As with all revolutions, there were several long-term causes of the Chinese revolutions in the 20th Century. And like Russia, the first revolution that overthrew a monarchy, the Nationalist Revolution of 1911, set up a second, communist revolution. Life in China had been bad for most of the population for a long time. Events would increase the tension around the turn of the century, eventually moving the people to revolt.
Like Russia, China was ripe for revolution in the early 1900’s. The country was ruled by the Qing Dynasty, a weak, corrupt government that struggled to actually control the country. Most of China was really controlled by regional warlords. In fact, China had been humiliated by the government allowing foreigners to exploit the country during the Age of Imperialism.
The country’s economy was also behind the times. China’s economic system was still feudal and most of the Chinese were still peasants. There was very little industry. This meant that most of the Chinese had a very low standard of living. While many wanted change, China’s traditional beliefs were at odds with attempts to make change.
The Chinese Nationalist Revolution (1911)
The Qing Dynasty was overthrown 1911 and the Kuomintang—or Nationalist—Party tried to establish a new, republican—or democratic—government. Nationalist Sun Yixian (who used to be called Yet-Sen) became the first president of the Republic of China. Sun wanted to establish a modern government based on the “Three Principles of the People:” 1) nationalism, 2)people’s rights and 3) people’s livelihoods. By nationalism, Sun meant that he and the Kuomintang wanted to end foreign control of China. To do so, they needed to build a modern military to be able to stand up to European and American imperialism.
The second principle, people’s rights, called for the establishment of a modern republic that gave the Chinese people a say in government. As with everywhere else, the establishment of a democratic government should, in theory protect the people’s rights far better than the corrupt monarchies that ruled before. The third principle, people’s livelihood, was aimed at improving the Chinese economy. Livelihood means the ability to make a living. Sun and the Kuomintang sought to do this by modernizing by developing industry and bringing technology to agriculture. This would raise the standard of living across the country.
While he had popular support, Sun and the Kuomintang struggled to gain firm control of the country. They battled for control from warlords and had difficulty getting the Chinese military to support them. As a result, Sun had to take desperate actions to try and unite the country and take power away from the warlords, but these actions later blew up in his face.
One of these decisions was to give the presidency to one of the Chinese generals, hoping that it would help get the military on board. But it didn’t work. The general appointed himself emperor, but died shortly after. When he died, a civil war started as the warlords battled for control.
The second decision would also eventually prove to be disastrous. Western nations (Europe and the United States) didn’t want to help Sun and the Kuomintang. Because of this, he later accepted help from the Soviet Union, who were desperate for an ally. As part of Sun’s acceptance of Soviet support, Vladimir Lenin and the Soviets made him promise to work with the new and small Chinese Communist Party.
As the Kuomintang struggled to unify China, another event caused their government embarrassment. Just like Russia, World War I helped disgrace the Chinese government. In 1917, China had joined the Allied side in World War I. They hoped get some of the spoils of the war, specifically the Chinese territory Germany controlled before the war. But they were upset when the Treaty of Versailles awarded those territories to Japan instead, enflaming the Chinese rage against foreign control of their country.
Within China, this outrage caused the May Fourth Movement. Chinese students gathered in Tiananmen Square—the largest public square in the world, in the city of Beijing—to protest on May 4, 1919. It turned into a national movement. Others joined the students, demanding China rebuild itself into a strong, modern nation, echoing the message of the Sun and the Kuomintang that was never realized. Some believed the Nationalists could still help the country achieve this. But others lost faith in them from their first, failed attempt and turned to other ideas. Some of these people turned to communism.
A Chinese Communist Party formed in 1921. It had a very small following. But Sun’s promise to his Soviet Union made the Kuomintang ally with it. Mao Zedong emerged as the leader of the Chinese Communist Party. He took Lenin’s version of Marxism and adapted it to China, leading the peasants to revolt instead of the workers in the cities. So while the Communists and the Nationalists original were partners in trying and unify China by conquering the warlords, their alliance wouldn’t last.
After Sun Yixian died in 1925, Jiang Jieshi (who used to be called Chiang Kai-shek) took over the Kuomintang. He tried to carry out Sun’s promises, but he was surrounded by corruption and still had to battle the warlords to unify the country. As the Kuomintang/Nationalists lost support from the corrupt and ineffective government, the Chinese Communists began gaining support of the peasants.
As a result, the Kuomintang/Nationalists saw the Communists as a threat. Jiang outlawed the Communist Party and began a brutal campaign against them. In April 1927, in the city of Shanghai, Jiang ordered a purge of Chinese Communists, result in the execution of hundreds. It was clear that Jiang’s goal was to wipe out all of the Communists.
The persecution of the Chinese Communists started a civil war between the Kuomintang/Nationalists and the Chinese Communists. In 1933, the Kuomintang/Nationalist forces chased the Communists across the country for two years, fighting battles along the way. The Communists came to call this event the Long March.
The Communists were survived were actually galvanized by it and were stronger than ever. The event also helped increase peasant support for the Communists, much to Jiang’s dismay. The Communists were chased to the north of China, where they had the most support of the people. The Nationalists controlled the southern part of the country. But they stopped fighting, more or less, in 1935. Because of the impending conflict with the Japanese, who had adopted an aggressive policy of imperialism throughout Asia, the Chinese Civil War was put on hold as they two rival camps had to fight the common enemy.
World War II in China
The Japanese invaded over the traditionally Chinese province of Manchuria—though it had been more recently controlled by Russia—in 1931, which is the beginning of World War II in Asia. It was understood that it was only a matter of time before the Japanese attacked China. With the civil war on hold, the two sides joined together in an uneasy alliance to fight the Japanese when they invaded the northern Chinese city of Nanking in 1937. The Japanese were outrageously cruel during this invasion. They raped and tortured the Chinese civilians.
The Allies—particularly the Americans—sent troops and weapons to help the Chinese fight the Japanese from the southern part of China the Japanese had not yet conquered (knowing that once the Japanese threat was gone the civil war would resume, both sides stockpiled most of the weapons supplied by the U. S. to use against each other).
The Chinese Communist Revolution (1946-1949)
When the Japanese were defeated by the Americans in 1945, the Chinese Civil War resumed in 1946. While the Nationalists seemed to have the advantage, having a larger army and financial support from the United States, they didn’t have support from the Chinese people. The Communists had used the time to strengthen their position with the Chinese people. Mao, like Lenin in the Soviet Union, promised to give the peasants land. Nationalist troops started switching to the Communist army in droves. Using Mao’s guerilla warfare tactics, the Red forces had control of the major Chinese cities by 1949. The Communists had taken over mainland China.
China was then split into two countries. Mao declared his new government on mainland China and renamed the new country the People’s Republic of China. He and the Communist Party set to establish their totalitarian regime and command economy. The Soviet Union gave Mao support.
Jiang and the Kuomintang—called the Nationalists by the West—fled to the island off the coast of China, called Formosa. The Nationalists there called their country the Republic of China—called Taiwan by the West. It is a country with a democratic government and a capitalist economy. It was supported by the United States.
With Jiang and the Nationalists in exile, the Communist began their take-over and reforms. After so many years of political instability, Mao and the Communists—who like the Bolsheviks in Russia were only a small portion of the nation’s population (about 1%)—sought to gain firm control over the country. Mao claimed that the Communists had a new “Mandate of Heaven.” Mao and the Communist Party established a totalitarian dictatorship designed to lead and control the people, just like the Soviets. All other political parties were outlawed and opponents were jailed, forced to flee or executed.
In addition to these political reforms, Mao, like Lenin, sought to transform the Chinese economy into Marxist socialism—also called communism. Mao took land away from the wealthy landowners (10% of the population owned 70% of the farmland). But this was only temporary. The land would later be taken away from individuals by the government and organized into large, government run farms called collective farms called communes. 200-300 families would live and work on these large farms. Businesses and factories were nationalized, which means taken over by the government.
In China’s new command economy, the government would strictly control everything in the hopes of maximizing growth. Unfortunately it didn’t work out as well as they hoped. In 1953, Mao started a five-year plan to increase China’s output of key modern resources, like coal, cement, steel and electricity. The government set production goals and quotas for these industries. They dealt harshly with failures to meet those projections.
Effects of the Chinese Communist Revolution
The Chinese Communist Revolution served as a major event at the beginning of the Cold War—the world-wide competition between the United States and the Soviet Union from the end of World War II until the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990’s. China was only the second communist country in the world, but it was the largest by population, giving the Soviets a key ally that the Americans thought was going to be theirs.
As part of Mao’s plans to modernize the Chinese economy, he instituted another—and infamous—five-year plan ominously called the Great Leap Forward in 1958. The plan was designed to quickly increase industrialization in China. To do so, the Chinese needed to make farming much more productive that it had been before. The Communist Party believed it could do this by making more, large government-run farm called communes. Again, ambitious production quotas were demanded by the workers on these farms, hoping to be able to feed the large Chinese population with less farmers working the land, freeing a chuck of the people up to work in factories. The Communist Party also wanted more industrial output, specifically of steel. People were moved to make-shift steel foundries as the country tried to rapidly industrialize. Some of these were literally in people’s backyards.
While the plan looked impressive on paper, it was a disaster in reality. With the peasants working on communes, food production didn’t increase like the government wanted. It dropped. Without the incentive to work hard, combined with a drought, food became scarce in China, resulting in famine. 20 million Chinese died because of the Great Leap Forward’s failure to produce more food. Industrially, 90% the steel China produced was unusable for industry. It wasn’t made properly and the gamble the government took in running this attempt to industrialize in five years was a complete failure.
In the aftermath, many Chinese began to question Mao and the Communists, who had promised that they would improve things. Not only had things not improved, but they actually were worse as the country struggled with the famine caused by the Great Leap Forward. In embarrassment, Mao stepped into the background as other leaders in the Communist Party relaxed some of the more radical changes made during the Great Leap Forward, including reintroducing some limited capitalism to the economy.
Eventually, Mao struck back. In 1966, he started the Cultural Revolution, a re-commitment to the Communist ideals of an equal society, as well as the reassertion of Mao’s authority. A book often referred to as Mao’s little red book—officially titled Thoughts of Chairman Mao—were issued to school children to be memorized like a religious text. Many young Chinese were recruited to be part of the Red Guard, a militant group that pledged allegiance to Mao and persecuted anyone who opposed him or his teaching. Thousands of Mao’s opponents were arrested or executed as he sought to “purify” the country.
Once the Communist Party was able to tighten its control on the country, it turned on the Red Guards to prevent further chaos. The Communist government was able to withstand the first major challenge to its power after Mao’s disastrous Great Leap Forward, and event that helped make him the world leader responsible for more deaths than any other.