The Chinese Civil War: the peril of mobilization

The Civil War between China’s Communist and Nationalist parties (1946-49) was one of the most important events of the 20th century. Its legacy in Cross-Strait relations still looms large in the geopolitics of East Asia and beyond. But historical memory and research on the Civil War is at risk of being sidelined, with the focus in recent decades being on Chinese resistance to Japanese invasion during the Second World War (1937-1945). The Nationalist side of the Civil War is particularly neglected, even as it has much to teach us today: in understanding Communist success, later trajectories of the People’s Republic, and how relations can deteriorate between a state and its citizens. 

The Civil War was an extraordinary period in China’s history, a time of rapid social change and surprising political pluralism as well as momentous military events. My recent article in the journal Twentieth-Century China examines how Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist (KMT/GMD) party-state tried to mobilize a local area to resist the Communist advance. I used archives and newspapers from Zhengzhou, which many China Story readers will know as a major city and capital of Henan Province (sadly, readers will also have seen news reports of flooding in and around Zhengzhou in the last month). In the late 1940s, Zhengzhou was a commercial town of around 115,000 inhabitants, and its status as a railway junction made it an important strategic prize.

What was the problem for the Nationalists?

It is tempting to think that the Nationalist party-state was simply incompetent and weak, doomed to defeat against the well-organized Communist Party. But it faced colossal challenges in 1945.

On returning to Zhengzhou after the Japanese surrender of August 15, the Nationalist authorities found that 70 percent of buildings in the city had been destroyed. Shops, homes and the all-important railways were devastated. On top of that, during 1946 and 1947 full-scale fighting with Communist forces across north China brought new problems: hundreds of thousands of refugees fled to Zhengzhou, transport routes were cut off, and the authorities once again had to conscript soldiers and procure food for an all-out war.

What went wrong?

The best-known complaints against the Nationalists during the Chinese Civil War were inflation and corruption. But in Zhengzhou, I found that most grievances related to the effort to militarize the city. Residents had to give tax levies and labour service for the construction of new city defences, while the official Chamber of Commerce pushed businesses to ‘donate’ funds. For example, neighbourhood leader Kong Fanmao complained that 20 percent of homes in his district had been destroyed to build fortifications. By spring 1948, Zhengzhou’s housing shortage was exacerbated by Nationalist soldiers and officials retreating to the city from elsewhere in the region. Despite the risk of incurring official displeasure, the local press was openly critical of how houses and land had been commandeered for military use.

By the long, hot summer of 1948, relations between the city’s authorities and residents were strained, with a flurry of protest against new taxes and labour conscription. The local press reported that some Nationalist troops were simply seizing food and firewood from residents at gunpoint. On top of taxes and labour conscription, there were also mass arrests, with several thousand people detained in September 1948 alone on suspicion of Communist sympathies. Movement in and out of the city became almost impossible.

Yet in the end, the costly defences were never used. With Zhengzhou close to being surrounded, most Nationalist troops pulled out in early October 1948. The city fell without a fight on October 22.

What does this mean for how we understand the Civil War?

The story of Zhengzhou reminds us that the Chinese Civil War was not just a military struggle on the battlefield. It was a political struggle to mobilize the resources of a society already battered by years of conflict. And as sources from Zhengzhou show, it also became a struggle between state and civilians: over their financial resources, homes, labour and lives.

Historians have recently — and rightly — drawn attention to the achievement of the Nationalist state in being able to fight large-scale, industrial war for more than a decade, first against Japan, then against Communist forces. Chiang Kai-shek’s regime can no longer be written off as incompetent.

But the story of Zhengzhou shows that the political and military achievement of that mobilization came at the cost of alienating civilians, even those refugees who had fled from the Communist advance. By 1947-48, the Nationalist authorities had little to offer to Zhengzhou’s residents, and were focused on extracting society’s limited resources for state survival.

Why does this story matter?

A better understanding of the last moments of Nationalist rule helps us get to grips with what happened next. The devastations of the Civil War period helped set the initially cautious urban policy of the Communist Party. I suspect that early Communist legitimacy owed a lot to bringing an end to the pressures of warfare and, in many places, relief at a relatively peaceful takeover. But the Nationalist state had also set an example for the mobilization, even militarization, of Chinese society. The People’s Republic under Mao took this to new heights.

The stories of Civil War Zhengzhou are also fascinating because they give a glimpse of what can go wrong in relations between state and society. Even in times of emergency, a state must be careful in what it asks from its citizens. China’s leaders today should remain wary of the risks for an authoritarian party-state if it looks like it is simply protecting its own institutional interests.