When was China’s Civil War? Some say from 1945 to 1949; others add the years 1927 to 1937 and still others claim it continued intermittently throughout World War II because most posit the war was between two Leninist-modeled parties, the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
I propose a different perspective.
China’s Civil War began in 1911 and, except for an occasional peaceful hiatus, has continued in a variety of forms, with a variety of participants, up to the present.
A rose by any other name is still a rose; so, too, a civil war. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language provides a suitable definition of “civil war” as a “war between factions or regions of the same country.”
From the Wuchang coup in 1911 onwards, different factions, groups, warlords and regions have vied with each other to control and “liberate” China.
Liberate China from what? The Manchus conquered China in 1644 and then went on to conquer Mongolia, Tibet, Xinjiang and the western half of the island of Taiwan.
In the Wuchang uprising, to be free from the Manchus, 15 provinces seceded and the war between China’s factions or regions began. The 15 provinces had to contend with Yuan Shih-kai (袁世凱), who controlled the formidable Beiyang Army and had the support of the northern provinces.
Yuan fought not for the emperor — he would force him to abdicate in February 1912 — nor for the developing republic.
He became, in effect, a warlord: “a military commander exercising civil power in a region, whether in nominal allegiance to the national government or in defiance of it.”
Yuan forced a compromise. Sun Yat-sen (孫逸仙) stepped down as president and Yuan became provisional president of the short-lived, new republic. Elections were held and the Nationalists won a majority of the parliamentary seats, but a key leader, Sung Chiao-jen (宋教仁), was assassinated in 1913. After having himself named president by parliament in 1914, Yuan disbanded it.
Sun fled to Japan and called for a second revolution to continue the civil war, but the rebellious Nationalist provinces were put down.
Yuan had not finished. In 1915, he named himself emperor. This cost him the loyalty of his closest supporters, inflaming conflict between Yuan and dissenting factions and regions of the country.
Yuan died in 1916, but the civil war continued into what is called the warlord era as a semi-official government in Beijing — recognized by the US and others — carried out diplomatic functions.
Sun returned from Japan in 1917. He allied himself with warlords in the south and set up a rival military government in Guangzhou in 1921. The civil war continued.
After Sun’s death in 1925, Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石) and the southern warlords began the Northern Expedition to eliminate the northern warlords, disbanding the Beijing government in 1927. Chiang also sought to eliminate the CCP, which had been established in 1921. A massacre in Shanghai was the result, followed by Mao Zedong’s (毛澤東) Long March and the Xian Incident in which Chiang was abducted by one of his own officers. By the time of the Sino-Japanese war, China’s civil war had narrowed down to two surviving factions, the Nationalists and the Communists.
What about Taiwan throughout this period?
The island that the Qing had partially ruled from 1683 and which became a province in 1885 quickly exited the stage in 1895 when the Qing ceded it to Japan as part of the Treaty of Shimonoseki.
This was long before 1912 and China’s Civil War, and Japan would be the first nation to control the entire island of Taiwan.
World War II ended in 1945, but it would be seven more years before the San Francisco Peace Treaty was ratified.
Meanwhile, the Chinese Civil War supposedly ended in 1949 with the KMT retreating into exile. Here the murkiness begins.
China did not want to revert to the borders of the Ming empire; instead, it wanted to possess and control kingdoms that the Manchus conquered. It wanted Mongolia, Tibet and Xinjiang.
Taiwan was not considered to be part of China at this time because it was part of Japan. And, as things played out, Mongolia had support from Russia and was able to maintain its independence.
Tibet was not as lucky. Britain sought to divide Tibet between itself and China to preempt Russian influence in that area. Xinjiang, for its part, had no support from any neighbors.
After Japan’s surrender, US forces landed on Taiwan in September 1945. They liberated and transported Allied prisoners of war that had been in Japanese camps around the island. These forces later ferried soldiers of Chiang Kai-shek’s army to Taiwan as a caretaker force.
Taiwan thus has always been outside China’s Civil War, and when the San Francisco Peace Treaty stated that Japan would surrender the islands of Penghu and Taiwan, it never stated to whom.
This is why the US considers Taiwan’s status to be undetermined.
The Constitution of the Republic of China (ROC), which came into effect in 1947, claimed that Taiwan was a part of the ROC.
Yet the San Francisco Peace Treaty did not grant Taiwan to the ROC in 1952.
The same Constitution also claimed Mongolia and Tibet as part of the ROC, but Russia called Taipei’s bluff when it supported Mongolia’s entry into the UN as an independent nation. The ROC backed away from vetoing the application.
Taiwan indirectly participated in China’s Civil War in that the KMT stripped it of all food and materials that could support its losing civil war campaign in China.
Likewise, many Taiwanese were conscripted and forced to fight on the KMT’s side in that war — but that was all.
Taiwan has always been separate: before, during and after China’s Civil War.
Isn’t it time, then, to give up the canard that Taiwan and China split after the Civil War in 1949?
Taiwan is Taiwan; China is China.
Jerome Keating is a writer based in Taipei.
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