Chiang Kai-Shek: The Undisputed Successor to Sun Yat-Sen


By Richard Baum, Ph.D., University of California, Los Angeles

In 1925, Sun Yat-Sen’s death triggered a major power struggle among senior leaders of the Nationalist Party (Guomindang) in China. It took a full year to resolve the conflict and when the dust finally settled, Chiang Kai-Shek had taken over China through politics, secret alliances, and last but not least a coup d’etat.

A photo of Chiang Kai-Shek memorial hall.
After many political maneuvers Chiang ultimately defeated his rivals. (Image: Kanisorn Pringthongfoo/Shutterstock)

Series of Events Following Sun’s Death

In a series of Machiavellian political maneuvers, including an elaborate attempt to implicate one of his top rivals for taking part in a plot to assassinate a second major rival, Chiang, the conservative commandant of the Whampoa Military Academy, successfully neutralized his centrist and his left-leaning competitors. As a result of such machinations, by mid-1926 Chiang had emerged as the undisputed successor to Sun Yat-Sen.

With political and military leadership of the Guomindang now firmly grasped in his own hands, Chiang Kai-Shek—who now gave himself the rather lofty title of “Generalissimo,” or “Gimo,” for short, quickly completed preparations for launching a massive military campaign against the warlords.

Chiang’s main military force, the Northern Expeditionary Army, included 7,000 Soviet-trained Whampoa Academy graduates plus 85,000 Russian armed and equipped combat troops, who were mainly recruited from among the impoverished workers and peasants of southern China.

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Chiang’s Military Campaign

In July 1926, with considerable fanfare, Chiang’s Northern Expeditionary Army set out from Canton toward the Yangzi River, some 800 miles to the north. Although Sun did not live to see this epoch-making campaign, it was the culmination of his dream to reunify China under Guomindang auspices.

From the very outset, the Northern Expedition proved stunningly successful. Marching northward in more-or-less parallel columns, the well-disciplined, well-equipped troops of Chiang’s National Revolutionary Army quickly overwhelmed the ill-disciplined, poorly-prepared peasant conscripts mustered by the panicky regional warlords.

Moving in advance of Chiang’s Revolutionary Army, Communist propaganda teams urged peasant conscripts to lay down their arms and join the revolutionary cause. Many did so. To induce the warlords and their field commanders to cease armed resistance, a substantial number of them were offered commissions in the Nationalist Army.

At least half a dozen regional militarists and a substantially larger number of their field commanders accepted the offer, changing sides within a matter of weeks. Within six months, Chiang’s National Army controlled seven southern provinces. With warlord resistance weakening with each passing month, victory became more certain.

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The United Front Starts to Unravel

But as victory became more certain, the inherent strains and fault lines within the United Front became more pronounced. Never more than a marriage of convenience, the United Front now began to unravel.

First to break away from Chiang Kai-Shek’s leadership were a group of left-wing Guomindang officials who had become increasingly alienated by Chiang’s right-wing authoritarian tendencies.

Making their headquarters in the newly-liberated Yangzi River city of Hankow, scene of the original Republican revolt of October 1911, this left-wing faction was led by a second former protégé of Sun Yat-Sen named Wang Jingwei.

Also, growing deeper and more intense was the mutual distrust and suspicion between Chiang and his increasingly uneasy Communist partners. Some Chinese Communist leaders had warned their Soviet paymasters about Chiang’s autocratic tendencies. But the Russians had too much invested in the success of the United Front to change course in midstream.

The Unstoppable Chiang Kai-Shek

Soldiers marching in the streets of Shanghai.
Because of his elaborate schemes, Chiang Kai-Shek took over Shanghai without a single shot being fired. (Image: Dougp1955/CC BY SA/4.0/Public domain)

By late March of 1927, Chiang’s troops had reached the outskirts of Shanghai. As they prepared to enter the city, the Communist-dominated Shanghai General Labor Union launched a general strike. Timed to coincide precisely with Chiang’s arrival, some 600,000 industrial workers walked off their jobs, virtually paralyzing the city.

Ordered by their Communist labor organizers to embrace the Nationalist Army as liberators, Shanghai workers turned the city over to Chiang Kai-Shek without a single shot being fired. For thousands of foreign nationals living in Shanghai’s foreign concessions, Chiang’s arrival caused a wave of panic. 

They had been led to believe that a Nationalist victory would spell the end of 90 years of foreign privilege and spheres of influence in China. To prepare for a possible confrontation, the foreign powers mustered 42 warships in Shanghai’s harbor, manned by thousands of sailors and soldiers. Fearing the worst,  foreigners waited nervously for some sign of Chiang’s ultimate intentions.

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The Secret Alliances of Shanghai

Unbeknownst to anybody at the time, the victorious Generalissimo entered into secret alliances both with Shanghai’s key financial elites and with the city’s notorious criminal “Green Gang”, a mafia-like secret society that controlled gambling, prostitution, and drug trafficking in the city.

Under the terms of this unholy alliance, all foreigners in Shanghai, along with their properties and privileges, were to be fully protected. In return for such protection, the Green Gang would be allowed to continue operating under Chiang Kai-Shek’s patronage.

Because of this cynical quid-pro-quo, the liberation of Shanghai turned out to be largely a matter of business as usual for the city’s foreign residents; and the warships in Shanghai harbor were soon taken off ready-alert status, and the foreign community breathed a collective sigh of relief. But for China’s Communists and their local supporters, it was anything but business as usual.

Chiang’s Unpredictable Coup

Deeply disturbed by Chiang’s sharp rightward political shift and by his alliance with powerful financial and underworld interests in Shanghai, Communist Party leaders urged their Comintern advisors to dissolve the United Front. But before they could act on their fears, Chiang launched a sudden, violent coup against his erstwhile allies.

On April 12, 1927, Chiang launched a series of coordinated attacks against Shanghai’s Communist labor unions. Moving swiftly and brutally, with the aid of civilian goon squads from the Green Gang, Chiang’s forces shot suspected Communists on sight and arrested hundreds. By dusk on the evening of April 13, a crippling blow had been dealt to China’s fledgling Communist movement.

Common Questions about Chiang Kai-Shek

Q: How did Chiang’s Northern Expedition turn out so successful?

Chiang Kai-Shek’s troops were much more organized than the provincial peasant armies they conquered. Also, many believed in Chiang’s cause, laying down their arms without any fighting and some were bribed. Consequently, Chiang took over China much easier than expected.

Q: What was the purpose of the secret alliances between Chiang and the Green Gang?

As part of Chiang Kai-Shek’s campaign to take over China, he made secret alliances with the Green Gang in Shanghai, whereby they would protect foreigners residing in Shanghai, and in return, they would be allowed to continue with their illegal operations.

Q: How did Chiang take over Shanghai?

Chiang Kai-Shek took over Shanghai without any bloodshed because just before he and his forces arrived, the Communist-dominated Shanghai General Labor Union launched a general strike which virtually paralyzed the city.

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