Strange Bedfellows: the Unintentional Role of Japan in the Rise of the Chinese Communist Party

Following the first contact of industrialized European powers with East Asia, the trajectories of China and Japan, once historically connected by shared systems and ideologies such as a shared written language, and shared influence of Buddhism and Confucianism, split off on two radically different trajectories. Japan, their hand forced by Commodore Perry, set out on an aggressive path towards rapid industrialization in order to preserve national autonomy. China, on the other hand, is crippled by repeated invasion and unfair treaties, losing national autonomy, land and economic stability. For Japan, this shift, started by the Meiji government, leads to the growth of a fascist military state, and a violent nationalist movement that propels Japan into military conflict and the Second World War. China, on the other hand, crippled by years of invasion and domestic rebellion, falls into warlord rule, until two political parties, the Nationalists, led by Chiang Kai-Shek and the Communists, led by Mao Zedong, unite to disband the warlords. However, the two factions soon begin fighting each other, with Chiang Kai-Shek ordering his men to kill the communists. It is during this period of civil war, during the 1930’s that Japan invades China, forever changing the course of the civil war in China, and the direction of both nations thereafter.

For Mao Zedong and the Communists in Shaanxi, the pre WW2 imperialism of the Japanese may in fact have been a godsend. In 1936, Chiang Kai-Shek believed he was within reach of achieving his ultimate goal to kill the communists. However, Japan was on China’s doorstep, having claimed huge swathes of Manchuria in order to exploit its anthracite and iron ore. As a result, public opinion in China “was now generally much more alarmed by the growing Japanese menace than by the internal Communist threat” (Holcombe 266). Here, we see evidence that the increasing military dominance of the Japanese in Asia was a driving force behind Chinese action during their years of civil war. It is fair to say that the looming threat of the Japanese, which distracted the Chinese public and garnered military attention, is at least partially responsible for the survival of Mao and his forces in Shaanxi. Then, to add to Chiang Kai-Shek’s difficulty in killing the Communists, the chief military commander for the Nationalists in Shaanxi, was “the son of the Manchurian warlord Zhang Zuolin, who had been assassinated by the Japanese in 1928” (Holcombe 276). This becomes a serious conflict of interest, as Shek’s chief general in Shaanxi is less interested in the fight to kill the communists than he is in fighting the Japanese. He is so opposed to the direction that Chiang Kai-Shek is pushing the Nationalists that in December of 1936, “Chiang Kai-Shek was kidnapped by his own troops, forced to negotiate with the Communists, and agree to the formation of a United Front against the Japanese.” (Holcombe 276). Again, we see the looming threat of Japanese invasion dealing the cards in favor of Mao and the Communists, as the animosity towards Japan forces Shek into cooperation in order to defend the country.

However, while Japanese aggression certainly shaped the fate of the Communists before the outbreak of WW2 in China, Japanese action became even more influential on Mao’s fate. As the Second World War opened, “it would be the Japanese invasion… that would provide the context for a final Communist Victory” (Holcombe 276). During the invasion of China, the Nationalist army is quickly and decisively defeated in key cities. Thier forces scattered and driven continuously of the Yangtze river, the Nationalists lost the “developed modern sector of its economy, which had been almost exclusively confined to the large coastal cities” (Holcombe 268), crippling their ability to regroup and route the Japanese invaders out of China. Meanwhile, the Communists fought a different type of war against the Japanese invaders, relying on guerilla tactics to engage the larger, better equipped Japanese forces. The Communists, though never possessing more than 400,000 men, were ruthlessly efficient and, “By the end of the war, the communists claimed to have fought 19,000 engagements of varying sizes, during which they inflicted a million casualties (dead, wounded and captured)” ( The victories against the Japanese helped to fuel the rise of the Communists, as volunteers came in more steadily, and the party gained national renown for their defense of China. However, the Communists also gained victor’s spoils for their efforts as “the communists also captured 320,000 rifles, 9,000 machine guns and 900 artillery pieces from the Japanese. These by-products of Japanese defeat would give them a new lease on life in 1946, when hostilities resumed in China’s Third Civil War between Chiang’s (Nationalists) and Mao’s redesignated People’s Liberation Army.” (

After the Japanese defeat by Allied forces in 1945, China and Japan embark on separate, and dramatically different paths. The defeated Japanese are forced to surrender without condition, and are then subjected to Allied occupation. Under the watch of General Douglas Macarthur, Japan is occupied by primarily American forces, and helped to recover from the war, with Macarthur “requesting relief supplies of food and medicine, which undoubtedly saved lives” (Holcombe 278). Under U.S. guidance, “Sovereign power was now vested… in “The People.” Japan became a genuine Western-style democracy” (Holcombe 280). The Japanese, with U.S. aid, recover from post war devastation, and go on to form a modern industrial economy, with companies like Toyota, Yamaha, and later countless software firms propelling Japan to become one of the world’s top economies.

While post war conditions set Japan on the road to recovery and westernization, the same cannot be said of China. Despite the Chinese victory in World War Two, conditions in China saw no serious improvement. During the postwar era, “Civil war between the Chinese Nationalists and Communists entered its final phase” (Holcombe 313). As a byproduct of the last days of WW2, the Russians were in control of Manchuria, and “Turned over to the Chinese Communists some three-quarters of a million captured rifles, eighteen thousand machine guns and four thousand pieces of artillery” (Holcombe 314) Now armed to the teeth, Mao and the Communists were able to launch a military re-unification of China. Events began to quickly unfold once the Communists launched their offensive. By 1949, Beijing was in Communist hands, and “on October 1, 1949, Mao Zedong stood on Tiananmen… and declared the establishment of a new country, called the People’s Republic of China” (Holcombe 314). Under Mao, the Chinese begin to carve out a new national identity, and establish a new government. However, the new government is soon faced with serious shortage and hardship. Mao, in a Quixotic vision of an industrialized China, set out on what was called The Great Leap Forward. Mao began a rapid and misguided communization of the Chinese people, to disastrous results. In trying to produce too much on a national scale, without proper expertise, and without incentive or re-education. The result is that, “Although the Great Leap Forward began in early 1958 amid popular enthusiasm, by fall 1958, serious shortages were already becoming apparent.” (Holcombe 317–318). Violence quickly breaks out in the 1960’s, as a cultural revolution swept across China, purging party members and destabilizing the fledgling nation further. Tensions continue into the 1980’s, in the Tiananmen Square Massacre, in which perhaps thousands of student demonstrators were killed.

Moving on from a several thousand year history and into the contemporary era, it is necessary to observe patterns of connection between countries. Two nations, Japan and China, connected since their infancy, continued to exert influence on each other into the modern era. In the early to mid 1900’s, the intercession of the Japanese as an imperial force helped to shape the internal politics of China, and drive one faction, the Communists, to rise to power. The interconnected histories of the two nations then head in separate directions, with Japan following suit with Western democracy, and quickly rising to world power, while China is ravaged by famine, internal conflict and authoritarian rule.

Works Cited

A History of East Asia: From the Origins of Civilization to the Twenty-First Century. Charles Holcombe. Cambridge University Press, New York. 2011.

“What did Mao and His Communist Army Contribute to Defeating Japan”. John Guttman.

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