Souvenir plates with images of China's late Chairman Mao Zedong and President Xi Jinping are seen at a shop during the Communist Party's 19th National Congress in Beijing. Photo: Reuters/ Tyrone Siu
Souvenir plates with images of China's late Chairman Mao Zedong and President Xi Jinping at a shop during the Communist Party's 19th National Congress in Beijing. Photo: Agencies

Review of Graham Hutchings, China 1949: Year of Revolution, Bloomsbury Academic (Bloomsbury Publishing), January 28, 2021. $35 hardcover; $17.01 digital.

In 1949, the Chinese civil war reached a tipping point.

To nearly everyone’s surprise, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) rapidly defeated the Nationalist forces of Chiang Kai-shek, the Chinese Communist Party came to power and the People’s Republic of China was founded. In a single year, Western dominance of China came to an end and a new historical era began.

Graham Hutchings, an associate at the University of Oxford’s China Center and an honorary professor at the University of Nottingham, provides an engaging day-by-day account of those momentous events.

Hutchings did a lot of research. He consulted five historical archives. The book’s select bibliography of books and periodicals runs to more than 10 pages. For those wishing to pursue the subject in greater detail, this volume lays an excellent foundation.

The story is personal as well as political and historical. Leading characters from Mao Zedong, Lin Biao and Zhou Enlai to Chiang Kai-shek and Bai Chongxi are portrayed in ways that illuminate the events. The same goes for ordinary people who have their own unique stories. The latter include Li Zhisui, the doctor who became Mao’s personal physician, and Mei Jun, a young woman who left home to escape the civil war and ended up on Taiwan.

Visitors stand in front of a photograph of late Chinese leader Mao Zedong (R) posing with Guomingtang or Chinese Nationalist Party leader Chiang Kai-shek, on display at an exhibition titled ‘Road of Revival’ at the Military Musuem in Beijing, in 2007. Photo: AFP / Teh Eng Koon

There are also stories of businessmen who had to decide whether to stay and throw their lot in with the Communists – or flee to Hong Kong, Taiwan or the West. Accounts of British and American diplomats show how much, and how little, has changed since then.

In Hutchings’s words:

Many of the factors that accounted for the Party’s seizure of power in 1949 form part of the “furniture” of Chinese politics today. Perhaps chief among them is the belief – not universally shared by all Chinese, yet by no means limited to the party itself – that the leadership of the CCP and its monopoly of political power is inseparable from China’s well-being.

From this much else flows in terms of the impact of 1949 on current Chinese life. It includes the fact that the party, rather than the state, controls the People’s Liberation Army (PLA); that the rule of law is subject ultimately to the party rather than to professional judges; that the media is obliged to adhere to the party line; and that civil society is allowed to flourish only within party-set parameters.

Actually, this goes much farther back: to Sun Yat-sen, the Chinese revolution of 1911 and the foundation of the Republic of China:

According to the schema laid down by Sun Yat-sen, the national government would embark on an unspecified period of “political tutelage” of the Chinese people until they were deemed ready to elect their leaders and inaugurate the longed-for era of constitutional rule.

Under circumstances not imagined then, the period of tutelage has continued to this day. Meanwhile, China has become in fact, not only in name, one of the great powers. Of the great tasks the CCP set for itself, only the absorption of Taiwan has not yet been accomplished.

Also of relevance today is a quote from PLA commander Zhu De that is echoed in statements by Xi Jinping:

Only if we develop our industry and do not let our economy become reliant on foreign countries can we provide a basis for the independence and sovereignty of our nation and guarantee a prosperous life for our people.

In the end, the Communists were victorious because they were disciplined and well organized, had developed a clear and realistic strategy and implemented policies that benefitted the majority of the people. The Nationalists lost for the opposite reasons. Xi Jinping has not forgotten this and neither should we.

Chinese young Red Guards who take part in autumn harvest on the outskirts of Beijing help a former peasant study then President Mao Zedong’s “Little Red Book” during a work break October 25, 1966. Photo by Xinhua / AFP

The book concludes with the following observation and warning:

Xi Jinping warned that the issue of Taiwan’s reunification cannot be passed “from generation to generation.” The decision to lift term limits on his period in office, along with his tightening of control over society as whole, suggested that he wished to go down in history as the man who reunified China.

To achieve this in 2021, the centenary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party, would be especially gratifying – both for Xi and the Party leadership in Beijing. A large part of Xi’s “China Dream,” his great scheme for national rejuvenation, would thus be realized.

But as of this writing, the chances that reunification will be accomplished by peaceful means seem negligible at best. It is more likely, more than seventy years after 1949, that China’s Civil War will remain unfinished and that it may even resume.

Scott Foster is an analyst with Lightstream Research, Tokyo.