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Building the Model

Emerging from the wreckage of an empire badly mauled by foreign powers and decomposed internally, Chinese nationalism had by the 1920s begun to spread beyond the new urban elites to the proletariat of the treaty ports and out into the countryside. Although the antiforeign racialism of 1911’s revolutionaries had helped to topple the decadent Manchus, the feelings of nationhood had grown slowly among the Chinese and had meaning primar­ily for the modern educated. The civilian visionaries of the anti-Manchu movement were ill prepared for the frustrating realities that befell the infant republic. Their dreams vanished as the ex-military lieutenants of the Manchus rose in power, sparring among themselves for territory, while the foreign imperialists continued their rapacious exploitation of the defense­less ghost republic. The political idealism of those Chinese educated in Anglo-American values seemed irrelevant in a world where at Versailles the Western democracies sold China’s interests in Shantung to an expan­sive Japan in return for satisfaction of their own desires.

Frustrated parliamentarians, republicans, and ex-revolutionaries who had worked for the end of the old regime, groped impotently for some means to reintegrate the shattered economy, society, and body politic. By the 1920s, the debates of modern intellectuals turned away from complete Westernization toward a reappraisal of what China really needed. Even the greediest military governor, a warlord, might mouth “saving China”—but what then was China? Neither the idealistic rhetoric of thinkers nor the raw armed force of the warlords had been sufficient, separately, to pull China 4back together. Sun Yat-sen, the quixotic leader of the Kuomintang (KMT), and his faithfuls had been able to reflect on this lesson while exiled abroad after successive losses to warlord forces.1

5Underestimating his military strength, Sun had promoted expeditions, beginning in 1900 and continuing until 1924, shortly before his death in early 1925, which he hoped would sweep northward from Kwangtung to reunite China under his leadership. Through these abortive starts in South China, Sun and his younger followers learned that the creation of a Chinese nation would require discipline, unifying goals, and considerable military power. In the early 1920s, Sun failed in his solicitation of support from Japan and the United States2 and so began to listen to the new Russian dream of a “Brotherhood of Oppressed Nations” and offers of military and financial aid. Along with a Russian alliance, these could help to implement Sun’s vision of building his home province of Kwangtung into a “revolutio­nary base” from which to launch his military campaign for the reunification of China. Until this could be realized, in place of China there would remain a shifting scene of warring states too distracted by civil wars to defend or lift up the suffering Chinese people.

To the strategists in the new Soviet Union, suffering China held great potential. Anti-imperialist action there could shut off sources of raw mater­ials from the leading capitalist countries, as well as the markets and cheap labor for their factories that the powers had found in China. While Soviet “missionaries” had helped to organize a group of Chinese radicals into the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in mid-1921, it remained a small body of intellectuals. They studied and trained for mass leadership, but were frustrated by warlord power from recruiting followers. In 1923 when Stalin’s leadership promoted the alliance with the Kuomintang, the CCP, which was pressured into the collaboration, only numbered several hundred members.3 The Russians, seeking influence in China, saw more immediate potential in the thousands of nationalistic bourgeois in Sun’s party, who were placed throughout China. At the same time the Russians wooed such warlords as Wu P’ei-fu and Feng Yü-hsiang, and dabbled in national minority movements within China’s northern border. The Soviets already had proved quite effective in the central Asian portion of the old Russian empire by subsidizing revolutionaries within newly created repub­lics, coming to their aid upon invitation, and then welcoming the republics into the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. In Peking’s current terminol­ogy, this is labeled Socialist Imperialism, but in the 1920s many Chinese were impressed by the logic of Soviet anti-imperialism against the foreign powers and China’s desperate need of foreign aid. However, in the ensuing collaboration, Russian political, military, and ideological models were to prove as crucial to the Kuomintang national revolution as did Russian material aid.

Consequently, 1923 saw the genesis of a Russian-influenced national political and military structure at Canton, the revolutionary capital. The city’s long access to modern influences and its anti-Manchu experience made it a natural choice. Progress was slow but young men joined the 6movement. Their resourcefulness built muscle for Sun’s visionary plans by means of a modern military academy, Whampoa, which would feed into a Party Army. This would be the nucleus of the National Revolutionary Army (NRA), which would move north to conquer the many warlord regimes into which China had disintegrated. A modern administrative apparatus created for Canton would be expanded gradually to manage the province of Kwangtung, and ultimately the nation. Kwangtung would be the Re­volutionary Base.

In late 1924, Sun’s national movement was still dangerously dependent on warlords in Kwangtung. Surrounded by this host of armed opportunists, Sun lacked security even within Canton. Although Yunnanese militarists Liu Chen-huan and Yang Hsi-min had aided Sun in ousting the disloyal warlord Ch’en Chiung-ming two years earlier, they themselves now menaced Sun’s plans. Sun’s municipal agents efficiently collected taxes and the contributions of overseas Chinese only to see the funds siphoned off to keep the support of Generals Liu and Yang. Whenever Ch’en Chiung-ming, still at large in the East River uplands, would move on Canton, Liu and Yang would requisition from Sun a sum of 10,000 silver yuan* for the defense of Canton, or C$100,000 to force Ch’en back up the East River to Huichou. This protection racket further emphasized the vulnerability of the KMT at Canton until the Party could muster its own military forces.4 By late 1924, a frustrated and ailing Sun traveled north to Peking, hoping to negotiate for some wider political arena for the KMT.

When Sun Yat-sen died in March 1925, he deprived the struggling KMT of his catalytic charisma, which had drawn together a party of diversity. But, though his party suffered divisions, Sun had left behind a legacy. Somehow the KMT not only survived his loss but began to nurture what had been sown. The structures Sun had helped to create at Canton were the seeds from which the National Revolution could develop. Sun’s death transmitted his nationalistic zeal to at least the modern elites of China, for whom Sun came to symbolize a new, stirring, selfless, patriotism. Wher­ever the news traveled in 1925, memorial services eulogized Sun’s endur­ing efforts. As a symbol, Sun was perhaps even more inspiring than he had been as man. During his life, this senior revolutionary had overshadowed his younger followers, but after his death these disciples at Canton lost their inhibitions. Although the diversity endangered their cohesiveness, it also stimulated creative potential. Challenged by the hostile surroundings and realizing the opportunities for leadership, Sun’s survivors blossomed forth with a broad range of modern political and military programs.

Experimenting with modern political techniques, the KMT government at Canton appealed beyond the usual intellectual and military elites, to the broader masses of Chinese society. Some members, impressed by Marxist progress in creating a new Russia from another ancient, agrarian system, 7hoped to apply similar methods in China by means of the small, rising urban proletariat. Other partisans believed that the modern-educated youth and their merchant families with economic power in the ports were best prepared to democratize and industrialize China. Ready to join a movement for change were frustrated students of modern schools, edu­cated Chinese women, and the downtrodden, ubiquitous footsoldiers. A few saw the potential in the yet unorganized peasantry. In Sun’s reorgani­zation of the KMT in 1924, his party had borrowed heavily from Russian Communist political methodology, but members also showed the influ­ence of liberal Anglo-American education and that of earlier Confucian progressives like Tseng Kuo-fan—a hero of both Chiang Kai-shek and young Mao Tse-tung. Later, with some insight, panicking European businessmen of Shanghai blamed the revolutionary “red” menace on the insidious influence of American Christian mission schools.

The national revolutionary movement envisioned by the KMT needed the spark of a radicalizing issue to attract mass support. In a China still disintegrated, Sun Yat-sen’s death on March 12, 1925, gained the attention of the urban elites, but they had to be energized into taking action. Just such a politicizing incident, made to order for the Canton nationalists, as Michael Borodin, the Comintern agent, later observed, occurred on May 30 in Shanghai. A demonstration of several thousand young students, workers, and city people protesting the death of a Chinese worker marched on a British-commanded police station in the International Settlement. Among the instigators were KMT students and merchants. With the crowd surging toward the station, the police in their panic fired into the crowd, killing a dozen Chinese and wounding twice that number. At Canton the KMT, with their Russian and CCP strategists, immediately capitalized on the new martyrs by planning what became the Hong Kong-Kwangtung Strike.

Perhaps counting on growing support from throughout China, the Can­ton group felt ready to test its military muscle. On June 12, 1925, various local KMT military allies, including units under Whampoa Academy’s superintendent, Chiang Kai-shek, with support from Canton unions, forced uncooperative Yunnan and Kwangsi troops out of the Pearl River lowlands where they might have collaborated with British Hong Kong. A committee of revolutionaries at Swatow coordinated the action and ap­pointed Chiang commander. Sun Yat-sen had earlier appointed Chiang Canton garrison commander.5 The student division from Whampoa had fought with spirit under fire and the workers had proven their usefulness. By June 18, the KMT was ready to publicize a protest against the May 30 “massacre” through a massive strike in Kwangtung against firms run by British imperialists, a boycott of all goods from Great Britain and Hong Kong, and a blockade of all intercourse with that crown colony, which had taken over so much of Canton’s sea trade. On June 21 some workers in Canton began the walkout from British firms. This matched with the KMT’s nationalistic aim to throw out the oppressive and exploitive im­perialists 8 and their warlord “running dogs.” The events of June 1925 in the Revolutionary Base, with their anti-imperialist and antiwarlord fervor, forecast in the microcosm the great Northern Expedition to come.

Among the first workers brought into the Hong Kong-Kwangtung Strike were those Chinese employed in the foreign concession on Shameen, a sandbar island separated from Canton by narrow Shaki Creek. Where the Shanghai Incident may have erupted from the police’s overreaction, the events that followed at Shameen seem less spontaneous. On June 21, British Consul General J. Jamieson noted that Shaki Creek had been blocked by innumerable sampans, and rumors circulated of impending trouble. On the twenty-second, Jamieson warned C.C. Wu, Canton’s Foreign Secretary, that he had heard of a planned provocation that would martyr “dare-to-die” youth from the Kwangtung University Student As­sociation. Since the British would defend the concession if attacked, Jamieson said, the individual and collective responsibility would lie with the Canton government. As tension heightened, a French bank transferred its valuables from Shameen onto a French gunboat, one of the several foreign gunboats anchored in the stream. The promotion of the strike depended partly on the support given the KMT by Russia and the “united front” with the CCP. The movement became linked with the ascendancy of Chiang Kai-shek, considered by Western consuls at Canton to be an “uncompromising … anti-imperialist and an ardent Bolshevik.”6

The leadership at Canton responded to Jamieson’s warning by request­ing permission to stage a protest march through Shameen Island, which was summarily refused on June 22. On the morning of the twenty-third, units began to assemble along the Canton Bund for a long parade in protest of the Shanghai Incident and British and Japanese imperialism. Opposite the Shameen concession, the street was cleared and cadet propagandists from Whampoa circulated anti-British leaflets that drew attention to the parade that afternoon. Purposely to avoid antagonizing masses of Chinese nationalists with the sight of gleaming British bayonets, Consul Jamieson set up a defense line that would be out of sight from the Bund. Across the Shameen bridge, Canton police moved into posts at regular intervals and a company of soldiers withdrew from the hot southern sun to stations under the arcades along the parade route.

That afternoon the parade of 60,000 included members of unions, peas­ant associations, student associations, and soldiers (thus representing the KMT’s social ideal of an “all-class” union). The marchers, with placards raised and flags flying, stretched a half mile along the route from east Canton west toward Shameen Island. Most of the parading units barraged Shameen with shouted slogans. What followed may have been the work of a particular KMT element. After one student group, chanting slogans against the British, had passed the Shameen bridge, it was followed by units of Whampoa cadets and KMT army political workers, which halted, drawing a loud response from the paraders and bystanders. Then, according to foreign observers, numbers of the marchers fell out of formation opposite 9Shameen, whereupon the Whampoa unit let loose a volley of pistol shots followed by a barrage of rifle bullets that rained on the bridge.

At that point Consul Jamieson and several British officials dashed from their vantage point for better cover. The foreign troops on Shameen returned the fire, which quickly included sniper fire from the building opposite Shameen. After ten minutes of firing, the British passed the order to cease fire and stay under cover. During this exchange, casualties fell on both sides; one French civilian was killed and eight Europeans and Japanese were wounded. Accounts of Chinese casualties varied widely, from the protest from the Canton government’s Foreign Secretary C.C. Wu against the death of over 100 Chinese due to unprovoked British, French, and Portuguese “savagery” to the later CCP count of 52 killed and 170 wounded.7 A high-ranking British naval officer claimed his people had seen only one Chinese fall in the firing.

The official British concensus was that the firing had begun from the Chinese side and that “no doubt they were Russian-trained Whampoa Military Academy soldiers.”8 Some argued that the British did not stand to gain from another bloody incident. However, there were those who had pressed for a firm show that would end Chinese militancy. Since such high Whampoa leaders as General Ho Ying-ch’in accompanied the Whampoa element,9 it seemed unlikely that the Chinese fired without forethought. Considering the political methods popular at Whampoa and the well-utilized effect of the “massacre” on Kwangtung society, the KMT-CCP strategists may very well deserve the credit for engineering such a success­ful provocation. These ts’an-an (atrocious incidents) ignited the KMT national movement and scattered its sparks far beyond the Revolutionary Base of Kwangtung. Baiting the foreign bear proved so effective in man­ipulating antiforeign emotions that the device earned a permanent place in the anti-imperialist arsenal of the CCP and, for a time, the KMT Left.

Before the furor over Shameen had abated, Canton’s strategists used the welling up of nationalistic emotions to turn the nominal Hong Kong Strike into a reality. From June 23 on, the strike attracted true “mass” support, which during 1925 and 1926 was organized into a structured and responsive body. With their ideological emphasis upon the proletariat and their political training, the CCP apparently saw most clearly the opportunity present and sought to lead the strike, albeit in the name of the KMT and the United Front. The CCP Central of Shanghai immediately ordered specialists in organizing to Canton, where thousands of striking workers began to congregate. By July 6, 1925, these CCP members were on hand at a meeting of Hong Kong and Canton union representatives where they were nominated and elected to positions of leadership. The successful takeover of strike leadership was eased greatly by the strategic position of CCP member T’an P’ing-shan, who headed the KMT’s Organization De­partment.

T’an had the authority to request that CCP member Su Chao-cheng, just arrived from Shanghai, take the position of chairman of the new Strike 10Committee. Su’s credentials were quite correct in the eyes of fellow Marxists and also appealed to the strikers. Son of a Kwangtung peasant, Su had shipped out of Hong Kong as a sailor in 1905, and in Hong Kong he came into contact with nationalistic ideas. Fellow Cantonese sailors drew him into the T’ung-meng hui in 1908, after which he is alleged to have joined in the 1911 revolution in Kwangtung. Later Su gravitated to that sanctuary for all sorts of political movements, the Shanghai concessions, where he joined the CCP. His training there and experience in the Seamen’s Strike of 1922 in Hong Kong led him to the chairmanship of the Strike Committee at the age of forty.10 Directing the mushrooming move­ment demanded diverse abilities—a burden lessened considerably by supervision from the Comintern’s ranking man in Canton, Michael Boro­din.

The strike apparatus grew to include an 800-man representatives’ as­sembly under the Strike Committee. The Assembly followed the model for democratic centralism and spoke for tens of thousands of striking workers—both unionized and unaffiliated. The Strike Committee was fitted into the CCP’s broadest Chinese labor organization, the Chinese National General Labor Union (GLU). Su Chao-cheng’s operation in­cluded a large headquarters compound, Canton’s abandoned East Park amusement center, appropriated by the Labor Department of the KMT. The complex included strikers’ dormitories, a school, a prison for “strike­breakers,” an armory, and facilities for a multitude of subcommittees. KMT control over Canton was invaluable in institutionalizing the strike. Liao Chung-k’ai, at the apex of the KMT hierarchy, sympathized with the Communist emphasis on social revolution and proved quite helpful in the organizational phase until his assassination in August 1925. In tagging KMT “Rightists” with that crime, those least cooperative with the strike were forced into exile. A military arm strengthened the Strike Committee through a force of over 2,200 uniformed, drilled, and disciplined pickets. Since the pickets implemented the wide range of committee decisions, they strengthened the hand of the strike organization immeasurably.11

In the summer of 1925, during the early months of the Hong Kong-Kwangtung Strike, cadets, faculty from Whampoa, and Russian advisors helped to train the pickets into paramilitary units.12 Divided into corps and detachments, the committee assigned them to wherever it needed muscle. At Canton and smaller ports with Strike Committee branches, the picket units had the authority to seize goods and foods suspected of either originating in, or bound for markets in Hong Kong. Marine pickets pa­trolled Kwangtung’s harbors and rivers. Pickets had the power to confis­cate goods on the spot, fine offenders, and arrest violators for imprison­ment at the strike headquarters.

Under the committee structure was a legal bureau and a court that tried the apprehended who worked for the British or traded with them. Besides the prison, the headquarters also had offices that examined contraband and then sold the items at its auctions—thus adding to its revenue. Another 11source of income was the transportation passes, which a committee office could issue to merchants and travelers upon their payment of a fee.13

The Hong Kong Strike married several issues into a popular movement. That the cause was popular with the provincial proletariat was evidenced by the 30,000 workers who initially streamed into Canton from various ports and from Hong Kong immediately in response to the Shameen Incident.14 By the peak of its influence in mid-1926, the strike had at­tracted thrice that number, many of whom became dependent on the Strike Committee for daily bread and housing in its dormitories.

In accord with Comintern strategy, the strike attacked British capitalism at its East Asian markets. The Comintern, a patron organization to chief Russian advisor Borodin, began to subsidize the Strike Committee shortly after its creation with at least 6,000 rubles arriving monthly in the name of various Russian labor organizations.15 Probably of greatest significance was the opportunity presented for the CCP to organize the proletariat into a base of political power, a goal that the KMT sought for a time but failed to realize. As a part of the KMT-CCP United Front, the Strike Committee did use its armed pickets in the consolidation of Canton as the seat of the KMT’s “National Government,” formalized there on July 1, 1925. The activists in Canton proclaimed their structure to be more representative of China than was the shadowy Peking Government, which was manipulated by a succes­sion of warlords who had sold out to various foreign powers. KMT and CCP members claimed to speak for a nationwide constituency by means of party branches. Implementing their national aspirations first meant expansion of political control outward into the Revolutionary Base of Kwangtung. The securing of political and military power in a defensible riverain basin from which all of vast China might be “pacified” followed an ancient pattern suited to the land’s divided topography and politics.

The effects of the Hong Kong Strike on the economy were mixed. Canton, temporary capital of the KMT National Government and center of the Revolutionary Base, was significantly dependent on international trade. British shipping and the revenues related to that trade dropped 60 percent the first month of the strike. Although the regime lost this major source of income as commerce declined, the take-over of numerous, small coastal ports where fees could be collected meant new sources of revenue for the KMT National Government.16 Diverting attention from the loss of trade and related livelihood, the Strike Committee publicized the losses to the British imperialists—allegedly C$1.8 million per day.17 Another ex­pense for Canton was the sum of at least $80,000 monthly in maintenance funds that the KMT doled out to the Strike Committee.18

During the fall of 1925, the pickets and groups of strikers aided in the offensive led by the NRA against local militarist Ch’en Chiung-ming throughout the East River area of Kwangtung. At that time strikers, union members, and peasant associations organized by the CCP supported the fighting potential of the KMT’s military arm by carrying its supplies and weapons, providing medical services, and propagandizing in newly con­quered 12 areas.19 The mass organization certainly gave the NRA greater mobility than Ch’en Chiung-ming possessed, and thus speeded the taking of Huichou and made possible the close pursuit of Ch’en’s retreat. Less than one year later, Chiang Kai-shek gave a speech on this Eastern Expedi­tion in which he acknowledged that his forces had

… achieved victory quickly with the help of peasants and workers. From my past experience I realize the benefit of the cooperation of peasants and workers with the revolutionary army…. if the soldiers of an army are not friendly to the people, that army will unquestionably be defeated.20

The KMT’s military consolidation of Kwangtung as the Revolutionary Base directly benefited the CCP and its Hong Kong Strike apparatus. Strikers fanned out behind the victorious NRA, set up branches of the strike organization, and stationed pickets to enforce the anti-British boycott. By the completion of the Eastern Expedition of the fall of 1925, branches functioned from the port of Swatow in easternmost Kwangtung through to Peihai on the Gulf of Tonkin. Brigades of 200 pickets were stationed at small ports throughout the Pearl River estuary, and smaller units saw duty at coastal towns and on Hainan Island. In the same capacity, a small fleet of boats patrolled the Kwangtung coast hunting for strikebreak­ing smugglers.21

During the consolidation of the Revolutionary Base in Kwangtung, both the KMT and the CCP benefited from the United Front and from the expansion of the mass organization.


1. Emanuel Hsü, The Rise of Modern China (New York: Oxford University Press, 1975), pp. 582, 587, 623.

2. From an interview with Sun Fo, son of Sun Yat-sen, on May 25, 1966, at Yangmingshan, Taiwan.

3. James P. Harrison, The Long March to Power (New York: Praeger, 1972), p. 52. Chang Kuo-t’ao, The Rise of the Chinese Communist Party 1921-1927, vol. 1 of his autobiography (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1971), p. 306. Hereafter cited as Chang Kuo-t’ao.

4. From an interview with a member of the early Whampoa Political Department, Li Shao-lin.

5. Chung-hua Min-kuo ta-shih chi [Record of major events of the Republic of China], ed. by Kao Yin-tzu (Taipei: Shih-chieh Book Co., 1957), p. 176. Hereafter cited as Ta-shih chi.

6. Papers Relating to the First Firing in the Shameen Affair of June 23, 1925, China No. 1 (1926), House of Commons, XXX, Accounts and Papers No. 15, p. 12. Hereafter cited as Shameen White Paper.

7. Shameen White Paper, p. 12 (pt. 2). Ti-yi-tz’u kuo-nei ko-ming chan-cheng shih-ch’i-te kung-jen yün-tung [The workers’ movement during the first period of the national revolu­tionary war] (Peking: People’s Publishing Association, 1958), pp. 121-122. Hereafter cited as 1st Workers’ Movement.

8. Shameen White Paper, p. 7.

9. From an interview with General Ho Ying-ch’in, Taipei, Taiwan, 1966. Ho was an instructor at Whampoa, regimental commander, and then First Army commander in the Northern Expedition. Both Ho and Chiang Kai-shek were Tokyo Shikan Gakko Military Academy graduates.

10. Su Chao-cheng (Shanghai?: China National General Labor Union, 1930), pp. 3-13. Hereafter cited as Su Ch’ao-ch’eng. Also in Chung-kuo kung-ch’an-tang lieh-shih chuan [Biographies of the Chinese communist martyrs] (Peking: Youth Publishing Society, 1951), pp. 49-52. Hereafter cited as CCP Martyrs.

11. 1st Workers’ Movement, p. 122. Copied from Teng Chung-hsia, Sheng-kang pa-kung k’ai-kuan [Hong Kong-Kwangtung strike] (Canton: Hong Kong-Kwangtung Strike Commit­tee Propaganda Dept. August 1926. Hereafter cited as Teng Chung-hsia.

12. From an interview with General Leng Hsin, May 17, 1966, Taipei, Taiwan. Teng Chung-hsia, p. 122.

13. Teng Chung-hsia, p. 123.

14. Ko-ming wen-hsien [Revolutionary documents], vol. 11, p. 298, ed. by Lo Chia-lün (Taipei: Historical Materials Editing Committee of the Party History of the KMT, 1956). Hereafter cited as Ko-ming wen-hsien.

15. L’Humanité (April 2, 1926), p. 3.

16. 1st Workers’ Movement, p. 165, table of Kwangtung’s tariff revenues, 1924/25.

17. Chung-kuo hsien-tai ko-ming yün-tung shih [History of the modern Chinese revolution] (Shanghai?: Committee on Study of Chinese Modern History, 1938), pp. 162-163. Hereafter cited as CKHT.

18. South China Morning Post, (July 10, 1926), p. 8. Hereafter cited as SCMP.

19. Teng Chung-hsia, p. 126.

20. Hong Kong Daily Press (May 10, 1926), p. 1. Hereafter cited as HKDP.

21. Teng Chung-hsia, pp. 133-134.

* The Chinese silver yuan was then worth approximately US$.50 and will hereafter be abbreviated as C$.

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