8. The Alliance Dies in a Bloodbath

Sun Yat-sen was gone. Warlords still ruled in Beijing and over most of the provinces. The Kuomintang had set up a "nationalist government" but its writ ran only as far as its party army bayonets reached. The Soviet Union was courting Beijing's warlords and the KMT and the Chinese Communist party. Japan was trying to get a pliable warlord in power in Beijing and was also supporting the Manchurian warlord Zhang Zuolin. The Western imperial powers and the United States were standing mostly on the sidelines, watching the drama unfold.

The Kuomintang made out publicly that it was a unified force bent on reuniting China but it was splitting into two increasingly irreconcilable camps: the Communists with their leftist allies and the conservatives who represented the landlords, merchants and industrialists.

A triumvirate took charge. It included the compromiser Wang Jingwei; his rival, the rightist Hu Hanmin, and the leftist Liao Zhongkai. Wang became president and Hu foreign minister but Liao was Borodin's choice as Sun Yat-sen's successor and he held the inside track to assume leadership.1 Chiang Kai-shek, though left in command of the Whampoa military academy and the party army, could not make decisions without the authorization of Liao Zhongkai.

The stage was set for a counterrevolutionary thrust. The Shanghai Green Gang boss, Big-eared Du (Du Yuesheng), sent Zhang Jingjiang, one of his closest intimates, to Guangzhou to advise Chiang and make plans. Zhang was a millionaire Shanghai banker and dealer in rare Chinese antiques whom Chiang had known for years. On August 20, 1925, as Liao Zhongkai arrived for a meeting, five gunmen stepped out from behind columns and shot him down. Rumors placed the blame on Hu Hanmin and the rightists but Liao was Hu's close friend. Nevertheless, Hu and his family fled in fear of their lives. The political council, at Borodin's suggestion, named a three-man team to deal with the crisis: President Wang Jingwei, Xu Chongzhi and Chiang Kai-shek. The team found evidence of a plot of KMT conservatives and some commanders of the Guangdong warlord army. The team ordered the execution of a few and the arrest of others. However, the killing strongly resembled a gangland slaying and the finger pointed to the Green Gang, Chiang Kai-shek's ally. It also worked perfectly to eliminate potential contenders for Sun Yat-sen's mantle. Liao was dead, Hu Hanmin implicated by association, leaving only Chiang and the weak Wang Jingwei as serious challengers.2

Chiang and Borodin sent Hu to the Soviet Union to get him out of the way. Chiang shrewdly kept his counsel and remained out of the political spotlight, commencing a series of military operations which drove the warlord armies out of Guangdong and secured this province as the KMT base.

Wang Jingwei remained in charge of the Kuomintang government but a move to set him aside was on the way. In November, 1925, a group of KMT conservatives met in the Western Hills (Xi Shan) outside Beijing at the tomb of Sun Yat-sen and declared they represented the party's executive committee. They "expelled" the Communists, "terminated" Borodin's relationship and "suspended" Wang Jingwei for six months. The Western Hills group took over the party's official headquarters in Shanghai and planned to call a national congress of the KMT.3

The Guangzhou leaders called a congress first (January 4-19, 1926). Over a third of the delegates were Communists and the congress reaffirmed the Red-KMT ties, thanked Borodin for his help and ousted the chief dissenters from the party. Although Chiang Kai-shek and the Hu Hanmin (still in Russia) were named to the ruling central executive committee, the nine-member body was heavily weighted toward Communists and leftists.

On March 19, 1926, the warlord government in Beijing struck fiercely against the KMT and the CCP. The occasion was a march in the capital, mainly by students, protesting the unequal treaties imposed on China by the imperial powers. KMT and Communist leaders joined in the demonstration, which headed toward the cabinet offices. Government guards intercepted the protesters and killed forty-seven of them. The government issued arrest warrants for five prominent KMT figures in the city, one of them Li Dazhao, a founder of the Communist party, who took refuge in the Soviet embassy.

In Guangzhou, Chiang Kai-shek was at last ready to show his hand. The provocation was a KMT gunboat, commanded by a Communist, which anchored under full steam off Chiang's headquarters at Whampoa on the night of March 19, 1926. Chiang decided the gunboat was part of a conspiracy to abduct him and send him to Russia. This may have been true or it may have been a ruse. In any event, Chiang struck with precision. He captured the gunboat, placed all Soviet advisors under house arrest and seized control of the city.

Borodin was absent and only got back to Guangzhou on April 29, along with Hu Hanmin and several leftist leaders. Chiang and Borodin went into intense negotiations. It was a bizarre situation: Borodin knew by now that Chiang wanted to oust the Communists but Chiang realized his only hope of overthrowing the Beijing warlords was through Soviet assistance and the organizing skills of the Communists inside the KMT. The two men patched up a truce but Borodin made most of the concessions.

To pacify Borodin, Chiang agreed to purge the KMT right wing. This served Chiang's interests as well by eliminating moderates and leaders who might cause Chiang difficulty. Chiang also agreed to continue cooperation with Russia and the Chinese Communists. In exchange, Borodin agreed to support Chiang's plan for a northern expedition against Beijing, which Borodin's Russian advisors and the Chinese Communists opposed, knowing it would strengthen Chiang's hand. Borodin also agreed to limit Communist activity within the KMT and to the departure of Wang Jingwei to Europe for a "cure." Wang left for France on May 9.

Chiang now was in effective control of the KMT. He got this confirmed on May 15 when the party leadership met and named him head of the organization bureau. It also limited Communists to a third of the executive positions in the KMT. Most remarkable, however, was the naming of Zhang Jingjiang, close associate of the Green Gang, as chairman of the executive committee. Now Chiang, with Zhang, controlled all party decisions. Hu Hanmin, having been pushed aside, left for Shanghai.

For some reason, Borodin, the leadership in the Kremlin and the Chinese Communists failed to recognize the peril the KMT left wing and Reds faced. Joseph Stalin ordered Borodin to cooperate with Chiang. Stalin knew little about China and less about the great, hidden power base Chiang possessed: the Green Gang, which was anti-Communist and had access to money and all the armed goons and killers it needed.

* * * * * * * * * *

Chiang Kai-shek prepared for the northern expedition to oust the warlords in Beijing. Meanwhile, the warlord mix in the capital had changed again. In late 1925, the Manchurian warlord Zhang Zuolin attacked the "Christian general," Feng Yuxiang, who left the country but left his subordinates to fight on.4 Zhang allied with Wu Peifu and they drove Feng's tattered forces in disorder into the west. In spring, 1926, Zhang and Wu set up a "regency cabinet" and this committee of politicians appointed by the warlords was in "power" when Chiang's campaign began.5

Chiang had about 150,000 troops in the national revolutionary army but most were warlord contingents, now organized into "corps," and only a fraction could be used in the expedition. Chiang's most reliable force was the 1st Corps, the new designation for the KMT party army made up of five Russian-equipped and advised divisions built up from the training regiments at the Whampoa military academy. This 1st Corps, with Whampoa cadet units, probably mustered 50,000 men.

Against Chiang were arrayed three warlords, who commanded many times as many troops but of doubtful reliability and loyalty. Wu Peifu had control of the region running from Wuhan back to Beijing. Zhang Zuolin controlled the Beijing region, Manchuria and Shandong. Sun Chuanfang dominated five provinces around Nanjing and Shanghai. Yan Xishan held Shanxi province, just west of Beijing, but tried to maintain neutrality.6

Chiang launched the northern expedition on July 9, 1926, sending two main thrusts northward: one by way of Changsha in Hunan to the tri-cities of Wuhan on the Yangzi, the other by way of Nanchang in Jianxi toward Nanjing and Shanghai. There also was a third, smaller, thrust along the coast from Shantou toward Shanghai. General Galen and the Russian advisors ably developed the strategy and battle plans.7 Chiang, leading his 1st Corps, drove toward Nanchang. Chinese Communist advance cadres mobilized peasant and worker organizations and fomented strikes and sabotages in the cities, while railway and telegraph workers interrupted communications. The western drive reached Wuhan in September and pushed Wu Peifu's forces well north of the river. Chiang's forces, after hard battles, captured Nanchang in November and disarmed a large number of Sun Chuanfang's troops. The coastal drive was slower but got to Fuzhou in December.

The KMT success brought out, especially in rural Hunan, a large growth of peasant associations which sometimes demanded seizure of land from landlords and redistribution to poor peasants. Angry peasants killed some local tyrants. A number of landlords fled to the cities but others hired toughs to burn villages and kill association organizers, most of them Communists. The actions of the peasants began to look like a genuine people's revolution, a point not lost on Chiang Kai-shek, his conservative supporters and the officers of the KMT armies, most of whom came from landlord families and therefore opposed an agrarian revolution which would eliminate their class. Joseph Stalin also got reports on the peasants and wired the Chinese Communists to restrain the movement, fearful it would break up the KMT-CCP alliance.8

Red leaders at a Hunan farmers congress in Changsha in December, 1926, obediently deflected peasant clamor toward demands for reduction of rent and interest on loans and storage of grain against famine. It is noteworthy, however, that Mao Zedong spoke at the end of this congress, saying the peasant problem was the central issue of the national revolution and denounced those who would restrain the peasants.9

The success of KMT arms also brought forth fierce outbursts against the imperialist powers and against Christian missions. An anti-British boycott started in Hunan and activists harassed many Christian mission stations. However, Chiang Kai-shek announced that elimination of missions was not part of the KMT program. Yet in Hunan threats and pressure grew so intense that mission schools closed and many missionaries fled to the foreign concessions in Hankow (Wuhan). In early January, 1927, a giant anti-British demonstration occurred in Hankow and, to avoid violence, the Nationalist government took over the British concession there on January 5. The next day crowds also seized the small British enclave at Jiujiang downriver from Hankow.10

The confiscations increased KMT prestige enormously but also brought orders to missionaries from interior stations to leave for places of safety. And the British government, though grudgingly deciding to give up the small interior concessions, ordered major military reinforcements to protect Shanghai, the center of British economic interests in China. The KMT foreign minister, however, announced it was not KMT policy to use force to take over foreign concessions and Britain agreed to keep the bulk of its troop reinforcements in Hong Kong.

* * * * * * * * * *

The KMT government, along with Borodin and Sun Ching-ling, Sun Yat-sen's widow, moved from Guangzhou to Wuhan. Chiang Kai-shek meanwhile set up what amounted to an alternative capital at his headquarters in Nanchang. The physical separation emphasized the factors which divided the KMT. Foremost was the question of which way the military drive should now go, toward Beijing or toward Shanghai?

Chiang had no doubts: he was going straight for his power source, Shanghai. But Borodin and Galen wanted to go toward Beijing. The KMT had formed an alliance with Feng Yuxiang, now lurking in the far northwest, and they hoped the Kuomintang forces could join with Feng's and descend upon Beijing in a swift campaign. But Chiang was adament and got his way.11

In Wuhan, Borodin was more successful with the largely leftist and Communist leaders assembled there. He got them to set up a provisional council to run the government. They elected him advisor and invited Wang Jingwei to return from his "cure" in Europe and resume his leadership role. Chiang Kai-shek went to Wuhan on January 11, 1927, to try to talk some of his old associates into joining the Nanchang group. He was not successful and Borodin denounced Chiang in public. Chiang retaliated in kind and returned to Nanchang.

The public clash between Borodin and Chiang signaled the final split between the left and right wings of the KMT and marked the Wuhan group as the adversary in Chiang's eyes. Borodin, realizing there was to be no reconciliation with Chiang, entered into a dangerous game: he tried to build up a coalition of commanders in the Nationalist forces drawn from allied warlords and to use them to overthrow Chiang. His efforts were not successful, not only because warlord army commanders were mostly unreliable but also because few if any wanted to challenge Chiang's 1st Corps. By making the effort, however, Borodin widened the breach between the Communists and Chiang.

* * * * * * * * * *

The imperial powers had worked themselves into a panic. They had been frightened by the wild demonstrations that wrested the Hankow and Jiujiang concessions from Britain and they knew the next KMT target was Shanghai. The powers had assembled 16,000 troops who fortified the approaches to the concessions. In the Huangpu (Whangpoo) river forty warships lay at alert.

From the business interests in Shanghai, native and foreign, the Green Gang and the Shanghai Chamber of Commerce gathered rich contributions and loans to support Chiang. The Shanghai entrepreneurs wanted Chiang because they had picked up evidence that Communists and leftists had organized labor unions and were planning a mass uprising of workers, students and Communist cadres in the city. The Green Gang feared the unions would challenge its control of workers and entrepreneurs feared an uprising could be the precursor to a revolution.12

The KMT army meanwhile was marching toward Shanghai along several routes. Advance units were promised to reach the city on February 22, 1927. The Reds and leftists scheduled an uprising in advance to assist the Nationalist advance and to seize as much of the city as possible for the Communists and left KMT. But Green Gang informers knew all about the planned uprising and the bosses tipped off the warlord Sun Chuanfang. His troops and police were ready when laborers, students and cadres went out on strike February 19. Warlord Sun's forces seized students passing out leaflets and a few strike pickets and beheaded them on the spot. Police in the International settlement and French concession arrested students handing out leaflets and expelled them at the barricades directly into the hands of the warlord's soldiers, who immediately killed them. Warlord police and troops decapitated two hundred that day. The students, workers and Red cadres reacted violently and rioted for the next two days. Chiang's advance forces never arrived and warlord Sun's soldiers drove into the ranks of the rioters, killing many and swiftly suppressing the uprising.

Big-eared Du and the Green Gang recognized that the Reds and leftists had not given up plans to take over Shanghai. Du met secretly with the "lord mayor" or chairman of the International settlement, an American named Stirling Fessenden, and with the chief of police of the French concession. Du said his people would move against the Reds provided the French gave them 5,000 rifles and ammunition and the International settlement permitted movement of munitions and men through it. The French provided the arms and the International settlement council authorized transit to Du's hoodlums.

Chiang's forces now advanced against no opposition. The warlord troops concentrated mostly north of the International settlement on the railway leading to Nanjing. The Reds and leftists were ready to mount another insurrection inside Shanghai. Since the debacle of February 19-24, the Communist Zhou Enlai had reorganized the CCP forces into units of thirty men each. But they were armed mostly with knives, clubs and axes. They had only about a hundred and fifty guns, primarily German Mauser pistols. However, since most of the warlord troops had withdrawn, the revolt, beginning early on March 21, encountered little resistance. By afternoon on March 22, Shanghai was in leftist hands. By this time, KMT troops had arrived and they took the surrender of the remaining warlord soldiers.

Chiang Kai-shek arrived in Shanghai on March 26 and went immediately to a conference with the senior gang boss, "Pockmarked" Huang (Huang Jinrong). They were joined soon thereafter by Big-eared Du and by Zhang Xiaolin, head of the allied Blue Gang. Together, they planned to take the city away from the Reds. But Chiang showed nothing of his intentions in public, lulling the Communists and workers into believing he was solidly with them. When the compromiser Wang Jingwei arrived back from exile on April 1, Chiang spent two days conferring with him and announced that he would submit to Wang as chairman of the KMT. It was, of course, a lie, but Chiang disarmed a number of Reds and leftists. Wang, who probably knew what was in the wind, secretly boarded a river steamer on April 5 to Wuhan.

While Chiang completed his plans, he and the Shanghai gang troika squeezed the Shanghai business community hard for money. Within a few days, Chiang had secured several score millions of dollars from the Shanghai business community. These semi-extortions were known to the Communists but they scarcely reacted. Part of the reason may have been the unrealistic optimism of Joseph Stalin. On April 1 he said he knew Chiang was playing a cunning game "but it is he who will be crushed. We shall squeeze him like a lemon and then be rid of him." Stalin would not permit Zhou Enlai or other Red leaders to act.

In Beijing on April 6, Japan and the Western imperial powers demonstrated their opposition to Soviet help to the KMT. With the prior approval by the foreign diplomatic corps, five-hundred soldiers of the Manchurian warlord Zhang Zuolin, plus Beijing police and detectives, descended upon the Soviet embassy. The ostensible reason was that Chinese Communists were using the Chinese Eastern railway in Manchuria and the Russian bank to plan an insurrection. They arrested twenty-two Russians and thirty-six Kuomintang members hiding there, including Li Dazhao. They also found many CCP documents. The next day, authorities in the French concession in Tianjin searched Soviet establishments there and in the Shanghai International settlement British and Japanese troops surrounded the Soviet consulate and prevented access. Warlord Zhang's agents tortured Li Dazhao, then held him down and slowly strangled him as an "example" to other Communists. They also tortured Li's 17-year-old daughter, then strangled her. They executed eighteen other Chinese seized in the raid.

Finally, Chiang and the Green Gang were ready to strike in Shanghai. On the night of April 11, Wang Shouhua, the dynamic Communist chief of the Shanghai General Labor union, went innocently by invitation to Big-eared Du's house for dinner. As he was leaving, he was abducted, killed and his body dumped on the street. At 4 a.m. on April 12, a bugle sounded in Chiang's headquarters. It was seconded by a loud blast of a siren on Chiang's gunboat lying off the Bund. This was the signal for the Green Gang to strike. Big-eared Du had assembled hundreds of gangsters into squads with specific targets of attack. They were dressed in workers' clothing with white armbands bearing the Chinese ideograph for "labor." Several hundred of Chiang's soldiers were similarly disguised. Authorities in the International settlement and the French concession closed the barricades, thus preventing Reds from escaping into the foreign sanctuaries. But the foreign officials honored the agreement with Du: his and Chiang's trucks filled with disguised gangsters and soldiers passed through the concessions to attack the leftist and Red centers.

The "workers" stormed Communist party cells and offices of labor unions. With trusted Whampoa soldiers who had infiltrated during the night, the gangsters tried to storm a union hall and a Communist-held police station. When leftists in the union hall fought back, Chiang's soldiers pretended to restore order and mediate. When the leftists laid down their arms, three-hundred gangsters burst from a nearby building and shot them down. The battles raged for nearly nine hours. Nearly all of the Communists died fighting or were swiftly executed upon capture. The exact number killed is unknown, between four and seven hundred. Chiang ordered an additional number of leftist prisoners to be executed at his military base. Of the major Communist leaders in the city, only Zhou Enlai survived and he only by chance. Zhou escaped to Hankow and was later joined by the few other CCP leaders.

On April 13, leftist leaders in Shanghai (the Reds were practically all dead) called a protest strike. One-hundred thousand people walked off the job. The protesters planned to march on Chiang Kai-shek's headquarters. While they were still some distance away, soldiers on both sides of the route opened fire with machine guns and soldiers charged them with fixed bayonets. At least three hundred died. The author Han Suyin said Chiang and the gangsters sold 6,000 wives and daughters of workers into the brothels and factories of Shanghai and many people died in the white terror that followed.13

Chiang's agents and members of the Green Gang quickly spread the white terror to other cities in south China where they had control. In Guangzhou, troops of Li Jishen, the KMT garrison commander who had secretly allied himself with Chiang, embarked on a violent "party purification" campaign. All together, the military in Guangzhou captured two-thousand suspected Communists, and executed many of them. The purges went on long afterward and quickly ceased to be merely a weapon against the Communists. Chiang Kai-shek and his group sought out all real, suspected or potential opponents of the regime whom they could reach. Most of the actual Communists successfully escaped the purges, while Chiang and his cronies slaughtered thousands of persons not affiliated with them.14

The Wuhan government was helpless to do anything but protest Chiang's massacres. On April 17 it expelled Chiang from the party. Chiang ignored Wuhan and set up a rival central government in Nanjing. His government could count only five members of the KMT central executive committee of sixty. One of those joining was Hu Hanmin, who chaired the formal inauguration of the government. The Nanjing regime predictably ousted Communists from the KMT and named Borodin and several Chinese leftists as particularly evil.

Chapter 9: Chiang Advances, the Reds Retreat >>

1. Cambridge, vol. 12, pp. 551-9, 563-66; Hsü, pp. 523, 525; Seagrave, pp. 205-08.

2. Seagrave, pp. 207.

3. Cambridge, vol. 12, pp. 557-9, 570, 573-5; Hsü, p. 526; Seagrave, pp. 209-15; Clubb, p. 130-1.

4. There were persistent stores that Feng Yuxiang baptised his troops by platoons with fire hoses. Feng, a huge rustic, was converted to Christianity in 1914 by missionaries, partly because it fitted in with his somewhat puritanical tendencies and partly because he understood it might help him get foreign support. Feng's troops sang stirring Christian hymns in place of marching songs and Feng did insist on his soldiers behaving themselves. See Davies, p. 99; Cambridge, vol. 12, p. 285.

5. Cambridge, vol. 12, chapter 6, "The Warlord Era: Politics and Militarism under the Peking Government, 1916-28," by James E. Sheridan, professor of history, Northwestern University, pp. 315-17; chapter 11, "The Nationalist Revolution: from Canton to Nanking, 1923-28," by C. Martin Wilbur, professor of history emeritus, Columbia University, p. 577.

6. Hsü, p. 525; Cambridge, vol. 12, pp. 577-89; Seagrave, pp. 215-18.

7. Several of the Russians became seriously ill, one with cholera and several with dysentary. After the Jianxi campaign, a considerable number of the Russians were treated at the American hospital at Nanchang. See Cambridge, vol. 12, p. 589.

8. Cambridge, vol. 12, pp. 591-4; Schram, pp. 86-87.

9. Mao Zedong's famous "Report of an Investigation of the Agrarian Movement in Hunan," was published March 20, 1927, in the Guide Weekly, the CCP's youth publication. In this unique study, Mao ignored Marxist terminology entirely and issued a blunt call for peasant associations to be given complete freedom of action. There's no hint of the doctrinaire Marxist-Leninist insistence that revolution depends upon an industrial proletariat. He said the revolution could be accomplished wholly through the peasants. "The democratic forces in the village have arisen to overthrow the feudal forces in the village," he wrote. "The overthrow of feudal forces is, after all, the aim of the national revolution." Mao judged the worth of the revolutionary party by its willingness to lead the peasantry. Mao maintained that the so-called "excesses" of the peasants (their killings of landlords and others and their seizure of land) were mostly justified. The peasant, he said, is best able to distinguish between "bad gentry" and "good gentry." Mao added: "The revolution is, after all, no banquet. It's not quite as dainty an occupation as writing books or painting flowers.....A revolution is an insurrection, an act of violence by which one class overthrows another." Yet, in this report, Mao does not reach the logical conclusion which he came to in the same year: that military power is vital to succeed in a revolution. His formula in the Hunan report appears to be that the rage and enthusiasm of the peasants alone will sweep away all opposition. Nevertheless, in this brief study Mao showed that he had a far more accurate and clear picture of the path that China must follow to bring about a revolution than Joseph Stalin or the Comintern officials, who kept to their absurd idea that the Chinese people could carry out a people's revolution through the Kuomintang, whose ideology was directly opposed to violent seizure of land and whose military officers, largely drawn from the landlord class, could be relied upon to fight agrarian revolution at every step. See Harrison, pp. 106, 108; Cambridge, vol. 12, p. 607; Schwartz, pp. 73-78.

10. Cambridge, vol. 12, pp. 599-603; Iriye, pp. 92-94, 98-103.

11. Seagrave, pp. 216-7; Hsü, p. 527; Cambridge, vol. 12, pp. 603-09; Iriye, pp. 94-98.

12. The narrative about the Shanghai uprisings and the capture of Shanghai and Nanjing by KMT forces is drawn from Seagrave, pp. 217-24; Hsü, pp. 527-8; Cambridge, vol. 12, pp. 609-39; Clubb, p. 137; Harrison, pp. 91-96; Iriye, pp. 125-45; Borg, pp. 290-317.

13. Han Suyin, A Mortal Flower, 1962, p. 62.

14. Eastman, pp. 6-7.