The Events that Led to the ‘Golden Age’ of Chinese Communism


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

When the war against Japan ended, both Mao Zedong and Chiang Kai-shek were eager to portray themselves as cooperative, peace-loving democrats. However, by the autumn of 1945, Nationalist troops had occupied major cities, and there followed a series of events that ultimately led to the period between 1950 and 1956 known as the ‘golden age’ of Chinese communism.

An image of the national emblem of  People's Republic of China made of flowers.
On October 1, 1949, Mao Zedong announced the formation of the People’s Republic of China. (Image: Serj Malomuzh/Shutterstock)

Loss of Morale among Chiang Kai-shek’s Soldiers

In mid-1947, when the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) went on the offensive, the capital city of Shandong Province, Jinan, was among the first to fall.

Further to the north, Lin Biao’s army launched a siege of the industrial city of Changchun, in Manchuria’s Jilin Province. Cut off from supplies and troop reinforcements, the Guomindang defenders of Changchun ran out of food and ammunition rather quickly; after five months, they defected en masse to the Communists.

Heavily garrisoned Nationalist cities in the northeast began to fall. Altogether, the Nationalists lost 400,000 troops in the battle for Manchuria.

Worse yet for the Generalissimo, whole armies now began to defect to the Communists as the erosion of popular morale and confidence in the Guomindang created a crisis of political will and legitimacy. This further accelerated the Nationalist military deterioration.

Troop morale was lowered still further when Chiang ordered his field commanders to blow up their own arsenals, bridges, railroad depots, and food stores to prevent them from falling into Communist hands.

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

The Huai Hai Battle against the Nationalists

The Battle of Huai Hai commenced in November 1948. There, the Communists surrounded half a million Nationalist troops in the city of Xuzhou. The Battle of Huai Hai was conducted in three distinct phases over a two-month period. 

In the course of the battle, five entire Nationalist army groups were decimated, hundreds of thousands of Guomindang conscripts defected (along with their officers), and vast stores of American-supplied weapons fell into the hands of the Communists.

As the two-month battle ground toward its inevitable conclusion, a PLA advance unit approached the northern bank of the Yangzi River, just across the river from Nanjing. Nanjing had been restored as the Nationalist capital city in 1946, and it was bustling with government activity. 

Communists army near Yangzi River.
Nanjing, the Nationalist capital, fell when the PLA crossed the Yangzi River. (Image: Unknown/Public domain)

Anticipating an imminent PLA attack, hundreds of high-level Nationalist officials and military officers beat a hasty retreat by air, while thousands of others jammed onto so-called dispersal trains heading south. Left without an effective governmental apparatus, Nanjing became chaotic. 

Chiang Kai-shek announced he was stepping down as president in favor of his vice president, Li Zongren. Then he flew to Hangzhou, where he prepared for his eventual retreat to Taiwan.

When Nationalist Cities Began to Fall

Further north, PLA troops entered Tianjin in early January 1949. Its inhabitants surrendered without a fight. Next came Beijing. At the end of January, Nationalist General Fu Zuoyi surrendered the city—but not before negotiating his own exclusion from the Communist list of most-wanted war criminals.

Marching amidst icy weather, a PLA advance guard marched into Beijing, followed by students bearing portraits of top Communist leaders and soldiers riding in abandoned American trucks. 

A large portrait of Chiang Kai-shek, hanging at the entrance to the Imperial Palace, was replaced by an even larger portrait of Mao Zedong. (Today, it still hangs there, guarding the entrance to the Forbidden City.)

Learn more about Chiang’s last stand.

The Nationalists’ Last Stand against Chinese Communism

In spring 1949, with Communists continuing to sweep down from the north, the Nationalists concentrated their forces along the southern bank of the Yangzi River in preparation for a major defensive stand. 

Nationalist generals confidently declared the mile-wide, slow-moving Yangzi to be virtually impassable and predicted the Communists would suffer catastrophic losses if they attempted a crossing.

In late April, however, the PLA surprised their enemies by enlisting the services of thousands of local boat people to ferry them across the river under cover of darkness. When Nationalist troops on the south bank saw the approaching armada of small fishing boats, many of them simply panicked and fled. The last major natural barrier to the Communist conquest of China had now been breached.

Two days later, Communist troops entered Nanjing, taking the city without a fight. As the civilian population looked on, last-ditch Nationalist defenders blew up the railroad station before stripping off their uniforms to blend in with civilians.

When Shanghai Fell into Communist Hands

The liberation of Nanjing was followed swiftly by the capture of Hankow (better known as Wuhan). Meanwhile, two hundred miles downriver, Hangzhou fell, leaving the vital Nationalist stronghold of Shanghai isolated and vulnerable. In Shanghai’s outlying rural suburbs, heavy fighting between Maoist guerrillas and Guomindang regulars broke out, creating a massive flood of refugees.

As the PLA tightened its noose around Shanghai, food supplies grew scarce, a black market flourished, and inflation skyrocketed. Profiteers, thieves, and suspected Communists alike were paraded through the streets in open trucks by Nationalist soldiers before being shot in a public park.

The city fell to the Communists in late May, as PLA forces marched into Shanghai’s Foreign Concession, where they hoisted a giant portrait of Mao outside the iconic Great World Entertainment Center.

Learn more about Korea, Taiwan, and the Cold War, 1950–1954.

The Birth of the People’s Republic of China

A statue of Chiang Kai-Shek in Taiwan.
Chiang Kai-shek retreated to Taiwan after losing the war. (Image: maxhorng/Shutterstock)

As the victorious PLA continued its southward march, the Communists took Changsha in August, Canton, and Xiamen in October, and Chongqing in November. Choosing Beijing as their new capital, on October 1, 1949, Mao Zedong ascended a platform atop the Gate of Heavenly Peace at the southern entrance to the Forbidden City.

Looking down from the same majestic edifice where a succession of Chinese emperors and court officials had displayed the awesome might of the Middle Kingdom, Mao now proudly proclaimed the birth of the People’s Republic of China.

Meanwhile, a defeated and dispirited Chiang Kai-shek quietly left the Chinese Mainland in December of 1949, retreating to the island of Taiwan. The revolution was over. The Mandate of Heaven had changed hands.

Common Questions about the Events that Led to the ‘Golden Age’ of Chinese Communism

Q: How did Nationalists lose their morale?

As Mao occupied the cities of the Nationalists, troops lost their self-confidence and morale.  The morale of the Nationalists was further weakened when Chiang ordered the destruction of their own arsenals, bridges, railroad depots, and food stores.

Q: What happened during the Huai Hai Battle?

During the Huai Hai Battle, a large number of Nationalists were destroyed, and the Communist army was able to advance to the northern bank of the Yangzi River.

Q: What happened to Chiang Kai-shek after losing the war?

After the Chinese Communists prevailed, Chiang Kai-shek retreated to Taiwan in December 1949.

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