Chapter 6: Civil War
In 1926, Chiang Kai-shek set off for North China to make revolution. This would become his famous Northern Expedition, and it turned into one hell of a fight. Chiang attacked and defeated warlords, and fought hard and successfully, taking province after province while uniting much of China.
But there was one unexpected result of Chiang’s successes that left the right-wing leaders of his Kuomintang (KMT) feeling unsettled. Peasants were feeling encouraged by Chiang’s victories, and began rising up, attacking and killing wealthy landowners. Senior right-wing members of the KMT didn’t like this because they, too, were wealthy landowners. But left-wing members were quite satisfied and encouraged by this development, as communists don’t care much for landowners. They thought it was just dandy. This led to friction between the left and right wings of the KMT.
In March 1927, while Chiang was still out fighting warlords, left-wingers of the KMT, from Shanghai, tried to strip Chiang of his power and install a left-winger in his place. It seemed Chiang had a new fight on his hands. An internal power struggle against Communists. So in April 1927, he returned from his Northern Expedition and marched on Shanghai. There he viciously turned on the left-wing and arranged for criminal gang members to slaughter 12,000 Communists in what became known as the Shanghai Massacre.
Chiang then began a cruel campaign of purging Communists and Communist sympathizers all over China, in what was called the White Terror. His forces loyal to him were merciless. Over the next year more than 300,000 people were murdered across China, in anti-Communist suppression campaigns. Some historians actually put the number of dead in the millions.
Chiang was quoted to have said that he would rather mistakenly kill 1,000 innocent people, rather than allow one Communist to escape.
Obviously, Joseph Stalin of the Soviet Union, and the leaders of the Communist Party of China (CPC), had greatly misjudged Chiang. They had previously assumed he was sympathetic to communism, and Chiang’s picture had even been hung on walls in public places throughout the Soviet Union. Of course, those pictures came down quickly, and Stalin stopped supporting the KMT.
Chiang Kai-shek was a hard man to read, concerning his political philosophies. Maybe he was a little crazy. He was against big business and capitalism, but he was also against communism. He wasn’t really a fascist, because he never preached the superiority of the Chinese race. But he often behaved like a dictator, even while in theory, trying to establish democracy.
The confusion concerning Chiang’s vision worked against the communists, initially, because it took them by surprise. But it would eventually lead to his downfall and defeat by Mao, and force him to retreat to Taiwan.
The KMT’s murders and massacres during the White Terror had decimated the CPC, reducing its members from 25,000 to 10,000. This marked the split of the left and right within the KMT, and the beginning of a bloody, bitter, and painful civil war in China that would endure for more than 20 years.
The Communists that remained were expelled from the KMT. They were demoralized, and on the ropes. But Mao had an idea. He’d taken notice of the peasant uprisings that followed Chiang’s Northern Expedition, and he realized that peasants had a lot of potential as a fighting force.
Soon the CPC organized an army of peasants, which they called the Red Army, to battle Chiang, and Mao was appointed commander-in-chief. At last an opportunity arrived for Mao to get some blood on his hands.
In August 1927, Mao sent a battalion to attack Nanchang, the capital of Jiangxi Province. They were initially successful, but after about five days, KMT forces drove the Communists out.
Then on September 7, 1927, Mao led four regiments to attack Changsha in his home province of Hunan, where the school he had taught at was located. But one of his regiments deserted to the KMT and attacked his own army. Mao fled in defeat to the Jinggang mountains in Jiangxi Province, taking with him about a thousand survivors.
But he’d tasted his first blood. And it might have been his last, because the CPC didn’t like Mao’s inclination for fighting. They criticized what they called his “military opportunism,” and they expelled him from the Party.
But fighters like Mao can’t be rid of that easily. Rather than pack his bags and go home, Mao simply chose to ignore his Communist comrades.
He moved his troops to Jinggangshan City and set up a base of operations. There he won the support of nearby villages and set up a self-governing state. He garnered the support of peasants and began confiscating land from rich landlords. The landlords were executed, giving Mao more of a taste of blood.
He built his forces to 1,800 strong, and established strict disciplinary rules for his recruits. The CPC saw all this and realized Mao wasn’t going anywhere soon. They grudgingly readmitted him to the Party, and put him to work fighting the KMT.
Come on back in a few days for the next installment, entitled Chapter 7: The Futian Incident.