In the 1900s, educated Chinese, familiar with European history and philosophy, sought to bring liberal principles and liberation to their tradition-laden culture. Revolutionary sentiment, kindled by resentment against foreign exploitation and the corrupt imperial system that enabled it, had replaced imperial rule with a republic. But this was only the first stage in what would be decades of upheaval.
Yuan Shikai’s Rise to Power
Sun Yat-sen’s newly formed nationalist party, the Guomindang, initially enjoyed wide support. It won a majority in China’s new parliament in 1912. But the shared power arrangement between the Guomindang nationalists (also known as the KMT) and Yuan Shikai was about to be tested.
An outspoken nationalist named Sung Chiao-jen questioned Yuan Shikai’s intentions. He was expected to be named prime minister when the new parliament was seated in 1913, and he urged the new government to diminish the powers of the presidency in favor of the new legislative body and prime minister.
Soon after, in March 1913, allies of the army leader Yuan Shikai assassinated Sung Chiao-jen and the movement to invest parliament with greater power died, too. Yuan Shikai now began an intensive harassment campaign against the nationalist party, and he dissolved the newly established parliament. Sun Yat-sen, seeing the writing on the wall, fled for Japan in the summer of 1913.
Yuan Shikai’s Death
Yuan Shikai’s hold on power was short-lived, however. As Europe went to war in the summer of 1914, Japan tried to take advantage of the situation. It issued a list of 21 demands that would extend to Japan greater control over Manchuria and the Chinese economy. With few options to resist, Yuan gave in. But having just supported a revolution of liberation from foreign domination, his capitulation was intolerable domestically.
Several Chinese provinces rebelled. And, in 1916, Yuan Shikai unexpectedly died. With Sun Yat-sen out of the country, and government power fragmented, central authority gave way to near-anarchy at the hands of local warlords who amassed private armies and preyed on local peasants to amass power and line their pockets.
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The May Fourth Movement
However, Sun Yat-sen returned to the southern city of Canton in an attempt to revive his nationalist party and unify China. Chinese nationalism gained focus at the Paris Peace Conference convened in 1919 and 1920 to end World War I and settle the peace. China itself had declared war on faraway Germany in August of 1917 and many Chinese believed that Germany’s loss in the European conflict would also bring material fruits to the Asian continent.
But the Allied leaders turned Germany’s territorial concessions in China over to Japan instead of returning them to China itself. This prompted popular protests in China directed at the foreign powers deciding its fate, and at corrupt, intractable, or outmoded domestic institutions, including the military leadership. Known as the May Fourth Movement, the protests were short-lived. But they turned out to have a profound lasting effect, as they further spread the tide of nationalism in China.
The Russian Influence and Formation of the Comintern
Meanwhile, Russia’s Bolshevik revolution was providing an example of how communist ideology could be used to reject imperialism and liberate an oppressed peasantry.
Sun Yat-sen and some of his nationalist colleagues had, by now, spent their entire adult lives engaged in revolutionary endeavors. They’d gained experience at navigating the underground world of secret societies, and they knew how to raise money for illicit ventures, as well as how to print and distribute propaganda and smuggle weapons. In this regard, they had more in common with the Bolsheviks than they did with young members of the nascent Chinese Communist Party, which emerged from the May Fourth Movement.
For now, the Soviets organized a working partnership with the Chinese nationalists, formed through the Communist International, or Comintern, based in Moscow. The man in charge of directing Comintern assistance to China was Mikhail Borodin, who already had ample experience working on behalf of the Communist International outside the Soviet Union.
Borodin arrived in China in 1923 and convinced the nationalists and burgeoning Chinese communists to join forces to defeat the warlords, imperialists, and feudal landlords.
A National Revolutionary Army
With Borodin’s guidance, Sun Yat-sen organized liberation fronts throughout the country. As part of this initiative, the nationalists established a military academy to train revolutionary officers and created a military council with a Soviet military advisor. This was all part of the creation of a National Revolutionary Army that would be a disciplined, professional, and highly politicized machine. The Soviets, for their part, provided revolutionary and military guidance, and money and weapons. Propaganda squads complemented the new army’s efforts.
The strategy contributed to the National Revolutionary Army’s initial successes but also to fissures that would soon destroy the fragile alliance between nationalists and communists. While both groups derided the warlords’ corrupt, violent rule and the curse of foreign influence, their aspirations for China weren’t so easily reconciled.
The communist message of the social revolution struck many—including the nationalists—as a bridge too far. To ease tensions, Borodin suggested that communists be placed in key leadership positions in the army and propaganda units. And Sun Yat-sen conceded the point, enabling communist influence to grow just as Borodin and the Soviets hoped it would.
Common Questions about Sun Yat-sen and the Bolshevik Influence
After the World War I, there were protests in China directed at the foreign powers deciding its fate, and at corrupt, intractable, or outmoded domestic institutions, including the military leadership. These protests came to be known as the May Fourth Movement.
Russia’s Bolshevik revolution provided an example of how communist ideology could be used to reject imperialism and liberate an oppressed peasantry.
Mikhail Borodin was the man in charge of directing Comintern assistance to China. Borodin arrived in China in 1923 and convinced the nationalists and burgeoning Chinese communists to join forces to defeat the warlords, imperialists, and feudal landlords.