Tensions come to a head between Chiang Kai-shek, Wang Jingwei and General Kuibyshev, as a Soviet plot backfires spectacularly.
C. Martin Wilbur and Julie Lien-ying How, Missionaries of Revolution: Soviet Advisers and Nationalist China, 1920-1927
Wu Tien-wei, “Chiang Kai-shek’s March Twentieth Coup d’Etat of 1926”
Barbara Tuchman, Stilwell and the American Experience in China, 1911-1945
Some names from this episode:
Mikhail Borodin, Comintern agent and head of Soviet mission to aid the Guomindang
Wang Jingwei, Leader of Guomindang government in Guangdong in late 1925 and early 1926
Dai Jitao, Right-wing Guomindang ideologue
Nikolay Kuibyshev, Soviet general and head of military mission in Guangdong in late 1925 and early 1926
Victor Rogachev, Soviet general and adviser to Chiang Kai-shek
Li Zhilong, Communist in Guomindang navy
Hu Hanmin, Leader of Guomindang right-wing, spent a period of exile in the USSR
Andrei Bubnov, Headed Soviet military inspection mission to China
General V. A. Stepanov, Headed Soviet military mission after Kuibyshev left and before Blyukher returned
Vasily Blyukher, Soviet general whose return was requested by Chiang Kai-shek
Chen Duxiu, General Secretary of the Communist Party
Welcome to episode 36 of the People’s History of Ideas Podcast.
This episode, we’re returning to developments with the Communist-Guomindang alliance in Guangdong province. When we left off, at the beginning of 1926, things were looking pretty good from the perspective of the Communist Party. The left-wing of the Guomindang had more or less consolidated control of the national government and driven off warlord threats from the province. The National Revolutionary Army was more and more strongly influenced by a combination of Soviet military advisors and Chinese Communist political commissars. Some Soviet military advisors controlled quite a bit from behind the scenes and even overtly held command positions at times in some areas, such as the in the developing navy and air forces. Communists held influential positions in the Guomindang government, such as Mao Zedong’s role as acting head of propaganda. And behind the scenes, the Soviet advisor Mikhail Borodin exercised a preponderant influence on the government, and on the head of the government, Wang Jingwei. And while this state of affairs in Guangdong Province elicited much criticism from the right-wing of the Guomindang, the Right appeared to have been marginalized, at least locally.
But the Guomindang as a whole was, as we have discussed in past episodes, significantly to the right of the positions taken by the Guangzhou-based Nationalist government. From the perspective of many Guomindang members, the Soviet Union and the Communist Party had more or less highjacked the Nationalist Revolution. This spurred the spread of the Society for the Study of Sunyatsen-ism among rightist Guomindang members. As we discussed in episode 32, the Society for the Study of Sunyatsen-ism was based on Dai Jitao’s interpretation of Sun Yatsen’s ideas in a way which rejected Communist participation in the Guomindang and which called for rethinking the alliance with the Soviet Union. Dai Jitao was a very close friend of Chiang Kai-shek, who had consolidated control over the Guomindang’s National Revolutionary Army during the course of the successful military campaigns of 1925 in Guangdong Province. Yet, at the beginning of 1925, Chiang was publicly associated with the left-wing of Guomindang, and he had been a great beneficiary of the military alliance with the Soviet Union. Despite public appearances, all was not well with the relationship between Chiang and the Soviet military advisors, and in March of 1926, things came to a head.
By January of 1926, relations between the head of the Soviet military mission, General Kuibyshev, and Chiang had become very cool. There seem to have been two main aspects to the deterioration of the relationship. On the one hand, Kuibyshev observed that Chiang Kai-shek appropriated a lot of military funds for his own uses. This included giving better salaries and equipment to the forces under his direct command than were shared with the rest of the National Revolutionary Army, but also included straight-up stealing of funds. Because of this, Kuibyshev would ignore Chiang and just communicate with Wang Jingwei on all military matters, which caused Chiang Kai-shek to hate him. In this regard, it’s interesting to compare Kuibyshev’s relationship with Chiang Kai-shek during 1925 and 1926 with the relationship that US General Joseph Stilwell had with Chiang Kai-shek between 1942 and 1944 in his capacity as military adviser to Chiang Kai-shek. Stilwell’s diary is full of complaints about Chiang’s corruption and the massive cost in lives and damage to the war effort which Chiang’s corruption caused. At one point in his diary he noted that “What they ought to do is to shoot [Chiang] and the rest of the gang.”
So on the one hand, there was the deterioration of relations between Kuibyshev and Chiang due to Kuibyshev ignoring Chiang because of his corruption. But on the other hand, the relationship between Kuibyshev and Chiang also deteriorated due to the barely concealed contempt with which Kuibyshev and some of his subordinates treated Chiang and some of the other Chinese generals.
In a report that Kuibyshev wrote in January of 1926, he wrote that “Chinese generals and officers are not only completely ignorant as regards the art of war but also most unbalanced in all other respects. Even their common routine work can yield desirable results only with Russian advisers.” Kuibyshev, despite being an adviser, often just took charge himself, arrogating to himself prerogatives which should have gone through Chiang Kai-shek or another Chinese general. Likewise, General Rogachev, in his capacity as adviser to the chief of staff of the National Revolutionary Army, often acted as the de facto chief of staff. The contempt for the abilities of the Chinese generals, whether or not it reflected an accurate assessment of those generals’ capacities, showed through and bred resentment. So this was another contributing factor to the deterioration of relations between Chiang and Kuibyshev.
This deterioration of relations between Kuibyshev and Chiang reached its culmination in a very murky set of events on March 18 to 20, 1926. On March 18, the Communist who was acting head of the navy, Li Zhilong, took two gunboats, one of which was named the Zhongshan, which caused this set of events to become known as the Zhongshan gunboat incident. Li took the gunboats first to Whampoa, and then to Guangzhou, where Chiang was at the time. Wang Jingwei’s wife called Chiang’s consort about five times between March 18 and 19 asking Chiang when he was going to go and get on the boat and go inspect something at Whampoa in advance of a major Soviet inspection tour that was just arriving in the area. While Chiang knew about the high-level Soviet military mission that was arriving, he hadn’t ordered the gunboat to transport him and the amount of phone calls coming from Wang Jingwei’s wife, which seemed to express some anxiety that he go and get on this gunboat, aroused his suspicion about what the heck was going on.
Apparently, what had happened, and this isn’t entirely clear, but this is about what the consensus is among historians at this point, is that Kuibyshev and Wang Jingwei had decided to get Chiang Kai-shek onto the boat and then take him to Vladivostok. Essentially, they were going to do to him what had been done to Hu Hanmin (as we discussed in episode 31), except that Hu had agreed to go into exile in the Soviet Union, and Chiang was basically going to be kidnapped. This was going to be a major move to take more direct control of the National Revolutionary Army, and to push out Wang Jingwei’s only major rival within the Guomindang. However, the attempt backfired in a major way.
With his suspicions aroused, Chiang Kai-shek sent troops onto the gunboat and arrested Li Zhilong. Then he declared martial law in Guangzhou and sent troops to guard the compound where the Soviet military advisers were held. In one stroke, rather than Chiang Kai-shek being taken down as the leader of the National Revolutionary Army, Chiang instead turned the situation into an opportunity to launch a coup and take control of the situation himself. Wang Jingwei was himself dethroned and soon went into exile himself.
Now, because of Chiang’s victory here, and because Chiang Kai-shek used to say that there were things about the Zhongshan gunboat incident which could only become know after his death, there has always been some speculation about whether Chiang didn’t plan the whole thing. And it is quite possible that Chiang was preparing a coup or to push out Wang Jingwei and rein in the Soviet advisers and the Communists participating in the Guomindang. But, it does really seem that there is a lot of evidence pointing to Kuibyshev and Wang Jingwei pursuing their own agenda in trying to oust Chiang Kai-shek. However, this does appear to have been Kuibyshev acting on his own initiative, and not something that was approved in the Soviet Union or by Mikhail Borodin, who was the ultimate Soviet authority in China when it came to relations with the Guomindang, and who was out of Guangzhou at the time on a trip to Beijing and Moscow.
Andrei Bubnov, the head of the Soviet inspection tour which had just arrived in Guangzhou, immediately responded to the events by seeking a new understanding with Chiang Kai-shek. And Chiang was not yet ready to end his alliance with the Soviets and Communists, but he wanted new terms. Chiang understood that without continuing Soviet aid, there could be no Northern Expedition to take the rest of China for the Guomindang. Bubnov and Chiang reached an understanding that the Zhongshan gunboat incident had been on the initiative of individuals and not representative of Soviet or Communist Party policy, and so Kuibyshev, Rogachev and others would immediately be withdrawn from China, while a new formal understanding would be worked out between Chiang and Borodin upon Borodin’s return to Guangzhou later in the spring.
After the Zhongshan Gunboat Incident had subsided, the remaining Soviet advisers held a meeting to sum-up where they had been going wrong and what had led to the clash with Chiang. Stepanov, the Russian who temporarily took over for Kuibyshev, listed three main reasons in his initial summation of events:
“1. Too rapid centralization of military power. (For instance, the establishment of the General Staff, the police, the commissariat, and other organs.)
2. Excessive supervision of the generals and various organs. (Russian advisers often assume leading positions, directly handling all matters.)
3. Inappropriate radical propaganda in the army on the problems of imperialism, the peasantry, and communism.”
In essence, this boiled down to saying that:
1. In centralizing the National Revolutionary Army, too much power had been taken from the hands of the individual Chinese generals and so they were going to resist that. (Although, as we have also seen, that centralization had been necessary in order to have any successes in securing Guangdong for the Guomindang, and it’s not clear from Stepanov’s comments where the line would be drawn in terms of having an effective National Revolutionary Army on the one hand, but not threatening the individual positions of the various generals who supported the Guomindang on the other hand).
2. The Russian advisers had overstepped their bounds in their treatment of the Chinese nationalist generals as subordinates and not having respect for their authority and position.
3. That the aggressive pursuit of a radical agenda had alienated Chiang and other parts of the Guomindang.
Stepanov went on to make some interesting observations about Chiang Kai-shek in his report:
“My observations of the character of Chiang Kai-shek are shared by the Chinese Communists, including the chairman of the Central Committee [Ch’en Tu-hsiu], We consider Chiang Kai-shek a peculiar person with peculiar characteristics, most prominent of these being his lust for glory and power and craving to be the hero of China. He claims that he stands not only for the Chinese National Revolution but for the World Revolution. Needless to say, the degree of his actual understanding of revolution is quite another matter…
“With his ambition to be the hero of China and his desire to utilize the national revolutionary movement, Chiang finds himself constantly wavering between the Right and the Communists. He speaks of the ‘Red Disaster,’ attempting to accord with Chinese public sentiment because the term ‘Red Disaster’ is at present drawing much attention in China.
“Chiang possesses much determination and endurance. Compared with the average Chinese, he is unusually forthright. He often accepts suggestions and plans from trusted subordinates. Yet he is not free from suspicion and jealousy. No one is allowed to argue with him over any matter or to act for him. Such is my judgment of Chiang as a person, though it may not be entirely sound.
“When we review our mistakes in the light of Chiang’s desire to be a hero, we know that attacks on us are inevitable sooner or later. The main problem in our future work is whether we can avoid the above mistakes.
“Some of these mistakes have already been rectified. Others we will attempt to avoid in our future work. Members of the Chinese Communist Party are also engaged in correcting errors in basic policy…
“The important subjective cause [of the incident] is the individuality of Chiang Kai-shek. Should Chiang actually have the above-mentioned unusual characteristics, there is no doubt but that we should, in the light of the overall program, utilize him by all means to carry on the revolutionary struggle.
“The possible future appointment of Chiang to the post of commander-in-chief should sufficiently satisfy his lust for position and power. At present Chiang is only chairman of the Military Council and he has at times acted in opposition to the Right. This affords us an opportunity to be allied with some of the extremists of both the Right and Left and is very helpful to us.
“It would naturally be unfortunate both for the Revolution and for himself if Chiang actually wants further to attack the Left. Yet Chiang can never destroy the Left for, warmly received everywhere, the Left has substantial force. For Chiang to fight such force is to seek self-extermination.”
I think that long quote gives a good sense of how the Soviet advisers thought Chiang remained of use to them as someone who could be used for revolutionary aims, and gives some sense of how they were not evaluating Chiang’s coup as the sort of warning of future disaster that many people came to see it as in retrospect, after the events of about a year later.
On April 29, Borodin arrived in Guangzhou. He and Chiang soon reached an accommodation for how the Soviet-Guomindang alliance would proceed. Chiang required that communists no longer be allowed to head sections of the Guomindang, which meant that Mao Zedong would soon have to leave his position as acting head of propaganda. Chiang also required Soviet support for a summer launch of the Northern Expedition. Most Soviet advisers, Borodin himself, and the ComIntern leaders back in Moscow had all felt that the Northern Expedition should not be launched for at least another year, in order to give time for doing political work in the areas where the Northern Expedition would be going. This political work would give a more revolutionary character to the Northern Expedition, and prevent it from mainly just being one military force overthrowing another one. But Chiang Kai-shek didn’t particularly care about that stuff, and he had correctly sensed that his military force would be a match for all the warlords in his way, at least as far as the Yangzi River.
Chiang also requested that Vasily Blyukher, who we met in Episode 30, return to China to lead the Soviet forces involved and to advise Chiang. If you will recall, Blyukher had been key to the success of the first Eastern Expedition, and was an incredibly charismatic military genius. He was immensely popular with the Chinese military officers. After Blyukher had left Guangdong, a Soviet report commented on his popularity:
“While at [Guangzhou] Com. [Blyukher] has acquired for himself an incredibly high prestige. Our advisers assert that hardly a single day passes without somebody of the Chinese here asking such questions as ‘Where is Blyukher now?’ ‘How soon will he come back?’ and the like. Some of them belonging to the military class are even following his movements and know that he has been to [Beijing], has gone to Kalgan, etc. The Chinese had absolute confidence in Com. [Blyukher], so that his every statement on questions pertaining to military operations was considered to be a law. It is a curious fact that during the military operations Com. [Blyukher] always succeeded in sending to the front line such generals who during the previous period of their life had never left their offices. Gen. [Tan Yankai], for instance, had never been with his units at the front, but immediately went to the front line as soon as Com. [Blyukher] had said that it was absolutely necessary for him to be there.”
Blyukher had actually had to leave Guangzhou because he and Borodin couldn’t get along, so Blyukher’s return was not something that Borodin was eager to agree to, but Chiang insisted. Borodin also agreed to hand over to Chiang Kai-shek a list of names of all the Communists working within the Guomindang, which was an ominous sign.
So, as preparations began for the Northern Expedition, the Communist Party and the Soviet advisers in Guangdong had been newly subdued, but had also reached a new accommodation with Chiang Kai-shek rather than being forced to withdraw from the Guomindang or being suppressed outright. It was no longer feasible for the Communists to try to work from the heights of the Guomindang government, and the Soviets did not exercise the same influence on Chiang Kai-shek that they had on Wang Jingwei. Objectively, their position was now weaker.
Chen Duxiu took advantage of the moment to once again raise the issue of withdrawing the Communist Party entirely from working within the Guomindang, and to only work together in alliance as separate organizations. There was quite a bit of support for this position within the Party in the wake of Chiang’s coup, but the Comintern was adamant that the Communists remain within the Guomindang, despite the much less favorable conditions for taking over the organization. The idea now would be to emphasize mobilizing the grassroots, by developing political work with the peasants and workers in support of the Northern Expedition.
Before Chiang’s coup, there was widespread feeling in China that the Communists were using the Guomindang for their own ends. After the March 20 coup, however, I think the question of ‘who was using who’ became much more of a two-sided struggle.