Graham Hutchings writes in his new book China 1949 that “historians have often used a single year as a prism through which to view key changes that are said to have shaped an era”. He goes on to observe (somewhat counterintuitively) that of the years of China’s Civil War from 1945 to 1949, “… the year 1949 seems to have been singled out less often as decisive …” Hutchings seeks to balance the scales of history and to establish 1949 as such a prism.
By the end of 1948, the CCP and PLA had secured control over northeast China and Manchuria and their armies had moved on to and were threatening Beijing and Tianjin. A mere nine months later, on 1 October 1949, Mao would stand in Tiananmen and proclaim the founding of the PRC, Chiang Kai-shek and the KMT would retreat, shattered, to Taiwan to await the seemingly inevitable PLA conquest of the island.
If 1949 is seen as less central in the years of civil war it is not because it is insignificant, but rather because by the end of 1948 the Nationalist collapse in the Northeast had been so spectacular that a CCP victory seemed inevitable. 1949 can look less a prism than an interlude between Nationalist and CCP rule.
Hutchings does not contest the near inevitability of CCP victory, yet, he writes, “radical changes in China’s political behaviour, policy, institutions, national leadership and global alliances make 1949 a pivotal year” in the emergence of the People’s Republic of China. The first half of the book nevertheless largely follows the traditional story line: it is only about halfway through, when he begins the story of the “south-bound cadres”, that he breaks away and looks at the changes in governance that CCP control portends.
The “south-bound cadres” were the Party cadres recruited to become the civil administration of territory the CCP took over. These cadres accompanied the PLA forces as they moved south, but then dropped off the advancing army to administer the territory acquired.
This issue of control had vexed Chiang and the KMT earlier. In 1927, the KMT’s Northern Expedition had sought to unify China, but the result was often only a nominal unification with existing regional governments continuing in power but giving a vague nod to the KMT in Nanjing as the national government.
For Mao and the CCP such an outcome was unacceptable. While some of the existing government bureaucracy could be absorbed and used, most of it was deemed oppressive, exploitative, and politically unreliable and was slated for elimination. The story of the south-bound cadres is the tale of how the CCP controlled and governed what it conquered while initiating the socialist revolution in China.
Of further interest, Hutchings details the effort of underground CCP cells in cities like Shanghai to communicate with and infiltrate the utility services and police force to persuade operating and skilled workers to stay on the job as the PLA armies advanced so that urban services and order could be restored as quickly as possible.
Since most histories give little attention to the south-bound cadres or CCP infiltration of urban services, Hutchings recounting of both will be new to many readers.
As CCP victory began to look more and more likely, Western observers wondered what this new China would look like. Hutchings recounts that US and British observers had quite different views of the CCP. US observers seeing the CCP as “agrarian reformers” whereas British observers perceiving the CCP as committed to socialism and communism. Chinese observers may have had a clearer view still as mail service between north and south China continued even as the PLA took control of the north, enabling Chinese in the north to let friends and families in the south know what the CCP was doing. Although Hutchings makes reference to such correspondence, he unfortunately includes few details.
A measure of clarity came on 1 July 1949, when Mao published “On the People’s Democratic Dictatorship” outlining what Mao and the CCP saw as the political future of China. Clearly, “On the People’s Democratic Dictatorship” was a significant policy statement and supports Hutchings’s claim for the importance of 1949 on matters of policy. Moreover, discussing “On the People’s Democratic Dictatorship” and Western uncertainty regarding CCP intentions, Hutchings seems clear that if we are to understand CCP intentions we need to be looking at what the Party is telling its members, an observation as relevant to understanding the CCP today as it was in 1949.
Seventy-two years after 1949, Hutchings writes that we “are still confronted with the consequences of China’s unfinished Civil War.” Yet, even as he adds to our understanding, China 1949 suggests the limitations of selecting a single year to define an age, for it is events in 1950 not 1949 that led to this situation. Even though they are a product of that year, the influence and impact of the southern-bound cadres and “On the People’s Democratic Dictatorship” are also not seen in 1949. Hutchings makes his point for the significance of 1949, but the significance of a prism is what emerges from it: 1949 is the starting point of a larger story.