Before the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese war in 1937, Chiang Kai-shek had all but defeated what he perceived as the biggest threat to China, Communism. Chiang engaged in extermination campaigns and brutally crushed communist presence in southern provinces with only a few pockets of CCP activity. Yet, at the end of the war 19 Communist bases had spread out across northern China’s provinces covering a 250,000-square-mile area. CCP membership reached over a million and its military had increased in size ten times over numbering 910,000 in 1945.[1]

After the Japanese were expelled a bloody civil war consumed China after which Chiang and what was left of the Nationalist government retreated to the island of Taiwan. How do we explain such a dramatic turn of events? The events of World War II and the Sino-Japanese war turned the tide in the conflict between Guomindang Party and the Chinese Communist Party. During the war Chiang Kai-shek and the Nationalist government weakened under self-mutilation, economic crisis, corruption, and problems in the military while Mao Zedong and the Communists grew stronger by expanding its political power and ideological base. Once on the brink of extinction, the CCP emerged from the Second United Front in a dominant position on the Chinese mainland.

Scorched-Earth Strategy and the Destruction of the Yellow River Dikes

We can point to several faults, or as one historian dubs “various cancers eating at the innards of the state.”[2] in Guomindang controlled China during the conflict with the Japanese that weakened the Nationalist state as well as its relationship with the Chinese people. The scorched-earth strategy that Chiang used against the Japanese mildly accomplished in slowing down the Kwantung Army, but it also resulted in undermining the accomplishments in infrastructure that the Nationalists had built its legitimacy upon in the years leading up to the war.

Most notably in the province of Nanjing the Nationalists destroyed bridges, railroads, highways, and other industrial infrastructure were destroyed to prevent the Japanese from using them, however the extent of the destruction went too far often causing more harm than good. Perhaps providing the most extreme example is the destruction of the Yellow River Dikes during which some 300,000 to 800,000 Chinese, who were not warned ahead of time, drowned in the floods that followed. Over 2 million were left homeless following the destruction of some 4,000 to 5,000 Chinese villages.[3]

Such tragedy that the Nationalists inflicted upon their own people could hardly be justified by slowing the pace of the Japanese army for 3 months. Historian R. Keith Schoppa, criticizing the Nationalist leaderships, says that “Such questionable imposed self-destruction seems to suggest not only panic but, more important, a tragic loss of perspective and sense of reality on part of the military and perhaps civil authorities.”[4]

Inflation and Economic Crisis

A factor that exacerbated all problems was that the Nationalist state was in economic crisis during the war as inflation skyrocketed and devalued the government’s paper money. Chiang’s government responded to inflated prices by printing even more money which only devalued currency even further. From 1937-1941 the average price index of the value of monetary notes issued rose from 1.04 to 19.77, as the war continued the yuan inflated exponentially seeing the average price index jump from 66.2 in 1942, to 2,647 by August 1945.[5]

Such a rate of inflation encouraged hoarding of commodities as scarcity increased prices even more. Historians, such as Pusen Jin and Hongmin Chen, who are critical of Nationalist rule note that corruption, the government’s inept ability to transport food, and unfair rural taxes made life increasingly difficult for the poor and working class.[6] The reliefs funds that were given to help the suffering Chinese often sat unused because government officials could not agree to how it to allot the funds, and

“In some places, when money was distributed to starving farmsteads, the amount of current taxes the peasants owed was deducted by local authorities from the sums they received; even the national banks took a cut of the relief funds as profit. The communist system, compared by Chen, proved to be more effective as it was ran more honestly and was based on mass political motivation.”[7]

These financial failures resulted in widespread famine for 10,000,000 people.

Starvation and Cannibalism 

It is estimated that 2 to 3 million Chinese died of starvation. American Journalist Theodore White gives use a horrific eyewitness account of the state of the starving Chinese. White describes corpses sprawled out across the roads, and “ghostlike” men selling bundles of leaves to be eaten. People resorted to eating wheat roots, peanut husks, “green slime off stagnant pools”, and soil from the earth to stave hunger.[8] White reported of parents killing their own children to spare them a painful death and, even worse, cannibalism.

“A doctor told us of a woman caught boiling her baby: she was not molested, because she insisted that the child had died before she started to cook it. Another woman had been caught cutting off the legs of her dead husband for meat; this, too, was justified on the ground that he was already dead. In the mountain districts there were uglier tales of refugees caught on lonely roads and killed for their flesh…we heard the same tales too frequently, in too widely scattered places, to ignore the fact that in Henan human beings were eating their own kind.”[9]

This is no quantifiable way that we can measure how much widespread starvation negatively impacted Chiang Kai-shek and the Nationalists who seemed to be more interested in destroying communists than defeating Japan or helping their own people. Chiang was not interested in mass public support and did not believe it was needed, when compared to the propagandist skill and ideology of the Communists the Guomindang came out lacking in the public eye.

A Weak and Fractured Army: Desertion and Betrayal

If the loss of faith from the public proved detrimental the fractured lines in the Nationalist army may have been worse, for the GMD forces were anything but unified. The Nationalist army numbered 3.5 million, but most of the soldiers were descendants of warlord armies and not necessarily loyal to the party or to Chiang Kai-shek. This is because during Chiang’s northern expedition to unify China, 1926-27, Chiang chose to incorporate complacent warlords and their soldiers into his own army instead of dispersing them. While this may have prevented bloodshed at the time it also left deep fractures in the structure of the military which would crack under the pressure of the Japanese invasion. From 1941-1943 a total of 69 of Chiang’s generals defected to the Japanese, taking their troops with them.[10]

Mass desertions from the army weakened the Nationalists physically but other political betrayals must have been all the more demoralizing. Prominent Nationalist leader Wang Ching-wei believed the only way to avoid destruction and communism in China was to work with the Japanese believing they could be convinced to withdrawal their troops from the mainland.[11] While Wang may have been correct about Communist takeover, he was wrong about Japanese intentions, even so, the Japanese governed through Wang over 1,000,000 Chinese in the richest area of central China, which had previously supported Chiang and the Nationalists.[12]

The defection of high military officials and political leaders to the Japanese shows that Chiang’s national government was far from unified. There was nothing bringing these groups together except mutual opposition against the Japanese and the Communists, and as the war continued some believed that only by allying with one, could the other be defeated. Soldiers defecting from the Nationalist army where replaced by volunteers and draftees; the draft was first attempted in 1933 and again at the outbreak of war with Japan, but both times it collapsed from inefficiency and corruption. Draftees were taken from poor families even when they had official reasons to be excused and conscripts were rarely trained before seeing action.  Local officials abused the draft for their own profit and “made up or falsified records, sold exemptions, and stole money provided by the government to support families of draftees.”[13]

Sickness among the draftees was a serious problem as in 1942 only 28.9 percent of those drafted came up to Chinese Health Standards.[14] Journalists Theodore White and Annalee Jacoby describe the poor condition of these men as being “tied together by the neck” so to prevent escape. They were given very small rations of rice for sustenance and were forced to drink from “puddles by the roadside, a common cause of diarrhea.” Health issues in draftees went unattended because “recruits were not regarded as part of the army until they had joined their assigned units.”[15] Americans soldiers joked about Chinese eating their dogs and

“Cursed when a pet puppy disappeared from their barracks. The Chinese troops stole dogs and ate them because they were starving and because the fat pets the Americans kept ate more meat in a week than a Chinese soldier saw in a month.”[16]

Dysentery, tuberculosis, influenza, typhus, and gangrene were all health conditions that Chinese soldiers experienced in high numbers. The Nationalists’ failure to properly train and care for their troops left many soldiers in the army weak and inexperienced. Many draftees were only fighting because they were forced to by the GMD government further disuniting the army from a party that was legitimized by a platform of unifying the Chinese.

Why the Chinese Communist Party Grew in Strength During WWII

By what causes from the Sino-Japanese War can we attribute to the Chinese Communist Party’s growth as its nemesis weakened? The CCP formed a cohesive foundation on which it based its ideology and political strategy. While Chiang Kai-shek and the Nationalists worked from the top down, Mao Zedong and the Communists worked from the bottom up. Mao, killing two birds with one stone, both consolidated his doctrinal authority in the CCP and dulled the radical edge of Bolshevism that deterred earlier support for the party. Mao had a fresh source to forge his ideological base as “Wartime immigrants poured into Yan’an…an estimated 100,000, likely up to 50 percent of them students, teachers, journalists, and intellectuals, from 1937 to 1940. Party membership swelled rapidly, from 40,000 in 1937 to some 800,000 by 1940.”[17]

Mao sought to elevate the peasants position alongside that of the proletariat, who he had for years believed would be the source for the revolution. Mao argues against strict adherence to the Soviet model of communism, saying quite indignantly, “Your dogma [those who regard Marxism-Leninism as religious dogma] is of no use.” Or to use an impolite phrase, “your dogma is less useful than excrement.”[18]

Mao believed that the skills of the artists, intellectuals, and students who had migrated north should be used to as a tool of the party. In a speech from 1942 Mao said, “Therefore, the Party’s total revolutionary work and is subordinated to the prescribed revolutionary task of the Party in any given revolutionary period.”[19] Here, even before the Nationalists and the Japanese were driven from the mainland, Mao had begun to form the ideological glue the CCP would use as its own dogma in later years. Through reeducation, rectification, and thought reform Mao forcefully pushed his ideological agenda on the Party.

While Mao fought for Party ideological cohesion, the CCP was also expanding politically by expanding local bases of support. Through many different ways in many different areas the Communists were able to overthrow the power of village elites and assume control of local administration. Abandoning radical land reform to instead reduce rent, unfair taxes, and interest the CPP gained support of the peasants and elevated their involvement in local government in a grassroots approach.[20]

While the CCP took as much credit for fighting the Japanese as they could they were mostly interested in expansion. When the Japanese pulled out of areas the CCP pushed in. This included areas that were once controlled by the GMD such as the area between Shanghai and Nanking, the richest part of China and Chiang’s former area of operations.[21] Guomindang propaganda tried to expose the Communist strategy claiming that “Communists were using 70 percent of their efforts for expansion, 20 percent to defeat the Chungking government, and only 10 percent to fight the Japanese.”[22]

Regardless public opinion would turn against Chiang and the Nationalists in favor of Mao and the CCP. Even worse, the Japanese focused most of their attention on the Nationalists throughout the war, not seeing the Communists as a direct threat. This created an environment in which both of the CCP’s enemies were fighting the other while the Communists gathered strength and waited for the final showdown with Chiang Kai-shek and the Nationalist Party.


Diplomatic Trouble with the United States

From early on it was clear that Chiang and the Nationalists had the backing of the United States and Roosevelt, who by 1940 had included aid to China in his Lend-lease program. Chiang had a valuable ally in American General Joseph Stilwell, who served as Chiang’s Allied Chief of Staff. Chiang’s relationship with Stilwell was important as he was one of the few representatives from the Allied powers who believed that strengthening the Nationalist army would bring about Japan’s defeat on the Chinese mainland. Stilwell in 1943 conference in Washington noted that

“Nobody was interested in the humdrum work of building a ground force but me…My point is that China was on the verge of collapse economically. That we could not afford to wait another year. The Yunnan was indispensable and that a force had to be built up to hold it.”[23]

Building up Chiang’s ground forces at the United States expense would have been an advantage in the coming war with the CCP, but even though these two men shared similar interests in strengthening the GMD’s army, Chiang and Stilwell loathed each other. Stilwell saw Japan as the largest threat but Chiang was much more concerned about destroying the Communists. Stilwell was often frustrated with the egotistical Chiang Kai-shek, once he asserted, “The trouble in China is simple: we are allied to an ignorant, illiterate, superstitious peasant son of a bitch.”[24]

The feud at last came to a head when Roosevelt ordered Chiang to put Stilwell in unrestricted command of the Nationalist forces, which resulted in Stilwell being recalled back to the United States at Chiang’s insistence. Chiang’s diplomatic struggle with Stilwell may not have cost the Nationalists aid from the U.S. but, it was a wasted opportunity to legitimize the GMD government as a capable and independent player in the war. If Chiang’s real challenge was to convince the Americans that China was capable of building an army that could drive out the Japanese then he blew it.

Soviet Diplomacy

Still, the United States wasn’t the nationalist’s only benefactor as the Soviet Union had ironically chosen to support the anti-communist faction. “From 1937 to 1939, it [the Soviet Union] sent 1,000 airplanes plus substantial amounts of artillery, munitions, and gasoline. It provided low-interest loans, volunteer pilots, and about 500 military advisors.”[25] The Communist forces received no aid. Yet, by the end of the war with the Japanese Soviet alliance with the GMD began to shift towards the Communists, while still playing both sides. In mid-September 1945 as the Soviets pushed their way into Manchuria, they assisted the Communist takeover of strategic areas.[26]

Mao Zedong was in contact with the U.S.S.R. and during a meeting between CCP leaders and Soviet ambassador Apollon Petrov Mao expressed concerns of a U.S. Nationalist joint operation in northern China to eliminate the communists.[27] The U.S. presence in northern China was in fact only a token force, but the Soviet Union did not like the ideas of American involvement in China. Petrov, in a political report written in December 1945, reported that the American strategy in post-war China was to assist the GMD in the defeat of the Communists, embolden U.S. economic and political positions, and undermine the Soviet’s sphere of influence in the region.[28]

Petrov may have overestimated the United States’ intentions in China but the concern was real and foreshadowed the Cold War that was to come. Following Japan’s defeat, the Soviet Union was not willing to bolster the Nationalists forces in their war against the CCP especially when the two shared similar ideologies. Chiang was left alone for the final battle, and Mao had expressed a common threat further shifting the balance of power in the Communists’ favor.


The Unavoidable Conflict to Follow

At no point during the Sino-Japanese war did the Communists and the Nationalists see the Japanese as the predominant threat, their focus rested on each other biding time until the fate of China would be decided. In 1945 Mao Zedong met with Chiang Kai-shek in a last effort for peace were Chiang is reported to have said,

“The fate of the country is in our hands…if we cannot come to an agreement between ourselves, we will be committing a crime before the future generations.”[29]

Despite this appeal for peace Mao and Chiang were from two different worlds and neither was willing to concede to the other. History has made these two men nearly synonymous with the Communist and Nationalist movements but they were only still a small part of larger events beyond their control. Chiang and the Nationalist government and military had eroded away its advantageous edge, while Mao and the Communists had sharpened theirs, and yet, this did not guarantee the CCP’s victory.

However, it is without a doubt that if not for the World War II Chiang would have been victorious over the Communism and the history of China and of the world would have been radically changed. We cannot speak for sure of the exact extent that the war allowed for Communist victory in China, but we can identify the consequences of the Sino-Japanese war and World War II and how it played a role in Nationalist defeat.

Sources Cited

[1] Keith R. Schoppa, Revolution and Its Past: Identities and Change in Modern Chinese History, 3rd ed, (Pearson. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey, 2011), 282.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid, 263.

[4] Ibid, 283.

[5] Schoppa, 283.

[6] D. M. Gordon, “The China-Japan War, 1931-1945.” The Journal of Military History, vol. 70 no. 1, 2006, pp. 137-182. Project MUSE, 162.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Annalee Jacoby and Theodore H. White, Thunder out of China, (New York: William Sloane Associates, 1946),

[9] Ibid.

[10] Schoppa, 270.

[11] Gordon, 164.

[12] Ibid, 163.

[13] Schoppa, 271

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Schoppa, 279

[18] Ibid, 280. P!

[19] Ibid, 281. P!

[20] Gordon, 167.

[21] Ibid, 170.

[22] Gordon, 169.

[23] Joseph W. Stilwell, The Stilwell Papers (New York: W. Sloane, 1948), 204-206.

[24] Shcoppa, 277.

[25] Ibid, 276.

[26] Radchenko, S. “Lost Chance for Peace: The 1945 CCP-Kuomintang Peace Talks Revisited.” Journal of Cold War Studies, vol. 19 no. 2, 2017, pp. 84-114. Project MUSE, 109.

[27] Conversation between Apollon Petrov and Mao Zedong, 10 October 1945, in AVPRF, F. 0100, Op. 40, D. 7, P. 248, Ll. 39-44.

[28] Apollon Petrov, “Report on the Foreign Policy and Internal Political Situation in the Country,” December 12, 1945, in AVPRF, F. 0400, Op. 40, P.248, D. 4, Ll. 39, 58-59.

[29] Radchenko, 111.