31 December 2020

ON 15 JANUARY 1935, a consequential meeting of the Communist Party of China politburo began in the city of Zunyi. Its deliberations would help Mao Zedong (above) take control of the CPC. Zunyi had been captured from nationalist forces the week before as part of the “Long March,” the Red Army’s response to the Kuomintang’s Fifth Encirclement Campaign against the Jiangxi Soviet.

By the time of the Zunyi conference, the Red Army had been on the retreat from pursuing Kuomintang forces for three months. On 16 January, Mao—who had been chairman of the Jiangxi Soviet but lost much of his political and military power once the central party leadership relocated to the province in the early 1930s—launched a blistering criticism of the CPC’s military line, as he had done in two recent politburo conferences, at Tongdao and Liping in December 1934. At Zunyi, a majority of the delegates agreed with his proposal to renew a guerrilla campaign against the Kuomintang and attempt to force decisive battles rather than continue the “pure defence” line of simply resisting the inexorable advance of nationalist forces. The Three-Man Group that had been coordinating the military effort, led by the German communist Otto Braun, was abolished. Mao was elected to the politburo’s standing committee and appointed to assist Zhou Enlai in commanding the Red Army.

Over the next few months, as the new military strategy paid some dividends, Mao’s stature in the party increased. On 4 March, he was appointed the political commissar of the Front Commanding Headquarters. Later that month, he was named to a new Three-Man Group and, owing to the ill health of the other members, became the de facto commander of the Red Army. By October, when the Red Army ended the nine-thousand-kilometre Long March at Yan’an, he was the undisputed leader of the CPC.