publisher colophon


Breaches in the Revolutionary Base

The solidarity of the Canton regime had been from the start more apparent than real. At various stages the alliance between the KMT and the Russian-CCP bloc had more foes and reluctant supporters than friends. Ultimately the responsibility for the alliance lay with Stalin. As the long-discussed Northern Expedition became a possibility, the Russian mission at Canton became increasingly wary of the power that would have to be given to its commander. By February 1926, there were some 100,000 assorted allied troops under NRA hegemony. In China it had become obvious that military power created political power. There is evidence that some Russian advisors and high-ranking Kisanka, in particular, had begun a campaign to neutralize Chiang’s authority and postpone the military buildup. Kisanka, possibly at Stalin’s order, criticized the planned expedi­tion to reunite China through conquest and found fault with Chiang before his Whampoa cadets and division commanders.1 It was later claimed that the anti-Chiang strategy included pamphlets attacking him, which circu­lated both in Canton and across the river at Whampoa.2 Russian-CCP political support seemed to be shifting to Wang Ching-wei in order to check Chiang’s further rise.

Chiang sensed that a reshuffling and purging of leadership, such as had earlier removed Hu Han-min and Hsü Ch’ung-chih, seemed to be directed at removing him, making Wang the sole receiver of Russian aid. To force the issue Chiang confronted Wang on February 8, 1926,3 by offering his resignation if the Northern Expedition were not promoted and its Russian 35opponents returned to Russia. Although Chief Military Advisor Kisanka remained, General Victor Rogachev did resign from the NRA’s general staff.4 Chiang was not satisfied and petitioned successively for the dissolu­tion of his Eastern Expeditionary Command, to make way for the CEC’s formation of a new command to lead the Northern Expedition.5 The KMT’s Standing Committee did concede the issuing of a manifesto against Wu P’ei-fu and Chang Tso-lin, but Kisanka remained and there were rumors that he was inciting division commanders to rebel against Chiang.6 On February 27, Chiang went again to KMT chairman Wang to gain the recall of Kisanka. This time Chiang’s petition was reinforced by the offers of resignation from Canton Mayor C.C. Wu and Police Commissioner Wu T’ieh-ch’eng.7 Although Chiang received assurances that the Northern Expedition would take place, by March 1926 the Party seemed polarized between those who supported Chiang and the military offensive and those who favored deepening the social revolution within Kwangtung. The diverging aims were worsened by conflicting viewpoints on the usefulness of the Kwangtung-Hong Kong Strike.

By early 1926, the strongest source of KMT support—the rising com­mercial element in the modern ports—was becoming disenchanted with the anti-British strikes and boycott. Although the strike had expressed some of their resentments against arrogant foreign exploitation so evident in the treaty ports, the merchants’ livelihood depended on trade with foreigners. Their most significant customers were the British. Further­more, the strike had expanded from an attack on British capitalism in China to strident propagandizing by strike-affiliated unions on the oppression of workers and peasants by Chinese capitalists and landlords, thus promoting class struggle among Chinese.

Originally, KMT strategists promoting national reunification had given priority to the fight against the foreign imperialists and their Chinese “running dogs,” the warlords, and had hoped to harmonize support for the National Revolution through a union of all classes. In emphasizing the negative effects of foreign economic imperialism, the KMT propaganda pointed out that Chinese merchants and workers were both at the mercy of the foreign traders and factory owners protected by the hated Unequal Treaties. This stance took account of the vital financial support from the merchants in urban chambers of commerce and their gentry cousins of the countryside. After the strike organization began its work, both merchants and rural gentry had come under attack from the new unions and the CCP-sponsored peasant associations. By 1926, donors to the KMT treasury felt anxiety over the proliferating activities of the strike organization.

Although the strike apparatus was a temporary means of gathering workers around an issue, it channeled new personnel into more permanent labor organizations of the CCP. The Strike Committee was listed by the CCP as subordinate to its higher, most inclusive labor body—the Chinese National General Labor Union. Aside from supporting the Hong Kong Strike, new strike organization branches along the Kwangtung coast re­cruited striking sailors home from Hong Kong shipping concerns. These 36men also became members of the CCP’s new Chinese Seamen’s Union, which set up branches alongside the strike offices. By January 1926 the Seamen’s Union lauded the growth in its periodical, Chinese Seamen, stating that: “… previously the Seamen’s Union had been only an empty name but now it has already become organized like an army.” The union slogans proclaimed: “Long Live the United Seamen of the World!” “Long Live the Proletariat and the Liberation of the Oppressed Masses!” “Long Live the World Revolution!” and “Knock Down the Capitalist Class!”8

Among the diverse KMT leaders, some elements were not long in decid­ing that the strike organization was too potent a force and confirmed their fears over the KMT-CCP coalition. Any attempts to curtail the Hong Kong-Kwangtung Strike, however, opposed the aims of Russian patrons, who could withhold their aid to both the KMT and the CCP. The Comin­tern promoted and subsidized the strike, which damaged British capitalism through its Asian markets and sources of raw materials, thus implementing the international strategy against capitalism. Not only was British trade in South China suffering greatly, but also the benefits accrued in terms of the recruitment and organization of the masses by the CCP were beyond all expectations. Moscow would not readily support a halt to the strike.

Besides rivaling the KMT in political authority, the strike organization cost the Canton regime in other ways. KMT coffers were the source of about 60 percent of the Strike Committee’s budget—a pledged sum of C$80,000 monthly. Cantonese merchants “donated” another portion.9 While the budget did cover a multitude of activities, and Chiang had used strikers in the Eastern Expeditions, he was quick to recognize that the portion doled out to the strikers was nonproductive. In mid-1925, only one month after the strikers began to flock to Canton, Chiang proposed to the Military Council that the strikers be put to work by the National Govern­ment building roads in Kwangtung and a proposed deepwater port at Whampoa capable of attracting sea trade away from Hong Kong.10 The Strike Committee understandably lacked enthusiasm for any scheme that would transfer strikers from its authority, although it did reluctantly form a road construction subcommittee of around 3,000 workers.11

As a commercial entrepôt, Canton’s economy suffered from the loss of sales to British Hong Kong and the British market. Tariff revenue dropped by 60 percent at Canton the first month of the strike, which indicates the extent of the dependence on British trade.12 Although tariff revenues from newly conquered small ports in Kwangtung did help to compensate the government’s loss, Canton producers sorely missed the loss of trade.

Production suffered along with trade as the Strike Committee promoted strikes throughout Canton as part of its campaign to unionize Kwangtung labor. Using the picket corps, the committee promoted strikes in a particu­lar industry by “encouraging” the workers to leave their jobs and by preventing strikebreaking with the armed picket corps. Workers, who were generally persuaded to strike for economic incentives, were then enrolled in unions. The CCP then welcomed these new unions into its GLU. They were represented also through democratic centralism on the 37strike assembly. With some industries already unionized by the KMT or independently, Canton labor experienced the pull of rival union factions. Antagonism and violence between contending unions erupted into the open as they struggled to control recruits and employment. In this compe­tition, the unions affiliated with the Hong Kong strike organization could call on the armed strike pickets. The other unions often called on the KMT’s municipal police for protection. In this manner the Party military system came into confrontation with the strike organization. By early 1926, as preparations for the Northern Expedition prompted the tightening of KMT authority, the autonomy of the Strike Committee became one major source of argument between the KMT and their supposed collaborators.13

The Strike Committee’s independence confused and frustrated numbers of the KMT hierarchy and provincial administrators. Those KMT dip­lomats exploring the possibilities of negotiations with the British were stymied as the strike apparatus and the Russian alliance checked their moves. The division of authority is illustrated by an incident in December 1925 when strike pickets imprisoned two Indian employees of a British firm. Although the British Consul at Canton directed a request for their release to the KMTs Foreign Ministry, in embarrassment Foreign Minis­ter C.C. Wu had to admit that he was unable to supercede the authority of the strikers’ court.14

Although the Hong Kong Strike should have given the Canton govern­ment leverage to make demands of the British, the divergent goals of the Strike Committee hampered the use of bargaining points. Significantly, Foreign Minister Wu became a most outspoken critic of the strike and the organization built around it. His opposition was related also to his own patronage of the KMT’s Kwangtung Mechanics’ Union, which was in violent contention with the unionization being carried on by the Strike Committee. Similarly, Canton Police Commissioner Wu T’ieh-ch’eng crossed the Strike Committee when he chose to protect KMT unions when interunion struggles erupted.15

Chiang remained ambivalent toward the Russian alliance in early 1926, which allowed him maneuverability as a centrist. When tensions did crest in March 1926, Chiang was caught between these two polarized forces but was yet flexible enough to take advantage of what might have been a disastrous cross fire.

The conflict became open in March 1926, stirred by the highly visible issue of the strike and its ubiquitous armed and uniformed pickets. In January, the KMT’s Second National Congress had decided that planning for a Northern Expedition should be started, which necessarily brought into question the Hong Kong-Kwangtung Strike. According to a Com­munist history of the strike, it was at that point that even KMT proponents of the United Front with the CCP “wavered” in their support of the strike.16 Were the KMT to provide materially for a military reunification of China, it would have to rein in the strike apparatus. Increased spending of what was to become 90 percent of its income on the military buildup meant the KMT had to nurture sources of provincial revenue that fed the national 38revolutionary movement.17 This expansion necessarily required more trade rather than its restriction by the strike; nor was the plethora of economic strikes a stabilizing factor in the Revolutionary Base. Many felt that Canton had to choose between allowing the CCP to deepen the social revolution within Kwangtung and preparing for the military needs of an offensive into the rest of China.

In early March 1926, repeating his proposal of the first week of the strike in 1925, Chiang tried to bring the strikers under Party discipline by employing them on public projects. The Strike Committee resisted by claiming a large number of strikers as being occupied with committee projects. It sent others back to Hong Kong out of KMT jurisdiction by means of the railroad travel privileges granted them by the Canton government.18 The Russian-CCP combine continued to oppose any change in the favorable situation for them in Kwangtung. They neither wished to give up the autonomy by which they had made such spectacular gains, nor did they favor the recognition of military leadership that would be brought by the fighting of a dangerous campaign against the millions of warlord troops to the north, a campaign that would threaten the existence of their privileged sanctuary in Kwangtung. However, feelings against the strike organization’s power and the CCP were running high and may actually have carried Chiang along on a ground swell of reaction. Although the coup of March 20, 1926, still presents many moot questions, it is a fact that much of the action during the coup did revolve around the Hong Kong Strike headquarters.

As March began, work toward launching the Northern Expedition had been set in motion. The KMT press had officially attacked Wu P’ei-fu, and the Party had already attracted the Hunanese military leader T’ang Sheng-chih toward the brink of defection. But, while Chiang nagged the Party to support T’ang’s rebellion in Hunan, the opponents of an expedi­tion also gathered their resources. March was to be a critical watershed for the expedition.

The KMT and the NRA were diverse conglomerates that were highly susceptible to controversy and fractionation. Within the military, Chiang tried to consolidate and unite. However, during the first week of March there had been rumors of mutiny against the KMT Left, and even within the First Army more propaganda against Commander Chiang was circu­lated by mail.19 Chiang shifted from their troops those commanders sus­pected of plotting against the rising CCP power in Canton. He replaced First Army Second Division Commander Wang Mao-kung with Liu Chi, and placed the division under surveillance. In the military supply system, Chiang buttressed his authority by appointing loyal Chu P’ei-teh as its head.20 On March 8, Chiang went again to Chairman Wang Ching-wei to warn of the danger of losing power to the Russian-CCP combine and to request the withdrawal of Kisanka. He was partly trying to placate the most vociferous anti-Communists among his officer cadre21 and the Sun Yat-senist Society.

Canton’s navy became intimately involved in the polarization between 39the Communist and KMT goals when pickets of the strike organization seized two Canton navy gunboats. Alleging that the ships’ commanders had acted in a counter-revolutionary manner by violating the strike blockade, the pickets turned those commanding officers over to the head of the Navy Bureau’s Political Department, CCP member Li Chih-lung. When Li next moved to arrest the captain and officers of the navy’s flagship, the Chung-shan, the CCP seemed to have gained the upper hand.22 The murky details of the struggle that ensued have not been clarified with time, but the struggle likely swirled around the leadership of the National Revolution. Chiang and the Party members in power feared a take-over either by the Communists, or the anti-Communists. Early in March these anxieties were evidenced in the curfew placed upon Canton’s government buildings and enforced by police patrols. By the second week of March, cadets on special guard across the river on Whampoa’s bund peered toward Canton anxiously awaiting any sign of trouble.23

The Anti-Communists Move First

The March 20 Coup, or the Chung-shan Incident, was not unantici­pated. The polarized factions were tensed for a blow of some sort. Was the affair master-minded or a spontaneous ignition of tensions? Which side actually moved first? Did the Russian-CCP combine or one of its factions under Kisanka plot to take over Canton (as they did less than two years later)? Or, was the attempt to kidnap Chiang an anti-Communist’s prevari­cation to force a purge?24 The orders given may never become known, but what took place on March 20 can be surveyed. At 4:00 a.m., following news of an alleged attempt from the gunboat Chung-shan to kidnap him, Chiang placed Canton under martial law by use of his authority as garrison com­mander. Moving police and cadets into strategic points about the city, his forces occupied government buildings, and marched through the eastern suburban headquarters of the Hong Kong Strike organization and the area where most of the Russian advisors lived. The cadets and police quickly surrounded and arrested many strike leaders and Russian advisors.25

During the day it became obvious that a combination of military and anti-Communists dominated Canton and favored launching the Northern Expedition as soon as possible. The most vocal Russian opponents of an expedition were out of Canton within the week.26 Li Chih-lung, the naval Political Department head, and all other Party Representatives who were also heads of Political Departments in military units were questioned intensively at Whampoa as to their political affiliations and were kept for “retraining.”27 The First Army, upon which Chiang depended for reliable support, thus lost Chou En-lai and all known Communists.28 The Canton press, a vital clarion for the National Revolution, was disciplined through the suspension of CCP-affiliated newspapers and censorship by the Mili­tary Council.29 Before March 25, by which time Chiang faced Chairman Wang Ching-wei, the removal of selected CCP members from a number of KMT agencies was a fait accompli, for which Chiang requested appropriate punishment30 because he had not gone through the proper CEC channels 40for authorization. The sympathetic Political Council that met on March 26 disapproved Chiang’s means but judged the outcome warranted.31 The success of the coup supports evidence that it had considerable backing. Quite possibly if Chiang had not taken on the leadership of the Rightists on March 20, those such as the young Sun Yat-senists would have carried out a coup without him—perhaps sweeping Chiang out as well.

Without organized resistance, the sudden move was carried out without bloodshed. Those ousted either left Canton for Russia or Shanghai, or submitted to retraining. Chiang explained the coup as one aimed at un­cooperative individuals rather than at the entire Russian-CCP presence or the alliance.32 He presented his reasoning on March 20 to a Russian advisor along with an apology for the temporary house arrest of Russians in their East Mountain suburban compound.33 On the twenty-second, Chiang reiterated his story to Canton’s Russian Consul along with his request for the continuance of the alliance with Russia, but on a more equitable basis. As a conciliatory gesture, Chiang granted permission to the controversial Strike Committee to reopen its headquarters, which had been closed on the day the coup occurred. Within two days the Whampoa cadets ceased their open surveillance of the strike headquarters and ended the curfew that had been imposed.34 At the same time, Kisanka and his supporters, Rogachev and Razgon, quietly boarded the Pamyat Lenina bound for the Soviet Union.35


1. Wang Chien-min, vol. 1, p. 154. Stuart Schram, Mao Tse-tung (New York: Penguin Books, 1967), p. 89fn. Hereafter cited as Schram.

2. Wu Hsiang-hsiang, O-ti ch’in-lieh Chung-kuo shih [The history of the Russian empire’s invasion of China] (Taipei: Cheng-chung Shu-chü, 1954), p. 328. Hereafter cited as Wu Hsiang-hsiang.

3. Chiang Kai-shek, Soviet Russia in China (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1965), p. 28. Hereafter cited as Russia in China.

4. SCMP (March 1, 1926), p. 8.

5. Ta-shih chi, p. 202.

6. Wu Hsiang-hsiang, p. 328.

7. SCMP (March 2, 1926), p. 8. Wang Chien-min, vol. 1, p. 154.

8. 1st Workers’ Movement, p. 182, copies of Chung-kuo hai-yüan [Chinese seaman], Canton, 4 (March 1, 1926).

9. 1st Workers’ Movement, p. 152.

10. Ko-ming wen-hsien, vol. 11, p. 298.

11. Teng Chung-hsia, p. 126.

12. 1st Workers’ Movement, p. 165, table of tariff revenue for Kwangtung, 1924/25.

13. Chang Kuo-t’ao, vol. 1 p. 483. U.S. Peking military attaché report of Borodin’s promotion of the strike against the advice of Ilyin of the Russian Embassy, but with Moscow’s approval. Peking, July 30, 1925; April 8, 1926, in file of MRD 2657-I-281, U.S. National Archives.

14. SCMP (March 24, 1926), p. 12.

15. Teng Chung-hsia, p. 137.

16. Ibid., p. 141.

17. Roots, “Canton Idea,” p. 287. Based on information and interviews gathered in July 1926.305

18. HKDP (March 5, 1926), p. 5.

19. SCMP (March 6, 1926), p. 11, and (March 17, 1926), p. 9.

20. SCMP (March 15, 1926), p. 8.

21. Wu Hsiang-hsiang, p. 328.

22. SCMP (March 6, 1926), p. 8, and (March 12, 1926), p. 8.

23. SCMP (March 11, 1926), p. 8.

24. Wang Ching-wei, “Wuhan fen-kung-chih ching-kuo” [Wuhan’s split with the CCP] Kuo-li Chung-shan ta-hsüeh jih-pao [National Chung-shan University daily] Supplement (Canton, November 9, 1927), p. 4. Hereafter cited as Wang Ching-wei. Chang Kuo-t’ao admits that Communist insubordination to the KMT leaders was provocative, but was told by CCP comrades there upon his arrival at Canton on March 30 that the Chung-shan movement was engineered by the Sun Yat-senist Society as a pretext for an anti-Communist coup (pp. 494-500). Akimova, although not in the highest circle in the Russian mission, recalls the coup as a surprise to the advisors (pp. 210-211). The reports of the U.S. Peking military attaché, based on informants in the Russian Embassy and intelligence gathered at Kalgan at Feng Yü-hsiang’s headquarters, indicate that there was considerable divergence of opinion within the Russian group in China, and considerable “adventurism” conducted by factions (MRD 2657-I-281 [5, 57]), so that a conspiracy against Chiang directed secretly by a small group is not inconceivable.

25. SCMP (March 22, 1926), p. 8. T’ang Leang-li, pp. 244-245.

26. SCMP (March 29, 1926), p. 12. Akimova claims that Kuybyshev (Kisanka) and his associates departed by ship on March 24, (pp. 212-213). Chang Kuo-t’ao, vol. 1, pp. 496-499.

27. CCP before the War, pp. 27-28. SCMP (March 23, 1926), p. 8.

28. CKHT, p. 165; Kuowen (April 11, 1926), n. p.

29. SCMP (March 23, 1926), p. 8; HKDP (March 23, 1926), p. 5.

30. Ko-ming wen-hsien (vol. 9, p. 86) reproduces Chiang’s telegram to Wang Ching-wei of March 25.

31. HKDP (March 30, 1926), p. 5.

32. Russia in China, p. 29.

33. Documents, no. 23, p. 248.

34. HKDP (March 23, 1926), p. 5, and (March 25, 1926), p. 5.

35. Akimova, p. 213.

Additional Information

MARC Record
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Creative Commons
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.