In 1934, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) began the Long March, a 9,000-kilometer retreat from its base areas in Southern China that eventually took it to the plains of Northern China. It was in Northern China that the CCP earned its reputation as one of the most effective insurgent forces of the 20th century. There, it swam as “fish” among the “sea” of the people, fighting first the Japanese from 1937 to 1945 and then against the Chinese Nationalist (Kuomintang, KMT) from 1946 to 1949 in the Chinese Civil War. Why was the CCP so successful in Northern China and so manifestly unsuccessful in Southern China? This raises a broader question: what explains the resilience of insurgent groups in wartime? Drawing on evidence from the CCP insurgency, as well as those in Malaya and Vietnam, this study shows that the persistence of an insurgency is a joint function of insurgent’s governance strategies and their ability to control territory. When insurgents establish broad social coalitions, their institutions will persist when they do not have complete control of territory because they enjoy the support of the civilian population and civilians will not defect to the incumbent. By contrast, when insurgents establish narrow coalitions, civilian compliance is a product of coercion and a defeat on the battlefield brings about a collapse of the insurgency because civilians will defect to the incumbent.
Marc Opper’s research focuses on the etiology, conduct, and outcome of internal conflicts with a focus on the micro-level interactions between civilians and armed groups. He specializes in the politics and society of China and of the Chinese diaspora in Southeast Asia, as well as the politics and history of the Vietnam War. His current book project, Fighting the People, Fighting for the People: Insurgent Governance and Conflict Outcomes in China, Malaya, and Vietnam makes extensive use of primary sources to examine the relationship between the institutions established by armed insurgent groups and the outcomes of internal conflicts. His research seeks combine social science with history and area studies to produce work that appreciates and embraces local contexts while producing generally-applicable theoretical insights into social and political phenomena. In addition to his book project, he is also working on separate projects that analyze resource extraction by the Chinese Communist Party in the 1930’s and 1940’s, the formal legal systems of insurgent organizations, and the role of local elections in civil wars. While at Yale, in addition to conducting research, he will be teaching an undergraduate seminar, “Contemporary State-Building in Asia.”