army Training School and the Nanchang arsenal. They managed to capture key government offices and briefly held control over Nanchang. However, the rebel forces faced strong opposition from the KMT troops and were unable to hold the city for an extended period.

After facing heavy resistance and lacking sufficient reinforcements, the rebel forces were forced to retreat from Nanchang. They marched southward to establish a new revolutionary base in the Jinggang Mountains of Jiangxi Province. This retreat is often referred to as the “Long March of the Red Army.”

The Autumn Harvest Uprising

The Autumn Harvest Uprising occurred in September 1927 in the context of the growing tension and conflict between the CCP and the KMT. After the split between the two parties, the CCP faced severe suppression by the KMT, leading to increased radicalization among CCP members.

The main objective of the Autumn Harvest Uprising was to overthrow the local KMT authorities in Hunan Province and establish a revolutionary base area for the CCP. The uprising aimed to mobilize the peasantry and workers to rise up against the KMT government and promote communist revolution.

The Autumn Harvest Uprising was led by Li Zhen and Mao Zedong. The latter was an emerging leader within the CCP and had gained immense support among peasants in Hunan through his advocacy for land reform and peasant rights.

Following the failure of the Autumn Harvest Uprising, Mao Zedong and the surviving CCP forces were forced to retreat to the Jinggang Mountains, where they established a new revolutionary base. This marked the continuation of Mao’s strategy of developing rural base areas and building support among the peasantry. Image: Mao in 1927

On September 7, 1927, Communist forces launched an attack on Changsha, the capital of Hunan Province. The rebels, consisting of communist guerrilla forces and peasant militias, launched coordinated attacks on KMT government offices and police stations. They briefly gained control over parts of the city.

However, KMT forces, supported by superior weaponry and reinforcements, launched a counteroffensive. CCP forces faced heavy resistance and were eventually driven out of Changsha. The uprising was suppressed within a matter of weeks.

Significance Of the Autumn Harvest Uprising

Although the Autumn Harvest Uprising itself was not successful in achieving its objectives, it served as a pivotal moment for Mao Zedong and the CCP. It highlighted the importance of mobilizing peasants and workers as a revolutionary force and provided valuable lessons for future armed struggles. Mao’s experiences during the uprising and subsequent retreat laid the foundation for his later revolutionary strategies, including the establishment of rural base areas and the concept of protracted people’s war.

The Autumn Harvest Uprising demonstrated the determination of the CCP to challenge the KMT’s authority and pursue armed struggle as a means of achieving communist revolution in China. It represented an important step in the CCP’s revolutionary trajectory, ultimately leading to their eventual victory in the Chinese Civil War and the establishment of the People’s Republic of China.

The Guangzhou Uprising

The primary objective of the Guangzhou Uprising was to seize control of Guangzhou and establish a revolutionary base area for the CCP. The uprising aimed to mobilize the urban proletariat and workers to rise up against the KMT government and promote the cause of communism.

The uprising was led by the CCP’s military forces, primarily consisting of the newly formed Guangzhou Workers’ and Peasants’ Red Army. The leadership included figures such as Ye Ting, Xu Xiangqian, and Ye Jianying.

The Guangzhou Uprising began on December 11, 1927, with the communist forces launching a series of coordinated attacks on government buildings, police stations, and military installations in Guangzhou. The rebels faced fierce resistance from KMT forces, including artillery bombardment and aerial attacks.

Despite initial gains, the communist forces were unable to maintain control over the city. The KMT, with superior resources and military support, launched a counteroffensive and gradually regained control. The uprising was suppressed within a matter of days by the KMT-aligned warlord and commander Zhang Fakui.

Following the failure of the Guangzhou Uprising, the surviving communist forces were forced to retreat and disperse. Many CCP members, including key leaders like Ye Ting, fled to the countryside to regroup and rebuild their revolutionary forces.

The Guangzhou Uprising represented a setback for the CCP in their struggle against the KMT. However, it demonstrated the determination and resolve of the communist forces and highlighted the importance of urban workers as a revolutionary force. The failed uprising provided valuable lessons for the CCP in terms of military strategy, organization, and the need to establish rural base areas.

Despite its immediate failure, the Guangzhou Uprising contributed to the consolidation of the CCP’s revolutionary forces and the development of their revolutionary strategies. It marked a significant stage in the CCP’s efforts to build a broad-based revolutionary movement, gain popular support, and pursue armed struggle as a means to achieve communist revolution in China.

Even though the Guangzhou Uprising was the third failed uprising of 1927, and reducing the morale of the communists, it encouraged further uprisings across China.

The Guangzhou Uprising occurred in the aftermath of the split between the CCP and the KMT, following the suppression of the Communist movement by the KMT-led government. The CCP had been organizing and mobilizing workers and peasants in Guangzhou and other areas, and tensions between the two parties had escalated.

The Long March – CCP Red Army’s evasive march from Jiangxi to Shaanxi

The Long March was a monumental military retreat undertaken by the Red Army, the armed forces of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), from 1934 to 1936. It was a strategic maneuver that played a crucial role in shaping the future of the CCP and the Chinese revolution.

The primary objective of the Long March was to evade the encircling KMT forces and establish new bases in areas beyond their reach. The CCP leadership, including Mao Zedong, recognized the importance of regrouping, reorganizing, and preserving their fighting force to continue the revolution.

The Long March covered approximately 6,000 miles (10,000 kilometers) across challenging terrains, including mountains, rivers, and hostile territories. The route took the Red Army through several provinces, including Jiangxi, Fujian, Guangdong, Hunan, Guizhou, Sichuan, and Shaanxi.

The march presented numerous challenges, including frequent engagements with KMT forces, lack of supplies, harsh weather conditions, and difficult terrain. The Red Army faced attacks, ambushes, and aerial bombardments from KMT forces.

The Long March took place between 16 October 1934 – 22 October 1935. Image: The leaders of the CCP (L-R) Zhou Enlai, Mao Zedong, and Zhu De during the Long March

Did you know…?

Of the 100,000 troops that began the march in October 1934, only about 10% of them made it alive to the Shaanxi province.

The Long March was led by the CCP leadership, including Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai, Zhu De, and other prominent communist commanders. Mao Zedong emerged as the key strategist and political leader during the march.

The CCP leadership employed a strategy of both military engagement and guerrilla warfare tactics to survive and evade KMT forces. They also emphasized ideological and political education among their troops, promoting communist ideals and revolutionary spirit.

Legacy and Significance: The Long March is considered a defining moment in Chinese history and a symbol of the CCP’s resilience, determination, and revolutionary spirit. It helped solidify Mao Zedong’s leadership within the party and contributed to the development of Maoist ideology.

The march allowed the CCP to establish new bases and expand their influence in rural areas. It also helped to build support among peasants and gain sympathy from the Chinese population, which was crucial to the CCP’s eventual victory in the Chinese Civil War.

The Long March became a powerful symbol of endurance and sacrifice for the CCP and has had a lasting impact on Chinese revolutionary history. It remains an integral part of the narrative surrounding the rise of the CCP and the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.

The Xi’an Incident and the Second United Front against Japanese Invasion

On 12 December 1936, the disgruntled Zhang and Yang conspired to kidnap Chiang and force him into a truce with the CCP. The incident became known as the Xi’an Incident Image: Chang Hsüeh-liang, Yang Hucheng, and Chiang Kai-shek

In December 1936, Yang Hucheng and Zhang Xueliang, both senior generals aligned to the KMT met with Chiang Kai-shek in Xi’an. During the meeting, they demanded an end to the KMT’s military suppression of the CCP and requested a united front against the Japanese invasion. When Chiang refused, Yang and Zhang resorted to kidnapping him to pressure the KMT into changing its policies.

The kidnapping of Chiang Kai-shek caused a political crisis within the KMT government. However, negotiations took place between the KMT and CCP representatives, resulting in the signing of the Xi’an Incident Agreement on December 25, 1936. The agreement included several key provisions, including:

  1. The formation of a united front between the KMT and the CCP to resist Japanese aggression.
  2. The release of Chiang Kai-shek and the restoration of his leadership position within the KMT.
  3. A temporary cessation of military hostilities between the KMT and the CCP.
  4. The adoption of policies to address social and economic issues in order to gain popular support.

China was embroiled in a complex political situation characterized by the Chinese Civil War between the KMT and the CCP, as well as the ongoing conflict with Japanese aggression. The CCP and KMT had formed a tenuous united front against the Japanese, but tensions remained between the two parties. Image: Mao Zedong and Chiang Kai Shek during the Chongqing Negotiations

The Xi’an Incident had significant implications for the political landscape in China. It led to a temporary truce between the KMT and the CCP, allowing them to focus on the shared goal of resisting Japanese invasion during the Second Sino-Japanese War. The incident also highlighted the complex power dynamics and shifting alliances within the Chinese political landscape during that time.

Japan’s surrender and the shaky peace pact between the KMT and the CCP

After Japan’s formal surrender on September 2, 1945, the alliance between the CCP and the KMT deteriorated, leading to the resumption of hostilities.

Of the two competing factions in the Chinese Civil War – the KMT and the CCP – the CCP were the ones who emerged better off after the Second Sino-Japanese War and Japan’s surrender in 1945. The Chinese Communists had the upper hand largely because of the immense support they received from the Soviets. Besides, the guerilla tactics deployed by the leaders of the PLA garnered a lot of local support from areas that were previously occupied by Japan. It’s estimated that the Red Army increased its size to almost 1.5 million troops by the end of the war.

As the KMT was officially the recognized government of China, it had to shoulder a lot of the load when it came to defending China from Japan’s aggression during the Second Sino-Japanese War. As a result, the KMT suffered significantly greater losses than the CCP’s PLA, which deployed guerrilla tactics.

With Japan defeated by the lose coalition of KMT-CCP forces in 1945, the two warring sides resumed hostilities as there wasn’t any shared goal. Furthermore, the two sides deeply mistrusted each other.

Therefore, by the time curtain closed in on the Second Sino-Japanese War, the KMT’s force was in weaker shape than it was in the mid-1930s. And by golly did the CCP capitalize on Chiang Kai-shek’s weak position. For example, the CCP took advantage of Chiang’s preoccupation with Japanese forces and increased its sphere of control territorially. By the end of the war, more than 90 million people resided in areas controlled by the CCP.

Regardless, both the CCP and KMT still managed to sign a friendly treaty after the Second Sino-War. Termed the Double Tenth Agreement (aka the Summary of Conversations Between the Government and Representatives of the Communist Party of China), the agreement was signed on October 10, 1945 at Chongqing.

Pressured into attending the meeting by the Soviet Union, Mao Zedong, who was accompanied to the meeting by US ambassador to China Patrick J. Hurley, acknowledged the KMT as the legitimate government. The KMT on the other hand recognized the CCP as a legitimate opposition political party. Both the US and the Soviet Union welcomed the agreement and maintained their commitment to supporting peace within China.

KMT’s leader Chiang Kai-shek (left) and CCP’s Mao Zedong met in Chongqing in 1945.

In spite of the friendly meeting at Chongqing, the two warring sides reneged on their promises and resumed fierce hostilities. This was simply because of the lack trust between the two sides.

The KMT would also discover that despite the post-war Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship and Alliance in 1945, the Soviet Union continued to support the CCP. For example, Joseph Stalin refused handing Manchuria to the KMT, preferring to give it to the CCP. Also, many of the captured weapons of the Imperial Japanese Army were given to the CCP.

Read More: Major Facts about Joseph Stalin

Second phase of the Chinese Civil War (1945-1949)

Unlike the KMT leaders who hoped that CCP could co-exist peacefully as an opposition party, Mao’s CCP hatched plans of a future revolution in which the CCP would rid China off the KMT for good. Mao was fully aware that that the KMT had suffered significantly during the Second Sino-Japanese War and therefore Chiang could not marshal any reasonable force to begin a civil war.

As both sides vied for greater territories in the previously occupied territories by Japan, the treaty between the KMT and CCP failed in January 1946. Both sides were disinterested in the formation of a democratic coalition; instead, they were bent on eliminating the other for good.

By June 1946, full-scale war was underway between CCP and KMT. The conflict would rage for more than three years.

The civil war was characterized by large-scale conventional battles, guerrilla warfare, political maneuvering, and foreign involvement.

As stated above, the CCP’s Red Army were in a much better position during the second phase of the Chinese Civil War, as it boasted a total force of more than 3 million troops. Making matters worse for the KMT was the fact that some their skilled military men began defecting to the CCP.

Mao’s Communist forces benefited from the enormous support it received from poor and landless peasants in the countryside. The promise of land reforms was enough reason to sway their support from the KMT to the CCP. The latter was also perceived as relatively less corrupt than the former.

As a result, the CCP began to have not just the numerical advantage but also tactical advantage over the KMT on the field of battle. This was evident during the Huaihai campaign (November 1948-January 1949), when the CCP managed to raise more than 5 million troops and launch a huge offensive against the KMT headquarters in Xuzhou.

The PLA made it as far as the Yangtze River. This meant that the CCP was gained control of east central China. The defeat gave a lot to the United States to think about its support to the KMT.

Prior to the Huaihai campaign, the CCP had captured quite a number of cities in the north, including Changchun, Luoyang, Jinan, Shandong, and Shenyang. Counterattacks were mounted in the Northeast. In those captured territories, the CCP helped themselves to military equipment seized from the KMT, including heavy artillery.

The Pingjin Campaign

Between late November 1948 and 31 January 1949, the CCP mounted a fierce campaign – the Pingjin campaign – to liberate KMT-held areas of Tianjin and Beijing. The campaign began following the withdrawal of KMT troops from areas like Qinhuangdao, Baoding, Chengde and Shanhai in the aftermath of the Liaoshen campaign (September – November 1948), The KMT decided to consolidate their troops in Beijing, Zhangjiakou, and Tianjin.

The PLA captured Zhangjiakou and Xinbao’an before marching on to Tianjin in early January 1949. In the ensuing battle for Tianjin, more than 100,000 troops of the Nationalist forces were either taken prisoners or killed. Tianjin fell to the Communists, allowing Communist commanders Lin Biao, Nie rongzhen, and Luo Ronghuan to march into Beijing with relatively no significant opposition from the KMT.

The KMT had about 610,000 troops against the more than 850,000 troops possessed by the CCP during the Pingjing Campaign. It’s also estimated that more than half a million KMT troops died during the Pingjing Campaign.

People’s Liberation Army enters Beiping (Beijing)

The Yangtze River Crossing Campaign and the capture of Nanjing

The Huaihai Campaign brought the PLA close to the Yangtze River in January 1949, and the Communist were poised to cross the river and vanquish KMT forces south of the river.

Stalin was a bit anxious about the complete obliteration of the KMT in China. Therefore, the Soviet Union tried to persuade Mao from crossing the Yangtze River. Those appeals fell on deaf ears as Mao and his commanders did not want to miss such an important opportunity to rid China off the KMT. Mao began the Yangtze River Crossing Campaign on April 20, 1949. The goal was to capture KMT’s stronghold and capital Nanjing. Mao deployed the Second, Third and Fourth Field Army to area.

In total, the Communists had about a million troops while the Nationalist government had slightly more than 700,000 troops. The Nationalist defense forces were led by commanders Tang Enbo and Bai Chongxi, while the PLA assault was led by Chen Yi, Deng Xiaoping, and Liu Bocheng.

Realizing that the winds were in the sails of the PLA, some units of the Nationalist forces switched sides to the PLA. Those defections made it relatively easy for the PLA to go past Nationalist defenses along the Yangtze.

As more and more PLA troops made it to the Yangtze, the Nationalist forces’ situation became very bleak. Chiang’s troops were in disarray, forcing the general to order a retreat to toward Shanghai and Hangzhou. In just a few days of the campaign, the PLA managed to capture places like Wuxi and Changzhou en route to the prized target, Nanjing.

On April 23, Nanjing fell to the Communist forces. Four days later, the PLA captured Suzhou. And by early June, KMT-strongholds Hanyang, Wuchang, and Nanchang were firmly in the hands of the PLA. Also, Shanghai fell into the hands of the PLA in late May following the Shanghai Campaign that was launched on May 12.

Spanning from May 12 to June 2, the Shanghai Campaign saw over 150,000 Nationalist troops either captured or killed. The PLA force of almost 300,000 troops devastated the nationalist defenders, who tried to use scorch earth tactics so as to leave nothing behind for the communists. However, the general populace prevented that from happening. This meant that the communists captured Shanghai and its wealth relatively intact.

The poem written by Mao Zedong following the successful Yangtze River Crossing Campaign in 1949

Communist Victory and KMT Retreat to Taiwan

Following its humiliating defeat during the Yangtze River Crossing Campaign, the KMT retreated to Guangzhou and then Chongqing. Heavily outnumbered, the KMT had to fall back to Chengdu before finally sailing of to island of Taiwan on December 7.

Also known as the Great Retreat, the KMT’s exodus to Taiwan involved about two million ROC troops and other civilians and refuges. The island, which was held by Japan following the defeat of the Qing Dynasty during the First Sino-Japanese Civil War, reverted to the KMT after Japan’s surrender in World War II in 1945.

Two months prior to the KMT retreat, on October 1, 1949, Mao Zedong proclaimed the founding the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in Beijing.

To Chiang and his advisors, the retreat was originally meant to be temporary – Chiang believed that he would be able to regroup his forces and mount a large-scale offensive against the CCP, which at the time was mopping up pockets of small KMT resistance on the mainland.

It’s estimated that more than two million KMT sympathizers and followers were arrested across the mainland, and about 700,000 of them were killed during what the CCP termed as Campaigns to Suppress Bandits and Counterrevolutionaries.

On October 1, 1949, Mao Zedong declared the founding of the People’s Republic of China (ROC).

The ROC proclaimed Taipei the temporary capital of the government. Chiang undoubtedly harbored real dreams of reconquering the mainland. And for many years, the plan for reconquest – i.e. “Project National Glory” (also known as Project Guoguang) – was carefully finetuned. However, the plan never came to fruition. CCP political and military growth in the decades that followed as well as its acquisition of nuclear weapons made the ROC’s dream of reconquering mainland China from the CCP ever more elusive.

Not only did the ROC lack the needed military might to pull of such a large-scale invasion of the mainland, but it also did not have the political support of the United States and its Western allies. Besides, the West at the time were busy dealing with the Korean War as well as stepping up their efforts to halt the spread of communism around the world. Initially, then-US president Harry Truman refused to be drawn into a conflict on behalf of the ROC in the Taiwan Strait. Regardless, that did not stop the US from taking a stand and vowing to protect Taiwan from an invasion by the PLA. As part of the US containment policy of communism, Truman ordered the deployment of US fleet to sail in between mainland China and Taiwan.

Therefore, Chiang and his government basically abandoned the reconquest project in the mid-1960s and resorted to focusing their efforts on modernization and economic liberalization of Taiwan, preferring to align with the West. However, it was not until 1972 that the body in charge of the Guoguang planning was abolished.

Did you know…?

To this day, the ROC (Republic of China) government on the island of Taiwan continues to make claim of sovereignty over mainland China, Mongolia and some parts of India, Russia, Pakistan, Myanmar, Bhutan, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan. Fully aware that the use of force to reconquer the mainland is completely out of the question, the ROC hopes diplomacy and political maneuvering could be used to implement the peaceful reunification of China.

Conquest of Hainan Island

Known as the Battle of Hainan Island, the CCP’s campaign to capture the island of Hainan lasted from April 16 to May 1, 1950. The ROC fielded between 150,000 and 200,000 troops, while the PLA had about 100,000 troops. With some bit of support from the Hainan communist movement, the PLA was able to prevail over the ROC, and by May 1, the island was firmly in the control of the Communists.

Similar to Hainan, the islands of Wanshan and Zhoushan were capture by the PLA in 1950.

Legacy and Consequences

The Chinese Civil War had significant consequences for China’s political, social, and economic landscape:

  1. Communist Rule: The victory of the CCP led to the establishment of a socialist state under the leadership of Mao Zedong. The PRC implemented major political and social reforms, including land redistribution, collectivization, and campaigns such as the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.
  2. Taiwan and Cross-Strait Relations: The retreat of the KMT to Taiwan led to the establishment of the Republic of China (ROC) government there. Taiwan remains a contentious issue, with both sides claiming to be the legitimate government of China. Cross-strait relations between mainland China and Taiwan have been marked by tensions, occasional conflicts, and a complex political status quo.
  3. Cold War Dynamics: The Chinese Civil War took place during the early years of the Cold War, with both the United States and the Soviet Union providing support to their respective Chinese allies. The victory of the Communist forces brought China into the Soviet sphere of influence, leading to geopolitical shifts in the region.
  4. Loss of Life and Displacement: The civil war resulted in significant loss of life and displacement of people. Estimates of the number of casualties vary, but it is believed that millions of people were killed or displaced during the conflict.

The Chinese Civil War fundamentally reshaped the political landscape of China, leading to the rise of the CCP and the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, which continues to shape China’s trajectory and influence global dynamics to this day.

Questions & Answers

Below are some frequently asked questions about the Chinese Civil War:

When did the Chinese Civil War begin?

The war began around 1927.

When did the Chinese Civil War end?

The war ended in 1949, although no peace treaty nor an armistice was signed.

How many people died in the war?

The Chinese Civil War claimed the lives of several millions people. The KMT suffered a heavier casualty, with about 1.5 million in the second phase of the war (1945 and 1949) alone.

What were the phases of the Chinese Civil War?

Historians often break the Chinese Civil War into two phases: the first phase (1927-1937) and the second phase (1945-1949), with a shaky KMT-CCP period of peace between 1937 and 1945.

Why was Chiang Kai-shek opposed to forming a united front to tackle Japan’s aggression?

Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek was the head of the KMT and president of the ROC

Chiang of the KMT prioritized internal pacification before external resistance. This meant that he sought to get rid of the CCP first before tackling Japan’s aggressive stance. His intention was to appease Japan until China built strong military and economic strength. However, the Xi’an incident in 1936 would force him to align with the Communists to halt Japan’s incursions into China.

Why Chiang initially refused to join forces with the CCP in the fight against the Empire of Japan.

During Japan’s invasion and occupation of Manchuria, Chiang Kai-shek saw the CCP as the greater threat. Chiang refused to ally with the CCP, preferring to unite China by eliminating the warlord and CCP forces first.

What was the level of cooperation between KMT and CCP during World War II?

The level of cooperation between the KMT and CCP during World War II, more specifically, the Second Sino-Japanese War, was minimal. Fully acknowledging the military might of the invading Japanese forces, CCP forces, the PLA, chose not use conventional warfare; instead, Mao and his commanders resorted to guerrilla warfare. As a result, the PLA suffered lower casualties than KMT forces, who used conventional warfare. For long periods, Imperial Japanese forces were well-equipped and were able to overran KMT defenders in northern and coastal China.

It must also be noted that throughout the duration of the Second United Front (1937-1945), both the Communists and KMT intermittently fought against each other for territorial advantage, especially in areas not captured by the Japanese. This was evident in December 1940 when KMT’s leader Chiang demanded the CCP’s Fourth Army vacate Jiangsu and Anhui Provinces.

As fighting between the two parties intensified, both the US and the Soviet Union became worried that the shaky KMT-CCP alliance could derail efforts in the fight against Japan. US and Soviet envoys warned both parties how Japan was the only beneficiary of the civil war.

Whom did the Japanese surrender to after the Second Sino-Japanese War?

As Chiang’s KMT was the internationally recognized government of China at the time, Imperial Japanese forces surrendered to the KMT and not the CCP. However, in Manchuria, a previously occupied Japanese territory, Japan surrendered to the Soviet Union, a big ally of the CCP. This was because the KMT did not have any significant force in the area.

Similarly, in places where KMT’s troops weren’t present, Japanese troops were forced to surrender to Communist forces. The CCP were bent on staking their claim as the official representatives of the people of China. This development turned out to be a huge concern to not just the KMT but the U.S. and other Western nations.

How did the Second Sino-Japanese War prove ‘beneficial’ to the CCP in the long run?

The Second Sino-Japanese War ended up wreaking havoc on the military strength of the KMT. The Chinese nationalists suffered heavier casualties than the PLA during the war. As a result, the CCP was able to overwhelm the KMT when the Chinese Civil War resumed in 1945.

What attracted many Chinese, especially peasants in the countryside, to the CCP?

The biggest trump card the CCP had was its land reforms. Peasants across China joined the Communist cause because the CCP embarked on a land reforms aimed at alleviating the economic plight of the poor. The peasants had also grown frustrated of the rampant corruption among many government officials of the KMT.

Therefore, the landless and starving peasants in the countryside joined in large numbers to support the CCP in the civil war.

Mao Zedong

Why couldn’t the CCP mount an offensive against the ROC government after it fled to Taiwan?

With the ROC on the back foot in 1949, many historians have wondered why the CCP simply did not finish off Chiang’s forces as they settled on the island of Taiwan. For starters, the Red Army of the CCP did not have anywhere near the naval powers of the nationalist forces. Therefore, any naval battle at the time would have been disastrous for Mao’s CCP. A large-scale invasion of Taiwan would also have required strong airpower – something that Chinese Communist Party did not have at the time.

Furthermore, Washington, D.C.’s decision to remain steadfast in containing the threat of the spread of communism in the region meant that it had to back the Chiang’s government in Taiwan. Bear in mind, until the early 1970s, the US and the West saw the ROC as the legitimate representative of all of China.

Besides, the CCP’s immediate priority following its victory over the nationalist in 1949 was to consolidate its power on mainland China. This involved rooting out the vestiges of KMT systems and ideologies. Communist leaders quickly set about to rebuild the country which had been ravaged by decades of war. Chairman Mao simply did not have enough resources that could sufficiently pull off an invasion of Taiwan.

Despite the CCP having about three times the military personnel of the KMT at the time, Mao and the Communist leaders were aware that Chiang’s airpower – mainly fighter jets and anti-aircraft missiles supplied by the US – could prove devastating were they to invade Taiwan.

Finally, leaders of the CCP in 1950 had their attention drawn to the Korean peninsula as the Korean War (1950-1953) broke out. The PRC, in defense of communism, had to support North Korea’s war efforts against the capitalist and Western-backed South Korea.

After the death of Mao in 1976, his successor and the top brass of the CCP opted to tow the path of peaceful reunification with Taiwan.

What are some of the notable crises that have broken out in the Taiwan Strait since 1949?

Between 1949 and 1960, two major crises rocked the Taiwan Strait. The first, which happened in September 1954, saw make slight progress in the capture of islands in the strait, including Yijiangshan Island. The PRC also carried out bombardment of Kinmen and other smaller islands in the region. By March 1955, the bombardment had ceased as the US promised to defend those offshore islands.

The second crisis broke out in 1958 as both sides traded artillery bombardments. Again, the presence of US fleet in region sent strong warning to the PRC to cease its hostilities.

Since the 1990s, the major crises that have erupted in the Taiwan Strait have largely been non-military. In the mid-1990s, then-Taiwanese leader Lee Teng-hui made a trip to the US, where he was welcomed as the leader of Taiwan. The US President Bill Clinton dispatched two aircraft carriers to strait as way to show the US commitment to Taiwan.

In late summer of 2022, then-US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi made an official trip to Taiwan. Pelosi’s visit was deemed by the PRC as a provocative action. The CCP leadership responded by carrying out military exercises in the Taiwan Strait.

Why did the ROC remain internationally recognized until the early 1970s?

Despite its defeat in 1949 by the CCP, the ROC remained internationally recognized as the legitimate government of China, although not recognized by the Soviet Union and other communist nations around the world. Even at the United Nations (UN), it was the ROC that was recognized.

However, all of that changed in 1971, when the UN decided to recognize the PRC as the legitimate government of China. Despite being a founding member of the UN and holding a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, Chiang’s ROC was expelled. Basically, the recognition that the ROC used to receive was transferred to Chairman Mao’s PRC.

Chiang with Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill in Cairo, Egypt, in November 1943

What is the relationship between Taiwan and the PRC like today?

With all hopes of using force to reconquer mainland China completely dashed in the mid-1960s, Taiwan and the ROC government pursued a path of economic growth and modernization. By the 1970s, it abandoned all plans to invade the mainland. And in the 1980s, considerable efforts were made by leaders of the former warring side to de-escalate tensions in the Taiwan Strait. Trade ties were established, and investment flowed between the two sides in the decades that followed. Then-Taiwanese leader Lee Teng-hui announced in 1991 the establishment of a special diplomatic tie with the PRC.

However, it must be noted that despite the relative calm that we have seen on the Taiwan Strait in the last few decades, the two sides never signed an armistice or peace treaty.

What accounted for the Communist victory in the war?

Despite having superior firepower in the initial stage of the war, the KMT eventually lost the war. In the second phase (1945-1949), the PLA was able to gather a lot of following, especially among the rural folks and peasants, simply because it branded itself as the having the best interest of the people. The fact that the KMT was rife with a corrupt public officials made the nationalist lose a lot of support from the general population as the war intensified. The CCP promised massive land reforms to lift the poor peasants out of their abject poverty.

Furthermore, the KMT suffered defeat in the war because it made a number of tactical mistakes on the battlefield. Unlike the CCP that deployed guerilla warfare against the Japanese, KMT forces practiced conventional warfare during the defense of China against Japan’s invasion. As a result, KMT suffered considerably more losses than the CCP. Those losses came back to bite the KMT in the rare when hostilities resumed in 1945. Basically, KMT forces had been weakened, numerically and logistic wise, by the Second Sino-Japanese War.

Another contributing factor to KMT loss in the Civil War was the governance style of Chiang. The KMT leader chose to have a very centralized government and refused to have widespread consultation among key interest groups in the country. As a result, many of those groups felt left out and chose to back communists.

The Communists in China received a great deal of support, militarily and financially, from the Soviet Union. For example, many of the captured military equipment of the Japanese following Japan’s surrender in 1945 were transferred to the PLA by the Soviets. Basically, the support the CCP received from the Soviets outweighed the one Chiang’s KMT received from the US and its allies. For starters the US was concerned about giving too much aid to a KMT government seen as corrupt.

Finally, the Communist victory in the Chinese Civil War can be explained due to the strong leadership abilities of leaders like Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai. The messages that those CCP leaders put out to the public resonated with the poor peasants, who at the end of the day made a significant percentage of the population. The CCP portrayed themselves as the saviors of the nation and people so to speak. They cited how badly the economy was managed by Chiang and his ministers, with hyperinflation in KMT-held areas a common phenomenon.

What was the level atrocity committed by both sides in the Chinese Civil War?

The early stage of the war witnessed the KMT being the bigger perpetrator of atrocities. This was evident in the April 12 Purge (also known as the Shanghai massacre of April 12) in 1927. The leadership of the KMT in cohort with violent gangs carried out a violent suppression of Chinese Communist Party members and sympathizers in Shanghai. The infamous event, which came to be known as the White Terror, claimed more than a quarter of a million people, including women deemed ‘radical’ by the KMT. Those women were tortured and their mutilated bodies displayed in public as a scare tactic.

In 1941, as CCP’s forces were vacating the provinces of Anhui and Jiangsu, KMT forces ambushed them, inflicting several thousands of deaths on the Communists. The CCP were complying with orders from Chiang, who had demanded that the Communists leave those provinces. They were not expecting nationalist forces to attack them as they pulled out of those provinces.

Similar to the KMT, the communists committed a number of heinous acts, including the infamous Futian incident in 1930 which saw the execution of between 2300 and 3100 members of the Futian battalion. The commanders of the battalion had mutinied against Mao Zedong in protest against Mao’s purge of the Jiangxi Action Committee.

In some cases, the PLA imposed a military blockade on areas held by the KMT. One such blockade came during the Siege of Changchun in 1948. The blockade caused several tens of thousands of civilians to die of starvation in Changchun, Jilin Province.

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