The Defeat of Nationalist China

The victory of the Chinese Communist Party in 1949 was not a miraculous event but one that was made all but inevitable by the actions of the Nationalist Government headed by the Kuomintang. Between 1927 and 1937 the KMT was successful in running the country from its capital at Nanjing but with the invasion of the Japanese in 1937 and the constant in-fighting between Chinese of Communist and Nationalist bent, the power of the KMT faltered and this ultimately led to the toppling of the Nationalists and the beginning of Communist rule in China. The weaknesses of the Nationalist Government in civil, economic, and military affairs created an atmosphere in which a Communist victory was made unavoidable.
Much of the credit for the Communist victory goes to the amount of popular support it gathered during the war against Japan and the Nationalists. However, the Nationalists did far more to lose support than the Communists did to gain it. The Nationalists instituted laws which ultimately led to corruption. One such law was the procedure for drafting conscripts. J. A. G. Roberts writes that “the selection of conscripts was often carried out by the baojia, the neighbourhood administrative unit, which ensured that the sons of the local elite avoided conscription, while those of the poor and weak were press-ganged into the army.” This was not a method that would please the peasants of China, far more numerous than the elite who would try to protect their own from military service. After the defeat of the Japanese and their withdrawal from China, the Nationalists did not actively pursue collaborators as determinedly as the recently-liberated Chinese would have hoped. That the Nationalists seemed more interested in pursuing Communists than Chinese traitors did not sit well with citizens that only recently were lifted from the yoke of Japanese occupation. In addition, the Nationalists did not reward the industrialists who relocated from Japanese-occupied territory to free China who were now suffering from bankruptcy with the institution of a peacetime economy. General George Marshall of the United States, witnessing how the military-run government of the Nationalists did not concern itself with civil affairs, said that “I must also deplore the dominating influence of the military. Their dominance accentuates the weakness of civil government in China.” Generals were not particularly suited to run the government, and even less suited to secure a strong economy.
The economic failure of the Nationalist Government during the war was one of the primary reasons for its failure to gain the support of the people and to prosecute the war effectively against both the Japanese and the Communists. As Pei-kai Cheng and Michael Lestz wrote, “civil society, afflicted by runaway inflation and chronic shortages, was clearly beyond [the Nationalists’] control.” Between 1942 and 1945 inflation in Nationalist-controlled territory rose more than 230% annually. From May to August 1948 prices in Shanghai rose by 1000%. In contrast, inflation was not a major problem in Communist-controlled territory. The Nationalist tax policies were no better. They inadvertently created “a man-made famine in which several million people died.” The Communists, on the other hand, made efforts to guard against famine. Their terrible mishandling of the economy, in stark contrast to the Communists, indicated to the Chinese people that the Nationalists were not the right men to lead the country. Support would switch to the Communists, with disastrous military results for the Nationalists.
The Nationalists, with dwindling support and a deteriorating economy, could only hope to defeat the Communists through a decisive military victory. The Japanese military operation “Ichigo” in the last stages of the war was catastrophic for the Nationalists as “the Japanese deliberately targeted the elite units. As a result, Nationalist China was in a weaker military position on the eve of victory than at any previous point during the war.” The Nationalists were losing strength but at the close of the war were facing a Communist force that had grown from 90,000 in 1937 to 910,000 in 1945. Even though the Nationalists still had the upper hand in numbers at the start of the campaign against the CCP, disastrous military strategy caused defeat. The Nationalists marched into Manchuria thus extending their lines of communication, were forced into a defensive strategy ill-suited for victory against the Communists, and lost tremendous amounts of men and materiel. As a clear indicator of their dwindling support, at the defeat at Beiping 200,000 Nationalist soldiers went over to the Communist side. At the battle of Huai-Hai, the popular support was thrown behind the Communists and not the Nationalists and this was decisive in causing the defeat of Chiang Kai-shek’s army and subsequently the war. The military ineptitude of the Nationalists was their final undoing.
The Nationalist Government was doomed to failure because of its disastrous policy choices and military strategy during the wars against the Japanese and the Chinese Communist Party. Their economic failure, civil administrative ignorance, and military ineptitude were the key causes for their loss of support from the people. This popular support would prove to be decisive for the Communist victory. Only a more capable and socially-attentive government could have led to a successful and victorious Nationalist China.


Cheng, Pei-Kai, Michael Lestz, and Jonathan D. Spence. The Search for Modern China: A Documentary Collection. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1999.

Cheng, Pei-Kai, Michael Lestz, and Jonathan D. Spence. “General Marshall: The Mediator’s View, 1947” The Search for Modern China: A Documentary Collection. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1999, p. 338-342.

Roberts, J. A. G. Modern China: An Illustrated History. Frome: Sutton Publishing, 1999.