China 1927: precursor to the slaughter in Indonesia

Second part of a commentary on the catastrophic 1965 slaughter of the Indonesian workers and peasants described, but not explained, in Joshua Oppenheimer’s film ‘The Act of Killing.’

The histories of China and Indonesia have been intertwined for centuries, through trade. Indonesia had its own trade goods, especially spices, and also served as a depot for the trade between China and Europe and the Indian subcontinent. Permanent Chinese trading colonies were established in Java (and throughout southeast Asia) by the seventeenth century.


Chinese-Indonesian tin miners 1930
Photo: Wikimedia commons. Tropenmuseum.

In the Dutch colonial period in Indonesia, these Chinese trading communities were swelled by indentured labourers brought from China to work, in slave-like conditions, in the Dutch-owned tobacco and sugar plantations and mills. Chinese workers joined with the  Javanese in an unsuccessful rebellion against Dutch rule in the mid-18th century.

By the beginning of the 20th century, China was in revolutionary ferment. The bourgeois democrat Sun Yat-sen travelled to the Dutch East Indies in 1900 to win support there for the Chinese revolution, and following his visit the Chinese Association was formed to organise this support. The movement Sun was part of overthrew the Qing emperor in 1911 and a republic was proclaimed in China.

Following the 1905 revolution in Russia, Indonesian workers and peasants also joined the anti-colonial movement. In the wake of the 1917 revolution in Russia the revolutionary ferment in China and Indonesia accelerated, and the class distinctions within the anti-imperialist movement sharpened.  One sign of this was the May Fourth Movement in China in 1919, which brought new social forces into motion, especially students and workers in the big cities like Shanghai, where there was a significant working class. Meanwhile, the bourgeois nationalists like Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek looked on with growing disquiet. Communist parties were formed in both China and Indonesia in the early 1920s, and both sent representatives to the Congresses of the Communist International.


Chiang Kai-shek

But by the late 1920s the consequences of the deepening Stalinist counter-revolution in Soviet Russia had made the situation far less favourable. In 1923 the Stalin leadership reversed the Communist International’s policy of maintaining the independence of the Communist parties from the bourgeois nationalist forces. In conformity with this reversal in China, members of the Communist Party effectively dissolved their independent organisation and joined the Kuomintang, the bourgeois nationalist party of Chiang Kai-shek. This policy was imposed on the Communist Party of China  (CCP) from Moscow against strong opposition in the Party in China. Chen Duxiu, the founding leader of the party, opposed the new policy but agreed to carry it out. Within the Kuomintang, CP members were forbidden to criticise ‘Sun Yat-senism.’

As this happened, the struggles by the working class in China were reaching a new height. In Shanghai, seventy thousand workers at the Japanese cotton mills went on strike in 1925. When British police fired upon a demonstration by these workers, killing seven, the strike spread to the whole working class of Shanghai. A similar killing of 57 demonstrating workers by British and French police in Guangzhou led to a general strike in Guangzhou and Hong Kong. During 1926, peasants increasingly entered the struggle, especially in Hunan, at first demanding lowered rents and interest rates, later fighting to get rid of the landlords and take over the land.

Chen Duxiu and another founding leader of the CCP, Peng Shuzi, renewed their efforts to get the CP to separate from the Kuomintang, and again they were overruled by Moscow. Peng wrote: “The tide of revolution is still swelling and deepening. On the other hand, a compromising and reactionary tendency among the leaders of the National Revolutionary [Kuomintang] Army has become apparent. They have attempted, publicly or secretly, to make a compromise with the enemy against the masses they confront. This is the most dangerous phenomenon in the revolution at present, and it may well destroy the whole revolution.”

Chen Duxiu

Chen Duxiu

Unknown to Chen and Peng, the policy of CP members joining the Kuomintang was also opposed by Trotsky in the Soviet Union. Trotsky wrote in 1926: “The leftward movement of the masses of Chinese workers is as certain a fact as the rightward movement of the Chinese bourgeoisie. Insofar as the Kuomintang has been based on the political and organizational union of the workers and the bourgeoisie, it must now be torn apart by the centrifugal forces of the class struggle”. (Leon Trotsky on China, p114)

Torn apart it soon was, and the initiative came from Chiang Kai-shek. Beginning in March 1927 Chiang organised a series of coups in which his forces systematically disarmed, suppressed, and dispersed the organisations of the working class. The sharpest blow came in Shanghai, where Chiang’s forces gunned down thousands of fighting workers and CP members. The industrial centres in Shanghai and the southest were occupied by troops loyal to Chiang, and unions were suppressed.

The revolutionary movement in China was not yet defeated. Mobilisations of workers and peasants continued to gather strength, especially in Hunan, where unions had a membership of over a million and the Hunan Peasant Association, ten million members. Land occupations spread.

ChiangsTroopsExecute Worker1927

Chiang’s troops execute Communist worker

Still the Stalin leadership refused to draw the lessons from Chiang’s coup and regroup. Instead, Stalin directed the CCP to place its hopes in the ‘left’ Kuomintang leader Wang Jingwei, based in Wuhan. In order not to alienate Wang, the CCP forbade land takeovers by the peasants and factory occupations by the workers.

Trotsky warned: “The agrarian revolution is a serious thing. Politicians of the Wang Jingwei type, under difficult conditions, will unite ten times with Chiang Kai-shek against the workers and peasants.”

The CCP made further concessions to Wang. Thus the fatal logic of class collaboration played itself out. For fear of driving the ‘left’ Wang into the arms of the reactionary Chiang Kai-shek, in June 1927 the General Trades Union of Hupeh voluntarily disbanded their pickets and turned over their weapons and ammunition to the military guard in Wuhan. Even this abject surrender was insufficient for Wang: in July he expelled the Communists from the Kuomintang and the Revolutionary Army, laying the basis for further repressions. (Wang Jingwei later headed the government set up by the invading Japanese army.)

Only then, when the Chinese revolution was mortally wounded, did Stalin dictate the launching of a series of abortive uprisings, which were easily crushed by the Kuomintang, at the cost of thousands more lives of CCP workers and peasants.

By the end of 1927, the defeat was complete, and tens of thousands of fighting workers and peasants lay dead. The Communist Party of China was not totally annihilated; a crippled remnant remained, cut off from the proletarian centres, and imbued with a deep hostility to the working class. Stalin scapegoated Chen for the defeat, and installed a more compliant leader, Mao Zedong, in his place.  Mao was a strong supporter of Stalin’s class-collaborationist policy of supporting the Kuomintang, and elevated it to a general historical law in his ‘Theory of the Bloc of Four classes.” His leadership maintained this policy throughout the tumultuous years of the Japanese occupation and the new revolutionary situation which developed in the wake of Japan’s defeat.

Mao, in turn, became a key influence on the Indonesian Communist party, helping to develop its policy of support to the Indonesian bourgeois nationalist leadership of Sukarno. This laid the basis for the slaughter of the Indonesian workers and peasants of 1965, which bears many similarities to the Chiang’s reactionary coup in 1927. This will be the subject of a future post.

Coming soon: my new Ebook on the Indonesian catastrophe of 1965
China, class collaboration and the killing fields of Indonesia in 1965


3 responses to “China 1927: precursor to the slaughter in Indonesia

  1. Pingback: The fatal course of the Communist Party of Indonesia – Part 1 | A communist at large·

  2. Pingback: China, class collaboration, and the Indonesian killing fields | A communist at large·

  3. Pingback: The two golden ages of Shanghai | A communist at large·

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