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The Organized Masses on the Home Front

The Hong Kong Strike Committee, staffed with CCP members, had been reluctant all along to align itself with the goals of the KMT. The CCP historians do not bear witness to this when they claim that the Hong Kong Strike “… supported the Canton National Government, strengthened the Kwangtung Revolutionary Base, and allowed the National Govern­ment to send its army on the Northern Expedition without a backward look as it proceeded forward.”1 This claim and other rhetoric was not reflected in fact and when Chiang, C-in-C of the Northern Expedition, had post­poned his move to the front in July 1926, and futilely pressed for a settlement, he had become convinced that neither the strike nor the activities of the committee served any aims but those of the CCP. Other members of the regime had already been frustrated in their dealings with the Strike Committee. The Finance Minister, straining to manage the expenses of the war, had to feed tens of thousands of strikers. Unable to curtail the pickets’ activities, the Canton police were ordered to accom­pany the strike pickets on their raids, arrests, and searches of private buildings. This approach also failed to restrain the strikers who complained that the police were often “unwilling to cooperate.”2 Nonstriking elements in Kwangtung hounded the Peasant-Labor Ministry, the Civilian Affairs Bureau, the Industrial Bureau, Municipal Bureau, and the police with petitions protesting the arbitrary activities of the pickets.3

With Russian support, the Strike Committee remained recalcitrant. While Chiang maneuvered for the settlement, the strikers demonstrated 215for a continued “hard struggle” with the Hong Kong British over the Shameen Massacre, and trumpeted their prior demands for payment of lost back wages.4 While the NRA fought north through Hunan during the remainder of the summer of 1926, strikes, intralabor squabbles and clashes, and economic disruption continued to plague the Revolutionary Base (as also happened later at Wuhan).

In July, the union for the arsenal claimed that a ticket collector had struck an arsenal worker and called a strike, which spread by means of the GLU to include the railroad union. Arsenal production was hampered and railroad traffic disrupted for two weeks.5 The Canton government re­sponded with an unenforced prohibition of strikes in vital public services.

In early August, despite the arbitration of the Peasant-Labor Ministry, the Canton Postal Workers’ Union called a strike to obtain demands for a 50 percent wage increase and for the right of the workers to appoint postal inspectors instead of the foreigners, who were now doing so. Su Ch’ao-cheng, concurrently chairman of both the Strike Committee and the CCP’s GLU, publicly praised the strike as an opportunity for the Canton government to take over the postal administration from the “imperialists.” Shanghai’s Postal Workers’ Union demonstrated in sympathy. However, to the chagrin of the Canton government, the strike closed down many of the postal services in the Canton headquarters and all branch offices for nine days.6

In August 1926, the powers of Su Ch’ao-cheng’s unions in Canton seemed unassailable. The GLU “arrested” members of rival unions and confined them in the East Park headquarters. Killings and armed battles between rival unions in particular industries increased in frequency, such as the August 1 murder by one union of a rival union member, followed on August 2 and 3 by clashes between two unions of the oil shop workers in which four workers died.7 On the fifth, after another scuffle, the KMT-affiliated KGLU gathered 60,000 workers to demonstrate and parade in protest of the wounding of their chairman and the murder of union mem­bers by rival unions. For nonpartisan unions, it became increasingly dif­ficult to remain neutral.

By that time unions carried white flags if they were KMT affiliated and red flags if they were part of the CCP’s GLU. The polarization provoked violence from the two sides, both of whom pressured the government with demands for favors. With a publicized membership of 170,000 and the claim that its membership topped its rival, the KGLU petitioned the government to bring the “renegades” at East Park to justice or face a strike.8 Although the police prohibited the arming of union members, and seized firearms smuggled into Canton by rail, the clashes between unions continued and the resulting deaths mounted.9

While tension crackled in Canton within the union movement in August and September, rural Kwangtung saw a heightening of polarization and disorders. Word came in to Canton from government agents and guards that when they had gone out selling provincial bonds to finance the expedition, the peasants’ associations had driven them out.10 As the new 216peasants’ associations began to organize their own antibandit corps that would give them armed power, the existing rural defense corps (min-t’uan) led by local gentry resisted this intrusion of rival political authority. When peasants’ associations became tied in with the Strike Committee branches in rural Kwangtung, these areas also experienced the confiscation of goods and seizure of persons for boycott violations. The min-t’uan accused the new peasants’ associations of being merely a new brand of rural bandit (t’u-fei) and of interfering in local government. Despite violent resistance in rural localities, membership in the Kwangtung Peasants’ Association increased during the period from May through August 1926 by nearly 75,000.11

A rural reaction deepened through September, evident among the KMT-appointed hsien-chang (highest hsien officials) and probably tacitly approved by the Canton headquarters. Rural officials generally lined up against the rival political power of the peasants’ associations in their dis­tricts. The CCP press reported that NRA garrisons stationed around the countryside fought in mid-1926 with peasants’ associations at Chungshan and Hsün-teh, and at Kwan-ning the min-t’uan had joined with other “reactionaries” to curtail the local peasants’ associations.12 In early Sep­tember, the British threatened to attack the strike pickets as pirates if their interference persisted.13

Thus, while the expedition moved north into Hupei and began a life-and-death combat with Sun Ch’uan-fang in Kiangsi, there was cause for those at the front to look back at the Revolutionary Base with apprehen­sion. Kwangtung, the source of financial and logistical support, and fresh troops, was, itself, embroiled in social, political, and economic struggles.

In mid-September, hanging in the balance along the Kiangsi border were the fates of the expedition and the Revolutionary Base as Sun’s troops pushed the NRA back into Hunan. Desperate for more support from Kwangtung, Chiang pressed the Canton government to end the fifteen-month-old Hong Kong-Kwangtung Strike. Once the Political Council ap­proved a declaration on the “recovery of communications,” Borodin and Su Ch’ao-chang backed down, but warned that the Strike Representatives’ Assembly still had to be convinced.

To counter any further resistance of labor led by the strike organization, KMT leaders, especially Eugene Ch’en, set about rallying support for the National Government. On September 22, to explain the financial boost to the Northern Expedition that would result from resuming trade with Hong Kong and the British, Minister of Peasants and Workers Ch’en Shu-jen brought together 125 union representatives to hear arguments forwarded by Foreign Minister Eugene Ch’en. Again on September 25, Sun Fo, T. V. Soong, Eugene Ch’en, and others spoke to a “United Committee of Work­ers, Peasants, Merchants, and Students,” a group exemplifying the KMT ideal of the all-class union. This committee proposed that the government guarantee the strikers work upon settlement of the strike, and requested that the strikers be brought together at a meeting where they could be informed as to why the strike should end, what the workers could hope for 217after a settlement, and what the major points for negotiation were.14 Thirty thousand workers gathered for that explanation, but apparently the Strike Committee wielded too much power to be easily superceded.

Rather than chancing an upheaval among the thousands of organized and armed workers under the GLU, the Canton government chose to com­promise. On September 30, when over 1,900 representatives met for a Hong Kong Strike Representatives’ Assembly, Chairman Su Ch’ao-cheng announced that the strike policy had been modified, rather than termi­nated. Instead of the local blockade of commerce with Hong Kong, a new anti-British movement would be expanded throughout the territory that the NRA had newly conquered, and from there throughout the nation. Su Ch’ao-cheng also announced the material rewards accepted from the gov­ernment in return for a peaceful end to the strike. The terms dealt with the strikers in three categories: (1) the Strike Committee hierarchy and its staff estimated to include 3,000 were to be offered posts in the government and the KMT, with the lesser staff members to have the option of assignment as propagandists with the NRA or of compensation with a C$100 Treasury Bond. (2) The more than 5,000 pickets were offered the opportunity of enlisting either with the NRA for duty in the north or in the local garrisons, or of receiving retirement compensation of C$100 Treasury Bonds. (3) The ordinary strikers who then numbered around 60,000 were offered em­ployment on government projects or recommendations from the Labor-Peasant Ministry for jobs in the private sector. If unemployed, the strikers were to be compensated with C$100 Treasury Bonds plus temporary room and board until employed. For this settlement, the KMT authorized the Ministry of Finance to set aside C$2,000,000 for strikers’ relief.15

The Strike Committee supported raising tariffs to support any unem­ployed strikers and the strike organization itself. The Committee’s declara­tion stated that:

… now that the power of the National Revolution has reached the Yangtze, it is time to change the methods we use against the imperialists. Our new policy is a change from a blockade to a boycott by the entire nation, from our own strike to a united national effort. It is now time to prepare for a new struggle. We trust this new policy highly. The rewards may be a hundred times greater than those of the past 15 months.16

Thus, although the Hong Kong-Kwangtung Strike was to end, the committee came out of the settlement with the prestige of presenting significant economic benefits for its members, and with expansive hope for the future. The terms asked by the Strike Committee presented a new problem for the government. Despite the financial burden placed on the Ministry of Finance by the new demands, Foreign Minister Ch’en went ahead with plans to resume trade by scheduling a reopening of communica­tions with Hong Kong on October 1, followed by economic-diplomatic traffic as of October 10. The Strike Committee continued to threaten resistance if the government at Canton did not either get money from the British for the strikers or pay from Canton’s coffers. When the demanded 218compensation to strikers was not delivered on the first of October, the Strike Committee began “secret” meetings to discuss ways in which the strike organization could continue the strike.17 Before calling in the picket units scattered along the Kwangtung coast, the committee demanded that C$50,000 of the compensation for strikers be paid immediately.18 When October 10 arrived, the Swatow branch of the Strike Committee and the local branch GLU refused to halt the enforcement of the boycott and threatened violence if the resumption of trade were forced.19 On the thirteenth, the Strike Committee postponed disarming the many pickets who functioned to enforce the blockade and stike. Atlthough the NRA, engaged in a desperate battle in Kiangsi, called for 50,000 fresh troops, the Strike Committee postponed the commitment of its strikers.20 In prac­tice the Strike Committee continued to function much as it had before the strike settlement. Although the pickets were to have been disbanded, the committee replaced them with a group called the Inspection Corps, whose purpose it was, in theory, to encourage the voluntary continuance of the boycott against the British. However, the Inspection Corps went about eliciting pledges from merchants to uphold the boycott, checking for British or Hong Kong goods,21 and pressuring passengers from traveling to Hong Kong.22

As late as November, the Strike Committee still had enough power to maintain its East Park headquarters and operations, where it still kept eighty Cantonese who were being punished for strikebreaking.23 To re­strain the Strike Committee from its activities, the Canton government again turned to its police. On November 15, the police department warned that any interference with loading or unloading of British ships or British goods would be suppressed. Since Septemeber 4, the British themselves had been landing marines from gunboats to clear pickets from the waterfront.24 To dampen the smoldering frustration at the strikers’ East Park headquarters, the government also announced that compensation to strikers as well as compensation to landlords for unpaid back rent due on buildings used by the Strike Committee would begin that day.25 There again was the effort to maintain the elusive harmony of the all-class union.

That the decision to move the National Government out of Canton was related to the atmosphere of apparently polarized and unreconcilable labor struggle seems quite possible, but the leaders of the National Revolution also wanted to break down the image that clung to them of being a southern regime, and transferring to Wuhan would be a step in that direction. The week before the move to Wuhan saw a railroad strike, followed by another in the arsenal that succeeded in forcing out a KMT-affiliated union.26

Later in November 1926, the head of the General Political Department of the NRA flew back to Canton from the front. Teng Yen-ta had been asked by Chiang to encourage the leaders of Kwangtung province to float a provincial bond issue to contribute to the war effort and also to check with Kwangtung’s military leader, Li Chi-shen, and others about the disorders among the union.27 During Teng’s fact-finding trip, he witnessed the power of the unions when they applied pressure on the government in a 219demonstration by several unions demanding the support of the Peasant-Labor Ministry for their needs. On November 25, to force compliance with their demands, a crowd of unionized workers slept on the premises of the Government House. Represented were armed pickets and thousands of members of the seamen’s, cobblers’, rice millers’, tailors’, street cleaners’, and dispensary workers’ unions. When the rice shop workers struck for higher wages, they were joined by a sympathy strike of rice millers, distillery, and dispensary workers. After the arrest of a seaman by a customs collector, the seamen’s union struck.28 The arsenal workers, who had recently come solely under a CCP union, requested the aid of the GLU in attacking the director of the Canton Arsenal.29

In early December, the National Government leaders recently arrived at Nanchang gathered to discuss with Chiang Kai-shek matters including the unions at the Revolutionary Base. Meanwhile, Canton bank em­ployees and bus drivers called strikes, the telephone operators threatened to strike, and a bloody skirmish took place between rival silk workers’ unions.30 Kwangtung officials had toyed with solutions including labor’s unification under government direction and increased employment of workers in government construction projects, as well as the use of force to bring the unions into orderly line. Within the group at the meetings at Nanchang and then Kuling, Borodin conceded that the union movement may have become unruly and needed direction.

The response at Nanchang involved the appointment of a new police chief and garrison commander by telegram from the C-in-C on December 7, 1926. Chiang had come about from his days as a Leftist in 1925 through his disenchantment with the CCP’s mass “support” of unions and peasants’ associations. In his post as leader of the Northern Expedition, an activity that strained the resources of the KMT, Chiang felt harassed by the mass organizations and had become more susceptible to counsel from anti-Communists such as Tai Chi-t’ao, reportedly an ex-Communist. They had first become acquainted as fellow lieutenants of Sun Yat-sen in Japan during their exile before the 1911 revolution.31 As one of the leading KMT theoreticians by 1926, Tai warned Chiang that dependence on the mass organizations as a power base would only lead to disintegration of the all-class union, and that what China needed was social harmony. Creator of groups of anti-Communist agents in Canton and even Moscow, Tai had become a prime target of the CCP’s anti-Right campaign, a force that Chiang was soon to feel.32 On December 9, Canton authorities ordered the bank employees to end their strike and return to work, and prohibited any further strikes that would affect the public sector or the military supply system.33

Organizing the Proletariat at Wuhan

The industrial complex of Wuhan repeated the experience of Canton except on a larger scale. Under the warlords the labor movement there had been harshly restricted, although infant unions could secretly nurture their organizations and leadership within the sanctuary of the concessions. 220Although the record of union development and strikes before the arrival of the NRA was negligible, within the first two months after Hanyang and Hankow had been taken, the CCP had set up an encompassing labor structure and enrolled tens of thousands of workers. By December 1926, patterned after the GLU at Canton, the CCP created a Hupei branch GLU as a leadership organ, which coordinated sixty unions that claimed 300,000 workers according to occupations and industries.34

Ex-Minister of Labor and Peasants Ch’en Kung-po reported that after the NRA occupied Hanyang and Hankow in September (while Wuchang was still under siege) the initial tactic used in organizing was to incite all the workers of a particular industry or trade to strike for economic benefits. Once off the job, the workers became dependent on the GLU, which provided them with guidance and workers’ compensation. Thus under the GLU wing, the strikers were easily unionized. “Within the first month of our occupying Wuhan over 30 unions struck.”35 Again the CCP trained a corps of several thousand pickets, which backed the demands of the unions in the GLU. Comintern publicity, as reported by the French Communist press, was quite optimistic; a release in November, the third month of NRA occupation, reported that “labor unions have been organized under a structure similar to that of Soviets and are masters of the municipality.”36

The pickets of the GLU functioned to add muscle both to union demands upon employers and to union demands upon workers. Collective participa­tion in the strikes was rigidly enforced, a tactic that both strengthened the GLU’s power in the economy and provided the CCP with a mass of “disciplined” proletariat. In November the GLU movement included strikes for higher wages by the Canton-Hankow Railroad workers of Hunan and Hupei and the Hupei Postal Union. While the foreign factories at Hankow were particularly hard pressed, the strikes hit the Chinese-controlled sector of the economy as well.37

The leaders of the “mass” movement looked to Wuhan as an ideal environment in which to build organizational strength and perfect tech­nique. In late 1926, with Shanghai still firmly under warlord restraints, Wuhan was second in the concentration of modern industry and factory proletariat in China. Proletariat power was even more likely to blossom at Wuhan than in the smaller, more commerce-oriented Canton. Then, too, General T’ang Sheng-chih and his Eighth Army, whose presence weighed heavy in Hunan and Hupei, seemed to be more tractable to the plans of the CCP-KMT Left combine,38 while, in Canton, General Li Chi-shen and the Canton police and garrison were leaning toward suppression of the au­tonomous power of the CCP’s labor movement.39 A CCP-dominated base in the heart of Central China would be in an excellent position to expand. CCP tacticians and cadre who moved to Wuhan from Shanghai and Canton during the fall of 1926 included both Liu Shao-ch’i and Li Li-san who came as representatives of the national GLU.40 From Canton, the GLU chair­man sent his trained cadre from the Strike Committee and followed later in person when the national GLU headquarters was transferred to Hankow.41

However, to many KMT members directing the Northern Expedition, 221what was not needed was a repeat of the disruption at Canton. In November, Kiangsi had finally fallen, but with the northern warlords coalesced into the new Ankuochün, the KMT could not afford conflict within its ranks. Ch’en Kung-po, associated with the KMT Left and then appointed head of the provincial finance department at Wuhan, wrote that:

There was nothing then that influenced the order and finances of the rear more than the strikes. What the KMT needed there was stability, but what the CCP needed was strikes…. The base of the CCP at Wuhan at this first stage was very weak so that this tactic and strategy was necessary. Local order, stability, and sources of revenue—those were the affairs of the KMT, not the concerns of the CCP. Therefore, due to the needs of the CCP … Wuhan, in its de­pressed market and with its workers parading and petitioning all day, clearly manifested the disruption of order.42

The power of the CCP’s mass organizations reached a peak during the winter and spring of 1927 at Wuhan with the addition of the unions and the peasants’ associations in the newly conquered region of the mid-Yang­tze. This was what the CCP later referred to as the Communist Period of the Wuhan government. With the success of unionization based on economic strikes, labor costs spiraled followed by prices in general as the supply of needed goods slumped due to the strikes. The loss of income in commerce, industry, and wages cut deeply into the Wuhan government’s sources of revenue. Boycotts and strikes against “imperialist” factories, stores, and goods greatly decreased vital tariff revenue. Most unusual was that this regime, so engrossed in fighting a war, permitted such widespread strikes and economic dislocation at home.

The phase of the Northern Expedition in Wuhan’s sphere, the campaign by the Fourth and Eighth armies against Wu P’ei-fu in northern Hupei, ground to a halt from October 1926 to April 1927—a period of six months. Although the CCP claimed that its organized masses pushed the Northern Expedition from within KMT territory and pulled it ahead of the NRA, this was not observable at Wuhan. Despite the rise of “mass power” at Wuhan, that sector of the expedition did not proceed north out of Hupei. Nor did this power, theoretically under the leadership of the KMT Left, enhance the Left’s potential to dominate the National Revolution from Wuhan. Ultimately Wuhan’s power to deal with Chiang and the northern warlords varied inversely with the level of CCP-led mass “support.” By mid-1927 when Wuhan’s KMT Left began its purge of the CCP (three months after the KMT Right had done so), its economic base had deteriorated and its military machine had suffered correspondingly.

Thus, the generalizations of Marxian-based polemicists and historians that the effects of the organized masses in the territory ahead of the NRA assured it victory and even did its fighting is open to reassessment. The leadership of the union and peasant movement did turn increasingly to the CCP, but those movements actually coincided with or followed the north­ward progress of the military campaign. How effective were the move­ments in hostile warlord territories?


1. CCP Martyrs, p. 60.

2. HKDP (May 11, 1926), p. 5.

3. Kuowen (July 25, 1926), pp. 13-14.

4. 1st Workers’ Movement, p. 148.

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

6. SCMP (August 4, 1926), p. 9.

7. SCMP (August 5, 1926), p. 8.

8. SCMP (August 4, 1926), p. 9.

9. SCMP (August 10, 1926), p. 8.

10. SCMP (August 23, 1926), p. 10.

11. 1st Workers’ Movement, p. 39.

12. “Condition of the Kwangtung Peasants during the Northern Expedition,” Hsiang Tao 322(September 20, 1926), n. p. Chang Kuo-t’ao (vol. 1, p. 603) indirectly refers to the min-t’uan resistance, under landlord leadership, to the peasants’ associations of Kwangtung.

13. Akimova, p. 252.

14. Kuowen (November 7, 1926), p. 1.

15. SCMP (September 30, 1926), p. 8. HKDP (October 7, 1926), p. 5.

16. Kuowen (November 7, 1926), n. p.

17. HKDP (October 7, 1926), p. 5.

18. HKDP (October 9, 1926), p. 5.

19. HKDP (October 13, 1926), p. 5.

20. HKDP (October 14, 1926), p. 5.

21. SCMP (November 2, 1926), p. 8.

22. Ibid., p. 9.

23. SCMP (November 9, 1926), p. 8. Akimova, p. 256, recalls that the pickets helped to police Canton as late as December 1926.

24. Akimova, p. 252.

25. SCMP (November 16, 1926), p. 9.

26. SCMP (November 17, 1926), p. 10.

27. Ibid.

28. SCMP (November 26, 1926), p. 9.

29. SCMP (November 22, 1926), p. 8, and (November 30, 1926), p. 9.

30. SCMP (December 6, 1926), p. 9, and (December 9, 1926), p. 10.

31. Marius B. Jansen, The Japanese and Sun Yat-sen (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1954), pp. 170-172.

32. CCP before the War, p. 25. Akimova, p. 255.

33. SCMP (December 10, 1926), p. 10.

34. 1st Workers’ Movement, p. 400, published the report of the Hupei GLU’s First Congress.

35. Ch’en Kung-po, pp. 103-104.

36. L’Humanité (November 20, 1926), p. 1; New York Times (December 1, 1926), p. 1.

37. SCMP (December 9, 1926), p. 11. Chang Kuo-t’ao, vol. 1, pp. 550-552.

38. Chang Kuo-t’ao, vol. 1, p. 541.

39. Akimova, p. 256, describes Canton in November-December 1926.

40. 1st Workers’ Movement, pp. 383-384, which reproduces an article from Canton’s Min-kuo jih-pao (January 10, 1927).

41. SCMP (December 6, 1926), p. 10; Su Chao-cheng, pp. 3-13.

42. Ch’en Kung-po, pp. 103-104.

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