Shanghai May Thirtieth Movement

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Shanghai May Thirtieth Movement

China 1925


In early 1925 both the working class and the Chinese elite in Shanghai began to agitate against the presence of foreigners in the city. In May the situation became tense when a Japanese foreman killed a Chinese worker. On 30 May several thousand residents of Shanghai marched to protest the killing. Police responded by firing into the crowds, killing 10 people and injuring dozens more. This event prompted the city's workers, merchants, and students to unite in what is sometimes called the May Thirtieth Movement. The result of the movement was a general strike in the city that virtually shut down Shanghai. However, the unity of the various groups did not last, as the merchants ended their strike in late June. The workers continued to strike until September, by which time they had reached compromises with Shanghai's foreign interests.


  • 1910: Introduction of neon lighting.
  • 1915: A German submarine sinks the Lusitania, killing 1,195, including 128 U.S. citizens. Theretofore, many Americans had been sympathetic toward Germany, but the incident begins to turn the tide of U.S. sentiment toward the Allies.
  • 1920: Bolsheviks eliminate the last of their opponents, bringing an end to the Russian Civil War. By then, foreign troops, representing a dozen nations that opposed the communists, have long since returned home.
  • 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.
  • 1923: Conditions in Germany worsen as inflation skyrockets and France, attempting to collect on coal deliveries promised at Versailles, marches into the Ruhr basin. In November an obscure political group known as the National Socialist German Workers' Party attempts to stage a coup, or putsch, in a Munich beer hall. The revolt fails, and in 1924 the party's leader, Adolf Hitler, will receive a prison sentence of five years. He will only serve nine months, however, and the incident will serve to attract attention for him and his party, known as the Nazis.
  • 1925: Wyoming Democrat Nellie Tayloe Ross becomes the first woman governor elected in the United States.
  • 1925: European leaders attempt to secure the peace at the Locarno Conference, which guarantees the boundaries between France and Germany, and Belgium and Germany.
  • 1925: In Tennessee, John T. Scopes is fined for teaching evolution in a public school. There follows a highly publicized trial at which famed attorney Clarence Darrow represents the defense, while the aging Democratic populist William Jennings Bryan argues for the state. The "Scopes Monkey Trial" symbolizes a widening divisions between rural and urban America, and though the court decides in favor of the state, it is clear that the historical tide is turning against the old agrarian order symbolized by Bryan—who dies during the trial.
  • 1925: Released from Landsberg Prison, Adolf Hitler is a national celebrity, widely regarded as an emerging statesman who offers genuine solutions to Germany's problems. This year, he publishes the first volume of Mein Kampf (My Struggle), which he dictated in prison to trusted confederate Rudolf Hess. The second and final volume of Hitler's opus, a mixture of autobiography, "history," and racial rant, will appear two years later.
  • 1928: Sixty-five nations sign the Kellogg-Briand Pact, outlawing war.
  • 1930: Naval disarmament treaty signed by the United States, Great Britain, France, Italy, and Japan.
  • 1935: Italians invade Ethiopia, and the response by the League of Nations—which imposes sanctions but otherwise fails to act—reveals the impotence of that organization.

Event and Its Context

Events Leading up to the Strike

In the weeks and months leading up to the general strike in Shanghai, there was growing unhappiness among both the Chinese working class in the city and among the elite. The Chinese business elite in Shanghai were upset because of a number of newly proposed laws, and they reacted through their general chamber of commerce. In particular, they were displeased with proposals for higher wharfage fees and press control.

At the same time, worker agitation had begun in the city. As early as February 1925 workers staged strikes against Shanghai's Japanese-owned cotton mills. Worker activity continued in the coming months. More strikes took place in May, and some of the workers formed the West Shanghai Workers' Club. This club, which was led by Liu Hua and Sun Liang-hui, served as a union for the cotton mill workers. The confrontation escalated on 15 May, when a fight broke out between a Japanese foreman and a Chinese worker named Ku Cheng-hung. The Japanese foreman killed Ku, outraging the Chinese laboring class. The workers held a memorial service for Ku on 24 May that drew some 5,000 people. In addition to Ku's fellow workers, student groups in Shanghai also lent their support.

The West Shanghai Workers' Club, students, and members of the Communist Party scheduled a demonstration for 30 May to protest the killing. Several thousand Shanghai residents took part in the march. The protesters soon clashed with police. Without warning, the police fired into the crowd, causing 10 deaths and more than 50 injuries.

In response to the police violence, Shanghai residents held a meeting on 31 May at the offices of the general chamber of commerce. Workers, students, and merchants attended the meeting. All three groups agreed to stage a strike in protest of the 30 May police action. Furthermore, among other demands, they called for a boycott of foreign banks and demanded compensation for the families of the victims of the 30 May incident.

The Strike Begins

The strike began on 1 June and was coordinated by the newly created Shanghai General Union, which had links to the Communist Party. By 4 June some 74,000 strikers were participating. By 13 June the number of strikers had grown to about 160,000. Most affected by the strike were foreign-owned firms in Shanghai, especially those owned by the Japanese and British. Foreign authorities in the city responded with force. They mobilized the Volunteer Corps, the foreign defense force, and declared martial law. They also brought gunboats up the Huangpu River and closed down Shanghai University. There were numerous violent clashes. In the first few days of the strike, more than 60 people lost their lives.

In response to the violent reaction of the foreign authorities, the strikers became even more determined. An action committee, made up of the Shanghai General Union, the Shanghai Students' Federation, the National Students' Federation, and the federated shopkeepers associations, met on 7 June. Together they formed a new group known as the Shanghai Workers', Merchants', and Students' Federation. At a mass demonstration by 20,000 people on 11 June, the new groups ratified a 17-point program. They repeated some of the earlier demands, such as compensation for the victims of 30 May. However, they now went much further and made additional demands on Shanghai's foreign authorities. They demanded that changes be made in the status of the city's International Settlement, such as abolishing the Volunteer Corps; allowing for freedom of speech, assembly, and press in the International Settlement; withdrawing of foreign armed forces; and abolishing extraterritoriality. Thus, the demands of Shanghai residents had gone beyond economic concerns and had acquired a political tone.

The Role of the Shanghai General Union

As the strike progressed, the General Union played the most significant role. Formed on 31 May after the violent clash with police the previous day, the General Union soon had control of much of the city's working class. It established branches in the main working-class areas of Shanghai and encouraged the formation of unions among different trades such as postal workers, printers, and streetcar employees. It also distributed a bulletin several times a week. Furthermore, the General Union helped to organize pickets throughout the city so as to inhibit the use of strikebreakers and to impede the transport of Japanese goods in Shanghai.

The General Union was also important because it was able to collect money for a strike fund to provide for the striking workers. It obtained funds from a variety of sources. Students made donations to the striking workers. The General Union made collections in the Chinese-owned factories where work continued. International labor organizations such as the Red International of Labor Unions provided money to the striking Shanghai workers as did the government at Canton, and the warlord government of the north supplied financial aid to the workers. Finally, the Shanghai elite donated to the strike effort because they generally supported the political demands of the movement and also saw it as a way of squeezing out foreign competition.

The Strike Weakens

Early in the strike there was much solidarity among the various sectors of Shanghai's society, but by the end of June there was much less enthusiasm and unity. The first to abandon the movement were the Chinese bourgeoisie and merchants. They began to make compromises with the authorities of the International Settlement. Once they had achieved what they wanted, the merchants ended their strike on 25 June.

The Shanghai General Union continued its struggle despite the defection of the merchants. However, its efforts were hampered by the action of the city's Municipal Council. At the suggestion of a manager at one of the British-owned cotton mills, the municipal leaders cut off the electricity to the Chinese-owned factories, where work had continued. They did this in hopes of increasing the number of strikers and therefore placing a strain on the General Union's strike fund. In turn, this would weaken the resolve of the workers' movement. In addition, this strategy would pressure the Chinese mill owners not to support the strike, as it would now affect their operations. The move seemed to be successful, as the number of strikers increased by about 20,000 and the Chamber of Commerce began to withdraw its aid to the striking workers.

Once the elite Chinese abandoned the movement, the strikers also lost much of their support from Chinese authorities. By July the military authorities of Shanghai began to complain about the fact that the strike was disturbing public order in the city. Furthermore, they ordered the registration and inspection of the city's unions.

There was also some dissension among the workers of Shanghai. Some accused the General Union of prolonging the strike for its own political purposes and the personal ambitions of some of its leaders. The split among the workers began to pit those who supported the Communist Party against those who opposed its policies. In particular, the anticommunist Federation of Labor Organizations (FLO) began to challenge the Shanghai General Union. In fact, on 22 August a group of armed men attacked the headquarters of the General Union, wounding a number of strikers, destroying property and documents, and stealing money. The attack was generally attributed to the FLO.

The End of the Strike

Because of all of these problems, the strikers began to seek a compromise that would not be seen as capitulation. Their compromise proposal included several issues. The General Union called for the reinstatement of workers and strike pay equal to one-third of their normal pay. It also demanded punishment for those responsible for the 30 May incident and compensation for the families of the victims of the confrontation. In addition, the strikers demanded the recognition of all unions affiliated with the Shanghai General Union, a 10 percent wage increase, and guarantees against poor treatment and unfair dismissal of workers. Thus, by this point, the workers were more concerned with the economic concerns than with the political matters that they had earlier added to their list of demands.

The desire for a compromise among the participants in the strike movement soon led to an agreement with the Japanese interests in the city. The Japanese consul-general in Shanghai met with representatives of the General Union and agreed on compensation for the family of Ku Cheng-hung. The Japanese also recognized the General Union as the representative of worker interests in the city. In addition, the Japanese authorities promised to prevent the ill treatment of Chinese workers. Thus, by the end of August, workers were back on the job in the Japanese-owned mills in Shanghai.

At the same time that the compromise was reached with the Japanese, a number of other workers started new strikes. On 17 August postal workers struck. On 22 August the workers at the city's Commercial Press also walked off the job. Finally, on 29 August the employees of the China Bookshop went on strike. All of these workers were affiliated with the General Union, and all won recognition, wage increases, and other benefits. The agitation also spread to the railroad workers, who obtained wage increases without having to resort to a strike.

The problem with these additional strikes was that they were directed at Chinese firms rather than those owned by foreign interests. Thus, these actions hurt the workers' relationships with the elite Chinese of Shanghai as well as with the city's authorities, who become much less tolerant of the movement as a result. On 19 September, for example, the police announced that all labor organizations in the city were considered to be illegal until the government in Beijing announced its promised trade union legislation. The General Union and its affiliates were shut down, as was the Federation of Workers, Merchants, and Students. This action by the Chinese authorities brought the strike wave to an end. By the end of September the strikers had made an agreement with the British mill owners, and then by early October almost all work resumed in Shanghai.

Key Players

Ku Cheng-hung (?-1925): Ku was a Chinese worker in a Japanese-owned factory in Shanghai. On 15 May 1925, after some of the workers broke down the gates of the factory and wrecked some of the machinery, Ku got into a fight with a Japanese foreman and was killed. Ku's death led to demonstrations against the foreign presence in Shanghai and marked the beginning of the May Thirtieth Movement and the general strike that accompanied it.

Liu Hua (?-1925): A printer by trade, Liu became a leader of the Shanghai labor movement. He was one of leaders of the West Shanghai Workers Club. He was influential in organizing the protests of 30 May 1925 and became the president of the Shanghai General Union that was created as a result of the May Thirtieth Movement. In November 1925 Liu was arrested and executed.

See also: Shanghai May Fourth Movement.



Chesneaux, Jean. The Chinese Labor Movement, 1919-1927.Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1968.

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

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

—Ronald Young