Mao Zedong turned out to be quite apt at snookering people – and I'm not talking about the Chinese people, who had no choice but to obey his dictums on various hare-brained (or, if you like, evil) schemes like The Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. No, I'm talking about Western pseudo-revolutionaries and pseudo-intellectuals like Swede Jan Myrdal, who went to Mao's China and was completely snookered by the regime and became their willing propaganda tool, the American diplomats who visited China and believed they could work with him because he was just "land reform plus", and the historians who believed him to be a military genius because he had loyal generals who let him take credit for their plans.
Michael Lynch has written a characteristically excellent Osprey "Essential History" – if they weren't so bloody expensive, I'd build up a library of my own of them instead of occasionally borrowing them at the public library – about how Mao and his communists defeated Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalists, kissing off the U.S. and the Soviet Union in the process. It is crisp, condensed, highly readable and most informative. I'll recommend it right off the bat so you'll know that you should read it for yourselves rather than just rely on my humble little review of it.
Anyway, the book starts out by giving us backgrounds on both Mao and his Chinese Communist Party, Chiang and his Guomindang Party, and the events of WWII setting the stage for the Chinese Civil War. Guomindang started out in a better position – more men, more money, more land, but essentially blew it, just like it did before the war when it had a chance to eradicate the communist armies with the aid of German military advisors like Hans von Seeckt. I'll skip over Lynch's account of the fighting and go straight to some of the reasons he gives for why the Communists won in the end, as that sort of thing interests me more than blow-by-blow reports on operations and such.
First of all, after WWII, Chiang got arrogant. Instead of working with local elites, he simply put in his own men after the war, which more or less guaranteed that cooperation and operations would be hampered. He also relied on local commanders who were mainly in it for themselves, pilfering supplies and selling them off instead of getting them to the (frequently conscripted or outright press-ganged) soldiers, thus guaranteeing worse loyalty and worse ability to fight among the soldiery (shades of the US in VIetnam...).
Also, the Guomindang trusted very much in a small upper class for its administrative and monetary support and neglected interests of the farmers and peasants who made up the absolute majority of China's population – which doesn't really mean that the Communists had the peasants' best interests in mind. However, encouraging them to take land from the big landowners – and to torture and kill those landowners, as well – was a clever way of getting the peasants on one's side, and if they made trouble later on, the Communists (like the Guomindang) had no compunctions about killing them. Simultaneously, hyper-inflation was undermining Nationalist China's economy, and it was very hard to control the racketeers and profiteers when one was dependent on them for support…
Finally, Chiang fell victim to strategic overreach when he rushed his armies to the North where they couldn't be adequately supplied, instead of first consolidating the parts of China he actually controlled by the end of WWII. Meanwhile, Mao had loyal and competent lieutenants, like, for example, Zhu De, who worked tirelessly to modernize the People's Liberation Army – like developing its artillery capabilities and competence – and who eventually succeeded. Chiang's generals, on the other hand, vied for access to their leader and his favors; if he liked their plan, that meant resources. Not the best atmosphere for cooperation among his top generals…
Read this book, it is an excellent "essential history". I'll end this with a sample from it, depicting the sort of torture that the Communist forces engaged in to keep their ideological purity – and their soldiers obedient to the master, Mao – as a little antidote to the adulation various left-wing pundits and proselytes has heaped on Mao and his revolution; and as a reminder to various revolutionary romantics of all stripes of what Mao himself said: "A revolution is not a tea party".
Chief among a soldier's duties was, as Mao had said, to be ever watchful of his comrades. (...) [I]f a comrade persisted in expressing bad thoughts, this could not be tolerated (...) The punishments were graded. They began with the pulling out of fingernails with pliers. Those who confessed during this first stage were spared further suffering, but those who remained stubborn – or whose offences were thought to merit it – were then subjected to the second stage. Hung naked by their wrists from a beam, with their toes barely touching the floor, their bodies were burned with lighted incense sticks. (...) On this occasion, only one of the accused had proved capable of withstanding what had been done to him. A gnarled veteran of the CCP's long march, he refused to confess that he had plotted against Mao and opposed the Party line. Bloodied and burned, he was now forced onto his knees in front of a wooden table. His arms were pulled forward and held, palms downward, on the table. A six-inch metal nail was then hammered through the back of each hand, transfixing him to the table.