China to 1945

1.2  China up to 1945

By the late 1800s, the Qing Dynasty was under heavy pressure from western powers.  After the First and Second Opium Wars (in the 1840s and 1860s), China had been forced to sign a series of treaties that have become known to history as the unequal treaties.  China had to open many ports, and the customs offices were often staffed by foreigners.  Several cities had western concessions, in which the Chinese had no jurisdiction.

In this ferment, several Chinese intellectuals called for reform to strengthen China.  Some wanted a conservative vision, going back to a more orthodox Confucianism.  Others wanted to liberalize the monarchy, and perhaps even create a constitutional monarchy.  Sun Yat-sen 孫逸仙 was the most radical.  He was one of the first to advocate overthrowing the Qing Dynasty altogether.  SYS established the predecessor of the Kuomintang (國民黨, Nationalist Party, KMT) in 1894, and spent more than a decade fermenting revolution.  Several attempted uprisings were bungled.  The one that finally did succeed took everyone by surprise, including SYS who was in the USA fund-raising at the time.  However, the Qing Dynasty proved to be far weaker than anyone suspected, and once it started losing control in Hubei, it suddenly collapsed nearly everywhere.

The ROC was proclaimed on Jan 1, 1912, and SYS was named the president.  However, he did not hold the office long.  A northern Chinese general, Yuan Shih-kai 袁世凱, outmaneuvered SYS and forced SYS to resign.  Yuan took over as president and quickly began to emasculate any trappings of republicanism in the ROC.  Yuan finally proclaimed himself emperor in 1916, but then he promptly died.  The next decade saw various warlords fighting each other for supremacy.  SYS went back to his home in the south and started building a new power base.  There were two parts to this.  First, SYS rebuilt the KMT along Leninist lines.  He even invited the fledgling communists to join his party, and his organizational restructuring was guided by commintern advisors.  Second, he set up the Whampoa Military Academy to train a modern officer corps.  The academy was led by Chiang Kai-shek 蔣介石.  When SYS died in 1925, CKS took over as leader of the KMT.

CKS was much less sympathetic to socialist ideas and looked for an opportunity to purge the leftists from the party.  This opportunity came in the middle of the Northern Expedition in 1927.  The Northern Expedition formally unified China, as CKS marched troops north from Guangdong to Beijing.  Actually, there was very little fighting.  Most local warlords simply pledged loyalty to CKS, the KMT, and the ROC.  This left their power bases intact, and through the end of WWII CKS was never fully in control of power.  Halfway through the Northern Expedition in Shangai, CKS launched a surprise purge of the leftists in the KMT.  All the communists were driven underground or simply killed outright.  Leftists would have to gain power by defeating the KMT, not by co-opting it.

The Chinese Communist Party was founded in 1921, and for the first decade it was dominated by Soviet doctrines of urban revolution.  Mao Zedong 毛澤東 was something of an odd duck; he went off to rural Hunan, developed a theory of rural revolution, and set up a rural soviet.  After the KMT purge, more and more communist leaders found the cities too hot to survive and were forced to flee to rural areas, such as Mao’s soviet.  After an internal power struggle, Mao emerged as the CCP chairman during the Long March in 1934, a position which was unchallenged for the rest of his life.  However, the KMT waged a series of “extermination campaigns” on the CCP through the mid-1930s.  Mao managed to establish a base at Yan’an in rural northern China, but he was under constant pressure.  It was the Japanese who relieved this pressure.

The Japanese occupied Manchuria in 1931, and in 1937 they invaded China proper.  CKS insisted that he would deal with the communists first, saying that the communists were a disease of the bones, while the Japanese were only a disease of the skin.  However, many nationalists within the KMT did not agree.  In 1937, CKS was kidnapped by one of his own generals and forced to agree to cooperate with the CCP to fight the Japanese.  In ROC historiography, this was a disastrous turning point.  The Japanese invasion marked the end of the ROC’s Golden Decade, and the CCP was allowed breathing space to consolidate its position.  If not for the Japanese invasion, many ROC loyalists believe the ROC would still govern all of China.

From 1937 to 1945, the CCP slowly expanded its power and built its army.  Meanwhile, the KMT, which on paper had an overwhelming military advantage, was rendered impotent by internal divisions and rampant corruption.  After the Japanese surrender, the two sides faced off for a final showdown.  Against most observers expectations, the CCP armies routed the KMT armies in battle after battle.  Between 1946 and 1950, the CCP went from a few small strongholds to total control of China.  The KMT armies beat a retreat, and many of them ended up in Taiwan, where they believed they would make their final stand.  However, in 1950 Kim Il-sung invaded South Korea, Truman pronounced a new doctrine based on containing communism, and the USA put a fleet in the Taiwan Strait, eliminating the possibility of a PRC invasion.

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