The Hong Kong strike, the assassination of Liao Zhongkai, and the Second Eastern Expedition.
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:
Chiang Kai-shek, Japan-trained military officer, close confidant of Sun Yatsen
Deng Zhongxia, Communist labor leader, involved in Hong Kong strike
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)
Chen Jiongming, Southern warlord, ally and then enemy of Sun Yatsen
Mikhail Borodin, Comintern agent and head of Soviet mission to aid the Guomindang
Zhou Enlai, Communist head of the Whampoa Academy political department, leading commissar on Second Eastern Expedition
Victor Rogachev, Soviet general and adviser to Chiang Kai-shek
Welcome to episode 31 of the People’s History of Ideas Podcast.
When we left off last episode, there was a tense standoff between the British on one side and the Guomindang government of Guangzhou on the other side, following the massacre of Chinese protesters across the canal from the foreign concession area of Shamian Island in Guangzhou by British and French forces. The Guomindang and Soviet leaderships in Guangzhou had for the moment decided against military action against the British, and to pursue the struggle against the British and other foreign occupiers of Chinese territory through the strike going on in Hong Kong, and through an active boycott of British, French, Japanese and American goods.
So let’s pick up our story with the boycott and strike.
Hong Kong Strike and the Boycott of Imperialist Products
The boycott wasn’t like the boycotts you see in the United States in recent history, where some group, most likely a union or a civil rights organization, appeals to consumers not to buy a particular product. Off the top of my head, the big boycotts in United States history that listeners in the United States might be familiar with were the bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama against segregation on the buses at the beginning of the US civil rights movement; and the three grape boycotts called by the United Farm Workers union. Unlike those boycotts, this was a government-enforced boycott which was being backed up by the Guomindang’s state power, such as it was. So students would go inspect shops to make sure that the shops weren’t selling products from the proscribed countries, and if they were, there could be serious penalties. The Strike Committee had its own prisons and courts to deal with persons arrested by the student inspectors. Usually the penalty involved a fine, but sanctions could also include a sort of mob justice. This phenomenon of strike committees with their own justice system, including the capacity to lock up strike-breakers, was something we saw in Shanghai as well during the May 30th Movement, in episode 26, even where the strike was not supported by the local state, so it probably shouldn’t be a surprise that we’re seeing this same phenomenon in Guangzhou where the strike was being supported by the state.
By the end of June 1925 practically all British coastal and river ships based in Hong Kong were paralyzed by the strike of their Chinese crews. With practically no ships running between Guangzhou and Hong Kong, the export trade—Chinese as well as foreign—virtually ended. This meant that the boycott cut both ways, and Chinese merchants probably lost as much as did foreigners. In addition, Guangdong normally imported large amounts of rice from the French colony of Vietnam and from Thailand, so the strike began to endanger the city’s rice supply, driving up the price of basic foodstuffs.
This created major financial and political problems for the Guomindang government, whose support was essential for the continuation of the strike. While the Communists may have got the strike going by convincing the unions in Hong Kong to strike as part of spreading the May 30th Movement from Shanghai to other parts of China, as we discussed last episode, the Guomindang government in Guangzhou had to quickly take over financial responsibility for strike relief in order to keep things going. During the first weeks of the strike, when almost 200,000 strikers were in Guangzhou after leaving Hong Kong, the government was paying out five to ten thousand dollars a day in strike relief. According to one of the Communist leaders of the strike, Deng Zhongxia, without this aid from the government in Guangzhou, the strike would have collapsed within a week.
As the strike and boycott dragged on, a decision was reached to narrow the target of the action in order to relieve some of the financial hardship. So, in August it was decided that anyone other than the Japanese and British could come trade in Guangzhou, and then finally in September everyone but the British was allowed. There was one rule though, which was that the ships couldn’t stop in Hong Kong, so they had to come directly to Guangzhou. Previously, much of Guangzhou’s trade and communications, even with other parts of China, had passed through Hong Kong.
The goal on the part of the Guomindang government in continuing the strike and boycott remained the five demands that had been presented to the British on June 26, and which we mentioned last episode: an official apology for the Shaji Massacre, 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, for their part, responded by trying to pull together a warlord coalition in Guangdong to overthrow the Guomindang.
Although the National Revolutionary Army had defeated their main rival in Guangdong, Chen Jiongming, in the Eastern Expedition, which we discussed last episode, the new situation with the strike and boycott created a newly polarized situation. The situation, as many merchants and the right-wing of the Guomindang saw it, was that the left-wing of the Guomindang had consolidated power in its hands, and then, by working in concert with the Communist Party and the Soviet advisors, had plunged the city into an economic crisis by supporting the strike in Hong Kong and forcing an economic boycott on the prosperous merchants of the city and province. This created a situation where recently defeated forces, such as Chen Jiongming, could re-emerge, and the locally marginalized Guomindang right-wing felt impelled to mutiny against the now dominant left.
The Assassination of Liao Zhongkai
So a kind of informal coalition of common interests emerged between the British, some warlords led by Chen Jiongming, and elements of the Guomindang right-wing. Initially, these forces hoped that they could accomplish their aims with a coup by the right-wing of the Guomindang. Rather than a full-on coup, what ended up happening was a major political assassination of one of the main Guomindang leftists. On August 20, 1925 Liao Zhongkai was assassinated. If you’ll recall, Liao Zhongkai was the minister of finance of the government, and was the most pro-Soviet of the three most likely successors to be the overall leader of the Guomindang after Sun Yatsen’s death. After the assassination, martial law was declared in Guangzhou, and then investigation into who was behind the assassination apparently pointed to elements of the Guomindang who were associated with Hu Hanmin, the more right-wing of the three heirs apparent of Sun Yatsen. I say that the evidence apparently points toward Hu Hanmin, because the situation quickly became very murky with the political maneuvering that took place in the wake of the assassination.
The moment was seized on by the left-wing of the Guomindang to round up and purge rightist political opponents. About a hundred officers and officials were arrested, and it is not exactly clear what proportion of those arrested were actual coup plotters and how many were targets of opportunity given the political freedom that the government now had to purge rightists in the wake of the assassination. It’s not even entirely clear what England’s role was in the whole affair. According to some confessions, the plotters had been given some hope by the governor of Hong Kong that the British would financially support a coup. However, British archives indicate that while the governor of Hong Kong asked for funding to support a right-wing coup in order “to suppress the Reds and reopen normal relations,” the British foreign office declined its support.
And there are contradictory accounts from the period about just how strong the evidence was that pointed to Hu Hanmin’s involvement in the assassination. But, whether he was ultimately blamed more due to the evidence or more due to the political convenience of purging him, he got the blame. Some accounts claim that Mikhail Borodin wanted him executed, but in any case, as it turned out a decision was reached that Hu would be put on a Soviet boat and sent to Russia to live in a kind of gilded exile, where he would be officially treated as an ambassador, but in reality his whole purpose in being in Russia was just to have him out of the way. He was basically a prisoner though, and the Soviet ship he was on did not stop anywhere on the way to Vladivostok, in order to prevent Hu from disembarking.
Over the course of September the purge continued, and sections of the Guomindang military which were deemed unreliable were disarmed. Ultimately, this purge served to further consolidate the ongoing reorganization and centralization of the National Revolutionary Army under Chiang Kai-shek’s command. As it happens, the main political beneficiary of the assassination of Liao Zhongkai was Chiang Kai-shek. Because of this, and because of the general lack of clarity about exactly who was behind the assassination, some historians believe that Chiang Kai-shek was the mastermind. At one stroke, two of Sun Yatsen’s heirs apparent were dispensed with, and as we will see in another episode, the third, Wang Jingwei, would be shunted aside by Chiang in early 1926.
While I don’t think that Chiang Kai-shek can be ruled out as having been behind the assassination of Liao Zhongkai, I think it more likely that he seized on the opportunity of Liao’s death to push out Hu Hanmin, rather than plotting it all in advance. After all, Chiang wasn’t the only one plotting against Hu. Borodin was also clearly enthusiastic about getting Hu Hanmin out of the way. And there clearly were Guomindang rightists who were plotting a coup at the time, and the situation was very tense in Guangzhou with the financial crisis caused by the boycott and the political opposition to the government caused by the financial crisis. So it seems much more likely that Chiang was not behind the assassination of Liao, just that he capitalized on the situation caused by the assassination.
After the coup plans fizzled out with the assassination of Liao, and in fact backfired on the Guomindang right and the British by pushing the Guomindang government in Guangzhou to the left and allowing it to consolidate power further and to isolate and purge rightists, the hopes of the British and their Chinese allies devolved onto Chen Jiongming. Chen, who had retreated to Hong Kong after his defeat during the Eastern Expedition, now returned to eastern Guangdong to rally his people and lead a coalition of warlords to try and overthrow the Guomindang.
The Second Eastern Expedition: Kicking Out Chen Jiongming and Learning to Do Revolution
This led to the Second Eastern Expedition. Last episode, we talked about the first Eastern Expedition, also waged against Chen Jiongming. It was victorious, but also was taken advantage of by so-called ‘allied armies’ which decided to take over Guangzhou instead of fighting against Chen Jiongming. Now, in late 1925, with its armed forces much more centralized and consolidated, the Guomindang was better equipped to make its military gains stick. And so, during the last few months of 1925, Chen Jiongming was kicked out of Guangdong again, permanently this time, and the other warlords who allied with him to the north and west of Guangzhou were mopped up one by one, and the entire province was brought under Guomindang rule in a much more solid way than had been accomplished during the first Eastern Expedition.
I don’t want to get into the minutiae of the military campaign against Chen Jiongming and the smaller warlords who allied with him. But I do want to highlight the continued importance of the political work done during the military campaign. This work continued and built upon the political work that was done during the first Eastern Expedition, which we talked about in our last episode, and this political work served to distinguish the National Revolutionary Army from the warlords in the eyes of the people, and gave a particular revolutionary character to the warfare that the Guomindang was waging.
Political workers in the army were also referred to as commissars. Now, this term can create some confusion, because it was borrowed from the Soviet military. But in the case of the Soviet military, the position of commissar was somewhat different. When the Russian Revolution happened, the revolutionaries found themselves waging a civil war without having previously had any substantial armed forces of their own. When the Russian Revolution was triumphant in 1917, the revolutionaries inherited what was left of the old Russian state, and the process of transforming that state was a long and drawn out process. In the meanwhile, they found themselves with the necessity of fighting a civil war, and so the elements of the old Tsarist armed forces which were intact and which were willing to fight on the side of the revolutionaries were used to fight the civil war, even while during that process efforts were made to transform the old Tsarist armed forces into something new. This meant that there were many old Tsarist officers commanding the revolutionary armed forces during the Russian civil war. But, naturally, the Bolsheviks, with good reason, did not trust the loyalty of many of these old Tsarist military men. So what they did is they set up a joint command at all levels of the Soviet military, where there was a strictly military officer and a political commissar, and when orders were given, the commissar had to sign off on the orders that the military officer gave. Essentially, the political commissar exercised an oversight function on behalf of the revolution, to ensure the loyalty of the military. From a strictly military perspective, it was a very cumbersome system. But it was necessary at the time in order to ensure the that the military served the revolution.
By contrast, in China, the political commissars that we are talking about did not have any command function and did not sign off on orders given by military officers. Rather, they had two functions, political work among the troops, and political work with the populations where the army was operating. And, since we’re talking about the role of commissars in the Chinese Revolution, later on, when the Communist Party is operating its own armed forces, the role of the commissar will mainly be to operate the party cell within the army unit and to conduct political education among the troops, not to ensure the loyalty of army officers. So in content we can see that all through the Chinese Revolution, the political commissar was really a different sort of thing than in the Soviet Union.
Last episode, when we discussed the political work that the commissars did among the troops, we emphasized that they educated the troops to respect the local population, by not looting or forcing them to perform labor for the revolutionary army, both standard practices among warlord troops. Another aspect of the political work among the troops that was implemented during the Second Eastern Expedition was that the political workers were expected to be examples of valor in combat. So, for example, the most important battle of the campaign was taking of the city of Huizhou, which had pretty serious fortifications. So after an artillery barrage, the revolutionaries had to run up to the city walls and put up ladders and get over. They sent three man teams with ladders across open land up to the walls, while being fired on by the defenders. This was really dangerous work, so the expectation was that the political workers had to set an example in bravery in order to get everyone else to follow and do this. So, ahead of all the ladders, one of the commissars ran with the company flag and waved it under the city walls in order to urge on the ladder bearers keep up the morale while the ladders were being set up under fire.
In terms of political work among the people in the areas being taken by the Guomindang, one of the new elements from what we discussed last episode was that, after a place had been captured, the commissars would organize big welcoming rallies for when Chiang Kai-shek and the army headquarters marched into the town. For example, in Shantou, at the far eastern end of Guangdong, a triumphal procession was held when the army command marched into town, followed by speeches by Chiang Kai-shek, the Communist commissar Zhou Enlai, and the Soviet advisor General Rogachev. Chiang’s speech praised the cooperation of the people and the troops which, he said, had made the victory possible. He proclaimed his program: to restore the labor unions, to abolish unequal treaties, and prohibit gambling and opium smoking. He ended with praise for the Russian Revolution and slogans of support for the World Revolution.
This experience with political work both among the troops and with the populations in the areas where the revolutionary armed forces were operating was formative for the Chinese Communists, and would have a major influence both in the success of the upcoming Northern Expedition, and then during the long years of protracted people’s war which led up to the Communist victory in 1949. Mao wrote a lot about issues related to political work within the revolutionary armed forces, and we can see the clear roots of the experience that informed his writing in the Eastern Expeditions, even though he personally didn’t participate in either.
Now, Mao comes into this situation in October 1925, and takes up the position of acting head of the propaganda department of the Guomindang Central Executive Committee. I think that next episode we’ll move on to talk about what Mao was doing within this context. I had originally thought I was going to get to that in episode 29, after episode 28 where we talked about Mao rediscovering his peasant roots in Hunan province, but then I thought we needed some additional context about the whole situation in Guangdong and the Soviet-Guomindang alliance. So, unless I re-think the situation again, we’ll be back with Mao Zedong next episode.
In wrapping up the story we’ve been telling in the past three episodes, I want to talk about something that people who study revolutions call the ‘revolution-counter-revolution dialectic.’ Basically, that’s a fancy term for talking about how the pushing forward of a revolutionary process elicits a reaction from the people who oppose the revolution, and then the revolution either grows and strengthens itself or suffers a defeat and gets weakened according to how it responds to the action of the counter-revolutionaries, and this cycle keeps on repeating itself until one side or the other is defeated, or some sort of stalemate ensues. I think that what we have seen in the last couple episodes and this episode with the tempering of the Guomindang in Guangdong province in 1925 is a great example of this ‘revolution-counter-revolution dialectic’ in action. At the beginning of 1925, the Guomindang was a pretty disorganized force, largely reliant on very unreliable allied warlords. Through a whole process of allying with the Soviet Union and the Communist Party, the Guomindang built up its strength, began to bring Guangdong more firmly under its control and implement revolutionary nationalist policies in the areas it controlled. Every step of the way it met resistance and faced temporary setbacks, from local warlords, from allied armies that turned on it, from Britain and the other foreign powers which were oppressing China and want to keep on oppressing China, and from the right-wing of the Guomindang. Each step of the way, the Guomindang left, working closely with the Soviet advisors and the Communists within the Guomindang, beat back the reactions of the counter-revolutionary forces to advance in consolidating its power in Guangdong, until at the end of 1925 it had really got a firm hand on the province. It is, I think, a good illustration for a more or less universal process in how revolutions advance or get beaten, not through a straight-line progression, but through constant contention with the counter-revolution. Which is what is meant by this term, the ‘revolution-counter-revolution dialectic.’
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