Chinese Communism: Guomindang and Chinese Communist Party

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: THE FALL AND RISE OF CHINA

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

While Sun Yat-sen’s Guomindang and Li Dazhao’s Communist Party had very different long-term objectives, they did share some strong, near-term commitments. Read to know how the Comintern used these common goals to bring about a coalition between the two parties.

Sun Yat-sen's memorial hall.
The Comintern pressed for a working coalition between Sun Yat-sen’s Guomindang and Li Dazhao’s Communist Party. (Image: Sean Pavone/Shutterstock)

Chinese Communist Party

By the late fall of 1920, efforts were underway in China to organize a bona fide Chinese Communist Party. However, the warlords who controlled Beijing were fully aware of the Comintern’s subversive intentions.

The Comintern was the international arm of the Soviet Communist Party, the Third Communist International. Its agents were instructing the revolutionaries in the theory and practice of Bolshevism.

Learn more about the Boxer uprising.

First National Congress

Alerted that the new Communist Party was about to convene its first National Congress in July of 1921, treaty port police hounded dozens of known or suspected communists, forcing many to go into hiding.

Of the 50 or so original members of the CCP, only 12 managed to attend the founding Party Congress, which was held amid very tight secrecy at a private girls’ school inside Shanghai’s French Concession.

When the French Concession’s foreign police, acting on a tip, raided the school in the middle of the meeting, the delegates fled. Later, they reassembled on a pleasure boat in the middle of the scenic South Lake in neighboring Zhejiang Province.

Unhappily, no definitive written record of this first meeting was preserved.

This is a transcript from the video series The Fall and Rise of China. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Coalition between Sun Yat-sen and Li Dazhao

With the Comintern holding the purse strings and providing organizational and logistical guidance, Soviet agents in 1923 began to press for a working coalition, or united front, between Sun Yat-sen’s Guomindang and Li Dazhao’s Communist.

Although their long-term objectives diverged profoundly, with Sun favoring Western-style liberalism, while the CCP agitated for proletarian socialism, the two parties shared a strong near-term commitment to eradicating the so-called three evils: warlordism, foreign imperialism, and feudal autocracy.

Under the watchful guidance of a Comintern agent named Mikhail Borodin, an agreement was hammered out between the Guomindang and the Chinese communists in 1923. Under its terms, the two parties agreed to share leadership within a single, integrated united front.

Because the CCP at this point numbered a mere 300 members and was still in its infancy, the Guomindang, as the united front’s senior partner, was given a dominant leadership role in the new organization.

Learn more about the Communists’ guerrilla methodology.

Guomindang-Chinese Communist United Front

Photograph of Sun Yat-sen.
Sun Yat-sen favored Western-style liberalism. (Image: Unknown/Public domain)

As a condition of his agreement to collaborate with the Communists, Sun insisted that the CCP must renounce its party’s organizational autonomy and that individual members of CCP should join the Guomindang as individuals, not as members of the Communist Party.

Once they had entered the GMD, the Communists would be subjected to Sun’s leadership. Though Li Dazhao and Chen Duxiu were skeptical, Mikhail Borodin pressed them to concede this point, which they eventually did.

Thus was born the Guomindang/Chinese Communist United Front.

Developing the United Front

Moving his headquarters back to Canton in 1924, Sun set up a Peasant Training Institute there. Its goal was to arouse the revolutionary consciousness of the peasant masses. Interestingly, one of Sun’s lieutenants at the Peasant Training Institute was Mao Zedong.

Photograph of Chiang K’ai-shek.
Chiang K’ai-shek was the commanding officer at the Whampoa Academy. (Image: Unknown/Public domain)

In Sun’s Canton headquarters, a widening flow of Soviet arms, equipment, and advice helped to lend both discipline and muscle to the forces of the United Front. Under Sun’s overall leadership, a modern military institute, the Whampoa Academy, was established in 1925. Its commanding officer was a rising young GMD military star named Chiang K’ai-shek.

Chiang had recently returned from a year of advanced military training in the U.S.S.R. under Bolshevik tutelage. His second-in-command at Whampoa was a rising young Communist political organizer named Zhou Enlai.

Under the watchful eye of Soviet instructors, preparations were made at the Whampoa Academy for a decisive military campaign to liberate China from the grip of warlords, imperialists, and feudal landlords. But, before preparations could be completed, Sun Yat-sen’s health began to fade.

Learn more about the Treaty of Nanking.

Death of Sun Yat-sen

Diagnosed with liver cancer, Sun was hospitalized at the American-financed Beijing Union Medical College, where he died in March of 1925 at the age of 58.

Shortly before his death, Sun went out of his way to praise the Soviet Union; and he famously exhorted his countrymen, in his “last testament”, to ally with all nations “who treat [us] on an equal footing.”

His last words were, “Let us rise and fight together! The revolution is not yet accomplished!”

Sun’s death set off a bitter power struggle within the Guomindang, between left- and right-wing factions. Eventually the right-wing, led by Sun’s strong- willed protégé, Chiang K’ai-shek, would emerge victorious. But the intra- party split that burst into the open in 1925 was a deep and damaging one; and its effects would continue to be felt for many years to come.

Common Questions about Chinese Communism

Q: What common goal did Sun Yat-sen’s Guomindang and Li Dazhao’s Communist share?

Sun Yat-sen’s Guomindang and Li Dazhao’s Communist shared a strong near-term commitment to eradicating the so-called three evils: warlordism, foreign imperialism, and feudal autocracy.

Q: What condition did Sun Yat-sen put to collaborate with the Communists?

As a condition of his agreement to collaborate with the Communists, Sun insisted that the CCP must renounce its party’s organizational autonomy and that individual members of CCP should join the Guomindang as individuals, not as members of the Communist Party, accepting Sun as their leader.

Q: What were Sun Yat-sen’s last words?

Sun Yat-sen’s last words were, “Let us rise and fight together! The revolution is not yet accomplished!”

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