Chinese Civil War


Chinese Civil War, (1945–49), military struggle for control of China waged between the Nationalists (Kuomintang) under Chiang Kai-shek and the Communists under Mao Zedong.

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China: Civil war (1945–49)
In a little more than four years after Japan’s surrender, the CCP and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA; the name by which communist forces…

The end of World War II and the collapse of the United Front

During the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937–45), China was effectively divided into three regions—Nationalist China under control of the government, Communist China, and the areas occupied by Japan. Each was essentially pitted against the other two, although Chinese military forces were ostensibly allied under the banner of the United Front. By the time Japan accepted the surrender terms of the Potsdam Declaration on August 14, 1945, China had endured decades of Japanese occupation and eight years of brutal warfare. Millions had perished in combat, and many millions more had died as a result of starvation or disease. The end of World War II did not mark the end of conflict in China, however.

Japan’s defeat set off a race between the Nationalists and Communists to control vital resources and population centres in northern China and Manchuria. Nationalist troops, using transportation facilities of the U.S. military, were able to take over key cities and most railway lines in East and North China. Communist troops occupied much of the hinterland in the north and in Manchuria. The United Front had always been precarious, and it had been tacitly understood by both the Nationalists and Communists that they would cooperate only until Japan had been defeated; until then, neither side could afford to seem to pursue internal aims at the cost of the national struggle. The growing wartime ineffectiveness and corruption of the Nationalists—who seemed, especially to the North Chinese, practically a government-in-exile in far-off Chongqing—left the Communists on a rising tide in 1945.

The Marshall Mission and early Nationalist successes (1945–46)

The stage was set for renewal of the civil war, but it initially appeared that a negotiated settlement between the Nationalists and the Communists might be possible. Even before the Japanese surrender had been finalized, Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek had issued a series of invitations to Communist leader Mao Zedong to meet with him in Chongqing to discuss reuniting and rebuilding the country. On August 28, 1945, Mao, accompanied by American ambassador Patrick Hurley, arrived in Chongqing. On October 10, 1945, the two parties announced that they had reached an agreement in principle to work for a united and democratic China. A pair of committees were to be convened to address the military and political issues that had not been resolved by the initial framework agreement, but serious fighting between government and Communist troops erupted before those bodies could meet.

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U.S. Pres. Harry S. Truman responded to the outbreak of violence by dispatching George C. Marshall to China in December 1945. The Marshall Mission succeeded in bringing both sides back to the negotiating table, and on January 10, 1946, an armistice was concluded between the government and the Communists. On January 31 the Political Consultative Conference, a body composed of representatives from across the Chinese political spectrum, reached agreements on the following points: reorganization of the government and broadening its representation; convocation of a national assembly on May 5, 1946, to adopt a constitution; principles for political, economic, and social reform; and unification of military command. In late February Marshall brokered an agreement on military force integration and reduction—the Chinese army would consist of 108 divisions (90 government and 18 Communist) under the overall command of a national ministry of defense. Before any of these agreements could be put into practice, renewed fighting broke out in Manchuria. The withdrawal of Soviet occupation troops in March–April 1946 triggered a scramble; Nationalist troops occupied Mukden (Shenyang) on March 12, while the Communists consolidated their hold throughout northern Manchuria. After government troops took Changchun on May 23, a 15-day truce was declared in Manchuria from June 6 to June 22. Fighting intensified elsewhere, however, as government and Communist troops clashed in Jehol (Chengde), northern Kiangsu (Jiangsu), northeastern Hopeh (Hebei), and southeastern Shantung (Shandong).

Marshall and John Leighton Stuart, the newly appointed U.S. ambassador, tried to bring the two sides together in late August to discuss a coalition government, but the effort was fruitless, as neither side wished to give up its military gains. In late September 1946 Nationalist troops laid siege to Kalgan, a major Communist base, and lead Communist negotiator Zhou Enlai responded by withdrawing from peace talks. Kalgan fell to the Nationalists on October 11, and on October 21, Zhou was persuaded to return to the restored Nationalist capital at Nanking (Nanjing) for further negotiations. To induce the Communists and other parties to join the new National Assembly, Chiang issued a qualified cease-fire order on November 11 and postponed the opening of the assembly from November 12 to November 15. On November 20, Zhou flew from Nanking to the Communist stronghold at Yan’an. On December 4 Zhou wired Marshall that “if the Kuomintang would immediately dissolve the illegal National Assembly now in session, and restore the troop positions of January 13 [1946] the negotiations between the two parties may still make a fresh start.”

On December 25, 1946, the National Assembly, without the Communists or the left wing of the centrist Democratic League, adopted a new constitution. Combining features of both presidential and parliamentary systems with Sun Yat-sen’s Five-Power Constitutional democracy, it was to be put into effect on December 25, 1947. Until the new constitution was enacted and a new president elected, the Nationalists would continue to be the ruling party.

The tide turns (1947–48)

On January 8, 1947, Marshall left China, one day after he issued a scathing condemnation of the extremists among the Nationalists and Communists for the continuance of the civil war. Peng Hsueh-pei, the government’s minister of information, proclaimed the Nationalists’ willingness to continue peace negotiations with the Communists. Gen. Zhang Zhizhong was selected to go to Yan’an in an attempt to renew talks, and a proposal was submitted to the Communists through Stuart. The Communists restated their demands for a return to the military positions of January 13, 1946, and for nullification of the new constitution, terms which previously had been rejected by the government. On January 21 the government offered four points as the basis for a resumption of peace talks: cessation of hostilities, with troops retaining their existing positions; army reorganization; reopening of communications; and a just and equitable solution of the problem of regional administration.

In the meantime, the Communists resumed their offensive in Manchuria while government troops launched major drives on Communist positions in Shantung and Shensi (Shaanxi). Early in March the government ordered all Communist personnel to leave government territory, and on March 15 Chiang Kai-shek charged the Communists with armed rebellion. The break between warring factions was final and complete. The capture of Yan’an by government troops on March 19 elated the Nationalists, but Communist spokesmen expressed confidence that they would achieve final victory. Indeed, Maoist strategy emphasized the importance of securing a base among the peasantry in the countryside at the expense of holding cities. By the end of the year, government military forces had made no further important gains, with the exception of the capture of Weihaiwei (Weihai) and Chefoo (Yantai) on the coast of Shantung in early October, which cut the Communist sea lane to the southern ports in Manchuria. Communist forces, however, made critical inroads into central China in September and caused the closing of the defensive gates at Nanking on September 18. In Manchuria the Communists succeeded in reducing the government’s control to Changchun and Mukden, an isolated pocket in Kirin (Jilin), and the rail line leading from Mukden into China proper. In a report to the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Committee in December 1947, an optimistic Mao observed, “The Chinese people’s revolutionary war has now reached a turning point.…The main forces of the People’s Liberation Army have carried the fight into the Kuomintang Area.…This is a turning point in history.”

China’s internal strife was closely linked with its diplomatic relations with the United States and the Soviet Union. After more than a year of continuous effort to bring the national government and Communists together, the United States abandoned its task as a mediator. U.S. policy had become unpopular in China, and, to avoid further complication in China’s affairs, the U.S. government informed the Soviet Union that its forces in China would be reduced to 6,180 men by June 1, 1947. However, the deterioration of the economic and military situation in China and the spread of communism in East Asia led to the appointment of a U.S. fact-finding mission to China and Korea headed by Lieut. Gen. Albert C. Wedemeyer. Wedemeyer arrived in Nanking on July 22, and his mission was welcomed by the Chinese government but attacked by the Communists as imperialistic. Upon his departure from China on August 24, Wedemeyer stated that “if the Chinese Communists are truly patriotic…they will halt voluntary employment of force” and that “to regain and maintain the confidence of the people, the Central Government will have to effect immediately drastic, far-reaching political and economic reforms.” The latter statement displeased the Chinese government, and Nationalist Premier Chang Chun (Zhang Qun) declared on September 2 that China would not alter either its domestic or its foreign policy as a result of Wedemeyer’s mission. Wedemeyer’s full report warned of an imminent Communist victory unless the U.S. dramatically increased its support for the Nationalist government, and the U.S. Department of State, deeming the report too sensitive, withheld its publication for two years. On November 11, Marshall, now secretary of state, submitted a program to Congress calling for $300 million in new aid for China.

At the end of 1947, official government figures put Nationalist military strength at some 5 million men, roughly half of whom were combat ready. The U.S. military estimated that Communist troop strength was around 1.1 million, but the Communists clearly held the momentum. By early 1948 the Nationalists’ military position had degraded to the point that it had lost the initiative on all major fronts; worse, it was gradually but inexorably losing its superiority in numbers, equipment, and training. As the Nationalist war effort shifted to the defensive, the government’s strategy was to stabilize the situation in Manchuria by holding the four isolated areas of Changchun, Kirin, Mukden, and Chin Hsien, largely through airborne resupply; to maintain the Nationalist position in the important cities in the north; and to prevent Communist expansion in northwestern, central, and eastern China.

Having destroyed or blocked the overland supply routes of the government to its Manchurian posts and major centres in North China, the Communists under Gen. Lin Biao struck at weak points along the Nationalist lines. As 1948 progressed, they steadily pushed the Nationalist army out of Manchuria and North China, and in several instances Communist victory was hastened by defections among government forces. In Manchuria, the Communists took Kirin on March 12, Chin Hsien on October 15, Changchun on October 20, and Mukden on October 30. With the capture of Mukden and the surrender of the city’s 140,000-man garrison, Manchurian operations virtually came to a close. In North China, the Communists took Lo-yang (Luoyang) on April 7 and recaptured their former capital of Yan’an on April 22. Other major urban centres of the north fell before year’s end: Tsinan (Jinan) was taken on September 25, Cheng-chou (Zhengzhou) on October 24, and Kalgan on December 26. All the seaports of Shantung, with the exception of Tsingtao (Qingdao), were occupied by the Communists.

Communist-held territory had increased from about one-tenth of China in early 1946 to one-third in late 1948—an area of some 1 million square miles (2.6 million square km) containing more than 200 million inhabitants. The Communists had gained complete control of Manchuria, about half of Inner Mongolia, and large portions of the provinces of Hopeh (Hebei), Honan (Henan), Shantung (Shandong), Shansi (Shanxi), Shensi (Shaanxi), Kiangsu (Jiangsu), and Anhwei (Anhui). The Yangtze River was essentially the Nationalists’ last remaining line of defense against a Communist attack on the cities of Nanking (Nanjing) and Shanghai. Communist troop strength now exceeded that of the Nationalists, and the Communists had captured such huge stocks of small arms, artillery, and armour that they were better equipped than the Nationalists. On September 1, 1948, the Communists proclaimed the North China People’s Government as a forerunner to a people’s republic that would encompass all of China.

The continuous Communist offensive cut off the Nationalists from natural resources, paralyzed communication and commerce in the war zones, and intensified the financial crises in government-held areas. Public morale was further lowered as the Nationalist government failed to check galloping inflation and soaring living costs. The Nationalists had financed much of the war effort by simply printing more money and had, in the process, destroyed the purchasing power of their currency, the yuan. Some 9 trillion yuan were in circulation in late 1946, but by August 1948 that number had increased to 700 trillion. Professionals and middle-class workers in the Nationalist heartland saw their savings wiped out as the government seemed unwilling or unable to help. Strikes, student demonstrations, and labour unrest became commonplace, and black market traffic dramatically increased. In desperation, the government introduced rigid price and wage controls and began enforcing harsh criminal penalties for economic crimes such as hoarding. These measures, along with the creation of a new currency called the gold yuan, temporarily halted the economic meltdown. The Chinese public, however, noted that those with close ties to the Nationalist government avoided prosecution for even the most glaring violations of the new laws, and morale was further eroded by the return of inflation. Nearly 300 billion gold yuan were introduced into circulation in August 1948; within eight months, more than 5 quadrillion gold yuan had been printed. Chiang concluded the year by indicating his willingness to negotiate a peace that would be acceptable to all parties. The Communists marked the end of 1948 by publishing a list of 25 “war criminals” that was topped with Chiang’s name.

Nationalist collapse and the establishment of the People’s Republic of China (1949)

The two-decade struggle for China between the Nationalists and the Communists reached its conclusion in 1949. The year began with a Nationalist appeal to the “Big Four” (the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and the Soviet Union) to mediate a settlement with the Communists. The United States, which had for so long supported the Nationalist cause, immediately replied that such an effort would not serve any useful purpose. On January 14 Mao declared his willingness to negotiate on the following terms: (1) punishment of “war criminals,” (2) abrogation of the 1946 constitution, (3) abolition of the existing form of government, (4) reorganization of Nationalist armies, (5) confiscation of “bureaucratic” capital from Nationalist Party elites and functionaries, (6) land reform, (7) abrogation of “treasonous” treaties, and (8) establishment of a democratic coalition government without the participation of “reactionary” (Nationalist) elements. Meanwhile, the Communist advance continued, and Tientsin (Tianjin) fell on January 15, 1949. Chiang announced his resignation as president of China on January 21, and Nationalist leadership passed to Gen. Li Tsung-jen (Li Zongren). On January 22, Li accepted Mao’s eight conditions as a basis for peace negotiations, and Nationalist forces began their withdrawal from Peking (Beijing). With the fall of Peking, the Communist drive on the Nationalist capital of Nanking could begin in earnest.

Following a meeting with a preliminary peace delegation from Nanking, Mao, now in Peking, agreed on February 9 to call an official peace conference within a month. On February 20 Li flew to Canton (Guangzhou), the newly designated Nationalist capital, in an effort to rally the various Nationalist contingents behind his peace efforts. Premier Ho Ying-chin (He Yingqin) designated Gen. Chang Chih-Chung (Zhang Zhizhong) as head of the Nationalist peace delegation, while the Communists selected Zhou Enlai to head their mission. Talks were scheduled to begin on April 1 in Peking, a timetable that gave the Communists sufficient time to regroup their forces along the Yangtze and near Nanking. From April 2 to April 12 the delegates exchanged views informally over three fundamental Communist demands: (1) Communist armies must be allowed to cross the Yangtze to help reorganize Nationalist troops; (2) an interim government with Mao as chairman and Li as one of the vice-chairmen must be established; (3) the Chiang, Soong, Kung, and Chen families must be punished. Formal negotiations opened on April 13, and within three days Mao’s peace program had expanded to 24 items, with the crossing of the Yangtze by Communist armies and the elimination of the national government as the key issues. On April 17 the Communists gave the Nationalists three days to respond. Li’s government formally rejected Mao’s peace draft on April 19, and within hours the Communists had launched an all-out offensive. The fall of Nanking on April 24 marked the beginning of the disintegration of the Nationalist government.

In rapid succession, the Communists captured Hankow (Hankou) on May 17, Tsingtao (Qingdao) on May 25, and Shanghai on June 2. To consolidate Nationalist forces, a supreme council was created at Canton with Chiang Kai-shek as chairman, Li Tsung-jen as deputy, and Yen Hsi-shan (Yan Xishan) as premier. In July the Communists launched offensives into South China and the northwest. The vital commercial centre of Changsha fell on August 5, the port of Foochow (Fuzhou) on August 17, and the northwestern fortress city of Lanchow (Lanzhou) on August 28.

It was clear that the end was rapidly approaching for the Nationalist cause on the mainland. From his capital at Peking, Mao proclaimed the establishment of the People’s Republic of China on October 1, 1949. Within days the Soviet Union and the communist bloc recognized it as the legitimate government of China, and by year’s end several other countries had followed suit. On October 10 the Nationalist government officially informed foreign diplomats that it was relocating its capital again, this time to Chungking (Chongqing). The Communists took Canton on October 15 and Amoy (Xiamen) on October 17. By this time, the Communists had penetrated the southwest, and the Nationalists abandoned Kweiyang (Guiyang), about 200 miles (320 km) south of Chungking, on November 13.

On November 20 Li flew to Hong Kong, and on December 5 he traveled to the United States for medical treatment. On November 24 the Nationalists designated Chengtu (Chengdu) as the seat of a much-reduced national government. Chungking fell on November 30, and on December 8 the national capital was moved to Taipei, Formosa (Taiwan). After the Communists took Nanning in far southern China on December 6, one of the last remaining Nationalist armies in the field, under Gen. Pai Chung-hsi, disintegrated and fled to Hainan and French Indochina. By December 10, when Chiang left the mainland for Formosa, the exodus of people, goods, and institutions was largely complete. Assets of the Nationalist air force had begun relocating to the island as early as August 1948, and they were soon followed by the navy and the government’s gold reserves. The remaining pockets of Nationalist control eroded as generals and provincial governors in Sinkiang (Xinjiang), Yunnan, and Sikang (Xikang) switched their allegiances to the Communists in early December 1949. By the end of 1949, virtually all of mainland China was under Communist control.

The cost of the war was enormous. Official Communist figures counted some 1.5 million dead and wounded among the People’s Liberation Army. Some 600,000 Nationalists troops were killed in combat, while roughly three times that many defected to the Communists. Nearly 7 million Nationalist troops were captured during four years of combat. Approximately 5 million civilians died as a result of combat, famine, and disease.

This article was most recently revised and updated by Michael Ray, Associate Editor.

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