(CHINA in REVOLUTION, to 1927 – continued)

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CHINA in REVOLUTION, to 1927 (7 of 7)

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The Guomindang turns Anti-Communist

In the summer of 1926, the Guomindang continued its march north to unite China. Communists and other political activists associated with the Guomindang were working in advance of Chiang Kai-shek's army. They called for the defeat of imperialists and landlords, and they told peasants to stop paying rent and debts. Some of them led assaults against foreign merchants. They told women to modernize their hair length – to cut their hair – and they ordered an end to the binding of feet. They broke Buddhist statues, and they spoke against Christian schools, churches and hospitals, describing these as imperialistic. They organized factory workers, encouraged demands on employers, and they led strikes and shut down factories.

Most warlord armies lacked training and enthusiasm, and in the face of a tremendous show of popular enthusiasm for the nationalist cause, warlords were reluctant to match their power against the Guomindang armies. Where Guomindang forces drove out warlords, local peasants came together against those they saw as oppressors.

By November 1926, Chiang and his army moving northward reached the Yangzi River. Along the Yangzi the Guomindang army took control of the three neighboring cities of Hankow, Wuchang and Hanyang. Thirty-four warlords had found it opportune to ally themselves with the Guomindang, trying to preserve what they could of their power.

The Guomindang moved its capital north to Hankow. The Guomindang there was under the influence of Michael Borodin and the Left, while moderates within the Guomindang remained disturbed by the growing radicalism. Labor unrest and strikes were bringing production in China to a standstill, and businessmen and landowners feared more disorder. Wealthy Chinese businessmen offered moderates within the Guomindang their support if they would rid the Guomindang of its Leftist radicals.

Guomindang forces under the influence of Leftists took over the British concession in the cities of Hankow and Kiukiang, while British and US merchants and missionaries were being evacuated from areas held by the Guomindang. The British rushed troops to Shanghai to prevent there what had happened at Hankow and Kiukiang. Britain was determined to save British lives and property, but it decided that it had to come to terms with China's powerful nationalist movement. In February 1927 the British concluded an agreement with the Guomindang, transferring the British concession at Hankow (its extraterritoriality enclave and rights) to Chinese authority. Animosity in China toward Britain declined, and moderates within the Guomindang began hoping for more respectability and recognition by the other powers of the world.

In March 1927, Chiang's forces entered the city of Nanjing, on the Yangzi River, almost 200 miles west and slightly north of Shanghai. Rioters in Nanjing supporting the Guomindang attacked foreign missions and consulates, looted foreign buildings and dwellings, and robbed and killed several foreigners. Chiang was indignant over the looting and rioting. He was concerned about reaction from foreign forces while British and US gunboats on the Yangzi River were firing shells into Nanjing in an attempt to end to the rioting.

In Shanghai, labor unions had risen in a general strike. In the Chinese section of Shanghai, activists disarmed the police and drove out warlord troops. The international settlement in Shanghai was guarded by an international expeditionary force, but Chinese and foreign businessmen there feared that the activists might try to seize their part of town.

Chiang troops arrived in Shanghai on March 12, while nearby European and United States warships were poised for action to protect property. Chiang's troops took control of the Chinese section of the city, without touching foreigners or their possessions. And after a day or so, the foreigners living in Shanghai relaxed and began congratulating each other, and they congratulated Chiang Kai-shek for the control that he held over his troops.

People of wealth decided that Chiang was an alternative to communist upheaval and confiscations. And Chiang needed money if he were to make himself a force against the Guomindang's left-wing. His son was still studying in Russia, but after soul searching and sleepless nights Chiang decided to reverse Sun Yat-sen's policy of working with the Communists. In Shanghai, he negotiated with bankers, capitalists and members of Shanghai's powerful mobsters – the Green Gang. And from various sources he received large donations of money.

Chiang made his big move on April 12. Communists and other leftists in Shanghai were rounded up and shot. Hundreds of union supporters and organizers were killed, and Zhou Enlai barely escaped. Chiang's troops machine-gunned peaceful demonstrators responding to the crackdown, killing three hundred. The dead and wounded were trucked away, and those only wounded were buried with the dead.

The bloodbath was extended to other cities, including Canton, where Chiang's subordinates and supporters were in control. Chiang sent a directive to the Guomindang leadership in Hankow that all Communist propaganda must cease. Guomindang leadership in Hankow dismissed Chiang, called him a counter-revolutionary and offered a reward against him, dead or alive. And Chiang retaliated by setting up a rival government in Nanjing.

In response to Chiang's war against China's Communists, the Comintern decided that vacillating members of the Guomindang's Central Committee should be replaced by peasant and working class leaders and that a revolutionary tribunal should be set up to liquidate those who maintained contact with Chiang. The directives from Moscow angered the non-Communist members of the Guomindang in Hankow. The Hankow Guomindang began its own purge of Communists. And, considering itself to be China's government, the Hankow Guomindang ordered Moscow's agents out of China, including Borodin.

The Communist Party of China was losing membership by death and defection. Stalin, in power in Moscow, had believed that China's Communists working with the Guomindang would be most effective and serve the Soviet Union's interests, but now that Chiang and others in the Guomindang were slaughtering Communists, Leftists and labor union activists, Stalin declared that "the scoundrels" had to be punished. He blamed China's Communist Party leaders for the Party's failure in China. China's Communist Party purged itself of its discredited top leadership, but it did not have the power to punish those Stalin thought of as scoundrels. The Communist Party in China tried to gain control of some Guomindang military units but failed, and the Communists were unable to reorganize the Guomindang.

A war between those who supported the Communists and those who supported the Guomindang lasted throughout 1927. Mao was in Hunan and barely escaped execution at the hands of Guomindang forces. His wife, Yang Kaihui, was captured and beheaded. Soldiers were sent to dig up the graves of Mao's parents.

Mao found refuge along the border between Hunan and Jiangxi provinces – a hilly region covered with bamboo and pine, with pheasants, deer and tigers, and only a few remote villages in the valleys, where people grew rice and beans. Joining Mao there were about a thousand others who had fled the Guomindang's crackdown. And in other remote locations in central China other Communist refugees were gathering. Mao now favored creating a Red Army as well as organizing the peasantry into a force to take power. And, drawing from recent experiences, he constructed what was to be one of his maxims: that power comes from the barrel of a gun. This was in defiance of Stalin's views, but at this point the influence in China on which Stalin had spent millions of gold rubles had been reduced to nothing. Communists working within the Guomindang had come to an end.

Meanwhile, in the autumn of 1927, during a hiatus in the march north, Chiang had married into a wealthy Chinese family. His wife was Soong Meiling, who had been educated in the United States and was a sister of Sun Yat-sen's widow. She was a Methodist, and Chiang also became a Methodist, and he remained serene in the belief that he had not been excessive in his move against the Communists.

In April 1928 Chiang put his armies on the march again, continuing the campaign to unite China under the Guomindang. He was marching toward Beijing. Japan's interests in China were strongest in the north, including Manchuria, and the Japanese saw extensions of Guomindang rule into northern China as a threat. Just south of Beijing the Guomindang army clashed momentarily with a Japanese military force. Then the Guomindang armies drove on and captured Beijing in June. The Japanese forces were anti-Communist, but unknowingly they were laying the ground for Communist gains.


A Bitter Revolution, by Rana Mitter, Oxford University Press, 2005

Sun Yat-sen by Marie-Claire Bergère, Stanford University Press, 1994

China: a New History, by John King Fairbank and Merle Goldman, 1998

Mao, a Life, by Philip Short, 2000

Copyright © 1998-2014 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.