Revisiting CPC congress legacy in fostering social revolution

A few observations suffice to tell us how risky it was to be a revolutionary in times such as these, and how resourceful CPC delegates must be to outwit police and spies.

ON a recent frigid day, I visited the memorial of the Fourth National Congress of the Communist Party of China in northern Shanghai’s Hongkou District.

This is the third such visit following my tour of two “red” heritage sites, the museums of the CPC First and Second National Congresses.

Precisely around the same time 93 years ago, 20 CPC delegates representing their respective regions gathered secretly at an old-style lane house on what is now East Baoxing Road. The house was reduced to a heap of rubble by Japanese mortar fire during the first Battle of Shanghai in 1932.

In 2011, the Hongkou District Government laid out a plan to build a memorial in a park, which opened to the public upon completion the following year.

The day I visited the park was unusually chilly, with gales lashing the trees and swirling up fallen leaves. The memorial was almost empty but for a few visitors.

Freed from the chatter you’d expect in such a setting, I sauntered down the hallways flanked by objects on display, carefully studying the old photos, correspondence and historical documents. A message emerged: The Fourth National Congress was a great catalyst for social changes in the Republican period (1912-1949).

Any serious discussion of the legacy of the Fourth National Congress cannot proceed without a mention of its immediate predecessor and the Kuomintang’s First National Congress.

It was established at the CPC Third National Congress, in June, 1923, that Communists could join the Nationalist Party while retaining their CPC membership, so as to build a “united front.”

Moreover, a key topic explored at the KMT’s First National Congress in January 1924 was also the possibility of dual Party membership.

Together, the two meetings paved the way for the consummation of the long-awaited cooperation between the KMT and CPC. And Communists and Communist Youth League members had since joined the Nationalists in their personal capacity, making the Nationalists more broadly-representational.

We all know a bit about the circumstances leading up to the second KMT-CPC cooperation during the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression (1931-1945), but details of their first cooperation have been relatively less well-known.

The pictures hanging on the walls reminded me of the specific context in which the cooperation came about.

In the wake of the CPC First and Second National Congresses, warlords, under the tutelage of the imperialists that backed them, vied for power and their infighting practically divided China into different spheres of influence. The majority of the people chafed under their misrule and tyranny.

Therefore, to drive out imperialists and put down their warlord minions became the binding force that glued together revolutionaries including the Communists and Nationalists.

A few observations suffice to tell us how risky it was to be a revolutionary in times such as these, and how resourceful CPC delegates must be to outwit police and spies from the former Concession areas that might be after them.

A replica of the meeting room in the memorial of the CPC Fourth National Congress contained a blackboard with English texts scrawled on it ­— meant to disguise the meeting as an English class in the event of a raid.

Amid this tense atmosphere, the delegates discussed issues about the prospect of KMT-CPC cooperation, and they decided that the KMT, founded and led by Sun Yat-sen, held enough prestige among the general populace to be counted on as a revolutionary partner.

Tricky path

Thanks to Sun’s pro-Communist ideology, and prodded by the nascent Soviet Union, a big patron of Sun’s regime, the two parties embarked on a tricky path to bipartisanship, hence the foundation for dual party membership.

Descriptions at the memorial gave due notice of the importance of this chapter of history, saying that “through joint efforts made by the KMT and the CPC, the influence of China’s revolution quickly spread from its south to the central hinterland and northern areas”.

Nonetheless, fissures between the Nationalists and Communists had been there from the very beginning of their cooperation. And this is borne out by a lot of documents on display.

“Due to opposition, impeachment and sanctions by the right wing of KMT, the two parties started to strongly diverge on more issues,” goes one caption.

A graphic illustration of the growing rivalry between the two parties is a directive signed jointly by Chen Duxiu and Mao Zedong, two founding fathers of CPC.

The original English directive pointed out that there were only a few persons in Kuomintang at that time who had not the tendency to separate with Communists, but they dared not to offend the Rights and correct their mistakes.

In response to attacks by KMT elders like Zhang Ji that dual membership will actually lead to KMT’s demise, Yun Daiying, a CPC dignitary, wrote in an article that “the KMT should not try to marginalize the CPC ... it should know its destiny more clearly ... the KMT is a revolutionary party, why does it want a revolution? Does it start a revolution just for the purpose of expanding its interests in the Guangdong political and military circles? Or to show support of Mr. Sun Yat-sen? If so, is it any different than the warlords that ignored people’s interests?”

Obviously, the two sides’ differences are irreconcilable and their bickering in the arena of public opinion will soon morph into a full-blown confrontation.

One of the many achievements often associated with the CPC Fourth National Congress is that it “mentioned the leadership of the proletariat in democratic revolutions,” as well as “the issue of a worker-farmer union.”

Growing awareness

The wording might seem a bit abstract, but the significance of the Fourth National Congress is clearly shown in numbers.

There were 994 CPC members in China up until the Party convened the Fourth National Congress, a leap from the 195 members before the Second National Congress and the 420 members prior to the Third National Congress. And the ranks of CPC further swelled, with members totaling 57,967 by the Fifth National Congress in 1927.

A big reason for this increase is the role the congress played in facilitating more workers’ and farmers’ movements. Reawakening of the Chinese proletariat and their growing awareness of their rights and interests were reflected by a series of strikes and campaigns.

The tiny sparks of workers’ movement were dramatically ignited by the May 30th Massacre, which became a rallying call for Chinese citizens to protest foreign oppression.

It did not take long, however, for the KMT to end their short-lived alliance with the CPC in the most violent way. In a bloody purge that began on April 12, they began rounding up Communists as well as left-wing Nationalists.

A reign of terror ensued.

The proletariat revolution was in danger of falling apart. And it was left to the CPC Fifth National Congress in 1927 to figure out ways to break the stranglehold of the KMT reactionaries.

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