What Led to the Victory of Communism in China?

Mao Zedong was a better strategic thinker than Chiang Kai-shek
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The Chinese Civil War -- fought in two phases over between 1927 and 1949 -- changed the fate of the most populous nation on earth. On one side were the Nationalist forces commanded by Chiang Kai-shek. On the other were the revolutionaries led by Communist Mao Zedong. Chief among the reasons why the Communists won out were that they were able to better garner popular support through a political philosophy that seemed more inclusive and that Mao was a more agile military strategist than Chiang.

1 Chiang Seizes Power

In 1911, the corrupt Qing Dynasty was finally toppled by reformer Sun Yat-Sen and China became a republic. Years of civil war followed, as Sun Yat-Sen’s Nationalist Party or Kuomintang (KMT) battled with warlords for control of the country. After Sun Yat-Sen died of cancer in 1925, his young advisor Chiang Kai-Shek ruthlessly assumed leadership of the KMT and attacked the Chinese Communists with whom the KMT had previously been allied. These included a revolutionary named Mao Zedong, whose second wife was murdered by the KMT during a purge in the fall of 1930. Mao barely escaped with his life and fled to the Jianxi Province in southern China to form a guerrilla army.

2 An Arduous March

Soon a narrative emerged that would show why the Communists would eventually win the war. Although Chiang Kai-Shek’s army was larger and better equipped than the Communists, Mao’s forces escaped time and time again because Mao and his lieutenants were tactically more adept than Chiang's Nationlists. They lured KMT into terrain favorable to the Communists, looked for weak spots in enemy troop deployments, and then struck decisively. In 1933, a 700,000-man KMT army, with modern planes and artillery, cornered Mao; he responded breaking through Chiang's encirclement in 1934 and beginning what became known as the Long March, an arduous, year-long trek to a remote base in northern China. Although it cost Mao over 150,000 casualties, his army was saved.

3 A Safe Haven

Another reason why Mao’s forces won the civil war was a concurrent war the Japanese, who had seized Manchuria and marched into China. Mao agreed to a cease-fire with the KMT while they both fought their country’s mutual enemy, but while Chiang’s forces absorbed most of the losses in huge, set-piece battles with the Japanese in the south, Mao’s northern army fought a low-casualty guerrilla war in the north. And, at war’s end, they ended up with a treasure trove of captured Japanese arms. Finally, the Soviet Union’s seizure of Manchuria gave Mao and his Communist forces a safe refuge where the KMT could not follow when the civil war resumed in 1946.

4 Winning Hearts and Minds

Finally, Mao’s forces would win the war because they had spent much of their time using their political philosophy to instill grassroots support among the Chinese populace, helping to institute land reform while Chiang Kai-Shek’s Nationalist army was notably corrupt and he himself was dictatorial. A last miscalculation by Chiang was to agree to a 1945 cease-fire suggested by the United States so that peace talks could be held. This gave Mao and his People’s Liberation Army the breathing space they needed. Regrouping in 1946, they eventually destroyed KMT forces. In October of 1949, Mao Zedong declared the People’s Republic of China and Chiang and what remained of his Nationalist government fled to exile in Taiwan.

Based in New Jersey, Joseph Cummins has been a freelance writer since 2002. He has written 17 books covering history, politics and culture. He has a Master of Fine Arts in writing from Columbia University. His work has been featured in "The New York Times" Freakonomics blog, "Politico," "New York Archives" magazine, "The Carolina Quarterly," "The Michigan Quarterly" and elsewhere.