Potentially explosive guidance arrives in the Jinggangshan from the 6th Party Congress of the Communist Party, and plans are laid to break out of the enemy encirclement.
Stephen Averill, Revolution in the Highlands: China’s Jinggangshan Base Area
Stuart Schram, ed., Mao’s Road to Power, vol. 3: From the Jinggangshan to the Establishment of the Jiangxi Soviets, July 1927-December 1930
Pang Xianzhi and Jin Chongji, Mao Zedong: A Biography, vol. 1: 1893-1949
Tony Saich, The Rise to Power of the Chinese Communist Party
Mao Zedong, “Combat Liberalism”
Some names from this episode:
Peng Dehuai, Guomindang colonel who was secretly a Communist and who launched an uprising in July 1928
Wang Zuo, Bandit leader who joined with Mao Zedong
Yuan Wencai, Bandit leader who joined with Mao Zedong
Wang Shouhua, President of the General Labor Union
Chen Yi, Political commissar for the 28th regiment of the Fourth Red Army
Long Chaoqing, secretary of the Ninggang County Committee of the Communist Party
Wang Huai, secretary of the Yongxin County Committee of the Communist Party
He Changgong, important Fourth Red Army cadre
Welcome to episode 100 of the People’s History of Ideas Podcast.
We left off last episode with the arrival of about half of the 5th Red Army in the Jinggangshan base area, led by Peng Dehuai. And as we mentioned then, this was a super important event. Peng Dehuai is going to become one of the main leaders of the Chinese Revolution and, for the next 30 years or so from when we’re meeting him here, he’s going to be a very important figure in Chinese history.
The arrival of Peng Dehuai and his troops in the Jinggangshan brought the waiting game that the Communists had been playing while the Guomindang assembled a massive force surrounding the base area to a head. On the one hand, the Communists now had even more mouths to feed, and this was just unsustainable, for reasons we discussed last episode. But also, the arrival of reinforcements in the base area was noted by the Guomindang and served to spur them on to speed up their preparations to launch the more active phase of their encirclement and suppression campaign. As the Guomindang troops got moving, it was clear that the Communists had to come to some sort of decision about how to handle the threat at hand.
And, on top of all this, documents from the Sixth Congress of the Communist Party arrived in the base area shortly after Peng Dehuai did. And there was some real incendiary material in there that would have to be dealt with carefully if Mao Zedong and Zhu De didn’t want their whole army to implode. So, it was necessary to figure out how to deal with all that, and I’ll get into the details in just a moment here.
So, with all these big decisions to make, the Communist leadership called a major meeting. This meeting is known to us today as the Bailu Conference because it was held in Bailu village in Ninggang County from January 4 to 7, 1929. It was a joint meeting of the Front Committee, the Special Committee of the Hunan-Jiangxi Border Area, and the military committees of the Fourth and Fifth Red Armies. About 60 cadres in all attended the meeting.
The first item of business at the conference was discussion of the new documents that had arrived from the 6th Communist Party Congress. Now, we haven’t talked about that Congress yet in this podcast. It had been held over the summer in Moscow, and it was only now, months later, that news of the Congress was reaching the remote Jinggangshan. We’ll dedicate a podcast episode soon to that Congress. For our purposes right now, let’s just note that while there were some important changes in how the revolutionary situation and strategy to be followed in China were conceptualized at the Congress, representing something of a change from the policy that came to be labeled ‘blind actionism’ (and that we explored back in episodes 72 through 75), these were apparently not dramatic enough changes to elicit any major debate at the Bailu Conference, where the base area leadership was faced with much more urgent and concrete problems of survival and imminent military clashes with a far superior force.
But this was in part because a statement of major relevance for the Jinggangshan Communists was too explosive to discuss openly inside the meeting, and so Mao, Zhu and other top-level cadres decided to suppress it for the time being, although they knew that it would inevitably get out. But they hoped that they could mitigate the impact of the statement during whatever time they bought for themselves by suppressing part of the document.
So, what was this explosive decision by the 6th Party Congress?
The document, which is the July 10, 1928 “Resolution on the Question of the Organization of Soviet Political Power,” contained a subsection, the tenth subsection in particular, which was headed “Our Relationship with Bandits.” The content of this subsection went something along the lines of “Before a given uprising, we can form an alliance with bandits. After the uprising, we should disarm them and eliminate their chiefs.”
So basically, this resolution boiled down to a directive which meant that, according to a strict understanding of Party discipline, would have meant that the leaders of the 32nd Regiment, Wang Zuo and Yuan Wencai, the two local figures who had been so essential to the establishment of the Jinggangshan base area, would have to have been executed, and their troops, basically a whole regiment of the 4th Red Army, disarmed and disbanded. These were the vast majority of the people with local roots and local knowledge. On a practical level it would have been suicidal, and on a moral level it was also clearly wrong when applied to this particular context.
What was going through the minds of the people at the 6th Party Congress when they wrote this? I doubt that much particular information about the Jinggangshan was considered as part of their discussion. Rather, what I suspect most informed this line of reasoning was a couple of experiences that we discussed some time ago in this podcast. If you will remember when we talked about the Autumn Harvest Uprising in Hubei in episode 59, the bandits that the Communists had allied with during that uprising turned on and killed their Communist allies. And, also, there was the experience in Shanghai where the gangsters, urban variants of the rural bandits who would have been more familiar to most of the Communists at the 6th Party Congress, whose experience of revolution so far had been more urban than rural, also turned on the Communists who had been working with them (as you might recall from episode 49, where the treacherous execution of Wang Shouhua by the Green Gang was the first act in what became a massacre of progressive forces in Shanghai). So, I think it was this sort of treachery on the part of bandits and gangsters, which had resulted in the deaths of many Communist cadre who had tried to work divert bandits and gangsters into serving the revolutionary cause, which was what the Communists had in mind in Moscow when they wrote this part of the resolution.
But clearly, this did not fit the situation in the Jinggangshan. So how did Mao deal with this when he saw what this document coming out of the 6th Congress said?
At the Bailu Conference itself, Mao decided not to present this material at all, since it would clearly give rise to a major crisis even if everyone present was for repudiating it. Directly following the conference, Mao Zedong, Zhu De, Chen Yi, and several other Communist leaders who did not have bandit backgrounds got together to make some sort of formal decision about how to deal with the resolution. The majority opinion was that Yuan Wencai and Wang Zuo should remain in their positions in the movement, at the head of the 32nd Regiment and in general playing very important positions politically within the base area, and that the former bandits who comprised the 32nd Regiment should not be disbanded. This might seem like a kind of obvious conclusion to draw. However, there were a couple of voices raised for immediately carrying out the executions of Yuan and Wang.
Long Chaoqing, the party secretary in charge of Ninggang County, who we met back in episodes 66 and 67, along with Wang Huai, the party secretary for Yongxin County, both favored following the letter of the resolution. This was an expression of an ethnic tension among Communists who had roots in the local area (as opposed to people like Mao and Zhu De who came from outside the area), between the ‘guest registrant’ Hakka and the ‘native registrant’ Han Chinese within the party. We talked quite a bit about the roots of this ethnic conflict in the region back in episodes 63 to 66, and I have alluded to these tensions in some past episodes, for example when raids on lowland towns by the overwhelmingly Hakka 32nd Regiment sometimes took forms reminiscent of the bandit raids of earlier times, and which “early settler” people interpreted more as ethnic war than as class warfare. In particular, the burning down of some well-known early settler educational academies apparently rankled some of the leading Communists from early settler backgrounds, despite the fact that these academies excluded Hakka children.
And the ethnic tension also expressed itself in how the Hakka were concentrated in the armed forces and local “early settler” Communists were concentrated in the party apparatus. So, this ethnic tension expressed itself in part as tension between the party and the army. There was a major example of this which has come down to us of a meeting in early 1928 where Long Chaoqing arrived ostentatiously carrying a gun, despite the fact that he wasn’t in the army and there wasn’t a situation of immediate physical danger. Yuan Wencai made a spectacle of confronting Long over why he would come to a peaceful meeting armed and then made of point of disarming him in a humiliating and emasculating way.
Part of the context for this confrontation was that both Yuan and Long were sleeping with a local beauty who had spent some years away from the area as the concubine of a county magistrate. When she returned to the mountains, she had acquired a lot more culture than the other women in the area, so what with her beauty and her higher cultural level, she was pursued by a number of these revolutionary leaders. She seems to have preferred Yuan Wencai but didn’t restrict her affections to him (and, after all, Yuan was married in any case). So, you had this kind of perfect storm between ethnic tensions and male egos. Long story short, Long Chaoqing voted for having Yuan Wencai executed at this meeting just after the Bailu Conference.
Mao has a very short article that he wrote in 1937 called “Combat Liberalism” in which he lists a number of ways in which people let their personal feelings interfere with their political judgement. It might be the most evergreen of all of Mao’s writings, and it’s hard not to think of this article when looking at Long’s advocacy for executing Wang Zuo and Yuan Wencai at this meeting.
However, Long Chaoqing and Wang Huai were in the minority in this meeting, and Mao made clear to them that they were to pursue a policy of “uniting with and reforming” their former bandit comrades. Afterwards though, apparently jarred by just how bad things had gotten between the two sides, Mao took administrative measures to minimize how much these guys would have to interact with each other. As it turned out, it would be a few months before Yuan Wencai and Wang Zuo learned about the contents of the Congress resolution. So, we’ll talk about that when we get to it, but it is going to be a big deal.
The second big agenda item of the Bailu Conference involved how to coordinate the operations of the 5th Red Army with those of the 4th Red Army. This was dealt with handily by just converting Peng Dehuai’s troops into a new regiment of the 4th Red Army, the 30th Regiment. Just as a refresher, the 28th Regiment was largely composed of troops who came to the area with Zhu De, the 29th Regiment had been composed of peasant veterans of the South Hunan uprising but had disintegrated during the August Defeat, the 31st Regiment had Mao’s Autumn Harvest Uprising force at its core, and the 32nd Regiment was basically the reorganized former bandits of the Jinggangshan. So now the 30th Regiment was the troops who came with Peng Dehuai from the mutiny that he had led against the Guomindang, the Pingjiang Uprising, and Peng was made second in command of the 4th Red Army, under Zhu De as commander in chief, and Mao Zedong as the political leader of the whole force.
Once this was decided, the really big decision had to be reached: what to do about the Guomindang’s encirclement and suppression campaign?
He Changgong, a leading Communist, sketched out the different military options that were discussed at the Bailu Conference.
One option put forward was to follow similar tactics to what the Fourth Red Army had done in the past, which was to rely on its superior morale and mobility to quickly strike at first one enemy column, then another, and then another. This was one of Mao and Zhu’s signature military moves, by which they used knowledge of local terrain, support of local populations, and much greater speed and morale on the part of Communist troops to allow them to move a Communist force from one place to another quickly, fighting a rapid series of battles. In this way, Communist forces who were outnumbered had in the past been able to fight a rapid series of battles in which the Communists outnumbered their enemies in each successive battle, even though they were outnumbered by the enemy forces when those forces were counted all together. While this way of fighting had served the Communists well in the past, and would again serve them well in the future, at the Bailu Conference it was decided that there were limits to how this way of fighting could be used. If the enemy forces were too overwhelming (and if the Communists themselves had been suffering from hunger and cold for too long), and if the enemy forces were better coordinated than they had been in the past (as seemed now to be the case), then it was decided that these tactics would probably not be effective.
Another option that was put forward was to temporarily abandon the base area, so that when the encirclement and suppression campaign marched into the Jinggangshan, the Guomindang army would find no one to fight with. Eventually, the Guomindang would retreat from the Jinggangshan and then the Communists could come back and reoccupy it. The advantage of this plan was that it would, in theory, preserve the Communists’ armed strength. The disadvantage was that the local population would once again suffer a hostile occupation by brutal troops, just as they had at the time of the August Defeat a few months earlier. All progress on land reform would again be undone by the occupiers. And the Communists themselves would be put in a position where they would be cut off from the supportive population and advantageous terrain that the base area provided.
A third option that was considered involved hunkering down and betting everything on a defense of the Jinggang massif, the core and best defensible part of the base area. The disadvantage of this option was that the economic problems of food and clothing provision would just keep getting worse, and in case of defeat, this strategy left no option for retreat, so defeat would result in total annihilation of the Communist forces.
The plan that was settled upon, and which is attributed to Mao Zedong, involved elements of all three of these different options. The strategy that Mao devised was given the name of ‘relieving the besieged by besieging the base of the besiegers.’ Here’s what this strategy entailed:
The main strength of the 4th Red Army was to break through the enemy blockade, with the idea that this force would divert most of the Guomindang troops into coming after it. Relying on superior speed, the plan was for this force was to move faster than pursuing enemy troops and would be able to obtain supplies in previously untouched areas, that is to say, they would expropriate what they needed from the elite in areas that they had not been able to reach before. This force would be made up of the Communists’ best troops, the 28th and 31st regiments, and would be directly led by Zhu De and Mao Zedong. It was hoped that diverting the bulk of the Guomindang forces into pursuing this force would serve to relieve the economic blockade of the Jinggangshan, where the 32nd Regiment and the newly formed 30th Regiment would remain behind with all the sick and wounded, prepared to fight whichever Guomindang troops remained behind and to take advantage of the new situation to resupply the base area.
The main question was, in what direction would Mao and Zhu head out from the Jinggangshan?
He Changgong remembers three different directions being discussed.
South Hunan was one, but it was ruled out because of all the difficulties that there had been with establishing a solid Communist foothold in South Hunan, what with the experiences of the South Hunan Uprising and the August Defeat. The Hunanese Guomindang forces were relatively strong. And in writing about the advantages that the central section of the Luoxiao mountain range, where the Jinggang massif was, over the southern section of the range, Mao in his November report to the Central Committee had written that “the southern section has better terrain than the northern section, but our mass base there is not so good as in the middle section, and from a political standpoint, we cannot exert as much influence on Hunan and Jiangxi as we can from the middle section.” So it seems that Mao had serious political misgivings about relocating to southern Hunan.
The Hunan-Hubei-Jiangxi border region, where the remnants of Peng Dehuai’s 5th Red Army remained waging guerrilla warfare, was also considered. But this area was very close to major transportation routes. In the same report from back in November, Mao had discussed the superiority of the Jinggangshan as a base area to the area in the north where Peng Dehuai had been operating in these terms: “The northern section has terrain which is less suitable for our taking either the offensive or the defensive, and it is too close to the enemy’s big political centers. Unless we plan a quick seizure of Changsha or Wuhan, it is very dangerous to station large forces in and around Liuyang, Liling, Pingxiang, and Tonggu.”
But all the way back in November, in that same report, Mao did have a back-up area to retreat to in mind in case things got too rough in the Jinggangshan. In November, he wrote that “our contingent plan to use ‘southern Jiangxi as a retreat’ will not be put into effect unless our economic situation worsens to such a degree that southern Jiangxi becomes the only place where we could survive. We might have to go there some time; but it would be entirely for economic rather than political reasons.”
Southern Jiangxi was attractive for a few reasons. There was a more extensive mountainous area with poor communications that would favor the Communists with room to maneuver, so that it would be much more difficult for large numbers of troops to be brought in to surround them, which was the situation they faced on the Jinggang massif. It was a strategic location for striking into northern Guangdong and western Fujian provinces. There was already considerable Communist activity in the region. And it was garrisoned by a weak enemy unit which the Communists had already previously defeated.
So, in January, when the economic and military situation had become dire, it was in the direction of southern Jiangxi that Mao decided to take the best part of the 4th Red Army. Historians debate to what degree this was intended as a temporary or permanent move. Clearly, the Communists intended to retain the Jinggangshan as a base area if they could. If a bad thing could be turned into a good thing and a new base area could be founded as a result of this military maneuver, so much the better. But how much this was actually the initial intention is debated. Did Mao originally intend to circle back to the Jinggangshan after defeating the enemy? Or was the idea all along to set up a new and more economically sustainable base area in southern Jiangxi and make that his new center of operations, as actually happened? Historians working with Communist Party materials in China debate this question. I think that, flexible as he was, and realizing that much would hinge on the outcomes of a series of very uncertain battles, Mao had both possibilities in mind when he made this plan, but that he expected to found a new base area in southern Jiangxi and to stay there for some time.
The target of the march in southern Jiangxi was hundreds of kilometers away, across territory entirely held by the enemy. So, unless plans to foment peasant revolt along the march route were wildly successful, a return to the Jinggangshan any time soon was really pretty unlikely. And the condition to which the Fourth Red Army had been reduced by the economic blockade was pretty serious. In a letter that Mao wrote in March 1929, he told the Central Committee how “the state of exhaustion and defeat in which we left the Jinggangshan has been dissipated and morale is once again high.”
So, with morale low and the situation pretty desperate, the Communists made plans in the wake of the Bailu Conference to march their main force out of the Jinggangshan, with some hope that luck would favor them in retaining at least the mountains of the base area in the face of the upcoming fight with the enemy.
The Communists had hoped they had more time to prepare, but right after the conference they learned that the Guomindang had scheduled the start of its own attack against the Communists for January 15. So beginning on January 10, the Communists began assembling the force of about 3600 men (and 36 women (a number whose symmetry with the 3600 men I wonder at, it’s one of those things that makes you think whether someone had actually counted all these women, or if someone once said that about 1% of the people who marched out of the Jinggangshan were women)), anyways, on January 10, the force of 3600 or so Communists who would leave the Jinggangshan began assembling, and then, following a heavy snow on January 14, they marched south out of the Jinggangshan, hoping to surprise the Guomindang in advance of the Guomindang’s own offensive.
We will pick up this story later. Next episode, we’ll double back to talk about the Chinese Communists’ 6th Party Congress in Moscow and what all was going on at the Party Center, far from the action in rural southern China.
Until then, take care.