As the Wuhan regime collapses, so does the united front. Soviet advisors leave China, Chinese Communists go underground. The purge strikes Wuhan.
C. Martin Wilbur, The Nationalist Revolution in China, 1923-1928
Anna Louise Strong, China’s Millions
Vera Vladimirovna Vishnyakova-Akimova, Two Years in Revolutionary China, 1925-1927
C. Martin Wilbur and Julie Lien-ying How, Missionaries of Revolution: Soviet Advisers and Nationalist China, 1920-1927
Tony Saich, The Rise to Power of the Chinese Communist Party
Some names from this episode:
M. N. Roy, Indian Comintern agent
Wang Jingwei, Leader of the Guomindang Left
Feng Yuxiang, Christian warlord
Vasily Blyukher, Soviet general and military genius, chief of Soviet military mission to aid the Guomindang
Zotov, Blyukher’s code clerk, died of poisoning
Mikhail Borodin, Comintern agent and political head of Soviet mission to aid the Guomindang
He Jian, Nationalist general
T. V. Soong, Wuhan government finance minister
Chen Duxiu, Communist general secretary until July 12, 1927
Zhou Enlai, Member of temporary standing committee of Communist Politburo appointed in July 1927
Zhang Guotao, Member of temporary standing committee of Communist Politburo appointed in July 1927
Li Lisan, Member of temporary standing committee of Communist Politburo appointed in July 1927
Song Qingling, Guomindang Left leader and widow of Sun Yatsen
Deng Yanda, Head of the Guomindang peasant bureau
Eugene Chen, Guomindang foreign minister
Gregory Voitinsky, Chairman of the Far Eastern Bureau of the Comintern
Welcome to episode 54 of the People’s History of Ideas Podcast.
Last episode, we discussed the difficult situation faced by the peasant movement and the Communist Party in the territory controlled by the Wuhan-based government of the Guomindang Left. While the best elements of the National Revolutionary Army went on ahead to push the Northern Expedition forward in Henan province, many of the forces left in the rear turned on the government, or at least on the peasant movement, and began slaughtering peasants. Meanwhile, the unwillingness or inability of the government in Wuhan to do anything about a situation in which thousands of peasants were being murdered increasingly brought to a head the crisis of the united front. Could Communists continue to support and participate in the government if it was slaughtering the Communists’ mass base? And what need did the Nationalists have of the Communists anyways, now that the regime had turned sharply against the mass movements which the Nationalist revolution had engendered?
We ended last episode with the representative from the Communist International, M. N. Roy, having shown a telegram to the leader of the Wuhan government, Wang Jingwei. The telegram contained orders from Stalin to the Chinese Communist Party, calling on the Communists to build up their own independent army, while pushing aside most of the leaders of the government and army, all while pushing for more land seizures by the peasant movement in the countryside. While these orders could not really be implemented in any immediate way, Roy used the telegram to threaten Wang Jingwei, to try to force him to take a more progressive stand.
Roy showed the telegram to Wang on June 5, and on June 6 Wang and many other members of the government were set to travel up to Henan for a major conference with their allies in the north. The National Revolutionary Army had just succeeded in driving out the warlord forces from Henan, and in doing so they made a juncture with some other warlord forces that the Guomindang left was allied with, and which had been driving into Henan from the west. So, I guess it wasn’t so much that the warlord forces were all driven out of Henan, but rather the warlord forces who opposed the Nationalists had been driven out, and some other warlord forces who were allied with the Nationalists had come from the west and now joined up with the National Revolutionary Army in Henan.
I have avoided giving a lot of specifics about the different warlord factions in past podcast episodes, because I think that unless you really dig deep into it, they can be pretty confusing. That’s especially the case for a podcast focused on ideas. Because while the various warlords did have their political agendas, these were usually vague and shifting, and really they were all pretty much out for themselves more than they were committed to any particular set of ideas. That being so, some were more inclined toward Nationalist politics and reform than others were, and that was particularly the case for this guy who came in from the west, who was named Feng Yuxiang.
We’ve mentioned Feng’s forces a few times previously, but without naming him. In past episodes, you might remember I’ve talked about some warlord forces along the western Chinese border with Russia that were allied with and backed by the Soviet Union, including receiving money and arms and military advisors. Well, that was Feng Yuxiang, along with some other warlords that formed an alliance with him. Despite his alliance with the Soviet Union and his Nationalist proclivities, Feng was known as the ‘Christian general,’ and he was known for baptizing his troops with a fire hose. Now, during some of the reading I did for this episode, I found that some scholars believe that the claims that he baptized his troops with a fire hose are apocryphal, but I’ve seen documentary footage that purported to be of him dousing his troops with what looked like a very powerful fire hose. In any case, whether this was common practice or not in his army, he took baptism pretty seriously, and wanted his troops to convert to Christianity and get baptized. Anyways, he was a pretty colorful character.
So, on June 6, the day after Roy had shown Wang the telegram from Stalin, Wang Jingwei and a bunch of other Guomindang Left leaders got on a train to go up to Zhengzhou, the capital of Henan province, for a conference with Feng and his people. Roy had very obligingly given a copy of the telegram to Wang, so that he could show it to everyone during the conference and they could decide what to do about it. And there was a clear consensus among these Nationalist leaders and Feng Yuxiang that the Communists had to go. It was only a question of when and how, and if somehow Soviet aid could be preserved in some form.
When Wang Jingwei and the other members of the Wuhan government’s Political Council returned to Wuhan in the middle of June, political tensions between Communists and Nationalists began to escalate. A Soviet translator who wrote a memoir of her time in China describes her experiences at the time, and I’ll read some passages from it here, because I think she captures a sense of the escalating deterioration of the united front there: “I was in Hankou” (which is the northwestern part of the city of Wuhan) “on June 16 when the return of the troops from the Henan front was being celebrated. The Hubei Trade Union Council wanted to greet the generals with a general strike as a mark of protest against the unresolved conflicts with Changsha. But nothing came of this. The strike turned headlong into a welcoming demonstration. Still it proceeded under the slogan of struggle against the counter-revolutionaries in Hunan. This provoked the indignation of the leading members of the Guomindang Central Executive Committee… They declared that the slogan was ‘put forth by the Communists, not by the masses.’”
“An attempt was made to poison Blyukher at one of the banquets given in honor of the victorious return of the troops of the National Revolutionary Army from Henan. Blyukher took sick and recovered but one of the accompanying advisors—Zotov—was poisoned and died the following day. The doctor from the German missionary hospital at first indignantly diagnosed poisoning. However, on the following day, when he was asked to confirm this officially, he declared with embarrassment that he had evidently made a mistake.”
“On June 20 the Fourth All-China Congress of Trade Unions, the last legal congress of Red trade unions in China during this period, began its work in Hankou… On June 23 the delegates took part in innumerable meetings on this, the second anniversary of the British imperialists’ shooting of the demonstrators in Guangzhou…” Which listeners might remember from episode 30. “And just then in plain view of the delegates who had come from every province of China the workers’ militia in Hankou was disarmed… As soon as the workers’ militia had been disarmed, soldiers occupied and partially pillaged the headquarters of the All-China Federation of Labor and the Hubei Trade Union Council.”
And as this situation in Wuhan was deteriorating, Feng Yuxiang held a meeting with Chiang Kai-shek, in which he now recognized the Guomindang government in Nanjing and undertook to mediate a reconciliation between the Left and Right wings of the Guomindang, with the understanding that this would mean a purge of the Communists in Wuhan. On June 21, Feng Yuxiang sent a telegram to the Wuhan government, which he made public by also giving it to the press, in which he recalled that at Zhengzhou they had talked about the radicals who had wormed their way into the party and oppressed merchants, factory owners, gentry, landowners, and soldiers, and who refused to obey orders. Feng demanded that Mikhail Borodin should be sent back to Russia (something that Chiang Kai-shek had been demanding since February) and that the members of the Wuhan government join into the Nationalist government at Nanjing, with those who wished to go abroad for a rest being allowed to do so (which was a euphemistic way of talking about those Wuhan leaders who couldn’t agree to subordinate themselves to Chiang Kai-shek because of the high levels of personal animosity with him, such as Wang Jingwei).
Now the pace at which the united front fell apart began to speed up. On June 26, Tang Shengzhi’s report from Hunan blaming the disorders there on the peasants and not on his subordinate generals arrived. We discussed the events in Hunan last episode, including Tang’s inspection trip which resulted in this report, so I won’t repeat that here. This report was published on June 29, and on that same day another important general, He Jian, issued a proclamation demanding that the Guomindang expel the Communists, and said that he would arrest any Communist troops in his ranks.
To deal with the accelerating crisis, the Communist politburo met on June 30 in Borodin’s home and called a Central Committee meeting to be held the next day. At this July 1 meeting, the Communist Party adopted a series of resolutions which marked the furthest that the Party would go in order to try to preserve the united front. The meeting decided that the worker and peasant movements should take their orders from the Guomindang, as long as the Guomindang was willing to protect their organizations; all remaining armed militias of the workers and peasants should either disarm or be folded into the National Revolutionary Army; and Communists working in the government should ask for a leave of absence from the Communist Party, in order to avoid the appearance of having conflicting loyalties.
In mid-July, the break finally came. On July 12, the finance minister of the Wuhan government, T. V. Soong, who had been in Shanghai for the past few months, suddenly returned to Wuhan bearing messages from the Nanjing faction. Meanwhile, Chiang Kai-shek began maneuvering his troops for an assault on Jiangxi province. The message was clear, it was time to either come to reconcile the factions or to have a civil war. And it was pretty clear that if it came to war, Chiang Kai-shek would win, given the difficulty that the Wuhan government had been having in exercising control over its generals, and the serious losses that its forces had suffered during the conquest of Henan province.
After a series of meetings dominated by the more conservative members of the Wuhan government, two resolutions were adopted on July 14. The first was to send a high-level representative to Moscow to see if it would be possible to continue receiving Soviet aid under new conditions in which the Communists did not play a significant role within the Guomindang. The second resolution was to find a method to manage Communists within the Guomindang so as to avoid conflicts, which was code for weakening Communist influence. At this point, on July 14, it seems that the intention of Wang Jingwei and the other leaders of the Guomindang Left was to find a way to peacefully end the united front, without a massive violent purge as had happened in Shanghai and other areas controlled by Chiang Kai-shek. However, that same day, in another illustration of the Wuhan government’s lack of control over its own troops, He Jian began a rampage through the streets of Wuhan to arrest Communists, including the two Communist members of the Guomindang Central Committee. As a result, leading Communists all went into hiding.
Right at this same time, the Comintern had taken action to reverse the capitulationist direction that the Chinese Communists had been pursuing. Just as T. V. Soong was arriving in Wuhan on July 12, the Comintern pressured Chen Duxiu to resign as general secretary of the Communist Party and replaced him with a five member temporary Politburo standing committee, which included three people that we’ve met before on this podcast: Zhou Enlai, Zhang Guotao and Li Lisan, all of whom will play a major role in future events. The Comintern had denounced the Communists for opportunistic mistakes (and to what degree the Comintern itself shared that blame you can judge for yourself if you’ve been listening to this podcast for more than a couple episodes). It had also ordered Borodin back to the Soviet Union, and ordered the Communists to leave the Wuhan government, although not to withdraw from membership in the Guomindang as an organization. On July 13, the Communists drafted a statement denouncing the Wuhan government for failing to protect the workers and peasants and for encouraging reaction. The statement also announced that the two Communist members of the Guomindang Central Executive Committee had resigned their positions. The statement was made public on July 16.
In response to this denunciation, the Guomindang abandoned the go-slow plan it had just adopted for extricating itself from its cooperation with the Communists and demanded that all dual members choose either the Guomindang or the Communist Party, but that they could no longer be a member of both. They also published the details of Stalin’s telegram. From there, a mutually escalating propaganda campaign ensued between the Communists and Guomindang in Wuhan. Martial law was declared, union buildings and other Communist strongholds were seized, and militants who days earlier had been operating openly were now arrested and executed. Well-known Communists either went underground or fled to northern Jiangxi province to join up with a section of the National Revolutionary Army that had a large concentration of Communists in its officer corps, and which would soon stage a mutiny, called the Nanchang Uprising, which we’ll talk about in more detail in an upcoming episode.
While the leaders of the Guomindang Left have cut a pretty sorry figure in this story, it’s worth mentioning that there were a handful of leaders of the Guomindang Left who did not go along with the purge of the Communists. The most noteworthy of these were Sun Yatsen’s widow, Song Qingling; Eugene Chen, the foreign minister; and Deng Yanda, head of the Guomindang peasant bureau. All three soon made their way to the Soviet Union. Eugene Chen in particular helped Borodin and his family to make arrangements to safely leave China, which was a fairly complicated matter. Chiang Kai-shek was willing to let some Soviet citizens pass through his territory on their return home, and others, such as the old Comintern China-hand Voitinsky, made part of the journey back through Shanghai clandestinely. But Chiang had put a price on Borodin’s head, and so Borodin had to make a precarious overland journey northwest across China and Mongolia, accompanied by two of Eugene Chen’s sons and the American Communist journalist Anna Louise Strong, who chronicled the journey in her book China’s Millions.
Many of the Soviet advisors and staff began to leave China already in June, the danger to them having been driven home by the poisoning of Blyukher and his code clerk, Zotov. Borodin left on July 27 with some of the last Soviet advisors leaving Wuhan. Wang Jingwei saw him off at the railway station and gave him a letter addressed to the ‘Comrades of the Central Politburo of the Communist Party of Soviet Russia.’ According the historian Martin Wilbur, who has read the letter, it “expressed the undying gratitude of the Chinese comrades for Borodin’s brilliant achievements as adviser to the Guomindang. The letter also announced that the Guomindang hoped in the nearest future to send important comrades to Russia to discuss ways of uniting the two countries. Methods of cooperation between the Guomindang and the Chinese Communist Party still awaited instruction, but Wang professed confidence that Borodin could give a thorough account of the complexities of this matter. The letter closed ‘With Revolutionary Greetings.’”
When Borodin arrived in Zhengzhou, Feng Yuxiang greeted him and ordered that his party be protected along the rest of the train route, but also advised Borodin to get moving quickly. Feng later said that he had received a telegram from Wang Jingwei asking him to kill Borodin. Of course, when Borodin left Zhengzhou, he also picked up as companions the last of the Soviet advisors who were still posted to support Feng’s army. At the end of the railway line, Borodin’s party boarded ten vehicles for a grueling trip across the Gobi desert, through Mongolia and into Siberia, where they connected with a train line again and finally arrived in Moscow on October 6.
Borodin’s wife had an even more harrowing journey out of China. She and a bunch of other Soviet citizens had been arrested back in February when a Soviet ship called the Pamiat Lenina (which means Lenin’s Memory), on which she was traveling on the Yangzi River, was captured by warlord troops. Everyone from the Pamiat Lenina was thrown in prison in Beijing, and didn’t see a judge until July 12. In a twist, the Chinese judge took a bribe and fled to Japan, which had agreed to intervene to get the Russians out of China and which facilitated the bribery. The other Russians were quickly spirited out of China, but because she was the real prize, Fanny Borodin remained hidden away in the home of a reclusive Russian scholar in Beijing while the warlord forces searched for her, outraged that she had fallen out of their grasp. A bunch of fake news accounts were planted in the press about her arrivals in Vladivostok and Moscow, so that the warlord authorities would relax their vigilance, and she was finally smuggled out of Beijing disguised as a nun at the end of August.
Vasily Blyukher, the other leading Soviet figure, had a very different departure from China. After helping to plan the Nanchang Uprising, the mutiny that I mentioned earlier and which took place on August 1, he went to Shanghai to board a steamer. After being briefly detained and before leaving, he had a final farewell meeting with Chiang Kai-shek in early August. Chiang later described it as “one of the most moving partings of my life” and he described Blyukher as very depressed. Chiang had greatly admired Blyukher, and had benefited immensely from Blyukher’s services during the military campaigns in Guangdong and then on the Northern Expedition.
Now, as we’re going to see, just because the united front had ended and the Soviet Union had packed up its massive aid mission which had supported the Guomindang since Borodin’s arrival in Guangzhou at the end of 1923 (which was back in episode 22), that doesn’t mean that the Soviet Union is done playing a leading role in the Chinese Communist Party. As we will see, some Comintern agents remained in China, and we’ll get to know some of them soon.
Alright. That’s it for now. I want to thank everyone for their reviews and ratings. Ratings and reviews do help people to find the podcast, so if you enjoyed the episode or learned something, please do consider leaving a rating or review.