In 1949 the Cold War moved into the Asian hemisphere when China was seized by communist revolutionaries. China – with its sizeable land mass, strategic position and massive population – had long been regarded as the sleeping dragon of the East. Europeans had known of China since the days of Marco Polo, aware of its 5,000-year-old culture and technological prowess (amongst other things, the Chinese had invented paper and gunpowder). The great powers of Europe all coveted a slice of China for their empires. During the 18th and 19th centuries, a number of European nations landed in, infiltrated, influenced and, in time, colonised parts of China. They traded extensively with the Chinese and built up ‘spheres of influence’ – effectively internal colonies – within China. By the beginning of the 20th century, the British, French, Germans, Russians and Japanese had sliced up China like a gigantic pie, a common motif in satirical cartoons.
This foreign imperialism brought benefits for some Chinese – but for the majority it produced nothing but exploitation and misery. In the quest for profit and control, Europeans subverted Chinese rulers and undermined China’s social structures. The British, for example, introduced opium into China, in defiance of a ban by local rulers. Opium production and trade grew in China, filling the pockets of British companies and creating generations of Chinese drug addicts. This exploitation fuelled a new spirit of Chinese nationalism, a belief that China should be liberated from foreign control and governed only by its own people. In 1899 a group calling themselves the Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fists began attacking foreigners and foreign installations in China. The Boxer Rebellion, as it was known in the West, lasted almost two years and was only suppressed by the invasion of an eight-nation coalition. In 1911, a nationalist revolution overthrew China’s royal dynasty. The nation began a hopeful but brief flirtation with republican democracy – but the new government was weak and collapsed within several years. Between 1916 and the late 1920s China dissolved into a patchwork of regions, controlled by powerful warlords who ruled at the point of a gun.
China’s peasant communism
The 1920s saw the emergence of two new political parties: the nationalist Guomindang and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Both demanded a free and independent China, ruled by the Chinese with no foreign political involvement – but the similarities in their aims ended there. The Guomindang was a pro-capitalist party, supported by conservatives, the middle-class, business interests and the West, particularly the United States. The CCP, however, represented China’s industrial working class and peasant farmers, who comprised more than 90 per cent of the population. The CCP was inspired – and to some extent directed by – the Soviet regime in Moscow. In 1927 the Guomindang reined in the nation’s warlords, reunifying China and restoring national government. The Guomindang leader, Chiang Kai-shek, a vehement anti-communist, then turned his attentions on the CCP, initiating a massacre of communists in their urban base in Shanghai. Thousands of communists were forced to take refuge in remote areas, where they regrouped by forming soviets (communist collectives).
Supplied with military aid from both the US and Nazi Germany, Chiang attempted to encircle and destroy the communists. In 1934, thousands of communists fled the largest soviet, Jiangxi, and began a daunting 8,000-mile trek to Shaanxi in northern China. This Long March, as it became known, was a turning point in communist fortunes in China. It allowed the CCP to avoid defeat and annihilation – but it also heralded the arrival of a new leader: Mao Zedong. In 1937, as the CCP was establishing another soviet in Shaanxi, China was invaded by Japan. Hostilities between the Guomindang and CCP eased for a time, as the Chinese struggled against Japanese occupation. But following Japan’s defeat in World War II and its withdrawal from China, the Kuomintang and CCP resumed their civil war. By this time, the nationalists had lost the support of millions of Chinese. Years of corruption, mistreatment and pro-capitalist policies had made Chiang Kai-shek’s government unpopular, particularly with China’s 400 million peasants. Support for the CCP and its policies of land reform and respect for the peasantry had soared. After four more years of civil war, Chiang Kai-shek and his cohort were forced to flee to the safety of Taiwan. In October 1949 thousands rallied in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, where Mao Zedong proclaimed victory and the birth of a new communist state: the People’s Republic of China (PRC).
The Cold War reaches Asia
Alan Lawrance, historian
The rise of communism in China was a concerning development for the US government, which already had its hands full with Soviet expansion in Europe. The Americans had worked with Mao Zedong and his group during the 1930s, when both were at war with the Japanese. But now, they refused to acknowledge Mao Zedong and the CCP as the legitimate government of China. Washington instead continued to deal with Chiang Kai-shek and the Guomindang in Taiwan, considering them the government-in-exile of mainland China. The US began to pay much closer attention to political events in south-east Asia. The communist revolution in China opened up an ‘eastern front’ in the Cold War; communism could now spread south to take root in politically vulnerable states like Korea, Vietnam, Malaya and Indonesia. If these countries fell to communism then important US allies – like the Philippines, post-war Japan and Australia – would be isolated and at risk of communist aggression. Washington believed Chinese communists were largely controlled by Moscow, though in reality Mao Zedong was an independent-minded leader and the Sino-Soviet relationship was far more cautious and complex.
During the early 1950s, communist China embraced policies similar to those employed in Stalinist Russia in the 1930s. All businesses were nationalised, while private ownership of capital was prohibited. Beijing embarked on a land reform program, seizing property from landlords and redistributing it to peasants; the landlords were tried and vilified before village meetings, many of them executed. But the new government’s main economic priority was to haul China out of medievalism through industrialisation and modern technology. Beijing accepted raw materials, machinery and thousands of technical experts from Soviet Russia. In 1953 the CCP government initiated its first Five-Year Plan, an economic program setting ambitious goals for industrial and technological growth in China. In general terms, the first Five-Year Plan was successful, producing dramatic increases in iron and steel production, electrification, coal mining, infrastructure and building projects. China’s military strength increased in line with its industrial capabilities. China’s development was so rapid that by late 1964, it had test-fired its first nuclear weapon, joining the US, USSR, Britain and France as a member of the ‘nuclear club’.
The failed Great Leap Forward
But as in Soviet Russia, China’s rush into modernity came at enormous human cost. The government’s second Five-Year Plan (1958-62) – dubbed the ‘Great Leap Forward’ by Mao Zedong – was disastrous by any measure. Labour and resources were redirected into industrial production, so that China might “catch up to the West” in one fell swoop. The plan set near-impossible production targets and quotas, pressuring managers to provide the state with exaggerated figures. Diverting workers from the agricultural sector caused food production to slump, a problem exacerbated by a number of natural disasters. China’s industrial growth was over-reported, while several parts of the country were struck by severe food shortages. The resulting famine is believed to have caused the deaths of between 10 million and 20 million Chinese. The failure of the Great Leap Forward led to Mao Zedong being displaced from power, though he returned during the Cultural Revolution of 1966.
1. Until the early 1900s, China was a vast but weakly governed empire, dominated and exploited by Western powers.
2. From 1927 China was ruled by the nationalist Guomindang, though there was a burgeoning communist movement.
3. After years of struggle, interrupted by World War II, the communists eventually gained control of China in 1949.
4. This created a radical shift in the Cold War, with China’s Asian neighbours now deemed at risk of falling to communism.
5. Meanwhile, the communist regime in China set about transforming their nation from a backward agricultural economy to an industrial and military power, a process that succeeded but at enormous human cost.
This page was written by Jennifer Llewellyn, Jim Southey and Steve Thompson. To reference this page, use the following citation:
J. Llewellyn et al, “Communist China”, Alpha History, accessed [today’s date], http://alphahistory.com/coldwar/communist-china/.