In this lesson we explore the long struggle between the Kuomintang and the Chinese Communist Party before, during, and after WWII, and the subsequent creation of Taiwan after the communist victory.
Chinese Revolution and Taiwan
When you have a large family, rarely will everyone agree on what to have for dinner. Your sister might want spaghetti, your brother might prefer cheeseburgers, while both of your parents feel like having pizza. The discussion - if there is one - is rarely resolved with everyone being happy, but it's unlikely any member of your family has ever left the house and started a new family because of it!
While this certainly would not happen over dinner, a disagreement and civil war occurred in the 1930s and 1940s regarding the fundamental structures of Chinese politics. It eventually caused China to split, with mainland China becoming the communist People's Republic of China, while the defeated democratic nationalists moved to an island off the coast and reinstituted the Republic of China - what we know today as Taiwan.
In the early 20th century, the once mighty Chinese Empire was a shadow of its former self. Large parts of China, especially important ports of trade and other large cities, were effectively owned by western powers, like Great Britain and France, who had carved 'spheres of influence' out of China. The Qing Dynasty ruled in name only, and most of the countryside was effectively controlled by local warlords. In 1911, Chinese nationalists forced the emperor to abdicate and attempted instituting the Republic of China. The Republic faltered when its president, Yu'an Shikai, attempted to declare himself emperor and local warlords all but ignored the central government.
In the meantime, the western-educated Sun Yat-Sen was slowly building a nationalist, democratic movement in the south. He founded the Chinese Nationalist Party, the Kuomintang, and set up a Chinese nationalist government in 1919. Sun Yat-Sen wanted to unify all of China into a democratic, socialist republic, and made concessions to the Chinese Communist Party (founded in 1921) in order to attempt to include Chinese of all political persuasions in his new nation.
Party Split, Civil War and Japanese Invasion
However, after Sun's death in 1925, party leadership fell to nationalist hardliner and leader of the Kuomintang Army, Chiang Kai-Shek. Chiang quickly consolidated his hold over the Kuomintang government and by 1928 was virtual dictator of the area the Kuomintang controlled. Chiang hated communism, and in 1927 he broke off the tacit cooperation between the Kuomintang and the Chinese Communist Party. What followed was a decade of intermittent civil war, where Chiang alternated between fighting local warlords and rooting out communists.
The communists were led by Mao Zedong, a devoted communist and librarian from Beijing who had begun establishing Soviet-style communist enclaves in the countryside. Mao gathered a small guerrilla army which attacked Kuomintang supply trains, scout forces, and other secondary targets. More importantly, Mao's communists gained adherents throughout the Chinese countryside.
Regardless of their growing movement, Chiang Kai-Shek's Kuomintang Army was still much larger in the early 1930s and Chiang tirelessly pursued the shadowy communist guerrillas. Chiang's constant campaigns toward rooting out Chinese communism forced Mao to lead his followers on the infamous Long March in 1934, when approximately 100,000 communist party members fled some 12,500 kilometers. Though estimates vary, only somewhere between 5-20% of those who left with Mao made it to the final destination in Shaanxi Province.
This struggle between Mao's communists and the Kuomintang was interrupted by Japanese aggression from the east. In 1931, Japan invaded Manchuria and set up a puppet Chinese government under Japanese control. Japanese troops pushed south from Manchuria, taking control of territory along China's coast. In 1937, under considerable pressure from the Chinese public, Chiang Kai-Shek interrupted his campaign against the communists to meet the invading Japanese forces. The nationalists and communists even signed a pact to fight together against the Japanese, but this coalition quickly broke down. Japan continued to gain territory in northern and eastern China, ruthlessly treating the Chinese people they governed. The Rape of Nanking, for example, in December of 1937 saw Japanese troops rape, loot, murder and pillage throughout the Chinese capital of Nanking for several weeks. Historians best rough estimates claim approximately a quarter million Chinese people lost their lives in the incident, though numbers concerning this event in particular are highly contested.
The failures of the nationalist government in defending China against Japanese incursions led to the growth of the Chinese Communist Party, who continued operating in rural China, outside the scope and reach of the Kuomintang. During WWII, party membership rose exponentially, rising to 1.2 million members in 1945.
Communist Victory and Taiwan
The communist party emerged from WWII far stronger and more popular than it had been prior to the Japanese invasion. Throughout the conflict, the communists had not only fought the Japanese, but actively helped rebuild burnt villages and otherwise aided Chinese civilians - actions which garnered the communists many followers.
As the Japanese were pushed further and further out of China, the Kuomintang and Mao's communists began fighting yet again. After Japan's surrender, all out civil war broke out between the factions. Though fighting was fierce, the communists eventually prevailed in 1949, with a major military victory outside the Chinese capital of Nanking. The communists prevailed largely due to their strong support from the Chinese people and their superior military organization - Chiang's Kuomintang Army, in contrast, was rife with corruption. To make matters worse, as the communists scored more and more victories, droves of soldiers from the Kuomintang Army defected to the communist side. On October 1, 1949, Mao Zedong proclaimed the People's Republic of China.
After Mao's proclamation, Chiang Kai-Shek and the Kuomintang Army retreated to the island of Taiwan, taking with it the entire government apparatus of the Republic of China, including a parliament containing delegates for all the provinces now part of the People's Republic of China and all of China's gold reserves. One and a half million Chinese followed the nationalist government there. Once established in Taiwan, Chiang declared martial law, suppressed the culture and language of the native Taiwanese, and made plans to retake mainland China, though these plans never came to fruition.
Chinese history between the fall of the last emperor and the institution of the People's Republic of China is tumultuous, chaotic, and complicated. Quite quickly after the emperor's fall, the country was governed locally by warlords, and at no point during the Republic of China's reign did they ever control the entire country. Chiang Kai-Shek's ruthless pursuit of Mao Zedong's communists hurt the cause of a democratic China more than it helped; through persecuting those who were best helping actual Chinese people, they encouraged the growth of the communist cause. This trend continued during the Japanese invasion and during WWII, when the Chinese Communist Party exploded in popularity. In the ensuing civil war, most of the people were with Mao. That fact, coupled with the communists' superior military organization, led to defeat for Chiang's Republic of China, who were forced to retreat from the mainland and setup a republican government in Taiwan.
After completion of this lesson, you should be able to:
- Describe the differences between the Chinese communist and nationalist parties which led to revolt and eventually civil war before and after WWII
- Identify the significance of Chiang Kai-Shek and Mao Zedong
- Recall what occurred during the Rape of Nanking
- Distinguish between the People's Republic of China and the Republic of China