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Chiang Kai-shek Purges Communists

Chiang Kai-shek Purges Communists

China 1927


In April 1927 Chiang Kai-shek and the nationalists in China purged the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in the city of Shanghai. After the Nationalist Party, or Guomindang (GMD), split upon the death of Sun Yat-sen in 1925, Chiang became the leader of its right-wing faction. In 1926 he launched the Northern Expedition against warlord rule in China. While initially the GMD and the communists had cooperated through their United Front, Chiang felt the communists had become too revolutionary. Therefore, as his Northern Expedition approached the city of Shanghai, he decided that, along with business interests, gangsters, and foreigners in the city, he would crack down on the communists and the labor unions controlled by the CCP. This action was part of a broader conflict in Chinese cities in April 1927 that pitted conservative political elements against radicals such as the communists. Chiang's decision led to a bloody purge of the CCP in Shanghai, in which several thousand people died. While this "cleansing of the party," as the nationalists called it, helped to solve the immediate question of whether the communists or the nationalists would control China, it also led to decades of civil war in the country and hundreds of thousands more deaths.


  • 1911: In China, revolutionary forces led by Sun Yat-sen bring an end to more than 2,100 years of imperial rule.
  • 1917: On both the Western Front and in the Middle East, the tide of the war begins to turn against the Central Powers. The arrival of U.S. troops, led by General Pershing, in France in June greatly boosts morale and reinforces exhausted Allied forces. Meanwhile, Great Britain scores two major victories against the Ottoman Empire as T. E. Lawrence leads an Arab revolt in Baghdad in March, and troops under Field Marshal Edmund Allenby take Jerusalem in December.
  • 1922: Inspired by the Bolsheviks' example of imposing revolution by means of a coup, Benito Mussolini leads his blackshirts in an October "March on Rome," and forms a new fascist government.
  • 1924: V. I. Lenin dies, and thus begins a struggle for succession from which Josef Stalin will emerge five years later as the undisputed leader of the Communist Party, and of the Soviet Union.
  • 1927: Stalin arranges to have Trotsky expelled from the Communist Party.
  • 1927: Charles A. Lindbergh makes the first successful solo nonstop flight across the Atlantic and becomes an international hero.
  • 1927: American inventor Philo T. Farnsworth demonstrates a working model of the television, and Belgian astronomer Georges Lemaître proposes the Bang Theory.
  • 1927: The Jazz Singer, starring Al Jolson, is the first major motion picture with sound. Within a few years, silent movies will become a thing of the past.
  • 1927: Babe Ruth hits 60 home runs, establishing a record that will stand until 1961.
  • 1930: Naval disarmament treaty is signed by the United States, Great Britain, France, Italy, and Japan.
  • 1932: When Ukrainians refuse to surrender their grain to his commissars, Stalin seals off supplies to the region, creating a manmade famine that will produce a greater death toll than the entirety of World War I.
  • 1937: Japan attacks China, and annexes most of that nation's coastal areas.

Event and Its Context

The City of Shanghai

By the 1920s Shanghai had become the largest and most cosmopolitan city in Asia. The city had been growing in size and importance since the middle of the nineteenth century. After China's humiliating defeat in the Opium War (1839-1842), the British had forced China to open Shanghai and several other "treaty ports" to foreign trade. The city, therefore, had a large foreign presence and was home to many Western financial institutions. Foreigners lived in separate, autonomous districts. The city had also industrialized, and its many factories attracted thousands of migrants from other areas within China. By the 1860s, after the Taiping Rebellion (1851-1864), the city surpassed Guangzhou (Canton) as China's primary commercial center. By 1900 Shanghai was home to more than one million inhabitants. The city also had its share of dance halls, brothels, gambling centers, and opium dens.

The Communists in Shanghai

In addition to being China's main trading city, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was formed in Shanghai in 1921. The early CCP was influenced by the events of 1911, in which forces led by Sun Yat-sen overthrew the Qing Dynasty; the CCP cooperated with Sun's Nationalist Party, which was organized in 1912. The May Fourth Movement of 1919 also influenced the CCP. In that year students in Beijing began to protest against the terms of the Versailles Treaty that ended World War I, sparking a national political movement that spread to Shanghai.

The CCP received aid from Soviet advisers. In 1922 the Comintern (the Communist International, which existed from 1919 to 1943) ordered the CCP to cooperate with the Guomindang (GMD). Thus, in 1923 the CCP and GMD formed the first United Front. (The two groups united once again when the Japanese invaded Manchuria in 1937.) However, in 1925 Sun Yatsen died, and his GMD divided into left-and right-wing factions. The left-wing faction, headed by Wang Jing-wei, set up a government at Wuhan in Hubei Province. The right-wing faction was led by Chiang Kai-shek, who in 1926 launched the Northern Expedition against warlord rule in China and sought to unify the country

In the period from 1925 to 1927, the Communist Party in Shanghai grew rapidly, part of a general trend throughout the country following the May Thirtieth Movement of 1925 and the establishment of the United Front. In October 1925 there were just over 1,000 Communist Party members in China's largest city. By April 1927 there were some 13,000. As the CCP in Shanghai grew in strength, it came to dominate many unions and was also influential among student groups. In addition, the CCP had created a paramilitary force known as the Workers' Inspection Corps, which it used to enforce strikes and intimidate foremen in both Chinese and foreign-owned factories. Soon they began to lead uprisings in the city against warlord rule.

In addition to the Communist Party itself in Shanghai, the communist-dominated Shanghai General Labor Union (GLU) played a key role in the city during the events of 1927. The union fought against local authorities, the warlords, foreign powers, and the nationalists. Despite increased repression, the union led a series of strikes in 1926 and 1927. The union's activities were related in part to economic grievances, as inflation was high. In addition, the union leaders were spurred on by the success of Chiang Kai-shek's Northern Expedition and the weakening of Sun Ch'uan-fang, the warlord who controlled the city.

The "Three Armed Uprisings"

As Chiang Kai-shek continued to win military victories, the Shanghai GLU was encouraged by the possible takeover of the city by the GMD. In anticipation of Chiang's arrival, the GLU sought to mobilize the city's workers. In October 1926 the union made its first attempt to overthrow the militarist warlord rule in the city, as Sun Ch'uan-fang was busy elsewhere fighting a rebellious subordinate and the nationalists. The strike was put down, however, and more than 100 workers were arrested. In light of this initial failure, the communists later sent Zhou Enlai to Shanghai to direct the struggle there.

In early 1927 the radicals in Shanghai attempted a second uprising against warlord rule. More demonstrations were planned for February 1927 as Chiang and the nationalists approached Shanghai after defeating Sun Ch'uan-fang's forces, who had blocked his approach. As Chiang neared the city, the communists and the Shanghai GLU decided that the best course of action was to take control of the city first and then welcome Chiang. The communists hoped this would prevent Chiang from establishing hegemony in Shanghai. They began to plan an uprising in the city to achieve this goal, imitating the May Thirtieth Movement.

On 23 February the communists established a special committee to plan the uprising. They also negotiated for support among members of the GMD who were already in the city. The communists proposed that after the uprising, a "citizen's assembly" would ratify a new government for Shanghai. The GMD agreed to the idea of sharing governmental control of the city. However, they objected to the idea of an uprising. As a compromise, the sides agreed to stage a general strike.

This time, the action began with a massive strike of some 350,000 workers, paralyzing the city. The workers posted banners with slogans such as "Hail the Northern Expedition" and "Hail Chiang Kai-shek." However, the strike was not well coordinated, and once again warlord Sun Ch'uan-fang and his supporters crushed the attempted rebellion. There were 20 public decapitations, and authorities mounted the heads on stakes for public display. Some observers and historians have suggested that the nationalists purposely held back from the city to allow Sun Ch'uan-fang to crack down first on the workers and then on the communists. The communist leadership then sent more workers into the streets, and street fighting took place in late February.

Despite the repression, the union remained intact and even initiated more action. As the nationalists continued their march toward Shanghai, the workers and the communist leaders called for more strikes and demonstrations. Zhou Enlai approved a third uprising for March 1927 that included a simultaneous general strike and armed uprising. On 21 March between 600,000 and 800,000 workers struck in demand for an end to militarist rule of the city. Among the workers who played key roles were the printers, postal workers, and mechanics. Several thousand radicals also formed an armed militia that occupied key sections of the city.

In addition to the general strike and armed uprising, a key to the initial success of the movement was the support of the gangsters from Shanghai's underworld. At a secret Communist Party planning meeting two days before the uprising began, Wang Shouhua, chairman of the GLU, reported to Zhou Enlai that a leading gangster, Du Yuesheng, wanted to cooperate with the radical movement. Du, along with Green Gang patriarch Huang Jinrong, played an important support role. These gangsters supplied money for the communist-backed unions, arranged for the release of arrested workers, shared intelligence about the warlords, and offered protection to individuals trapped in Shanghai's foreign concessions.

With this aid from Shanghai's gangsters, the radicals controlled the city within two days. They succeeded in liberating the city from control by the northern military warlords and disarmed the Chinese police in Shanghai. They occupied police stations, railway stations, an arsenal, courts, and prisons. In most cases, the warlord troops simply abandoned their positions. In fact, some of the defeated warlord troops joined the radicals. However, in some parts of the city, there was heavy fighting. In the Zhabei district, for example, some 200 workers died in the struggle.

The communists and workers set up a provisional municipal government for the city that included members of the Communist Party, the GMD, gangsters, and business interests. There was a 19-man governing council that included five communists, such as GLU chairman Wang Shouhua. On 27 March, Wang was elected as the chairman of the executive committee of the new workers' government. The new provisional government called for better working conditions for the workers and an end to the unequal treaties. They later agreed to leave negotiations to end the treaties to the nationalist government at Wuhan, fearing foreign intervention. The diverse groups represented in the new Shanghai government were the products of their united opposition to warlord rule. Their coalition, however, did not last, as disputes quickly arose over the composition of the provisional government and the arming of workers.

Chiang Kai-shek Purges the Communists and Workers

As early as 22 March 1927, Chiang's force in Shanghai was already 3,000 strong. Chiang himself arrived on 26 March, and he began meeting with members of the GMD, the Shanghai business community, and the gangsters. Chiang and his allies concluded that the changes that the communists and the workers desired were too radical. Indeed, Chiang had decided that both the communists and the left wing of the GMD had become too revolutionary. In exchange for a promise to destroy the radical movement in the city, Shanghai's more conservative elements provided Chiang with large sums of money. It should have come as no surprise to anyone that Chiang decided to move against the radicals, as he had already done so in several other cities in late March.

The gangsters soon decided to turn on the communists and the workers. They did so because they viewed Chiang as a more important backer of their lucrative opium trade than either of the other two groups. Chiang had old ties to the Shanghai gangsters. Now he needed their support in order to take control of the city. For their part, the gangsters, aware of Chiang's military victories, sought protection for their opium business. Thus, in late March, Chiang sent some of his associates to the city to contact the gangsters. They met with some of the key gang leaders and began to plan an anticommunist movement.

The gangsters in turn contacted the authorities in the Shanghai International Settlement and the French Concession. Foreign officials agreed to provide weapons and ammunition to Chiang and the gangsters and to allow them free passage through the International Settlement. Western authorities did not want to see the seizure of foreign settlements in the city, as had happened in other cities, such as when angry Chinese crowds of the anti-imperialist movement attacked the British settlement in Hankou. Foreigners were also frightened by the Nanjing Incident, which they blamed on communists; actually, however, the nationalists were the perpetrators of this series of attacks on foreign civilians. Some foreign officials, such as the Japanese Consul General, thus advised Chiang to crack down on the radical elements in the city.

Soon Chiang's supporters established a rival municipal government and labor union to counter the communists and the GLU. In early April skirmishes began to take place between the rival groups. By 5 April a crackdown on the radicals began, and workers were arrested. Chiang had ordered his general, Bai Chongxi, to force the radicals to surrender their arms. Those who did not were suppressed, and some 3,000 members of the Workers Inspection Corps were defeated. At this point, many world leaders still hoped to avoid a major conflict. Even Stalin sent a message from Moscow, ordering the Chinese communists to disarm. The CCP, however, did not heed Stalin's advice.

In the early morning hours of 12 April 1927, nationalist troops disguised as workers and members of the Green Gang made their move against the workers. After passing through the International Settlement with the aid of foreign authorities, Chiang's supporters entered the Chinese section of the city and rounded up many radical leaders, including Zhou Enlai, who later escaped. Wang Shouhua was not so lucky. Green Gang leader Du Yuesheng invited Wang, who was also a gang member, to dinner, only to have him killed. Many of those captured were sent to General Bai's headquarters, where hundreds were executed.

In response, some 200,000 workers struck the next day. The radicals also protested to the Wuhan government, but to no avail. They were no match for the combined opposition of the GMD and the gangsters. Unlike the May Thirtieth Movement two years earlier, the Shanghai uprising in 1927 seems not to have had the widespread support from the workers necessary for the uprising's success. Chiang's men shot and killed hundreds more on 13 April amid these protests. The remaining communist and labor leaders fled or went into hiding. Some merged with CCP groups elsewhere in the country. Some, like Zhou Enlai, organized uprisings against the GMD later in the year. However, many were captured and executed in the coming months. The situation of the communists was made worse when in addition to Chiang and his followers, the left wing of the GMD also determined that the communists posed a threat and therefore began to persecute the CCP. In the days after the failure, Zhou Enlai felt the radicals had been unable to communicate to the general population why the uprising was needed and that the average people were simply confused about the events.

Aftermath of the Crackdown

Following his brutal suppression of the communists in Shanghai, Chiang continued his Northern Expedition. By 1928 he had also captured Beijing. Chiang set up a nationalist government at Nanjing, effectively ending the warlord era in China.

After the events of 12 April, the nationalists and the gangsters took control of the labor movement in Shanghai. They formed the Unification Committee for Shanghai Union Organization, which was largely staffed with gangsters. This ruthless organization arrested and executed many suspected radicals in the city. There was some resistance to the new organization among the workers. However, due to the repressive measures used by the gangsters, such resistance was mostly ineffective. Even some members of the GMD disapproved of the gangsters' heavy-handed treatment of the workers, leading them to create the Shanghai Workers' General Association in November 1927. The two new organizations now competed for control of Shanghai's working class.

Key Players

Chiang Kai-shek (1887-1975): After the death of Sun Yat-sen in 1925, Chiang became the principal leader of the Nationalist Party in China. In 1926 he launched the Northern Expedition in an attempt to end warlord rule and unify the country. While initially the nationalists had cooperated with the Chinese Communist Party through the United Front, in 1927 Chiang turned on the communists. He violently attacked the communists and the workers in Shanghai, an act that resulted in thousands of deaths.

Du Yuesheng (1888-1951): Du Yuesheng was a powerful gangster in Shanghai associated with the notorious Green Gang. The primary concern of Du and the other gangsters was the opium trade. Du supported whichever group he felt would both benefit and protect his opium business. At first he supported the communists in their struggle against warlord rule, only to turn on the radicals in support of Chiang Kai-shek.

Sun Ch'uan-fang: Sun Ch'uan-fang was a Chinese warlord who dominated Shanghai and the region around it. Sun's position was greatly weakened by Chiang Kai-shek's Northern Expedition. As Chiang approached the city, the communists and workers took advantage of Sun's decline and took control of the city.

Wang Shouhua: Member of the Communist Party in Shanghai, Wang was also the leader of the city's General Labor Union. He played a key role in planning the 1927 uprising against warlord rule. In the crackdown that followed, the Shanghai gangsters who cooperated with Chiang Kai-shek killed Wang.

Zhou Enlai (1898-1976): Zhou Enlai was a key communist leader in China who eventually became the second most powerful member of the communist government after the 1949 revolution. Zhou had taken part in the May Fourth Movement in 1919. In 1922 he became a member of the CCP. In 1926 he moved to Shanghai. He was influential in organizing the 1927 uprising that was then crushed by Chiang Kai-shek. Zhou narrowly escaped the nationalist crackdown on the communists in the city.

See also: Shanghai May Fourth Movement; Shanghai May Thirtieth Movement.



Harrison, James Pinckney. The Long March to Power: A History of the Chinese Communist Party, 1921-1972. New York: Praeger Publishers, 1972.

Isaacs, Harold R. The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1961.

Perry, Elizabeth. Shanghai on Strike: The Politics of Chinese Labor. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1993.

Stranahan, Patricia. Underground: The Shanghai Communist Party and the Politics of Survival, 1927-1937. Lanham, MD: Rowan & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 1998.

Van de Ven, Hans. From Friend to Comrade: The Founding of the Chinese Communist Party, 1920-1927. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1991.

Wakeman, Frederic, Jr. Policing Shanghai, 1927-1937. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1995.

—Ronald Young

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