The Chinese Communist Party’s Seizure of Power

Lindsay Nailer, Dickson College, 2009

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) seized power in 1949. The leader of this revolution was Chairman Mao Zedong. As the Guomindang (GMD) failed to please the masses, the CCP was gaining support from the peasants. The conditions imposed on China by the Versailles Treaty caused Chinese intellectuals to turn away from Western governments and to look for more radical solutions. The GMD began to lose its touch with the people due to corruption and a failure to improve the lives of the peasants. Mao adapted Marxist ideas so they would fit with China’s agricultural society. He used the peasants as the driving force behind China’s communist revolution. The Japanese invasion in 1937 created chaos in China, severely weakening the GMD, making it easier for the CCP to defeat the GMD in the Chinese Civil War. Thus the success of the CCP can be attributed to a number of interrelated factors.

The betrayal of trust between China and Western Europe after the Versailles Treaty in 1919 caused Chinese intellectuals to look towards the Soviet Union when choosing a new form of government. The Versailles Treaty granted the German colonial concessions in China to the Japanese at the end of World War I. The Chinese viewed this as a betrayal, as they had supported the Allies, hoping it would help China to win back control of the areas of China that Germany controlled.[1]

For China, the watershed between yesterday and today began on May 4th, 1919… For it was the day on which China’s intellectuals turned away from the west…China as an ally, was treated as an enemy.[2]

When news of the Versailles settlement reached China it caused instant outrage among Chinese students and intellectuals. Many thousands demonstrated in protest against the deal done by the western powers. This movement became known as the May 4th Movement, which triggered a search for more radical solutions to China’s problems. Many students turned away from more moderate western approaches to reform and began reading the works of Marx and Lenin, who promised revolutionary change through communism.

Related Article: Maoism and Classical Marxism

In 1925 the Guomindang attempted to establish a republican government in China. However it failed to fully unify China and many warlords still remained in power, either as allies of the GMD or as independent rulers.[3] The GMD was a wholly middle class government and based in the cities.

GMD rule was widely perceived to be rule of the rich… and not for the common people of China.[4]

They supported the land-owners and therefore had no interest in improving the lives of the ordinary people. Therefore the GMD never really had the support of the peasants or of the poor people living in the cities and made very little effort to improve their situation.

You haven’t seen the houseful of lively children at home I have to find food for every day…We’ve no rice left in the house…The rent’s six weeks in arrears, so very soon they won’t even have a roof over their heads.[5]

The peasants remained subjected to high land taxes and rent. The peasants made up seventy to eighty percent of China’s population in 1935.[6] Without the peasants’ support, the GMD found itself in a difficult situation. The corruption of the GMD was also a contributory factor to their failure. Jobs were obtained through social influence and bribery.

As a result, the government offices became… staffed by corrupt, lazy officials who produced large numbers of paper plans and documents for schemes which were often never implemented.[7]

The GMD program was thus compromised by incompetent administrators and the loss of tax revenue due to corruption. This helped to make the CCP look more attractive, especially to the peasants. While it is arguable that the failure of the GMD played a significant role in making the CCP stronger, it was not the sole reason for the CCP’s success in 1949.

One of the major factors that led to the success of the Chinese Communist Party’s seizure of power was that Mao Zedong reinterpreted Marxist ideology. Karl Marx, the co-author of The Communist Manifesto, stated that to achieve a classless communist state, there would need to be a series of revolutions. Marx believed that the first communist revolutions would happen in already industrialized nations like France and Germany, led by revolutionary intellectuals and the proletariat.[8] First the bourgeoisie would rise up against royalty and take control. The proletariat class which lived in the cities would become so poor that they would overthrow the bourgeoisie.[9] Marx believed that agricultural feudal societies, like China, would need to be industrialized before they could achieve communism. However, although China only had a tiny proletariat, it had a massive oppressed class of poor peasants, who Mao believed could be the driving force for a communist revolution. Mao changed traditional Marxist ideology so it would fit with Chinese society at the time. Marx saw the peasants as, “disorganized, dispersed, and incapable of carrying out change.”[10] However, in one of his essays Mao wrote;

All arguments against the peasant movement must be speedily set right… Only thus can any good be done for the future of the revolution. For the rise of the present peasant movement is a colossal event.[11]

Mao substituted the large peasantry class in China for the non-existent Chinese proletariat. In China it was the peasants that had caused some of the most ruthless revolts in Chinese history.

The main force in the countryside which has always put up the bitterest fight is the poor peasants… They are the deadliest enemies of the local bullies.[12]

Mao believed that the peasants could become revolutionaries and therefore he could achieve communism in China without waiting for the gradual emergence of an industrial working class.

The Japanese invasion, which began on July 7th 1937, worked in favour of the Chinese Communist Party. The CCP saw the invasion as a chance to expand the territories under their control, to increase the size of the Red Army, and to get ready to fight the GMD once the Japanese were defeated.[13] The Japanese invaded the costal areas of China and took control of all the major cities. The GMD armies retreated to the south west of China. The communists, however, escaped Japanese control and evaded the attempts by the GMD to wipe them out by undertaking the ‘Long March’ into the rural area in northern China.[14] The Long March itself did not achieve much. However, in the rural areas of China the communists were able to practice some of their ideas and steadily build support among the peasants. One of Mao’s ideas to get the peasants on-side was taking the land from the landlords and giving back to the peasants.

The privileges which the feudal landlords enjoyed for thousands of years are being shattered to pieces…Countless thousands of the enslaved – the peasants – are striking down the enemies who battened on their flesh.[15]

When the Japanese surrendered in 1945, the CCP had gained control of much of the country and the GMD had retreated far from the major cities. The GMD needed American assistance to airlift its soldiers back to the major costal cities to accept the Japanese surrender.[16] When the final showdown between the CCP and the GMD occurred, during the Chinese Civil War of 1946-49, the experienced CCP fighters rapidly out-manoeuvred the armies of the GMD, even though the Americans had provided massive military support to the GMD.[17]

The Chinese Communist Party’s success in seizing power can be attributed to many reasons. British and French betrayal in the Versailles Treaty caused Chinese intellectuals to turn away from Western views and to seek more radical measures from the Soviet Union. As the GMD lost support, the CCP became increasingly popular, as they offered improvement to the livelihoods of the peasants. Mao Zedong changed Marxist ideology so that it fitted with Chinese society. Building a revolution on the support of the peasants meant that China did not have to wait to develop an industrial proletariat. The Japanese invasion in 1937 also worked in favour of the CCP, because Mao led the Red Army into the countryside where he could build support gradually, away from the areas occupied by the Japanese army. The success of the Chinese Communist Party can be attributed not only to the failure of the GMD but also to Mao’s clever modification of Marxist ideology and his skill as a military leader.

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Annotated Bibliography

Printed Sources:
Barker, Bernard 1979, Chiang & Mao: China 1919-49, Basil Blackwell, Oxford.
Barker provides a sound overview of the tensions between the CCP and the GMD in the decades leading up to the Chinese Civil War. This source provides a brief overview of key events and also provides primary quotes from both CCP supporters and GMD supporters. This source presents a western view that is almost non-biased.

deBary, Theodore W. (Ed.) 1969, Sources of Chinese Tradition: Volume II, Columbia University Press, New York.
This source provides primary sources translated from Chinese into English. It features essays from notable Chinese officials, including Mao Zedong. This text is written for the everyday reader not for specialists. Therefore alternate names and titles are not accompanied with biographical reference to a scholar in Chinese works.

Fairbank, John K. et al 1965, East Asia: The Modern Transformation, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston.
Fairbank provides a detailed history of East Asia from about 1600 to 1960. This is a comprehensive secondary study of the modernization of China, Japan and Korea, written as a university text for American students. Fairbank takes a broadly American view of the Chinese revolution, which is pro-GMD and somewhat anti-Communist.

Fitzgerald, C. P 1971, Communism Takes China: How the Revolution Went Red, American Heritage Press, New York.
This text provides a brief overview of Chinese history, from the Opium Wars to the declaration of the People’s Republic of China. It does not use many primary sources. However, the use of illustrations helps to contextualize the issues. Fitzgerald takes a balanced view, considering the book was published during the cold war, when a lot of anti-communist material was being produced.

Laffey, Mark 1992, Mao and the Struggle for China: Revolutionary leadership 1922-49, Heinemann Education, Auckland.
Laffey gives a concise overview of Chinese feudal society, before going into depth on the Chinese Civil War and the rise of communism. This book uses case studies to further develop understanding. Laffey also uses exercises to consolidate knowledge learnt in previous chapters.

Lindquist, Harry. M 1975, Focus on Revolution, Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs.
Lindquist provides a concise yet clear textbook on the Chinese revolution. This source does not use many primary sources. However, Lindquist provides the reader with a list of texts to go to for more information. This text takes a slightly leftist view on the revolution.

Mitchison, Lois 1971, Chinese Revolution, The Bodley Head, London.
This source does not provide as much background information as some of the other sources. However, the information it does present is clear and accurate. This source does not provide many primary sources. Again, as this is written by a western author for a western audience. It takes a balanced view on the revolution.

Richards, David & Hoddinott, Wendy 1987, Twentieth Century China: Tradition and Revolution, Nelson, Melbourne.
Richards and Hoddinott provide many useful primary and secondary sources, which give a clear picture of events and opinions of the times. The material is presented in chronological order, making it easy to follow how views changed through time. This source also includes study questions about the primary sources to help direct discussion.

Segal, Gerald 1996, The World Affairs Companion, Simon & Schuster, London.
Segal offers a very brief and succinct description of China-Soviet relations. This source does not go into very much detail as it includes entries on many different world affairs, China being one of them.

Waung, W.S.K 1971, Revolution and Liberation: A Short History of Modern China 1900-1970, Heinemann Educational Books, London.
When this text was written it would have been very new for the time. This text covers both revolutions in China. Although Waung is Chinese, he was born in Hong Kong, a British colony, and educated in America. This text, therefore, presents a western view on the 1949 revolution and communism.

Internet Sources:
Marx's Theory of Social Class and Class Structure, 1999, accessed on 11th October 2009.
This website is a good secondary source for the theory behind Marxist Ideology. It provides the reader with information about the roles each social class would play in a Marxist revolution.

Smitha, Frank E 1998, Paris Conference and Versailles Treaty, accessed on 11th October 2009.
This website discusses the negotiations Treaty of Versailles and its consequences. It provides detail about the effect the treaty had on China as well as other nations. The source presented no obvious bias.

U.S. Department of State, The Chinese Revolution of 1949, no date, accessed on 14th October 2009.
This source provided a general overview of the Chinese Revolution. Some areas were vague and left unclear. This source came from the US Department of State and therefore will tend to be anti-communist in bias.


  1. ^ Smitha, 1998
  2. ^ Han Suyin, The Crippled Tree, Jonathon Cape Ltd, London, 1965, Quoted in Richards & Hoddinott, 1987, p. 42.
  3. ^ Laffey, 1992, p. 39.
  4. ^ ibid, p. 40.
  5. ^ Richards & Hoddinott, 1987, p. 62.
  6. ^ Barker, 1979, p. 6.
  7. ^ Laffey, 1992, p. 40.
  8. ^ Laffey, 1992, p. 76.
  9. ^ Laffey, 1992, p. 24.
  10. ^ Marx's Theory of Social Class and Class Structure, 1999
  11. ^ Report on an investigation of the Hunan Peasant Movement, Quoted in Theodore deBary, p. 205.
  12. ^ Report on an investigation of the Hunan Peasant Movement, Quoted in Theodore deBary, p. 209.
  13. ^ Laffey, 1992, p. 69
  14. ^ Richards & Hoddinott, 1987, p. 74.
  15. ^ Zhu De in A. Smedley, The Great Road, Calder, London, 1958: Quoted in Richards & Hoddinott, 1987, p. 75.
  16. ^ Fairbank, 1965, p. 858.
  17. ^ Fairbank, 1965, p. 717.