On 1 October 1949, Mao Zedong, leader of the Chinese Communist Party declared victory over the Nationalist Party (Guomindang) and brought an end to four brutally long years of Civil War. The Communist victory in the Civil War has however, created significant debate among historians, namely: was a Communist victory inevitable and if so is it more sensible to see the Chinese Civil War as a Communist victory or as a Nationalist defeat?When researching these questions it becomes blatantly obvious that the Guomindang government led by Chiang Kai-Shek was riddled with problems and they are very much the cause of their own downfall.
Widespread government corruption, spiraling inflation, loss of public confidence and intractable poverty are just a few of the failings the Guomindang afflicted upon the Chinese people. These monumental failings make a Communist victory seem almost inevitable, in that they just happened to be there to assume power as the Nationalists lost support and drowned in their own mistakes. In this sense it is more sensible to view the Civil War as a Nationalist defeat, rather than a Communist victory.
On the other hand, the Communists were able to turn dismal rural poverty and the Japanese invasion into assets, using them to convince villagers that radical change was imperative and that the Communist Party was best qualified to bring about this change. Seen in this light, superior strategy and organisational methods allowed the Communists to achieve victory and not just “move into a vacuum” as suggested by Barnett (Barnett, 1965: 1).
There is certainly an element of inevitability with regard to the Communist victory, however, in this essay I will argue that not only was the outcome of the Chinese Civil War not preordained, but I will also critically evaluate the reasons the Guomindang lost the Civil War and explain that given their policy mistakes, the Civil War should be seen as a Nationalist defeat rather than a Communist victory. If the Nationalists had been willing to adapt and had they initiated some changes in their strategies, the Communist Party, no matter what its internal organisation or external strategies, would not have been able to bring revolution to China.
This theory is not supported by Kubek, who argues that the cause of the Nationalist defeat was due to a lack of aid from the United States, declaring “sovietisation of China and Manchuria could be the only logical outcome of post-war United States policy in China” (Kubek, 1965: 62). This view point is unduly simplistic and overvalues America’s role in China, an opinion supported by Chang, who believes the Guomindang government’s “failure was due not so much to lack of American support, but to its inherent defects” (Chang, 1965: 40).
Before analysing these inherent defects and the reasons that the Nationalist Party lost the Civil War, it is important to understand the fundamentals of the situation in China at the end of World War Two; specifically the consequences of the eight year war with Japan that totally exhausted the Guomindang militarily, economically and spiritually. Hsu argues that the war with Japan is the “single most important cause for the downfall of the Nationalists” and “had there been no Japanese war, the situation in China would have been very different” (Hsu, 1990: 734). Many of the Guomindang’s problems such as factionalism, corruption and leadership were prevalent prior to the Sino-Japanese War; however it was during the last phases of the Sino-Japanese War that these problems reached crisis proportions and in hindsight it seems impossible that the Guomindang could have overcome these problems to defeat the Communists (Service, 1965: 29).
Chang also believes that the Guomindang faced insurmountable problems prior to the Civil War, stating that “the government of Chiang Kai-Shek was built on quicksand and clay. How can it stand? Is it any wonder that it fell like a house of cards when it had to face the Communist crisis?” (Chang, C. 1965: 41).
Westad, (2003: 7) however argues that “in spite of the Guomindang’s weaknesses, the outcome of the post-war conflict with the Communists was no way predetermined in 1945”. At the end of the Sino-Japanese War the Guomindang held significant advantages over the Communists, with its widely recognised legitimate government controlling China, giving it the power to tax and conscript. On the other hand, the Communists could not match the Guomindang’s troops in terms of training and equipment and could be “outgunned and outmanoeuvred in all major regions of the country” (Westad, 2003: 8).
Furthermore, the Communist party was hardly represented in the cities at all, which of course was the power base of the Guomindang. However, the Communists also had successes resulting from the war with Japan including increasing their area of control and practiced evolving their strategies of protracted guerrilla warfare against the Japanese which in turn generated public support. Despite this the party’s main forces were still located in North-west China and they were not in such a powerful position that a civil war with the Guomindang would be a mere formality in securing control of the country.
The Civil War is therefore simply not a case of the imminent decline of the Guomindang and the Communists’ irresistible rise. Rather the Sino-Japanese War provided the framework for the decisions and strategies that would ultimately lead to Nationalist defeat. The war with Japan left the Guomindang decimated and they did need to undergo reform in order to survive; however the factionalism and corruption within the Guomindang resulted in increasingly repressive controls being implemented upon the war weary Chinese people. At a time when new strategies were needed, the government instead continued its repressive controls and when war again broke out, the government lost even more support and collapsed with cataclysmic speed.
This was due in no small part to the leadership of the Guomindang, whose perpetuation of their own power dominated over all other considerations (Service, 1965: 28). The arrogance and mismanagement of the Guomindang alienated the Chinese people and caused a loss of public confidence and respect. This loss of respect not only resulted in the Nationalists losing influence in their own power bases, but made it easier for the Communists to exploit this public disharmony and encourage the Chinese people to think that a change in administration would bring about a change in their fortunes.
An example of the Guomindang’s poor leadership strategies can be seen in their occupation of former Japanese colonies (Service, 1965: 29). The Chinese citizens within these Japanese occupied territories had waited eight years for the return of Nationalist rule, but instead of being treated as victims of war, they were exploited. The Guomindang leaders did not return their land but acquired it as their own property; moreover, they virtually eliminated the monetary assets of these people. This was caused by the currency in the occupied territories going through extreme inflation as the government only offered the exorbitant exchange rate of two hundred to one; when a more reasonable rate would have been half that much (Phillips, 1996: 158). Furthermore, the puppet leaders that had been installed by the Japanese often kept their positions or became members of the Guomindang. Poor policy decisions such as this would lead to the downfall of the Guomindang, as it is impossible to fight an effective war without the support of the people and the economic policies of the government alienated millions of suffering people.
The Guomindang’s economic problems were not limited to the territories formerly occupied by the Japanese. All over China inflation was an exceptionally large problem, for as the increases seen during the Japanese War were allowed to spiral out of control during the Civil War. Service, (1965: 29) argues that this is a direct result of corruption within the Guomindang, and that they refused to take any effective steps to check inflation or implement agricultural reforms for fear of losing the support of the landlord class in China. In view of this, the Guomindang developed urban industry at the expense of agricultural and financed this by simply printing more bank notes.
Their economic mismanagement was disastrous for the majority of the Chinese people and meant that by 1948 government expenditure had become thirty times larger when compared to its pre-war level; the budget deficit had also blown out to thirty times it pre-war level and inflation was increasing at the rate of thirty per cent a month (Chang, K. 1965: 23). The Nationalist government faced imminent financial doom and the Chinese people were becoming aware of the selfish nature of their government whose economic policies and financial mismanagement destroyed the livelihood of hundreds of millions of Chinese. The failings of the Guomindang would provide the Communist party with ample opportunities to exploit the discontent of the Chinese people.
This was one of the reasons for the Communist victory in that they were able to gain the support of people from the rural areas who the Guomindang had alienated. An example of this can be seen in the rural land reforms implemented in newly gained territories. In these areas the Communists promoted production and ensured supplies by creating a self-sufficient economy. To rouse the productive enthusiasm of the peasants, they launched a campaign to reduce rent and interest. Peasant associations and other organisations were urged to demand and enforce a 25 percent rent reduction, with a rent ceiling set at 37.5 percent of the crops. The interest rate on loans was limited to 1.5 percent a month, or 18 percent a year, much lower that the excessive rate formerly charged by the landlords (Westad, 2003: 11 and Fielding, 1999: 134). They were able to achieve these reforms without confiscating large amounts of land, as considerable redistribution of land to the peasants was accomplished by imposing graduated taxes in such a way that larger landholders voluntarily sold land because it was no longer profitable.
It is arguable that the Communists had no intention of eliminating the economic power of the landlords, but instead they showed the peasants that they could exercise their power locally and play an active role in the war against a government that some had come to despise. The Communists gave the peasants what they wanted: an army of friendly troops who not only did not steal their crops but helped them bring in the harvest and who implemented popular but gradual economic reforms (Ebrey, 1996: 289). This is in stark contrast to the Guomindang who did not understand the peasants and showed no interest in aiding them. They failed to see the revolutionary potential of the peasant masses and unlike the Communist Party never attempted to organise them. This situation was best summarised by Hsu: “the stone that one builder had rejected became the cornerstone of the other’s house” (Hsu, 1990: 738).
However, many of the most important cause of the Nationalist defeat during the Civil War were military ones. Despite emerging from the Japanese War better equipped and trained, the Nationalist Army was a tired force (Hsu, 1990: 734). This war-weariness was felt throughout China and there was widespread recognition that full scale civil war would be a tragedy for the country. It is therefore, not surprising that the Guomindang’s persistence in military aggression towards the Communists, who were Chinese after all, failed to arouse the same patriotic loyalty as when the enemies were Japanese (Stuart, 1965: 19). Given this situation the Nationalist Army needed good leadership and to gain the support of the people; they were unsuccessful on both counts.
This was largely due to the leadership system created by Chiang Kai-Shek that was “a congerie of conservative political cliques” concerned primarily with maintaining their own power (Service, 1965: 30). Furthermore, the highest military posts were reserved for those who like Chiang Kai-Shek had graduated from the Whampoa military academy and this often meant that more talented officers were turned away. General Barr of the United States said of the Guomindang leadership in 1949 that, “their military debacles in my opinion can all be attributed to the world’s worst leadership and many other morale destroying factors that lead to a complete loss of will to fight” (Barr, 1949: x quoted in Bianco, 1971: 180).
In fact, many battles were lost by the Nationalists without a fight, as hundreds of thousands of troops simply defected or surrendered to the Communists (Barnett, 1965: 5). An example of this may be seen during the Huai-Huai Campaign, where poor military leadership caused the Nationalist troops to become surrounded and resulted in an irreparable loss of manpower without a fight (Phillips, 1996: 158). Rather than undertaking offensives to seek out and destroy the main mobile guerrilla units of the Communists, they holed up for the most part in isolated, vulnerable, defensive positions allowing the Communists to concentrate their forces and attack and overwhelm Nationalists’ positions one by one (Barnett, 1965: 5).
This strategy played into the hands of the Communists whose primary goal was to reduce the numbers of the Nationalist army. They were not concerned with holding specific geographic areas and this allowed them to be a lot more flexible in their attacks. Moreover, the Communist troops were ordered to avoid large battles and to engage the enemy only when there was a high probability of victory. Mao Zedong argued that the only way guerrilla warfare could succeed is if the army had the support of the people, and the Communists certainly had this (Mao Zedong, 1940: x cited in Bianco, 1971: 184).
The Communists successfully achieved this through the use of propaganda. They portrayed themselves as defenders of the nation and the Guomindang as enemies of all levels of society, from peasant to scholar (Chang, C. 1965: 40). Chiang Kai-shek himself admitted that the Nationalists failure in propaganda “was a major defect in our struggle against Communism” (Kai-shek, 1965: 77).
Despite this, the Nationalist army had many opportunities to seriously weaken the Communists. However, their leadership too often committed crucial tactical mistakes, which were the result of lack of communication and disputes within the party caused by the factionalism that riddled the Guomindang leadership (Westad, 2003: 11). Clique politics and factionalism would eventually lead to the situation where unified action to either solve the problems in Nationalist held territory or to fight against the Communists became virtually impossible (Barnett, 1965: 6). This is in stark contrast to the leadership of the Communist armies, whose generals were not concerned with personal gain, but instead co-operated with each other and gained the support of the Chinese people and worked towards a united goal (Westad, 2003: 9).
These superior military tactics and aforementioned economic reforms brought the Communists wide spread support and ultimately victory. However, this victory would never have been achievable were it not for the military, economic and social failings of the Guomindang. Chiang Kai-Shek himself admitted major defects in organisation and technique in the Nationalists’ war against Communism, however he argued that these defects were remediable, “so long as our strategy and policy were correct, I believe we still could have won” (Kai-Shek, 1965: 82). It is in this light that the Chinese Civil War should be viewed not as a Communist victory, but as a Nationalist defeat.
There is no doubt that the war against Japan was a crushing blow to the Nationalists economic and military power, however it was not fatal. The Nationalist government could have continued to consolidate its power and authority by the sheer weight of its military strength and financial resources (Tsou, 1965: 28). Even though the Nationalist government was far from popular, it was the most powerful military and economic force in China and could have survived if it had been willing to regain the support of the people. Defeat to the Communists was therefore, far from inevitable, and the Nationalists were very much the engineers of their own demise.
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