The Communist Party Center remained underground in the dangerous city of Shanghai during the late 1920s and early 1930s.
Patricia Stranahan, Underground: The Shanghai Communist Party and the Politics of Survival, 1927-1937
China: A Century of Revolution documentary
Josephine Fowler, Japanese and Chinese Immigrant Activists: Organizing in American and International Communist Movements, 1919–1933
Chang Kuo-t’ao [Zhang Guotao], The Rise of the Chinese Communist Party (2 volumes)
Wang Fan-hsi [Wang Fanxi], Memoirs of a Chinese Revolutionary
Christina Gilmartin, Engendering the Chinese Revolution: Radical Women, Communist Politics, and Mass Movements in the 1920s
Frederic Wakeman, Policing Shanghai, 1927-1937
Some names from this episode:
Deng Yingchao, Communist Party activist and wife of Zhou Enlai
Zhang Guotao, Leading Communist
Lin Zhuhan, Leading Communist
Li Weihan, Head of CCP Organizational Department
Gong Yinbing, CCP treasurer
He Shuheng, Communist cadre
Li Lisan, Leading Communist
Liu Shaoqi, Leading Communist
He Baozhen, Communist cadre and wife of Liu Shaoqi
Wang Yizhi, Communist cadre and widow of Zhang Tailei
Zhang Tailei, Leader of Guangzhou Commune
Chen Yannian, Chair of Jiangsu Provincial Committee for a very short time until his arrest
Chen Duxiu, Co-founder of Communist Party
Zhu De, Communist military leader
He Zhihua, Zhe De’s embittered lover from Germany
Qu Qiubai, Top Communist leader from mid-1927 to mid-1928
Wang Fanxi, Member of Organization bureau
Xu Baihao, Communist union leader
Welcome to episode 83 of the People’s History of Ideas Podcast.
In our last episode, we talked about the collapse of the South Hunan Uprising. Part of that story involved Mao’s difficulties with the central authorities of the Chinese Communist Party, which had placed the South Hunan Special Committee in a position of leadership over him, as a consequence of Mao’s ongoing dispute with the Party Center about revolutionary strategy. One of the things that stood out to me in telling that story was the fact that you have this Party Center functioning in Shanghai, and that despite conditions of underground existence and severe repression, it was at times able to communicate fairly quickly with Communists out in the provinces.
These means of communication were clearly very uneven, because the Party Center had not been in touch with Mao in the remote Jinggangshan for months. But party members who worked along major lines of communication, such as those in south Hunan and northern Guangdong provinces who launched the south Hunan uprising, and who were near the major transportation routes that ran from Guangzhou north up to Changsha and Wuhan, seem to have had pretty good lines of communication open with the Party Center in Shanghai.
And this raised the question, for me at least, of how the Party Center was able to operate in Shanghai. Shanghai was a very dangerous place to be a Communist. Most Communists arrested could expect execution in relatively short order, either extrajudicially or under legal sanction. Yet, somehow, the Party Center was able to operate and send out instructions across the country. So, I wanted to take a moment and explore a little bit how the Party Center operated, and what life was like for them underground in Shanghai.
First, just to talk about general conditions in Shanghai for the Communists, in the months since Chiang Kai-shek’s April 12, 1927, coup and massacre, Party membership had shrunk drastically. From having about 8,000 members before the coup, the party had only about 1200 a few months later. As Deng Yingchao, Zhou Enlai’s wife, later described the situation for Party activists: “Every day I went out never knowing whether I would be arrested… Many good friends were arrested, and our work became impossible.” To give an example of the sort of repression that was happening, in early 1928 at one print shop where the authorities suspected that a radical leaflet had been printed, 17 workers were taken out and summarily shot. This was the result of a conscious policy of casting the repressive net extra wide, with the explicit understanding that innocent (that is, totally non-subversive) people would be killed. As the architects of this repression articulated their policy: “it is better to kill a thousand innocent ones than allow one guilty one to get away.” And this would remain the Guomindang policy through the decades to follow. There’s a documentary on the Chinese Revolution that has a lot of good footage and interviews, called China: A Century of Revolution, where you can see the head of the Guomindang secret police being interviewed in Taiwan after he had retired and proudly explaining that this was their policy, although in this interview he lowers the ratio down so that he says there that it is worth it to get ten innocents to kill one Communist. I’ll put a link to the documentary in the show notes, it’s a little old, but I really think that anyone listening to this podcast will really enjoy the documentary (and, because it’s old, it has some great interviews with people who participated in the revolution in its early days).
In his memoirs, Zhang Guotao recounts an exciting episode which captures some of the constant threat of arrest and execution that the Communists were living under in Shanghai. Let me read the passage out for you here:
Now, apart from the general excitement of the chase here, and Zhang’s escape, there are a few things that come up here that I think need clarifying. You might recall, and we talked about this in episode 26 in more detail than I’ll give here, that Shanghai was divided between a Chinese city, the French Concession, and the International Settlement (which was dominated by the British). So, depending on what part of the city someone was in, it affected how they dealt with the police. In the Chinese city, that was where you were more likely to get the sort of summary execution that I mentioned earlier. For this reason, the Communists tended to locate their offices and residences in the French and International sections of the city, where they were still outlaws, but which afforded a little more legal protection. For example, apparently in this case the police that were going after Zhang Guotao were waiting on some sort of arrest warrant or some other form of go ahead in order to swoop in and arrest him. In particular, one of the things that happened was that the Chinese authorities would pay bounties to the police from the other parts of the city for Communists that were arrested. This meant that the police were financially incentivized to maximize the number of Communists who they turned over to the Chinese authorities for execution. But also, apparently, they could get more money by not turning over all of them at once (in other words, it apparently wasn’t a flat rate per head that the Chinese city authorities awarded for captured Communists), so sometimes they would just keep tabs on people they had identified and arrest them when it would be most profitable.
Anyways, Zhang Guotao was able here to get away. But another thing that stands out in this passage was the living arrangements of the Communist cadre. There were a variety of living situations, depending on how long any given party member might be expecting to stay in the city and whether they had a family or not, but of course it was of utmost importance for security that the homes of these guys be kept secret. In the case of Zhang Guotao, he fled to the home of a cadre who just lived with his family (and who was in Moscow during this episode) in a regular home. Here’s how Zhang Guotao described the living situation that he found himself in when he arrived in Shanghai with other refugees from the defeat of the Southern Expedition:
So here we can see that the Party had set up a kind of waystation for high-ranking party members who were in Shanghai for some indeterminate period. Other residents in this hostel for senior cadres who had turned up in Shanghai included Liu Shaoqi and his first wife, He Baozhen. In both passages from Zhang’s memoir that I’ve read out here, he makes reference to the possibility of being overheard by neighbors or a landlord. So you might think that senior Communist leaders would avoid the sort of personal drama that might draw people’s attention to them, and even the attention of the police. But not necessarily so.
At the ‘party leader hostelry’ where Zhang was staying, eventually Li Lisan moved out and Wang Yizhi moved into his room. Wang had participated in the Guangzhou Uprising (which we discussed in episode 75) and was the widow of Zhang Tailei (the leader of the Guangzhou Commune), and she was very distraught and emotional. She and Liu Shaoqi had been good friends before either of them got married, and apparently Liu Shaoqi got pretty involved in consoling Wang. It’s not clear whether they actually had an affair or not, but it seems like He Baozhen thought that Liu and Wang were having an affair because He Baozhen attempted to commit suicide. She had poisoned herself and was found unconscious in her room by a maid. Now, I want to circle back later (either this episode or maybe next episode) to get a little into the context of Communists having maids and servants, because I think for a lot of listeners the idea of Communists with maids sounds weird. I know it does for me. But for the moment, let’s talk about this suicide attempt.
So, after He Baozhen was found poisoned, Liu Shaoqi had to take some major risks to get her admitted to a private hospital while still maintaining his and her real identities a secret. You might remember from back in episode 26 that the Communist labor leader Liu Hua, who had played such an important role in the May 30th Movement of 1925, checked himself into a hospital in the International Settlement because he was suffering from overwork and exhaustion, and when it was discovered by the hospital staff who he was he was handed over to the warlord authorities in the Chinese section of Shanghai and executed. So going to the hospital and maintaining a secret identity in doing so was a risky business. Then the landlord wanted to get the police involved. But, in the end, Liu Shaoqi was able to avoid police involvement by explaining the matter to the landlord and the doctor as just a bit of jealousy that had gotten out of hand, and, patriarchy and male right being what they are, the doctor and landlord both agreed to allow Liu Shaoqi to keep the whole matter quiet. Still, this whole incident forced the Communist Party to disband the safe house and find some more places to put these guys in.
Actually, when you read about the lives of Communists in Shanghai during this period, the abandonment of homes and offices is a major recurring theme. Basically, any time someone got arrested, it was necessary to vacate all the places that were used for homes and meetings and offices that the person knew about. And so this had a major disorganizing effect on the party in the context of the frequent arrests that were happening in this period, including of senior leaders. For example, as part of reorganizing in the wake of the Chiang Kai-shek’s April 12 coup, on June 26, 1927 the Central Committee formed the Jiangsu Provincial Committee to oversee the Party’s work in Nanjing, Shanghai and elsewhere in Jiangsu Province. (Now, just as an aside, Shanghai was separated administratively by the Chinese state from Jiangsu province in July of 1927, but that didn’t affect the Communist Party’s organization of having the Jiangsu Provincial Committee responsible for Shanghai.) Anyways, the very same afternoon that the Jiangsu Provincial Committee was founded, the chair of the Committee (who was Chen Yannian, one of Chen Duxiu’s sons) and two other committee members were arrested, and later executed. The next chair of the committee was arrested on July 2, just a week later, and also executed in short order. It wasn’t until August until the committee stabilized and was able to set itself to getting the Party’s work reorganized in the province. But I bring this up mainly to illustrate the sort of turnover that could take place, and the massive disruption that would happen when all the locations that were known by the party leaders would have to be abandoned and no longer used for meetings or as residences or offices.
And as long as we’re talking about arrests of party leaders and personal drama, let’s remember the incident I discussed two episodes ago, where Zhu De’s embittered former lover from his time in Germany, He Zhihua began selling information to the police. He Zhihua had actually been assigned to help with resettling refugees from the collapse of the Southern Expedition and the Guangzhou Commune. It seems that her connection to Zhu De had made her seem trustworthy to the party leadership, when actually the way in which their connection had gone sour meant the exact opposite. So, she actually knew the locations of many people, and on some level it’s amazing that more people didn’t get arrested because of her betrayal of the movement. As I said in episode 81, Deng Xiaoping only escaped the dragnet because he was faster than the cop who was sent to arrest him. It’s interesting to think how history might be different had Deng Xiaoping been slower, or the cop chasing him been faster.
You might think that the clear dangers of operating in Shanghai would have made the Party steer clear of public demonstrations. This was actually a source of some contention within the party. Some members thought that demonstrations were too dangerous and should be avoided, but others, including the overall leader Qu Qiubai, thought that it was important to demonstrate to the masses that the party continued to exist and was still holding the torch, so it was important in one way or another to have public manifestations of the existence of the party and to mark major events, like the anniversary of the May 30th Movement, by turning out party members to demonstrate, despite the great risk involved.
A member of the Central Committee Organization Bureau who opposed the policy of staging public demonstrations, Wang Fanxi, described how the demonstrations would go in his memoirs like this:
So, we see in the discussions among the Communist leadership about whether or not to stage these demonstrations a tension between comrades with a higher sense of acceptable risk for loss of life in the course of routine political activity and those who didn’t see the risk as worth it. Qu Qiubai, the top party leader, tended to win out in these discussions, and he was definitely not risk averse when it came to risking the lives of party members.
One of Qu Qiubai’ s initiatives as the new party leader was to reassign formerly high-level cadre to lower-level tasks. With the repudiation of the former United Front policy and the new policy being that of fomenting armed uprisings whenever and wherever possible, part of the idea here was to animate the revolutionary spirit of comrades who had misgivings about the new policies. So, you had a situation where cadres who had formerly operated at high levels would be given more routine tasks, or tasks that put them on the ground agitating with the masses. This meant that the former overall leader of Communist union organizing in Hubei province, Xu Baihao, someone who had presided over a substantial union apparatus for a time, was assigned in late 1927 in Shanghai to try and manage the on the ground basics of organizing workers that normally would have been carried out by activists well below him in the General Labor Union organization. It was in this way that he was arrested at a small street gathering of about a dozen workers, which led to his execution.
Other very experienced cadres lost their lives performing courier duties which involved trying to get Communist materials through police checkpoints. Now, the demotion of these experienced cadres can be interpreted on the one hand as just the sort of standard demotions that one might expect in a political context when one position triumphs over another position, and the advocates for the defeated position lose their former standing. And of course, some of that is what was going on. But it is significant that Qu Qiubai justified risking the lives of these experienced cadres, who were people with experience and skills that the Party badly needed, in terms of carrying out what he called the ‘Bolshevization’ of the Party. At the very least on a rhetorical level, there was a sense in which these cadres were expected to be reformed through carrying out work that they probably considered to be beneath their pay grade. Certainly, in his memoirs Zhang Guotao (who opposed these policies) was quite bitter about all this in his memoirs. But it prefigures later practices within the Party that are better known, for example during the Cultural Revolution, when higher level cadres were given much more basic tasks as part of what was at least stated to be an attempt to reform and remold those cadres ideologically. Although, as we can see, the stakes in the Shanghai of the late 1920s were very high in terms of the lives that were lost by senior comrades conducting the very risky street business of the Communist Party.
OK, that’s it for now. We’ll continue looking at the experience of the Communist Party Center in Shanghai in the late 1920s next episode.
And if you’re listening to this episode around the time that it is being released, I want to with you a Happy New Year.