Review #18: China 1949

A confession: the period 1946-49 is a weak spot in my knowledge of 20th century Chinese history, and I’m sure I’m not alone in admitting that. In mainstream English language histories, which tend to take a broad sweep, it often gets summarised as ‘and then the civil war restarted in earnest, and the Communists won’: compared with the decades before (Revolution! May Fourth! Spies! Jazz! Japanese invasion!) and after (Revolution! Korean War! Red Guards! Famine! More Revolution!) it almost feels like a little interlude to get us from one half of the century to the next. It probably sounds quite churlish, but as someone more interested in political history than military history and without having been brought up in a society that celebrates those years as the foundation era of a national myth, I’ve been quite happy skipping over it.

Media of China 1949

China 1949 focuses on the end game of that period. Its author Graham Hutchings is not a lofty white-towered historian (although he is an honorary professor at Nottingham University and Associate at Oxford’s China Centre) but has spent a career at the interface of business and government, as well as experience as China correspondent for the Daily Telegraph. It comes through in the writing – he brings a journalistic readability combined with an attention to the ‘so what’ for readers interested in contemporary China. China 1949 is an engrossing, rewarding and fascinating read.

The single year deep dive history is a bit of a trend at the moment (there have been histories of 1945, 1946, 1947 and 1948), but it will also be a familiar concept to Chinese history bookshelves from Ray Huang’s 1587: A Year of No Significance (and to a lesser extent 1421: The Year China Discovered the World, which doesn’t focus on the year so much as make it a deliberate challenge to the 1492 narrative). This is a very different book from 1587: 1949, of course, is most definitely not a year of no significance. But while it might be the big date in 20th century China it’s not necessarily the obvious choice, as Hutchings acknowledges: ‘might we not do better to regard 1947 or 1948 as the critical twelve months that determined whether the communists would conquer China?’ he writes, citing two Chinese historians (Jin Chongji and Liu Tong) who have made the case for each of those years. Hutchings is very even-handed about this type of historical study in general, acknowledging that ‘scholars have in recent years challenged the idea that 1949 should be regarded as a watershed’.

This is all to the book’s benefit. Hutchings isn’t driven by an ambition to make the case for 1949 as the ‘critical twelve months’ – his focus is on giving us as complete a view of the events of the year as possible. The scope is remarkable – not just to cover the largest-scale civil war in world history, Hutchings takes us to every part of China from Xinjiang to Taiwan and Manchuria to Hainan, as well as Moscow, Washington, London and Hong Kong. The narrative of 1949 is hardly full of gripping twists and turns – from the opening contrast between Chiang Kai-Shek and Mao Zedong’s new year messages (Chiang proffering peace talks, Mao pledging to overthrow the Nationalists) the year is almost exclusively one way traffic, resulting in the entire mainland apart from Tibet being in Communist hands. In this account, Communist rule seems inevitable. But while most observers (not least the CIA) saw that the game was up for Chiang at the start of 1949, few expected such a quick and comprehensive defeat.

A Small, Neat Journal

The Communists may have been pushing at an open door (Dean Acheson described the Nationalists’ defeat as ‘the grossest incompetence ever experienced by any military command’), but their achievements were extraordinary in particular their military strategy as conquerors, applying different methods of conquering cities (the ‘Tianjin’ or ‘Beiping’ methods, for instance) and ability to act as open-handed, benevolent, and cautious victors, even acknowledging the importance of working with private capital. They are also shown to be smart negotiators and diligent planners, toying with the Nanjing delegates during spring peace talks and using ‘Shanghai experts’ at the Danyang conference ahead of the city’s conquest. A US scholar in Shanghai after the conquest of the city describes them as quick and efficient: ‘there has been a lot of pious propaganda, but the necessary jobs have been done’. Shanghai postmen acted as guides for the incoming troops; and architect Chen Zhanxiang, in possession of a prized airline ticket out of Shanghai as the troops enter, chooses to stay after witnessing quiet, disciplined communist troops declining food from him.

Able Seacat Simon (fair use).jpg
Simon of the Amethyst

By following the sweeping conquest of China in 1949 we see it as a rural conquest of the cities, or a northern conquest of the south. Hutchings is particularly strong on the hugely effective and impressive ‘south-bound cadres’ deployed at speed to administer conquered areas and the crossing of the Yangtze (which Stalin attempted to stop). He covers the Amethyst Incident in detail, strongly implying the official Communist account to be a lie, but sadly omits my favourite fact about it: that the ship’s cat Simon was posthumously awarded the Dickin medal for bravery, being the only cat (and the only animal not a horse, dog or pigeon) to receive it.

Despite the historical narrative of Communist triumph and Nationalist failure, Hutchings remains balanced – he acknowledges the significant advances of the Republican period, and doesn’t lose sight of what atrocities the Communists would commit while in power.

Bai Chongxi - Wikipedia
Bai Chongxi

Hutchings gives us accounts of the main players in the events of 1949, which a particular focus on Nationalist general Bai Chongxi, but his journalistic eye is best in drawing out the viewpoints of a wide range of observers to paint a picture of what it was like to live in China – there is sterling archival work here. Unsurprisingly he can only draw on the experiences of those who were able to pass their stories on, meaning that there is a high representation of westerners based in China, particularly Nanjing, but there is good representation of ordinary Chinese people as well. The westerners’ insights are often rather offhand and quotidian, at other times quite partisan (the conquest of Beiping, for instance), making some striking contrasts. While some westerners are able to take advantage of the chaos in Nanjing to join the Embassy Club ‘at very reasonable terms’, schoolchildren in Nanyang arrive at their school to find body parts littered in the classrooms and corpses rotting outside.

Hutchings is also solid on drawing modern day insights into China out of the year 1949. Happily he avoids the pretensions of plenty of (usually self-declared) China experts. He uses the events to explain the origin of the belief that ‘the leadership of the CCP and its monopoly of political power is inseparable from China’s wellbeing’, and to demonstrate why the People’s Republic ‘was founded as an executive rather than a deliberative state’. He shows us the dramatic impact that the Korean War, entered into so soon after the founding of the PRC, would have on internal and international politics. Some of his insights are mere inferences – take the speed and scope of administration (all 2 million people in Beijing were registered by mid-November), which will ring echoes with the way the state works with its citizens now; and how Xinjiang was initially brought under communist control. Ultimately he frames the year to show that the Chinese Civil War remains ‘unfinished’, which he emphasises by affording ample focus to events in Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Hutchings’ style is simple and highly readable, with a strong eye for detail. He uses some stark statistics (in the 1940 some 50% of children died before they were 5; literacy amongst women was just 1%; and a fifth of Guangxi villages were ‘completely destroyed’ by 1945) and neat anecdotes (Shanghai literary journal Lunyu focusing its March 1949 on the theme of ‘running away’; Chiang Kai-Shek’s black Cadillac with the licence plate ‘No 1’; and the Nationalist general loading a grand piano onto a plane). His humour emerges too: a regional governor ‘had thoughtfully brought out with him the province’s store of gold’; after Chiang promises ‘another Stalingrad’ Hutchings compares his efforts with Dunkirk instead.

With thanks to Bloomsbury and NetGalley for the ARC; China 1949 is released in the UK on 28 January 2021

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