Communist forces’ campaigns during November 1948 up to January 1949, the northern one being the Ping-Jin campaign, and the southern one being the Huai-Hai campaign.
Communist: 500,000 men. Commander: General Chen Yi.
Nationalist: 500,000 men. Commander: General Pai Chung-hsi.
A Communist victory sealed the fate of Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek, who was forced to resign as president. This led to destruction of the Nationalist army and government in China, establishing Communist rule on the mainland and Nationalist rule on Formosa (Taiwan).
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was formally established in 1921 as the Chinese government was recovering from Japanese domination during World War I. In the mid-1920s, the CCP cooperated with the ruling Kuomintang, or Nationalist Party, but in 1927 started a civil war that raged until 1937. In that year, the Japanese invaded out of Manchuria and drove deep into China down the coast toward Hong Kong. This external threat convinced Communist leader Mao Tse-tung to conclude a wary alliance with Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek. Mao’s forces operated in the northern part of China, whereas Chiang’s armies, aided by the Americans, fought in the southern and western parts. Mao’s forces, never well equipped, did their best to harass and pin down Japanese troops while Chiang held the south and cooperated with U.S. and British activities in Burma.
When the Japanese were defeated in August 1945, Communist-Nationalist cooperation evaporated. Both parties proclaimed their desire for peace, but neither did anything to accomplish it. Instead, they both scrambled to grab land and materiel owned by the Japanese during the war. From late August to early October 1945, Mao and Chiang met in Chung-king for discussions that were overseen by U.S. ambassador Patrick Hurley and resulted in a statement of mutual peaceful goals. However, both Chinese leaders continued to struggle for control of the resource-rich province of Manchuria. Later that year, U.S. President Harry Truman sent General George Marshall to broker talks between the Communists and Nationalists, resulting in a temporary cease-fire. An agreement on an updated version of the 1936 constitution was also announced after 3 weeks of talks, but both sides soon showed their unwillingness to exhibit any true cooperation. Unsuccessful, Marshall left in January 1947.
Fighting continued in Manchuria, where the cease-fire agreement did not apply, and soon was general throughout the country. Since late 1946, the Nationalists had been seizing key cities and towns from the Communists; in March 1947, they pushed the Communists out of their stronghold in the city of Yenan, some 400 miles southwest of the capital of Peking (Beijing). The Communists did the most to make political capital out of these aggressive actions, both to motivate support in China as well as to lessen U.S. support for Chiang. Communist-inspired demonstrations wore down the morale of the Kuomintang troops and probably hastened the withdrawal of U.S. troops from China in early 1947. U.S. military aid to Chiang dried up as well. With growing mass support, the Communists on 10 October 1947 issued a call for the overthrow of Chiang Kai-shek’s administration. They also promised a number of personal freedoms, an easing of land taxes, and a democratic government.
Mao Tse-tung’s forces gathered growing support, not only through their propaganda but through their actions. Where Kuomintang troops had looted the cities they occupied, Communist troops were under strict orders to behave themselves. The peaceful nature of the Communist takeover of cities, with very little retribution, had the same effect on the population that similar strategies have done through the ages: Cyrus the Great of Persia, Alexander the Great of Macedon, and Genghis Khan all were magnanimous to cities that did not resist, thus encouraging the others.
On the battlefields, the Communists were enjoying similar successes. In April 1948, they recaptured Yenan, reestablishing Mao’s headquarters. By May, Communist forces had isolated much of the Kuomintang army by capturing Hopei and Shansi provinces. This placed their forces in two masses: Manchuria was almost completely under their control, with the second area stretching from the coast to the Yellow River. Only a strip of Nationalist-controlled railway running east-west from Tientsin through Peking to Paotow separated the Communist armies. Meanwhile, in the south, large Communist partisan groups operated inland from Hong Kong, Canton, and Indochina. In east-central China, Chiang’s army controlled a cross-shaped area of land along two railroad lines: east-west from Kaifeng through Suchow to the coast, and north-south from Nanking to Tsinan. It was at Kaifeng and Suchow that the Communists would launch their largest offensives in 1948 and where they would find success.
Until the summer of 1948, the Communists had depended on guerrilla tactics, using harassment of supply and railroad lines, attacks on isolated outposts, and localized numerical superiority to establish the widespread control they had attained. They now felt strong enough to engage in traditional warfare, and the battle for the city of Kaifeng was their first attempt. They were aided in their effort by Nationalist political actions. During the elections for president in April, Chiang Kai-shek’s choice for vice-president was rejected by the National Assembly. This rejection was an indication of Chiang’s weakening political power. He was able to fill military positions, however, and Generals Ku Chu-tung and Yu Han-mou became chief of the supreme staff and commander in chief, respectively. They were notable both for their strong loyalty to Chiang and their lack of strong military ability.
Kaifeng, capital of Honan province and situated at a key railroad junction, was defended by 250,000 regular Kuomintang forces and about 50,000 auxiliaries. The Communists attacked with about 200,000 regular troops supported by guerrillas. After 2 weeks of maneuvering beginning in late May 1949, Communist General Chen Yi received intelligence that the garrison defending the city had been weakened in response to the maneuvers. He thus launched an immediate attack on the city on 17 June. Communist forces quickly captured the city’s two airfields, and then the city itself fell on 19 June. This was a major defeat that Chiang could not afford, so he took personal command of the operations to respond. Ordering attacks from east and west down the railroad lines, he force Chen Yi to abandon Kaifeng, retreating southward, where the Kuomintang pincers inflicted a defeat on the Communists. Chen Yi, after inflicting 90,000 casualties on the Nationalists, ordered his troops to disperse. The Nationalists regained Kaifeng, but their success was primarily the result of superior numbers rather than tactical ability, in which they proved lacking. Again, the behavior of Communist troops during their occupation of Kaifeng was exemplary, and the Communists had time to plant saboteurs and party organizers throughout the city.
Through the summer of 1948, realization of the growing power of Mao’s forces became apparent even to the Nationalists. The defense minister openly criticized generals who enriched themselves in the midst of the crisis, and many generals openly criticized the defense ministry for meddling in operations, giving conflicting orders, and disseminating unchecked intelligence reports. It was also reported that the forces of the two enemies were now almost equal, each with about a million soldiers under arms and with almost equal artillery; 2 years earlier, the Kuomintang forces had outnumbered the Communists under arms by almost five to one. Almost half the Communists were in central China, showing a shift in emphasis from Manchuria to the southern region. The battle at Kaifeng illustrated both the strength and the shift in strategy that the Communists now employed.
The autumn of 1948 was disastrous for the Nationalists. They were forced to surrender Tsinan, their final city on the Shantung Peninsula, strengthening the Communist hold on the northeast coast. The few remaining Kuomintang garrisons besieged in Manchurian cities also were defeated. By early November, all of Manchuria was under Communist control, and almost half the Nationalist army was captured or killed. The Nationalists also ceded to the Communists vast amounts of weapons and materiel. With no threat to their rear, the Communists could now face southward and carry on the war against a greatly reduced enemy force. Their next target was the major Kuomintang force in the south based at Suchow, near the Huai Hai (River).
Communist General Chen Yi teamed with General Liu Po-cheng to field a force of almost 600,000 men. Kuomintang command fell to General Liu Chih, who also commanded about 600,000 men in four army groups: 2nd, 7th, 13th, and 16th. The 13th was based in Suchow, the 7th to the east at the junction of the Lunghai railroad and the Grand Canal, the 2nd to the west on the railroad to Kaifeng, and the 16th to the south along the railroad to Peng-pu on the Huai. The battle opened on 5 November when Chen Yi attacked from the east at the 7th Army Group while Liu Po-cheng drove the 2nd Army Group in the west back into Suchow and then swung south to drive back the 16th into the city. Chen Yi’s attack was facilitated by the defection of two Kuomintang generals and 23,000 men. The 7th Army Group was quickly encircled 30 miles east of Suchow, their retreat hampered by even more defections as well as the rapidity of Chen Yi’s attack.
Chiang ordered fifteen divisions from the 2nd and 16th Army Groups to relieve the surrounded 7th, but they moved too slowly and lost too many men, only to learn of the 7th’s defeat and surrender on 22 November; only 3,000 of its original 90,000 men escaped. In spite of the fact that the Nationalists had complete air superiority and flew as many as 500 sorties per day, the air forces failed to work cooperatively with the ground forces and were therefore rarely effective. A relief column comprised of the Nationalist Eighth Army and 12th Army Group was also ineffective; poor coordination kept them from linking up before being attacked by Chen Yi’s forces from the east and Liu Po-cheng’s from the northwest. The 12th Army Group, 125,000 strong, found itself surrounded at Shwangchiaochi on 26 November.
At this point, Chiang decided to abandon Suchow. He hoped that the troops remaining in the city could march to the rescue of the 12th Army Group and then escape southward. The 13th Army Group marched out of the city on 1 December, but, because of poor leadership, poor morale, or both, they found themselves outmaneuvered, pushed westward, and surrounded at Yungcheng on 6 December. Inside that encirclement were the remnants of the 2nd, 13th, and 16th Army Groups, numbering about 200,000 men, with all their artillery and tanks. Although nine infantry divisions remained free to act along the Huai Hai, they were too small and uncoordinated to relieve either of the surrounded forces. The isolated embattled forces were living off what food could be scrounged from local farms or dropped by parachute, but low morale soon hit rock bottom. Huge numbers of troops, sometimes entire divisions at once, defected to the Communists.
Chiang’s last hope was to commit his Sixth Army from Peng-pu, but 15 days of fighting netted them only 17 miles against fierce guerrilla attacks. By 15 December, the Communist noose closed on the 12th Army Group. At Yungcheng, the remains of the three army groups had been reduced by half from combat and defections. Bombarded by propaganda as much as artillery, the Kuomintang troops had almost no fight left in them. After 3 weeks of only light skirmishing, the Communists launched their final assault on 6 January 1949; by 10 January the battle was over.
Virtually the entire Nationalist force of 600,000 men around Suchow ceased to exist. Approximately 327,000 men had either been captured or had voluntarily given themselves up to the Communists. Every Kuomintang general in the battle had been captured or killed. The military disaster merely reflected the condition of the Nationalist government. Inflation was so rampant that the currency was worthless. Black marketeers operated openly and with the support of the population. Attempted currency reform failed. The countryside was filled with bandits and looters while food supplies rapidly diminished. U.S. aid came under close government scrutiny in Washington, with George Marshall (now secretary of state) stating that the only way to save the Chinese administration from Communist takeover was to have Americans completely take over, an option he did not relish: “The present regime has lost the confidence of the people, reflected in the refusal of soldiers to fight and the refusal of the people to cooperate in economic reforms” (Chassin, The Communist Conquest of China, p. 202). All aid was suspended on 20 December 1948.
Faced with nothing but disaster all around him, Chiang Kai-shek on 21 January 1949 resigned the presidency. The next day, Peking surrendered to the Communists and Mao transferred his capital to that city. When new Nationalist President Li Tsung-jen sent representatives to Mao on 1 April to discuss peace terms, “unconditional surrender” was the response. Unable to comply, the Nationalists continued to try to wage war, but with decreasing positive results. Communist forces crossed the Yangtze River on 20 April, followed by the rapid capture of most of south China’s major cities: Nanking on 22 April, Nanchang on 23 May, and Shanghai on 27 May. The Nationalists kept shifting their capital city, from Nanking to Canton to Chungking to Chengtu, and finally to Formosa, completely off the mainland of China.
The victory at Suchow broke the Nationalists’ back, which had long been bending. When Chiang, the heart and soul of the Nationalist cause since the 1920s, gave up power in the wake of the battle, no clearer sign of their demise could have been given. He was able to reorganize a government in exile on the island of Formosa, naming it Taiwan, on 7 December 1949; he also retained control of three small islands between Formosa and the mainland. More importantly, Chiang kept international recognition of his position as leader of the Chinese people. Although Mao Tse-tung established a de facto government that was recognized by Communist regimes around the world, the Nationalists kept western recognition and assistance, as well as a seat on the Security Council in the United Nations. That seat, as well as the question of sovereignty in general, led to Sino-U.S. tensions for the following two decades, not eased until the administration of Richard Nixon. Mao’s accession to power gave him control over the largest Communist population in the world, but differences in philosophical and political matters kept him from being solidly in Moscow’s camp. The Moscow-Beijing rivalry probably went a long way toward keeping the Cold War relatively cold, for neither China nor the Soviet Union could focus on the United States with a suspicious neighbor at its back.
Chassin, Lionel Max. The Communist Conquest of China. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1965; Fairbank, John K., and Albert Feuerwerker, eds. The Cambridge History of China, vol. 13. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986; Houn, Franklin W. A Short History of Chinese Communism. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1967; Morwood, William. Duel for the Middle Kingdom. New York: Everest House, 1980.