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Very Good Overview
on December 23, 2009
This is a clear, well organized, and concise overview of the Chinese Civil War. This is not a detailed narrative or military history. Readers looking for that type of book can consult the excellent bibliography of this book. Westad's aims are to cover the basic narrative and provide analysis of the major features of the Civil War. Westad does this very well.
Westad presents China emerging from WWII and the prolonged struggle against the Japanese as a profoundly damaged society. This was particularly true in those parts of Northern China that were the main battlegrounds in the fight against Japan. In this context, whoever could establish even moderately effective government would be able to dominate China. The Nationalist party (Guomindang - GMD)led by Jiang Jieshi (Chiang Kai-shek)had become the most powerful force in China in the interwar period but the success of the Japanese invaders greatly damaged the GMD. Nonetheless, in 1946, the GMD seemed likely to regain dominance of China. Jiang Jieshi was acknowledged internationally, including by the Soviets, as the leading figure in China, the GMD at least nominally controlled 80% of the country, and the GMD army had been well equipped by the Americans. In the initial battles of the Civil War, the GMD forces did well against the Red Army of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
A major theme of this book is the failure of the GMD to capitalize on its advantages. The initial pre-eminence of the GMD was also a source of weakness as any failures to establish effective governance undermined the legitimacy of the GMD. Westad makes clear the high level of corruption, numerous errors in governing, high level of intra-party competition, economic ingnorance, poor leadership, and general incompetence that characterized the GMD efforts to establish effective government. GMD failures led to considerable unrest in the cities and the countryside, providing opportunities for the CCP.
While the CCP started the war in an inferior position, it had certain advantages. It was a smaller and considerably cohesive movement, its leadership was clearly better, and despite problems due to inconsistencies in how vigorously to pursue radical reform in the countryside, CCP cadres generally proved more competent than their GMD counterparts. The CCP benefited also greatly from control of the most industrialized part of China, Manchuria, and significant assistance from the Soviets. Soviet support was clearly crucial, though its importance should not be overestimated as Stalin's China policy was rather cautious. Its clear from Westad's narrative, that the CCP leadership, specifically Mao were able to make the most of their advantages and exploit the huge shortcomings of the GMD. This is not the popular story of a peasant led guerilla uprising taking over China. Rather, this is the story of relatively conventional military success allowing establishment of reasonably competent government and leading to acceptance of CCP dominance of China. Military success in conventional warfare was crucial and the CCP appears to have had the outstanding commander of the war, Lin Biao.
Westad stresses the importance of the Civil War experience for subsequent events in China. Mao dominated the CCP at the outset of the Civil War, but the rapid success of the CCP (much quicker than anyone, including Mao, expected), sealed Mao's domination of the CCP. The militarization of the CCP, the emphasis of rapid mass efforts, the importance of "will," and use of Soviet models of government and political organization, were all accelerated by the Civil War. Westad is very good as well on the nature of politics and change in the countryside adn the cities. The complicated relationships between the GMD, the CCP and the various national minorities is also covered well.
While this book is very much a history of GMD failures, there is some irony when looking at the events of the Civil War and recent events. The GMD, notably Jiang, wanted a modernizing, nationalist state, in control of its own economy, restricting expression but still interacting with the greater world and markets. The state would be authoritarian but using democratic forms to boost legitimacy and a mass party to mobilize the party to support the regime. It appears that CCP domination of China was a painful way to achieve Jiang's goals.