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The Simmering Revolutionary Movement at Canton

The anti-Communists had accepted Chiang’s compromises only with the greatest reluctance. As the mid-May 1926 CEC gathering commenced in Canton, rumors of an anti-Communist military take-over were so rampant that Chiang had doubled the guard in the city. Once the KMT was committed to its support of the Hunan rebel T’ang Sheng-chih and when Wu P’ei-fu’s allies were threatening to invade from Hunan, the anti-Communists did give in to Chiang’s dominion. However, they continued to propagandize within the Revolutionary Base. Whampoa remained a hotbed of anti-Communism even though its Sun Yat-senists had been formally disbanded. A Russian advisor then in Canton claims that the Sun Yat-senists merely changed their name to the Society of Young Chinese Comrades led by Yü Chih-huan.1 The May issue of Whampoa’s Ko-ming hua-pao [Revolutionary pictorial] was unequivocal. Cartoonist Liang Yu-ming of the Political Department caricatured the CCP as a large rat gnawing through the pillars of the KMT structure. The cartoon caption read: ‘The pillars have been eaten by rats. If new pillars aren’t put in, the house will fall. If the various levels of Party Headquarters are ruined by the CCP then the KMT must reorganize again so that the danger will be removed.” Another cartoon depicted Russia as a fat, fanged imperialist hunting with his “running dogs” on the leash—one a warlord and the other the CCP. Allegations were that Russia was then seeking recognition for Chang Tso-lin’s autonomy in Manchuria in return for Japan’s acceptance of 51Russia’s control of the Chinese Eastern Railroad. By 1926, the KMT anti-Communists, especially the Western Hills faction, had concluded that the Russians were still imperialists in East Asia—a view shared forty years later by Mao Tse-tung. The cover of the same issue illustrates the KMT concept of a harmonious union of classes in the national revolution (see endsheets to this book).

As auxiliaries of the parties in Canton, the labor unions exemplified the partisan rivalry. Despite the propaganda of conciliation in the spring of 1926, the unions, Communist and non-Communist, remained locked in convulsive contention for membership and power. The KMT-CCP com­promise had actually promoted an intensification of Communist efforts among the workers. The ambitious leadership of the Hong Kong Strike Committee in creating new unions to join in the Communist labor struc­ture did so with the knowledge that there would be an increase in strikes and conflicts between rival unions in all sectors of the economy. After the purging of anti-Communist police chief Wu T’ieh-ch’eng, one disorder threatened to expand into a large riot.2 (See chapter 18.) During April 1926, the Strike Committee created a new United Association of Kwang­tung Carriers, which included the stevedores and all workers in transporta­tion for the province.3

Then a struggle developed over whether the CCP-oriented Chinese National General Labor Union (GLU) should dominate the KMT-oriented Kwangtung General Labor Union (KGLU). On May 7, when the KGLU held a ceremony dramatizing National Disgrace Day, the GLU tried to move the ceremony to its own headquarters at Kwangtung University. A melee erupted in which GLU members tore down the flags of the KMT and National Government. The KMT union then demanded a public apology from the GLU and the Strike Committee.4

Similar struggles took place in Canton between student unions of the CCP, KMT, and independents. When student union leaders gathered at Kwangtung University on April 4, a squabble over centralization grew into a student riot when the active Communist Youth claimed their own student union to be the only legal one.5 At Canton’s Kung Yi Medical College, interunion violence interfered with the running of the college and its hospital.6 From Canton and Kwangtung, the conflict spread into Kwangsi, new KMT territory, where the student body at the Kwangsi Normal School became torn between the existing KMT student union and the new CCP one.7

In the spring of 1926, few business or commercial firms went untouched by the effects of the Hong Kong-Kwangtung Strike as the number of affiliated unions increased. Armed pickets in uniforms arrested, judged, and fined shopkeepers or detained them in the East Park prison. Pickets confiscated what they claimed to be contraband from Hong Kong. Man­ufacturers alleged that they purchased import permits from the commit­tee, only to find their ordered materials seized upon arrival anyway.8 Since the GLU hoped to unionize all workers, even small shops and crafts were 52hit by strikes. Pickets blockaded shops and demanded benefits for newly unionized personnel. In one case where demands for cash were not met, the pickets drove out the shop clerks, confiscated goods designated as contraband, and, with an armed guard, locked out the owners and customers.9 Although the union in question was not registered by the KMT Workers’ Department as was required and the pickets were armed in defiance of the compromise, the appeals of owners to the National Gov­ernment committee went unheeded.10 At that time, the Strike Committee was nicknamed “the second CCP municipal committee.”11

Commerce at Canton slowed while strikers confiscated shipments of suspected Hong Kong origin and auctioned them. Critics of the strike, more vocal after the coup, claimed the pickets seized goods indiscrimi­nately and alleged that they gathered considerable wealth from this “day­light banditry.” In the T’ai-shan area pickets seized coal en route to a branch railroad, which disrupted rail communications with Canton for a time.12 Even in the summer of 1926, while the Canton government strained to transport growing numbers of troops north to Shaokuan on the Hunan border, a strike on the line from Canton north to Shaokuan slowed troop movement for two weeks.13

Most frustrating to the Canton regime were the strikes that the Strike Committee engineered in the public sector. Since, by mid-1926, the strike organization and the GLU had integrated many unions, when one union protested or struck, other unions, sometimes in public services, went out on sympathy strikes.14 Various governmental agencies tried futilely to stabilize the economy and society during the buildup for the expedition. Even in August 1926, with the Northern Expedition extended deep into Hunan, strikes in Canton affected postal communications and the Shih-ching Arsenal producing ammunitions for the front.15 This seemed proof to those promoting the national revolution that a social revolution could not be carried on simultaneously.

Another in the KMT hierarchy who tried to function within the framework of the KMT-CCP compromise was Eugene Ch’en (Yu-jen), who returned to Canton after the coup to replace anti-Communist C.C. Wu. As the KMT’s new Foreign Minister, Chen’s dynamism and familiarity with Western international law proved invaluable to Canton’s National Gov­ernment. Born and raised as a British citizen of Cantonese parents in the West Indies, then educated in London, Ch’en was barely conversant in Kuo-yü and could not write Chinese. However, as a diplomat it was his knowledge of the English language and his understanding of Western law that was needed in negotiating with the British and other Western powers.16 (Similarly, it was in part Borodin’s English that gained for him the appointment to deal with the Western-educated Chinese at Canton.17) During May 1926 when Ch’en accepted his appointment from the CEC, his greatest challenge was to settle the dispute with the British and Hong Kong so that the eleven-month-old strike and boycott could end. The frustrations he faced in his role further illumine the contradictions in the KMT-CCP United Front.

53Handicapping Ch’en as Foreign Minister was the fact that although the Canton regime had initially called the strike (which it continued to fund), it had lost the leadership of the strike to the Communists on the Strike Committee. Protected by the Russian mission and its aid program, the Strike Committee refused to contribute to KMT efforts at strike settle­ment. A difference in goals separated Foreign Minister Ch’en and strike chairman Su Ch’ao-cheng.

Another KMT negotiator from May on was Finance Minister T.V. Soong, an ally of Chiang who had the responsibility of doling out a daily stipend for the strikers’ maintenance, which varied from C$6,000 to C$10,000, as well as of nurturing a stable financial base for the revolution­ary movement. In response to the strike chairman’s vow to prolong the strike in order to intensify the social revolution, Soong threatened to end the dole as a luxury Canton could ill afford in light of its massive military expenditures, which consumed well over one-half of Canton’s governmen­tal income. As the negotiations continued into June, leaders of the NRA also urged settlement so that they could purchase needed war materiel in Hong Kong. Although popular support had peaked earlier and few friends of the strike remained in the Canton government, on June 19, 1926, the Strike Committee held a large anniversary celebration honoring the strike at its East Park headquarters. On that occasion propaganda units circulated through Canton to drum up enthusiasm for the continuance of the strike.18 It seemed that as long as Moscow promoted the strike, the KMT had to submit. While its resource base was restricted to Kwangtung, the KMT had to depend on the Russian mission and its aid.

By mid-July 1926, after the Northern Expedition had been officially launched, Chiang himself claimed to be waiting in Canton for a satisfactory strike settlement before moving up to the front.19 From July 15 to 23, Eugene Ch’en presided over five meetings between the British of Hong Kong and Canton’s agents, which included Finance Minister Soong and Propaganda Department head Ku Meng-yü.20 The talks snagged on one thorny concession in particular, demanded by strike chairman Su at some of the sessions. This was the payment of back wages lost during the strike, a reward that the Strike Committee had apparently promised to the strikers. Both sides offered concessions related to the Shameen Incident but neither the Strike Committee nor the British would modify their stand on the compensation of lost wages.21

The Hong Kong delegation offered an alternative incentive—a loan to the Canton government for the development of communications in the province that included completion of the Canton-Hankow Railroad.22 Although the negotiations failed, Foreign Minister Ch’en’s rational diplo­macy did gain British respect for Canton in its search for international recognition.

Ch’en appealed to the British to realize at that crucial time “… the developments in Chinese society and politics and the necessity for the Chinese to save themselves … and consider China as an independent country among other countries.”23 Within Canton, speeches and prop­aganda 54 continued to stir up xenophobic bitterness and outraged pride against the British “Imperialists” and their “running dogs,” the warlords, who were the immediate object of the military campaign. For his part Foreign Minister Ch’en, away from the rhetoric of the streets, sought in vain to work around the power of the Strike Committee and to negotiate as the National Government’s plenipotentiary in circumstances “… free from labor interference.”24 Thus, in July when the Strike Committee held another rally to gather support for the strike, Ch’en refused to participate in the movement that frustrated his diplomacy.

Another KMT official upon whom fell the burden of strike-related prob­lems was the Minister of Workers and Peasants, Ch’en Kung-po (see chapter 2). The March 20 Coup and the ensuing compromise moved Ch’en into the Ministry of Workers and Peasants through his association with both Wang Ching-wei’s Left and the CCP. However, Ch’en’s primary loyalties lay with the KMT and he soon felt frustrated by the autonomy guaranteed to the CCP labor movement at Canton by the compromise.

While Eugene Ch’en and others negotiated to settle the Hong Kong Strike, Ch’en Kung-po received complaints from those at odds with the strikers—both within the government and in the private sector. His minis­try also heard accusations from landholding peasants “persecuted” by the expanding peasants’ associations. When Minister Ch’en Kung-po ordered the organizations to “cease and desist,” his order was ignored.25 By June 1926 charges of embezzling and extorting fees from union members leveled by businessmen against the Strike Committee and their unions required that his ministry conduct an investigation.26

In an effort to bring the expanding structure of mass organizations into line with the KMT’s plans for the Northern Expedition, the Workers and Peasants Ministry began to register all old and new unions and peasants’ associations. Although it was hoped that this process would give the KMT a chance to withhold legitimacy from offenders, the process of registration and its enforcement swamped the ministry with new headaches.27 While the anti-Communists pressed Ch’en to be more vigorous in restraining insubordinate unions, the CCP and its labor organizers accused him of misusing his authority.

By mid-June 1926, Ch’en Kung-po in frustration was discussing resign­ing from the Ministry of Peasants and Workers. As Ch’en grappled with the problems of regulating labor and ordering the strike pickets to fight provin­cial bandits instead of workers, newly unionized restaurant workers threatened to close all Canton eating places. As a mediator Minister Ch’en did manage to halt the union’s use of armed pickets. At the same time, Ch’en faced interunion confrontations involving the vital Shih-ching Ar­senal and the Canton-Kowloon Railroad.28

In late June, still another thorny labor problem emerged as the GLU worked to bring about a strike against the foreign-run Canton Customs Office. When organizers arrested the entire Chinese staff, Mayor Sun Fo of Canton had to face protesting foreign customs officials.29 The failure of 55Ch’en Kung-po to restrain the mass organizations stirred the anti-Communists and others to pressure for a new head for the ministry who would better serve the aims of the KMT. Caught in the cross fire, Ch’en Kung-po accepted an invitation to join the Northern Expedition as a member of the commander-in-chief’s staff, which allowed him to resign from an impossible task.


1. Akimova, p. 215fn. 15.

2. HKDP (April 5, 1926), p. 5, and (April 14, 1926), p. 5.

3. 1st Workers’ Movement, p. 192.

4. Kuowen (July 25, 1926), p. 12, pt. 10.

5. HKDP (April 8, 1926), p. 5.

6. HKDP (April 27, 1926), p. 5.

7. SCMP (June 15, 1926), p. 8.

8. HKDP (April 14, 1926), p. 5.

9. Kuowen (July 25, 1926), pp. 11-17.

10. HKDP (April 14, 1926), p. 5.

11. Akimova, p. 192.

12. SCMP (March 6, 1926), p. 1.

13. Kuowen (July 25, 1926), p. 10.

14. HKDP (April 14, 1926), p. 5.

15. SCMP (June 1, 1926), p. 9.

16. Kuowen (January 23, 1927), “Weekly Biography” on last page. China Yearbook 1928, p. 1106. Sheean, pp. 854-858.

17. From an interview with Sun Fo, May 25, 1966, in which Sun recalled that Borodin was assigned to Canton because of his proficiency in English, and because there were more KMT leaders who knew English than knew Russian.

18. SCMP (June 21, 1926), p. 8.

19. SCMP (July 22, 1926), p. 8.

20. 1st Workers’ Movement, p. 146.

21. Chang Kuo-t’ao lists the original demands of mid-1925, which had been more political in nature (vol. 1, p. 471). 1st Workers’ Movement, p. 148.

22. 1st Workers’ Movement, p. 148, and SCMP (July 26, 1926), p. 10.

23. Kuowen (July 25, 1926), p. 26, reproduces his address.

24. SCMP (July 12, 1926), p. 8.

25. HKDP (April 23, 1926), p. 5.307

26. SCMP (June 9, 1926), p. 9.

27. SCMP (June 11, 1926), p. 8.

28. SCMP (June 22, 1926), p. 9.

29. SCMP (June 30, 1926), p. 8.

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