Chiang Kai-shek’s April 12, 1927 coup against the Communists.
Steve Smith, A Road Is Made: Communism in Shanghai, 1920-1927
Elizabeth Perry, Shanghai on Strike: The Politics of Chinese Labor
Maurice Meisner, Li Ta-chao and the Origins of Chinese Marxism
Stuart Schram, ed., Mao’s Road to Power, vol. 3: From the Jinggangshan to the Establishment of the Jiangxi Soviets, July 1927-December 1930
Some names from this episode:
Wang Shouhua, President of the General Labor Union
Du Yuesheng, One of three top leaders of the Green Gang
Huang Jinrong, One of three top leaders of the Green Gang (and top cop in the French Concession)
Zhou Enlai, Leading Communist responsible for the workers’ armed forces in Shanghai
Bai Chongxi, NRA commander whose forces occupied Shanghai
Li Dazhao, Co-founder of the Communist Party
Gregory Voitinsky, Chairman of the Far Eastern Bureau of the Comintern
Welcome to episode 49 of the People’s History of Ideas Podcast.
Last episode, we discussed the successful armed uprising in Shanghai of March 1927, and left off with a major conundrum facing the Communist Party. On the one hand the Party had grown in size and was poised to take part in the new revolutionary government which had been installed as a result of the uprising. On the other hand, Shanghai had been occupied by units of the National Revolutionary Army which were firmly under the control of the leader of the Guomindang Right, Chiang Kai-shek. Chiang and his underlings had been explicit in the need to disarm the Communists’ worker militias and to maintain Shanghai as a place where the foreign powers who were exploiting China and which directly controlled large parts of Shanghai and other major Chinese cities could continue to do business as usual. Where we left off last episode, a Communist initiative to force the Guomindang into conflict with the imperialist powers had been derailed by the politburo of the Soviet Communist Party, in guidance which was sent by telegram and which judged the plan too risky.
Chiang Kai-shek’s Alliance with the Green Gang
As we’re going to see in this episode, the Communist Party was not going to have much more time to come up with new plans to try and salvage its position, or even really to save its own skin. Already in February, the head of the special services bureau attached to Chiang Kai-shek’s command had arrived in Shanghai and begun recruiting gangsters so that they could be used as enforcers for the Guomindang once the city was taken. And, when Chiang Kai-shek arrived in Shanghai on March 26, the first person who he met with was the chief of detectives of the French Concession (the part of Shanghai ruled by France), who was also one of the top leaders of the Green Gang. Although, as we have seen in past episodes, the Communists had a history of both working with and being opposed by the gangs of Shanghai, of which the most powerful was the Green Gang, we can see that by early 1927 the Green Gang leadership had taken a decision that the Communists had to go.
One of the main rackets that the gang ran was labor recruitment. As we talked about back in episode 19, one of the main things that gangs did was they controlled hiring at a lot of factories. If you needed a job, the gang could hook you up with a factory job, and then you gave a kickback from your wages to your foreman, who would also be a gang member and in charge of hiring the workers under him. While Communists had often joined gangs to gain entrée to the Shanghai workforce early in their organizing efforts, as the Communist unions grew in the city, there was just a basic structural conflict between Communist visions of worker organization in unions, and the way in which the Green Gang tried to control hiring and siphoned off part of workers’ wages in exchange for procuring them jobs.
So, the Green Gang leaders did not relish the idea of a revolutionary Shanghai where the Communists were influential in the government. As an added bonus, the Green Gang had just recently secured control of the opium trade in the city, and some sort of arrangement with the new military force controlling Shanghai was necessary in order to assure that their monopoly of the opium trade would remain unchallenged. (And, just as an aside, this need for the highest levels of the drug trade to find some sort of accommodation with ruling powers is a recurring phenomenon in history, in a wide range of social and cultural contexts. It’s so common that it’s tempting to say that there is almost some sort of law of history that where a large-scale drug trade exists, there must be some section of the formal power structure which is protecting it, although what form that accommodation takes and at what level it is reached varies greatly.) So, as I said, the first person Chiang Kai-shek met with when he got to Shanghai on March 26 was one of the top leaders of the Green Gang, and they got right to work in beginning to plan out how to crush the Communists.
But, even as the Green Gang was preparing with Chiang Kai-shek to move decisively against the Communists in Shanghai, the Communists were kept off balance by the ambiguous nature of their relationship with the Green Gang. As we discussed last episode, some Green Gang members had fought against the revolutionary uprising while others had fought for it, and after the uprising there remained friendly relations with some parts of the Gang while antagonisms remained with others. For example, Wang Shouhua, the head of the Communist General Labor Union, was pledged as a disciple in the Green Gang under one of the Gang’s three top leaders, Du Yuesheng. This ‘discipleship’ in the Gang where the top GLU leader was formally pledged to a top Green Gang leader was part of the way in which the Communists had navigated the Gang’s control over workers as the Communists built the labor movement in Shanghai.
During the build up to the Third Armed Uprising, Du and Wang’s relationship had remained very friendly, with Du apparently intervening to prevent the arrest of Wang and other leading Communist unionists on several occasions, or to secure their release once arrested. And one of the other top Green Gang leaders, Huang Jinrong, who was the one who met with Chiang Kaishek that I mentioned earlier, would pass intelligence to the General Labor Union and had apparently even subsidized its activities. In fact, there appears even to have been some consideration on the part of these Green Gang leaders that they could reorganize the Green Gang to serve a Communist-dominated city government as long as the Communists were willing to look the other way and allow them to continue with their opium operations uninterrupted. It seems that Du floated the idea to Wang, although things never moved beyond that.
Meanwhile, in the wake of the armed uprising, the Communist dog beating squads had been revived, and gang members who had been particularly close to oppressive bosses in the cotton mills and who had gained reputations as enemies of labor for their crimes against the people were being targeted for retribution, with some being executed. And as part of this mobilization against oppressive gang foremen who collaborated with the imperialists, it was not uncommon for the workers involved to call for the overthrow of the gangsters. And so, even while there remained ambiguous but friendly relations between the Green Gang and the Communists at the top levels, the workers movement in Shanghai was developing in a way which couldn’t coexist with the current gang-dominated form of labor organization in Shanghai’s factories. So there was this weird situation where on the ground things were very antagonistic between the Communists and a section of the Green Gang, and there was a clear structural opposition between the Communist vision of labor emancipation and the labor racket that the Gang was operating, but there were also Gang members who were sympathetic to the Communist vision on the lower levels, and at the highest levels there were these weird friendly relations between the Communists and the Gang leaders. And this weird situation seems to have dulled the Communists’ edge in recognizing the immediate danger that they were in from the Gangs and their collaboration with Chiang Kai-shek.
The April 12 Coup
Chiang and the Green Gang completed their preparations and moved against the Communists in Shanghai on April 12. Actually, you could say that Chiang’s coup started on April 11, although the date that we use for the coup is April 12, because the first act of the coup was to decapitate the General Labor Union by taking out Wang Shouhua, and that happened on the night of April 11. Wang had been invited to dinner at the home of the Green Gang leader, Du Yuesheng, and for all the reasons that we’ve just discussed, Wang had good reason not to suspect any sort of a trap. But what happened was that when Wang got there, some of Du’s underlings beat him up savagely, then they put in him a sack, drove out to a remote forest, and buried him alive.
During the very early morning of April 12, hundreds of gangsters were allowed to pass through the French Concession and International Settlement in order to attack the workers’ pickets and General Labor Union. At 4:30 am, gangsters opened fire on the headquarters of the General Labor Union. A short time later, troops from the National Revolutionary Army showed up and claimed to be there to “suppress internal strife among the workers.” But then, when the leader of the GLU’s pickets came out of the building, he and his men were disarmed and led back into the building. It quickly became clear that the attack by the gangsters was meant to serve as a pretext for the direct intervention of the National Revolutionary Army to disarm the workers’ militias. Zhou Enlai barely escaped the building in the chaos that followed as the gangsters were allowed into the building to disarm the pickets. Similar attacks on other locations of the workers’ pickets took place across the city over the course of the morning, with about 60 workers killed and 200 wounded in the fighting.
In the afternoon later in the day, a large mass meeting was held in support of the workers’ right to bear arms, which was estimated at least to have 20,000 people attending, and which one source put at 50,000. The meeting called a general strike to begin the next day, April 13, and 2,000 workers marched from the meeting and retook the headquarters of the General Labor Union from the soldiers who were occupying the building, who retreated peacefully when they saw that they were outnumbered by the workers. They held on to the building until the following afternoon, when they were attacked and driven out again in a bloody battle. Despite the escalating violence, Zhou Enlai and some others were allowed to escape a second time, this time deliberately, because the leader of the troops, the younger brother of the right-wing Commander of the National Revolutionary Army in Shanghai, Bai Chongxi, knew Zhou from their days at the Whampoa Academy, the big training center for the officers of the National Revolutionary Army down in Guangdong.
Despite the repression going on in the city, a couple hundred thousand workers observed the general strike on April 13, and a big rally and mass meeting was held with about 60,000 people participating. During the rally, there was a brief clash with soldiers from the NRA, who fired into the crowd and wounded over a hundred demonstrators. The mass meeting drew up a set of demands, which included returning arms to the workers, suppression of the gangs, justice for the death of Wang Shouhua, return of property to the unions, and compensation for the families of those killed and injured in the repression. Here’s how the historian Steve Smith describes what happened next, in his book A Road Is Made: Communism in Shanghai, 1920-1927, which gives the most comprehensive English language account of the events in Shanghai and which I have relied on heavily for our episodes on Shanghai:
“At 1 pm a parade set off for the headquarters of the second company of the 26th army to present the petition… They were led by a military band and union banners, followed by pickets, labor unions and members of the organization of toilers’ children and various civic organizations. The only arms the marchers bore were iron bars. At around 4 pm, as they were filing along Baoshan Road in the pouring rain, machine gunners opened fire without warning near the corner of Hongxing Road. Attackers swarmed out of adjacent alleyways, stabbing, shooting and clubbing the panic-stricken crowd. Because the adjacent alleys were so narrow, the crowd could not easily escape the troops with their fixed bayonets. In all, more than 100 were killed, some 200 wounded and about fifty unaccounted for. It took eight trucks several hours to clear the streets of corpses.”
The strike remained strong the next day, April 14, but it petered out over the next few days in the face of the increasing repression, which included raids on unions, student groups, the Shanghai municipal government (which was dominated by the Left) and even the offices of sections of the Guomindang in which the left-wing was influential. Thousands of Communists and alleged Communists were rounded up, with many being executed. The total number of dead varies depending on the sources one looks at, but somewhere between 2,000 and 5,000 Communists and other progressives, mainly union militants, were killed in Shanghai between April 12 and the end of 1927. This included many of the most visible and influential leaders among the working people of Shanghai.
A major blow was struck against the Communist Party in Beijing as well, right about the same time. The warlords who ran Beijing were angry at how the Nationalists had basically defeated them in southern China with the help of Soviet military aid, and so on April 6 they conducted a raid on the Soviet Embassy in Beijing. Now, Beijing, like all other major Chinese cities, had a foreign military presence in it at the time, and all the foreign embassies were located in a part of the city called the Legation Quarter. So, for warlord troops to enter the Legation Quarter and to raid the Soviet Embassy, they needed the permission of the Japanese, European and American diplomats in Beijing. So this raid was conducted with the total support of the imperialist powers.
Anyways, the Soviet Embassy wasn’t like one building, it was a big, walled-off compound, like the other embassies. And Li Dazhao, the co-founder of the Chinese Communist Party and really the most important leader of the party in the north of the country, lived in a house in the embassy compound with his family, because it was unsafe for him to live in Beijing without the protection of the embassy because of the political repression by the warlords in Beijing. We spoke quite a bit about Li in our episodes on the founding and earliest period of the Chinese Communist Party. His ideas about the importance of the peasantry in the revolution may have been an early influence on Mao Zedong, and we discussed his connection with Mao when Mao was in Beijing back in episode 14. Li was a popular and influential figure far beyond the ranks of the Communist Party. And so, when the warlord troops entered the Soviet Embassy compound in Beijing and arrested him, it was another major blow against the Communist Party.
Here is how Li’s daughter described the arrest in an account written years later:
[p. 258 of Meisner]
Li was held until April 28, when he and 19 other Communists were executed by strangulation.
In Shanghai, even as the initial wave of repression in the days following April 12 continued, the local Communist leadership and Comintern representatives began meeting to figure out what had gone wrong and to begin figuring out who got the blame. Some, like Gregory Voitinsky, chairman of the Far Eastern Bureau of the Comintern, even came down from Wuhan clandestinely in order to join in the meetings. Different theses were put forward to explain the defeat. On April 15, Zhou Enlai argued that the Party had simultaneously appeared to attack the capitalists while also relying on the Chinese national bourgeoisie to lead the nationalist revolution, which meant that they had both made the capitalists into their enemies while failing to sufficiently prepare the workers to lead a revolution. Some speakers accused the Shanghai Communists of being too mild toward Chiang Kai-shek, while others pointed out the contradictory directives coming from Moscow regarding how to relate to Chiang.
One thing that I hope has come across in the several episodes that we have devoted to the revolutionary movement in Shanghai is that the process was very complex and difficult for those involved. Naturally, there was continuing debate and conflict over the political strategy to be pursued, both among the Communists in China and in the directives they received from Moscow, and this in and of itself resulted in some confusion about strategy and tactics. On top of this, there were immense difficulties which arose as policies encountered the real world in practice, with what was articulated on paper and in meetings usually failing to translate exactly as conceived in advance in the real world, as other political actors responded to events and policies in unforeseen ways. Indeed, one of the criticisms leveled during these meetings at the Shanghai regional leadership of the Communist Party was that it had “failed to establish proletarian hegemony over the petty-bourgeoisie.” It’s hard not to just sort of laugh at criticisms like that and say, well, easier said than done.
The common thread in all of these early summation meetings was that, somehow, if only the right policy had been adopted, that the tragedy could have been avoided and even that the Communists could have become the dominant political force in Shanghai through the events of March and April. That somehow, Chiang Kai-shek and the Guomindang Right could have been outmaneuvered. The one thing that was not recognized in these meetings to sum up the tragedy in mid-April in Shanghai was just how heavily the decks had been stacked against the Communists. The simple fact that the Guomindang Right controlled the army, and that the Guomindang Right correctly identified the opposition of interests between the capitalists who it represented and the workers represented by the Communist Party, meant that, more or less inevitably, the Communist Party would lose in Shanghai in 1927.
The most insightful and concise summation of what had gone wrong came a few months later, in August, during another emergency conference, when Mao Zedong, reflecting on these events in Shanghai and other events which we will be talking about soon, said that:
“We used to censure Sun Yatsen for engaging only in a military movement, and we did just the opposite, not undertaking a military movement, but exclusively a mass movement… We must know that political power is obtained from the barrel of a gun.”
Fundamentally, whatever errors in policy may have been made or not made by the Shanghai Communists, without an armed force which could counter Chiang Kai-shek’s National Revolutionary Army, they simply could not win the city. But the road to grasping this point, which would be one of several central problems for reorienting the Chinese Revolution on to the path that ultimately led it to victory 22 years later, was going to go through some twists and turns.
And, there is a lot more to say about the aftermath of the events we covered in this episode, and we’ll be moving on to talk about that in our next episode.
And, before we end here, I want to remind you that if you enjoyed this episode or learned something from it, ratings and reviews can help other people to discover this podcast.