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  • Print publication year: 2017
  • Online publication date: May 2018

14 - China since 1945


The Chinese Civil War

Although China was one of the victors in World War II, conditions in war-ravaged China did not noticeably improve after Japan's defeat. Instead, the catastrophic inflation, corruption, and black marketeering that had begun during the World War only worsened, while the off-again, on-again civil war between the Chinese Nationalists and Communists entered its final phase. In the first months after the war, the U.S. ambassador did succeed in bringing Mao Zedong and Chiang Kai-shek together for face-to-face negotiations. It was reportedly Mao's first ride in an airplane. The American hope was to prevent full-scale civil war and promote democracy in China. For that purpose, in late 1945 President Truman appointed one of America's most distinguished military leaders and statesmen, General George C. Marshall (1880–1959), as a special envoy to China. General Marshall remained in China for a little over a year (December 1945–January 1947), and on his departure, he was able to express cautious optimism that a new Chinese constitution, and democratic elections scheduled for late 1947, might hold.

But General Marshall also expressed concern that efforts at reaching a peace settlement were being frustrated by extremists on both sides. In fact, the bitter antagonism between the Chinese Nationalists and Communists ultimately proved too deep to sustain the uneasy truce. The problems of postwar China in general, moreover, were proving stubbornly intractable. On the island of Taiwan, for example – recently returned to Chinese rule following Japan's surrender – residual damage from World War II, Nationalist Chinese economic policies that restricted the operations of a free market, and the circulation of excessive amounts of currency all combined to foster high unemployment, shortages of goods, and out-of-control inflation. When police attempted to confiscate suspected contraband cigarettes from a middle-aged female street vendor in the provincial capital, Taipei, resulting in a scuffle that killed a bystander, Taiwan erupted into a major island-wide rebellion on February 28, 1947. The rebellion was crushed by Nationalist troops, resulting in the deaths of thousands of Taiwanese. This February 28 Incident (although it was long publicly unmentionable in Taiwan) left a long-festering wound in relations between the Taiwanese people and the ruling Chinese Nationalist government on the island.