The Chinese Civil War was one of the most turbulent, chaotic, and effective series of events during the Cold War Era. It is difficult to conceive of any fashion in which the under-equipped CPC forces would be able to match and eventually overcome a powerful political regime with support vast support from the United States. However, even with limited aid from their Soviet allies, Mao was able to pull the marginalized, the poor, and the oppressed together to strengthen the communist cause. Although many of the issues from which the war stemmed were presented well before any real violence took place between Chinese Nationalists and Mao’s Communist Party the strategies employed by the communists and the emotional vigor with which they clung to their hopes of progress remain the center points Mao’s eventual victory.
When carefully assessed; it is evident the CCP victory in the Chinese Civil War was due to the ability of Mao to mobilize the peasantry and institute land reform, the mismanagement of the Guomindang by Chiang Kai-Shek during the Japanese invasion of China and the Chinese Civil War, and the proclivity to violence (inspired by intense hatred of the enemy) that was deemed necessary in order to bring power to the CCP. It is arguable that the KMD should have been at its strongest during the decade preceding the Chinese Civil War. Chiang Kai-Shek had been quite successful in his campaign against the independent warlords and had recaptured many key areas of Chinese territory. However, June Grasso argues that Chiang made a key mistake in his treatment of his defeated opponents. She details this folly, writing “…Chiang absorbed, rather than eliminated, many warlords and their armies, in effect swallowing but not digesting them,” (Grasso, 90).
Chiang’s army was growing at a rapid pace and the KMD was claiming large territorial victories. To an outsider, the party may have seemed at its strongest. However, the KMD “…remained faction-ridden into the 1930’s,” (Grasso, 91) and party unity began a major concern. Grasso continues to explain that the eventual oppression of the communist base in China would be a monumental mistake from which the party would never fully recover. At first glance, the expulsion of radical communists to the fringes of China seemed almost necessary in order to secure political control for the KMD. In reality the communist purge concentrated most of the Nationalist power in major urban areas and disallowed the spread of KMD support. Eventually Mao would make the most of his wide-spread supporters which allowed for a larger base of communism in the country.
Considering his small numbers and the rural beginnings of his revolution, Mao worked incredibly well with what he had. Mao evidently knew that he had little choice in the matter of battle strategy. As Maurice Meisner reports in Mao’s China and After, “…the Maoist forces learned to employ the tactics of guerilla warfare upon which their survival was dependent.” (Meisner, 31) Mao also presented the peasantry of Jiangxi with a reform to the oppressive feudal system which granted redistribution of land to tenants. Through the implementation of revolutionary agrarian policies, Mao was able to secure the beginnings of a unified opposition to the Nanjing regime.
Policies that were deemed too radical by the middle peasantry were thought to be “…politically and economically counterproductive in a situation that demanded a broad base of popular support in a rural society…” (Meisner, 32) Although Mao seemed to have many of the necessary ingredients to effect change among his countrymen, the Guomindang armies were too strong to be defeated this early in the development communist response to Chinese nationalism. Mao would lead the First Front Army, out of necessity, from their now obsolete home of Jiangxi to mountainous Northwest regions of China. The Long March devastated the numbers of Chinese Communism and left the party disbanded and broken. Amazingly, the march also birthed profound changes in party leadership and revolutionary spirit. First and foremost the disbandment of other party leaders in the early 1930’s and during the 6,000 mile march allowed Mao to pursue his own ideas for communist overhaul, particularly in opposition to Stalin’s form of communism. His ideas would eventually be accepted by the CCP.
Meisner also contends that the Long March had enduring psychological effects on the communist contingent that were undoubtedly the most important feature of this new communism. He writes, “For Mao, at least, the experience served to reinforce his voluntaristic faith that the people with the proper will, spirit, and revolutionary consciousness could conquer all material obstacles and mold historical reality in accordance with their ideas and ideals.” (Meisner, 34) This so-called revolutionary consciousness combined with the passionate will to overcome great adversity, as displayed by Mao’s marchers, served as the greatest engine of communist success during the Chinese Civil War. However, a preceding war with the Japanese would create a rare opportunity for Mao and the Red Army to seize power in China.
One of the most important pieces of the intricate puzzle of Chinese political struggle was the invasion of the neighboring Japanese which continued through World War II. Although the Guomigdang harbored superior weapons and were concentrated in some of the most important strategic positions, their leadership and numbers would be forever weakened by their invading neighbors. Although the Japanese were unable to hold large territories in China due to its enormous mass, they captured major cities and ports formerly under Chiang’s rule. The Guomindang could do little to stop the advances of the Japanese Imperial Army. Chiang was aware that he needed Western military aid in order to reclaim the cities he had lost in the East. However, his retreat to the center left Chiang with a single option for military success: implementing a strategy of guerilla warfare. In reality this was not a viable option for the Guomindang.
In his article Origins of the Chinese Revolution, Lucien Bianco contends “Mobilizing the rural masses would have required transforming the Chinese countryside and limiting the power of large landowners; hence Chiang’s aversion to the idea,” (Bianco, 149) displaying Chiang’s lack of attractive options. If he were to unite and mobilize the peasantry he would risk the overthrow of large landowners—a consequence that played directly into the communist strategy. In other words Chiang would have to sacrifice his dominance over the Red Army in order to pacify the invaders from Japan. This turn of events seems almost too perfect for a Red Army that was poised to attack behind Japanese lines using guerilla warfare. The Red Army continued to chip away at the Imperial Army and eventually amassed a force over 3 million (two-thirds of which were militia) and the communists eventually ruled over 90 million peasants.
The peasantry, as well as women and other previously excluded groups, would now be able to partake in the newly forming democracy. However, the majority of peasants joined the Red Army cause because it was necessary for survival. (Bianco, 150) Japanese soldiers were terrorizing the Chinese countryside and committing large scale atrocities that forced the peasantry into action. As Bianco puts it, “The thing to remember is that the peasant was often safer if he joined a guerilla detachment: since his life was in constant danger anyway, he was better off if he at least had a weapon.” (Bianco, 152) Their antipathy towards their enemies, both present and future, gave them strength of spirit that could not be matched by the Japanese or the Guomindang. Further atrocities committed by the Guomindang against the peasantry, including theft of food and murder, only furthered the peasantry’s love of the communist movement. As one patriotic war ended, another was looming over the Chinese country.
Among the most important factors in the Chinese Civil War were the failures in Chiang’s leadership and military strategy as well as the advancement of the people’s revolution. Chiang did not have the numbers to defend his holdings while attacking the Red Army. With his numbers greatly spread throughout the massive country, Chiang had great difficulty stopping the communist advance. The Red Army eradicated the Guomindag presence in the North and moved swiftly into Chiang’s territory. As hyperinflation due to poor economic policies afflicted Chiang’s regime, Mao was eventually able to finish off his opponent and reclaim Beijing by 1949. (Grasso, 124-129) The aforementioned people’s revolution was a way of uniting the peasants against the common enemy.
Everyone was expected to contribute to the war effort, not simply to preach its necessity. Grasso contends “Alone, the peasantry lacked the insights, what Marxists call ‘consciousness,’ to make a genuinely socialist revolution,” (Grasso, 121) highlighting the mutual necessity that the people and the party shared in each other. In his speech entitled How to Be a Good Communist, Liu Shao-Ch’I reiterates the necessity of party unity and revolutionary consciousness stating, “…we must modestly listen to the opinions and criticisms of our comrades and of the masses, carefully study the practical problems in our lives and in our work and carefully sum up our experiences and the lessons we have learned so as to find an orientation for our work.” (Liu Shao-Ch’I, How To Be A Good Communist, 251) In other words, the partnership of the peasantry and the party were one of the strongest tools in the successful victory of the CCP. The peasantry’s hatred of their oppressors became a major motivation for the overthrow of the Guomindang. Gold Flower’s Story, a chapter of Jack Belden’s book China Shakes the World, presents an insightful and useful microcosm of the agrarian communist viewpoint in Northern China.
The specific instances presented in her story are quite particular to women, evident in Belden’s assessment “And there was a Gold Flower, more or less, beaten and bruised, saddened and soured, in every farm of North China.” (Belden, 288) However, the emotional hardships and overall struggle of Gold Flower and the countless other members of the abused female gender share common themes with the whole of the revolution and the Communist and Maoist supporters. The mistreated women of China also provided an effective and powerful outlet from which Party leaders could find support. As Belden continues, “The Communist Party saw her and schemed to serve her and themselves through her.
She was that spirit that forgets nothing and forgives nothing. There she stood at the gate, slow burning revenge incarnate, waiting a better time, waiting an opportunity,” (Belden, 288) one is immediately taken by the spirit of revenge personified in Gold Flower. This need for revenge in the form of vigorous and frequently violent action acts as fuel to the flame that was the revolution. Here, one can see an obvious divide between the two parties. The violence perpetrated by Mao’s supporters heeds immediate results in the form of social change and freedom from oppression.
Of course, there was a plethora of mistreatment in all forms perpetrated against the marginalized masses of rural China. Gold Flower’s struggle represents a shift in economic and social precepts that provide the basis for revolution. Under the regime of Chiang Kai-Shek and his Kuomintang predecessors, these marginalized groups stood little chance of peacefully and diplomatically obtaining equality of social standing and political prowess. Gold Flower echoes this sentiment of hopelessness. Early in Belden’s account he writes, “She felt as if a great weight were pressing down on her. Not able to marry the man she loved, not able even to kill herself so that she could remain loyal to her lover, completely done in and drained of all strength, she at last fell into a deep stupor,” (Belden, 284) highlighting the depressing nature of Golden Flower’s life. If the young girls inability to freely choose her destiny stands as a metaphor for the frustrations of the people of her region, her husband’s cruelty and overall attitude is most certainly akin to the landowners’ perspective.
Blind to the injustices that those in power had maintained, Chang aggressively remarks “As for the poor, if they have not enough to eat, let them go. As for the rich, do you think their property was stolen from others?” (Belden, 305). Unwilling to sacrifice personal standing for the greater good of all, men such as Chang soon became an easy target for the coming backlash. Simply because it was the most accessible and immediately effective tool afforded to communist revolutionaries, violence became the most important means by which the marginalized would repel their oppressors. Violence seems to satiate (at least temporarily) the anger and helplessness felt by the poor of China. The roles of victim and perpetrator could be instantly reversed. The power of action was now in the hands of the oppressed.
As Dark Jade put it, “This is our day. This means the end of our suffering. The beginning of our hope.” (Belden, 289) Although the fact of the matter is that war inherently brings a multitude of violent acts, it is evident that the motives behind communist violence among the peasantry were significantly more powerful than those of their opponents. It was their only chance of evading the “black society” (Belden, 284) into which they had been thrust. The feats that the CCP accomplished are astounding considering their humble beginnings. Though much of their success is owed to events preceding the civil war, Mao’s management of his party as well as the fervor with which the communists united and mobilized cannot be discounted.
Again, it is my contention that the success of the CCP was due to multiple factors. The first of which was the ability of Mao to strategize the mobilization and unification of the countryside. Secondly, Chiang was unable to effectively manage his political and economic as well as military policies during the Japanese invasion. Finally, the emotional and violent response to Nationalist and feudal repression was of overt importance to the war efforts of the Red Army as well as the advancement of the CCP. When put in perspective the accomplishments of Mao; whether social, political, or military; are nearly unfathomable.
Courtney from Study Moose
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