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Analyses of the factors that led to the rise of the communist party in China

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In the beginning of the 20th century, the Qing dynasty, which had ruled China for 2000 years, was in decline. The period following the end of the empire in 1911 was a turbulent one, with various groups fighting for power in China. This civil war ended only in 1949, with the Chinese Communist Party establishing control over the country. There are quite a few factors that led to this rise of communism in China. The decline of the empire, foreign interference and imperial advances, and the warlord era are some factors, and these in turn contributed to the discontent of the peasants, another major factor. The actions of the rival political party, the Kuomintang, also aided the growth of communism. Another point to consider is the Japanese invasion. All these points, coupled with the way the CCP took advantage of the actions of the KMT, gained popularity among the peasants, and the overall suitability of communism for China at the time are the causes for the rise of the communist party. This essay will elaborate these factors, and analyse the relevance of each.

The Manchu dynasty began losing power toward the end of the 19th century. There were many imperial advances in China by Europeans. The British were a prominent threat. Britain fought two Opium Wars with China, one in 1839 and one in 1960, the second one in alliance with France. The British took control of Hong Kong, and set up many ‘treaty ports’ where they were allowed to trade. The Europeans began to dig their heels in many parts of China. The people hated them. The Manchu dynasty was blamed, and it was apparent that the Manchus were beginning to grow weak. In 1950, the Taiping Rebellion against the Manchus broke out. There was horrible bloodshed for 14 years. The Manchus took European help to suppress the rebellion, which angered the people further. This event marked the beginning of discontent and rebellion against the empire.

China was also defeated by the Japanese in 1894, who took control of Chinese territory. This too caused disillusionment with the Manchus.

In 1989 the Emperor Guangxu tried to change the way China was run, during a period called the hundred days of reform. He introduced new educational systems and tried to make financial reforms. However, the Empress Dowager Tzu-hsi took the throne for herself. In any case, by now it was too late. Opposition to the empire was rampant in China by this time. In 1900 a Chinese rebellion broke out, known as the Boxer rebellion, as the members of the movement practiced martial arts. Their discontent with the empire reached breaking point when failed harvest and floods caused famine. Tzu-hsi managed to gain their support by encouraging them to attack foreigners. This shows how anti-foreign the Chinese were. The rebellion was suppressed by international armies, and the Empress Dowager had to pay indemnities for the damage of foreign property in China. The armies even looted Beijing. The harsh suppression of the rebellion increased hatred for Europeans. Once again, the weakness of the Manchus was apparent.

The empire fell in 1911. There was a rebellion by the soldiers in Wuchang, and after that many provinces declared themselves independent. To squash the rebellions, the Manchus appealed to a retired general; Yuan Shih-Kai. However, he did a deal with the revolutionaries, where if he got the child emperor Pu Yi to abdicate, he would become the first president of a republican China.

Foreign interference and Chinese unrest were the main reasons for the decline of the Manchu empire. If the empire hadn’t ended, there would be no need for a new form of government. Therefore all the above points can be considered as factors, even though they did not lead directly to communism.

Yuan Shi-Kai was supposed to govern China along with a parliament. The Kuomintang won the majority of seats; however Yuan wanted to rule as a dictator. In 1915 he declared himself emperor. In addition, he gave into the ‘Twenty-One Demands of the Japanese government, to avoid war with them. This outraged the proud Chinese people. After his declaration, his own soldiers revolted, and he died of a stroke in 1916, which plunged a somewhat united China into terrible civil war.

Military generals known as warlords now fought for control of China. Broken up portions of the country were now governed by these warlords and their armies. They governed the people with great cruelty. There was heavy taxation. During this period, the Chinese peasants suffered greatly. They must have wanted a government that would ease these hardships. A government that would so this, and also keep them safe from the foreigners they hated so much, would have been welcomed.

The Kuomintang, initially at least, seemed poised to do this. Sun Yat-sen, a doctor trained abroad, had formed the Kuomintang. The ‘Three Principles’ on which he said the Kuomintang was based were nationalism, democracy and land reform. This appealed to the people of China. However, he needed help to achieve his aims, and Britain did not offer aid. Thus he turned to the USSR. He wasn’t a communist, but with Russian help he organised the party along communist lines. However, communism was already present in China. Mao Zedong had helped set up a ‘Society for the Study of Marxism’. The members of this society set up the Chinese Communist Party in 1921.

In 1925, Sun Yat-sen passed away, and his nephew Chiang Kaishek became commander in chief of the new Kuomintang army. In alliance with the CCP, the armies embarked on a ‘March to the North’, to gain the support of the people, and destroy the warlords. Many Chinese people supported them readily, as they were attracted by the promise of land. Communist propaganda spread in China during this March to the North. If the warlord situation hadn’t been prevalent, perhaps communist ideas would not have spread across China at this time.

In 1927 Chiang decided that the communists were growing too powerful. He had conquered all of south China, and had extended influence in the north. He no longer needed them. The KMT turned on the communists, deciding to stamp them out. Thousands of communists and peasant leaders were killed.

Chiang launched five extermination campaigns on the communists between 1930 and 1934. They took refuge in the mountains near Hunan, in the south. In 1934, the KMT surrounded Mao’s base, and it looked as though Chinese communism was on the verge of destruction. Mao decided that breaking through the KMT and establishing a base somewhere was the best chance of survival. So, in October 1934, 100,000 communists broke through KMT lines and set out on the historical ‘Long March’. They covered remarkable ground in China, and set up a new base in Yenan in the Shensi province, in the north. Communism spread throughout this time, and there was continued propaganda. People would have been impressed by the heroism of the Red Army. The Kuomintang wanted to exterminate the communists, however under Mao’s leadership they Red Army managed to gain more popularity during this time. If the Long March hadn’t occurred, communism might have died out. However, even though many died, the KMT attempts to wipe out communism actually accelerated it.

Another very important factor is the invasion of China by the Japanese. They had occupied Manchuria by 1931, and were showing intent to take control of the nearby provinces as well. Instead of focusing on the Japanese, he wanted to exterminate the communists. The communists however wanted to focus on the problem of Japan. This also endeared the communists to the people, with their strong nationalist ideals. In 1936, he wanted to attack Mao at Shenshi. At this point, he was taken prisoner by his own soldiers, many of whom were Manchurian. He still resisted fighting the Japanese, and only changed his mind when Zhou Enlai, a key figure in the CCP, visited him. Upon Zhou’s persuasion, he agreed to reform the alliance with the CCP to put on a united front against the Japanese. With this alliance, the Red Army was more secure.

When full-fledged war broke out in 1937, the KMT forces were defeated and the Japanese occupied a lot of eastern China. The communists, still secure in their base in Shensi, launched a guerrilla campaign against the Japanese in the North. They were now regarded as national heroes. In 1941 Japan launched their ‘Three All Campaign”- kill all, burn all, destroy all. They slaughtered peasants in areas that supported communism, to try and turn them against the communists. Their plan backfired. People were now more willing to help the communists. They were preferred to the KMT, who were being defeated. The Japanese invasion did much to strengthen communism. If the Japanese hadn’t invaded, there would not have been a united front which helped the communists rejuvenate. The invasion also immensely increased public support for them.

Aside from the Long March and his attitude towards the Japanese invasion, Chiang Kai-shek and the Kuomintang also contributed to communism with their own actions. Chiang was more right-wing than Sun Yat-sen, and moved away from communism in the very beginning. He kept the nationalism part of the KMT’s program; however he was more centred on the rich landowners and industrialism. He didn’t work towards the other two ideas, of democracy and land reform. He did not gain the mass support of the peasants. The KMT was corrupt, with the officials keeping most of the aid it received from America. Their policies also caused economic hardships. The armies were permitted to loot the countryside. Even the warlords who were allied with him never fully recognized his authority. His position during the Japanese invasion certainly did nothing to increase his popularity, and added to the popularity of the communists.

The communists took advantage of all this. Their actions during the Long March and the Japan War caused them to be regarded as national heroes. Their propaganda also made people believe that it was much better to support them than the KMT. The communists were a lot more peasant-centred than the KMT, and in a country like China, with the huge number of peasants, this made a big difference. Mao was the one behind the party’s policy of trying to win the mass support of the peasants. The land policy of the communists was a lot more appealing than in the areas controlled by the KMT. Every peasant got his share of land. The Red Army had strict rules about how to treat the peasants, to gain their support. The KMT made an error in not attempting to win over the peasants. Communism seemed a lot better for the peasants of China. The party also included the old Chinese principals of obedience in their regime. Thus, at the time, communism seemed better suited for China than the government offered by the KMT.

The fall of the Manchu dynasty, the civil unrest and the warlord era all set China up for a change in government. The new form of government could have either been the KMT or the CCP. The KMT did quite a bit to aid the growth of communism. The extermination campaigns leading to the Long March spread communist ideas. The fallbacks in their own government showed the CCP in a more favourable light. Chiang Kai-shek’s attitude towards the Japanese invasion also increased favour for the CCP. In addition, the Japanese invasion allowed for a united front, during which the communists could recuperate. This is also important. However, it was mainly the way in which the communist leaders reacted to these situations, the way fought, and used propaganda, making use of the national pride of the Chinese people that lead to the CCP establishing power instead of the KMT. It was Mao who formulated a lot of the policies, and he was the one who ordered the Long March, that gained them so much support. If not for his orders at this time, the KMT might have succeeded in ‘exterminating’ the communists. Mao’s leadership was instrumental in the establishment of the control of the CCP.

The actions of the KMT undoubtedly ultimately helped the CCP. However, if the KMT hadn’t existed, and the Long March hadn’t occurred, communism would probably have spread in China anyway. Mao was a very determined leader, and showed signs early on of wanting to be a dictator. Communist policies enabled him to do so. He would probably have succeeded in establishing communism anyway. The KMT also defeated the warlords, but the communists had a lot of supporters, and could have had more without the KMT around, and probably would have managed. They could have even combated the Japanese, as they would not have been attacked.

Without the Japanese invasion perhaps the KMT extermination campaigns would have succeeded, and the CCP would not have been secure in their Shensi base. However, we cannot say this with certainty. The Japanese invasion was advantageous to the CCP. However, even without the invasion there were other factors contributing to the popularity of the CCP.

Mao played a huge role in the establishment of communism in China. I wonder how different these events would be if he had never been born. He was instrumental during the Long March, and made many important policies. However, communism was already a known doctrine in China. Sun Yat-sen had had communist help to set up the KMT. There were also other dedicated leaders like Zhou Enlai. Communism might just have survived without Mao.

However, this is all speculation. The civil unrest set up the country for a change of government. These factors do not lead directly to communism, but without them, neither the KMT nor the CCP could have established authority. The communists were victorious over the KMT due to the shortcomings of the KMT mentioned above, and the way the communists took advantage of them, and tried to gain peasant support. The main reason for the communist victory is thus the clever leadership of the party. The factors leading to the rise of the communist party in China are, therefore, the fall of the Manchu dynasty, peasant discontent and the way the communists alleviated that discontent, the erroneous actions of the KMT, the Japanese invasion and the way the communist leaders made sure that all this proved to be advantageous to their party. All these factors are interwoven, and lie in a delicate balance.


China 1900-1949 (Photocopies) Brooman, Josh. “China Since 1900”. New York: Longman Inc., 2005.

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