Civil War: China (1946-1949)

Min Ye. Civil Wars of the World: Major Conflicts since World War II. Editor: Karl DeRouen Jr. & Uk Heo. Volume 1, ABC-CLIO, 2007.


With more than a million battle deaths and as many as 5 million civilian casualties (Rummel 1991), the Chinese civil war (1946-1949) is considered one of the bloodiest civil wars in human history. The three-year war was the final stage of the long-term struggle between the governing Kuomintang (the Nationalist Party of China [KMT]) and the rebelling Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which had begun in the late 1920s and was interrupted by the second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945). The Chinese civil war started soon after the Japanese surrender at the end of World War II and ended with a divided country. The defeated KMT fled to Taiwan along with more than 2 million of its supporters and, under U.S. protection, managed to continue the rule of the Republic of China (ROC) on the island to the present day; whereas the winning CCP established a Communist regime, the People’s Republic of China (PRC), on the mainland.

In addition to the decisive battle between the CCP and the KMT, two other civil conflicts occurred, on Taiwan and on mainland China. Soon after the war, after Japanese colonial rule of Taiwan ended and Taiwan was returned to China, a bloody conflict broke out in February 1947 between local Taiwanese and the KMT taking over authority. The uprising was suppressed and approximately 18,000 to 28,000 people killed (Roy 2003). In mainland China, the complicated status of Tibet led to military conflicts, first in 1950 when Tibet was conquered by the Communist forces, and then in 1959, when a revolt took place. Both conflicts resulted in thousands of casualties.

Note: The Pinyin system is used in this article for transliterated Chinese names and expressions; the Wade-Giles equivalents appear in brackets. However, the original form is used for a few well-known names and terms, such as Kuomintang (Guomindang, pinyin, or the Nationalist Party), Chiang Kai-shek (Jiang Jieshi, pinyin), and Sun Yat-Sen (Sun Yixian, pinyin).

Country Background

In 1911, the Xinhai [Hsin-hai] Revolution led by the Tong Meng Hui [T’ung-meng hui] and other revolutionary groups overthrew more than 2,000 years of monarchical rule in China and established the first democratic republic, the Republic of China. Dr. Sun Yat-Sen, the founder of the Tong Meng Hui, was elected as the first provisional president on January 1, 1912. However, in order to prevent civil war and foreign intervention, Sun agreed to resign and pass the presidency to Yuan Shikai [Yuan Shih-k’ai], the former military leader of the Qing [Ch’ing] Dynasty, on the condition that Yuan arrange the abdication of the Manchu emperor.

After Yuan’s inauguration, Sun Yat-Sen and Song Jiaoren [Sung Chiao-jen] established the KMT as an amalgamation of Tong Meng Hui and other revolutionary organizations. In February 1913, the KMT obtained the majority in the first national assembly. However, the shortlived democracy lasted a mere several months before Yuan dissolved the KMT and suspended the national and provincial assemblies. In the following two decades, China was actually governed first by Yuan’s dictatorship (1913-1916) and then by the Beijing [Peking] warlord government (1916-1928) after Yuan’s death.

To restore the republic, Dr. Sun reorganized the KMT in 1914 and set up a rival government in Guangzhou (Canton) three years later. Because no Western powers recognized KMT’s self-proclaimed government, Sun turned to the Soviet Union for assistance. In 1923, the Soviet-KMT alliance was created, and the Soviet Union pledged to supply the KMT with financial and military aid. Another consequence of the alliance was the cooperation between the KMT and the fledging CCP, which was also known as the first United Front.

Inspired by the Russian Revolution, the CCP was established in June 1921, aiming to set a Russian-style Communist regime in China. Under the instruction of the Communist International (Comintern), the CCP decided to cooperate with the KMT in 1923. All of the 420 CCP members were ordered to join the KMT while keeping their CCP membership. In 1926, a year after Dr. Sun’s death, the Guangzhou government launched the long-delayed Northern Expedition to unify the country. Chiang Kaishek was appointed commander-in-chief of the National Revolutionary Army (NRA). The Northern Expedition was an easy victory, owing to the better organized, more disciplined NRA troops and wide support from rural peasants and urban laborers. For instance, Shanghai, China’s industrial center and largest city, was liberated by union laborers even before the NRA troops arrived. In 1928, the NRA conquered Beijing and united the country under the nominal control of the KMT’s nationalist government at Nanjing [Nanking].

Chiang Kai-shek never wholeheartedly supported Dr. Sun’s alliance with the Communists and always considered communism a destructive power in China. The expected victory of the Northern Expedition and the mounting labor and peasant movements sponsored by the CCP removed Chiang’s hesitation. After the NRA took over Shanghai in April 1927, Chiang’s forces launched an unexpected attack against the Communists and union members, thousands of whom were arrested and executed. The “white terror” was quickly extended to other regions, destroying most of the CCP’s bases. After a series of abortive armed insurrections, the CCP was forced to retreat to the mountainous countryside in the interior Jiangxi [Kiangsi] province. After consolidating its rule, Chiang’s nationalist government resumed military actions against the Communists, who had now established several bases in central China. Between 1930 and 1934, Chiang launched five annihilation campaigns with more than 2 million troops. The Communist forces, now renamed the Red Army, repelled the first four but were eventually driven out of their bases in the last one and began the famous one-year, 6,000-mile Long March to the remote Shaanxi [Shensi] province in northwest China. Only 8,000 of the original 100,000 people reached the new base in Yan’an [Yenan], a barren place in north Shaanxi province. During the Long March, Mao Zedong [Mao Tse-tung] established his unchallengeable leadership within the CCP.

Conflict Background

In addition to the civil war between the CCP and KMT, there were also two other civil conflicts in postwar China: the February 28 uprisings of the native Taiwanese against the KMT authority in 1947 and, after the establishment of the PRC, the conflict between the Communist government and the local government of Tibet in 1950 and 1959.

The February 28 Uprising in Taiwan, 1947

In 1947, as the Chinese civil war was under way on the mainland, a serious armed conflict broke out on the island of Taiwan between the native Taiwanese people and the ROC authority dominated by the mainlanders.

Defeated in the first Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895), the Chinese Qing government had been forced to cede Taiwan to Japan in the Shimonoseki/Maguan Treaty. During the next fifty years, Taiwan was under the colonial rule of Japan. At the 1943 Cairo conference, both President Franklin Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill endorsed Chinese Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek’s claim to Taiwan following Japan’s surrender. This point was restated in the Potsdam Declaration, which was ultimately accepted by Japan after two nuclear bombs were dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In October 1945, Chen Yi [Chen I], the KMT-appointed governor-general of Taiwan, and his staff of 28,000 landed on Taiwan, resuming Chinese rule after a half-century hiatus.

It did not take long for the Taiwanese people to become disillusioned with liberation. No different from the KMT administrations in other occupied places, Chen Yi and his cronies were infamous for their ineffectiveness, repressiveness, and corruption. Rather than revitalizing the wrecked economy, they seemed to be interested only in personal aggrandizement and in extracting Taiwan’s resources for the ongoing civil war on the mainland. The undisciplined KMT troops were much better at stealing from the local residents than in maintaining social order. The situation was further complicated by the deep distrust between the native Taiwanese and the mainlanders. On the one hand, higher levels of social and economic development under Japanese rule had facilitated the Taiwanese people’s sense of superiority over their fellow mainlanders. On the other hand, the KMT government was convinced that the local Taiwanese people had been badly “corrupted” by the heavy Japanese influence of the past half century. Taiwan’s relatively peaceful history under colonial rule was always interpreted as the result of Taiwanese-Japanese collaboration. This was further evidenced by the fact that more than 200,000 Taiwanese served in the Japanese army during World War II. As a result, the KMT authority on Taiwan was exclusively dominated by mainland “carpetbaggers,” who controlled the economy and monopolized the production and trade of a broad range of bare necessities (such as sugar, tobacco, and tea). In this situation, it was only a matter of time for the mounting hostility to evolve into large-scale social turmoil and violence.

The February 28 uprising was sparked by a small incident in Taipei, the capital of Taiwan. On February 27, 1947, two officers of the Monopoly Bureau arrested a widow for selling cigarettes illegally. The woman resisted the officers’ attempt to confiscate her cigarettes and money, and a crowd gathered and menaced the officers. The frightened officers tried to escape and fired warning shots. One onlooker was killed by a stray bullet. The next morning, thousands of angry people assembled at the Monopoly Bureau calling for the execution of the two officers. Demonstrators then marched to the governor-general’s office, and their demands also became a broad range of political claims. In the succeeding conflicts with the security forces, several protesters were killed. The Taiwanese public was further infuriated; violence swiftly spread to all of Taipei and, within two days, throughout the island. Because many of the government troops had been recalled to fight the Communists on the mainland, the governor-general was left with only 11,000 soldiers and police, far too few to handle the riots. With the exception of a few key government buildings, the whole island fell under the rebels’ control. During the early days of the uprising, mainlanders were the major victims, identified in the streets and then beaten or killed.

The spontaneous rebellion was soon organized under the leadership of the local elites. Temporary security forces were established to restore public order. A committee was formed to open negotiations with the government over Taiwan’s future. The political demands of the rebels were finally presented on March 7 as the 32 Demands, which called for, among other things, more autonomy (but not full independence), free elections, and end to government corruption, and Taiwan’s participation in negotating the peace treaty with Japan.

As negotiations continued, KMT reinforcements were en route to the island. As soon as they landed on March 8, the governor-general suspended negotiations, declared martial law, and staged a massive crackdown on the rebels. The KMT troops quickly seized control of major cities, encountering only minor resistance. On March 13, a more virulent campaign, called “exterminating traitors and cleaning out villages,” was conducted to root out rebels hiding in the countryside, to prevent future uprisings. Much indiscriminate slaughter of civilians and the deliberate murder of native Taiwanese, mainly intellectuals and students, were reported. Thousands of Taiwanese dissidents were jailed or forced to flee abroad. Soon after the uprising, the nationalist government declared a total of a few hundred deaths, a hundred of which were the KMT soldiers; however, estimates of the actual number of deaths are as high as 100,000 (Lai, Myers, and Wou 1991). In a recent report issued by the ROC government in 1995, the number of deaths is said to have been between 18,000 and 28,000 (Roy 2003). The February 28 uprising lost Taiwan a whole generation of native elites.

Chen Yi was dismissed in the wake of the crackdown and appointed governor of another province (he was finally executed on Chiang’s order in 1950 for his collaboration with the Communists). The martial law was cancelled by the new governor-general but was imposed again in 1949 as the KMT managed to fortify its last foothold against Communist infiltration.

Tibet Annexation (1950) and Revolt (1959)

For about 700 years, Tibet (Xizang in Chinese) had been a member of the tributary system, with China at the center. In 1721, the Chinese Manchu government began to nominate two resident commissioners, called ambans, to govern Tibet together with the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama. Additionally, thousands of Chinese troops were garrisoned at Lhasa, the capital of Tibet. Following China’s decline and defeats in a couple of wars in the late nineteenth century, Tibet became a focus of the competition between Russia and Britain for Central Asia. In 1904, a British expedition conquered Tibet to contain Russia’s expansion. The thirteenth Dalai Lama fled to Mongolia. The British imposed the Anglo-Tibetan Accord on the regent government at Lhasa, obtaining the right of free trade and the control of Tibet’s external affairs. However, two years later, in a treaty that forced the Manchu government to accept the accord, the British government conceded China’s suzerainty over Tibet. In 1910, the Manchu government sent troops to recover its authority in Tibet, forcing the thirteenth Dalai Lama to escape for the second time.

The direct rule of the Qing Dynasty over Tibet was short-lived. When the Manchu government teetered on the verge of collapse in the 1911 Xinhai Revolution, conflicts broke out between Tibetan and Manchu forces in Lhasa. Several months later, the Manchu forces retreated from Tibet. In 1913, the thirteenth Dalai Lama returned to Tibet and resumed his rule. Despite the desire for independence, when civil war broke out in China, the thirteenth Dalai Lama was quite clear about the trouble a declaration of independence would bring to his people. In practice, he adopted a rather ambiguous policy to deal with China. On the one hand, backed by Great Britain, on many occasions Tibet behaved like a state with full sovereignty, for example, regarding the 1913 Tibet-Mongolia Treaty and the 1914 Simla Convention (which Chinese representatives finally refused to sign). Tibet also declared its neutrality in World War II and turned down the nationalist government’s request to be allowed to move military supplies through Tibetan territory. On the other hand, the Dalai Lama and his government sent representatives to the ROC national congress and the drafting committee of the ROC constitution. They also allowed the nationalist government to set up a liaison office at Lhasa and, as in the amban system, to appoint resident commissioners. In 1940, following the tradition of the Qing Dynasty, the nationalist government confirmed five-year-old Tenzin Gyatso as the reincarnation of the thirteenth Dalai Lama, who died in 1933.

In short, during the early decades of the twentieth century, when most parts of China were plagued by endless conflicts and wars, Tibet experienced one of the most peaceful periods in its history. By the time the PRC was established in 1949, Tibet had actually obtained quasi-independent status. Except for some minor conflicts with bandits and Han warlords in the neighboring provinces, the Dalai Lama and his government ruled “the roof of the world” without external interference. The two wars in 1950 and 1959 reflected the struggle between the Communist government and the Tibetan authority over such fundamental issues as Tibet’s sovereignty, its political system, the status of religion, and relations between serfs and nobles. The 1950 war forced the Tibetan government to concede China’s sovereignty over Tibet. And the second war in 1959 eventually ushered in a Communist political regime, formally ending Tibet’s traditional, theological regime. Approximately 40,000 Chinese soldiers and 60,000 Tibetans were killed in these wars (Sarkees 2000).

Soon after the CCP came to power in 1949, Beijing announced that Tibet was an integral part of China and that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) would liberate Tibet. Beijing also proposed negotiations with the Tibetan government for a “peaceful liberation.” However, private contact in New Delhi between Tibetan representatives and the Chinese ambassador to India was suspended after a year of futile bargaining. Beijing was convinced that the Tibetan regent government (the fourteenth Dalai Lama was sixteen years old at that time, too young to govern by himself), instigated by the United States and the United Kingdom, was deliberately postponing the process, awaiting a more favorable international situation. Another significant consideration of the Chinese decision makers was to avoid possible American intervention in the context of the Korean War—the U.S. Navy had just blocked the Taiwan Straits to prevent the PLA from invading Taiwan. On October 7, 1950, the same day that the U.S.-led UN troops crossed the thirty-eighth parallel on the Korean Peninsula despite China’s warning, 40,000 PLA forces attacked the 4,000 Tibetan solders stationed in Changdu [Chamdo] in eastern Tibet. The Tibetan army was rapidly overwhelmed, and on October 19 Tibetan commander Nagbo Nagwang Jigme surrendered to the PLA. According to the official Chinese account, about 114 PLA troops and 180 Tibetan fighters were killed or wounded (Wang and Gyaincain 1997), whereas the Tibetan government-in-exile estimated the casualties to Tibetan forces to be several thousands (Government of Tibet in Exile 1996).

The military fiasco shocked the Tibetan government. The fourteenth Dalai Lama and his cabinet escaped to a small town on the Indo-Tibetan border after appointing two temporary prime ministers at Lhasa. Facing the threat of a full-scale Communist invasion, the Tibetan government had no choice but to resume negotiations. In April, a delegation headed by the captive Nagbo was sent to Beijing. On May 23, 1951, Nagbo signed the Agreement of the Central People’s Government and the Local Government of Tibet on Measures for the Peaceful Liberation of Tibet (the Seventeen-Point Agreement). In this agreement, the Tibetan government recognized China’s sovereignty over Tibet and the central government’s rights in Tibet’s defense and foreign affairs. In return, the Chinese government promised to keep the existing Tibetan political system and to protect religious freedom. There were sharp disagreements within the Tibetan government about ratifying the agreement. The disputes were finally resolved with the victory of the monastic community, which supported ratification. On October 20, the fourteenth Dalai Lama issued a letter of acceptance and returned to Lhasa. A week later, PLA troops entered Lhasa and other major Tibetan cities.

The Seventeen-Point Agreement, which was later denounced by the Dalai Lama as a product under duress, could not provide grounds for cooperation between the CCP and the Dalai Lama. It was eventually impossible for China’s sovereignty over Tibet to be compatible with the supreme power and divine prestige of the Dalai Lama. Moreover, a theological, aristocracy-governed Tibet could not be tolerated forever in an authoritarian, secular regime that advocated the rule of the working class. The final breakup was only a matter of time.

The immediate cause of the 1959 Tibet revolts was land reform, a basic Maoist policy to win the support of the peasants by means of redistributing land ownership. By the middle 1950s, all mainland provinces except Tibet had finished the reforms. But harsh repressions, even executions of landowners, were common during the process of land reform. The issue of land reform was addressed in a rather ambiguous way in the Seventeen-Point Agreement, according to which the central government would carry out reforms in Tibet but in a way “of its [Tibetan] own accord” and “by means of consultation with the leading personnel of Tibet” (Article XI). Of Tibet’s population of 1.2 million people, 700,000 were landless serfs who made their living by working the land owned by nobles and monasteries. Apparently, any efforts at land reform would definitely harm the vital interests of the Tibetan ruling class. In Kham and Amdo, the Tibetan-concentrated regions in the neighboring provinces, land reform had provoked open military resistance.

In the early 1950s, generally speaking, Beijing exercised its power over Tibet in a rather conciliatory manner. The traditional Tibetan political system was kept largely intact with merely minor revisions. In 1954, the fourteenth Dalai Lama, aged nineteen, was elected vice president of the National People’s Congress (NPC), the supreme organ of China according to the constitution. The sixteen-year-old tenth Panchen Lama was also elected to NPC’s standing committee. With respect to land reform, Mao wrote to the Dalai Lama in 1957 promising to postpone the reforms if Tibetans were not ready. However, as ideological enthusiasm gradually dominated the party, there were fewer and fewer restraints on China’s Tibet policy. Meanwhile, the aftermath of massive political campaigns, such as the Anti-Rightist Movement (1957) and the Great Leap Forward Movement (1958-1960), spread to Tibet, further intensifying the tension. Propaganda denounced the “reactionary” Tibetan religious and political system. In some Tibetan counties, zealous Maoists attempted to form rural communes and overthrow the rule of monasteries and nobles. The tension reached its peak in March 1959, when the sporadic insurrections evolved into all-out armed rebellion in Lhasa.

On March 9, 1959, the Dalai Lama was invited to watch a show in the building of the PLA Tibet Military Area the next evening. Rumors arose that the Dalai Lama was to be kidnapped and sent to Beijing as a hostage. More than 2,000 Tibetans gathered at Norbu Lingka, the Lama’s summer palace, to protect the Dalai Lama. The gathering quickly became an anti-Chinese movement calling for expulsion of the Han people and the independence of Tibet. Some pro-Beijing Tibetans were beaten and killed. Weapons were distributed, and defensive posts were set up to resist the PLA troops. On the evening of March 17, the Dalai Lama, along with eighty senior ministers and relatives, secretly left Norbu Lingka and escaped to India under the protection of Tibetan guerrillas. Between March 11 and 16, there were exchanges of mail between the Dalai Lama and the Chinese Political Commissar, Tan Guansan [T’an Kuan-san]. In these letters, the Dalai Lama expressed his deep concern about the current situation and his willingness to meet Tan. Later, these letters were used to prove China’s argument that the Dalai Lama was abducted by the separatists. However, the Dalai Lama himself later claimed that he had made the decision of his own free will.

Not knowing what had happened, protesters continued the confrontation at Lhasa for another two days. On March 20, about 7,000 armed rebels raided the CCP buildings, and 1,000 PLA troops were stationed in Lhasa after being told that the Dalai Lama had left. The PLA fought back, quickly crushing the rebellion. As many as 3,000 Tibetans were killed and 4,000 arrested (Richardson 1984). On March 28, the Chinese government dissolved the local Tibetan government and ordered the PLA to wipe out riots elsewhere in Tibet. Conflicts continued for several years, until the last organized resistance was quelled in March 1962. The Chinese government announced that approximately 3,000 PLA soldiers died during the military actions (Wang and Gyaincain 1997). About 87,000 Tibetans, according to the government-in-exile, were killed in the conflicts (Government of Tibet in Exile 1996).

After putting down the riots, the Chinese government carried out “democratic reforms” in Tibet, entirely destroying the traditional ruling monastic and noble classes. During the reforms, as many as 80,000 Tibetan monks, aristocrats, and serfs fled to neighboring India, Nepal, and Bhutan. In 1965, the Tibet Autonomous Region, headed by the appointed Han officials and Tibetan collaborators (including the tenth Panchen Lama and Nagbo) was established, becoming the fifth minority autonomous region in the PRC. However, despite its name, the actual autonomy left to the Tibetans was quite limited compared to that granted by the Seventeen-Point Agreement.

Sources. Marshall and Jaggers 2002; Heston, Summers, and Aten 2002; Sarkees 2000.
* Because there are no statistics on per capita GDP in both 1946 and 1949, the estimated figures for the years 1933 and 1952 (Perkins 1975) are used instead. However, there are still significant differences between 1933 and 1946 as well as 1952 and 1949. For instance, the total industrial production of 1949 was only 46.7 percent of 1952 (United Nations 1951). The economic situation of 1933 was largely similar to that of 1946. For instance, the national income was 20,387 million Chinese dollars in 1933 and 23,393 in 1946 (United Nations 1950).
War: Nationalist Party (KMT) vs. Communist Party (CCP)
Dates: July 1946-October 1949
Casualties: 6 million (1 million military and 5 million civilian)
Regime type prior to war: -5 (Polity 2 variable in Polity 4 data, ranging from -10 to 10)
Regime type after war: -8 (Polity 2 variable in polity 4 data, ranging from -10 to 10)
GDP/capita year war began: US $62 (1957)*
GDP/capita 5 years after war: US $58 (1957)*
Insurgents: Chinese Communist Party
Issue: Control of the government
Rebel funding: Self-reliance and some Soviet aid
Role of geography: The countryside of Manchuria and north and central China
Role of resources: Agriculture, handicrafts, and rudimentary industry
Immediate outcome: Insurgent victory; establishment of People’s Republic of China on the mainland
Outcome after 5 years: Stable authoritarian regime but with massive political movement
Role of UN: None; no peacekeepers
Role of regional organization: None
Refugees: 2,000,000 (to UK-controlled Hong Kong and KMT- controlled Taiwan)
Prospects for peace: Favorable
Table 1: Civil War in China

The Insurgents

It seemed to Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek that he was never closer to victory in his two-decade struggle with the CCP than in the winter of 1936. His NRA armies had surrounded the remaining 30,000 Communist forces within an isolated region of northwest China. The Communists seemed on the verge of extinction. However, Chiang’s final, fatal strike, the planned sixth annihilation campaign, was abruptly strangled by the Xi’an [Sian] Incident, a clash between Chiang and some KMT generals over resisting the Japanese invasion. Japan had taken over Manchuria in 1931 (the Mukden Incident) and had set up a puppet state headed by the abdicated Manchu emperor. Although Chiang was using his best troops against the Communists in the south, Japan began to invade north China, directly threatening Beijing and Tanjin [Tientsin]. The threat of a full-scale Japanese invasion deeply divided the nationalist government between those whose highest priority was to exterminate Communists and those who favored fortifying against the Japanese first. Frustrated by Chiang’s policy of “maintaining internal order before repelling the foreign invasions,” General Zhang Xueliang [Chang Hsüeh-liang], the former warlord of Manchuria, detained Chiang when the generalissimo flew to Xi’an to press for a harsher assault against the Communists. In the following negotiations between General Zhang, Generalissimo Chiang, and the CCP representative, Chiang was compelled to agree to cease the anticommunist campaigns and turn the guns on the Japanese. The second KMT-CCP United Front was therefore established.

According to the KMT-CCP agreement, the Communist forces were reorganized into the NRA under the direct command of the nationalist government. The Communist authorities also changed its name to “the Special District Government” under the ROC. During the eight-year war with Japan (1937-1945), while the KMT troops fought the Japanese at the front, the CCP troops carried out extensive guerrilla warfare behind the Japanese line. Nevertheless, the actual KMT-CCP cooperation was minimal. While battling the Japanese, both were preparing for an increasingly unavoidable showdown. Skirmishes and conflicts never ceased. As ultimate triumph over the Japanese became less ambiguous, the nationalist government became more preoccupied with containing the Communist expansion and began to deploy its best troops in the Communist-controlled region. At the same time that the war with Japan was being fought, intense conflicts between the CCP and KMT troops were occurring more frequently. The second United Front was eventually brought to an end in 1941 by the New Fourth Army Incident, in which KMT troops ambushed and killed 7,000 Communist soldiers. By 1944, as many as 500,000 NRA troops had been used to blockade the Communists.

The eight-year war with Japan inflicted tremendous losses upon China: 15 to 20 million Chinese died (Eastman 1986); all of Manchuria and most of north and east China (including all the urban centers) were occupied. However, the relative impact of the war on the KMT sharply contrasted with the war’s effect on the CCP, severely altering the relative power of the two organizations. The nationalist government suffered tremendous losses. The total war with the technologically superior Japanese troops had cost the nationalist government more than 3 million troops, including detachments of its best Central Army, trained by German advisors and equipped with German weapons. The Nationalist government had to abandon its traditional base, also the most affluent region of China, and move the capital from Nanjing to Chongqing [Chung-ching], a mountainous hinterland city. As a result, the Nationalist government lost half of the population and more than 90 percent of its industrial capacity. The premodern economy was crumbled by wartime privation. The industrial output of the Nationalist government plummeted to 12 percent of its prewar level, yet prices skyrocketed to 2,500 times their prewar levels in the KMT-controlled region. Even more serious, domestic fractionalization, massive corruption, and shortages of basic supplies deeply demoralized the NRA. In 1944 alone, 500,000 NRA soldiers deserted or defected to the Japanese (Eastman 1986). Actually, the NRA conducted no effective military operations in the last three years of the war. As General Joseph W. Stilwell, commander of the American forces in China, observed in 1944, the Nationalist troops were “generally in desperate condition, underfed, unpaid, untrained, neglected, and rotten with corruption” (Eastman 1986, 578).

In contrast, the second United Front with the KMT and the full-scale war with Japan gave the Communists a priceless moment in which to consolidate their new base and then expand their influence. In the succeeding years, the Communists restored and augmented their power and influence with alarming rapidity. By the time of Japan’s surrender, the number of CCP members had increased twentyfold, from 40,000 to 1,211,000, and the armed forces had grown from 30,000 to 910,000 (Domes 1984). Its controlled territory also extended from the sparse region around Yan’an (the Shan-Gan-Ning Border Region) to a dozen consolidated bases scattered throughout north and central China. More importantly, in sharp contrast to the factious KMT, Mao had successfully consolidated his unchallenged authority in the party and had organized the CCP into a political power with impressive solidity and efficacy. His version of Marxist ideology, the Thought of Mao Zedong, was erected as the guiding doctrine of the Chinese Communist movement. In short, after the Sino-Japanese War, the CCP had grown into a major power in China and had acquired the potential to challenge the dominance of the KMT.

Causes of the War

Long before the Japanese surrender, an important goal of U.S. China policy was to prevent the predicted civil war between the KMT and CCP. As early as 1944, the U.S. government was actively engaged in mediation between the two rivals. In a surprise visit to Yan’an in November, Patrick Hurley, President Roosevelt’s personal envoy, signed a joint proposal with Mao for a postwar coalition government. However, Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek immediately refused this proposal on the grounds that it was impossible to build a coalition government when the Communists had their own armed forces and local authorities.

In the wake of Japan’s surrender, Hurley, now the American ambassador to China, visited Yan’an again and escorted Mao Zedong to Chongqing for peace negotiations. Under Hurley’s mediation, Mao and Chiang arrived at an agreement on a couple of basic principles, later known as the October 10 Agreement. According to the agreement, the KMT would end its one-party rule, establish a coalition government, and guarantee the basic freedom of the people. In return, the Communists pledged to withdraw from some bases and gradually reduce their armed forces. However, no details about implementing these principles were discussed, nor did they touch on the most immediate topic, takeover following the Japanese surrender— which soon vividly exposed the fragility of the agreement.

The sudden Japanese capitulation on August 15, 1945, was followed by a race between the CCP and KMT to take over the Japanese-controlled territories. Under Mao’s command, the Communist forces raided the Japanese-held cities and outposts from their rural bases. Apparently disadvantaged by the remoteness, Chiang ordered the Japanese troops to surrender only to the Nationalist forces and to resist Communist takeover with force if necessary. In the meantime, 400,000 to 500,000 KMT troops were hastily transported (mainly by the United States) to take over the territory surrendered by the Japanese in north and central China. The U.S. government also dispatched 53,000 marines to occupy major cities such as Beijing and Tianjin for the Nationalist government.

The situation in Manchuria, which was seized by the Soviet Red Army after Japan’s capitulation, was a bit more complex. Russia’s role in the long-term CCP-KMT struggle was always unclear. It is therefore inappropriate to exaggerate the Soviet influence in causing the Chinese civil war. Before Chiang’s Nanjing government obtained wide international acknowledgment, the Soviet Union was the only power that recognized and assisted the KMT authority rather than the Beijing warlord government. At the same time, it also directed the CCP to cooperate with the KMT through the Comintern, which resulted in the first United Front. Although KMT-Soviet relations had cooled because of Chiang’s anticommunist position, Russia was still the biggest sponsor of China’s resistance of the Japanese, until the German invasion in 1941. Stalin poured some $250 million in aid into the Nationalist government but gave nothing to his Chinese Communist comrades. Stalin never disguised his disrespect for Mao and his CCP peers, calling them “synthetic communists” (not real Communists, in part because Mao was the only CCP leader of whom Moscow was not a patron). As the ROC ambassador to Russia, Jiang Tingfu [Chiang T’ing-fu] insightfully pointed out, “Moscow was more interested in stirring up opposition to Japan in China than it was in spreading communism” (Eastman 1986, 576). On the day of Japan’s surrender, the Soviet Union and the Nationalist government signed the Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship and Alliance, in which Stalin recognized the Nationalist government as the only legitimate government of China and promised not to intervene in Chinese internal affairs. Not surprisingly, this deeply upset the CCP. Mao even complained that the Soviet Union did not allow Communist revolution in China (Slyke 1986). The case of Manchuria again showed the ambiguity in Stalin’s China policy. At Chiang’s request, the Soviet Red Army twice postponed their evacuation to wait for the arrival of KMT troops. However, on the other hand, Stalin allowed the CCP troops to cross Manchuria and transferred to them the equipment and munitions of the 700,000 Japanese troops.

As a result, the KMT occupied nearly all the urban centers and transportation lines, while the CCP held the countryside and some middle-sized towns in Manchuria and north and central China. The conflicts during the takeover process announced the failure of Hurley’s mediation, which in turn led to his resignation in November 1945. President Truman made another attempt. He appointed General George Marshall as his special representative to mediate the mounting KMT-CCP conflict. General Marshall’s reputation did work: A cease-fire agreement was initiated upon his arrival. Moreover, the Political Consultative Conference (PCC), the preparatory committee for the constitutional government agreed upon in the October 10 Agreement, was also held. However, the General’s personal charisma could not solve the deep-rooted hostility between the two rivals. Neither side took the truce seriously. The rivals were more likely to regard the Marshall mission as a political strategy to buy time and public support than as a sincere effort toward a democratic republic. Violations and violence occurred time and again. In Manchuria, large-scale conflict broke out following the Soviet Red Army’s withdrawal in March 1946 and quickly spread to other regions. At the end of June, all the people, General Marshall included, were convinced that a full-scale civil war was inevitable. The cease-fire agreement expired with neither side proposing extension. In July 1946, when Chiang tore up the October 10 Agreement and launched the general offensive against the CCP-controlled areas, the Chinese civil war began.

It seemed that, at least in 1946, neither the United States nor the Soviet Union wanted to turn China into a new battlefield right after the world war. Instead, both favored a coalition government headed by Chiang’s KMT. Ideologically, common ground existed between Maoism and Sun Yat-sen’s “Three Principles of the People.” For instance, in the October 10 Agreement, Mao agreed to use the three principles as the guiding doctrine of the coalition government. At the seventh congress of the CCP in 1945, Mao even claimed that these principles had been “completely carried into effect in China’s Liberated Areas” (Slyke 1986, 717). In this sense, the cause of the Chinese civil war was more prudential: disagreement over control of the government. On the one hand, as the only ruling party since 1928, the KMT did not want to share power with the insurgent Communists. On the other hand, to Mao, who believed that “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun,” handing over the armed forces without a credible guarantee was no different from political suicide. The memory of the bloody suppression of the past was still strong. Unfortunately, neither the United States nor the Soviet Union could provide the Communists such a guarantee because of their evident favoring of the KMT.


When the war started, the KMT, although severely weakened by the Japanese, still had overwhelming advantages over the CCP in nearly every aspect. The KMT had approximately four times more troops, better equipped and better trained, than the CCP did; it had a rather powerful air force and navy, compared with nearly nothing on the Communist side; the Nationalist government controlled almost all the trade, finance, industry, and transportation centers of the country. Internationally, the Nationalist government was recognized as the sole legal government of China; and the United States, as its firm ally, provided the KMT with military advisory groups and $2 billion in aid, whereas the CCP could not count much on the Russians. It was therefore not surprising to note the popular optimism among the KMT generals at the outset of the civil war. Many of them believed that they could conclude the war within several months.

From the view of the Communist Party, the civil war can be divided into three stages (Chinese Academy of Military Science 1997): the defensive stage (July 1946-March 1947), the stalemate stage (March 1947-August 1948), and the offensive stage (September 1948-October 1949). In the first stage, the KMT army launched full-scale attacks against the CCP-controlled areas. Within half a year, the KMT troops had conquered almost all the Communist-controlled cities and county (xian [hsien]) towns. Chiang’s attacks culminated in the takeover of Yan’an, the CCP’s wartime capital, after Mao had discarded this city. However, Chiang’s military campaigns did not achieve their goals. CCP forces, guided by Mao’s mobile warfare strategy, always initially abandoned the cities while aiming at wiping out the KMT fighting troops. At the end of the first stage, Mao’s “territory-for-manpower” strategy cost Chiang 97 (about 780,000 troops) of his 218 regular brigades, while the CCP suffered a loss of 300,000 men and large amounts of territory (Chinese Academy of Military Science 1997).

Unable to sustain a full-scale offensive, Chiang concentrated military action on the two major regions in Shandong [Shantung] and Shaanxi provinces. The civil war entered the stalemate stage. The Communist forces, now renamed the People’s Liberation Army, not only repulsed the concentrated attacks but also staged a number of counterattacks against the overextended KMT troops. By the end of the summer of 1948, the Nationalist government had lost about one-third of its original troops, and the balance of military power had for the first time shifted toward the PLA, with 2,260,000 troops versus 2,180,000. In terms of equipment, the PLA also owned more heavy weapons than the NRA. Because the KMT troops were badly overextended with the exception of the KMT’s traditional base in the Yangzi [Yangtze] River region, the PLA outnumbered the NRA on all major battlefields. Moreover, when the extensive land reform won the CCP wide support from the peasants, the Nationalist government was plagued by economic collapse, rampant corruption, and a prevailing antiwar movement in its controlled area (Chinese Academy of Military Science 1997).

When the last stage started in September 1948, the situation in north China and Manchuria had been totally reversed: The CCP-controlled regions had merged into a continuous area, and the KMT forces were isolated in several major cities. The last stage of the Chinese civil war consisted of three all-out campaigns in Manchuria, north China, and central China, respectively. The first campaign, the Liaoshen [Liaohsi-Mukden] Campaign, started when some 700,000 PLA troops attacked the 500,000 KMT soldiers stationed in three Manchurian cities, Jinzhou [Chin-chow], Changchun, and Shenyang (Mukden). The battles lasted fifty-two days and ended with the complete victory of the PLA. The CCP controlled all Manchuria, killing and capturing about 470,000 KMT troops at the expense of 69,000 soldiers (Chinese Academy of Military Science 1997).

After seizing Manchuria, about a million PLA troops advanced southward to capture two important cities in North China, Beijing and Tianjin, starting the Beijing-Tianjin Campaign. The campaign ended on January 21, 1949, when the KMT General Fu Zuoyi [Fu Tso-yi] and his 250,000 soldiers surrendered Beijing without a fight. As a result, the CCP completely controlled north China, and the KMT lost another 500,000 soldiers. About 34,000 PLA soldiers were killed (Chinese Academy of Military Science 1997).

Simultaneously with the fighting in Beijing and Tianjin, Chiang made a last-ditch effort and threw all his remaining troops (about 800,000) to battle the 550,000 CCP troops over control of the vast region to the north of the Yangzi River, opening the Huai-hai Campaign. The fifty-five-day campaign turned out to be the fatal strike on the Generalissimo’s already shaken rule: He lost all the armed forces he had; as many as 500,000 fighters were either killed or taken prisoner. With about 134,000 casualties, the PLA took control of central China and cleared the way to the heart of the Nationalist government (Chinese Academy of Military Science 1997).

Chiang was forced to step down, but he still controlled the KMT and the Nationalist government behind the scenes. After an abortive negotiation, the PLA resumed military action in April 1949 and crossed the Yangzi River. Unable to organize an effective resistance, the KMT’s remaining authority in south and west China collapsed like falling dominoes. Nanjing, Shanghai, Wuhan, Guangdong—one city after another easily fell to the Communists. When Mao Zedong proclaimed the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in Beijing on October 1, Chiang and his government were at Chongqing, the wartime capital in World War II and the place in which he had declared victory in the war with Japan. Two months later, Chiang left the last KMT city on the mainland and flew to Taiwan before the advancing PLA took control of the airports. The Generalissimo never returned, although he never abandoned his desire to reclaim the mainland. By the end of the year, the CCP had taken over the entire country with exception of Taiwan and Tibet.


As soon as the PLA took over the mainland, preparations were under way for crossing the Taiwan Straits and exterminating the remnant KMT forces on the island. However, unlike the battle on the mainland, the PLA’s major obstacles were the KMT’s superior navy and air forces, as well as the PLA’s lack of means of transport. On October 24, 1949, an attempt to land on Jinmen (Quemoy), a small offshore island eight miles from the mainland, resulted in the annihilation of all 9,000 soldiers. Although in a later battle the better prepared PLA successfully landed and took over Hainan, China’s second-largest island (fifteen miles from the mainland), the 100-mile-wide Taiwan Straits were still a big challenge to the fledging PLA navy and air forces.

What made the Taiwan Straits an insurmountable obstacle was the changed U.S. policy in this region. Expecting the eventual defeat of the KMT forces, the U.S. government decided to extract itself from the mire of Chinese civil war. On January 1950, President Harry S. Truman declared that “the United States has no plan to follow any course that might involve the United States in the Chinese civil war” (Li 2001, 143), implying that the United States would acquiesce in the PLA’s liberation of Taiwan. However, the Korean War broke out in the midst of the PLA’s preparations for crossing the Taiwan Straits. The invasion of North Korea highlighted the threat of Communist expansion. Taiwan, therefore, obtained its new strategic value as an anti-Communist buffer. On June 27, President Truman announced a policy of neutrality in the Taiwan Straits and dispatched the Seventh Fleet to prevent attacks from both sides. Therefore, the Cold War confrontation permanently crystallized the separation of the KMT’s ROC on Taiwan and the CCP’s PRC on the mainland.

In a strict sense, the Chinese civil war was not over yet. During the Cold War, both the Communist and the Nationalist authorities proclaimed themselves the sole legal government of China, and the Straits became one of the most violent regions in East Asia. The tension between the two camps always found an outlet in the Taiwan Straits. Twice, in what were later called the first and second Taiwan Strait crises, the situation became explosive, even on the edge of nuclear war. In the post-Cold War era, when the Asian Pacific region became the engine of the world economy, the Taiwan Straits were still singled out as one of the few flashpoints that could result in a full-scale war between China, Taiwan, and even the United States. The crisis in 1995-1996, when the PLA mobilized 160,000 soldiers in landing exercises and blockaded the island with mobile, nuclear-capable, short- and intermediate-range missiles, was a vibrant example of how intense a military showdown across the Taiwan Straits could be.

The situations of the other two civil conflicts are a little different. In Taiwan, reference to the February 28 uprising was a political taboo in KMT-ruled Taiwan during the following decades. Officially, the KMT government imputed the uprising to the remaining Japanese collaborators and infiltrated Communists (who actually had played a minor role at most). On the other side of the Taiwan Straits, the Communist government commemorated the February 28 uprising each year, calling it the great revolution of the Taiwanese people against the KMT reactionary rule. To the Taiwan independence organizations, however, the February 28 uprising marked the start of the Taiwan independence movement. In 1995, Lee Teng-hui, then president of the ROC and chairman of the KMT, made a formal apology on behalf of the government and the party. February 28 was also set aside as a national holiday in Taiwan.

Upon his arrival at India, the fourteenth Dalai Lama established a government-in-exile in Dharamsala, India, taking care of more than fifty Tibetan settlements in India, Nepal, Sikkim, and Bhutan. In the following decades, his persistent effort gained him worldwide respect but more as a religious leader of the Tibetan people than as the political head of an exiled government. In 1989, after the Chinese government cracked down on the separatist riots with military forces at Lhasa, the fourteenth Dalai Lama was awarded the Nobel Peace Price not only for his pursuit of Tibet’s liberty and democracy but also because of his firm commitment to the principle of nonviolence. On many occasions, the Dalai Lama had made it clear that he and his exiled government sought not independent statehood for Tibet but a democratic local authority with a high level of political autonomy. This provided ground for a possible compromise between his exiled authority and the Chinese government. In recent years, there have been many reports of secret contact between the Lama and Beijing, but no progress.