The development of the political strategy of the chinese communist party during the yan’an era Essay

The development of the political strategy of the chinese communist party during the yan’an era

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            The Yan’an Era (1936-1949) is regarded as an important part of the history of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Communist forces under Mao Zedong arrived in Yan’an in 1936 after 6,000 miles of difficult travel, a journey which was later known as the Long March.[1] What followed this arrival was the development of the political strategy of the CCP.[2] During its 13-year stay in Yan’an, the CCP established Maoist thought as the guiding principle for all of its members, continued its revolutionary tradition and actively promoted democratic centralism and the Rectification Movement; thus, the Yan’an Era had become a great turning point of the Chinese Revolution.

            China in the 1930s was characterized with the KMT-CCP competition for the hearts and minds of the Chinese.[3] The Kuomintang (KMT), a political party led by Chiang Kai-shek, espoused a government that was based on the Western model of democracy.[4] In sharp contrast, the CCP believed that the only solution to China’s problems was the application of Marxist-Leninist principles.[5] This tailoring of Marxism-Leninism to the Chinese setting was eventually known as Maoism[6] – Mao’s own interpretation of Marxist-Leninist ideology.         Jiangxi was the epicenter[7] of the aforementioned rivalry between the KMT and the CCP. Since it was instituted in 1921, the CCP had maintained a strong anti-government stance.[8] It even went as far as limiting the participation of members in the existing state bureaucracy. The 1921 CCP constitution contained the following provision: “Except in cases of legal necessity or with special permission from the Party, Party members are not allowed to become members of the government or members of the parliament, except as soldiers, policemen, and office workers.”[9]

            Despite their ideological differences, the CCP and KMT had a common enemy: China’s feudal warlords.[10] These warlords owned much of the country’s agrarian lands and were therefore notorious for brutally suppressing peasant revolts. Furthermore, China’s feudal warlords “represented…the alien force of foreign capital in its highest stage of imperialism.”[11] In order to preserve the interests of their class, they welcomed the intrusion of the West in China’s political and economic affairs. Thus, the CCP and the KMT had no choice but to put aside their disparities and join forces against their common foe – they formed the first United Front in 1923.

            However, this CCP-KMT coalition broke in 1927. Dr. Sun Yat-sen’s death in March 1925 paved the way for a power struggle[12] between the factions of the United Front. Chiang Kai-shek, the leader of the coalition’s right-wing division, emerged as the victor. The rightists soon established their control over vast areas of China. In 1927, the KMT forced the CCP out of the urban areas and executed many Communists and suspected Communist sympathizers.[13] The United Front’s Soviet advisers fled while the Communists who survived the massacre (later known as the White Terror) escaped to Jiangxi.

            The CCP successfully managed to create Communist enclaves both in Jiangxi and in many other provinces. Exploiting the widely-perceived “agrarian crisis”[14] in Jiangxi due to the feudal warlord-domination of the region’s agriculture, Mao and his followers were able to recruit students and peasants into their fold. By 1931, the CCP had already declared a Chinese-Soviet Republic[15] in the region.

            But the hold of the CCP over Jiangxi would not last long. The KMT attempted a rural reconstruction[16] of the area – Christian universities were built and some peasants were trained in rural administration and management. In addition, Chiang staged several successful “bandit suppression” campaigns[17] in the early 1930s. These were actually military offensives that were intended to crush CCP bases in provinces throughout China. Jiangxi finally fell to the KMT in 1934, prompting about 75,000 to 100,000 Communists[18] to stage the Long March (1934-1936).

            Upon its arrival in Yan’an, the CCP established the government of the Shaanxi-Gansu-Ningxia Border Region.[19] Yan’an, which later became the border region’s capital, drew thousands of patriotic youths and urban intellectuals who were eager to join the CCP. Because of this sudden and massive influx of supporters, one of the first tasks of the CCP was to come up with a school system that would quickly train and produce Communist political and military cadres.[20] The first head of the border region’s education office was Xu Teli, one of Mao’s former teachers. Zhou Zhang, a cultural luminary from Shanghai, succeeded him for the position.

            The CCP then proceeded to establish educational institutions such as the Central Research Institute, the Central Party School and the Military Academy. The Central Research Institute trained cadres in Marxist-Leninist-Maoist theories.[21] The Central Party School provided secondary and tertiary education to middle-ranking and senior cadres.[22] The Military Academy, meanwhile, produced middle-ranking and senior military cadres.[23]

            The best-known CCP-instituted school, however, was the Chinese People’s Anti-Japanese Resistance Military and Political University (Kangda).[24] It was established in Yang’an in January 1937, with Lin Biao as president and Liu Bocheng as vice president. Kangda was devoted to providing elementary- and intermediate-level political and military training to cadres for them to be able to fight the Japanese occupation of China.[25] The university already had 10 branches[26] throughout the border region by 1939.

            Yan’an University (Yanda), which was created in 1941, sought to produce an education that was a merger of mass-line principles and practical applications.[27] It trained cadres in the management of border education through a specialized two-year curriculum which focused on the overall educational and cultural situation in the border region.[28] The curriculum likewise included elementary and middle school education, social education, the investigation of teaching materials and educational thought in present-day China.[29] Furthermore, students were required to take courses in Chinese revolutionary history, Border Region reconstruction, revolutionary philosophy and current affairs.[30]

            Indeed, the CCP used education as a means of continuing its revolutionary tradition and instilling Maoist thought in the people, especially the youth. The courses that were available in its schools usually lasted for six months, most of which specialized in either politics or military strategy.[31] There are even some cases wherein students are immediately given field assignments even if they had not yet completed their studies.[32] Field assignments almost always involved serving in the border region’s production, labor and or military forces.[33] Simply put, the youth were educated in order to continue the Communist revolution and promote Maoist thought.

            Despite the efforts of the CCP towards developing the border region, particularly Yan’an, the period from 1936 to 1941 was characterized mostly with intra-party struggle.[34] During this span of time, Mao had set his sights on the leadership of the CCP. His ambition, however, was threatened with the return of certain cadres to China from their studies in the Soviet Union.[35] One of these students, Wang Ming, also aspired to become the leader of the CCP.

            Mao’s intense desperation for power was not without cause – being the sole leader of the CCP was the only way he could compete effectively with Chiang for national leadership.[36] Mao finally had a chance to permanently discredit his opponents when the Soviet Union terminated military aid to China due to the German invasion of 1941.[37] The returned students were protégés of Nikolai Bukharin, Pavel Mif and A.I. Rykov – Soviet intellectuals and politicians who were all purged by Stalin in 1938. They could therefore not be counted on to secure much-needed Soviet assistance for the CCP, as Stalin considered them as the products of his enemies.

            Mao used the aforementioned situation of the returned students to his advantage. He projected himself as the best alternative to them. As the Soviet Union is the closest ally of the CCP, it would obviously be foolish to elect a leader whom the head of the former despises. This strategy won Mao the support of the high-ranking cadres.[38] For the latter, the returned students were nothing but “upstarts whose unwarranted rise to power has been imposed on the CCP by the Soviets.”[39] Simply put, their achievements were worthless because their capabilities were measured not by their own comrades but by foreigners.

            Mao further strengthened his hold over the CCP through the Rectification Movement (1942-1945). He was said to have launched the campaign through two February 1942 speeches: Rectify the Style of Party Work and Against Stereotypes in the Party.[40] In both speeches, Mao called upon all members of the CCP to fight subjectivism, sectarianism and stereotyped writing.[41] Two of the Rectification Movement’s leaders in Yan’an, Li Wei-han and Hsu Hsiang-ch’ien, later justified the drive by claiming that its objectives were to oppose Wang Ming’s “dogmatism” and “left” thought and to eliminate empiricism.[42]

            But the real aim of the Rectification Movement was to get rid of all of Mao’s rivals, real or perceived, to the CCP leadership. Throughout the campaign, Mao was said to have “allowed, tolerated and even encouraged the employment of pressure, extraction of confessions and use of torture.”[43] Despite encouragement by the state to engage both in criticism and self-criticism, those who dared speak out against the CCP were brutally silenced. Wang Shih-wei, a member of the Academia Sinica and the spokesperson of Yen’an youth, offended CCP leaders with a series of wall-poster articles which he had written. He was later convicted of being a former Trotskyite and imprisoned before being executed during World War II.

            In July 1943, the Central Committee adopted a nine-point Decision of the CCP Central on the Investigation of Cadres. This decision was supposed to curb excesses in the manner in which the CCP dealt with its critics.[44] The seventh point, for instance, was known as “emergency salvation” or the “struggle to save those who have fallen.”[45] But, ironically, the seventh point likewise triggered widespread panic. In Kangda, 602 people[46] were arrested on the suspicion of being KMT spies. Out of the 406 individuals[47] in the university’s cadre detachment, about 373[48] were found to be spies or were suspected to be spying.

            Yeh Chien-ying, chief of staff of the Red Army, was among those who were suspected to be KMT spies. At the height of the Rectification Movement, Chou En-lai and Peng Te-huai were recalled from their respective military assignments and were coerced into confessing that that they were advocates of empiricism (the foundation[49] of Wang Ming’s dogmatism). Leaders of the returned students, including Po Ku, Lo Fu and Yang Shang-k’un, were forced to write confessions. It was only Wang Ming who unwaveringly refused to do this.

            The Rectification Movement, despite its bloody outcome and contradicting messages, is already an expected occurrence in Yan’an. It must be noted that the CCP adhered itself to the organizational principle of democratic centralism. In its original context, democratic centralism referred to the “Rousseauean emphasis on the general will as an appropriate principle of democracy.”[50] In any decision regarding governance, the last say always comes from the constituency from whom the leader derives its power. Mao, however, created a new concept of democratic centralism by distorting the meaning of the phrase “general will.”[51]

            Mao had been discussing the idea of democratic centralism since the late 1920s. However, it was not until the Yan’an Era that he started to give focus on it. For Mao, democratic centralization was an essential part of CCP ideology.[52] This was because it was embodied by the mass line or the image of the masses actively participating in the struggle to attain a Communist “utopia.”[53] Mao articulated the importance of the equal partnership between the government and the governed in his 1945 essay On Coalition Government: “Democratic centralism is to be centralized on the basis of democracy and to be democratic under centralized guidance.”[54]

            But in order to maintain the ideological purity of the CCP, Mao had to resort to iron disciple and frequent calls for mass campaigns.[55] In the process, the concept of the “general will” is restricted only to the CCP. The individual, on the other hand, is recreated in the sense that he or she becomes a part of the collective.[56] Thus, it is no longer surprising if, in the context of the Yan’an Era, the dark side of democratic centralization included political scapegoating, personality cult, repression and manipulation.[57] These tactics allow the CCP to just impose on the people who the “enemies” of the Party are – there is no need to think on the part of the public.

            Indeed, destroying the people’s ability to think for themselves has probably been Mao’s most effective strategy in obtaining and keeping himself in power. By projecting his rivals within the CCP as “traitors” to the Communist cause, he was able to attain the leadership of the Party. After World War II, he used the same tactic in order to defeat the KMT for once and for all. By claiming that the KMT and Chiang are “imperialist puppets,” Mao was hoping that he would garner enough public support to be able to drive them out of China for good and then assume the country’s leadership afterwards.

            After World War II, the old rivalry between the CCP and the KMT was revived. Although the CCP enjoyed widespread popularity in China, the KMT retained immense military superiority. The KMT, for one, enjoyed a more than three-to-one advantage[58] (4.3 million versus 1.2 million) over the CCP in terms of regular army manpower. Furthermore, the United States supplied the KMT with the latest weaponry.

            Being a staunch anti-Communist nation, the US also assisted the KMT in its offensives against the CCP. The KMT was thus able to regain control of China’s industrial and financial centers, as well as most parts of the country except for northern Manchuria.[59] Seeing these developments, the CCP had no choice but to enter peace negotiations with the KMT. These concessions, however, all failed – not even General George Marshall’s direct intervention could reconcile the two factions. By July 1946, civil war had already broken out between the CCP and the KMT.

            Chiang, wanting to extend his control throughout China, attempted to regain Manchuria in March 1946. In retaliation, the CCP accused the KMT of violating ceasefire agreements[60] A violent civil war took place as a result, which began in Manchuria[61] and rapidly spread throughout China. Despite military assistance from the US, the KMT lost the civil war to the CCP. On October 1, 1949, Mao proclaimed the birth of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in Beijing.

            The Yan’an Era is truly a milestone in CCP history. It is during this period that the Party was able to develop its political strategy. What made this policy noteworthy was that it was it was intended to keep the CCP in power by preserving the Party’s ideological purity. Consequently, the indoctrination of the people with Maoist thought, bloody suppression of legitimate political dissent and the dictatorship of the CCP took place.

            Despite the aforementioned political strategy of the CCP, the Party still surpassed the KMT in terms of popularity among the Chinese people. This is because the CCP involved the masses in its struggle to create a Communist “utopia” in China. In sharp contrast, the strong alliance of the KMT with the West made it look like an unpatriotic, lapdog organization. The Chinese people, therefore, supported the CCP, which, in turn, allowed the latter to defeat the KMT.


Apter, David Ernest, and Tony Saich. Revolutionary Discourse in Mao’s Republic.

            Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994.

Duara, Prasenjit. Decolonization: Perspectives from Now and Then. New York: Routledge,        2004.

Fairbank, John King, Albert Feuerwerker, and Denis Crispin Twitchett. The Cambridge             History of China. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

Fitzgerald, John. Awakening China: Politics, Culture and Class in the Nationalist Revolution.

            Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 1998.

Gupta, Suman. Marxism, History and Intellectuals: Toward A Reconceptualized   Transformative Socialism. Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2000.

Hsiung, James Chieh, and Steven I. Levine. China’s Bitter Victory: The War with Japan,            1937-1945. Armonk: M.E. Sharpe, 1992.

Kau, Michael Y.M., and John K. Leung, trans. The Writings of Mao Zedong, 1949-1976:           January 1956-December 1957, by Mao Zedong. Armonk: M.E. Sharpe, 1986.

Mulvenon, James. Soldiers of Fortune: The Rise and fall of the Chinese Military-Business            Complex, 1978-1998. Armonk: M.E. Sharpe, 2000.

Nan, Lin. Social Capital: A Theory of Social Structure and Action. Cambridge: Cambridge         University Press, 2002.

Pepper, Suzanne. Radicalism and Education Reform in 20th-Century China: The Search for        an Ideal Development Model. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Saksena, N.S. Terrorism, History and Facets in the World and India: In the World and in            India. New Delhi: Abhinav Publications, 1985.

Shiping, Zheng. Party vs. State in Post-1949 China: The Institutional Dilemma. Cambridge:       Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Suisheng, Zhao. A Nation-State by Construction: Dynamics of Modern Chinese Nationalism.

            Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2004.

Tang, Tsou. The Cultural Revolution and Post-Mao Reforms: A Historical Perspective.

            Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.

Tetreault, Mary Ann. Women and Revolution in Africa, Asia, and the New World. Columbia:

            University of South Carolina Press, 1994.

Touraine, Alain, Jon Clark, and Marco Diani. Alain Touraine. New York: Routledge, 1996.

Xiaobing, Li. A History of the Modern Chinese Army. Lexington: University Press of      Kentucky, 2007.

[1] James C. Mulvenon, Soldiers of Fortune: The Rise and fall of the Chinese Military-Business Complex, 1978-1998 (Armonk: M.E. Sharpe, 2000), 24.
[2] Alain Touraine, Jon Clark and Marco Diani, Alain Touraine (New York: Routledge, 1996), 152.
[3] Suzanne Pepper, Radicalism and Education Reform in 20th-Century China: The Search for an Ideal Development Model (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 118.
[4] Prasenjit Duara, Decolonization: Perspectives from Now and Then (New York: Routledge, 2004), 128.
[5] Tsou Tang, The Cultural Revolution and Post-Mao Reforms: A Historical Perspective (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999), 63.
[6] Suman Gupta, Marxism, History and Intellectuals: Toward A Reconceptualized Transformative Socialism (Madison: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2000), 110.
[7] Pepper, 118.
[8] Zheng Shiping. Party vs. State in Post-1949 China: The Institutional Dilemma (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 35.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid.
[11] John Fitzgerald, Awakening China: Politics, Culture and Class in the Nationalist Revolution (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 1998), 172.
[12] N.S. Saksena, Terrorism, History and Facets in the World and India: In the World and in India (New Delhi: Abhinav Publications, 1985), 94.
[13] Mary Ann Tetreault, Women and Revolution in Africa, Asia, and the New World (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1994), 140.
[14] Pepper, 118.
[15] Ibid.
[16] Lin Nan, Social Capital: A Theory of Social Structure and Action (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 203.
[17] Pepper, op. cit.
[18] Nan, 204.
[19] Li Xiaobing, A History of the Modern Chinese Army (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2007), 67.
[20] Nan, op. cit.
[21] Ibid.
[22] Ibid.
[23] Ibid.
[24] Ibid.
[25] Ibid., 205.
[26] Li, 67.
[27] Nan, op. cit.
[28] Ibid.
[29] Ibid.
[30] Ibid.
[31] Ibid.
[32] Ibid.
[33] Ibid.
[34] James Chieh Hsiung and Steven I. Levine, China’s Bitter Victory: The War with Japan, 1937-1945 (Armonk: M.E. Sharpe, 1992), 92.
[35] Ibid.
[36] Ibid.
[37] Ibid., 91.
[38] Ibid., 92.
[39] Ibid.
[40] Ibid.
[41] Ibid.
[42] Ibid.
[43] Ibid., 93.
[44] Ibid.
[45] Ibid.
[46] Ibid.
[47] Ibid.
[48] Ibid.
[49] Ibid.
[50] David Ernest Apter and Tony Saich, Revolutionary Discourse in Mao’s Republic (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994), 243.
[51] Shiping, 38.
[52] Michael Y.M. Kau and John K. Leung trans. The Writings of Mao Zedong, 1949-1976: January 1956-December 1957, by Mao Zedong (Armonk: M.E. Sharpe, 1986), 274.
[53] Ibid., 275.
[54] Ibid.
[55] Shiping, op. cit.
[56] Apter and Saich, 244.
[57] Shiping, 38.
[58] Zhao Suisheng, A Nation-State by Construction: Dynamics of Modern Chinese Nationalism (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2004), 109.
[59] Ibid.
[60] Ibid., 110.
[61] Ibid., 111.

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