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The Proletariat in the Taking of Shanghai

Events at Shanghai during late 1926 and early 1927 have received the devoted attention of CCP historians. The Shanghai of this period held the greatest concentration of China’s true proletariat and thus the greatest potential for revolution in Marxist terms. Thus, the capture of Shanghai has been portrayed as a classic demonstration of the power of the organized masses. This interpretation has been widely accepted by Western his­torians, but deserves reevaluation. The uprising that began there on March 21, 1927, preceding the NRA occupation, was not the first one linked to the Northern Expedition.

Both the KMT and the CCP had long been aware of Shanghai as fertile ground for organizing. The city contained hundreds of thousands of work­ers of the modern industrial type, and thousands of modern-educated students who had been exposed to nationalism—as had been the Shanghai merchants. The two modern parties hoped to organize the Shanghai work­ers as a source of power. From within the concessions, and in 1926 particularly the French concession, the KMT and CCP laid their plans and sometimes cooperated, sometimes contended.

The first “uprising” of a political nature came in October 1926, when Governor Hsia Ch’ao’s Chekiang autonomy movement developed momen­tum. In Shanghai, the local representative of the KMT’s Canton regime, Niu Yung-chien, agreed with Hsia that if conditions were right he would organize a force at Shanghai to divert Sun’s efforts to reinforce Chekiang.1 There were rumors that the KMT faction promoting Hsia’s movement was 209the Western Hills group, bent on creating another revolutionary base in Chekiang away from the Communist influence at Canton.2 However, the CCP (according to its own account), agreed to participate in the uprising.3

On October 16, Governor Hsia broke with Sun publicly, moving 3,000 troops to the Kiangsu border opposite Shanghai.4 From there, Hsia could either defend against a move by Sun to retake Chekiang, or attack Sun’s limited defenses around Shanghai. At that time Sun’s main concern was the bitter struggle for Kiangsi, and the Chekiang rebellion was an exasperating harassment. For several days after the sixteenth, there were reports in Shanghai of Hsia’s forces maneuvering nearby, even crossing the border a mere thirty-some miles away, but the activists in the city did not respond.5 Apparently the uncertain potential of Hsia’s forces and of the subversives in Shanghai slowed action from the KMT in Shanghai.6

To defend Shanghai for Sun Ch’uan-fang, his small garrison of 1,000 soldiers and 2,000 police tore up sections of the railroad from Hangchow, Chekiang, to Shanghai and awaited anxiously for reinforcements.7 Hsia’s attack was rebuffed, which perhaps explains why the uprising the press had predicted for the night of October 17, which reportedly had been planned by the KMT, did not take place.8 Quite likely, the rebels had word of the imminent arrival of Sun’s reinforcements, which indeed did enter on October 17 in the form of Li Pao-chang’s brigade.9 That day, after a minor skirmish near the western approach to Shanghai, Hsia’s vanguard retired back into Chekiang.10 By the twenty-second, Sun’s Shanghai forces had gathered a full scale counterattack together, which quickly forced Hsia’s rebels to withdraw into the Chekiang interior.

In what seems an illogically timed act, the CCP began to form an uprising after Hsia’s retreat from the Shanghai vicinity. First the level of disruptions heightened.11 Although KMT leader Niu Yung-chien had called off any attack on the enlarged garrison in view of Hsia’s weakness, the CCP decided to go ahead, entirely depending on proletarian power. In the morning darkness of October 24, 1926, riding in on trucks, armed union pickets attacked branch police stations. At the West Gate police station, several hundred workers and students moved in with small arms and bombs. Having been prepared for the attack, the police held their posts and then forced the crowd to flee after seventeen of them had been wounded and one killed. The Shanghai garrison arrested five union ac­tivists and placed the city under martial law. At other points the attacks were feeble and even less effective.12 At the Kiangnan Arsenal, alerted authorities had sent workers home the previous afternoon and then pre­pared its defense.13 The pathetic result of the First Shanghai Uprising was merely an awareness among the revolutionaries that a small-scale armed attack within the city would not suffice.

Later, from February 19 to 24, 1927, as the NRA cleared the last of Sun’s forces from nearby Chekiang, the Second Shanghai Uprising occurred. The Shanghai branch of the GLU planned the insurrection, and Lo Yi-nung, a “political genius” of the CCP Central Committee and Secretary for Kiangsu-Chekiang affairs, led the operation.14 After deciding on February 21017 to stage a general strike, on the nineteenth the GLU ordered all workers to begin the strike “…in order to wipe out the remaining power of the warlords and to show the power of the people’s revolution…. When the strike begins, you should obey the commands of the GLU. If you have not received an order to return to work, you must not return.”15

During the first three days, the GLU’s strike efforts were aimed primar­ily at taking as many workers from their jobs as possible. On the second day, the CCP claimed there were 275,000 Shanghai workers on strike,16 a figure exceeding the total membership then claimed by the GLU17 (Foreign and Chinese press estimates ranged from 65,000 to 120,000.18) Although the leadership of the GLU had clearly political goals in mind for the general strike, in its strike declaration eight of the thirteen demands were economic.19 This exemplified a problem the CCP faced in China: that the small proletariat, and the peasantry for that matter, were at an imma­ture level of political awareness and had to be moved to action by econom­ic incentives.

On February 22 (the fourth day) the uprising became an armed one with attacks being carried out against small branch police stations and garrison posts in order to capture more weapons to arm the workers. As the attack began against the Ch’apei police station, ten rounds were fired out in support from two ships of Sun’s Shanghai fleet, which were manned by dissidents. The bombardment was aimed at Kiangnan Arsenal; although it failed to hit its mark, it did show the existence of dissension within Sun’s ranks.20

The suppression of the uprising had begun dramatically the second day of the general strike, February 20, when Sun’s garrison commander Li Pao-chang ordered broadsword-wielding execution squads into the streets of Shanghai. Relentlessly the suppression continued on the twenty-third in a large raid on Shanghai University where over sixty students were seized.21 At Nanking on that day, Sun met with the Shantung warlord Chang Tsung-ch’ang, an associate in the Ankuochün, who agreed to relieve Sun’s forces in the Shanghai-Woosung sector with a brigade of Shantung troops under Pi Shu-ch’eng. The tough, tall Shantungese were commonly used as police in China, and Sun hoped these Shantung troops would be sufficient to put down the Shanghai workers. Apparently the GLU leader­ship agreed, for when Pi Shu-ch’eng’s brigade arrived in Shanghai the next day, the union ordered an abrupt end to the general strike.22 The CCP blamed the failure of the Second Shanghai Uprising on the “… barbarous means used by Sun Ch’uan-fang in attacking and suppressing …, lack of sufficient coordination with the Northern Expeditionary Army, deficient preparation for an armed uprising, and insufficient efforts to cause the reactionary troops to waver.”23

What did the Second Shanghai Uprising accomplish? Despite the declin­ing military strength of Sun Ch’uan-fang in the southeast, the uprising failed to overthrow warlord rule in Shanghai even with the support of masses of workers and hundreds of armed pickets. It did provide a new host of martyrs; as many as 500 were killed and another 700 arrested, some of 211whom may have been executed. It also provided the lesson that a more effective move would have to combine a general strike, armed uprisings with the city, and “… sufficient coordination with the Northern Ex­peditionary Army.” The GLU effort did attract large numbers of workers and may have increased its membership to 800,000 by April.24

Under more propitious circumstances, the Third Shanghai Uprising took place from March 21 through 23, 1927. Rather than attack Shanghai with its large fortified foreign community, the NRA under Chiang had decided to flank the northerners up the Yangtze so as to threaten their rail link with North China.25 The wisdom of their decision was proven as the NRA threatened Nanking on March 20 and another pronged attack en­dangered the rail tie between that city and Shanghai out on the delta. By the time the uprising began, the Ankuochün south of the Yangtze was in the process of withdrawing back north of the river to avoid being trapped. On March 20, the Ankuochün defense lines between Shanghai and Nan­king crumbled. Shanghai’s garrison commander, Pi Shu-ch’eng, had been ordered to pull out of Shanghai, but he had decided to defect to the NRA. Thus, the uprising was not needed to aid the NRA in ending warlord resistance, but rather to implement CCP designs for the city.

The pattern of a general strike followed by armed attacks on military and police positions bear a marked resemblance to the union activities at Changsha, Hunan, the prior year. At Changsha, the Union of Labor Associations had led an unsuccessful general strike on July 8, 1926, and then used a “peace-maintenance corps” to take arms from northern soldiers as they retreated through the city (see chapter 18). A part of those captured weapons was later used to arm union pickets.26 At Shanghai, the GLU seized the opportunity presented by the lack of resistance from the Shan­tung brigade, the absence of the NRA, and the presence of quantities of weapons with which to arm the CCP’s proletariat. Both KMT and CCP accounts claim that the CCP hoped to set up a workers’ soviet to run Shanghai once the northern authority was ended. On March 21, the GLU held rallies to gather popular support for a workers’ government, and armed picket units with masses of workers as auxiliaries attacked district police stations. As each police station fell, the armed pickets would gather the defenders’ arms and turn them over to the worker auxiliaries, so that the contingents of armed workers expanded rapidly. Even before the seizure of the station in the workers’ quarter at Ch’apei, a thousand captured rifles had been passed out to workers.27 The attacks by the workers allowed the venting of pent-up bitter feelings against the north­erners who had ruled so harshly; the Chinese Red Cross had the unpleasant duty of gathering up numbers of decapitated northern soldiers who had resisted the workers.28

During the general strike and the uprising, the GLU branch at Shanghai reached its peak of power, complete with plenary sessions for the creation of the workers’ Soviets for the various city districts. Again the tallies of numbers of striking workers allied with the GLU leadership vary widely, but they do indicate that this general strike was much more effective than 212the one in February. Undoubtedly, the weakness of the warlord garrison encouraged the workers. The CCP estimates ran from 200,000 to 800,000 strikers, while the local Chinese press reported 160,000, still a considera­ble body of followers for the GLU.29 The shutting down of the railroads, streetcars, telephones, electricity, and city waterworks did not seem to coincide with the needs of the NRA forces, which occupied the city on March 22. The strike continued for another two days despite the request for arbitration instead of strikes from the NRA’s Shanghai commander, Pai Ch’ung-hsi. Finally General Pai ordered an end to the strike on March 24 and prohibited public service workers from striking in an attempt to return the city to its normal functioning.30

Since Pai issued proclamations guaranteeing the foreign community full protection and at the same time warned strikers not to “create any riots which will affect the NRA’s progress,” it would seem that Pai feared that the CCP hoped to provoke a foreign intervention as well as to take over the city.31 If the Nanking Incident on March 24, 1927, was such a provocation by the CCP, the fears of Chiang’s generals were real. A later CCP account claimed that the Third Shanghai Uprising “overthrew the reactionary control of the Peiyang warlords and set up a municipal government of Shanghai led by the workers.”32 The cost of this uprising was 320 dead, mainly civilians, 2,000 wounded civilians, and over 3,000 families home­less from the fires related to the combat.

A local case of workers supporting the NRA is that of the workers of the Shanghai-Nanking Railroad, including those who serviced the branch line to the port of Woosung. These workers had been involved in strikes at the Woosung maintenance yard, the general strike of Shanghai, and in scat­tered acts of sabotage to the tracks outside Shanghai and Chenchiang. However, the traffic of the Ankuochün continued to be heavy on the line. During the evacuation of the Ankuochün from the Yangtze’s south bank, workers reportedly attempted to obstruct rail transportation by more sabotage. By removing key parts of locomotives, the workers forced num­bers of the northern troops to retreat on foot.33 But, in that instance, the worried NRA had been slow to move its forces north of the delta, and the effect of the sabotage was largely lost. With April’s “Party Purification” campaign, the CCP leadership of mass organizations was disrupted, and thereafter reports of their contributions to the Northern Expedition are lacking.

However, by this time, the NRA’s reputation based on its effective policy for dealing with civilians was secure. That fair dealings with the “people” paid off could be seen in efforts by Chang Tso-lin to emulate that policy. In March 1927, Chang had propaganda units operating, and began to show interest in gaining the cooperation of the peasantry. During his campaign to occupy Honan and then move south against Wuhan, Chang took pains to attract coolies through fair treatment and by forbidding looting and extortion of money and goods from civilians. The Ankuochün in Honan avoided quartering troops in homes or antagonizing the Honanese. According to reports by the Chinese press, when Chang had to ford troops 213and equipment across the Yellow River in March 1927, he successfully recruited the carriers and workers needed. Thereafter, the Honanese considered Chang’s army to be more welcome than Wu P’ei-fu’s.

The participants in the National Revolution themselves lost confidence in the role of the mass organizations in the movement. During the spring and summer months of 1927, KMT leaders were filled with doubt and indecision, first at Shanghai and then at Wuhan, because the KMT-CCP alliance and the resulting mass organizations had not been built on a firm foundation of common goals. What was good for the CCP and its organiza­tions did not happen to coincide with what was needed for the KMT’s national reunification. Never putting into practice its promise of submis­sion to KMT authority, the CCP within the United Front diverged off on its own route. Not truly cooperating, the two parties had, at the same time, used each other and competed against each other. Such competition and mutual skepticism predated the Northern Expedition and the anti-Communist coup. Sun Yat-sen had doubts about the CCP-Russian bloc within the KMT but thought that the tiny Communist group could be checked by the sheer numbers of KMT members and even won over. Later, although the CCP and Russians played court effectively to the KMT Left, there were in mid-1926 still those in the Left who were concerned about the growing independence of the CCP’s unions and peasants’ associ­ations. Even as NRA troops continually circulated through Canton and Kwangtung en route to and from the battlefronts of the expedition, the mass organizations in the Revolutionary Base ofttimes seemed to be con­tributing considerably less than they could have to the war effort. The controversy, as before the expedition began, swirled around the Hong Kong strike organization.


1. 1st Workers’ Movement, p. 449; SCMP (November 25, 1926), p. 8.

2. SCMP (October 26, 1926), p. 9.

3. 1st Workers’ Movement, p. 449. Chang Kuo-t’ao (vol. 1, p. 585) claims that the CCP led the insurrection on October 24.

4. SCMP (October 18, 1926), p. 9.

5. New York Times (October 20, 1926), p. 14.

6. Kuowen (October 24, 1926), n. p.

7. SCMP (October 18, 1926), p. 9; New York Times (October 17, 1926), p. 22. 1st Workers’ Movement, p. 448, quotes from Ch’ü Ching-pai, Chung-kuo chih-kung yün-tung ts’ai-liao [Selected materials on the Chinese labor movement] (Shanghai?: CCP, March 1931). Ch’ü was the brother of CCP leader Ch’ü Ch’iu-pai. Hereafter cited as Ch’ü Ching-pai.

8. SCMP (October 18, 1926), p. 9.

9. Ch’ü Ching-pai, p. 448.

10. Ibid., and SCMP (October 19, 1926), p. 9.

11. SCMP (October 23, 1926), p. 9.

12. SCMP (October 26, 1926), p. 9.

13. SCMP (October 29, 1926), p. 3.

14. CCP before the War, p. 46.

15. Ibid.

16. “Record of the Shanghai General Strike,” Hsiang Tao (February 28, 1927), n. p.

17. CKYS, pp. 39-40.

18. China Yearbook 1928, pp. 996-997; Kuowen (February 27, 1927), n. p.

19. Ibid. lists thirteen demands. Chesneaux claims there were seventeen.

20. Ibid.

21. Kuowen (February 27, 1927), n. p.

22. Kuowen (March 6, 1927), n. p.

23. CKHT, pp. 176-177.

24. Jean Chesneaux, The Chinese Labor Movement (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1968), p. 360; Chang Kuo-t’ao, vol. 1, p. 589.

25. Kuowen (March 13, 1927), n. p.

26. Chang Kuo-t’ao (vol. 1, p. 530) says that he ordered agents to Hupei to seize enemy arms “to arm ourselves.”

27. HTSL, vol. 3, p. 182. Chang Kuo-t’ao (vol. 1, p. 589) claims there were 5,000 armed pickets.

28. Kuowen (April 10, 1927), p. 1.

29. CKYS, pp. 16-17; CKHT, p. 178; Kuowen (March 27, 1927), n. p. SCMP (March 23, 1927), p. 10, cites Reuters release.

30. SCMP (March 25, 1927), p. 10.

31. SCMP (March 24, 1927), p. 12.

32. Su Ch’ao-ch’eng, p. 13.

33. Ma, Labor, p. 679.

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