Fenby on the Northern Expedition and Shanghai massacre

NRA troops march into HankouI recently read Jonathan Fenby’s biography of Chinese nationalist leader Chiang Kai-Shek. I intended to write a review but got interrupted. Returning to what I had written I've decided to salvage it as a blog post on how Chiang Kai-Shek came to power through his alliance with the Chinese communist party and in particular the events of the Northern Expedition and the crushing of the workers movement in Shanghai in 1927. Fenby's book is well worth reading, it aims to provide a post cold war account of the man who came to power on the back of the fragmentation of Chinese republicanism. This was in a manner similar to what happened in the period of retreat of republican revolutions elsewhere and at other times in history.

I had started writing a detailed review but the news of the Haitian earthquake came through and outraged by media coverage I put that piece of writing down to work instead on the summary of Haitian resistance to imperialism I published back then. Far from contrasting Mao with Chiang Kai-Shek Fenby argues that they had a lot in common and towards the conclusions of his account suggests that the reason so many of Chiang Kai-Shek’s houses and office are still intact in China is because of these similarities and the similarities with the China he ruled remain useful to the regime today.

Fenby’s account ends in December 1949 as the defeated Chiang Kai-Shek flees the Chinese mainland for Taiwan which he would continue to rule as dictator for a couple more decades. This makes sense as although the book is built around a biography of Chiang Kai-Shek the story it tells is more that of his role in the development and fragmentation of Chinese republicanism. The account is of interest to anarchists because the early part of that story, before Chiang Kai-Shek was of influence, was when the Chinese anarchist movement was at its peak. I have a piece of writing in the publication process on this and I also recently put online a piece I'd written on the Chinese revolution from an anarchist perspective.

One of Chinese anarchism’s most significant early figures Wang Jingwei, crops up throughout the text as one of Chiang Kai-Shek's main rivals. Wang Jingwei was one if the first Chinese anarchists, working as part of a group in Paris in 1905 he published a journal which translated many classic anarchist writings into Chinese and which had a considerable influence on the development of the Chinese left. However Wang Jingwei’s anarchism is never mentioned in the book as by the time Chiang Kai-Shek’s story starts it is far in his past and he is part of the republican government. Reading the story of what Wang Jingwei had become puts the denunciations of him by the anarchists of the 1910’s into context.

Fenby’s account is also of more general interest to anyone on the left as it details the events of the Northern Expedition when the Kuomintang (KMT) was in alliance with the young Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the bloody end of that alliance when Chiang Kai-Shek turned against the left and the CCP in particular murdering tens of thousands of left and union activists. It is also of interest for not only covering Mao, the Long March and the rise of the CCP but also for mentioning in some detail the other CCP base areas and leaders that were made to all but vanish from the Maoist telling of the history of those years.

I came to read it somewhat randomly, I’d finally got around to publishing my ‘Towards an anarchist history of the Chinese revolutions’ online and was browsing a cheap bookstore for some holiday reading when I spotted it remaindered. It was a hefty volume of over 500 pages not including the footnotes so seemed ideal for some poolside reading. Around three years back I had a very targeted period of reading to research the Chinese revolution article, since then as well as seeking out a couple of additional titles I’ve been randomly picking up anything I’ve come across on China of that period to flesh out my perspective.

Chiang Kai Shek: China's Generalissimo and the Nation He Lost turned out to be a lot more useful then I expected. Fenby’s account of the Northern Expedition and the internal republican and left conflicts within it was more detailed than anything else I’ve come across to date. These key events tend to be a bit of a footnote in Maoist accounts as Mao played no significant role in them and other leftist accounts are only interested in it for material in the ongoing and rather pointless Stalin cult v Trotsky cult feud.

The early Chinese republican movement had rapidly succed in knocking in the rotten door that was the Manchu regime, it collapsed as much to internal contradictions as revolutionary action in 1911. But the republican movement had nothing like the program or coherency to take over the entirety of China so the collapse was followed by fragmentation into regions, each headed up by what are referred to as warlords. The republicans in desperation turning to Yuan Shikai, the most powerful general of the old Manchu regime. He suppressed the republican movement before making himself emperor and dying leading to further fragmentation and constant warfare between competing warlord factions for over a decade.

This was the period that saw anarchism in China eclipsed by Leninism. The pattern was world wide, the apparent success of the Leninists in Russia saw many revolutionaries adopt variations of the Leninist model in their own country. But China was also one of those countries where the Russians pumped resources into the local Communist Party, pretty much allowing every member to become a full time party worker. Russia also told the CCP to form an alliance with the KMT and in doing so re-organised the KMT along the lines of a Leninist party but without it being a left party. The KMT contained various factions as well as the Chinese Communist Party that covered a spectrum of opinions from variants of Libertarian communism to fascism. The expectation of the CCP and of Moscow was that in providing the military training and equipment for the core of the KMT party they could become then dominant faction. Instead, in another common historical pattern, they were out maneuvered by a military strongman with good contacts, Chiang Kai-Shek.

Chiang was sent to Moscow in 1923 by Sun Yat-sen, the father of Chinese republicanism in order to get financial and military aid. There he met Trotsky (but not Stalin or Lenin) and read Das Kapital but came away with a profound distrust of Leninism. Despite expressing this in writing to Sun Yat-sen Sun pressed ahead with the re-organisation of the KMT along the lines of a leninist party and allowed the CCP to join the KMT. Chiang was appointed to head up the new military training school at the Whampoa fort where Russian advisors would train an officer core for the National Revolutionary Army (NRA).

In 1925 Chiang commanded the ‘Eastern Expedition’ against the warlord Chen Jiongming. Chen has sometimes been referred to as the ‘anarchist warlord’ because of his interest in anarchism and because when he ruled Guangzhou (Canton) he had allowed the anarchists limited freedom to operate there (he had however told them to stop anti-military publications). CCP founder Chen Duxiu had also spent time in Guangzhou in 1920 as provincial minister for education when Chen Jiongming had ruled the city. In 1925 however the CCP was fully behind the NRA offensive against Chen Jiongming and Russian military advisors playing a key role. After the NRA victory Chiang Kai-Shek led chants of “Cooperate with the Soviet Union” and “Long Live Kuomintang-Communist Unity” while then CCP leader Chen Duxiu said that anybody who criticised Chiang was counter revolutionary.

At the end of the 1910’s Guangzou anarchists had built a powerful union movement in the city but by 1925 control of this was falling into the hands of the CCP as elsewhere in China. Chiang’s next step was to use the CCP for the first conflict within the CCP to add to his power. He used the CCP to mobilise railway workers and coolies to strike against the mercenary units that fought alongside the NRA while 1000 Whampoa troops attacked the mercenaries and drove them out of Guangzhou. This left Chiang in military control of the city.

In June 1925 following a French massacre of Chinese workers in the city a city wide strike and boycott was launched, Chiang was one of three members of the military committee and was able to use that position with the support of Wang Jingwei and the CCP to move against his military rivals on the right of the KMT leaving Chiang as the top military figure and now one of the three party rulers. More military victories followed and the 1926 KMT conference was dominated by the CCP and left-KMT.

Chiang who at the time was studying Napoleon then started to make alliances with the right and with anti-communist factions at Whampoa. In the middle of March 1926, in what became known as the Zhongshan Warship Incident, Chiang made his first move against the CCP using trusted troops to disarm an unreliable regiment, arrest a ships captain and disarm 1000 pickets. He assured Wang Jingwei he was just moving against the CCP and not against the left in general but this period ended with the departure not only of three dozen Russian advisors but also with Wang Jingwei who had stepped down for ‘medical reasons.’ Soldiers and machine guns were placed along the route of the May day march but Chiang played both sides on the day by delivering a fiery revolutionary speech. Russian weapons continued to flow in despite the fact that Chiang took away the positions of CCP members or reduced their rank. Chiang also used the excuse of 'balance' to remove some of the KMT right which meant that just 16 months after the death of Sun Yat-sen Chiang had effective control of the KMT.

The warlord period was one of death and terror for many Chinese as battles were fought back and forth where they lived, their sons were conscripted, their homes were looted, men were forced to act as porters and women were raped. Life was grim even for those outside the direct conflict zone as tax after tax was levied to raise the vast sums of money needed to sustain the warlords’ armies. This was the context in which Chiang Kai-Shek announced the Northern Expedition on July 1 1926, the gaol was to “overthrow all warlords.” In fact there were three principle targets, Zhang Zuolin who ruled Manchuria, Wu Peifu in the Central Plain and Sun Chuanfang on the eastern coast.

The NRA faced combined armies five times larger and for the most part KMT formations were poorly equipped and trained. Their first target was Wuhan and it was taken as much by negotiation and bribery as military means, only one of the three cities it was comprised of required a siege to take. Chiang next attacked Jianxi where during a counter attack the warlord executed “hundreds of students, teachers and nationalists. Short ‘Russian-style’ hair was cause for death. Heads dripping with blood were stuck on stakes.”

These were not the first executions of the left by warlords. Wu Peifu, the warlord who had been driven out of Wuhan had massacred the striking workers of the Hankou Railway Workers Union and beheaded the anarchists organising that union in 1923. Later Zhang Zuolin tortured and executed the CCP members he found in the Russian embassy in Peking. This was typical of the methodology Chinese rulers had used to keep the people in line, the warlords used brute force and terror to maintain rule in their areas.

The Northern Expedition won out against the warlords they faced for a number of reasons. Warlord units switched sides, opening city gates as they did so. Some for ideological reasons but many because they were bribed. Most of the nationalist army was a badly trained and equipped as the warlord armies but there was a core of russian trained elite units. Peasants would guide the army and workers staged strikes in the cities in support of the military offensive. The KMT came to control seven provinces and the left of the KMT came to control Wuhan.

This created the space for an explosion of worker organization that included everyone from the peasants in the countryside to the prostitutes in the city of Hankou who leafleted on international Women's Day. Land was seized from absentee landlords. This was the period when the left was probably the strongest it would be for two decades and in 1926 neither the left in general nor even the Chinese Communist Party had been transformed into instruments of rigid orthodoxy. The left KMT recruited generals willing to oppose Chiang who they were now referring to an another warlord and it is even claimed that Chiang was ready to kill himself as he felt power slipping from his grasp.

They key battle was to be that for Shanghai. Shanghai had a population of 3 million including half (400,000) of China's factory workers. Half China's foreign trade flowed through the port and one third of foreign investment was in Shanghai. But conditions for the bulk of the population were miserable, the city had been called a "narrow layer of heaven on a thick slice of hell." 1% of women in the city were sex workers and there were 100,000 gangsters. As the NRA first approached the city 100,000 workers went on strike but Chiang hung back allowing the warlords execution squads to smash the strike, strikers were beheaded and their heads hung in cages from lamp posts.

The NRA renewed the offensive after some weeks and as the army approached Shanghai the warlords defended collapsed. The General Labour Union declared a general strike and workers stormed the police stations to obtain weapons, 3,000 dwellings were destroyed in the fighting in the workers district of Chapei. When Chaing arrived in Shanghai some workers were displaying banners with the demand 'Overthrown Chiang Kai-Sheik' and armed union squads were patrolling the streets. A huge demonstration was planned to honor Wang Jingwei who was now the main left KMT politician.

Wang made the mistake of telling Chiang he would prevent a rising and in the space created Chiang renewed his contacts with the Shanghai gangsters and in particular Big-eared Du's Green Gang. Du in turn used his contacts with the foreigners in the international settlement to make a deal under which the settlement would be the route to supply guns to Du's men in the city. On the eve of a huge planned demonstration of the left Du lured the most powerful union leader to his house and when he refused to dissolve the pickets had him killed. Then 2000 Green Gang members disguised as workers patrols went onto the streets to join soldiers in civilian clothes. At dawn they attacks unions HQ's and worker strongholds. Workers who were caught were executed by beheading, some were said to have been thrown alive into the furnaces of trains. When women and children tried to protest at army HQ they were machine gunned and bayoneted with 300 being killed. The eventual death toll has been estimated as being as high as 34,000.

The terror spread to other cities. In Guangzhou left prisoners were roped together and shot on the parade ground. An American journalist in Hangzhou reported a young women was disemboweled and "her intestines were taken out and wrapped around her body while she was still alive. Girls and boys were beheaded .. ; men were hung up in wooden cages to dies of hunger and thrust or were broken on the rack." In Hunan there was a savage civil war from which Mao reported all sorts of barbarities. Five days later the left in Wuhan reacted and announced Chiang had been expelled from the KMT but a new warlord offensive forced them once more into a military alliance with Chiang and the warlord Feng Yuxiang known as the 'Christian general' who Chiang also entered into a secret anti CCP alliance with.

In June Moscow ordered the CCP to begin a peasant insurrection and when the rest of the Wuhan left heard of this they decided to expel the Russian advisors and the CCP left the city. Following the orders from Moscow the CCP staged a attack on Nanchang on August 1st and held the city till the 3rd. Later this date was regarded as the date the Red Army was founded on. A second disastrous CCP rising in Guangzhou on 11 December saw nearly 6000 officially killed with girls and women "of the bob haired type" being shot in the streets and seven boat loads of prisoners being drowned in the river. Workers did not play a significant part in the attack which was led by CCP influenced military units but they were the main victims of the massacre that followed. The main consequence of that rising was to solidify Chiang's power by providing him with the excuse to move against the non communist left as well and then to make a long lasting alliance with the Shanghai Chinese business elite. Moscow's demand for a rising had more to do with the rivalry between Stalin and Trotsky then any strategic or tactical thinking in relation to China, the timing of the Guangzhou rising was to coincide with the 15th Congress of the Russian Communist Party!

Fenby's account of the northern rising and the crushing of the left is one of the most useful aspects of his book. He goes on to cover Chiang's consolidation of power and ends not with his death in Taiwan in the 1970s' but with his defeat in 1949 at the hands of a Red Army that was by then very much under the control of one man, Mao. But Mao is not relevant to the period I cover about, it is only with the retreat to the countryside after the crushing of the Guangzhou rising that his long rise to power starts.  Fenby's accounts of the massacres of the left help to put into context the often brutal repression of landlords carried out during the later peasant insurrections and are an antidote to the viewpoint that tends to lay the brutal nature of the civil war at Mao's feet alone although it is also clear he saw a value in promoting brutality as a way of making compromise with returning landlords impossible.


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