The Long Chinese Civil War (War and Peace in East Asia, Lecture 7)

Today’s lecture starts with S.C.M. Paine’s account of what she calls the Long Chinese Civil War, a nearly unbroken span of large-scale civil conflict that followed the collapse of the Qing Dynasty in 1911 and lasted virtually uninterrupted through Japan’s invasion of China proper in 1937 and the Second World War until the Communists’ final victory in 1949. Grounding the narrative of the Second World War in China—which was Japan’s main theater through nearly the whole period—challenges many other national narratives of the conflict (American, Soviet, Japanese, and Chinese Communist, in particular). It really is a great book, but as noted in a previous blog post on the topic of the civil war, I think that it misattributes the causes of the war’s length and severity to the extreme aims of the participants (particularly the KMT and the CCP), when something more fundamental—the very nature of civil wars—can actually explain all three phenomena: the extremity of aims, the severity of fighting, and the length of the war.

To see why, it’s actually important to broaden the narrative, to look at other civil wars and other ideological conflicts (both in East Asia and elsewhere) in a broader theoretical perspective, as I did in Fall 2013:

Today we…[used] the logic of commitment problems to understand a few salient things about the Long Chinese Civil War that touched off after the Revolution of 1911: specifically, its length and the extremity of each side’s war aims.

It’s often tempting to explain the former with the latter—the reading for today did just that—but the upshot of lecture was that something more fundamental can drive both: the fact that, to settle a civil war, one side must lay down its arms. Governments, after all, typically need to exercise a monopoly on the use of organized violence; and a settlement that leaves a rival military power intact is hardly a settlement. Given that civil wars end with a reestablishment of that monopoly, laying down arms for power-sharing or reintegration is an invitation for the newly minted government to go back on its promises, because it represents a basic shift in power that, as the now-exclusively armed side, it can’t resist the temptation to use. In other words, saying “C’mon, folks. Just lay down your arms and I’ll give you what you want” isn’t sufficient to secure an agreement.

What’s the result? Well, first, both sides will be driven to seek not settlement (power-sharing, etc.) but the whole of the pie—control of the government—because anything short of that is an agreement that won’t stick. Second, that means both sides fight on until military victory, leading to wars that would be longer if the same two belligerents could credibly commit to sharing power. Note, however, that it’s not a clash of ideologies driving this; it’s canny political actors who are choosing their goals and aims as they see fit (far more realistic, to my mind, than ideological automatons), given the strategic environment and constraints in which they and their opponents find themselves.

Can we tell a story about leaders being hamstrung to follow international or external ideological programs by domestic pressure, leading to extreme demands? Sure. But it’s worth noting that we can explain both extreme aims and long, destructive civil wars without reference to ideological clashes; rather, the commitment problem might explain why extreme political programs become so attractive during civil wars.

Lastly, it’s also hard to disentangle the length of the civil war from China’s increasingly problematic relations with Japan, which after seizing control of Manchuria in 1931, had been steadily expanding its presence and influence ever farther south…prompting calls from the Chinese public to fight Japan as opposed to fellow Chinese (i.e., Mao and the Communists), which forced Chiang into an impossible dilemma: solving the Japanese problem would make him domestically vulnerable, but defeating the Communists (precipitously close to collapse after the Long March and the Northern Expedition) meant yielding more and more of Chinese sovereignty to Japan. No matter his choice, Chiang would have been vilified here—and we’ll talk about the consequences of this dilemma on Thursday.

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