Wednesday 14 November 2018

A sketch of the Guangdong-Fukien Revolution 1921-1925

In China in 1912, Liu Szu-fu, better known as Shifu – formerly of the Eastern Assassination Corps, who lost his left hand in a premature explosion in 1906 – founded the Society of Cocks Crowing in the Dark, or “Conscience Society” (Huiming Xueshe) in the city of Canton (Guangzhou), which became an anarchist stronghold. He aimed at building a constructive, mass, anarchist movement, and helped publish the organisation’s journal, Huiminglu (Cocks Crowing in the Dark). According to Miller, between 1910 and 1916, the Australian IWW translated its materials into Chinese and it was Shifu’s Society who published and distributed them, entrenching IWW revolutionary syndicalist ideas in Guangzhou and Shanghai (and possibly also in neighbouring Hong Kong and Macau). Shifu, the preeminent Chinese anarchist in the 1910s, shared the general perspectives of Hsin Shi Chi, and the journal Huiminglu described its views as “communism, anti-militarism, syndicalism, anti-religion, anti-family, vegetarianism, an international language, and universal harmony.”

As a result of Shifu's pro-organisational stance, in Canton, Dirlik argues, “the most significant anarchist activity revolved around labour organisation.” In 1913, a Heart Society was formed: its members swore to accept no military or state jobs and to surrender any privileges. The Society of Anarchist Communist Comrades (WGZTH) was established in Canton in 1914, followed the next year by a branch in Shanghai. The WGZTH slogan Wuzhengfu Gongchan translates literally as "Without Government, Common Production". The Huiming Xueshe's paper was later renamed Minsheng (The Voice of the People) – or Manseang in Cantonese – and survived Liu's death in 1915, being published sporadically and even developing an Esperanto-titled French-language edition La Voco de la Popolo, for distribution in the French-occupied south.

In 1918, a year in which Sun Yat-Sen established Canton as his Guomindang base, anarchists participated in the first celebration of May Day in China, and formed in Canton a Teahouse Labour Union – the first modern trade union in China – which drew 11,000 members from among trade guilds and teahouse employees. In the next year, barbers were organised, and anarchists were also influential in the Mechanics’ Union through Xie Yingbo. The most important of the anarcho-syndicalist papers at this time was Laodong (Labour). In the same period, Burgmann notes, the Australian IWW was in contact with Chinese and Burmese radicals who translated and distributed IWW materials. These Chinese radicals were presumably located in the British colony of Hong Kong which lies close to the emergent anarchist stronghold of Canton.

By 1921, anarchists also led around forty trade unions in Canton alone, and also played an important role in the union movement in Hunan, and to a lesser extent Shanghai. Chinese anarchists also pioneered efforts to organise the peasantry, and were the first Chinese revolutionaries to speak of the “rural revolution”. The anarchists had some influence on the Chinese federalist movement of the early 1920s, which favoured a relatively decentralised and democratic state, rather than the centralised regime envisaged by Sun Yat-Sen. A key anarchist-federalist was Chen Jiongming (1878-1933): influenced by the ideals of anarchism, and, particularly, by Shifu and Wu. According to Beck, Chen’s federalism resulted in one of the rare instances outside of Manchuria of Chinese anarchists wielding power over a substantial region, their traditional stronghold of Canton: “The anarchist general Chen Jiongming regained Guangzhou [Canton], and he called Sun Yat-sen back in October 1920. They set up a republican government in April 1921, and 225 members of the old Parliament under the 1912 constitution elected Sun president. He [Sun] accepted the autonomy [from the republican government] of the provincial government with Chen Jiongming as governor and commander of the Cantonese army. Chen promulgated a provincial constitution and limited military expenditures to 30% of the budget while reserving 20% for education… Chen Jiongming’s anarchist friends led the trade unions.” This was a de facto anarchist-federalist free zone similar in concept to those of the southern Spanish cities of the 1872-1873 Cantonalist Revolt. In 1922, an Anarchist Federation was formed in the city to co-ordinate and deepen revolutionary activities there and in the rest of Guangdong province and the twenty-six counties of southern Fukien (Fujian) province controlled by anarchist peasant communes and militia.

Also in 1922, provoked by Guomindang activists, the Seaman’s Union went on strike in British-occupied Hong Kong, demanding a 40% pay-rise. It is not certain whether the union was influenced by the IWW’s Marine Transport Workers’ Industrial Union – which had global reach and was active in many ports that Hong Kong shipped to and from including the neighbouring port and anarcho-syndicalist stronghold of Canton – but it was certainly militant, possessing its own militia which enforced the strike and a food blockade of the port and railways. The strike committee and tens of thousands of Hong Kong workers and their families simply relocated to the safety of anarchist-dominated Canton. An attempt by the bosses to outlaw the Seaman’s Union and to bring in scab labour from China saw the union call a general strike that was heeded by the stevedores, railway workers, bakers, cooks, clerks, servants and “coolies” (general labourers). With more than 120,000 on strike, the colonial government ground to a halt, so the British called in the army, commandeered vehicles, press-ganged workers at gun-point, and banned travel to China. A mass protest at Sha Tin developed into a riot and a massacre, but faced with massive financial losses, the bosses caved in, legalised the Seaman’s Union, released all jailed strikers, gave them a 20% pay-rise, paid compensation for massacre victims and gave half-pay for all the days on strike. The Anarchist Federation of Britain argued later that, because the strikers fail to seize the factories – instead of vacating them – as well as all other centres of colonial power, the colonial elite reconsolidated its power, enabling it to defeat a much bigger general strike in Hong Kong three years later. 

Sun later tried to dismiss Chen “but he was popular from his victories in Guangxi” and it was Sun himself who was forced to flee by Chen’s forces to Hong Kong in a British gunboat. This took Guangzhou out of the Gumindang orbit and put the city firmly in the anarchist camp. In the rural areas of the Guangzhou Commune, the anarchists established the Self-Defence Movement of Rural Communities which as Crisi notes “would serve as the antecedent on a small scale for the heroic deeds in the rural communities of Manchuria”.  In March 1924, according to Damier, the powerful Confederation of Labour Associations (LXL) was founded in Shanghai by anarchists and other non-communist unionists, and was solidly dominated by anarcho-syndicalists, took an anti-Bolshevik line and published the China Labour Herald. In January 1923, Guomindang troops overcame the Guangzhou Commune and dismantled the anarchist free-associative experiment there. Chen Jiongming's Guangdong Army then retreated into the mountains and plains, cities and towns of eastern Guangdong and southern Fukien (Fujian) province where they held out for another three years before being defeated by a nationalist-communist combined force in 1925. Sadly, this example of an attempt at pragmatic anarchist counter-power – a full-blown “Guangdong-Fukien Revolution” combining urban and rural control and co-ordination of needs with a strong emphasis on education, anarcho-syndicalist control of the means of production, and self-defence of the Revolutions’ gains over three years – desperately requires further intensive study.