Reversal of Fortune: The Rise of the Chinese Communists


By Richard Baum, Ph.D., University of California, Los Angeles

Without the Japanese invasion, the Chinese Communist Revolution would have had quite a different outcome. It single-handedly reversed the Communist Party’s fortunes, which went from the edge of annihilation in 1936, to the brink of victory a decade later. The Sino-Japanese conflict and its attending economic problems clearly became a stepping stone, strengthening the communist roots in China.

A few Chinese soldiers with machine guns in t heir hands and their heads peaking out of a hole.
China’s Guomindang forcibly conscripted millions of young men for the war effort. (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

A Near Miss

By the time the Chinese communists completed the Long March early in 1936, their ranks had been decimated by the pursuing nationalist armies and by the rigors of their 6,000 mile trek. They were exhausted, and vulnerable.

It was against this backdrop that in December 1936, the Young Marshal, Zhang Xueliang, was ordered by the nationalist leader, Chiang K’ai-shek, to attack the communist stronghold in Yan’an. Had he obeyed, there is little doubt that the Chinese Communist Party would have been wiped out in short order.

But Zhang Xueliang rebelled, and the communists were spared a final, fatal Nationalist assault. In the negotiated truce that followed, the communists were able to revive themselves,  regroup,  and  gradually  regain  their  lost momentum.

This is a transcript from the video series The Fall and Rise of China. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

The Nationalists Face Japanese Onslaught

When war with Japan broke out six months later, the massive Japanese assault that followed proved disastrous for the nationalists. It was directed largely at their strongholds. Most of the fatalities occurred during the nationalists’ unsuccessful defence of Shanghai, which fell to the invading Japanese in the autumn of 1937.

After occupying Shanghai and several key cities on the North China Plain, the Japanese next trained their sights on the nationalists’ capital of Nanjing. Though the Japanese assault began as a conventional military operation, it, however, quickly degenerated into uncontrolled havoc. By the end of January 1938, widespread looting, robbery, and arson had left much of the Guomindang capital in ruins.

After Nanjing, the Japanese army conducted an all-out offensive throughout the urban centers of the Yangzi River delta. By October 1938, the nationalists were forced to retreat into the deep rural interior of Sichuan Province. They made their headquarters in the commercial hub city of Chongqing. Nonetheless, Guomindang’s  military supply routes continued to came under heavy Japanese aerial bombardment.

The Beleaguered Nationalists

The communists were able to avoid the brunt of Japanese attacks, which were directed mainly against Nationalist-held cities, rail lines, and commercial centers in east and northeast

With war material, consumer goods, and foodstuffs all in extremely short supply in Chongqing, inflationary pressures began to mount on the nationalists. These pressures were compounded by ill-advised government policies that responded to growing commodity shortages by increasing the supply of money, thereby fueling an inflationary spiral.

To compound to the problem the Guomindang forcibly conscripted millions of young men for the war effort. With their meagre pay, they were unable to support themselves and their families. They, thus, not only deserted but preyed on civilians in the countryside, stealing from those more helpless and vulnerable than themselves.

As corruption rose to dangerous levels, the Nationalists image suffered and popular morale steadily eroded.

Communists Strengthen their Cadres

a scenic route with a river flowing cutting across two mountains. There are a few houses and  with cultivated fields along the river bank.
A section of the Chinese communists Long March route. (Image: rheins/CC BY SA/3.0/Public domain)

To mobilize peasant support, the Red Army, (now named the People’s Liberation Army or PLA), paid great attention to the political indoctrination of its recruits, so that they would not exploit local farmers. In this respect, their wartime behavior compared quite favorably with that of their increasingly predatory nationalist counterparts.

In addition, Yan’an served as a magnet for patriotic Chinese from all parts of the country. Between 1937 and 1942, tens of thousands of people made their way to the communist base area to join the anti-Japanese resistance.

In the effort to counteract growing communist influence in the villages of north China, Japanese commanders pursued a scorched-earth policy of ‘kill all, burn all, destroy all’. Entire villages, suspected of harboring Communist agents, were burned to the ground, their inhabitants slaughtered. As a result, a deep and abiding rage against Japan took root among the peasants of north China. This rage ironically further propelled the Chinese communists in the rural psyche.

Learn more about the birth of Chinese communism.

New Fourth Army Incident

Never trusting each other, Mao Zedong and Chiang K’ai-shek each sought to take advantage of the other’s vulnerabilities and weaknesses. The tensions between them reached the boiling point in July of 1941, when 9,000 communist troops from the PLA’s New Fourth Army were ambushed by 80,000 nationalist soldiers in the mountains of south-central China. More than 3,000 Communists were killed, while additional thousands were sent to Guomindang prison camps.

Although from a purely military viewpoint the massacre was an unmitigated disaster for the communists, they were able to turn it to their advantage. By focusing their propaganda on Chiang K’ai-shek’s cold-blooded perfidy and his lack of sincerity in resisting Japan, they were able to generate considerable political capital and sympathy from the New Fourth Army Incident.

Learn more about the socialist transformation of 1953-1957.

The Nationalists Versus the Communists

When the US ended its neutral stand in the Sino-Japanese war, it got an opportunity to observe both the nationalists as well as the Communist Party.

General Stilwell observed that Chiang K’ai-shek was far more interested in preserving his forces for the final showdown with communism than he was in engaging Japanese troops on the battlefield. The Dixie Mission on the other hand, too, felt the leadership of the Guomindang was corrupt, inept, ineffectual, and alarmingly isolated from the common people. By contrast, they found the communists to be well-led, highly disciplined, and uncorrupt.

The Communist Party Emerges Strong

In one rather prescient memo, a State Department observer named John Stewart Service predicted quite accurately that if present trends continued, with the Guomindang becoming increasingly undemocratic, unpopular, and economically irresponsible, the future of China would belong not to the nationalists but to the communists.

This glaring difference in the very moral fiber of the two parties would never have become obvious if not for the Sino-Japanese conflict. With the stunning reversal of its fortune, the Communist Party successfully used it as a stepping stone to emerge strong, unified and as the leaders of China.

Common Questions about the Rise of the Chinese Communists

Q: What did Chiang K’ai-shek ask Zhang Xueliang to do?

Chiang K’ai-shek asked Zhang Xueliang to attack the communist stronghold in Yan’an. He rebelled and refused to follow the orders.

Q: What did the PLA do to mobilize peasant support?

The PLA paid great attention to the political indoctrination of its recruits, so that they would not exploit local farmers.

Q: What did the John Stewart Service predict about future leadership in China?

He predicted that with the Guomindang becoming increasingly undemocratic, the future of China would belong to the communists.

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