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Strategy and the Chinese Civil War

Strategy and the Chinese Civil War Strategy and the Chinese Civil War
To cite this article: Elkus, Adam, “Strategy and the Chinese Civil War”, Infinity Journal, IJ Special Edition, “Strategic Misfortunes”, October 2012, pages 29-32.

The victory of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) over the Guomindang (GMD) in the Chinese Civil War of 1946-49 offers a powerful lesson in strategic misfortune. The GMD’s decay, corruption, and failure to offer a persuasive hope for future prosperity in the aftermath of the horrors of the second Sino-Japanese War were certainly prominent factors in its defeat. But the GMD nonetheless had the military power and will to militarily crush the CCP, as it often did before the onset of sustained Japanese aggression in the late 1930s. Political failure may have weakened the GMD, but strategic failure in managing large land campaigns sealed its fate.

Strategy of Destruction

The Chinese Civil War is a powerful case study in the centrality of battle even in civil war. Ideology, popular mobilization, and governance were all important. But to heavily focus on these factors ignores Mao’s oft quoted maxim that “power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” European counterinsurgency theorists such as David Galula studied Mao, but rarely understood the centrality of battle to early 20th Century China’s strategic history. Guerrilla operations and peasant revolts sat alongside large-scale operations waged by those with European military training and ideas. Mastery of continental land warfare as well as guerrilla operations proved key to victory.

China’s defeat in the first Sino-Japanese War motivated the Qing leaders to create a powerful and bureaucratic military organized around European lines with the aid of German advisors.[i] The 1911 revolution was not won by mass mobilization; Sun Yat-Sen’s GMD was a secret society that focused its efforts on winning over intellectuals, economic elites, and soldiers in Qing military forces.[ii] Yuan Shikai, Marshal of the Qing’s forces, defected with his elite Beiyang Army to Sun’s side and tilted the military balance in favor of the rebels. A lack of political consensus over the structure and distribution of political power helped fragment the military balance and thus create the impetus for China’s infamous ‘warlord period’.[iii]

Both sides in the Chinese Civil War were also thoroughly familiar with European political-military ideas and training. German advisors instilled in warlord armies an appreciation of the importance of large infantry armies, artillery, and the necessity of controlling land forces with telegraphic communication and railroad transport. German influence may have been eventually eclipsed by the Soviets, but German ideas still figured strongly in GMD doctrine and operations.[iv] GMD and CCP political-military commanders both had military training in Europe and received training from Soviet advisors in the Whampoa Military Academy, before the White Terror suppression of CCP forces in Shanghai and beyond by the GMD that ended their putative alliance in the late 1920s. Both the GMD and the CCP adopted political commissar systems and were strongly influenced by the Soviet idea of the party army.[v]

From the beginning, the GMD understood that the CCP posed an existential threat and committed to its destruction. It engaged in encirclement operations to search and destroy CCP forces, the success of which was aided by the CCP’s initial Leninist conception of a strategy of urban revolt. Mao and Zhu De worked in concert to develop an alternative strategy built around concepts of protracted war, guerrilla tactics, and political mobilization of the peasantry. The growth of base areas throughout China provided the impetus for the growth of the party army and the CCP’s distinctive military tactics.[vi]

The GMD moved in the early 1930s to encircle and destroy the base areas, but were initially stymied. CCP forces responded by “luring the enemy into the deep,” tricking the GMD forces into overextending their supply lines and destroying individual enemy units. However, the success of these tactics must be qualified. GMD units often consisted of former warlord troops of uneven quality, and local revolts and Japanese encroachments harmed overall GMD ability to coordinate operations. When the GMD devoted its full attentions and resources to annihilating the CCP, it was remarkably successful.[vii]

GMD forces did not have to compete for the allegiance of the populace to defeat the CCP’s base area strategy. Rather, the GMD starved the CCP base areas of resources and nullified Mao’s famed tactics by refusing to be lured into the deep. Networks of blockhouses linked by communication nodes were constructed to exert GMD control, but this time GMD troops refused to overextend their lines. CCP guerrillas were starved of resources, and any CCP attempts to exert local control resulted in destruction by pinpoint artillery and aircraft bombing. The CCP found itself fighting offensively to survive, but doing so led to crushing military defeat in pitched battle.[viii]

The final encirclement campaign severely reduced the CCP base areas. The GMD’s aggressive pursuit of the Communist remnants during the torturous Long March destroyed nine tenths of CCP military power. Were it not for the onset of Japanese aggression, it is quite likely that the GMD would have completely destroyed the weakened CCP forces.[ix] The Second Sino-Japanese War not only provided breathing room for the CCP, but also allowed the CCP the opportunity to finally compete for political authority on a national scale. CCP forces infiltrated behind Japanese lines to organize the masses against the Japanese and build up a power base.[x]

Strategy of Consolidation

The CCP modified its policies in order to make itself attractive to local economic elites while still seeking to lower the peasant’s burden. This politically adroit compromise enabled the CCP to play to peasant sympathies while also plying local landlords that would have otherwise supported the GMD. The increasing formalization and sophistication of the CCP’s command and control structure increased as it expanded rapidly in its base areas; it reached a peak strength of 1.27 million men under arms and 2.6 million militia members by the fall of 1945.[xi] The CCP, once regarded as yet another group of renegades with a propensity for redistributive violence, now became seen as patriots waging a virtuous struggle against the Japanese invader. The fact that the CCP’s major military efforts were largely failures did not matter, as the Communists rose while the GMD was pushed to the brink of extinction by the pressure of tackling the Japanese head-on.[xii]

The GMD paid a high price for its efforts to maintain the prewar Chinese polity. It lost 2.4 million men, and some of its best officers perished in positional warfare against the Japanese onslaught.[xiii] At war’s end, large pockets of territory remained under the control of Japanese troops, local puppet regimes, and the CCP. Even American aid was not enough to sustain the power of the sinking GMD state. The war destroyed 55 percent of industry and mining, 72 percent of shipping, and 96 percent of railway lines. Inflation in GMD territory rose to an annual average of 230 percent. The war shattered the GMD’s prewar evolution into a Soviet-style hierarchal party and the political necessity of compromising with local elites during the war led to substantial corruption.[xiv]

The GMD’s political failure to consolidate its control is heavily emphasized in the literature of the war, and for good reason. Years of warlordism, civil war, and the depredations of Japanese aggression had disrupted the political, social, and economic fabric of China. The GMD, challenged by the CCP’s competing nationalism, would have to demonstrate its competence in order to regain political control and legitimacy. But the GMD entered the postwar situation with a substantial lack of revenue, and the wartime disruption of China’s heavy industry resulted in substantial price increases. GMD reforms were crippled by a lack of understanding of modern monetary policy, though they were not totally without beneficial effect. Hyperinflation, unemployment, and indirect taxation all presented a dismal picture of government failure.[xv]

The GMD also failed to adapt to social changes, such as the rise of labor activism, autonomous peasant uprisings, revolts from traditionally oppressed groups, and the rise of a heavily nationalist and CCP-linked student movement. The war’s destruction of traditional markers of social cohesion and class status helped create a large group of elites willing to entertain visions of a China ruled by a power other than the GMD.[xvi] The GMD found it initially easy to re-establish control in the countryside and handle peasant revolts with indirect rule through a combination of local elites and coercive law enforcement. But it did not understand the need to respond the deepening social crisis in the countryside.[xvii]

The GMD strategy of attempting to gain control of large urban centers ran into severe difficulty as factional infighting, predatory local officials, and lack of governing capacity hindered efforts to rebuild.[xviii] By 1948, total economic collapse had devastated the middle class, bankrupted businessmen, and severely disrupted the GMD’s elite power base. Once-tight party control eroded, and the circle of elites willing to fight for the GMD narrowed.[xix] The CCP deftly exploited these difficulties by mobilizing the urban middle class, students, and labor to frustrate the GMD’s political control of the cities.[xx]

The CCP, however, could also be quite ruthless and at times equally inept at the task of extending its authority. The CCP’s success at radical land reform among the peasantry can best be described as mixed. Land reform’s quality varied, led to political conflicts, and most peasants simply sought to survive rather than take sides. Some even resisted the CCP’s efforts to violently overturn the prewar political and social order. More important was the CCP’s ability to create local order, manipulate local elites, and militarize its areas of operation. When it succeeded, the CCP did so by adapting to local conditions and promising all things to all men. When it failed, it was because of overzealous ideological mobilization and lack of attention to the needs of the locals. The CCP succeeded not necessarily in generating a giant peasant army, but in gaining a base for supply and support. It gained enough recruits to sustain its losses and wage a civil war on a continental scale.[xxi]

Strategy of Victory

Despite the GMD’s manifold political failures, it held one crucial trump card: the power of battle. As in the encirclement campaigns, the GMD had the raw military power to crush the CCP. Without eliminating the GMD’s forces, including an elite group of American-trained units, the CCP could not win the civil war. Its liberated areas depended on military support to survive. In spite of its losses and economic mismanagement, the GMD’s armed forces had grown larger and the party continued to hold international recognition. Crucially, the GMD military could also count on American and British assistance for air and naval transport. The CCP, in contrast, could count on sporadic support at best, from Moscow.[xxii] In 1945 the GMD, despite its setbacks, controlled three quarters of the country, 300 million people, all large cities, and transportation hubs. Its ranks boasted 4.3 million troops, including 2 million regulars.[xxiii]

The CCP was not prepared for Japan’s sudden collapse in 1945, but the GMD could deftly exploit it. Japan’s strategic defeat, and the subsequent power vacuum it created, complicated the CCP’s slow efforts to create guerrilla bases in south and central China and develop a positional defense of the emerging CCP mini-state in the north. If successful, the plan would force the GMD into engaging in counterinsurgency in the south while contending with mobile warfare in the north. Japan’s sudden collapse caught the CCP in the middle of the process, before either front was ready for battle.[xxiv] The GMD used Allied transport to rapidly move its forces into north China, prompting the CCP to engage in a mad dash to prevent GMD expansion.[xxv]

The strategic decision that helped save the CCP was actually made by Mao’s subordinate, Liu Shaoqi. Abandoning the prewar plan, Liu shifted the CCP’s best troops into the northeast, gaining Manchuria and shortening CCP lines in the south. As one group of forces moved to the northeast in Manchuria, CCP units once tasked to the south would abandon their bases and move north to Shandong, Jiangsu, and Hebei.[xxvi] These maneuvers established Manchuria as a logistical base that could supply the war effort nationally.[xxvii] Nevertheless, the plan also immediately ran into problems. Building a base of support in northeast China had proved more difficult than Liu expected. In addition to political problems with the area’s populace, the GMD dispatched strong units to the area to contest the CCP’s presence.[xxviii]

1946 found the CCP still struggling in Manchuria and thwarted in their quest to establish a safe rear area for the liberated areas in north China, along the Yellow River.[xxix] The GMD unleashed its American-trained elite units and succeeded in severely disrupting CCP military forces in Anhui, Jiangsu, and Shandong and trapping CCP armies in the east.[xxx] Meanwhile, offensives continued in the north and northeast. Yet at this point, the GMD, failing to notice the problems inherent in its failure to destroy Communist armies in the field, assumed that it had secured Shanxi, Suiyan, Chahar, Anhui, Rehe, and the Central Plains as well as the majority of Jiangsu, Hebei, and Manchuria.

Thus, the GMD decided to embark on the Strong Point offensive, an attempt to destroy the CCP’s political apparatus to the west in Yan’an as well as the trapped CCP army in the east.[xxxi] The Strong Point offensive was based on the tenuous assumptions that the GMD had secured its conquered territory and could afford to shift its effort away from the northeast and northern theaters. It failed to finish off the CCP, even though it came close enough that the party headquarters in Yan’an were evacuated.[xxxii] By the end of the Strong Point offensive in 1947, the CCP still had its strategic base in the northeast, and the GMD had failed to fully pacify a single region or completely destroy the Communist mobile armies. The GMD’s strategic reserves were exhausted, and it lacked the resources to properly defend all of its gains. The GMD held the coastline and all of the major cities and railroads from Shaanxi to Shandong, but this counted for little as long as Communist armies remained intact.[xxxiii]

The GMD had failed to consolidate control over northeast and northern areas in Manchuria, Hebei, and Shanxi, while shifting the bulk of GMD forces to Shandong in the east and Shaanxi to the west.[xxxiv] Fatally overextended, the GMD’s strength was primarily concentrated on the flanks and thus was ripe for an offensive in the center.[xxxv] With northeast and northern areas still in play and the bulk of GMD strength concentrated in Shandong and Shaanxi, the CCP successfully disrupted GMD defenses with its Central Plains offensives. The shock of watching a CCP army infiltrate deep behind enemy lines south of the Yellow River forced the GMD to strip Shandong, Manchuria, and north China of their defenses to shore up its center.[xxxvi] Decisive battles in the northeast and Central Plains were now possible for the CCP.[xxxvii]

By 1948, the GMD had failed to gain anything more than a foothold in Manchuria, was tied down in the center and was struggling to combat counteroffensive operations in both Manchuria and the north.[xxxviii] Meanwhile, military reorganization, improvements in weaponry, the mobilization of peasants and conscription of captured GMD soldiers allowed the CCP to transform itself into an organization truly capable of decisive mobile warfare.[xxxix] Collapse would come rapidly in three decisive campaigns in the northeast, north, and the Central Plains.[xl] These three campaigns would destroy GMD military power and allow the CCP to sweep over the rest of continental China. Perhaps the most notable was the Huai-Hai campaign, which stretched over 7,600 square miles and involved a million combatants. The CCP encircled and destroyed the bulk of the GMD forces in a single blow, triggering a political crisis that would mark the beginning of the end for the Republic of China.[xli]

A Strategic Misfortune?

The GMD’s economic mismanagement, corruption, and various failures in the countryside certainly cost it heavily, but the CCP’s social initiatives had mixed effects throughout its base areas and at most allowed it to stay in the game rather than win outright.[xlii] Failure to crush the CCP in the 1930s allowed it to survive and grow, and strategic failures in the mid-1940s squandered the GMD’s superior position. The GMD’s bad policies may have been synergistic with its military failures, but those military failures doomed it to strategic defeat.

The GMD proved incapable of managing a war fought on a truly continental scale, overextending its forces and exhausting its reserve. It could not hold the areas it took and failed to focus on the enemy armies rather than the territories they held. The center of gravity was not people or territory, but the political power that grew out of Mao’s guns. GMD strategic misfortune was the cause, not the consequence, of the birth of the People’s Republic of China.[xliii]


[i] Richard S. Horowitz, “The Transformation of the Chinese Military 1850-1911,” in David Graff and Robin Higham (ed), A Military History of China, Boulder: Westview Press, 2002, 163.
[ii] Xiaobing Li, A History of the Modern Chinese Army, Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2009, 28-29.
[iii] Edward A. McCord, “Warlordism in Early Republican China,” in Graff and Higham, 178-179.
[iv] Li, 36.
[v] Ibid, 38.
[vi] Ibid. 48-50.
[vii] William Wei, “Mao and the Red Army,” in Graff and Higham, 238.
[viii] Ibid, 238-243.
[ix] Ibid.
[x] Ibid, 244-245.
[xi] Li, 70.
[xii] Odd Arne Westad, Decisive Encounters: The Chinese Civil War 1936-1950, 2003, 29-32.
[xiii] Li, 70, and Chang Jui-Te, “The National Army from Whampoa to 1949,” in Graff and Higham, 193-211.
[xiv] Westad, 29.
[xv] Ibid, 86-89.
[xvi] Ibid, 81-103.
[xvii] Ibid, 80-81.
[xviii] Ibid, 69-81.
[xix] Ibid, 181.
[xx] Ibid, 143.
[xxi] Ibid, 107-146.
[xxii] Christopher R. Lew, The Third Chinese Revolutionary Civil War, 1945-49, New York: Routledge, 2009, 2-5.
[xxiii] Li, 71.
[xxiv] Lew. 2-5.
[xxv] Ibid, 135.
[xxvi] Ibid, 20-21.
[xxvii] Ibid.
[xxviii] Ibid, 38-39.
[xxix] Ibid, 39.
[xxx] Ibid, 50-51.
[xxxi] Ibid, 56-57.
[xxxii] Ibid, 50-55, 64-65.
[xxxiii] Ibid, 72-75.
[xxxiv] Ibid, 136-138.
[xxxv] Ibid, 77.
[xxxvi] Ibid, 138.
[xxxvii] Ibid, 138, 100-102.
[xxxviii] Ibid, 96-97.
[xxxix] Li, 74-75.
[xl] Lew, 139.
[xli] Larry Wortzel, “The Beiping-Tianjin Campaign of 1948: The Strategic and Operational Thinking of the People’s Liberation Army,” in Mark A. Ryan, David M. Finkelstein, and Michael A. McDevitt, Chinese Warfighting: The PLA Experience Since 1949, Armonk: NY, 1999.
[xlii] Li, 77.
[xliii] Edward Dreyer, China at War: 1901-1949, Essex: Longman Group Limited, 1995, 7, qtd in Li 77.