Victors of Circumstance – The Rise of Chinese Communism

The Chinese Communist Party, formally born in 1921 and reinvigorated by the victory of Mao Zedong in 1949, succeeded not only out of its political ingenuity and advances, but also through the failures and shortcomings of its competitors and enemies. Mao’s inspirational rhetoric on 1st October 1949 claimed that with the reign of the People’s Republic of China, the old China had died and New China was born, and with his dramatic social revolution in the face of dire socio-economic conditions and pleas to nationalism following the destruction of the Sino-Japanese war, it is clear how the CCP gained extraordinary public support throughout the Chinese nation. However, the widespread public disillusionment with the failures of the Nationalist party, the Guomindang, led them to support the only political opponent as the ultimate protest vote.

Historians are in general agreement that the communists succeeded from their own actions, but are divided on which actions secured their victory in 1949. It is widely agreed that the Sino-Japanese war played a crucial role in the mobilization of the Chinese people towards the communist party, simply through appealing to Chinese nationalism, which had taken a crippling blow as a result of the bloodshed witnessed by Nanjing in 1937, putting the Chinese in an extremely vulnerable and threatened position under the Japanese. The war seemingly defined China as a reinvigorated country and supplied them with the military unification they so desperately required to mobilise and unite the population. At the outbreak of war in 1937, the Chinese Communist Party and the Guomindang formed a second attempt at a United Front, where ‘the CCP agreed to abandon its radical land reform policy in favour of one of rent reduction’ to keep the peace. However, relations soon grew sour with communist expansion to the north and resulted in a return to hostilities, but the peaceful years had allowed the communists to grow significantly in influential territory and numbers, while their power as ‘heroic resisters against fascism’ had been witnessed by foreign visitors to Yan’an in that time. In 1941, the rectification movement saw the student faction’s last stand, which aided the communist movement’s political leadership by Mao and his theologies that sparked the movement. The communist party successfully implemented methods to enforce political orthodoxy such as self-criticism and written confessions which became key to future movements led by Mao, the majority of which succeeded through this technique which, through public admittance, gained sympathy and unwavering support.

The most attractive element of the communist party was their appeal to peasants and workers alike, launching workers’ strikes, local uprisings and army mutinies in February 1930. Mao Zedong prioritised the importance of social revolution under communism, and emphasised peasants education on matters such as government and politics, creating people’s councils in villages which invited all adults to vote regardless of class, while subsequently encouraging sub-associations to represent women and young people in local governments. To the population, Mao and the communists were appealing to them as no party had before. The party achieved their goals through the peasantry who had been their best defence against the Japanese in the years before, and sought to appease them through acting both ‘for the sake of the peasantry’ and ‘on the side of the peasantry’, the latter of which had proved more successful.

The communists succeeded as a party as well as a triumphant political victor through persistence and strong leadership. Under the control of Mao Zedong, his policies and determination as shown specifically in the 1940s shows a defiance in the party which may not have succeeded in his absence. Mao, a charismatic and defiant character with communism coursing through his veins, lay his priorities with the peasantry, the foundations for a powerful political control. In the face of opposition by the Guomindang which withdrew funding for communist troops and economically blockaded communist-controlled areas, drastically reducing CCP controlled population by 19 million between 1940 and 1942, Mao refused to accept defeat. He administered Border Regions to mobilise the communist populations, increasing industrial production, reducing militia and in turn reducing government expenses and encouraging peasant-led co-operative trades, much to the approval of members of all classes, having previously become disillusioned with the Guomindang who had slowly alienated students, as shown in the May 4th Movement of 1919 by intellectuals and the urban bourgeoisie. Spectacular movements such as these brought wide-eyed attention from the watching Chinese population, demonstrating that the CCP were far from weak, and could hold their own in conflicts with the Nationalists.

In the face of ‘the final extermination’ at the hands of Chiang Kai-shek in 1925, Mao’s defiance and refusal to accept defeat led to his return to Hunan where he gathered peasant support and consequently launched the Autumn Harvest Uprising, however largely unsuccessful, this bought the CCP most of Kiangsi province territory to fund what would be renowned as The Long March from 1934 to 1935. The 6,000 mile journey brought a positive reception from communities they passed through due to the communists’ respectful behaviour unrivalled by the Nationalists. However embroidered with mythical tales of heroic bravery in the face of adversity, for example the Luting Bridge of chains and fire, the realistic race of the communist forces against the Guomindang from Kiangsi province to the Shensi province marked the loss of 270,000 communist lives, but also a milestone in the party’s development as a formidable political and military enemy, the crux of their struggle for eventual victory. The historian Johnson elaborates that, alongside the militia, the emphasis on guerilla warfare in Mao’s approaches advanced the support of the communist party, in Mao’s words ‘because guerilla warfare basically derives from the masses and is supported by them, it can neither exist nor flourish if it separates itself from their sympathies and cooperation’. The CCP emerged well-equipped to capitalise on the Sino-Japanese war following a decade of guerilla warfare development while the Guomindang emerged war-weary and exhausted.

The historian John Roberts details that, among support in the countryside and the takeover of China’s main cities, the success of the CCP can be accredited to their victory in Manchuria. In 1948, Manchuria was the first state to accept the communist approach, following a vigorous battle since 1945 for ownership between the GMD and the communists, vying to claim the most developed industrial region in China since the Japanese invasion left behind an impressive infrastructure. The communist party had offered the countryside a revolutionary land reform that was to be expanded in 1950 following their victory. Taxes and services provided by the peasants in terms of food, labour and military industry would be repaid in land and other forms of wealth confiscated from the old elite. Despite the contentment of the civilians, however, the Guomindang returned armed and the consequent bloody Manchurian campaign took a drastic toll on Chiang Kai-shek’s forces, primarily through casualties and large numbers of desertions to the communist party in Lin Bao’s Fourth Field Army. Following this unanimous defeat assisted also by the rallying of northern Chinese peasants against the Guomindang, Chiang Kai-shek and his two million troops were forced to retreat from the mainland to Taiwan. While this would be assumed as a communist victory, the Guomindang did not disintegrate entirely despite the successes of communism.

Alongside the communists’ advantages were the Guomindang’s shortcomings which helped elevate the CCP to power in 1949. The Guomindang had remained untrustworthy in the eyes of the public for some time, as the May 4th Movement of 1919 demonstrated. Considered the first mass public movement of modern Chinese history, the movement brought to light public concerns with the Guomindang government’s plans for the future of the nation. The peasant population had been unsettled by the GMD’s compromises with intellectuals on who should be taxed and how, followed by the military conscription and heavy taxes brought into effect, the Nationalist government slowly lost its life force and public backing. Upon Sun Yat-sen’s death and Chiang Kai-shek’s consequent control in 1925, the Guomindang turned against their communist allies and sought to subdue the party, commencing the ‘final extermination’ of communist territories. The Guomindang’s response to the Sino-Japanese war further discredited their governing tactics in the eyes of the peasants as the opposing party that did not support Chinese foreign superiority and ultimate independence. Rampant inflation hindered the public’s trust, primarily the middle classes, in the Guomindang’s control of the economy. Having grown exhausted from incessant conflicts, Guomindang members had corrupted the party from the inside, and as a consequence financial scandals gradually lost the party its favour, losing both the party and its armies the will to rule, as opposed to the communists’ unwavering morale and incorruptible structure.

A debate raised by Wasserstrom questions whether there was even a revolution when the communists came to power in 1949, suggesting the drastic developments in Chinese society following the formation of the People’s Republic of China could not be directly or indirectly attributed to Mao’s victory. Wasserstrom also suggests that the changes brought forward by the communist victory would have been supported and implemented by their opponents in the GMD without such drastic methods, for example the complete eradication of the waning influence of foreign imperialism which led to the re-establishment of a central government control over Chinese territory, which was welcomed by the population after almost a hundred years of partial sovereignty and political state division. This in turn brought the reinstatement of domestic peace and agreement following years of civil warfare and overseas conflicts, and, closer to home, the work force was more than twice the size it had previously remained. Mao’s insistence on educational expansion brought literacy to all echelons of Chinese society, plus the drastically required improvements in public healthcare which consequently led to a growth in population. All aspects of Chinese society at the time were expanding, improving and moving forward with the age of the New China as Mao promised.

By 1947, the CCP had mobilised to advance on Beijing in January 1949, and by October, the Gate of Heavenly Peace begged an audience for Mao Zedong’s proclamation of ‘the birth of the new People’s Republic of China and to declare that China had stood up’, announcing the communist victory with a promise of nationalist rejuvenation and ultimate Chinese independence. While communism marched to victory in 1949, the party’s continued existence to this day stands as an effective memorial to their successes of that year. As a result of their encouragement of popular political protests which earned the population much-needed government alterations, attractive policies such as land reform appealing to every echelon of society, and their strategic territory occupations, the Chinese Communist Party earned its successes but its ultimate victory can be strongly attributed to the long-term failures of the opposing Nationalist government.


Davin, Delia, Mao Zedong (Gloucestershire, 1997).
Eastman, Lloyd E., Seeds Of Destruction: Nationalist China In War And Revolution (California, 2002).
Goldston, Robert, The Long March (London, 1972).
Johnson, Chalmers A., Peasant Nationalism and Communist Power (California, 1962).
Karl, Rebecca E., Mao Zedong and China in the Twentieth-Century World (London, 2010).
Mackerras, Colin, China In Transformation 1900-1949 (New York, 1998).
Moise, Edwin E., Modern China: A History (Harlow, 1986).
Pepper, Suzanne, Civil War in China: The Political Struggle, 1945-1949 (London, 1978).
Roberts, J.A.G., Modern China: An Illustrated History (Gloucestershire, 2000).
Sheridan, James E., China In Disintegration: The Republican Era In Chinese History 1912-1949 (New York, 1975).
Wasserstrom, Jeffrey N., Twentieth-Century China: New Approaches (London, 2003).

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