The first year of the Soviet military alliance with the Guomindang, including the creation of the Whampoa Military Academy, the formation of the National Revolutionary Army, and the crushing of the Merchant Corps.
C. Martin Wilbur and Julie Lien-ying How, Missionaries of Revolution: Soviet Advisers and Nationalist China, 1920-1927
John Erickson, The Soviet High Command: A Military-Political History, 1918-1941
Some names from this episode:
Mikhail Borodin, Comintern agent and head of Soviet mission to aid the Guomindang
Chiang Kai-shek, Japan-trained military officer, close confidant of Sun Yatsen
Chen Jiongming, Southern warlord, ally and then enemy of Sun Yatsen
Deng Zhongxia, Leading Communist labor organizer
Gregory Voitinsky, Comintern representative in China at various points, much more wary of Sun Yatsen and the Guomindang than Borodin
Sun Zhongshan/Sun Yatsen, leader of the Guomindang
Welcome to episode 29 of the People’s History of Ideas Podcast.
This episode, I want to catch us up on some very important events in Guangzhou. One of the recurring themes over many of the past several episodes has been the difficulties of the united front between the Communist Party and the Guomindang. It’s easy to forget that the main motivation on the side of the Guomindang for maintaining the united front with the Communist Party was that Soviet military aid to the Guomindang was being given on the condition that the Guomindang maintain the united front with the Communist Party. As we discussed in episode 22, even as things got very tense between the Communists and basically all the factions of the Guomindang and the Communist leadership expected the united front to be broken off by the Guomindang, it was maintained, because the military aid from the Soviet Union was central to Sun Yatsen’s plans for a Northern Expedition to defeat the warlord armies and unite China under his rule. But we haven’t really talked very much about the specifics of the Soviet aid to the Guomindang and the building up of the National Revolutionary Army, which was the official name for the military wing of the Guomindang. So this episode, let’s catch up on the Soviet-Guomindang alliance, and the development of the Guomindang’s capacity to wage revolutionary warfare.
The Whampoa Military Academy
As we discussed back in episode 20, a high-level Soviet delegation arrived in Guangzhou in late 1923. It was led by Mikhail Borodin, who would serve as the Soviet Union’s emissary to the Guomindang and who would coordinate Soviet aid, and it included a high-level staff of Soviet military experts. The scope of Soviet personnel involved in aiding the Guomindang between 1923 and 1927 is not precisely known, but historians of the Soviet military estimate that as many as 1000 Soviet advisors and related personnel may have been involved over the course of the Soviet-Guomindang alliance. If the number didn’t reach 1000, it certainly was in the high hundreds. Reading historians of China, one usually doesn’t quite get a sense of just how many Soviets were involved and how central they were to the creation of the National Revolutionary Army. This is understandable, because some of the biggest names in Twentieth Century Chinese history are also involved in this episode, and you can’t blame historians of China for focusing on those figures. But I find that when one reads works more focused on the Soviet military and Soviet policy, one quickly gets a sense of the major scope of the Soviet commitment in China in the 1920s. In any case, at the very beginning, at least, in late 1923 when Borodin first arrived, the number of Soviets who came in his initial delegation was still quite modest.
The Soviet military advisors found the Guomindang’s military situation in a parlous state. To quote from a Soviet document:
“In the winter of 1923 only Dr. Sun Yatsen’s personal bodyguard (numbering about 150-200 bayonets) could be called a unit, which was entirely subordinated to Dr. Sun. The other numerous troops, which were then in the territory of Guangdong and which constituted the so-called Allied Army, were nothing else than quite independent armies of individual generals. These generals were, to a greater or lesser degree, subordinated to Dr. Sun. Some of them were Chinese militarists of the common type. Being expelled from their native provinces, they usually entered the territory of Guangdong, the richest province in South China, in order to improve there their financial condition and then return to their own provinces. Owing to the growing popularity of Dr. Sun, they declared themselves as a matter of form to be his allies, supporters of the revolution, etc.; in fact, however, they were making plans for returning to their own provinces, and even for overthrowing the Guangzhou Government (after their own position had been strengthened) and of seizing Guangdong.
“Others were old ‘companions in arms’ of Dr. Sun, and actually shared his opinions and views. They went ‘arm-in-arm’ with him, but still reserved a complete independence in matters of army administration, and were also cherishing the hope of returning later to their own provinces, and, after consolidating their position there, of forming an ‘Alliance of Southern Provinces,’ under the Guomindang banner.
“In addition, Guangdong province was literally ‘inundated’ by several ‘petty armies’ of individual generals, who often had less than 100 soldiers under their command.”
So, basically, Guangzhou and its environs were occupied by different armed forces, which were allied with the Guomindang but which retained almost total independence, and many of which had come from other provinces mainly in order to profit from taxing the prosperous Guangdong region. In the words of one historian: “Each commander collected taxes in the area where his army was quartered and treated the money as his personal property, spending as little as possible on his army. What he did allocate passed down through subordinate officers, each of whom kept a proportion for himself so that very little reached the soldiers. Everybody was stealing, beginning from the commander of the army down to the company commanders. As a result, soldiers were ill-clad and underfed, their pay withheld for years. Their rifles were of various models and calibers, and provision of ammunition was unsystematic. Almost no attention was paid to rifle practice, and the soldiers did not know how to shoot. In sum, in the Russian officers’ view, the fighting value of the army was virtually nil.”
As we can see, this was a very precarious situation. We mentioned in episode 22 that in 1922 Sun Yatsen had been chased out of Guangzhou by a local warlord who had previously been allied with him, and the situation in late 1923 when the Soviets arrived was still quite precarious. So getting the National Revolutionary Army up and running was really an urgent priority.
About ten miles south of Guangzhou there was a site which had housed previous provincial level military and naval academies, called Whampoa, and a decision was reached to reopen this site in order to train the National Revolutionary Army, and in particular the officer corps. The basic model for the Whampoa Military Academy was the frantic training-program that had been implemented in the Soviet Union during the Civil War. So, even though the Soviet military itself was in something of a state of crisis at this time as it tried to adapt to the post-civil war Soviet order, its experience in quickly training officers and organizing forces for revolutionary warfare was actually very well suited to the tasks at hand in China.
Chiang Kai-shek had been selected to run the Whampoa Military Academy, and he attended the first planning meeting in February 1924, but then he stormed off and left Guangzhou in a huff and didn’t return until plans for the academy were all but complete in April. It has long been assumed that he was upset by the degree to which the Soviets were setting the terms of the planning process, but it’s unclear to what degree he was upset because he disagreed with some of the politics at play, and to what degree he was upset by having to split his authority with the Soviet advisors. Not that those were mutually exclusive reasons for him being upset. But, he did return and take command of the Academy after others had taken care of the planning. His qualms about the Soviets were mitigated, however, by the fact that the Soviet Union footed the entire bill for the military academy, and began deliveries of military materiel later in the year.
In order to not have the National Revolutionary Army’s officer corps dominated by Chinese from Guangdong, efforts were made to recruit from around the country, with major recruitment centers set up in Shanghai, Wuhan and Beijing. In fact, this was one of the tasks that Mao Zedong was involved with in 1924 as a member of the Shanghai executive committee of the Guomindang. The first class of 470 cadets began training in early May. The cadets’ days began at 5 am and lasted until 9:30 at night. In addition to the sort of military training that one might expect, there was a heavy emphasis on ideological training in anti-imperialist nationalism as well. At the beginning there were only three Soviet instructors at Whampoa, and most instructors were Chinese who had been trained at Chinese or Japanese military academies. However, more Soviet advisers kept coming and by the end of 1924, more Soviets were involved in the day-to-day affairs of the Academy.
Aside from setting up the military academy, the other major project of the Soviet military mission in Guangzhou was the unification of the various forces that were nominally under Sun Yatsen’s command into a force that would in reality work under centralized command structure. The various independent generals correctly viewed these efforts as an attack upon their privileges, and so it was necessary to take things slow. Sun Yatsen had periodically issued orders that tax revenues collected by the generals be handed over to the Guomindang government, but he was ignored. Sun also had ordered that the local arsenal, which produced a small amount of arms and ammunition, not supply the various armies directly, but it also ignored him, and provided weapons to whichever general could pay for them, rather than according to a centralized military plan.
One of the efforts made to bring the generals under centralized leadership involved coopting the most powerful of them onto the leading Central Executive Committee of the Guomindang, thus offering them a seat at the political table in exchange for their hoped for acquiescence in giving up their military and economic independence. Another effort, which took some time, involved giving portions of their armies military training courses, including by the Soviets, which improved the actual effectiveness of the forces while also indoctrinating them in the goals of the Nationalist Revolution, making the troops more susceptible to centralized leadership and to seeing themselves less as the troops of a particular general, and more as the armed wing of the Nationalist Party.
Sun Yatsen’s Final Maneuvers
In October 1924 the efforts to centralize and unify the Nationalist armed forces were far from complete, but Guomindang’s army had its first military test in the midst of a fairly complicated political situation.
Guangzhou and the surrounding region had a tradition of maintaining self-defense corps, which were funded by merchants and the local elite. We saw some of these forces in action all the way back in episode two and three, when we talked about the Opium War and the beginning of the Taiping Revolution. It was sort of inevitable that tensions would arise between the various small armies which came to Guangdong and were allied with the Guomindang, and the local self-defense forces of the communities which were subjected to taxation by these outside armed forces. In the city of Guangzhou itself, a major capitalist who was the local head of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation and who had previously been the chairman of the Guangzhou Chamber of Commerce revived the city’s Merchant Corps, which is what the Guangzhou self-defense force was called, and started uniting with other local self-defense corps. The Merchant Corps was upset about all the taxation that was going to fund the Guomindang and its allied armed forces, and it was also concerned about the Guomindang’s alliance with the Communists and its promotion of labor unions and labor organizing. The Merchant Corps got British backing, and was working to ally itself with Chen Jiongming, the warlord in eastern Guangdong Province who had previously driven Sun Yatsen out of Guangzhou for a little while back in 1922.
In July 1924, the Merchant Corps called a protest against a new 50% sales tax on land transfers and managed to get the tax repealed. Then in August a large shipment of arms arrived for the Merchant Corps on a Norwegian ship. Sun Yatsen ordered Chiang Kai-shek to intercept the shipment, and so Chiang forced the ship to offload its cargo of about 10,000 guns and three million rounds of ammunition at the Whampoa military academy, rather than delivering the weapons to the Merchant Corps. This naturally led to a major outcry from the Merchant Corps, who called for a general strike of businesses in Guangzhou and neighboring towns, essentially asking all businesses to shut down until the Merchant Corps got their weapons. Sun Yatsen responded by imposing martial law and ordering businesses to reopen. So this started a tense standoff that would last for several weeks.
Meanwhile, while all this was happening, Sun Yatsen was itching to start the Northern Expedition to reconquer China from the warlords, even though no one else thought the National Revolutionary Army was anywhere near ready. Sun Yatsen is kind of the historical champion of failed armed uprisings. Between 1906 and 1911, Sun’s Revolutionary Alliance had launched numerous uprisings against the Qing Dynasty which all failed, and during the early 1920s he had already attempted to launch the Northern Expedition on two separate occasions, both of which got nowhere. Now that he had made just a little bit of progress with forming and training the National Revolutionary Army, he got really excited when he perceived an opportunity to side with some warlords in the north who were opposing the main warlord coalition which occupied Beijing, and he wanted to march northward as soon as possible. The difficulties that he was having in Guangzhou with the Merchant Corps was just an additional prod to get moving. In a letter to Chiang Kai-shek dated September 9 he argued the necessity of leaving Guangzhou and “finding a new life through the battlefield.”
Sun Yatsen removed himself from Guangzhou to the town of Shaoguan in northern Guangdong province and began to use the area as a staging ground for the Northern Expedition. Some of the generals allied with Sun went along to Shaoguan, but others refused. In early October Sun ordered Chiang Kai-shek to shut down the military academy and to send along to Shaoguan all the cadets and the Soviet arms which had just been delivered to Whampoa. Chiang disobeyed the order and wrote back to Sun about the escalating situation in Guangzhou with the Merchant Corps and urged Sun to return. Basically, just about everybody though that Sun was nuts. The Soviet advisers strongly urged against this new attempt at a Northern Expedition, and the Communist press denounced it. The Communist organizer Deng Zhongxia, who we met in episode 24, wrote that “The Northern Expedition has nothing to do with the true revolution of national liberation and the unions and peasants’ associations should not get involved in it.” Sun’s behavior, his sudden maneuver to take a short cut to victory by allying with one warlord group against another warlord group and abandoning all the work that had been done so far to reorganize the Guomindang and to create the National Revolutionary Army, expressed exactly the inconsistency that some Soviet figures, such as Voitinsky, and some Communists had expressed concern about in allying with the Guomindang.
Meanwhile, on October 9, an agreement had been reached with the Merchant Corps whereby they would get some of their arms in exchange for a large sum of money and agreeing to a new tax. However, things were still very tense, and while the Merchant Corps was unloading their weapons along the Guangzhou waterfront on October 10, a clash occurred. October 10 was the day that the 1911 Revolution had broken out, so it was a major Nationalist holiday, and it’s still celebrated today in Taiwan. What happened on the 10th in Guangzhou was that a parade of Nationalist party supporters, including cadets from Whampoa, workers from the unions, students, educators and others, was marching along the waterfront. They demanded that they be able to continue their parade, but the Merchant Corps was unloading their weapons there, and refused to get out of the way of the march. There was clearly a lot of anger and bad blood on both sides, and it seems like both sides might have been looking for a conflict.
Somebody fired a gun, and then the Merchant Corps opened fire into the crowd of marchers. After the clash died down, about a dozen marchers had been killed, some Corps members were wounded, and a lot of bystanders were killed and wounded, with some people getting shot, and others drowning while trying to escape the violence. The Merchant Corps called for a general strike, again a shop owners’ strike, not a workers’ strike, to bring the city to a halt. And again, the Guomindang declared martial law. On October 13, the warlord who Sun Yatsen had hoped to unite with was decisively defeated and fled to Japan, and so Sun’s attention was now shifted back to focus on the crisis in Guangzhou. Five thousand troops were marched into the city, and at dawn on October 15, Chiang Kai-shek led an assault on the stronghold of the Merchant Corps, decisively defeating them by nightfall. Some Corps leaders fled to Hong Kong, others surrendered, and Chiang’s troops looted and burned the central district of the city until the next day, when the government announced that looters would be executed. All in all, about 1100 buildings were burned down and property damage was extensive. After all, the Merchant Corps represented some of the wealthiest people in the city.
And then another twist occurred. The leading warlord in Beijing was betrayed in a coup by one of his subordinates in late October, and a new government took over in Beijing which called itself the Guominjun, or People’s Army and claimed to want to unite China. By November 13, Sun Yatsen was on his way to Beijing to participate in talks on the reunification of China. The politics of the Guominjun were very mixed. On the one hand, the Japanese had a lot of influence, and apparently participated in plotting the coup which took place Beijing. But the Soviet Union had also had friendly relations with the Guominjun, and had worked with it in China’s northwest during border clashes against other warlords which took place in the border region between the Soviet Union, Mongolia (which was allied to the Soviet Union), and China.
On the way to Beijing, Sun stopped off in Japan, and delivered several speeches emphasizing the importance of Sino-Japanese cooperation, but also calling for the end of unequal treaties. Apparently he had hoped that Japan might make a gesture of friendship and back away from its predatory attitude toward China, but he had no luck. When Sun arrived back in China in December, he was sick and getting sicker fast. He had enough time to meet with representatives of the new government and learn that their vision was much less progressive than he had hoped. He had been invited north to serve as window dressing for another reactionary warlord project, so that his participation would fool people into supporting the new warlords in charge of Beijing. But then he kept getting sicker and he was soon admitted to a hospital where he was diagnosed with gall bladder cancer. He deteriorated quickly and was dead on March 12, 1925.
The Guomindang had enshrined the leadership of Sun Yatsen into its organizational principles. Now that Sun Yatsen was gone, what would be the direction of the party? Sun was a unifying figure, and also the main sponsor of the left-wing of the Guomindang, of Communist participation in the Guomindang, and of the policy of alliance with the Soviet Union. None of these projects collapsed immediately, and the project of building up the National Revolutionary Army and preparing a Northern Expedition remained on the order of the day. But there were definitely going to be some major changes. Not least of which would be a power struggle among Sun’s lieutenants in the party leadership.
We’ll look at how the situation developed next episode.
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