The Hunan Provincial Committee decides that Mao must obey its authority.
Stephen Averill, Revolution in the Highlands: China’s Jinggangshan Base Area
Elizabeth Perry, Anyuan: Mining China’s Revolutionary Tradition
Some names from this episode:
Wang Meisheng, Courier between Anyuan and the Jinggangshan
Du Xiujing, Inspector sent to the Jinggangshan by the Hunan Provincial Committee
Yuan Desheng, Sent to work in the Jinggangshan by the Hunan Provincial Committee
Yang Kaiming, Sent by Hunan Provincial Committee to replace Mao as secretary of the Jinggangshan special committee
Yuan Wencai, Bandit leader who joined with Mao Zedong
Welcome to episode 89 of the People’s History of Ideas Podcast.
Last episode we discussed the High Tide period of the Jinggangshan base area, when the Communist Party grew swiftly and carried out a land reform in order to try to consolidate its control of the area surrounding the Jinggang massif. This episode, I want to turn to a series of events that were happening behind the scenes during this High Tide period. The success of the revolutionaries in the Jinggangshan had led higher level Communist Party leaders to think of a number of ways in which the Fourth Red Army could be used to support Communist initiatives outside of the Jinggangshan. However, as these proposals arrived in the Jinggangshan, Mao Zedong and Zhu De perceived that following these directives from above would lead to massive losses, very similar to the situation when Mao was ordered to join up with the South Hunan Uprising that we discussed in episodes 81 and 82. This inner party dispute over how to dispose of the Fourth Red Army is known as the Midyear Crisis, and this episode we’ll explore what all happened.
So, let’s take a step back and look at the situation in southern and central China as it may have appeared from the perspective of higher-level Communist leaders at the provincial and national leadership levels who were trying to figure out what would be best for the revolution overall. After the defeats of 1927, there were pockets all over southern and central China where communist forces were regrouping at a local level. You might remember that in episode 73 we talked about how the Communist Party launched literally hundreds of small revolts across China, almost all of which were in southern and central China, at the end of the 1920s. This reflected the ability of the Communist Party to regroup from defeat and continually form local organizations which engaged in at least low levels of armed struggle across large parts of China. In these areas, Communist-led peasant militias formed what can be described as tiny, delicate proto-base areas. They were too small to attract the attention of the major military campaigns that were launched against the Jinggangshan but were weak and vulnerable to attack by landlord-controlled militias and also to small forays by garrisoned Guomindang militarist armed forces when those were near enough and had nothing better to do.
Now, the overall strategy that the national level Communist Party leadership had for how to use these dispersed and emergent rural forces was that their activities should be coordinated into regional rural uprisings. The idea was that when these regional uprisings broke out, they would create a wave of mass revolutionary enthusiasm among the peasantry far more broadly than what the Communist Party had been able to organize on its own, and these peasants could be formed into peasant armies which would then be used to overrun the cities. So, even though the organizing focus for this strategy was initially rural, the main focus of the strategy remained urban. This had been more or less the strategy that the Communist Party central leadership had been pursuing since the end of the United Front in the summer of 1927. The biggest and most successful expression of this strategy was the South Hunan Uprising. And we’ve talked about Mao’s ongoing disagreement with the central leadership over this strategy repeatedly, and it’s going to come up again as we get into the specifics of the Midyear Crisis.
The problem that the national and provincial level leaderships in Hunan and Jiangxi confronted with this strategy in the middle of 1928 was that all these little local shoots of rebellion were so tiny and vulnerable. But here, right on the border between the two provinces, was this large and recently victorious Communist armed force, the Fourth Red Army, and boy, wouldn’t it be great to just use it here and there in pursuit of these strategic aims, rather than for whatever it was that Mao Zedong thought that he was doing in this remote border area. As you can probably imagine, the temptation was irresistible for the people above Mao Zedong in the Communist Party hierarchy to reach out and try to use the Fourth Red Army as a tool for their own aims.
The Hunan Provincial Committee of the Communist Party, after having been disrupted by repression in the early part of 1928, had been reorganized and relocated from the repressive environment that predominated in the provincial capital of Changsha to one of the long-time proletarian centers of support for the Communist movement, the Anyuan mining complex which lay along the Hunan-Jiangxi border a bit over a hundred kilometers to the north of the Jinggangshan base area. Anyuan had been such a strong early center of support for the Communist Party that it had been called “little Moscow,” and despite the recent repression there was enough support there that the provincial committee could hide out more safely there than in Changsha.
One important immediate effect of the relocation of the provincial committee to Anyuan in early June 1928 was that it ended the isolation of the Communists in the Jinggangshan from communication with the movement in the rest of the country. The relatively close proximity of Anyuan to the Jinggangshan allowed for the regular movement of correspondence and people between the two places, at least as long as proper security measures were taken. Here is how a member of the Anyuan party committee recalled how communications worked between Anyuan and the Jinggangshan:
So, in late May, the Hunan Provincial Committee sent an inspector, Du Xiujing, to spend a week or two in the base and to report back on the situation in the Jinggangshan. The report that Du produced was pretty critical of the state of things in the base area: Du noted that the area that was fully controlled by the Communists was quite limited; that the local Soviets that had been set up to manage government functions were overly dominated by the party, and that the party in turn was dominated by the military; that in general the party did not have well-developed organizations within the revolutionary army; that land redistribution was inadequate; and that the peasant forces that had retreated to the Jinggangshan after the South Hunan uprising had been treated pretty shabbily.
The response of the Hunan Provincial Committee to this report was exasperation with the state of affairs in the Jinggangshan and the immediate formation of new plans for how to put the forces there to better use. We’ll get to that soon. What I find fascinating about this report is the way in which it, for the most part, takes a work in progress, which was in fact by far the most advanced experience that the Chinese Communists had had in creating an armed force of their own and in controlling territory on their own (I say on their own because you could say they had more developed experiences in military affairs and governance during the United Front period when they were the junior partner to the Guomindang, which was receiving massive amounts of Soviet aid, but that would really be comparing apples and oranges), and, instead of marveling at how this experience was so advanced compared to anything else that the Chinese Communists were doing, instead Du Xiujing compared it to an idealized picture of how things should be and found the whole thing badly lacking.
Du’s criticisms are a good illustration of how sometimes things can look really advanced or really backward, or really good or really bad, just depending on the perspective that you approach a problem with. Let’s look at his specific criticisms here and try to grasp both what the actual historical process that was in motion was, and how that process looked to an inspector sent by the provincial committee who came in to examine that process with a fixed picture in his mind of how things should look. I want to take a little time with these criticisms of Du’s because this contrast between people who saw the revolution as a dynamic process full of unforeseen difficulties which required creative solutions and constant adaptation, on the one hand, and those who saw it as a simple matter of grasping and applying an ideology where everything was already more or less worked out and it was simply a matter of taking it up and doing it, on the other hand, the contrast between these two types of revolutionaries, with many people falling on the spectrum somewhere between the two extremes, is going to be a recurring issue in both the Chinese Revolution and in the history of international communism more generally.
Du wrote in his report that the local Soviets that had been set up to manage government functions were overly dominated by the party and didn’t function very well. As we saw last episode, the mass recruitment drive of the High Tide period, which got underway just after Du’s inspection visit, was meant in part to address this issue. The process that we described last episode concretely shows that this was not just something that could be willed into being, creating functioning local governments was actually a complicated process that involved all kinds of hiccups that were not foreseen in advance, and even this process could not really get underway until some breathing room had been established through a couple of major military victories over the Guomindang. Du’s comments reflected a concept, which was widely held among the provincial leadership apparently, that once the Communists had taken over an area, that setting up a local government was simply a matter of convening the local peasantry, recruiting a number of them into the party when the peasants quickly recognized that their interests lay with the revolution, and then flipping the on-switch of the machine of local administration of the revolutionary government and letting it run as if it were some sort of magical perpetual motion machine. Last episode we kind of scratched the surface of some of the reasons why this wasn’t how things could work, even once the Guomindang had been temporarily cleared from the area.
Du also criticized his Jinggangshan comrades for the fact that, as he saw it, the party was dominated by the military; and that for the most part the party did not have well-developed organizations within the revolutionary army. This was indeed an ongoing problem. It was a problem that Mao Zedong had been paying ongoing attention to, but as we’ve discussed repeatedly since episode 62, when we discussed the Sanwan reorganization of the army, and most recently in episode 86 when we discussed the complications involved in merging Zhu De’s troops into the same army with Mao’s much more politicized 31st Regiment, it was a problem that once recognized could not be quickly corrected, but rather involved a protracted process of political training within the armed forces.
The most interesting criticism that Du made of the Jinggangshan Communists was his comment that the area that was fully controlled by the Communists was quite limited. Now, Du arrived just before the big victories which expanded the base area. But even so, it begs the question of just how Du, and presumably many other people, envisioned the exercise of revolutionary political power in the countryside in the context of an ongoing civil war.
I think that what Du Xiujing was referring to here was that at any given time, the territory firmly in the hands of the revolutionary forces, as in places where the army was physically present, or where a revolutionary governmental authority was functioning effectively, would naturally just be a fraction of the base area as a whole. In the rest of the base area, revolutionary authority, or in some sense the status of the geographical area as a ‘base area for revolution,’ rather than as part of the reactionary Chinese state, was in a sense a function of what structure exactly the people living there imagined themselves to be a part of. Despite the fact of an ongoing clash of armed forces between the Communists and the Guomindang, the existence of a Communist (or Guomindang) state in the areas claimed as a base area relied to a great extent on the Communists’ ability to exercise hegemony in the area, that is their ability to get people to feel like they belonged to revolutionary China rather than to non-revolutionary China.
What this meant, effectively, was that much of the base area was in fact contested terrain. Because even where the Communists might have been the nearest and most convincing armed force. You know, the closest political group that could march 100 soldiers into a place and on that basis do whatever it wanted, at least while the soldiers were there, something in addition to armed force ultimately had to be at play in order to make the base area exist in practice anywhere where the troops were not presently located. And as you can imagine, this was something of a fluid process, with some people in any given village perhaps more convinced of the ‘base area’-ness of their village than others.
In this regard, it’s important to remember that there was a social basis for the reactionaries as well as for the revolutionaries in the countryside. In areas which revolutionary armed forces withdrew from, it was not uncommon for landlords or people associated with the landlords, such as militia leaders, to return to the area stir up trouble for the people who sympathized with the revolution. In fact, in the outer reaches of the base area, there was an ongoing patchwork of conflict, basically guerrilla warfare, between the Communists and their supporters and the remnants of the landlord militias, with either side predominating whenever the larger armed forces associated with their side were brought in to tip the scales. When we’ve spoken about Mao’s guerrilla activities in western Yongxin county in recent episodes, intervening in these conflicts and fanning the flames of peasant guerrilla warfare was precisely a big part of what he was up to.
What came to mind when I read this remark by Du Xiujing about just how small the area was that was actually firmly controlled by Communists was the various claims that I have heard over the years about different revolutionary groups and how much territory they controlled, what percentage of a country’s territory, or that they control an area the size of some US state or another. I think that usually when I’ve heard these claims, the form of control that the speaker intends to convey is much like that which Du Xiujing conceived of, but in reality, I think things tend to be a bit hazier and areas claimed as controlled were in reality more like areas where there was seriously contested hegemony.
Anyways, let’s move on to the Hunan Provincial Committee’s actions after it received Du Xiujing’s report. On June 19, pretty much right after getting Du’s report, the Hunan Provincial Committee passed a resolution and wrote an accompanying letter expanding on the contents of the resolution. The provincial committee resolved that the Jinggangshan base area should be expanded to the west and north, particularly in Hunan, so as to be better positioned both to aid the Communists in South Hunan and in the Anyuan area. Additionally, this would have the advantage of putting Mao and Zhu in closer and easier contact with the provincial leadership in Anyuan, thus limiting their scope for independent decision making and putting them more firmly under the command of the provincial leadership. In order to accomplish this, the armed forces of the Communists should triple in size, and in general Mao was attacked for being too conservative in the speed with which he was expanding the base area.
The June 19 resolution and letter were sent off to the Jinggangshan with a cadre named Yuan Desheng who had been sent to participate in the work of implementing the provincial leadership’s guidance. But on June 26 the provincial leadership got impatient because it hadn’t heard anything yet and sent Du Xiujing back to the Jinggangshan with two more letters which bluntly and aggressively reasserted what had been said in the first two documents. Naturally, all four of these documents, the two dated June 19 and the two dated June 26, all arrived at the same time on June 30, because Yuan Desheng had gone up to Maoping and waited around there before moving on to Yongxin where he found Mao implementing the High Tide policies in the wake of the recent victory over the Guomindang, while Du Xiujing went more directly to Yongxin.
Here’s the text of one of the June 26 letters, so that you can get a sense for the tone and content:
One remarkable passage in the other June 26 letter commands the Fourth Red Army to “kill their way along a bloody route” back into South Hunan and to find the peasants who had participated in the South Hunan uprising, then fled to the Jinggangshan, and who then later returned to South Hunan. The Fourth Red Army was commanded to reorganize these peasants into an armed force, use that force to seize a good part of South Hunan and turn it into a new base area, and then to use this force to strike further north into East Hunan to launch a new uprising.
So, as we can see, the Hunan Provincial Committee had decided that it was taking things in hand and was going to exercise firm control of the actions of base area.
When these four documents arrived in Yongxin, the local party cadres immediately called a meeting to discuss the content of the documents and how to respond. This meeting came to be known as the Yongxin Joint Conference, and we’ll pick things up there next episode.