In 1928, Chiang Kai-shek’s forces took the former imperial capital of Beijing. His military commanders—standing next to the grave of Sun Yat-sen—declared that the Northern Expedition had culminated in victory. And, that October, on the anniversary of the 1911 revolution, a new nationalist government was announced. Chiang Kai-shek deemed the nationalist revolution complete. But, how did things go from there for him?
The New Nationalist Government
Having fled to the mountainous southeast border area, the communists hadn’t abandoned their hopes to bring a social revolution to China. They just had to bide their time.
Over the next few years, the new nationalist government would have to contend not only with a communist threat but also with the lingering power of warlords and Japanese aggression and occupation. In the interim, Chiang Kai-shek’s government made few efforts to improve the lives of the Chinese people. Chinese peasants remained impoverished and mired in debt. And so, while the international community recognized the new government, it was hardly in control.
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The Long March
After Japan invaded Manchuria in 1931, and attacked Shanghai in 1932, Chiang Kai-shek negotiated with Japan so that he could focus his military attention on his communist rivals. The Chinese Communist Party, in contrast, symbolically declared war on Japan from its new base of operations in an area constituted as the Soviet Republic of Jiangxi.
Led by Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai, and Zhu De, the communists now prepared for a third revolution. From 1930 until 1934, Mao concentrated on advancing through a combination of military force and popular political support. And to counter the numerical advantage of nationalist military units, he trained his forces in guerilla techniques.
In 1934, nationalists rooted the communists out of their stronghold in Jiangxi. In a harrowing retreat that became known as the Long March, Mao’s Red Army wound its way along a perilous journey of 10,000 kilometers, over a period of 12 months. By the time they reached the city of Yan’an in Shaanxi province, in the north-central part of the country, the communists had lost 90% of their men. Later, tales of Red Army hardship, courage, death and resilience would become a fundamental aspect of the Chinese communist narrative.
In Yan’an, Mao convinced his communist peer, Zhou Enlai to recognize him, Mao, as the uncontested leader of the party. Over the next several years, Mao built up his base of influence. He called upon “several hundred million peasants [to] rise like a mighty storm, like a hurricane, a force so swift and violent that no power, however great, will be able to hold it back”. Mao also developed guerilla bases throughout the countryside and unleashed an effective system of propaganda that promised to redistribute land to peasants.
Meanwhile, Japanese aggression enhanced Mao’s message, and his reputation. Ever since occupying Manchuria in 1931, Japan had used Manchuria as a base from which to make further incursions in China. And, in 1937, after a skirmish between Japanese and Chinese forces in what became known as the Marco Polo Bridge Incident, Japan launched an all-out invasion. At this point, Chiang Kai-shek (calling himself generalissimo) agreed to form an alliance with Mao against Japan. Both sides agreed to come together to fight the greater foe. Or at least, that’s how it appeared. However, old habits are hard to break.
Communists: The True Patriots
The generalissimo continued to view the Chinese communists as an existential threat. So he avoided fighting the Japanese whenever possible, in order to preserve his forces for a later confrontation with his ideological foes. When the Japanese advanced, Chiang Kai-shek ordered his men to retreat.
Mao, by comparison, harassed the Japanese and organized peasant resistance. In this way, the communists emerged as the true patriots in the eyes of the peasantry. By the time Japan surrendered to the United States and its allies in the broader war of the Pacific in 1945, Mao had the political support of some 100 million Chinese countrymen in territory formerly under Japanese control. And while the United States directed Japanese troops in China to surrender to the forces of Chiang Kai-shek, the communists rushed into the power vacuum.
Liberation from Foreign Influence and Capitalist Corruption
By 1946, the Guomindang and Mao’s Red Army—renamed the People’s Liberation Army—were again in direct conflict, in a national civil war. And despite American support for the nationalists, Mao could count on some 900,000 soldiers and a party membership of 1.2 million followers. The advantage proved insurmountable.
By the end of 1948, nationalist forces were disintegrating. And in January 1949, Mao’s People’s Liberation Army took Beijing. Shanghai, Canton, and Nanjing followed by the end of the year. Chiang Kai-shek and his nationalist forces fled the mainland to present-day Taiwan.
On October 1, 1949, Mao proclaimed the People’s Republic of China from his new capital of Beijing. After more than two decades of trying to unify the country, years fighting off Japanese occupation, and a civil war, Mao Zedong finally proclaimed the victory of the revolution.
However, while liberation from foreign influence and capitalist corruption was realized, the struggle to build socialism had only just begun.
Common Questions about Proclamation of the People’s Republic of China
In 1934, nationalists rooted the communists out of their stronghold in Jiangxi. In a harrowing retreat that became known as the Long March, Mao’s Red Army wound its way along a perilous journey of 10,000 kilometers, over a period of 12 months. By the time they reached the city of Yan’an in Shaanxi province, the communists had lost 90% of their men.
In 1937, there was a skirmish between Japanese and Chinese forces which became known as the Marco Polo Bridge Incident. After this incident, Japan launched an all-out invasion into Japan.
In January 1949, Mao’s People’s Liberation Army took Beijing, and Shanghai, Canton, and Nanjing followed by the end of the year. On October 1, 1949, Mao proclaimed the People’s Republic of China from his new capital of Beijing.