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Mobilizing a Movement: Cotton Mill Foremen in the Shanghai Strikes of 1925* by Martin W. Frazier Chronicles of the May Thirtieth Movement have emphasized how urban Chinese of different classes and social groups forged effective (if temporary) ties that led to general strikes and boycotts of foreign goods in Shanghai and elsewhere in 1925. Debate over this event, which one observer has labeled "China's Bastille,"ยท usually centers over questions of leadership. Partisan accounts put either the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) or the Nationalist Party (GMD) at the forefront of the movement.2 For Western scholars, especially those who have examined the Chinese labor movement, the role of the CCP in the general strike in Shanghai is less clear. Some have argued that the Communists essentially orchestrated the May Thirtie ~h Movement, while more recent scholarship has questioned the extent of this control. 3 Two new Shanghai-based studies also point out how non-workers influenced events in 1925 and beyond. Jeffrey Wasserstrom notes that alliances between students and workers made possible cross-class protest during the May Thirtieth Movement and on other occasions.4 In her study of pre-1949 labor in Shanghai, Elizabeth Perry demonstrates how the CCP could organize long-term strikes only after prior arrangements had been made with leaders of Shanghai's gangs. 5 Participation by students and gangsters in the May Thirtieth Movement may have been crucial, but the evidence presented here tells a different story. Labor protest in the Japanese-owned cotton mills, where some of the largest strikes of 1925 took place, cannot be explained without reference to the role of Chinese foremen. A great deal of discussion in the literature on Chinese labor has centered on divisions within the work force-the most important being gender, *The author would like to thank Ming Chan, Neil Diamant, Peter Gries, Josh Howard, and Elizabeth 1. Perry for helpful comments on earlier drafts of this article. native place, and skill-and whether these divisions hindered or furthered collective action. This paper shows how shop floor supervisors , operating through different kinds of social networks, mobilized mill workers before and during the May Thirtieth Movement. Partisan accounts of this period often depict the abuses of Japanese supervisors in the mills and argue that strikes occurred as an emotional response to the beatings of Chinese workers and other forms of maltreatment. Without denying such abuses, one can still argue that the real catalysts in these strikes were Chinese foremen (and forewomen), who straddled the realms of shop floor politics and of Shanghai politics outside the factory. A focus on their role links these two political realms, showing how conflict within the factory reverberated in the Shanghai political community. That broader urban community consisted of several different groups. For the Communist Party in Shanghai, the roughly sixty textile mills in the city were an obvious base of political support, and according to the writings of Marx and Engels, would be teeming with proletarian sentiment. Non-communist labor movement leaders also were drawn to the cotton mills by the very fact that the work force, numbering between 110,000 and 125,000 laborers by 1924, represented a vast source of union membership.6 For Shanghai's everresourceful gangs, labor racketeering was just one of several strategi~s that could expand their local power base. The police, both the Chinese-run force and the multinational contingent that patrolled Shanghais International Settlement, scrupulously followed developments in the cotton mills and were especially wary of industrial disputes. Western police administrators also had a strong belief: if not always empirically validated, that so-called "Bolsheviks" were arriving daily from foreign ports and attempting to import proletarian revolution from Russia. Most Shanghai merchants, organized into local street associations as well as the Shanghai General Chamber of Commerce (Shanghai zongshanghui), had no direct stake in localized mill strikes (with the notable exception of Chinese mill owners), yet many would play leading roles in the progress of the strikes. Shanghais student population, like merchants, expressed growing resentment at foreign domination of executive and judicial power in Shanghai and China, and they found in the exploitation of Chinese workers in foreign-owned mills potent symbols of imperialism...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1940-5065
Print ISSN
1521-5385
Pages
pp. 1-45
Launched on MUSE
2021-05-25
Open Access
No
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