Compare and Contrast the Causes and Results of the Chinese and Spanish Civil Wars

The causes of the Chinese and Spanish Civil Wars were similar in that both involved polarisation which precipitated the collapse of a monarchic system of government, which in turn succeeded in polarising political ideologies. They were different in the speed with which these factors brought about civil war, and that China, unlike Spain, was ushered into war by a foreign invasion. The results of the wars were similar in that both costs of war were very high, both in terms of causalities and damaged infrastructure. Both wars resulted in the persecution of the defeated political opposition, crucial developments in the Cold War and the emergence of Single-Party states. Differences include opposing political ideologies coming to power in China and Spain, the degree to which opposition was destroyed and the freedoms of women in each post-civil war society.

The date on which the Chinese Civil War began is difficult to say for certain. Some historians, such as Andy Dailey and Sarah Webb claim that war did not begin until after the surrender of Japan in September 1945. There had been fighting however since April 1927, when the leader of the nationalist Guomindang (GMD) Party, Chiang Kai-shek, sanctioned attacks by the Green Gang on the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) headquarters in Shanghai. Violent struggles between the nationalist GMD and CCP continued until 1937 when a temporary truce was formed to combat the Japanese invasion of China. After Japan was defeated, civil war began between the CCP and GMD in earnest. For the purposes of this essay, the war has been divided into two phases. The first phase of the Chinese Civil War began in April 1927. The time from September 1945 will be considered the second phase.

In both Spain and China, poverty was massive, especially amongst the rural poor. In Spain in 1930, farmers made up 45.5% of the workforce. As with China, where that number was as high as 85%, farmers were not allowed to own land, and farms were owned by a few wealthy landlords. Both countries also had a small, yet growing urban workforce. China’s urban population was far smaller than Spain’s however; by the early 1930s, 25.6% of the Spanish population lived in towns with more than 10,000 inhabitants, whereas this was true for just 4.5% of China’s population.

A contributing factor to the Civil war in both nations was dissatisfaction with existing political structures. After the Wuchang Uprising in October 1911, the 268-year old Qing Dynasty ended with the abdication of the five-year-old emperor PuYi. In 1912 General Yuan Shikai became the first President of the Chinese Republic. The Chinese people were dissatisfied with him however, particularly when he declared himself emperor in 1915. His abdication led to a break-down of the political structure in China, and the following political disunity in continued until the Northern Expedition of 1927, when the Guomindang led a military expeditions to reunite China. In order to form sufficient military power to lead such an expedition, the nationalist GMD was forced to form a coalition with the CCP. Under the first leader of the GMD was named Sun Yat Sen. Under his leadership, the GMD-CCP alliance was formed. Until Sun’s death, the GMD was tolerant towards the Communists, but his successor was far more right wing. That man’s name was Chiang Kai Shek who became Sun’s successor in 1926 and was far more right-wing.[1] Chiang began to persecute CCP members, excluding them from positions of power within the coalition. This led to a polarisation between the GMD and CCP which later devolved into conflict.

In Spain, the population had similarly become dissolution with the Spanish monarchy after the economic depression which followed the First World War. This, coupled with growing separatist sentiments in the Basque lands and Catalonia led to growing unrest, particularly amongst those on the political left. Those on the right grew alarmed by the prospect of the monarchy falling to a left-wing government, and turned to Captain-General Miguel Primo de Rivera for leadership, who promised to end Spanish unrest. He came to power as a result of a military coup in 1923. Primo de Rivera ruled for longer than Yuan Shikai however, and his government didn’t fall until January 28th 1930 when Primo de Rivera stepped down after discontent at his inability to resolve Spain’s socioeconomic problems.

Unlike China after the fall of its military dictatorship, Spain did not immediately fall into political chaos, and underwent three major elections between 1931 and 1936. All elections produced coalition governments. The first, from 1931 to 1933 brought about a coalition between the socialist PSOE and the moderate Radical Party. This led to a right-wing backlash and the next government, from 1931-1933 was composed of the quasi-fascist CEDA party and Radical party. The third government was once again a left-wing coalition, known as the Popular Front which was in power from February to July 1936. Each consecutive government made liberals more radical and conservatives more reactionary. This polarisation led to an armed uprising by the right-wing military under General Franco, and directly led to the Spanish Civil War.

The Spanish Civil War was a gradual breakdown of the system, beginning with the coup of Primo de River in 1923 and devolving into civil war with General Franco’s invasion of Malaga from Spanish Morocco. It was a single process, in contrast to the Chinese Civil War, which had two distinct phases. The second phase of the Chinese Civil War was in part spurred by the invasion of Japan, not least the confidence both sides felt after the Japanese had been defeated. The Nationalist GMD felt confident. They were supported by the United States. On the other hand, the CCP felt confident because they were supported by the USSR. Though war with the Japanese did not begin until 1937, Japan had been the de facto ruler of the Chinese region of Manchuria since the Mukden Incident of 1931. The fact that after the Japanese had been expelled from Manchuria, Japanese equipment and weapons went to the CCP further bolstered their confidence. The CCP role in the liberation also improved their nationalist image.  The cause of the Chinese Civil War (at least its second phase) differs from the Spanish Civil War in that it was directly influenced by the invasion of a foreign power.

The results of the Chinese Civil War and Spanish Civil War are also similar. Both sides suffered massive casualties (the Chinese casualties were far greater, but China also had a far larger population). It is thought that 500,000 people died in Spain as a result of the Spanish Civil War. The Chinese Civil War had six million suspected casualties from the war, just from the years 1945-1949. This pales in comparison to the 1937-1945 Sino-Japanese War however, which resulted in more than 21 million civilian and military deaths. Infrastructure was severely damaged in both Spain and China, both rurally and with the limited industrial sector. In China, $847,000,000 worth of manufacturing equipment in the newly liberated Manchuria was dismantled and taken by the Soviets for use in the USSR.

In both China and Spain, There was persecution of the defeated opposition, with 400,000 Spanish in exile, and repression of former Republicans. In China, military clashes with the GMD continued into the 1950s, well after the CCP had established rule in mainland China. Both states were crucial in the development of the Cold War. Franco’s semi-fascist state was seen as a crucial buffer against Communism in Europe, and Chinese Communism led to the US adopting a more interventionist foreign policy in fighting the Cold War, with Chinese Communism being at least partial responsible for US forays into Korea and Vietnam. Finally, both the Chinese and Spanish Civil Wars resulted in the emergence of single-party states, with clear dictators who ruled until their deaths: Chairman Mao Tse-Tung in China and General Francisco Franco in Spain.

There were differences in the results of the civil wars however, most notably in the structure of the emergent single-party states. The People’s Republic of China was a Communist (though Maoist, as opposed to Marxist-Leninist Communism) state with Chairman Mao at its head. Though Franco’s Spain permitted only one political party, the fascist Falange party, its status as a single-party state is debateable as political power in Spain was most strongly concentrated within the military. In addition, though opposition was persecuted in both China and Spain, unlike Spain the opposition was not totally destroyed in China. The Nationalist GMD fled to the island of Taiwan after 1949, where they remain the effective government today. The two sides even clashed militarily in the 1950s in the Strait of Taiwan. An additional difference between the results of the Chinese Civil War and Spanish Civil War is the impact on women. In Franco’s Spain, women’s education focused on domestic work and motherhood and mixed gender classrooms were prohibited. Divorce, civil marriage, contraception and abortion were outlawed, though prostitution was permitted. Women in China after the Civil War had a better time of it. Women were granted greater legal rights, especially with regards to marriage and more educational opportunities, as Communism, at least in theory, promoted greater equality. For a majority of women however, little changed, especially in rural areas. This was because despite the political revolution, traditional attitudes towards women still persisted.

The Chinese and Spanish Civil Wars have similar causes and results. Both were caused by the collapse of a monarchic system of government which led to increased political polarisation. The results were similar in that they resulted in economic damages and loss of civilian life, as well as establishing single-party states. There were differences in the causes and results too however. The causes of both wars differed in the influence foreign powers on the outbreak of war and the speed with which political unity devolved. The results differed in the nature of the single-party states which arose in both nations, the degree to which the defeated opposition was persecuted. The impact of these wars on women also varied between China and Spain.

[1] This being said, it is a misconception that Chiang called himself Generalissimo as Francisco Franco had. His tittle was tèjí shàng jiàng (特級上將) which better translates as General Special Class.


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