Workers, students and merchants in Shanghai take on the British authorities of the International Settlement and Japanese mill owners after protesters are massacred.
Steve Smith, A Road Is Made: Communism in Shanghai, 1920-1927
Some names from this episode:
Li Lisan, Communist leader of the Shanghai General Labor Union
Zhang Xueliang, son of Zhang Zuolin, occupied Shanghai’s Chinese city
Zhang Zuolin, northern warlord
Gregory Voitinsky, Comintern representative in China in 1925
Liu Shaoqi, Communist leader just below Li Lisan in the Shanghai General Labor Union
Liu Hua, Union activist executed for leading role in May 30 Movement
Welcome to episode 26 of the People’s History of Ideas Podcast.
This week we’re going to talk about the May 30th Movement. This was a major patriotic upsurge against foreign oppression of China, particularly by the Japanese and British, that erupted in 1925 in the wake of the events that we discussed in episode 24, and which ended up forming the immediate political background to the military campaign which the Guomindang would soon be launching, with Soviet aid, to reunify China, called the Northern Expedition.
If you will recall, in episode 24 we spoke about renewed Communist labor organizing which led to the strikes at the Japanese mills in Shanghai in early 1925. Then, in May 1925 the Japanese mill owners had decided to work to undermine workers’ organizing efforts by imposing lockouts at factories where the workers resisted the despotic factory management. In response to one of these lockouts, the workers had broken into a factory and trashed it, until a Japanese guard opened fire and killed one of the workers. In response to this murder, there was a mass upsurge of protest, and we ended episode 24 with the founding of the Association to Wipe Out the Disgrace of the Japanese Atrocity at a huge mass meeting on May 24.
So let’s pick up this story where we left off.
First, to understand some of this, it’s important to know a couple basic facts about Shanghai at this time. Shanghai was divided into three different administrative areas, the International Settlement, the French Concession, and the Chinese city. The French Concession and International Settlement both had their origins in the treaty port system that was established through the unequal treaties that gave parts of major Chinese cities over to the control of foreign powers. The International Settlement was the product of the merger of the British and American concessions in Shanghai, and as other foreign powers developed their interests in China, they were admitted into participation in the International Settlement as well, although it remained British-dominated until the Japanese took it over in 1941. Even though about a million Chinese people lived in the International Settlement in 1930, it was run by foreigners, mainly the British.
The French didn’t participate in the International Settlement, so they kept their own part of the city, the French Concession. And then the Chinese city was the old, walled part of the city, and had a Chinese-run government. This situation created some absurd hassles, such as having to have three different driver’s licenses if you wanted to drive everywhere in the city. Early in the 20th century, as we discussed in episode ten, it meant that there was a bit more freedom for political opponents of the Qing Dynasty in the International Settlement than there was in other parts of the city. But in the period we are discussing, in 1925, there was a crackdown in the International Settlement against the union movement, and in particular against activists with the Association to Wipe Out the Disgrace of the Japanese Atrocity.
Right as the movement was forming, six students were arrested in the International Settlement. Two were arrested for collecting money for the family of the worker who had been killed by the Japanese guards, and four others were arrested for carrying flags supporting the Association. They were all charged with disturbing the peace on May 25, and denied bail and kept in jail until May 30 so that the judge could consult a Japanese representative in adjudicating their cases. The Communists decided to call for a mass protest demonstration outside the trial of the students. This was a civil disobedience action, because, as demonstrated by the arrests of the students, protests were not being allowed in the International Settlement. So, on May 30, small groups of students and workers infiltrated themselves into the International Settlement and then gathered outside the court where the students were being tried.
Scores of protesters ended up being arrested at the trial of the students, and so in the afternoon the demonstration relocated to the police station where the arrested protesters were being held. When the police, who were commanded by the British, but were mostly Sikh and Chinese, couldn’t disperse the crowd, they opened fire into the crowd, killing 12 protesters and injuring 17. This was the May 30th incident, which the May 30th Movement was to take its name from. This massacre of unarmed demonstrators sparked a nationwide protest movement against the foreign powers in China, with a particular focus on Japan and Britain.
In Shanghai, there was an immediate call for a sort-of modified general strike, what was called a three-fold stoppage, in which workers, students and merchants all went on strike. The workers only were supposed to strike at foreign-owned businesses, but there was a lot of spillover to Chinese businesses as well, due to mass enthusiasm for the strike. Merchants didn’t entirely shut down, but tried to curtail their operations in a way which would inconvenience foreigners. And students of course stopped going to classes altogether, with the idea that they should be out supporting the movement.
Based off of their successful organizing earlier in the year, the Communist Party had just founded the Shanghai General Labor Union, or GLU, in mid-May, with Li Lisan at its head. The idea had been to keep the GLU secret for a time while it built up its organizational capacity, but with the outbreak of struggle the Communists quickly mobilized the GLU to take the lead of the workers’ component of the three-fold stoppage. A leading body was pulled together to lead the movement in Shanghai called the Union of Labor, Commerce and Education. This was truly a united front body, both in the sense of representing different organizations and also in the sense of explicitly uniting different social classes.
The Union of Labor, Commerce and Education, or ULCE, formulated 17 demands for the movement, which ranged from the release of the arrested to the right to strike, freedom of speech and for Chinese participation in the government of the International Settlement. It also coordinated raising funds for the strike and published a newspaper called the Hot-Blooded Daily. Although one major merchant association participated in the ULCE, the Shanghai Chamber of Commerce decided to form its own May 30th Committee and worked to weaken the demands of the movement by putting forward more moderate and “reasonable” demands than those of the ULCE, which was heavily influenced, but not controlled by, the Communists.
On June 13 the warlord Zhang Xueliang, son of the northern warlord Zhang Zuolin, occupied the Chinese city. And there was some initial hope among some of the student leaders in the ULCE that he might be won over to help to retake the International Settlement back from the foreigners. They said that the time for an armed uprising had come, and that separate students’, merchants’ and workers’ armies should be formed. They also proposed sending students in to the International Settlement to leaflet and get arrested, and then when they were arrested Zhang Xueliang could use that as a pretext to invade the International Settlement. However, when students went and met with Zhang, he made some noises about patriotic sentiment, but then reminded them that he was there to restore order, which clarified somewhat exactly who he was pointing his weapons against. The General Labor Union also opposed the students’ advocacy of an armed uprising, because it would have been doomed to defeat.
As the strike dragged on through the summer, the economic pressure on workers to return to work became greater. By July 20, the strike relief fund was distributing $3 per half-month to workers, where it had begun the strike distributing $5 per half-month. Mostly this money was raised by the Chinese merchants associations which participated in the ULCE, but about 10% came from the Soviet Union as well. With the beginning of summer, the merchants began to back out of the strike because they perceived that they were hurting their own businesses more than the foreigners they were trying to damage. And with summer, students’ classes ended anyways, so they couldn’t be said to be on strike anymore. All that was left were the workers, and the GLU had to resort to taking extreme measures against strike-breakers. On July 7 Li Lisan admitted that the GLU was holding about 100 strike-breakers prisoner, and others had been beaten or abducted and then released after paying bail to the GLU.
At the end of July, the Chinese commission of the Soviet politburo decided that the strike needed to be wound down or it would be defeated outright, so they notified Voitinsky that the demands should be shifted from the political to the economic terrain, so that they would be more likely to be met and so there could be a ‘win’ for the strike, rather than having the strike fail with no demands won. Voitinsky, by the way, as we saw in Episode 24, had been in Shanghai for the Japanese Cotton Mills strike earlier in the year. He had actually returned to Moscow and then, when the May 30th Movement broke out, was sent right back to China.
The Central Executive Committee of the Communist Party agreed with the Soviet guidance to steer the strike in the direction of hopefully realizable economic demands, and held a meeting where 60 representatives from all 32 Japanese mills in Shanghai reframed the strike’s demands in economic terms. However, five days later a 200-member meeting of the General Labor Union refused to go along, and insisted on including demands such as Chinese participation in the governing Municipal Council and the repeal of repressive laws. Apparently, Li Lisan, the Communist leader of the GLU, was going rogue, and even was considering the possibility of launching an armed uprising which would be doomed to failure as preferable to giving in on the larger political demands of the movement.
But, in the end, a settlement was reached with the Japanese mill owners which led to workers returning to work on August 21, and the deal with the Japanese was the prelude to a settlement with the other foreign companies. This settlement was only a little better than the settlement reached earlier in the year, which we discussed in episode 24. The Japanese mill owners made a small contribution to the strikers’ compensation fund, and agreed to abide by any labor laws which the government might pass (on the condition, however, that order had been restored). Again they agreed not to fire any workers without ‘just cause,’ but retained their own discretion to determine what constituted ‘just cause.’
Nevertheless, the GLU promoted the strike as a victory. While once again the workers had not gained really any of their demands, there are two senses in which the strike was indeed a victory. First, it sparked a movement for Chinese sovereignty and dignity that spread around the country. The biggest reverberation was a strike and boycott against the British which began in Guangzhou and Hong Kong in June. Right at the beginning of the strike, there was a protest of maybe 100,000 people outside the British concession area in Guangzhou. British warships fired on the protest, killing more than 50 people and injuring many more. The strike lasted over a year and paralyzed Hong Kong’s economy, with 250,000 Chinese people leaving Hong Kong during the strike. To save Hong Kong’s economy, the British government had to pump three million pounds into the economy. This contrasts sharply with the British Empire’s earlier decision not to give aid and let millions starve during famines in Ireland and India, because it would violate the principle of free trade.
But back to Shanghai in 1925, the second way in which the General Labor Union considered the strike to have been a success was that it facilitated the rapid spread of unionization in Shanghai. By the end of July, the GLU claimed to have 117 affiliated unions with almost 220,000 members. And while that figure is almost certainly an overstatement of the real numbers, it does reflect a massive growth in unionization.
As we’ve discussed before, in Episode 19, prior to this massive wave of unionization, the working class in Shanghai, and other industrializing Chinese cities, had been organized to some degree by secret societies, with the Green Gang being the largest and most important of the secret societies in Shanghai. If you wanted a job in a factory, you typically had to go and swear loyalty to the foreman at the factory, who handled labor recruitment, and this involved being inducted into a secret society. When the Communist Party was just getting started in labor organizing, the strategy that they used was to work with the gangs, with Communist organizers pledging loyalty to influential secret society members as part of a quid pro quo in order to facilitate organizing. And this also meant that when secret society leaders were convinced of the need to strike, they could take the workers who had pledged fealty to them out on strike with them.
So, now that unions were spreading quickly among Shanghai’s working class, how did the secret societies respond to this shift? Did they feel threatened? Did they adapt? What did this mean for the relationship between the Communist Party and the Green Gang?
What we see is that the relationship became a lot more complex.
At the beginning of the May 30th Movement, the Green Gang leaders overwhelmingly supported the movement and went along with it. But they also sought to maintain their hegemony among the workers. So, many Green Gang members took leading positions within the General Labor Union. And of course the Green Gang was not a highly disciplined organization like the Communist Party, it was a criminal organization after all, and so even as it supported the strike, there were members who took advantage of the situation. The growth of the movement was much too spontaneous and rapid for the Communist Party to control, and so apparently some branches of the GLU which were controlled by Green Gang members started running protection rackets. And some gang members were hired by Japanese mill owners to try to disrupt the strike. The brother of the worker whose martyrdom started the whole movement was actually an influential gang leader, and the Japanese offered him 10,000 dollars to bring the strike to an end. When he tried to do that, though, he was kidnapped by a bunch of workers, beaten up, and forced to sign a statement of repentance.
By July at the latest, the Communist Party was concerned about union organizers whose primary loyalty was to the Green Gang and not to the union, and moved to replace union officials they suspected of being more gangster than unionist. Although the Communists later summed up that they were too complacent about the gang leaders who became union organizers, the purge that they did carry out in July did heighten tensions between the Communists and the Green Gang.
This created the conditions for the Green Gang to lean toward supporting another union, which was opposed to the GLU. The Shanghai Federation of Syndicates, or SFS, had been created in 1924 by right-wing members of the Guomindang who opposed the united front with the Communists. While the SFS formally supported the May 30th Movement, it spent much of its time attacking the GLU and the Communist Party in ways which would have sabotaged the movement, had the SFS not been eclipsed by the GLU during the course of the Movement.
Not long after the strike had ended, the Green Gang and the SFS staged an attack on the GLU headquarters with the intention of killing Li Lisan. While Li escaped, other GLU organizers were badly injured and two may have been killed. And, now that relations were less friendly between the Gang and the Communist Party, the Green Gang started taking payment from Japanese mill owners for breaking up the unions after the workers had returned to work. So, while at the beginning of the May 30th Movement relations had been relatively good between the Communist Party and the Green Gang, the perhaps inevitable result of the Communists’ efforts to make unions, rather than secret societies, the main form of organization of the working class resulted in more and more conflict with the Green Gang once the Communists started having some real success.
Now that the strike was over, respectable public opinion turned hard against the GLU. Where only a month early most Chinese merchants and businessmen praised the GLU as the patriotic vanguard of the nation, in September they called for its suppression in the name of restoring public order. On September 18 the offices of the union were shut down by the authorities, and arrest warrants were issued for Li Lisan and for Liu Shaoqi, the Communist organizer who had been working closely with Li in running the GLU. Both escaped the city. Li Lisan made his way to Moscow, while Liu Shaoqi made it to Changsha in his native Hunan province, was arrested, but then escaped and made it to Guangzhou.
Union militants who returned to work were fired by their employers. Not only foreign companies but also Chinese companies fired union militants, despite the support that the Chinese companies had given to the strike. By the end of 1925, 2700 union militants had been fired from their jobs. This crippled the emerging cohort of union cadre in Shanghai, and the Communist Party did what it could to support the fired union activists. Six hundred of them went to Guangzhou, where many joined the National Revolutionary Army which was being formed and which would soon embark on the Northern Expedition.
Another warlord chased Zhang Xueliang out of the Chinese city in October 1925, and there was some initial hope, once again, that this warlord would be more sympathetic to the people’s movement. But, in the words of the British consul-general, the new warlord in town was pledged to “suppress Bolshevism and disorder by the free use of the executioner’s sword.” His most notable victim was Liu Hua, who had been secretary of the West Shanghai Workers’ Club, which we discussed in Episode 24, and who had played a leading role in the union organizing of 1925.
Liu was a migrant worker from Sichuan, and in July, at the height of the movement’s upsurge, his family had been attacked by bandits in his home village. His younger brother had been killed, his father captured, and his mother wounded. They telegraphed him to tell him to come home, but he responded in these words:
“The nation is feeble. Its strong neighbors insult it. Sacred labor is like meat on a chopping board. I am an activist for the nation. I am an activist for labor. My responsibilities are heavy. How can I be of use to my family? You must know that the nation too is my family.”
By November Liu was exhausted by the demands of the movement, having overworked himself to keep the GLU alive in its underground condition after months of endless work while the strike was going on. His friends prevailed upon him to enter the hospital, where he was discovered by the International Settlement authorities and arrested. While in the hospital he penned the following verse, which would become his epitaph:
One who is willing to give his hot blood
like spring rain or wine
that sacred labor may blossom.
After his arrest, the 26-year-old Liu Hua was soon handed over to the warlord for summary execution.
Despite the rampant repression and conditions of illegality that it was working in, at the end of 1925 the labor movement in Shanghai was much better organized than it had been at the beginning of the year. And the Communist Party congratulated itself on realizing the plans that it had formulated at the 4th Congress at the beginning of the year, which we talked about in episode 24, to mobilize the working class at the head of the movement to kick out the foreign powers from China.
But if the workers’ strike had been the leading edge of the May 30th Movement, students and merchants had also played major roles. And we can see the beginnings of a shift in the party’s conception of its united front strategy as it summed up the experience of the May 30th Movement. The united front had been thought of as an organizational partnership with the Guomindang, which would be carried out either ‘from within,’ with Communists joining the Guomindang and working inside it, or ‘from outside,’ with the two parties working jointly but without Communists actually joining the Guomindang. The original preference of most Communist Party members had been for a united front from outside, but as we have seen over a number of episodes, the Comintern successfully prevailed upon the Chinese Communists to carry out the policy of a united front ‘from within.’
During the May 30th Movement, what we saw was a different type of united front in practice than how the Communists had been conceiving of it in theory. Rather than a partnership of the Communists and the Guomindang, what we see in the May 30th Movement is a united front of classes. The workers, mainly under the political leadership of the Communist Party, played the leading role with their strike struggle. But students and merchants were also major participants, and played key roles during the movement. And the Guomindang, to the extent that it played any real role, mainly worked to undermine the Communists during the movement, which weakened the movement overall because the Communists were playing the leading role.
So, the May 30th Movement was in practice a united front of different classes working together, sort of loosely under the general leadership of the Communist Party, which is a very different sort of thing than a united front of two organizations getting together and deciding how they would work together. Now, the way in which Chinese history is sometimes periodized refers to the periods from 1924 to 1927 as the first united front period, and the period from 1937 to 1945 as the second united front. These were both times when the Communists and Nationalists (the Guomindang) were formally allied with each other, and so this conception, or rather, misconception as it turns out, of the united front strategy as mainly being about an alliance between two organizations is kind of baked into some of the terminology that gets used in the field of Chinese history, both in China and abroad.
But in reality, as the Chinese Communist Party sums up its experience in the May 30th Movement, and begins to gain more experiences with major mass struggles involving multiple classes, the strategic conception of the united front is going to change from one of partnering with the Guomindang, or any other organizational representative of other class interests, to a strategy of trying to play the leading role in mobilizing all classes that can be united to fight against the foreign domination of China.
And as we saw in the May 30th Movement, once the movement died down, the merchants and national bourgeoisie turned on the workers almost immediately, and an understanding of the unreliability of China’s patriotic national bourgeoisie is also going to get incorporated into the Communist Party’s understanding of the overall revolutionary process. This begins in the immediate summation of the May 30th Movement, but much harder lessons are in store in the near future.
But to conclude for now, I want to emphasize that the shift from conceiving of the united front as an organizational alliance to one of a class alliance in which all classes with an interest in opposing the foreign domination of China are led, on some level, by the Communist Party is a major shift in strategic thinking that cannot be overstated, and which will be key to the ultimate victory of the revolution in 1949.
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