Nondescript villa played a critical role in Communist revolution and city's liberation

To work in KMT-controlled areas was to expect being stalked by danger all the time. To many secret agents, it was like walking a tightrope: one misstep would lead to a catastrophe.
Nondescript villa played a critical role in Communist revolution and city's liberation
Wang Rongjiang / SHINE

A worker cleans up at the entrance to the three-story villa that was once home to the headquarters of the Shanghai Bureau of Communist Party of China Central Committee. 

SPY thrillers have become a popular genre on Chinese TV in recent years.

They offer an insight into how bravely and resourcefully Chinese Communist heroes fought and outwitted their enemies, and how their spirit of self-sacrifice and loyalty to the revolutionary cause overcame the fear of death when they were arrested, tortured and awaited execution.

Despite vivid, sometimes exaggerated, reconstructions of their stories on the silver screen, in reality many remain unsung heroes, and their deeds have largely sunk into oblivion.

Near the bustling intersection of Jiangsu Road and Yuyuan Road sits a three-story blue villa. Shanghai has plenty of such villas built in the 1920s or earlier, and this one looks no different than the rest.

But its ordinary appearance belies its colorful past. During the two years from May 1947 to May 1949, the villa sheltered a handful of prominent Communist figures, bearing witness to the intrigues of a brutal spy war.

The house was once home to the headquarters of the Shanghai Bureau of Communist Party of China Central Committee (hereafter referred to as “the Bureau”), where party members discussed work, held clandestine meetings and shared intelligence that was critical to the eventual liberation of Shanghai in the ensuing civil war between the Communists and Kuomintang.

In September 1945, shortly after Japan surrendered in World War II, a Communist couple named Fang Xing and Wang Xinnan rented the villa and rearranged it to provide lodging for their comrades.

In June 1946, peace talks broke down between the Communists and Kuomintang.

With the Communists now declared an enemy of the state, all Communist activities were forced to go underground.

Amid growing KMT-CPC rivalry, Communist leaders in Shanghai were assigned bigger tasks, one of which was to lead and oversee the party organizations in not just Shanghai, but wider areas along the Yangtze River, southwestern and northern China, and even in Hong Kong where necessary.

Disguised as ‘capitalists’

To prevent their covers being blown, many Communist dignitaries, including Liu Xiao, Liu Changsheng and Zhang Zhiyi, adopted fake identities, operating in the guise of “capitalists” such as company investors, founders of pharmaceutical plants and so on.

For example, the children of Zhang — who was instrumental in convincing a few KMT military officers to join the Communist camp — recalled their father being a “businessman,” who “ran a company, did business and speculated on stocks to make money for the Party.”

The children were told to say their father was a capitalist if someone asked them about his occupation.

To work in KMT-controlled areas was to expect being stalked by danger all the time. To many secret agents, it was like walking a tightrope: One misstep would lead to a catastrophe.

Somehow they seemed to have slipped under the radar of Chiang Kai-shek’s powerful spy agencies.

In the summer of 1947, the ruling KMT government in Shanghai ordered a citywide check on residents’ household registration. All residents were required to wait at home for an interrogation.

According to the account of Fang Hong, Fang Xing’s daughter, this “surprise attack” was apparently aimed at identifying possible hideouts of Communists for future raid and arrest.

At this juncture, Party leaders decided that all the “capitalists” would immediately leave Shanghai under the pretext of attending a Buddhist ritual in Hangzhou to “pray for their business.”

Meanwhile, Wang Xinnan, mistress of the house, would stay behind to handle the police checks.

In addition to gathering intelligence behind the enemy lines, the Bureau was also engaged in two significant tasks: One was to build a peaceful “second battle line” that encouraged workers, students and revolutionary intellectuals to protest KMT excesses; the other was to continue to instigate the defection of key KMT officials and officers.

Before Shanghai’s liberation in May 1949, Chen Yi, a high-ranking Communist general who was to become the city’s first Communist mayor, described the upcoming battle for Shanghai as a “purge of mice in a china shop”, a metaphor that captures the dilemma for the Communists.

On the one hand, they had to rid the city of the remaining KMT troops, who, after being cornered, might resort to desperate measures such as a scorched-earth policy.

On the other, they had to take the city without themselves laying too much waste to its modern, delicate infrastructure.

Plotting a mutiny

Therefore, it was all the more important to forestall part of the resistance by bringing some disillusioned KMT military officers into the Communist fold.

To this end, the Bureau established an ad hoc commission whose members circulated in military circles in Shanghai, Nanjing and Hangzhou, successfully courting a number of KMT officers.

Their most notable operation was the “Incident of the Chongqing Cruiser.”

From November 1948 onward, Communist operatives who infiltrated crew of the warship won the support of war-weary officers and together they plotted a mutiny.

In a bloodless uprising on February 17 the following year, a group of rebels disarmed those who stood against them and seized control of the vessel as it charted through waters heavily guarded by garrisons stationed at the city’s Wusongkou Harbor.

Under the command of Captain Deng Zhaoxiang, the cruiser, bearing the name of KMT government’s wartime capital, sailed 25 hours and arrived in Yantai, a Communist-controlled port city in northern China.

Stories of this sort abound. What is most remarkable about them is that none of the Communist agents were detected by the omnipresent KMT security apparatus.

With the liberation of Shanghai, the villa had fulfilled its historical destiny, and its occupants could finally reveal who they really were. Not surprisingly, after serving their “capitalist” masters for two years, the servants were mortified to see the latter changing into PLA uniforms.

In the years thereafter, the villa was turned over to the newly founded Shanghai General Labor Union, and was used as a residential apartment until 1992, when it was officially listed as a heritage site.

The villa, now a memorial, opened to the public in 2016 after a year’s renovation. It was only then that it began to reveal its enigmatic past to amazed visitors.

Nowadays, visitors are treated to exhibitions that illustrate the sacrifices made by our revolutionary forebears to seek rebirth of their beloved country.

With the declassification of once confidential files, it can be hoped that more gripping tales of their bravery, sangfroid and martyrdom will make their way onto the big screen.

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