一、Why the Nationalists Lost the “Chinese Civil War” of 1946-49
By Andrew Wright（加拿大 Regina 大學學生）
On October 1st, 1949 Mao Zedong declared the establishment of the “Peoples’ Republic of China” after decisively defeating the Nationalists after decades of intermittent civil war. A few years earlier almost no one would have predicted such a result; not America, the Soviet Union, the Nationalists and least of all Mao’s Communists. At the end of “World War 2” the Nationalists (the KMT) had considerably more soldiers, weapons and international support than the Communists (the CCP), as well as controlling far more of China’s population and territory. However, the KMT were not as strong in other ways while the Communists had many advantages of their own. The effects of “World War 2,” post war Chinese internal factors, changes in foreign aid, and contrasts between the KMT and CCP regarding capabilities and their military and political strategies, ultimately led to the KMT’s defeat in 1949.
On paper the KMT had a considerable advantage over the CCP when Japan surrendered in 1945. With more military power, population, territory and initial foreign backing versus the Communists, the Nationalists were favored to win. However, while the KMT held these advantages the war against Japan had significantly narrowed the balance of power between the KMT and CCP. In the mid-1930s the KMT had nearly crushed the CCP and forced them on their “Long March” to Northern China. The KMT would have attacked them again and likely crushed the CCP (or forced them into the Soviet Union) if it were not for Japanese aggression which forced both sides to unite in an unlikely alliance against Japan.
The subsequent “Sino-Japanese War” of 1937-45 severely hurt the KMT. Despite what CCP lore suggests, the KMT did the majority of fighting, and dying, during the conflict while the former generally avoided combat with the Japanese to build up strength to fight the KMT after Japan’s defeat. The KMT fought the vast majority of battles against Japan, suffered 90% of all military casualties, and was severely degraded as a political and fighting force. Besides losing 3 million military deaths the KMT also lost 100,000 of its officer corps and its replacements were often of dubious value.
Meanwhile the conflict saved and severely strengthened the CCP. The Japanese focused on fighting the Nationalists and taking China’s cities and railways, leaving much of rural China to the Communists. Besides the “Hundred Regiments Offensive” and smaller actions during the war the Communists focused on building up their strength rather than fighting the Japanese. An internal Japanese memo in 1944 suggested the Communists were not a threat as their focus was on gathering strength rather than fighting Japan. Thus whereas the Communists had around 30,000 square miles and 1.5 million people under their control in 1937, they controlled over 200,000 square miles and over 60 million people in 1945; effectively filling the void where the Nationalists retreated and benefiting from Japanese cruelty that pushed Chinese peasants to their cause. Meanwhile party leadership in the CCP went from 40,000 to 1.2 million and the Chinese Red Army grew from 50,000 to 900,000 in the same period.
Postwar conditions in China also benefited the Communists. In 1937 China had already been poor, relatively backwards and unstable compared to many nations. After a war that saw millions of lives lost, Japanese occupation of most of China proper, and considerable destruction and economic dislocation the situation could only be much worse. Unemployment, inflation, and tax hikes were just some of the factors which undermined the Nationalists during this period. This was not helped by the KMT devoting as much as 90% of government revenues on defense because they concluded renewed fighting against the Communists was inevitable. Hyperinflation also saw prices often rise as much as 2500% during the war so domestic conditions for China’s population generally got worse after 1945.
This hurt the KMT and benefited the Communists for two reasons. Firstly, being the de-facto recognized government by the international community and the Chinese people the KMT got most of the blame for these conditions. Secondly, much of these issues affected the urban areas, usually a beacon for KMT support, much more so than rural areas where the Communists had more influence. Whereas inflation was relatively low in Chinese rural areas and production came back quickly there Chinese urban centers were disproportionately hit by economic problems.
It is also worth comparing the KMT and Communists regarding organization, behavior, and discipline in this period. It is almost universally accepted that by 1946 the KMT was corrupt, decadent and inefficient whereas the Communists were disciplined, motivated and competent. This was an exaggeration but there is much truth to it.
The KMT’s cohesion was not strong due to several factors. During the “Northern Expedition” to unify China in the late 1920s the Nationalists had co-opted many warlord forces rather than destroying them. While this was less costly for the KMT in the short run in the long term it meant they were often dependent upon forces whose loyalty and effectiveness were suspect. The KMT was less selective about who joined their ranks and besides warlords there were mercenaries, opportunists and other unsavory types that denuded the quality of the KMT. Meanwhile the Chinese Communists, whatever their ideological flaws or harshness, were better at screening people for their organization and constantly indoctrinated their cadres and soldiers to keep them loyal and committed.
Additionally, while the KMT generally treated the Chinese people well before the “Sino-Japanese War” in its aftermath they often failed in this regard. Returning KMT soldiers often mistreated civilians as well as engaging in looting, extortion and other excesses. Rather than deal with immediate issues that affected China’s populace in 1945 the KMT often succumbed to corruption or concentrated their efforts on the likely showdown with the Communists. Perhaps most alarmingly, the KMT never developed an effective strategy to win over and mobilize China’s peasants, perhaps 90% of China’s population at this time.
Against this, the CCP had a strict code in dealing with China’s population (or at least those segments not deemed class enemies or recalcitrants) where the Communists tolerated no looting, paid for what they took and promoted good relations with civilians. Regarding China’s peasants, the Communists enacted widespread land reform, often violently and unfair to some landowners, to win peasants to their cause.
The CCP also had the advantage in discipline. Given how the KMT’s cohesion was compromised by factions that undermined it, that Mao was more ruthless than Chiang Kai-shek in instilling order and obedience, and given the constant indoctrination efforts of the CCP it is hardly a surprise the Communists won out here. The advantages were obvious as Communist forces collaborated with each other, followed orders from the high command, and were committed during the war. Meanwhile the KMT suffered from disunity where warlord forces sometimes would not help other units, many of their forces would desert and orders from the high command were often ignored. According to Philip Jowett “Chiang had a grudging respect for the unified command, discipline, and solidarity of purpose displayed by the Communists, but was unable to instill these qualities into his own commanders and their men."
Far from being a corrupt, incompetent and foolish leader, as he is often portrayed, Chiang Kai-shek was an earnest man and patriot who lived simply and constantly prayed for the salvation of his people. Throughout his unlucky reign he went from crisis to crisis involving unreliable Chinese Warlords, Mao’s implacable Communists, a far stronger Japan as well as the vicissitudes of American and Soviet policy making. He knew all too well the many failings of the KMT and he often admonished his subordinates for their poor conduct and corruption. However, Chiang Kai-shek failed to effectively reform the KMT or remove some its worst leaders probably because he did not feel strong enough and did not want to engage in a major restructuring of the KMT during wartime. His failure to do so would cost the Nationalists dearly in the final struggle against the Communists.
These conditions: The balance of power between the KMT and CCP after “World War 2,” China’s internal conditions during this period, and the dichotomies between the KMT and CCP had a decisive impact on the final chapter of the “Chinese Civil War” in 1946-49. Due to these factors the CCP managed to recruit more soldiers and Chinese peasants than the KMT, eventually balanced out the American aid given to the KMT, and generally performed better on the battlefield.
The Communists did a brilliant job in the postwar period of swelling their ranks. They mobilized more of China’s civilians by pandering to the peasants via widespread land reform whereas the KMT cared more about the much less populated urban areas. The Communists were also more accepting of Chinese forces that had collaborated with the Japanese whereas the KMT usually dismissed them as traitors. Most alarmingly the KMT mistreated their own soldiers. At the end of “World War 2” the KMT demobilized over 1.5 million soldiers and 200,000 officers to save costs which made many of them bitter and unemployed. This, combined with poor pay, bad morale and seeing many of their officers engage in corruption and luxuries, pushed as many as 800,000 KMT soldiers to defect to the Communists.
Foreign support also turned against the KMT. While American aid to the KMT was obviously superior to Soviet aid to the CCP during, and in the initial aftermath, of “World War 2” the succeeding years saw the former decrease and the latter increase significantly. At first the KMT had the advantage as the Americans had equipped around 30 of its divisions with American arms as well as providing tanks and a small Air Force. Meanwhile the CCP in 1946 had few heavy weapons and was disproportionately equipped with Japanese weapons the Soviets captured in Manchuria.
Yet American aid to the KMT was abruptly decreased and then halted in late-1946 after George Marshall and the State department changed policy because of the failure of the KMT and CCP to work towards peace as well as the perceived corruption pervading the Nationalist government. The Americans did end their weapons embargo against the KMT in mid-1947, but the latter had to pay for weapons (with money they did not have) and this provided little help. More promising was the reconsideration of American aid in late 1947 but since this only resulted in weapons and supplies arriving in late 1948 when the KMT had already effectively lost the war it was too little and too late.
Meanwhile external aid to the CCP increased during 1946-49. The CCP received constant train loads from the Soviet Union and North Korea (apparently using 2000 railcars in the latter case). Soviet ships, doctors and railway troops also directly helped the CCP. Thus despite the KMT’s major initial advantages regarding foreign aid in the end their forces ran out of American weapons, supplies, spare parts and ammunition during the conflict while the Soviets and North Koreans replaced the CCP’s equivalents regularly.
Yet whatever dichotomies between the KMT and CCP and foreign aid perhaps the Nationalists were most decisively defeated on the battlefield. Whatever advantages both sides had in 1946 it is probable that if the KMT had concentrated on securing China proper, and not tried contesting Manchuria with the Communists, it would have had a better chance of winning the war. As stated above, the KMT had a major advantage in soldiers, foreign aid, territory and populace and had they focused on China proper they might have survived on the mainland. The Soviet Union was more preoccupied with good relations with the Americans than supporting Mao against the KMT and the Communists in Manchuria were concentrating on local politics instead of building up forces to fight the KMT. Additionally, Chiang Kai-shek’s American advisors begged him to consolidate China Proper (which initially he wanted to do) rather than expanding into Manchuria.
Had he done so the KMT likely would have retained most of China and the end result might have been a situation like East/West Germany or North/South Korea and considering South China has much more population, resources, and agriculture than North China there is little doubt the KMT would have been the winner in the long term.
This did not happen as Chiang Kai-shek, concluding war against the CCP was inevitable, went all out and invaded Manchuria with his best forces. In 1946 the KMT had a major advantage in soldiers, firepower, and other assets such as air power and tanks, so initially Chiang’s forces crushed much of the Communist forces in Manchuria and northern China. The KMT was seemingly poised to deliver a knock out blow, or perhaps force the CCP to flee to the Soviet Union, when American pressure via General George Marshall forced Chiang to a cease fire. Maybe the KMT would have inflicted a decisive defeat had this not happened, or still lost as they did later, but this was Chiang Kai-shek’s best chance of militarily beating the CCP.
Instead the KMT kept throwing soldiers into Manchuria at the end of a severely tenuous supply line and scored some victories due to their initial advantages in firepower. Unfortunately the CCP learned to avoid the cities, control the countryside, and eventually perfect a dual strategy of cutting KMT communications and wearing down their forces (via guerrilla warfare) in the short term, as well as slowly building up regular forces to fight KMT armies in the open in the long term (via conventional warfare). These were tenets of Maoist warfare and was helped by decreasing American aid to the KMT, increasing Soviet aid to the CCP, as well as the Communists capturing scores of Nationalist weaponry and supplies. This process developed over two years from late 1946 to late 1948 and eventually eroded KMT forces and morale, and gained enough CCP strength to the point the latter could go onto the offensive to end the war.
At which point the Communists finally beat the KMT in Manchuria by crushing their armies and overrunning the cities. Then they advanced south to take Beijing, crossed the Yangtze River and took all of mainland China which effectively won a war that had been waged between the CCP and KMT on and off since the late 1920s.
Despite the KMT’s considerable advantages in population, territory, armed might and foreign support they lost the post-1945 contest to the CCP. The war against Japan weakened the KMT and strengthened the Communists. Postwar conditions in China also damaged the KMT as economic conditions severely hurt urban areas while rural areas, more sympathetic to the Communists, were less affected. The KMT was more corrupt, less disciplined, and inept at winning over China’s peasants and other groups versus the CCP. While the KMT initially enjoyed a preponderance in foreign support in the end the Communists narrowed this advantage. Finally, the KMT’s military strategy and operations during much of this period was flawed and exploited by the Communists who used a clever combination of guerrilla warfare and conventional warfare to win a decisive victory in 1949. Fifteen years earlier Mao and less than 10,000 of his followers, had barely pulled through the “Long March” and arrived in a remote area of northern China with few prospects of victory let alone survival. Their ultimate triumph was perhaps the greatest comeback in military history.
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