|Analyze the principal causes of the Chinese Civil War.
The Chinese Civil War was the culmination of almost a century of political instability and social tension, such that it hardly seemed distinguishable in 1927 from what had come before. The immediate cause of the war was the political rift between the Nationalist regime (GMD) and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), but the war had much deeper political and ideological causes that this essay will examine.
The fundamental cause of the Chinese Civil War was the political instability and polarization that had been a feature of China for decades prior to the outbreak of war in 1927. The Qing Dynasty had suffered a slow decline exacerbated by rising foreign intervention and exploitation. The Opium Wars, a series of unequal customs agreements, the Boxer Rebellion, and the Russo-Japanese War had all exposed the incompetence and hastened the demine of the dynasty even as they birthed Chinese nationalism. Popular frustration with the dynasty resulted in the Xinhua Revolution of 1911 which produced the Republic of China. Yet, almost immediately, the Republic was beset with opposition to the dictatorial Yuan Shikai and the disintegration of China during the 1910s into a shifting miasma of warlord states vying for regional autonomy and national authority. This chaotic environment was fertile ground for the emergence of a wide range of political parties and groups with conflicting ideological visions and political goals. The Nationalist Party, under Sun Yat-sen, was the most likely claimant and even had a regional power base on the Yangtze River valley. The Party was driven by Sun’s Three Principles of the People: nationalism, democracy, and people’s livelihood. Concurrently, the CCP, which had been founded in Shanghai in 1921, desired a more full scale break with China’s bourgeoisie, Confucian, and imperialized past. A movement of largely urban intellectuals, the CCP aimed to foment a Bolshevik style revolution that would establish a communist regime throughout China. With the encouragement and financial aid of Soviet agents, the GMD and CCP decided in 1923 to unite behind a vaguely socialist banner and form the United Front to oppose warlordism and foreign exploitation. However, this alliance became doomed with the advent of Chiang Kai-shek to the helm of the GMD after the death of Sun. Although Chiang gave lip-service to the Three Principles of the People, he quickly proved to be a military leader, primarily interested in establishing hegemony throughout China, no matter the ideology. In 1926 he launched the Northern Expedition with the GMD army in order to defeat the warlords of northern China and establish Nationalist control throughout the country. Chiang was largely, though not entirely, successful and realized that he was on the verge of establishing the Nationalists as the official government throughout China. In this environment, it became clear to him that the Nationalists no longer needed their junior partner, the CCP. Thus, in April 1927 Chiang ordered the Shanghai Massacre, a rash of killing intended t0 decapitate the leadership of the CCP. In effect, this was a declaration of war against the CCP, and Chiang got what he asked for as the remnants of the CCP fled to Jiangxi where they established a soviet and began to wage guerilla warfare. Thus, it is impossible to explain the outbreak of the Chinese Civil War in 1927 without reference to the long-running political instability of China from which the conflict emerged.
Another major cause of the Chinese Civil War was the ideological divide between the Nationalist Party and the CCP. Both parties bemoaned the poverty, illiteracy, and inequality rampant in Chinese society. Both parties abhorred the repeated humiliations visited upon China by Japan and the Western powers, such as the awarding of Shandong to Japan at the Paris Peace Conference. Both parties offered a vague commitment to the principles of socialism. But there the similarities ended. The differences in method and policy ensured that the parties would never be able to form a genuinely united political movement. First, both the Nationalists and Communist s were committed to the principle of nationalism, but the CCP exposed the reality that many Nationalist leaders were Western educated and had imbibed deeply of Western culture. They criticized the fact that Sun and Chiang saw the adoption of Western ways as the path to a more independent China, just as it had been for Japan. The CCP, by contrast advocated a sharp rejection of Western culture, Western finance, and Western diplomacy. They saw the Soviet Union as a genuinely nationalist and anti-imperialist model to emulate. Second, the Nationalist Party called for the establishment of democracy, but the CCP criticized democracy on the grounds that such a system was simply a front for capitalist and foreign exploitation. They insisted that a proletarian regime, entrusted to the hands of a benevolent dictator, was China’s proper destiny. Third, the Nationalist Party enshrined “the people’s livelihood”, a mild form of socialism, as their guiding economic policy. On its face, this seemed to match the CCP’s commitment to eradicating poverty and class privilege in China. However, it became clear that under Chiang this principle was no longer a priority for the Nationalists. Besides, the CCP insisted upon a strict interpretation of Marx that a violent revolution against the bourgeoisie by the urban proletariat would be followed by the establishment of a strictly egalitarian and collectivist society. The CCP had little patience with the GMD’s watered-down and postponed version of socialism, despite the urgings of the Soviet agents sent from Moscow. In sum, the Nationalists and Communists possessed irreconcilable differences in their approach to nationalism, political power, and socialism. In the absence of more moderate and conciliatory leaders on both sides, compromise and cooperation between the two groups was doomed in the long-run.
This essay has argued that the Chinese Civil War was the result of China’s political instability as well as the ideological gulf between the Nationalists and the Communists. China’s ongoing nightmare of political instability and warlordism produced a situation in which war between two groups competing for nation-wide power was almost inevitable. Additionally, the ideological differences between the GMD and the CCP ensured that any cooperation would be superficial and short-lived. Ultimately, Chiang found continued alliance with the CCP irreconcilable with his quest for political hegemony throughout China. This prompted the Shanghai Massacre of 1927, the opening shot of the Chinese Civil War.