This week, we continue our feature of the Essential History of China, looking at the rise of the CCP, following the end of the Second Sino-Japanese War, which was where we ended last week.
To recap, we’ve looked at how China transformed from an imperialist nation at the start of the 20th Century into a Republic under the Kuomintang (KMT) in 1911. We also looked into the first phase of the Chinese Civil War, which was interrupted by a brief alliance between the KMT and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), who united against a common enemy in the form of Imperial Japan.
Prelude to (another) war
Following the end of the Second Sino-Japanese War, China was split into three regions: areas controlled by the Nationalists (KMT), the Communists (CCP) and regions that were still occupied by Japanese forces.
Following Japan’s agreement to the terms of their surrender in August 1945, the KMT and CCP battled out for control over the occupied territories and their resources and population centres. With the help of the United States, the KMT were able to secure key cities and most railway lines in East and North China, while CCP forces were able to take control of the hinterland and some parts of Northern China – most notably Manchuria. The alliance between the CCP and KMT to resist Japan in the preceding eight years ended once they had defeated their common enemy. The wartime failures and corruption of the KMT led to a rise in communist sentiment and membership for the CCP increased exponentially (from 300 in 1922 to 1.2 million in 1945), primarily thanks to support from the Soviet Union, whose Red Army was ordered to give surrendered Japanese munitions to the CCP forces only.
Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek had already issued a series of invitations to Communist leader Mao Zedong to meet with him in Chongqing to discuss reuniting and rebuilding the country prior to the Japanese surrender. they reached an agreement in principle to work for a united and democratic China. However, in fighting between Nationalists and Communists reached breaking point before the committees were to be convened to address the military and political issues that had not been resolved by the initial framework agreement. In response, American President Harry Truman sent George C. Marshall to China in December 1945 in order to broker armistice negotiations.
However, when Soviet forces left Chinese territories, a scramble ensued that resulted in Communists consolidating control over Northern regions, notably Manchuria, while Nationalist troops occupied Mukden (Shenyang) on March 12. Over the course of the year, Nationalists were able to make significant territorial gains, with the help of the United States and the Marshall Mission.
PLA on the offensive
In 1947, after Marshall left China, the tides began to turn, as the KMT began to split between the more conservative and a growing left-wing faction, which allowed the Communists to take the upper hand.
“The Chinese people’s revolutionary war has now reached a turning point.…The main forces of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) have carried the fight into the Kuomintang Area.…This is a turning point in history,” said CCP chairman, Mao Zedong.
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. Membership, equipment and training declined, allowing the PLA to go on the offensive for the first time.
The PLA destroyed or blocked the overland supply routes of the government to its Manchurian posts and major centres in North China, which secured their dominance. 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.
Over, but not over
The two-decade struggle for China between the Nationalists and the Communists reached its conclusion in 1949. Nationalist appealed to Britain, France, the Soviet Union and the United States to broker a peace agreement, but the US felt that it would serve no purpose. Mao laid out his conditions for a peace agreement, demanding land reform and “bureaucratic control of capital”, among other things. Nationalist withdrew from Peking, before Communists marched on their capital of Nanking. This marked a key moment in the history of China and the emergence of the CCP as a legitimate power.
Following more failed negotiations for peace agreements, Communists launched a full scale attack, forcing 2 million Nationalists off of the mainland to seek refuge on the island of Taiwan, where they would form their own government, the Republic of China (ROC). The CCP formed the People’s Republic of China (PRC), with its capital in Beijing. Both claimed to be the legitimate Chinese governments. No armistice or peace treaty has ever been signed, which has raised the question of whether this war itself has legally ended, or temporarily halted.
While China does have eight democratic parties, the CCP has a de facto monopoly over political control in the PRC and other parties serve in advisory roles, falling under the leadership of the CCP.
In the years to follow, Chairman Mao launched campaigns against landlords, suppression of “counter-revolutionaries”, “Three-anti and Five-anti Campaigns” and through a psychological victory in the Korean War, which altogether resulted in the deaths of several million Chinese. He also played an instrumental role in the setup of China’s new planned economy, formulating a constitution and industrialisation programs. The Great Leap Forward that aimed to rapidly transform China’s economy from agrarian to industrial, led to the deadliest famine in history and the deaths of 15–55 million people between 1958 and 1962. His Cultural Revolution of 1966 was “a program to remove “counter-revolutionary” elements in Chinese society which lasted 10 years and was marked by violent class struggle, widespread destruction of cultural artefacts, and an unprecedented elevation of Mao’s cult of personality.,” according to Lee Feigon’s Mao: A Reinterpretation. The death toll of Mao’s Cultural Revolution range between hundreds of thousands and millions of lives lost.
Although it was kept under wraps by the state, Mao’s health began to decline in the mid-1970s and was aggravated by his chain-smoking habits. Unconfirmed reports claim that he may have been suffering from Parkinson’s disease and Lou Gehrig’s disease, but he died on September 9, 1976, at the age of 82. Millions mourned the Chairman’s death, and the state appealed to the Chinese people to continue Mao’s legacy, with Hua Guofeng succeeding his as Premier of the PRC and Chairman of the CCP.
Mao had fundamentally transformed China, leaving millions dead in his wake. Despite his grand plans of transforming China into a self-sufficient Communist State, it is what happened after his death that truly altered the course of the history of China and the CCP.
In our Essential History of China feature next week, we will look at the CCP market reforms and China’s transition into a global superpower.
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