The National Revolutionary Army battles the warlords for supremacy in Guangdong, while the British and French escalate tensions by massacring supporters of a strike which shut down Hong Kong.
C. Martin Wilbur and Julie Lien-ying How, Missionaries of Revolution: Soviet Advisers and Nationalist China, 1920-1927
Some names from this episode:
Chiang Kai-shek, Japan-trained military officer, close confidant of Sun Yatsen
Vasily Blyukher, Soviet general who led military mission to aid Guomindang
Zhou Enlai, Communist head of the Whampoa Academy political department
Wang Jingwei, Potential heir apparent to Sun Yatsen as leader of Guomindang
Liao Zhongkai, Potential heir apparent to Sun Yatsen as leader of Guomindang
Hu Hanmin, Potential heir apparent to Sun Yatsen as leader of Guomindang (further to Right than the other two)
Mikhail Borodin, Comintern agent and head of Soviet mission to aid the Guomindang
Sun Zhongshan/Sun Yatsen, leader of the Guomindang, died in March 1925
Chen Jiongming, Southern warlord, ally and then enemy of Sun Yatsen
Welcome to episode 30 of the People’s History of Ideas Podcast.
This episode, we’re following up on the story from last time and looking at further developments with the Guomindang, the Soviet military advisers and the Communists in the Guomindang region. This episode, we’ll see the tightening up of the revolutionary government in Guangzhou, and the escalation of tensions with the British as the May 30th Movement comes to the Pearl River Delta region. Let’s start with the first military campaign waged by the newly trained and armed National Revolutionary Army.
The First Eastern Expedition
When Sun Yatsen left for Beijing at the end of 1924, the forces of the warlord Chen Jiongming in eastern Guangdong saw an opportunity to retake Guangzhou. Chen gathered together a coalition of generals and military units opposed to the Guomindang and was probably receiving funding from the Guangzhou merchants who had recently had their Merchant Corps crushed, as we discussed in the last episode. In total, he had around 50,000 troops, and arrayed them against Guangzhou along three fronts. In response, the Guomindang and Soviets pulled together what they called the Allied Army. Along the northern and center fronts, troops from provincial armies faced off against Chen’s forces. On the northern front were Yunnanese troops, while the Guangxi Army held the center front. Neither of these fronts actually saw much fighting.
Rather, most of the fighting took place during a six week campaign along the southern front, which was dubbed the Eastern Expedition and began in early February 1925. The southern front forces numbered about 10,000, with a bit under 3,000 provided by the Whampoa Academy, divided into two regiments led by Chiang Kai-shek. These came to be called the ‘Party Troops.’ While the expedition was formally led by a Chinese general, the overall strategy for the campaign was devised by General Vasily Blyukher, an extremely talented and charismatic Soviet general who was something of a natural military genius, who also weighed in with day-to-day advice as the campaign unfolded. By the end of March, Chen Jiongming had been forced to escape to Hong Kong, and eastern Guangdong was solidly in the hands of the Guomindang.
The political training of the troops from Whampoa stood in contrast to the warlord troops that the peasants of the Chinese countryside had become accustomed to. Probably the greatest difference between the National Revolutionary Army troops, or ‘Party Troops,’ and regular warlord troops was that they didn’t loot. This was an improvement over the experience just a few months earlier when the Merchant Corps were defeated in Guangzhou and a massive amount of looting followed. In addition to not looting, the troops were forbidden from requisitioning food and housing, from forcing locals to carry supplies, and from forcing merchants to accept military script. And party representatives were assigned to each unit to remind troops to observe these rules. This was a new type of army, and the local people responded with active support, including serving as guides, spies and messengers. In fact, the service of guides was extremely important, because many of the maps that they had of the countryside just showed the locations of towns and telegraph lines, with no notations at all for the terrain.
Political work among the population was also a central component of the success of the campaign. Hundreds of thousands of proclamations and leaflets were prepared for distribution by propaganda squads that went out in advance of the troops or accompanied them. In addition to distributing propaganda, they held rallies, and emphasized that they were fighting to end the foreign oppression of China and to end the predations of the warlords. Perhaps predictably, the nature of what sort of propaganda should be employed did create tensions between Communist and non-Communist forces among the propagandists.
As of January 1, 1925, there were 31 members of the Socialist Youth Corps, the Communist Party’s youth organization (which soon changed its name to the Communist Youth Corps), among the Whampoa cadets, and, in addition to the Soviet advisers, there were Chinese Communist Party members in the political apparatus of the Academy. Most prominent among these was the head of the academy’s political department, and also head of Guomindang affairs for eastern Guangdong, Zhou Enlai, a Communist who had been a student leader during the May 4th Movement, before spending four years in Europe, where he had joined the French branch of the Chinese Communist Party. The Communist cadets organized something called the ‘Spark’ society at the Academy, which enrolled 60 members in late 1924 when it was created.
But in general, the Communist cadets were careful about maintaining unity with the more conservative Nationalist students who predominated at the Academy. Clearly, there was a fine line that was being walked, and when it came to the concrete practice of rallying the local population to support the Eastern Expedition, the political differences came out between the more conservative propagandists, and Communists who emphasized issues of labor rights and land reform in addition to an anti-imperialist political message. In his capacity as commander of the Whampoa contingent, Chiang Kai-shek tried to mitigate the conflicts. In light of later events, it is ironic that the right-wing at this time identified Chiang as a leftist. Chiang did make some comments which could be interpreted in this light. For example, at a banquet in April celebrating the victory of the Eastern Expedition, Chiang stated that “Although counter-revolutionary forces are very powerful, the Guomindang and the Chinese Communist Party are cooperating and we have the support of the people of the whole country. The Leader is dead [referring to Sun Yatsen], but there still is Adviser Borodin to lead us.” Which led some on the Guomindang right to think that Chiang had joined the Communist Party.
The Battle for Guangzhou
Now, you might be wondering, if all the fighting with Chen Jiongming’s forces happened along the southern front and was conducted by the National Revolutionary Army, then what was going on with the armies from Yunnan and Guangxi that were holding the line along the center and northern fronts? Well, apparently once the campaign began, it dawned on the warlords who were leading these two ‘allied’ armies that the Guomindang government in Guangzhou was no longer closely guarded by its most loyal forces, and this would be a good opportunity to seize the rich tax base of the city of Guangzhou for themselves.
The Guomindang government retreated to a fortified position in the southern part of the city, and in May began drawing up plans to get the National Revolutionary Army troops back from eastern Guangdong. They also held a plenary session of the Guomindang Central Executive Committee which, among other acts, called for moving forward with reorganizing the structure of the Guomindang’s armed forces so that there would no longer be independent, nominally ‘allied’ armed forces that might do things like, decide to take over a rich city’s tax base rather than march off to fight to unify China. In a fit of only momentarily impotent pique, the plenum declared that those who opposed the reorganization would be dealt with severely.
If you remember from episode 26, the May 30th Movement really didn’t have an impact in Guangzhou until late in June 1925. The reason was that the beginning of June was taken up with the battle to retake Guangzhou from the Yunnan and Guangxi warlords. Just as with the Eastern Expedition, an advance propaganda team conducted work within the city to prepare the population politically to support the offensive against the warlord occupiers. Labor unions were mobilized to tie up the three railway lines in the city, and the population was organized to prevent looting. Fighting took place from June 6 through 12, and once again the National Revolutionary Army was victorious.
According to a Soviet account of the battle for Guangzhou, the Soviet advisers were central to the effort. The plan of attack was devised by Blyukher, and Soviet advisers were placed in the various Nationalist units in order to ensure uniformity in carrying out the attack plan. Guangzhou had been the safe haven for the Soviet-Guomindang alliance, and so retaking the city was absolutely critical. The political fallout of first the Eastern Expedition and then the Battle for Guangzhou was to strengthen the left-wing of the Guomindang in general, at least regionally and, by extension, in the central apparatus of the Guomindang which, after all, was based in the area. And, in particular, Chiang Kai-shek’s position was strengthened, because of his role in leading the Nationalist troops. It was, after all, politically inopportune for the Soviet advisers to claim the glory of the victory for themselves, and so Chiang Kai-shek was the main beneficiary of the need to offload that military glory onto a Chinese military leader. In the wake of the victory, Chiang took over command of the Guangzhou garrison (although this didn’t mean giving up his other positions and responsibilities, such as being the overall commander of the Whampoa Academy).
In any case, the efficacy of the alliance with the Soviet Union and the politicized form of warfare advocated by the Soviets and the Communists had been clearly vindicated by both the Eastern Expedition and the Battle for Guangzhou, and this served to isolate the Guomindang Right in Guangdong Province. At the time of Sun Yatsen’s death, there were three figures in the Guomindang who were seen as his most likely successors in leadership. These were Hu Hanmin, Wang Jingwei, and Liao Zhongkai. At the time of the Battle of Guangzhou, Hu Hanmin had held the position as acting overall leader of the Guomindang. But in the wake of the victory, the Guomindang Central Executive Committee quickly moved both to advance with the reorganization of the armed forces so that generals allied with the Guomindang would not exercise so much independent leadership of their troops, and to constitute a more robust national government structure than they had previously set up. Both of these moves were the direct result of concretely disposing of much greater control over the armed forces in Guangdong and of the territory itself as a result of the recent victories.
In the process, Hu Hanmin, who was further to the Right than either Wang Jingwei or Liao Zhongkai, was shunted into the position of foreign minister in the new government, which was a meaningless position since the Guomindang government had no international status. But, you might be asking, wouldn’t that mean he would be the one to manage the alliance with the Soviet Union? But the answer would be no, because Borodin himself sat on the Guomindang Political Council as an adviser, and the Political Council was the body which executed policies in the name of the government. As an adviser on the Political Council and actual representative of the state which had both funded the establishment of the Guomindang’s National Revolutionary Army and provided the expertise necessary both to create the army and to guide it to its recent victories, Borodin exercised immense influence, and was himself probably involved in the political machinations which marginalized Hu Hanmin.
In contrast, Wang Jingwei was made chairman of the national government, and Liao Zhongkai was made minister of finance, which, unlike the foreign ministry, was actually very important, as what that involved was finally bringing under central control all of the financial resources that the various generals had hitherto been keeping for themselves. I cannot emphasize enough that this was only now possible because the Guomindang had finally established its own military force and the superiority of that force over that exercised by the various allied generals.
The May 30th Movement Comes to the Pearl River Delta: Hong Kong Strike and Shaji Massacre
Having retaken Guangzhou, while the Guomindang concentrated on building up a better governmental infrastructure, the Communists turned to extending the May 30th Movement into the region. The General Labor Union, which we met in Episode 26, sent a delegation to Hong Kong to persuade the unions there to go on strike, and the Communists prevailed upon the revolutionary nationalist government in Guangzhou to support the strike financially so that strikers leaving Hong Kong would be supported. By June 21, thousands of Chinese workers were leaving Hong Kong and the foreign concession area of Guangzhou, which was an island in the Pearl River called Shamian Island. Hong Kong was brought to a standstill and the government there declared a state of emergency.
Faced with an influx of thousands of unemployed workers, the Guomindang government pressed local merchants to contribute to the strike fund to support the workers, and workers at Chinese-owned enterprises which were not being struck against were prevailed upon to contribute part of their wages. Meanwhile, the French and British authorities on Shamian Island put up sandbags and machine-gun nests on the two bridges which linked the Island with the rest of Guangzhou. A huge rally was held on June 23 which was addressed by Guomindang leaders, and it was followed by a march, with different contingents marching in order: first workers, then peasants, then students, then Whampoa cadets and then soldiers from other allied armies.
As the march went down the canal which separated the main part of Guangzhou from Shamian Island, a few isolated shots rang out. Both sides blame each other for shooting first, but pretty soon intense firing was going on across the canal between French and British marines on one side and Chinese revolutionary soldiers on the other side. One of the sources that I have been looking at also claims that a British gunboat fired into the Chinese crowd, but other sources are vague on this point. Certainly, given the disparities in casualties, it seems quite plausible that a gunboat opened up on the patriotic Chinese crowd. On the Shamian Island side, a French civilian and a British enlisted navyman were killed, while several Japanese and European civilians were injured. On the Chinese side, an official investigation found at least 52 known to have been killed, about half of whom were civilians, and 117 wounded. But the actual casualties were almost certainly higher. This is known as the Shaji Massacre, which is the name of the part of Guangzhou right along the canal opposite Shamian Island.
General Blyukher wrote a report later in the summer which described conditions directly after the massacre:
“On the following day (after the shooting on the Chinese demonstration parade), the indignation of the population and the troops was so strong that at all the numerous meetings which took place they insisted on attacking Shamian at once. Tens of thousands were parading the streets clamoring for vengeance. It became dangerous for foreigners to appear on the streets. In the shops the sale of foreign goods was stopped. Boycott completely paralyzed the whole of the foreign shipping between Guangzhou and Hong Kong. The Chinese companies refused to transport foreigners and foreign goods. The strike at Hong Kong gradually extended to all industrial, municipal, and commercial enterprises. House servants also quit the foreigners. Within a few days the economic life of Hong Kong was completely paralyzed. Ocean steamers which arrived at Hong Kong remained tied up because all Chinese crews joined the strikers. The harbor was full of lifeless steamers. The city itself became a military camp. Detachments of foreign volunteers—men and women—were organized to provide for the needs of the community. The great number of Portuguese and Russian immigrants who had arrived at Hong Kong as strike-breakers were powerless to revive the life of the city.
“Strikers arrived by the thousands from Hong Kong in Guangzhou, where they were lodged in houses requisitioned and assigned to them by the government. This raised still more the revolutionary spirit. The population of Guangzhou was so excited and infuriated that one heedless word would have been sufficient to have this whole mass of several hundred thousand rush upon Shamian.
“Among the Russians the serious question arose of taking Shamian by armed force and of attacking Hong Kong. The minority thought that an open declaration of war against imperialism by Guangzhou would swell the wave of the national revolutionary movement in the country and lead to general open fighting against the foreigners. In their opinion even the risk of the loss of Guangzhou could be faced, because the consequences of this scuffle with imperialism would still more revolutionize China and thus compensate for the loss of Guangzhou. It has been figured out how much time it would take the British to prepare for an advance on Guangzhou and a sufficient quantity of troops transported, and the opinion is that the town might hold out for one or two months from the moment when the attack was launched. The majority, however, did not share this opinion, believing that a declaration of war against England on the part of Guangzhou, which is cut off from the rest of China (the communication with the northern provinces is effected through Hong Kong and was interrupted by the British on the day of the shooting), might become an isolated struggle and might not create a national movement in the other provinces, and thus would end only in the loss of Guangzhou. But in case the Shamian incident should find an echo in the whole country and create a strong outburst of the national movement, then the majority did not exclude the possibility of a declaration of war against England.”
As we can see from this report by Blyukher, there was a lot of mass sentiment for declaring war against Britain. In fact, the evening of the massacre, Whampoa cadets, who had lost about 20 comrades, held a meeting and passed a resolution asking to be in the front lines in an assault to retake Shamian Island. And even though both the Soviet and Guomindang leaderships decided that war against Britain was imprudent for the time being, we can see from Blyukher’s report that they did not rule it out of the question if events turned more favorable nationally. And on the Guomindang side, we have this letter that Chiang Kai-shek wrote to Blyukher on June 26, three days after the massacre:
“I had drafted plans prior to the Shamian Incident for fighting the British. In view of the present situation, it is necessary to carry out immediately the proposals on military construction suggested in my plans (e.g., repair of fortifications, establishment of mine factories and shipyards, etc.). The Government should complete within three to six months military preparations for an armed struggle against the British.
“British influence in the Far East has indeed reached a climax! I believe that, besides employing peaceful means of struggle (such as a boycott of British goods), our Party should start military preparations to be completed within half a year for a long period of struggle against the British (which may last for three to five years). It is therefore necessary to establish within the Military Council a special affairs department or a national defense committee, to which a large number of Russian advisers should be appointed. The Committee should be held responsible for distribution of work and the study and investigation of plans in order to centralize responsibility. What is your reaction to this suggestion?
“I am enclosing for your reference a copy of my plans. It will be appreciated if you would treat them as confidential for the time being and add to them whatever suggestions you may have, so that they may be used to facilitate a decision at the meeting on military construction.
So we can see that Chiang at least wanted to start immediate military preparations so that war could be launched against the British in a few months’ time.
However, having decided that immediate military action was ill-advised, the Guangzhou authorities presented a diplomatic note to the British and French on June 26. They demanded an official apology for the shooting, punishment of the senior officers involved, withdrawal from Guangdong waters of all warships, return of the foreign concession on Shamian to Chinese administration, and compensation for the killed and wounded. The British and French, for their part, considered the Guomindang to blame for the entire incident, and refused to negotiate.
Next episode, we’ll pick up here, and see how events proceeded in the contention between the Soviet-allied Guomindang and the British-allied warlords. And, remember, when we get to October 1925, we’ll then be at the point where Mao Zedong comes down into Guangzhou fresh from the peasant organizing in Hunan province that we discussed in episode 28 and becomes acting propaganda minister in this newly strengthened Guomindang government.
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