The abrupt end of the Chinese Civil War (War and Peace in East Asia, Lecture 12)

Yesterday touched off the next unit of the course, which begins with two big events: a drastic reduction in the number of great powers and, our focus in this lecture, the Communist victory in the Chinese Civil War. For all its shocking length–Paine argues convincingly that the war effectively started in 1911–the war seems to end somewhat abruptly (if not, from a military standpoint, prematurely) in 1949, with

  1. cascading defections of KMT (and KMT-loyal units) to the Communist armies
  2. a rapid shift in public opinion against the KMT
  3. Chiang’s hasty retreat to Taiwan,

all of them occurring well before the prospect of final military defeat loomed too large–which, given our understanding of how most civil wars end, is genuinely puzzling. Why, after seeing off Japan in 1945, and with massive armies still in the field, did the KMT not continue the fight but, in essence, resign from the war? And why was it not just the leadership, but also the soldiery and the citizenry making similar yet largely independent decisions?

Paine’s analysis (Chapter 8) treats these events somewhat separately, as I noted in the first run of this lecture a few years ago, they all seem consistent with a common root cause (I’ve edited the quote a little to clean up the language, btw):

…the key to understanding each of these events is (a) the conversion of the Communists into a conventional military force and (b) the related string of rapid and sizable battlefield victories. This revealed some important information about the likely outcome of a fight to the finish, which for the Nationalists would be long, horrifically costly, and likely not victorious.

As a result, we saw (a) more of the public being willing to side with the Communists, as individuals were more confident that others would be doing the same thing; (b) armies and their generals thinking along similar lines, hoping to preserve their authority and forces intact; and (c), finally, the Nationalist leadership realizing that cutting their losses and retreating to the relative safety of Taiwan was optimal.

In the end, we’ve got a story about battlefield outcomes revealing information that, in the case of the Nationalist retreat, straightforwardly encourage an end to the fighting, but this is pretty conventional (see, inter aliaherehere, and here). What I found interesting was the apparent second-order effects of the same information–that is, raised estimates of the likelihood of ultimate Communist victory–on the public and the military. In both cases, it seems there were those who could be swayed to defect, but only if they weren’t the only ones to do so, and once such a clear public signal emerged of the relative strengths of the belligerents in the civil war, we saw large and massive–even unexpected, from some perspectives–defections that contributed to the rapid collapse Nationalist resistance and the end of the war.

So the same event, as it happens, is at the root of all three of these mostly independent decisions: the loud-and-clear signal that, while the KMT could hold out for quite some time, it was by 1949 unlikely to be able to win at the end of that endeavor. This leads to rapid attempts to cut one’s losses, just as we would expect based on an informational account of how wars end; if you can guess the outcome and you can secure something similar by giving up the fight, we’d expect you to give up the fight.

I also think it’s worth mentioning that wars ending this way—rapidly and while resistance is still feasible—aren’t unprecedented. Paine attributes some of these decisions to cultural features specific to Chinese history, and while that might be a descriptively accurate rendering of how people and soldiers framed and discussed their decisions, the underlying story we told in lecture shows that the outcome isn’t quite so exotic. In fact, two examples of similar events, particularly for the armies in the field, spring to mind: the rapid German collapse in 1918, despite its territory never being conquered, and the evaporation of Iranian willingness to continue the war against Iraq in 1988.

When information from the battlefield both travels widely and portends bad things about the future, leaders, armies, and civilians can all make rather abrupt decisions to withdraw from a war, and it seems like we saw just such a process play out in the final act of a war that produced the politics of the Taiwan Strait as we know it today: two governments, never formally reconciled to the end of a disastrous civil war, divided by a narrow stretch of ocean, and on opposite sides of the current round of great power competition.