How did the Communist Party try to protect itself in Shanghai? We discuss the compartmentalized party organization and the creation of the Special Services Division.
Patricia Stranahan, Underground: The Shanghai Communist Party and the Politics of Survival, 1927-1937
Timothy Cheek, “Making Maoism: Ideology and Organization in the Yan’an Rectification Movement, 1942-1944”
Mao Zedong, “Combat Liberalism”
Xuezhi Guo, China’s Security State: Philosophy, Evolution, and Politics
Some names from this episode:
Qu Qiubai, Top Communist leader from mid-1927 to mid-1928
Wang Shiwei, Cadre expelled during Yan’an rectification campaign
Gu Shunzhang, Zhou Enlai’s deputy in the Special Services Division
He Zhihua, Zhu De’s former lover from Germany, who betrayed the Communist Party
Welcome to episode 84 of the People’s History of Ideas Podcast.
Last episode, we began our discussion of what life was like for the Communist leadership living underground in Shanghai at the end of the 1920s. Mainly, we talked about just how dangerous things were for them, and we wrapped up with a short discussion of how there was debate among the leadership about degrees of acceptable risk for party members. That is, was it worth it to risk peoples’ lives to pull off a demonstration or hold a meeting among workers who the Communists were trying to organize, that sort of thing. And as it turned out, the main party leader, Qu Qiubai, tended to not be very risk averse at all when it came to the lives of his Party comrades.
Now, one of the ways that the Communist Party tried to protect itself from repression was through having a compartmentalized organization, with multiple layers of organization between the top leadership and the lowest levels of the Party organization, which were those most exposed to the daily dangers of political work in Shanghai. (Although, as we saw last episode, Qu Qiubai pursued a policy of ‘sending down’ experienced cadres who had held higher ranks in the Party to conduct work at the grassroots level.)
On paper, the party organization in Shanghai was formed into a six-level hierarchy. At the very top was the Central Committee. Below the Central Committee was the Jiangsu Provincial Committee. On paper at least, the Shanghai City Committee fell below the Jiangsu Provincial Committee. However, apparently due to some combination of the importance of Shanghai and the lack of cadres available to fill leadership roles, in practice the Shanghai City Committee membership was identical to that of the Jiangsu Provincial Committee. So, while ideally, according to the organization chart drawn up by the party leadership, these would be two separate bodies, in practice it was the same committee.
Then, Shanghai was divided into seven districts, each of which had its own committee. And each of these districts then had as many party branches as could be formed. For example, a factory that party organizers had made some headway at might have 30 or so members (I’m looking at a book right now with some specific examples of places in Shanghai where there were party branches, and there are a couple factories listed that had 30 party members at them). All these Communists in a single factory would form a party branch. And then branches would be broken down into cells. Party cells were supposed to be made up of five to eight people but could be a little bigger or smaller depending on the circumstances.
The idea was people in a Party cell would meet regularly and know each other, but that they wouldn’t know anyone else who was in the Party. The cell leader would report to the branch secretary. So, in a factory with 30 party members in it, there might be five or six different cells, and each of these cells would have a leader who reported to a branch secretary. The branch secretary would have been appointed by the district committee and might or might not be actually working at the factory, depending on the circumstances. The branch secretary would then report to the district committee, and the district committee would report to the city committee. And from there on up to the provincial and central committees on paper at least, although as I mentioned, in practice the Shanghai City Committee was the same as the Jiangsu Provincial Committee.
And while, theoretically, the central committee might not be supposed to involve itself too much in local Shanghai affairs, in practice, it seems that this happened quite a bit. This had earlier been the case, back before Chiang Kai-shek’s 1927 coup, when the central committee got heavily involved in the organizing of the various attempts at armed uprisings in the city. And in the late 1927 and 1928, as we saw last episode, central committee decisions to insist on public demonstrations and to send senior cadre down to organize among the masses directly impinged on the work of those Communists assigned to work locally in Shanghai. Given the importance of Shanghai as a city to China’s national politics and the fact that the Central Committee was located there, it just seems that there was no totally clear dividing line between local work and work that the central committee might involve itself in.
So, how well did this compartmentalized organizational structure work to protect the Communist Party? Well, it’s hard to say for certain. Obviously, the system has certain weaknesses in it. For example, if you worked at a factory with 30 other Communists in it, there was a good chance you would know who some of your co-workers were who were Communists who weren’t in the same cell as you. Also, take the case of the public demonstrations that we discussed toward the end of last episode. If you knew that almost everyone in the demonstration was a Party member, as was the case in the sorts of demonstrations that we discussed last episode, then you could just look around and there you were, you had seen the faces of just a ton of party members. And maybe you recognized some of them, so you would have their names too. So, there was that. Of course, this sort of danger was inherent in the political activity that was going on and couldn’t be avoided by compartmentalization.
But there was another policy that was enacted that seriously vitiated the effectiveness of the Party’s compartmentalized organization. Here’s what happened. As we have been discussing, it was hard to be a Communist in Shanghai after Chiang Kai-shek’s coup. It was very dangerous. The Party’s numbers were shrinking. This created some major issues with morale among the Communists at all levels. In analyzing this situation, the Jiangsu Provincial Committee concluded that all this compartmentalization was contributing to the demoralization going on. They concluded that for most lower-level cadres, Party life was dull and boring. A kind of dangerous drudgery in which most Party members exercised little initiative and felt little personal warmth.
So, to try to solve this problem, the Jiangsu Provincial Committee implemented some changes. On the one hand, it implemented some changes to dumb rules that led to some quality-of-life improvements. For example, eating and smoking had been prohibited during meetings, and now they were allowed. (I can’t imagine that these rules had previously been enforceable, but anyways these rules were abolished.) But one major change had an impact on the overall security of the organization. In a document issued in March 1928, the Provincial Committee stated that “The sentiments among comrades must become the sentiments of personal friends.” And the Committee went on to direct the leaders of party branches to help members to see each other as brothers and sisters and to engage in personal friendships.
This policy went beyond just seeing fellow cell-members as friends. As a result of this policy, which was abandoned in the early 1930s, social relations were created that cut both horizontally and vertically across the party structure. Now, on some level, this sort of thing is almost unavoidable, people will inevitably form friendships and romantic attachments that cut against organizational compartmentalization. But actually, encouraging this meant that the protection which the Party’s organizational structure was meant to provide was undermined in significant ways. On some level, it was an understandable policy. Clearly, the collective life of the Party was suffering from the conditions that people were working under. There was much of the danger that the guerrillas in the mountains experienced, but not the same sort of camaraderie, and all the alienation that often goes along with living and working in a major capitalist metropolis. But the extra danger that the policy of encouraging friendships introduced into everyone’s lives was significant, and the policy definitely cost lives.
It’s interesting to contrast the way in which the Jiangsu Provincial Committee treated the issue of ‘friendship’ among comrades to how the idea of ‘friendship’ was dealt with during the rectification campaign of 1942 to 1944 in the Yan’an base area. It’s my intention to deal with the Yan’an rectification campaign in its own right when we arrive there chronologically, but since that’s probably going to take a little while, let me say a couple words about it. This rectification campaign is basically the time when Maoist norms were instituted throughout the party, or at least, throughout the core section of the Chinese Communist Party that was attached to the Party Center in Yan’an and not dispersed and isolated behind enemy lines in a distant part of the country. Of course, Maoism was still an evolving package of ideas in the 1940s and would remain evolving throughout Mao’s life (and you could make a good argument that it kept evolving after his death as well (I would endorse a version that argument myself)). But this was kind of the moment when a concentrated campaign was undertaken to educate and discipline the Party so that the Party membership would internalize Mao’s main ideas about how a Communist Party should function and how cadres should behave and carry out political work.
Anyways, to our purposes here, this involved consciously shifting how most cadres as individuals viewed personal relationships, with a move toward being more conscious about putting collective interests ahead of individual interests, and also, putting the collective wellbeing of the Party and the masses at the heart of one’s emotional life, as opposed to approaching friendship in one of the more regular ways in which people saw friendships, in which some sort of more individualized or small group focused gratification was the main thing going on.
During the Yan’an rectification, this came up in a particularly focused way around the criticisms made of a cadre named Wang Shiwei. It’s my intention to talk in some detail about his case when we get to it, but let’s leave all that aside for the moment. A number of other people were connected with Wang and criticized as well. And the terms of the criticism involved talking about the members of this “gang” as being friends and discussed this friendship as a selfish sort of friendship that devolved into factionalism. This was contrasted to what was considered an ideologically correct notion friendship that was defined as “class love, comradely love, and the great love of collectivism.”
And this ideological struggle over how to think about what friendship means had been prefigured in a short document that Mao wrote a few years earlier, in 1937, titled “Combat Liberalism.” That document as a whole was aimed at orienting the behavior of Party comrades toward putting the collective interests of the Party and the masses above their own interests, and in particular the document was aimed at curtailing various ways in which selfishness, self-indulgence, and concern with reputation and status would sometimes take priority with many cades in dealing with inner party debates and carrying out political work. The entire document is relevant to this discussion about the ideological discussion of friendship, but here’s the one line in particular that mentions friendship in “Combat Liberalism:” “To let things slide for the sake of peace and friendship when a person has clearly gone wrong, and refrain from principled argument because he is an old acquaintance, a fellow townsman, a schoolmate, a close friend, a loved one, an old colleague or old subordinate. Or to touch on the matter lightly instead of going into it thoroughly, so as to keep on good terms. The result is that both the organization and the individual are harmed. This is one type of liberalism.”
Anyways, to go back to Shanghai in the late 1920s, I think that contrasting the approach toward friendship taken by the Jiangsu Provincial Committee in 1928 with the later Maoist way of thinking about friendship is really illustrative of the sorts of transformations that the Chinese Communist Party would have to undergo in order to win the revolution. On the one hand, the encouragement of personal friendships by the Jiangsu Provincial Committee was a very understandable way of trying to counteract the demoralization in the ranks of the party in the context of all the repression and defeat that the party had suffered in Shanghai. On the other hand, it was a self-destructive policy in that it undermined the actual ability of the party to remain secure in the face of repression. But, even beyond that, it took for granted the ways in which the basic social and emotional lives of people are constructed in a world dominated by imperialism, whereas the view put forward by Mao in ‘Combat Liberalism’ and then more or less forced on the Party as a whole during the Yan’an rectification movement sought to break in a pretty fundamental way with the individualistic socialization that pretty much everyone in the world grows up with and internalizes and reproduces on a daily basis.
Now, how effective Mao was in inculcating these values in the Chinese Communist Party in a way that lasted beyond the triumph of the revolution, and how well he even internalized these values himself at different points in his life, are really interesting questions that merit exploration. I have met very few people who I think really embody this spirit, and a lot of people, in a lot of different countries, who would claim that they try to. And so that raises some questions about whether this sort of transformation is mainly something that would remain mainly aspirational for anyone who didn’t grow up in a society where social relations had been fundamentally transformed from those that predominate in the world today. One of the people who I have known who I think did consistently embody these values is the woman who I interviewed in episode 35, the quaker peace activist who became a Maoist during a delegation to China in 1971. I think some of that comes through in the interview, so if you haven’t listened to that episode yet, I encourage you to do so.
So, returning to this question of the measures that the Communists took to ensure their own security in Shanghai, aside from the compartmentalized party organizational structure, there is one other measure that the Communists took that I want to highlight here. And that was an effort waged by Zhou Enlai which included both counterespionage on the police forces of Shanghai, and an effort to exercise what was called a ‘Red terror’ against those who betrayed the Communist Party.
Now, Zhou Enlai as he is usually remembered today, is the Zhou Enlai who was the consummate diplomat. He was the guy who could get along with everybody, the man who charmed everyone at the 1954 Geneva Conference and the 1955 Bandung Conference. He was the guy who you went to during the Cultural Revolution if you felt you were being treated unfairly, and maybe he was able to alleviate how you were being struggled against during those years. But the Zhou Enlai that we know so far in the podcast, while still undoubtedly the consummate charmer that he would later be known for being, was also a very martial figure. He was the guy who had headed up the Whampoa military academy’s political department, where the officer corps of the National Revolutionary Army had been trained. And he was the guy who was sent to Shanghai from Whampoa in order to organize the second and third Communist armed uprisings in early 1927 that we discussed in episodes 45 through 48.
So, after he got back to Shanghai after the defeat of the Southern Expedition, one of Zhou Enlai’s main tasks was to reorganize the Communist Party’s capacity to both defend itself from the reactionary security forces and to carry out retributive violence of its own in Shanghai, basically returning to one of his main tasks from before Chiang Kai-shek’s April 12 coup. In November 1927, Zhou organized the Central Committee’s Special Services Division. This was actually the second attempt that the party made at starting its own secret service. The first attempt had been made in May 1927. It had been called the Work Section of Special Affairs and had mainly been tasked with protecting the central party leadership. The main highlight of its activity was when it caught and executed a British spy who had been sent to Wuhan to assassinate Soviet advisors who had been aiding the Guomindang Left and the Communists. But when Zhou Enlai returned from the Nanchang Uprising and the Southern Expedition that followed, it was decided to just reorganize the whole operation.
The Special Services Division was divided into three main areas of operation: protecting the party leadership; assassinating enemies and traitors; and managing internal communications. Because of the particular importance and constant necessity of both safeguarding leaders and managing communications securely, the Special Services Division grew quite quickly and became a major part of the party’s organizational apparatus. So much so that some party members complained that so many resources would go into creating this security network, as opposed to into organizing workers and peasants. The main base from which Zhou Enlai and his deputy, Gu Shunzhang, recruited into the Special Services Division was from workers who had been involved in Shanghai’s labor movement (so here again, we see the overlap between the local work in Shanghai and initiatives taken by the central party apparatus). So, there was a serious diversion of good workers drawn from labor organizing into party organizational work, which must have upset those who saw the mass organizing as more important than the security work.
Gu Shunzhang, by the way, had himself been a worker in Shanghai who was recruited by the Party during its early organizing at the Nanyang Tobacco Company (the sort of early labor organizing that we talked about back in episodes 19 and 24), and who was then sent to the Soviet Union to be trained in clandestine operations and later came back and worked on Mikhail Borodin’s security detail, before coming to Shanghai after Borodin returned to the Soviet Union. He was particularly effective in his role as Zhou Enlai’s deputy because he maintained a good relationship with the Green Gang (which we will know had been alternately both an advantage and a real problem for the Party from our episodes on labor organizing in Shanghai). These gang ties allowed Gu to hire informants in police units and to sometimes get advance warning of police raids.
And speaking of counterespionage as defense against police raids, one of Zhou Enlai’s big successes was in planting moles within the Guomindang’s secret police, with three Communists reaching important positions within the Guomindang secret police apparatus.
Finally, the Special Services Division was tasked with exercising retributive violence against Chinese Communist turncoats and against Guomindang spies sent to infiltrate the party. This so-called ‘red terror’ was headed up by the Operations Cell within the Special Services, which was informally called the Red Brigade. By late 1929, the Red Brigade had grown to about 40 members. But just like the ‘red terror’ that we discussed back in episode 46, where the Party’s ‘dog-beating squads’ were elevated into a more organized sort of violence that was called a ‘red terror,’ really the violence that the party was able to exercise against its enemies was very weak compared to the violence waged against the Communists, and only really served as a kind of small threat against those who might think about betraying the Party.
For example, the Red Brigade did manage to track down and attack He Zhihua and her new boyfriend for selling information on Communists’ living situations to the Guomindang. (He Zhihua, remember, was Zhu De’s former lover from his time in Germany.) When the Red Brigade found where He and her boyfriend were staying, they burst into their home early in the morning and trained their guns on them while they were in bed. After He turned the party roster with names and addresses on it over to the Red Brigade, some Brigade members set off fireworks outside the home to mask the sound of gun shots. He’s boyfriend was killed, but apparently, He was only badly wounded, and by the time the Red Brigade found out that they hadn’t killed her, she was in the hospital and was too heavily guarded for them to have another go at her. So, she eventually healed up and went back to her home village in Sichuan, where for some other unrelated reason the Guomindang eventually killed her. I tell this lurid tale to illustrate just how small scale and by-the-seat-of-the-pants this Communist so-called ‘Red Terror’ operation actually was. It was in reality much more aspirational than anything else as an arm of retributive violence.
OK, I think that’s it for this episode. I know that last episode I said that I would get around this time to talking about this weird situation where the Communist leadership had maids and servants and stuff, and what was going on there. But we didn’t get to it this time. But I promise we’ll talk about standards of living and money and stuff like that for the Party leadership next episode in what I think will be our last for the moment on how the Party Center was functioning in Shanghai.
Alright, see you next time.