Communists vs. Nationalists in China’s Civil War

After the tense period of the Chinese history in the aftermath of the World War I, China was about to enter the phase of its historic timeline that would be even more dramatic. This phase was marked by the development and rise to power of the Kuomintang (KMT), the national people's party, under the leadership of Chiang Kai-shek. At the same time, during this period the Communist Party of China (CPC) was formed, and developed from that time on to witness a possibility of total annihilation by the KMT by 1934, and to finally emerge as the ruling party in the mainland China by 1949 after the victory over the KMT in the Chinese Civil War.

But why did the Communists win the Civil War, given the fact that the Nationalists had more troops and better equipment than the Communists, as well as America’s support? As we shall see, their victory was enabled by certain historic circumstances combined with the effective policy of the CPC in relation to waging warfare in the face of a stronger adversary, and their ability to gather support of populace.

In 1927, Chiang Kai-shek initiated demotion of the role of the CPC in the coalition with the KMT and went as far as executing many of the CPC leaders, so that by July of 1927 the CPC went underground. The KMT renewed warfare against warlords, whose regime in Beijing was internationally recognized, and in June 1928 seized Beijing, after which the government of Chiang Kai-shek got international recognition. During the period of 1927-1937, the CPC was organizing military revolts, uniting with remnants of peasant rebels, and gained control over some areas in southern China. Campaigns of the Nationalists to quell the CPC were not completely effective, but utterly damaging for the Communist. By 1930 Chiang Kai-shek set out to annihilate the Communist activities, and indeed by fall of 1934 the Communists faced the possibility of total extermination, and had to retreat from the KMT army in what is called the Long March, during which Mao Zedong emerged as the prominent Communist leader. It seemed that it was an appropriate time for the KMT to destroy the CPC, then deal with the remainder of warlords, and finally recapture Manchuria from the Japanese invasion. But in December of 1936 the KMT generals kidnapped Chiang Kai-Shek and compelled him into alliance with the Communists, because at the moment of the Japanese occupation of Manchuria Chiang Kai-shek himself perceived the Communists as a greater danger. Still, this alliance was in name only, as during the war with Japan the KMT continued to confront the CPC, while being rather passive in resisting Japan. In this situation, the KMT faced numerous defeats in operations against the Japanese. On the other hand, the CPC strived to keep its independence, relied on the populace in its guerrilla activities behind enemy lines, occupied rural territories, instituting governments there and distributing land, thus fortifying its position, which would pay off during the Civil War. The military conflict in January 1941 ended the cooperation between the parties and laid ground for the Civil War. After the surrender of Japan and arrival of Soviet forces in Manchuria, it turned out to be impossible for Chiang Kai-shek to preclude the CPC from taking Manchuria, and as both sides did not want to cede the newly acquired territories, a war between them resumed. The Soviet Union provided limited support to the CPC, while the United States helped the KMT with generous military supplies and equipment. But the situation was already dismal for the Nationalists as governmental corruption and political and economical chaos deprived them of mass support. And even though the KMT army had more men and better equipment, and had significant international support, it was weakened by the war with Japan, so the demoralized Nationalist army was no match for the People’s Liberation Army of the CPC. In the end, the Communists prevailed over the Nationalists, who fled to Taiwan, and on October 1st, 1949 the People’s Republic of China was declared.

In this way we can see that the favorable circumstances during and after the Sino-Japanese war, combined with the ability of the CPC to mobilize its forces and increase its support by population during the war, helped the CPC emerge as a dominant force after the Chinese Civil War.


Hooton, E. R. The Greatest Tumult: The Chinese Civil War 1936-49. Brassey’s Inc, 1991.

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