The Reign of White Terror in China


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

On April 12, 1927, Chiang launched a series of coordinated attacks against Shanghai’s Communist labor unions. Days after Chiang Kai-Shek’s coup against his allies in Shanghai, the systematic liquidation of Communists began in the Nationalist-controlled cities of Nanjing, Hangzhou, Fuzhou, and Canton. Thousands died as the reign of White Terror began.

A bronze statue of Chiang Kai-shek.
Even though Red Area Communists were defeated many times, their leaders would lead them into a new age of Chinese history. (Image: Mcador HO Anwoalds/Public domain)

Chiang’s Nationalist Government

On April 18, a supremely confident Chiang Kai-Shek announced the formation of a national government in Nanjing—the capital of Sun Yat-Sen’s failed republican experiment of 1912. Meanwhile, 400 miles upriver in Hankow, Wang Jingwei’s disheartened left-wing Guomindang supporters decided against engaging in an armed confrontation with Chiang’s superior forces. 

As the Soviet adviser Mikhail Borodin put it: 

Since we have been sold out by the reactionaries and … do not have the strength to launch attacks against the imperialists, we have no choice but to stage a temporary, strategic retreat.

(Dun J. Lee, ed., The Road to Communism: China Since 1912, p. 90).

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Trouble in Mother Russia

Although the Comintern’s United Front strategy now lay in tatters, rendered irrelevant by Chiang’s April 1927 coup, the new Soviet leader, Joseph Stalin, was not prepared to declare the policy a failure. Lenin had died three years earlier, in 1924, and a bitter struggle among potential successors had raged thereafter.

Stalin’s leading rival, the radical leftist Leon Trotsky, had argued that the United Front policy had been a mistake, a rightist error and that Chiang’s anti-Communist Shanghai coup, far from being anomalous or unpredictable, was the inevitable result of Stalin’s decision to pressure the CCP into continued cooperation with the reactionary Chiang Kai-Shek.

For Stalin, this presented a major dilemma for he could hardly acknowledge the failure of the united front policy without validating Trotsky’s scathing criticism. Caught between a rock and a hard place, in May of 1927 Stalin naively ordered the CCP to seize control of Wang Jingwei’s left-wing regime in Hankow.

This is a transcript from the video series The Fall and Rise of China. Watch it now, Wondrium

An image of Chaing Kai-Shek
To take Hankow, Chiang Kai-Shek was aided by two northern warlords who had changed sides during the Northern Expedition. (Image: Militaryace/Public domain)

Wang Jingwei and Chiang Kai-Shek

But it was already too late for that. With Hankow’s demoralized leftists having gone into strategic retreat at the end of April, Chiang Kai-Shek, aided by two powerful northern warlords who had changed sides during the Northern Expedition, easily took control of the city. Deeply distressed by these unhappy developments, the chief Comintern adviser, Borodin, retreated from Hankow to Mother Russia to lick his wounds.

As a historical footnote to these events, Wang Jingwei’s deep-seated bitterness toward Chiang Kai-Shek would later play itself out with tragically ironic consequences when Japan’s army invaded China in 1937. With Chiang electing to retreat in the face of the overwhelming superiority of the advancing Japanese, Wang Jingwei made a fateful decision to collaborate with the Japanese.

The Japanese militarists were only too happy to exploit Wang’s well-known animus toward the Generalissimo, and Wang was rewarded for his defection by being named head of the pro-Japanese puppet government in Nanjing. Like Chen Gongbo before him, Wang Jingwei would be reviled forever afterward in China as a traitor to his country. He died in disgrace in Japan at the end of the war.

The Three Groups of Communists in China

Driven from the major cities of central and south China in 1927, the defeated Communists split into three groups. One followed Borodin’s lead and hightailed it to Moscow, where they regrouped under Comrade Stalin’s scrutiny, setting themselves up as the CCP Central Committee-in-exile. 

A second group of survivors from the 1927 coup remained in China’s major cities, where they went underground to engage in clandestine revolutionary agitation and propaganda. They came to be called “White Area Communists.”

A third group abandoned the cities altogether, heading not for Moscow but for the mountainous hinterland of south-central China (where they later became known as “Red Area Communists”).

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The Red Area Communists Against Chiang

Among these three groups of Communist survivors, it was the third group that would go on to change the course of modern Chinese history. In the process of escaping from Chiang’s campaign of White Terror, this latter group staged a number of ad hoc local uprisings.

Two Chinese men kneeling prior to execution by the Chinese soldiers.
Chiang’s campaign of White Terror claimed many lives in China. (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

On August 1, 1927, a force of several thousand Communists entered the Nationalist-held stronghold of Nanchang, the capital of Jiangxi Province. Seizing temporary control of the city, they held out for three days before they were beaten back by superior Nationalist forces.

A month later a second insurrection took place in neighboring Hunan Province. There the rebels optimistically proclaimed the birth of a Hunan Soviet; but it, too, soon fell before the superior might of Chiang’s Nationalists. A third uprising took place in Canton in December, but like the others before it, it was brutally suppressed at a cost of nearly 5,000 revolutionary lives.

The Birth of the Red Army 

Among the survivors of these ill-fated Autumn Harvest Uprisings, as they were called, were men who, decades later, would be inducted into the pantheon of Chinese Communist Party immortality, people like Zhou Enlai, Zhu De, Ye Jianying, Lin Biao, Ho Long, Nie Rongzhen, Chen Yi, Liu Bocheng, and—last but by no means least—Mao Zedong.

From the ashes of inglorious defeat, these men would ultimately fashion an entirely new type of Communist Revolution, one with its roots not among the industrial workers of the coastal treaty port cities, but rather among the poor and landless peasants of the vast rural Chinese hinterland.

By the end of October 1927, the remnants of the failed Autumn Harvest Uprisings had begun to converge and regroup along the mountainous border between Hunan and Jiangxi provinces. There, deep in the rugged Jinggang Mountains, they established a revolutionary base. Combining their forces, they created a Red Army.

Common Questions about the Reign of White Terror in China

Q: Why wasn’t Stalin prepared to acknowledge the failure of the United Front strategy in China?

The failure of the United Front strategy and how it led to the reign of White Terror was obvious but if Stalin acknowledged that, then he had to also accept the harsh criticism of his main rival, Leon Trotsky. Trotsky had argued that the failure of the United Front strategy was foreseeable and could have been handled better.

Q: Why did Wang Jingwei help the Japanese when they were invading China?

Wang Jingwei’s rivalry with Chiang combined with his inability to battle the latter’s reign of White Terror effectively led him to sought help from the invading Japanese military officers.

Q: How did Red Area Communists try to attack Chiang’s government?

After they tried to flee from Chiang’s reign of White Terror, they began local uprisings in a matter of months. The first one was in Nanchang and shortly thereafter they even declared the birth of a new Hunan Soviet but all their attempts were futile.

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