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The Promotion of the Northern Expedition

How then did Chiang Kai-shek, the leader of the March 20 Coup and the prime mover of the Northern Expedition, relate to the mass organizations as he pressed the NRA to march north? In the Revolutionary Base, Chiang seems to have begun with a rather ambiguous political attitude toward the “masses‚” with whom he had limited experience. Like Sun, he wished that the lives of the Chinese peasants and workers would be uplifted. He believed that this would not take place under the exploitation of the warlords and their foreign collaborators. China’s modernization, political unity, and social progress all required the reintegration of China as a nation under a strong government. To Chiang and other partisans, it had become obvious since 1911 that this reunification demanded military power, as had been the case during the founding of all prior regimes in China. As a military man, Chiang gave priority to military means that would defeat the several major warlords on the battlefield. During the victorious Eastern Expeditions of 1925, Chiang had been impressed by the effectiveness of mobilized peasants and workers. However, as Chiang observed the mass organizations come under CCP direction and pull away from what he considered the Party mission, he developed anxieties about their role.

Chiang observed at close quarters the growing Hong Kong Strike ap­paratus from June 1925 through the fall of 1926. Although the KMT had earlier created unions and peasant associations on its own, its efforts were of a small scale compared to the organizing of the masses by CCP allies in 1925. As military director of the successful Second Eastern Expedition, 57Chiang saw that supportive union members and peasants had speeded the movement of his forces by carrying materiel and by serving where needed. At a crucial juncture, railroad workers had deprived Chiangs enemy of the use of the Canton-Kowloon line. Even after the March 20 Coup against their Communist leaders, Chiang retained an awareness of the military value of cooperative masses, and on May 1, 1926, he reaffirmed this in a speech to a joint session of the Second National Labor Congress and the Second Provincial Peasants’ Congress. He acknowledged that the victory of the Party Army in Kwangtung had been won through a confederation of peasants, workers, and soldiers, so that “… from my [Chiang’s] past experience I realize the benefit of the cooperation of peasants and workers with the revolutionary army.” After an interval in which their paths had diverged, Chiang again hoped to draw the mass organizations back into this same kind of collaboration, but on a larger scale. Chiang reminded the assembly that the role of the soldiers of the NRA was most crucial in that they could quicken the overthrow of the warlords and the imperialists. He stressed that while the union of classes had already proven itself in Kwang­tung, “… this must be a National Revolution,”1 and suggested that his military leadership would provide the catalyst to galvanize these classes to fight for the reunion of China.

CCP interpretation had to place the earlier Eastern Expeditions in an ideologically correct framework so that “only after the Hong Kong-Kwangtung Strike was the Canton government able to consolidate power in Kwangtung and then have the power to carry on the Northern Expedition.”2 The Communist versions slight the military nature of the Eastern Expeditions and ignore the fact that the enforcement of the strike and the rapid expansion of the strike apparatus, including unions and peasants’ associations, followed the military conquest of Kwangtung.

However valuable the strikers may have been as military auxiliaries in 1925, Chiang concluded that by 1926 they were a financial drain on the struggling Canton regime. Once again, Chiang urged the use of idle strikers on public projects such as road building or on the project to make Whampoa a deepwater port.3 At the mid-April 1926 meeting of KMT leaders, the National Government Committee stated tactfully that it would give unemployed strikers “preference” when hiring workers for the Whampoa port project.4 This moderate approach complied with the com­promise worked out with the Russians, but the response from the Strike Committee was nominal and disappointing. To Chiang’s May Day call for support from the workers and peasants in the coming Northern Expedi­tion, the Strike Committee had countered with a campaign to extend the strike (which Chiang wanted settled) and to promote it through a union of all labor organizations favoring the strike and thus “strengthen the founda­tion of the National Government.”5

As Chiang gained more authority at Canton he felt better able to press for the settlement of the strike and the commencement of the Northern Expedition. He had been chairman of the Military Council since April, and he could also count on Chairman T’an Yen-k’ai of the Political Council to 58promote the expedition. With rivals Wang Ching-wei and Hu Han-min gone from Canton, both the Left and Right KMT were weakened. During April, Chiang had been able to gather the backing he needed, although after the March 20 Coup he had faced considerable opposition within the KMT as well as from the Russian-CCP bloc. At the April 16 meeting of the KMT, the talk had even revolved around abandonment of the expedition in favor of consolidation of the Revolutionary Base6—the line later promoted by Borodin, chief military advisor Galen, and Ch’en Tu-hsiu.7 Chiang felt confidant enough on May 11 to demand that the Party approve his plans to launch the expedition.8 By May 17, the CEC had approved Chiang’s compromise with the CCP and appointed him to the bipartisan board that was to oversee CCP-KMT relations. Thus secured in his authority, Chiang had the Military Council publish a manifesto openly attacking warlord Wu P’ei-fu and urging the masses to join together against him.9

Under Chiang’s dominance the Military Council sent off the financial aid required to keep the new Kwangsi allies poised along the border with Hunan and ordered Fourth Army elements north to reinforce T’ang Sheng-chih in his rebellion against the clique of overlord Wu P’ei-fu.10 By this time Chiang was promoted to acting commander-in-chief (C-in-C) of the NRA, with CEC-designated powers over all branches of the KMT’s new military system, which then included seven “armies,” the navy, air force, arsenals, and Political Departments (in conjunction with the CEC).11

As Chiang ordered the vanguard of the expedition into Hunan in May 1926, he again confronted the contradiction between KMT aims and those of the Strike Committee. In the absence of a railroad, moving the war materiel over the high passes into Hunan demanded the use of large numbers of human carriers. Chiang appealed to the Strike Committee to release unemployed strikers quartered in Canton—this time for carrier duty. Once again, the token response was slow. In the meantime, to fill the needs of the Fourth Army at the advance post of Shaokuan, Chiang‘s supply corps had to hire porters in the sparsely populated mountains. Ultimately, from over 60,000 strikers then in Kwangtung dependent on the Strike Committee, only 1,500 arrived in Shaokuan for paid carrier work.12 At that rate the NRA had to continue to recruit the carriers near the front. Chiang’s many new titles did not outweigh the influence of the Russian mission and its pet project, the Strike Committee.

An eight-point agenda passed by the CEC on May 31, 1926, revealed KMT concern over the Hong Kong Strike and other problems, some of which were related to the strike and Russian aid.

  1. The National Government at Canton should end the official oil (Russian oil) and kerosene monopoly by June 15.
  2. The Foreign Ministry and concerned agencies should begin negotiations to settle the Hong Kong-Kwangtung Strike.
  3. In order to end banditry and piracy in Kwangtung within two months, the Military Council should appropriate C$500,000.
  4. Create an arbitration board chaired by a member of the National Government and representing equally labor and management.59
  5. Prohibit the use of arms by civilian organizations in order to end rioting.
  6. Investigate corruption in the government and severely punish the offenders.
  7. Those spreading rumors, plotting, and organizing seditious political parties must be investigated and punished by court martial.
  8. Plan and maintain programs for education, road construction, and harbor improvement.13

Soon after, on June 4, the CEC voted Chiang the title of commander-in-chief of the Northern Expedition with orders to launch an offensive as soon as possible.14

In accordance with CEC decisions, Canton’s Foreign Ministry reopened negotiations with British Hong Kong over the strike. Foreign Minister Eugene Ch’en and the British side quickly dispatched their negotiators to Macao for talks.15 The British and Canton agreed to begin with the ques­tion of the confiscation of contraband British goods from Hong Kong.16

While T. V. Soong participated in the negotiations, his Ministry of Fi­nance sought new revenue outside the trade sector. Authorized by the CEC to end the unpopular oil monopoly (part of Russia’s aid), Soong released the sale of oil to private retailers, but placed a high tax on oil products—especially the widely used kerosene. Backed by the sound fiscal reputation of Canton’s Central Bank (also under his supervision), Soong issued C$5 million in government bonds to provide quick capital. Since the Canton government had expanded its authority throughout Kwangtung it could utilize the main provincial railroads for revenue as well as com­munications—thus Soong increased the fares by 50 percent and placed a surtax on freight charges. On Kwangtung’s rivers, the KMT navy helped enforce a new requirement for registration of the multitude of river craft, thus checking piracy as well as increasing revenue through a registration fee. Without the flag that came with inspection and registration, a vessel was suspected of involvement in piracy. The government chose to profit from popular fan-tan rather than ban it, and therefore taxed the gambling.17 To reduce the strain on Canton’s existing sources of revenue, the NRA’s Supply Corps at the Hunan front made plans to sell Kwangtung salt once it had pushed into salt-hungry Hunan.18 To cut Canton’s expendi­tures for the Hong Kong strikers and regain commercial revenue lost through the trade boycott, Soong also argued for an end to the strike and boycott.

Affiliated with the strike organization were the many CCP-directed mass organizations that distracted those trying to launch the Northern Expedi­tion. However, since Chiang still hoped that the organized masses would serve his troops, and since he was still dependent on Russian aid for weapons such as aircraft with Russian pilots, he could not afford himself the luxury of breaking up the United Front. While Chiang pressed for the settlement of the strike and the service of the strikers, at the same time he appeared to sympathize with the Left’s social revolution when he preached looking to “the Russian Revolution as a model and example.”19 To coun­terweigh the CCP’s role with the masses, a new non-Communist alliance was to gather in the older KMT unions, such as the Mechanics’ Union and the KGLU, and the peasants’ associations and merchants’ groups. To 60inaugurate this more cooperative bloc, the KMT gathered a mass of 100,000 at the East Parade Ground on June 14, 1926. Half of the crowd were members of KMT-affiliated unions. A parade with lanterns and banners, and fireworks enlivened the demonstration. A new slogan “Sup­port the National Government and the KMT” was emblazoned on the banners that flapped as the procession passed the National Government and KMT buildings.20 Presiding over the mass meeting was a delegate from the Chamber of Commerce, symbolic of the role the merchants played in the KMT’s all-class union. This new mass organ provided the KMT with needed influence upon various elements in Canton society. The alliance became a convenient sounding board for the KMT, which publi­cized actions taken by the Party in response to the petitions received from this mass alliance.

That Chiang could not elicit equal obedience from the Strike Committee was evidenced by its counterdemonstration four days later on June 18 in celebration of the Hong Kong Strike’s first year. Strikers in propaganda units preached the continuance of the strike to the city people.21 The affair was held at the East Park headquarters of the Strike Committee, which the CCP later recorded as “actually a revolutionary government” in itself.22 A few days later on June 23, Chiang did join in a demonstration in memory of the Shameen “massacre,” which sought to rekindle the emotions of 1925 with large gory photographs of the casualties, and a parade of simulated wounded in torn, bloody garments. To further stir up nationalistic zeal, Chiang shouted to the assemblage of 30,000 that if they united with the KMT in the National Revolution, they could not only settle the strike but regain Hong Kong and put an end to the unequal treaties, an appeal aimed not only at the masses but at the ubiquitous Russian advisors seated on the podium.23 The Strike Committee prudently avoided forcing Chiang into open opposition, but rather tantalized him with prospects of coopera­tion. Within days after the June Shameen anniversary, the Strike Commit­tee sent Chiang word that the crack, blue-shirted strike pickets, with a year’s training and experience in political work, and other strikers would join the Northern Expedition after the strike was settled.24 Upon persua­sion, the Strike Committee consented to set up a subcommittee to aid the NRA Supply Corps in an immediate recruitment of carriers for the expedition.25 A Communist historian later claimed that the Strike Com­mittee sent north 3,000 strikers in “transportation units” to move the NRA over the Wuling Range into Hunan.26 Three thousand strikers would have been less than 3 percent of the 120,000 strikers of Kwangtung and Hong Kong that the CCP claimed to control in 1926.27

The third point on the KMT’s May 31 agenda was aimed against piracy and banditry within the Revolutionary Base. Since rebels and dissidents had traditionally been classified “bandits,” their suppression had political significance. For this purpose Chiang called on Li Fu-lin’s Fifth Army of the NRA since Li had many connections with provincials. Banditry in Kwangtung’s uplands threatened the coming expedition in that the vital rail line to Shaokuan passed through territory infested with Kwangtung’s 61notorious bandits. Dispersing the bandits would guarantee the transporta­tion of valuable war materiel by train and would also weaken the argument for the CCP’s arming of their peasants’ associations into self-defense corps. The local self-defense militias that developed during the nineteenth century into the White Lotus and Taiping rebel armies had proven the dangers of allowing locals to form militias. In mid-1926, Chiang not only ordered various elements of the NRA to suppress unauthorized armed groups in Kwangtung, but also saw to it that trains en route north to Shaokuan were well guarded and the line patrolled.28 At the line’s Canton terminal, Chiang appointed Cantonese Li Chi-shen of the Fourth Army to collaborate with the garrison command and police in defense of the capital, as well as to act as Chiang’s chief of staff in the C-in-C’s headquarters.29

Five thousand of Li Chi-shen’s troops made up the vanguard at the Kwangtung-Hunan border. Representing the Kwangtung contingent, Li’s forces also acted to balance the Hunanese composition of T’an Yen-k’ai’s Second Army and the Seventh Army of Kwangsi. Once the expedition moved through Hunan, Chiang would not be able to afford a powerful Hunanese entente. In the Military Council, Chiang further balanced T’an’s influence with Chekiangese Chang Ching-chiang and T.V. Soong.30

Keeping the KMT and the Revolutionary Base together required much political skill because the Party did not monopolize the use of arms. Since the postcoup compromise had allowed the CCP to organize the peasants even to the point of arming them, as the spring proceeded, some rural parts of Kwangtung seemed to be on the verge of class struggle rather than class union. General Ho Ying-ch’in, Chiang’s appointee as First Army First Division commander and head of the Ch’aochou branch of the military academy, was also the East River Party Committee chairman and he worried about the rising tensions in rural eastern Kwangtung. The expan­sive peasants’ associations had been creating self-defense corps through which they pressured local landlords and big merchants. In eastern Kwangtung, the peasants’ associations cooperated with the Strike Commit­tee branch in Swatow in blocking the trade between local rice merchants and Hong Kong markets. In motion was also a revolution in the land rent system. One system promoted by the peasants’ associations was to divide land produce so that the peasants would retain 60 percent, the landowners 20 percent, and the peasants’ association 20 percent—an income that would give the associations great economic power with which to arm themselves. As the Communist combine of peasants’ associations and strike pickets began to exercise authority in rural Kwantung, a flood of complaints of persecution poured into Ho Ying-ch’in‘s headquarters from the gentry. By early June 1926, General Ho, in response to the threat of strife in his districts, ordered troops into the countryside “to protect the people.”31

As the Party’s leader in East Kwangtung, Ho moved against what he considered to be instigating the disorder—the Communist peasant and worker organizations. He prohibited unions from trying outsiders in their courts, threatening the local rural officials with force, slandering and 62accusing falsely, and seizing arms from the old gentry-dominated rural militias (min-t’uan) for use in armed union demonstrations. A spokesman for Chiang, Ho criticized organizations that “… spread propaganda pamphlets, drove away hsien (district) officials … and overstepped their authority merely on the basis of their party membership.”32 Quite likely, the point in the KMT’s May 21 agenda on “banditry” and “the use of arms by civilian organizations” referred indirectly to Communist mass organiza­tions and their growing rural power, as well as their autonomy in Canton.

Thus, when Canton’s declaration of war was issued against Wu P’ei-fu during the first week in July, it can be argued that Chiang was not a military dictator moving out from a secure Revolutionary Base. In fact he felt forced to gamble against the overwhelming superiority of his warlord adversaries, numerically and in firepower. Within the Revolutionary Base, Chiang faced banditry throughout the countryside and the escalating conflict between the peasants’ associations with their self-defense corps and the rural establishment (portents of the coming year’s events). Chiang and the KMT had not been able to force the Strike Committee and the Russian mission to accept a settlement of the Hong Kong Strike, so trade remained stymied by the armed pickets spread out along the heavily populated coast of Kwangtung. In Canton, the temporary “capital” of the KMT National Government, strife had become endemic between the unions of the Strike Committee and those that had predated the strike. Dominated by the Strike Committee, workers who had been unionized according to trades by the armed, blue-shirted, strike pickets confronted their employers vio­lently, who in turn reacted vigorously. Although forbidden by the regime, even the postal service, vital railways, and arsenals indispensable to the expedition had been disrupted by walkouts, strikes, and disorder.33

Defensive about burgeoning rival CCP power, the KMT military was susceptible to “reactionary” leadership promoting a clean sweep of radicalism and Russian imperialism. Against those anxious forces on the right, Chiang had to use what moderates and Leftists he could gather. In the balance was the tenuous and ambiguous support of the CCP and Russian aid from Stalin. While contained in Kwangtung, the KMT could not afford to offend its generous Russian patrons. The compromise follow­ing the March 20 Coup, which Chiang catalyzed, was unstable and weaken­ing. There were rumors of conspiracies and planned coups from March until the declaration of war against Wu. Then, the threat of a combined northern offensive against Kwangtung helped those in the Revolutionary Base to reunite. In late June and early July 1926, word arrived of the victories of Wu P’ei-fu’s Hunan allies against the troops of rebel T’ang Sheng-chih with the NRA vanguard.34

Although the Russian strategists and the CCP had recently mouthed their support of the Northern Expedition, they were anxious about a campaign led by a military force outside their influence. Even as the KMT launched the expedition during the first week in July, and after the ap­pointment of Chiang as Minister of Soldiers, C-in-C of the NRA, and 63chairman of the KMT Standing Committee, Ch’en Tu-hsiu could still criticize the rashness of the offensive. According to the CCP leader:

… from the political circumstances within the National Government [at Canton], the scope of influence of the National Government, the fighting strength of the troops of the National Government, and the ideology of the revolution, it can be seen that the time for the Northern Expedition has not yet arrived. The true question at this time should be not about a Northern Expedi­tion but how best to defend? How to defend against the Southern Expedition of Wu P’ei-fu? How to defend Kwangtung against ruination from the force of the anti-red armies?… Furthermore, at this time the words of the nation’s masses are not “Rise up for the Northern Expedition” but “Support the Revolutionary Base in Kwangtung!” Trapped by a four-sided attack, the leaders of the National Government should stand together in maintaining the liberty and rights of the people. This is where the fighting Revolutionary Army differs from the warlords.35

The dangers that abounded in Kwangtung energized Chiang and the NRA. For him and the KMT, time appeared to be running out. The Party had suffered the successive frustrations of defeat and exile during three decades. Just five years prior, on the eve of an earlier northern expedition, Sun had been betrayed by factions within the KMT. In the meantime, regional overlords had become even stronger. Would the KMT lose its chance to unite China and implement its dreams? Outside the confines of Kwangtung’s hilly border, Chiang saw chances for:

  1. an entrance through the mountain passes into Hunan due to the defection of T’ang Sheng-chih;
  2. an expansion of the KMT’s military potential through a gathering in of defectors and sympathizers, such as T’ang and Russia’s protegé Feng Yü-hsiang and his Kuominchün (National People’s Army) in the northwest;
  3. the capture of the arsenals and industrial resources of Wuhan and then those downstream at Nanking and Shanghai (site of China’s largest arsenal and entrepôt of most of China’s capital); and
  4. the achievement of independence from Russian aid and Communist influ­ence.

Furthermore, it was hoped that the expedition from Kwangtung, not only against warlord Wu, but also against foreign imperialism in the Yangtze valley, might spark the nationalism that Chiang counted on to unite the KMT and China. As Chiang told a group of propagandists leaving for the front from Whampoa: “Chinese have always been politically apathe­tic, but if there is aggression from foreigners they may fight for national survival.”36 The KMT rationale for the Northern Expedition can also be read from speeches and orders published in early July 1926.

On July 1, 1926, the KMT promulgated the Mobilization Order for the Northern Expedition as part of an anniversary celebration honoring the establishment of the National Government in 1925 at Canton. After ten of the Party’s hierarchy swore loyalty to the principles of Sun Yat-sen, Chair­man Chiang of the Military Council read the order:37 64

Our army keeps alive the will of the late generalissimo and hopes to carry out his revolutionary proposals. To protect the welfare of the people we must over­throw all warlords and wipe out reactionary power so that we may implement the Three People’s Principles and complete the National Revolution. Now, gather we our armies, first to occupy Hunan, then Wuhan, and pressing further to join up with our ally the Kuominchün to unite China and restore our nation. Since the Fourth and Seventh Armies have already moved out, I order the Second, Third, Fifth, and Sixth Armies to move forward and mass to­gether….38

On July 4, a special meeting of the CEC explained that:

The hardships of the workers, peasants, merchants, and students and the suffering of all under the oppressive imperialists and warlords; the peace and unification of China called for by Sun Yat-sen; the gathering of the National Assembly ruined by Tuan Ch’i-jui; all demand the elimination of Wu P’ei-fu and completion of national unification.39


1. HKDP (May 10, 1926), p. 1, quotes from the Canton Gazette.

2. Su Ch’ao-ch’eng, p. 26.

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

4. HKDP (April 17, 1926), p. 5.

5. Lo Sheng, “Ti-san-ts’e ch’uan-kuo lao-tung ta-hui-chih ching-kuo chi-ch’i chieh-kuo” [Results of the third national labor assembly], Hsiang Tao (May 30, 1926), pp. 1500-1501.

6. HKDP (April 20, 1926), p. 5.

7. Chang Kuo-t’ao, vol. 1, p. 525. Ch’en Tu-hsiu’s letter to Chiang in Hsiang Tao (June 9, 1926), pp. 1526-1529.

8. Ta-shih chi, p. 210.

9. HKDP (May 1, 1926), p. 5.

10. Ta-shih chi, p. 212; CCP Martyrs, p. 222.

11. CKHT, pp. 168-169. Ho Kan-chih, A History of the Modern Chinese Revolution (Peking, 1960), p. 129. Hereafter cited as Ho Kan-chih, Chinese Revolution.

12. SCMP (May 24, 1926), p. 9. Estimate of the number of strikers varies. Chang Kuo-t’ao claims there were over 100,000 (vol. 1, p. 43). Su Ch’ao-ch’eng, p. 12, claims 120,000. Akimova, p. 232, states there were 50,000 in Canton and 100,000 in Hong Kong. Hong Kong Daily Press interview with Ch’en Yu-jen (Eugene Ch’en) (October 6, 1926), p. 5, cites 60,000 strikers in Kwangtung.

13. SCMP (June 2, 1926), p. 10; Ta-shih chi, p. 212.

14. Ta-shih chi, p. 213.

15. SCMP (June 7, 1926), p. 8, and (June 8, 1926), p. 8, and (June 9, 1926), p. 8.

16. 1st Workers’ Movement, p. 146.

17. Roots, “Canton Idea,” p. 347. SCMP (June 10, 1926), p. 10, and (June 11, 1926), p. 10.

18. SCMP (June 26, 1926), p. 10.

19. SCMP (June 9, 1926), p. 8.

20. SCMP (June 16, 1926), p. 10.

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

22. Su-Ch’ao-ch’eng, p. 12.

23. SCMP (June 25, 1926), p. 9, and (June 28, 1926), p. 7.

24. SCMP (June 26, 1926), p. 10.

25. SCMP (July 5, 1926), p. 8.

26. 1st Workers’ Movement cites Teng Chung-hsia’s “Hong Kong Strike Story,” p. 146.

27. Su Ch’ao-ch’eng, p. 12.

28. SCMP (June 25, 1926), p. 9.

29. SCMP (June 18, 1926), p. 9.

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

31. SCMP (June 14, 1926), p. 8.

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

33. SCMP (July 3, 1926), p. 8.

34. SCMP (July 7, 1926), p. 8, and (July 8, 1926), p. 8.

35. Hsiang Tao (July 7, 1926), pp. 1584-1585. According to Wang Chien-min’s reading of CCP reports to the Soviet ambassador after the July meeting of the Second Conference of the Enlarged Central Committee, the CCP not only opposed the expedition but hoped to use the peasants, workers, and soldiers movements to overthrow Chiang’s leadership by force.

36. History of Political Work, p. 286. Quoted from Mao Szu-ch’eng, Min-kuo shih-wu-nien yi-ch’ien-chih Chiang chieh-shih hsien-sheng [Chiang Kai-shek before 1926] (Hong Kong: Lung-men Book Store, 1965). Hereafter cited as Chiang before 1926.

37. L’Humanité (July 3, 1926), p. 3; SCMP (July 3, 1926), p. 8.

38. From the photograph of a document held at the National Military Museum, Taipei.

39. Ko-ming wen-hsien, vol. 12, p. 831.308

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