Some background on the situation in Guangzhou leading up to the uprising.
Arif Dirlik, “Narrativizing Revolution: The Guangzhou Uprising (11-13 December 1927) in Workers’ Perspective”
Marcia Ristaino, China’s Art of Revolution: The Mobilization of Discontent, 1927 and 1928
Hsiao Tso-Liang, “Chinese Communism and the Canton Soviet of 1927”
Manuel Gomez, “Organize for Liberation of the Colonies: Canton Center of World Movement”
Some names from this episode:
Wang Jingwei, leader of the Guomindang Left
Li Jishen, Guomindang militarist allied with Wang Jingwei
Zhang Fakui, Guomindang militarist who launched a coup in Guangzhou in November 1927
Zhang Tailei, secretary of the Guangdong Provincial Committee of the Communist Party
Liu Ersong, the chairman of the Workers’ Delegates Conference
Peng Pai, Communist peasant leader
Zhou Enlai, leading Communist
Li Chai-sum, Guomindang general
Welcome to episode 74 of the People’s History of Ideas Podcast.
Last episode, we discussed some small peasant uprisings in the Yangzi Delta region as a way of illustrating what many of the hundreds of small armed uprisings attempted by the Communist Party at the end of the 1920s looked like. This episode, we’re returning to consider one of the more significant armed uprisings, what became known as the Guangzhou Commune of December 11 to 13, 1927.
The decision to attempt an armed insurrection in Guangzhou was taken by the Party Center in Shanghai on November 17, in response to unfolding events in Guangzhou. You might recall from previous episodes that Wang Jingwei, the leader of the left-wing faction of the Guomindang, had left Wuhan after the collapse of his regime there to Guangzhou, which was held by a Guomindang general named Li Jishen. Wang had hoped to build up a new left-wing regime in Guangzhou, but as it turned out, didn’t have a lot of luck with that. In November, Li Jishen and Wang Jingwei left their base in Guangzhou for talks with other Guomindang leaders in Shanghai about reunifying that party.
In their absence, in an act totally contrary to the spirit of party reunification, another Guomindang militarist, Zhang Fakui, launched a coup in Guangzhou and took control of the city for himself on November 17. Zhang Fakui, you might recall, had been the Guomindang general whose forces mutinied in the Nanchang Uprising. Zhang had pursued the Nanchang rebels back into Guangdong province, which was his home province. Seeing the absence of Wang Jingwei and Li Jishen in Shanghai as an opportunity to take power for himself, he seized Guangzhou. But although he seized the city pretty handily, there was continuing fighting between his troops and those of Li Jishen.
Zhang Tailei, the secretary of the Guangdong Provincial Committee, was still in Shanghai where the Politburo meeting that we discussed in episode 72 had taken place a few days earlier. Zhang Tailei and the central Communist leadership discussed the events in Guangdong as news unfolded of Zhang Fakui’s coup, and decided that an opportunity had arisen for an armed uprising in Guangzhou. As a result of this meeting, a directive was made out from the Party Center to the Guangdong Provincial Committee to “utilize the opportunity of civil war… to expand the uprisings in the cities and villages… to agitate among the soldiers, to stage mutinies and revolts, and in the time of war swiftly to link such uprisings into a general uprising for the establishment” of soviets. As we can see from this directive, the idea was for rural uprisings to take place as well. But, the uprising in Guangzhou was the centerpiece of the insurrection. This reflected the Communist Party’s strategic orientation at the time which we discussed at some length last episode, where cities were seen as anchors, as leading centers, for uprisings in the countryside.
Now, Guangzhou had until recently been the real hotbed of the Chinese Revolution. If you go back to earlier episodes of this podcast, especially around episodes 30 to 42, we spent a lot of time talking about events going on in Guangdong. But as the center of the revolution moved on to other parts of the country along with the Northern Expedition, we haven’t really talked much about Guangzhou. But to understand the Guangzhou Uprising, we need to understand what had been happening, because from the perspective of someone participating in the revolutionary movement in Guangzhou, like many of the workers who had gone on strike during the May 30th Movement and then stayed in Guangzhou rather than marching out with the Northern Expedition, there is continuity between the earlier revolutionary events in the city and the uprising at the end of 1927. So let’s take a step back and look at Guangzhou’s recent history.
The labor movement in Guangzhou dates back to the beginning of the 1900s, when anarchists and workers associated with the Revolutionary Alliance (the forerunner of the Guomindang) founded the city’s first labor organizations. These earliest unions, though, were usually guild unions, with employers often joining the union along with their employees. So they were more about protecting industry standards, than about fighting for the interests of the workers in an industry. The first major modern union was the Seamen’s Union, whose early 1922 strike helped to launch the nationwide labor movement. And after the Guomindang took control of Guangzhou, unions received a lot of support and protection from the government.
But there were some serious structural obstacles to revolutionary union organization, despite a sympathetic city government from 1924 to 1927. Here’s how Arif Dirlik describes the situation:
The May 30th Movement gave a huge boost to the workers’ movement in Guangzhou, with tens of thousands of strikers in the city who had left Hong Kong as part of the general strike directed against British and Japanese capital. In November 1925 many of these workers were organized into the worker’s armed pickets, led by the Communists and totally independent of the local peace-keeping authorities. You might recall from earlier episodes that the Guangzhou-Hong Kong Strike Committee had its own jails and carried out its own justice against people accused of violating the boycott of British goods. With its own armed force, justice system and internal hierarchy, the Strike Committee constituted something of an allied dual power next to the formal city government of the Guomindang. To many observers, both friendly and opposed, Guangzhou appeared to be a city run by the labor movement. British diplomatic reports from late 1926 referred to the “Canton Soviet,” and an article in the American Communist newspaper The Daily Worker described Red Canton as the center of the global movement for the liberation of colonies.
And while I’m reluctant to interrupt the narrative, I know that a lot of listeners have questions about this name that gets used for Guangzhou a lot, which is Canton, and so I should take a second to clear that up. The city of Guangzhou was long known in the international literature as Canton. The origin of this is when the Portuguese first arrived in the city back in 1513. When the Portuguese heard the name of the region where they had landed, Guangdong, they corrupted the local pronunciation of it into “Cantão,” (remember, when I say Guangdong, I am (badly) saying the Mandarin pronunciation of the name, which is different than the local pronunciation) and applied it to the city of Guangzhou. “Cantão” in Portuguese becomes Canton in English, which is even further from the original. Gradually, I want to say over the 1970s and 1980s, the English language popular press began using the proper Chinese name for the city instead of the old corruption. I think that some people interpret this as the city’s name having been changed (for example, during a job talk that I gave once, I was talking about the Pacific world in the 16th and 17th centuries, and I was interrupted and corrected by a member of the hiring committee who told me that Guangzhou was called Canton back then), but actually it’s just that English-language publications began using the correct name for the city in the past few decades. Anyways, that’s why you see Guangzhou named as Canton in these historical sources.
Ok, back to talking about the labor movement in Guangzhou. So, while it appeared to many observers that the revolutionary unions controlled the city. In reality, things were quite a bit more complex. By the time the Northern Expedition took off in mid-1926, the Communists claimed to lead over 200,000 workers in an organization called the Guangzhou Workers’ Delegates Conference, which had 120 unions affiliated with it. But there were two other major union groupings: the Guangzhou General Labor Union and the Mechanics’ Union. The Mechanics’ Union in particular was associated with the Guomindang Right and was hostile to the Communists. It had organized an armed branch which it called the Physical Education Corps which was dedicated to attacking the Communists. You might remember back in episode 40 we discussed how different union factions were killing each other in Guangzhou, well, these were the guys who were fighting with the Communists.
And things became much more difficult for the Communists after the Northern Expedition left Guangdong and the United Front city government lost much of the power that it had had because Guangzhou was the center of the national movement. With all the top leaders leaving the city, the local government lost the power that it had formerly been able to wield over local elites. The Communists actually had only 300 cadres leading the 200,000 workers who formed the Guangzhou Workers’ Delegates Conference. When the local government backed the unions, it had made for favorable conditions and it was possible for 300 cadres to lead such a large force. But after the departure of the Northern Expedition, things became more difficult for the local revolutionary unionists.
When the strike and boycott against the British was finally ended on October 10, 1926, by a Guomindang leadership that was anxious to put that struggle behind it so that there could be an undivided focus on the Northern Expedition, workers who had been lodged and fed at government expense in reception centers were given $100 and told to go and get a job. And while local employers were asked to give hiring preference to former strikers, that request was really just an empty gesture, and not surprisingly, militant workers found it difficult to get work with the end of the state-supported strike. Many of these workers dispersed back to home villages in the countryside.
In April 1927, Guomindang government support for the labor movement fully transitioned into government suppression of the labor movement. On April 15, just three days after the suppression of the Communists in Shanghai that we discussed in episode 49, general Li Jishen returned to Guangdong after participating in the massacre in Shanghai, and began carrying out a similar purge of Communists and progressive workers. On April 15 itself, two to three thousand radicals were arrested, and about two hundred executed, including Liu Ersong, the chairman of the Workers’ Delegates Conference.
Here’s a British government report on the repression made in late April:
And the repression continued for more than a month afterwards. Here’s one eyewitness account from May 29 from an American who was teaching at Canton Christian College (the forerunner of today’s Lingnan University):
In addition to the physical repression of the Communists, the unions were reorganized so that they were put under the control of the Guomindang unionists who had been fighting with the Communists.
During the months between April 15 and the Guangzhou Uprising in December, the revolutionary workers took a number of measures to fight back. They formed armed groups to fight the white terror with red terror, and some historians have described the struggle which ensued as a civil war within the labor movement, as most of the fighting was waged between the radical workers and the workers of the Guomindang Right. Periodic strikes and demonstrations were called as well. At least 20,000 workers came out on November 1 to protest Wang Jingwei, and a similar number came to a demonstration marking the 10th anniversary of the Russian Revolution on November 7.
After Zhang Fakui’s coup on November 17, Zhang made further moves against the radical workers. Dormitories and cafeterias which the workers had continued occupying since the Hong Kong strike were ordered evacuated. In response, the workers burned down some of the buildings as they were leaving, giving them no choice but to escape Guangzhou for their home villages in the countryside in order to escape repression.
So, by the time that the Party Center in Shanghai had called for an uprising in Guangzhou, the situation of a year earlier when Guangzhou had been perceived widely as a central place of the world revolutionary movement had changed dramatically. Significant numbers of workers could still be counted on to come out for revolutionary protests. After all, 20,000 people marching under heavily repressive conditions in support of the Soviet Union is no small number. But the movement had suffered months of brutal repression, and was continually hemorrhaging activists to arrest, demoralization, and escape to home towns in the countryside.
An Optimistic Assessment
In retrospect, this situation where the Communists had suffered seven months of uninterrupted defeats would be taken into account in summing up that the uprising could not have prevailed against the objective conditions. The enemy simply had too many forces at their disposal, and the Communist forces had been too greatly weakened by the months of repression. But, on the eve of the uprising, there were reasons that the Communists felt they had to be optimistic. On November 7, the Hailufeng Soviet had been proclaimed under the direction of Peng Pai in the countryside to the east of Guangzhou, with six counties under Communist control. And the continuing fighting between Zhang Fakui and Li Jishen seemed to provide an opening for defeating the militarily more powerful reactionaries.
And on November 28, when Party leaders in Guangzhou first met with leaders of the revolutionary workers to announce the uprising, the workers responded enthusiastically, saying that “The time for revenge has come,” and that “Guangzhou has been Red for long, what is there to wait for?” Those workers who remained as militant activists in Guangzhou were a hard core, and they were eager to find a way to get back at the Guomindang. As one worker later recalled when he explained the readiness of the remaining revolutionary workers of Guangzhou to rebel, despite very long odds: “because they hated the Guomindang’s betrayal, hated all the killings of Communists and masses by the Guomindang, the psychology of revenge overshadowed everything else.”
The mingling of hope with uncertainty is captured by Zhang Tailei’s last communication to the Party Center, dated December 8, three days before the uprising:
Alright, next episode we’ll look at the uprising itself. See you then.