Historians regard 1949 as the most significant year in Modern Chinese history. In this year, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was able to defeat the ruling Kuomintang (KMT) and successfully establish the People’s Republic of China (PRC) under Chairman Mao. This victory had resounding repercussions on the lives of the Chinese people. Meisner asserts that the revolution that led to this victory had a positive and lasting effect on the lives of millions of Chinese (3).
Since then, the PRC has grown to become a great world power and the most successful Communist state in the world. Considering the importance of the 1949 victory by the CCP, it would be worthwhile to analyze the reasons behind the success of the CCP after a protracted and bloody civil war with the KMT for over two decades.
This paper will set out to discuss the various factors that contributed to the success of the CCP and the different tactics they employed to achieve eventual victory in 1949. It will then provide explanations for why the ruling KMT suffered defeat.
Brief Historical Overview
China was established as a republic in 1911 following the Manchu Revolution that overthrew the Manchu dynasty. Dr. Sun Yat Sen, who was the leader of the Manchu Revolution, established the Kuomintang (KMT) as a political party in 1912. The part was dissolved in 1913 when it attempted to stage a second revolution in China and it was only able to return to the Chinese political scene in 1919.
The new reformed KMT had great influence, as it became the national party. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was formed in 1921 and it initially had a good working relationship with the ruling KMT. With Mao as one of the CCP’s founding leaders, the party was able to liaison with the KMT on matters of nation building.
However, this changed after 1925 as the KMT started viewing the Communist Party as a threat to its political power. To curb this perceived threat, the CCP was banned and its leaders imprisoned or exiled (Preston 208). With the banning of the Communist Party, the KMT became an authoritarian party that was intolerant to any political opposition.
This marked the beginning of the struggle by the CCP to overthrow the dictatorial KMT therefore bringing a Communist Revolution to China. This goal was achieved in 1949 as the CCP drove the KMT to Taiwan in defeat and Mao Zedong stood in Beijing to announce the founding of the People’s Republic of China.
Reason for CCP’s Success
A great factor in the success of the CCP was the excellent leadership demonstrated by the party. To begin with, the party had a strong and charismatic leader in the form of Mao Zedong. This revolutionary leader of the Communist Party was not only admired by the members of the party but he also received their undivided support. His policies and strategies were obeyed and diligently implemented by his subordinates leading to great success. In addition to this, the CCP leadership sought to solicit the support of the citizens at all levels.
The party encouraged political participation by the individual members of the party and grassroots activities were encouraged in all the village levels. At the higher levels, leadership was based on the ability of the individual. People who possessed the necessary capabilities to best serve the party therefore filled the positions of power. In the military, promotions were made based on the experience and abilities of individual officers.
Liu notes that individual army generals were given authorities to make what they considered the most suitable decisions (143). This led to prompt military action being taken in response to KMT activities leading to great efficiency. The effective leadership practices employed by the CCP contributed to the eventual victory against the KMT.
Another reason for the success of the CCP was that it appealed to the interests of the vast peasant population in China. The Communists sought to enlist the support of the peasantry and create a popular mass uprising against the government. At the onset, the Chinese rural population was apathetic to the cause of either the CCP or the KMT. To this population, the battle for political supremacy between the two parties did not concern them. The communists engaged in action aimed at providing the rural poor with a reason to join their side.
The CCP came up with land reforms that would take land from the oppressive landlords who controlled land in China and give it to the peasant (Meisner 3). For centuries, China had used a feudal system that had a small and powerful land owning class controlling all the land in the country. This land owning class exploited the landless peasants who were forced to provide labor for their landlords in exchange for permission to live on the land.
The communists promised to destroy the landlord class and give their land to the peasants. According to Guoli, the CCP land reform policies were very popular among the peasants who formed the majority of china’s population (27). The peasant population in its large numbers therefore supported the Communists leading to a popular uprising against the KMT.
The large size of the Chinese nation contributed to the success of the CCP. China is a very large country and effectively administering the entire territory was a challenging task for the KMT government. Preston documents that the government lacked the manpower to establish effective control over its entire citizenry (208). Most of the remote areas in rural China were inaccessible to the government.
The CCP was able to establish bases in the remote regions and instigate uprisings without government interference. Once the government decided to respond to an uprising, it would take significant amounts of time to travel to the area and quell the rebellion In addition to this, the enormous size of the country allowed the CCP to retreat into remote regions and recover after facing defeats in battle.
The CCP’s exploitation of the country’s vastness to achieve victory was best demonstrated in 1934 during the famous Long March (Liu 42). In this instance, the Communist forces faced imminent destruction by the KMT forces. To avoid this, they retreated into the isolated regions of North West China and they were able to reorganize themselves and recover from what would have been an absolute defeat.
The invasion of China by Japanese forces contributed to the success of the Communist Revolution in 1949. By invading and occupying parts of Chinese territory, the Japanese destroyed established authority in many regions all over the country. It left huge portions of rural China without administration and this created a power vacuum.
Townsend notes that this Japanese incursion aroused peasant resistance and created a demand for anti-Japanese political leadership (53). The governing KMT was unable to capitalize on these nationalistic sentiments of its rural population.
The CCP met this demand by implementing a program of armed resistance against the occupying forces. The CCP aroused nationalistic sentiments by declaring that China belonged to the Chinese people and the Japanese invaders had to be dealt with immediately and using all available resources. This strong rhetoric by the communists won the allegiance of the population in areas threatened or occupied by Japanese armies.
The CCP employed battle strategies that enabled them to defeat the powerful KMT government forces. From the onset of the battle between the two parties, the KMT held a great military advantage. The KMT forces were not only greater in numbers but these troops also possessed modern weaponry and training from the West. The Communist Party forces would have sustained devastating losses if they engaged in conventional battles against the KMT forces.
To make up for their inadequacies, the CCP carried out guerilla warfare attacks. Under the command of Mao Zedong, the initially small communist army moved to the hostile countryside from where they carried out sporadic attacks against the KMT (Guoli 28). The guerrilla units were small and highly mobile enabling them to make fast attacks and retreats.
The guerrilla warfare tactics were effective in drawing the national army into areas where they could not take advantage of their superior weaponry. Here, the KMT forces were divided and destroyed by the weaker CCP forces.
Finally, the superior organization of the CCP troops after the end of the WWII contributed to the success of the communists. Preston notes that in post WWII China, the CCP were better organized and led while the KMT were incompetent and corrupt (210). Guoli notes that the CCP had learned the importance of military after the initial defeat in its early years (27). Under the leadership of Mao, who had developed into a great military strategist, the communists were able to build up a disciplined military.
As a result, the CCP were able to sweep away the nationalists during the 1947 large-scale fighting in Manchuria and East Central China. The Communist forces waged large-scale offensives against KMT troops in 1948 leading to devastating defeats against the government troops. The KMT elite together with several millions of their supporters fled to Taiwan following the devastating defeat by the communists (Preston 210).
Why the KMT Failed
One cause for the defeat of the KMT was that it depended heavily on the urban areas and relied on the support of the middle class and landlords in China. The government put much emphasis on the control of urban areas, which were the economic centers of the country. It was assumed that by controlling these regions, the government would have influence over the rest of the nation.
Townsend states that the government did not realize that “in a predominantly rural society the sphere of influence of cities was much more severely circumscribed” (73). The unban-centered strategies adopted by the government left rural areas untouched. Since the party failed to influence the rural peasants or address their needs, they became open to Communist ideas and subsequently supported the CCP therefore contributing to the eventual failure of the KMT.
The need to counter Japanese invasion of China contributed to the failure of the KMT. Since the banning of the Communist Party, the KMT had engaged in military operations aimed at completely destroying this party. By the end of 1934, the KMT had engaged in successive military campaigns against the CCP. These campaigns were successful and the KMT troops were on the verge of achieving absolute victory over the communists.
However, the increasing threat from Japan forced the KMT to divert its military resources to tackling the Japanese threat. The ruling party had to ignore its internal enemy, the CCP, for a while and concentrate on the Japanese aggressors. Guoli declares that the war of resistance against Japan “gave the CCP breathing room from the KMT’s obsessive efforts to eliminate it” (27).
To make matters worse, Liu documents that the outbreak of the War of Resistance against Japan forced the KMT to form an alliance with the CCP (232). This cooperation against the Imperial Japanese forces eased the pressure against the CCP and allowed them to build up their numbers. As such, the ongoing war against Japan weakened the ability of the KMT to tackle the CCP threat in the country.
The rampant corruption within the KMT government contributed to the defeat of the KMT forces. During the KMT rule, graft and corruption prevailed in China as soldiers and government officials alike set out to benefit themselves from the country’s resources. Guoli observes that the KMT government was corrupt and it was not able to maintain order and mitigate inflation in its controlled areas (27). Looting was widespread in KMT administered areas as government officials sought to enrich themselves.
The living condition for ordinary Chinese citizens became dire as they faced poverty and unhealthy sanitary conditions. This led to disillusion with the KMT regime by many of its previous supporters. The population had little sympathy for the KMT who were using the resources of the country for personal gain and ignoring the needs of the people.
To the average Chinese, the government was a tool that only served the interests of the rich and powerful in China while the masses were left out. The Chinese became curious about the ability of the CCP to provide better leadership. The perceived weaknesses of the governing KMT made the people ready and willing to experiment with the communist party.
Another reason for the failure of the KMT was the low morale among its soldiers. To carry out a sustained and aggressive military campaign against the communists, the government needed a large and well-armed army. In the early 1930s, the government was able to recruit and properly train up to 3 million soldiers. These soldiers were provided with proper equipment enabling them to defeat the CCP in many battles.
However, by the early 1940s, the government lacked the ability to properly cater to its troops needs. Due to the rampant corruption by KMT officials and military figures, the government suffered from reduced resources. Jurgen reveals that the government troops were often poorly paid and they suffered from low morale (27). The training provided to the troops was poor and discipline was not well enforced. The Morale of the soldiers was further reduced as they constantly suffered heavy losses due to the poor training and equipment.
Liu notes that in the years following the end of the Second World War, there was widespread discontentment among the KMT soldiers (132). All these conditions contributed to hundreds of thousands of KMT soldiers defecting to the CCP side (Jurgen 27). As such, the ability of the KMT to defeat the CCP forces, which were growing in numbers and strength, in battle was greatly diminished.
This paper set out to discuss why the CCP was able to win the civil war against the KMT and the manner in which the communists achieved this incredible feat. The paper also provided some of the reasons for why the KMT lost the war. It began by noting the significance of the communist victory in 1949 to modern China. It then traced the beginning of the conflict between the two parties to the banning of the CCP by the KMT government.
This sparked a civil war that lasted until 4 years after the end of the Second World War. The CCP was able to win this war due to its effective leadership, its utilization of the massive peasant population as a support base, the large size of the country, the invasion of the country by the Japanese.
The communists used guerrilla war tactics and a superior organization of their military to achieve military victory. A review of the reasons behind the failure of the KMT has also been made. The paper has shown that the ignorance of the rural peasants by the government, the Japanese invasion, rampant corruption, poor leadership, and low morale among its soldiers caused the failure of the KMT. The Chinese Communist Party was therefore able to gain victory and take leadership over the country in 1949.
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Jurgen, Domes. Peng Te-huai: The Man and the Image. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1985. Print.
Liu, Chang. Peasants and Revolution in Rural China: Rural political change in the North China plain and the Yangzi delta, 1850-1949. Boston: Routledge, 1995. Print.
Meisner, Maurice. The significance of the Chinese Revolution in world history. Working Paper. Asia Research Center. London: London School of Economics and Political Science, 1999. Print.
Preston, Peter. National Pasts in Europe and East Asia. NY: Routledge, 2010. Print.
Townsend, James. Political Participation in Communist China. California: University of California Press, 1969.