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IB DP History Study Notes

3.1.8 China's Internal Political Developments

China's political landscape in the 1930s and early 1940s was a maelstrom of changing alliances, ideological conflicts, and power plays, all set against the backdrop of Japanese aggression. A deep dive into these internal developments helps unravel the complex web of relationships and decisions that ultimately shaped China's wartime strategies and post-war future.

The Second United Front: Formation and Significance


  • The Second United Front was an uneasy alliance formed between the Chinese Nationalist Party (Kuomintang or KMT) and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in 1937.
  • Earlier, during the first United Front (1924-1927), ideological rifts led to a catastrophic fallout, propelling the two parties into a civil war.
  • By the 1930s, the looming threat of Japanese imperialism made it increasingly clear that a united front was essential for national survival.


  • A Symbol of Unity: The alliance, despite its underlying tensions, portrayed China as a united entity against Japanese intrusion.
  • Coordinated Efforts: It brought about certain levels of coordinated military strategies and shared resources, which were critical in the initial phases of Japanese aggression.
  • Re-alignment of Goals: The KMT had to shift its primary objective from eliminating communism to thwarting Japan.

The Role of Nationalists and Communists in Resistance

The Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT):


  • Chiang Kai-shek, as the leader of the KMT and the nominal head of China, had the responsibility of navigating the country through these perilous times.

Military Initiatives:

  • The KMT's resistance against Japan was marked by large-scale, often bloody confrontations.
  • Battles such as Shanghai, Wuhan, and Taierzhuang saw considerable KMT involvement, showcasing their commitment to resist Japanese advancement.

Diplomatic Overtures:

  • The KMT tried forging ties with Western powers. The hope was that international pressure, coupled with economic sanctions, could deter Japan.

Internal Struggles:

  • Rampant corruption within the ranks, ill-trained military personnel, and logistical nightmares weakened the KMT's standing both domestically and internationally.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP):

Mao Zedong’s Strategy:

  • Mao Zedong led the CCP with a vision quite distinct from the KMT. He believed in the power of guerrilla warfare, taking the fight to the vast Chinese countryside and leveraging local support.

Grassroots Mobilisation:

  • The CCP's primary strength was its connection with the peasantry. Through land reforms and social programmes, they earned the loyalty and support of vast rural populations.

Nationalism over Communism:

  • While the party's foundation was rooted in communist ideology, the emphasis during these years was on fostering a robust Chinese nationalist sentiment against Japanese invaders.

Increasing Popularity:

  • Their strategies, coupled with their portrayal as champions of the common man, led to a surge in the CCP's popularity. This base would later be instrumental in their eventual rise to power after the war.

Impact of Internal Politics on Chinese Resistance

Unity vs Division:

  • The constant tug of war between the KMT and CCP meant that, at times, more energy was spent in internal power struggles than against the external enemy.

Resource Contention:

  • Arguments over the allocation of resources, especially as foreign aid started pouring in, were frequent. The KMT, being the internationally recognised government, often had the final say, leading to further resentment from the CCP.

Strategic Divergence:

  • The KMT believed in confronting the Japanese head-on, while the CCP preferred a more protracted, guerrilla-style warfare. These differing tactics often led to clashes and disagreements on the overall war strategy.

Public Perception and Support:

  • The prolonged war, coupled with economic hardships, eroded the KMT's public image. Allegations of corruption and inefficiency further tarnished their reputation.
  • Conversely, the CCP, with its grassroot reforms and continuous engagement with the rural populace, emerged as a beacon of hope for many.

Long-term Implications:

  • The immediate need to counter the Japanese threat meant that full-scale civil hostilities between the KMT and CCP were postponed. However, these underlying tensions never truly dissipated.
  • Post-war, these internal rifts would once again come to the fore, shaping China's future trajectory in the latter half of the 20th century.

Through an intricate weave of alliances, betrayals, shared goals, and contrasting strategies, China's internal political developments during this period are a testament to the resilience and complexity of the nation. Understanding these nuances provides not just a glimpse into the past, but also valuable insights into the making of modern China.


Both the KMT and CCP, being vast and multifaceted parties, had internal factions which influenced their broader strategies. Within the KMT, there were conservative elements, primarily the Whampoa clique, who staunchly opposed communism. Conversely, there were more progressive factions that were open to cooperation with the CCP for nationalistic reasons. The CCP also faced internal divisions. The 28 Bolsheviks, trained in Moscow, often clashed with Mao's vision of a peasant-led revolution. While Mao eventually consolidated his power after the Zunyi Conference in 1935, these internal debates shaped the party's strategies, especially regarding their cooperation with the KMT and their grassroots mobilisation approach.

The formation of the Second United Front was primarily a domestic response to the Japanese threat. However, it had international implications. Western powers, especially those wary of Japanese expansion in Asia, viewed the alliance positively, hoping that a united Chinese resistance could serve as a bulwark against Japan. This sentiment partially led to foreign aid and support to China, primarily channelled through the KMT as the internationally recognised governing body. The USSR, given its communist orientation, maintained a cautious approach, providing support but also ensuring that the Chinese communists maintained a degree of independence. Overall, the front's formation was seen as a stabilising factor, albeit temporarily, in the East Asian geopolitical landscape.

Post-World War II, the KMT's strategy was marred by economic challenges and hyperinflation, leading to a loss of public support. Their primary focus shifted to consolidating power and countering the rising influence of the CCP. The CCP, leveraging the grassroots support and guerrilla warfare experience gained during the Japanese aggression, shifted towards more conventional warfare tactics. They combined their rural bases with urban insurrections, leading to a multi-pronged offensive against the KMT. The civil war that ensued saw the CCP adapt and modify its strategies, utilising the networks and experiences from the anti-Japanese resistance, eventually leading to their victory in 1949.

The CCP, under Mao Zedong's vision, implemented extensive land reforms, redistributing land from wealthy landlords to the landless peasants. This socio-economic policy endeared the CCP to the vast rural populace. Moreover, the party initiated educational programmes and health campaigns, further solidifying their position. Mao's belief in the "surrounding the cities from the countryside" strategy was predicated on the idea that a revolution would succeed with the peasantry as its backbone. By securing the loyalty and support of the rural majority, the CCP could leverage this grassroots connection for guerrilla warfare, making the countryside a challenging terrain for Japanese forces and later proving instrumental in the CCP's rise to power.

The first United Front, established between the KMT and CCP in the 1920s, disintegrated due to deep-rooted ideological differences and power struggles. Initially, the alliance was formed to end warlordism in China. However, the KMT, under Chiang Kai-shek's leadership, grew distrustful of the communists' increasing influence and popularity, especially among the worker and peasant classes. This mistrust culminated in the Shanghai Massacre of 1927, where Chiang purged communists, leading to a violent split. The civil war that ensued further deepened the chasm. By the mid-1930s, as the Japanese threat intensified, both parties recognised the need for unity, resulting in the formation of the Second United Front in 1937.

Practice Questions

Evaluate the significance of the Second United Front in shaping China's resistance against Japanese aggression.

The Second United Front was pivotal in shaping China's resistance against Japan. Formed between the KMT and CCP in 1937, this alliance, albeit fraught with tension, symbolised a unified Chinese front against an external threat. It facilitated the pooling of resources and coordinated military strategies during the initial phases of Japanese aggression. Additionally, the alliance marked a re-alignment of the KMT's goals, prioritising national defence over their original objective of eradicating communism. While underlying ideological differences persisted, the immediate combined resistance offered by the United Front was essential in countering the Japanese advance and portraying a semblance of unity on the international stage.

How did the contrasting strategies of the KMT and CCP impact China's ability to counter Japanese aggression during the late 1930s?

The divergent strategies of the KMT and CCP played a crucial role in China's resistance. The KMT, led by Chiang Kai-shek, favoured large-scale confrontations, resulting in battles such as Shanghai and Taierzhuang. They believed in direct engagements and often sought international alliances to fortify their stance. In contrast, the CCP under Mao Zedong leaned towards guerrilla warfare, leveraging the vast Chinese countryside and local support. Their grassroots mobilisation, especially among the peasantry, solidified a strong base. While the KMT's approach had its merits, especially in drawing international attention, the CCP's tactics were sustainable, gaining widespread popularity. The differing methods, at times, led to internal conflicts, but together they presented a multifaceted resistance against Japanese imperialism.

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Written by: Maddie
Oxford University - BA History

Maddie, an Oxford history graduate, is experienced in creating dynamic educational resources, blending her historical knowledge with her tutoring experience to inspire and educate students.

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