The White Terror, a pogrom of anti-Communists in Shanghai, left scenes of devastation in areas with suspected Communist sympathies.

The Chinese Nationalist Party’s campaign of violence in Shanghai—the “White Terror”—was aimed at Communists and labor union members in 1927. The White Terror suppressed Communist activity in the city and influenced the later strategy of the Chinese Communist Party.

The White Terror was the regime of violence established by the Chinese Nationalist Party (CNP or Guomindang) after its capture of Shanghai in 1927. The violence, which drove a permanent wedge between the Nationalists (the White Party) and the Communists (the Red Party), was directed at labor unions and their leaders but evolved into extortion of Shanghai’s privileged classes.

Fragmented Politics

From the time of the collapse of China’s last imperial dynasty (Qing, 1644–1912) in 1911 and the establishment of Republican China (1912–1949), China’s political landscape had been fragmented; by the early 1920s revolutionary leader Sun Yat-sen (1866–1925) led the CNP from its main base in Guangzhou (Canton), while Chen Duxiu (1879–1942) founded the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in Shanghai in 1921. In 1923 Sun Yat-sen’s favorable impression of the Bolshevik revolution in Russia and the Communist belief that a socialist revolution would follow a nationalist revolution led to the Chinese Communists and the Nationalists forming an uneasy alliance against the local warlords who held large parts of China. Michael Borodin (originally named “Mikhail Gruzenberg,” 1884–1951), who was a Comintern (the Communist International established in 1919 and dissolved in 1943) agent in China from 1923 to 1927 and who was one of the architects of the alliance between the CCP and CNP, became one of Sun Yat-sen’s special advisers. At a CNP conference in January 1924 Communist delegates accounted for fewer than 20 percent of those present, but two years later Communists and their supporters in the CNP were the majority of delegates at a conference in Guangzhou. After the death of Sun Yat-sen in 1925 Chiang Kai-shek (1887–1975), commander of the Whampoa Military Academy south of Guangzhou, soon emerged as the new leader of the CNP.

Although Guangzhou had become a Communist stronghold, powerful anti-Communist factions of the CNP existed all over China, and the pro-Soviet line was abandoned under the new CNP leadership. The tensions between the CCP and the CNP surfaced in March 1926 when Chiang Kai-shek felt provoked by the presence of a gunboat commanded by a Communist; Chiang imposed martial law in Guangzhou. Soviet advisers were arrested, and workers and Communists were disarmed. Martial law was lifted after some days, and after negotiations involving Borodin, the CNP-CCP alliance continued but with a weakened Communist position. By the end of 1926 the armies controlled by the CNP and Chiang Kai-shek had conquered most of southern China and established headquarters in Nanchang in Jiangxi Province, while the CCP and its supporters were based in Wuhan in Hubei Province.

Shanghai in 1927

The central area of Shanghai in the 1920s was divided into a number of foreign settlements surrounded by Chinese neighborhoods. The foreign concessions were administratively and legislatively independent of China, and they could even overrule the legal system of the Chinese government. The city was booming—a center of industry and trade—and Communist leaders had been successful in organizing workers on the docks and in the factories into labor unions. In May 1925 strikes involving several hundreds of thousands of workers in Shanghai spread to the rest of China, and the riots were stopped only when Japanese and British troops opened fire and killed numerous Chinese workers.

In February 1927, as Chiang Kai-shek was contemplating a move on Shanghai, the Communist leaders in the city—Zhou Enlai (1899–1976) and Li Lisan (1899–1967)—organized a general strike that paralyzed the busy port and the city’s industry. Numerous workers again were arrested and executed, but in March the strike turned into an armed rebellion against the CNP and the authorities in the Chinese part of Shanghai, and police stations and other key buildings were occupied. Chiang Kai-shek delayed his advance on Shanghai, hoping that foreign troops or Shanghai’s local Chinese commander would crush the Communists, but when that hope was dashed, the CNP armies arrived on 26 March.

The Green Gang

One of Chiang Kai-shek’s main goals in taking over the wealthy city of Shanghai was to gain financial support for his campaign to defeat the northern provinces, which were controlled by independent warlords. At the same time he wanted to curb the influence of the CCP headquarters in Wuhan and the strong Communist organization in Shanghai. The city’s powerful businessmen, industrial leaders, foreign concessions, and underworld entrepreneurs occupied with prostitution, gambling, kidnapping, and opium trade shared Chiang’s opposition to the Communists. A secret society known as the “Green Gang” (Qingbang) controlled the illegal activities in Shanghai. The Green Gang was led by Huang Jinrong, a senior officer in the French police. The exact nature of Chiang Kai-shek’s relationship with the Green Gang remains unclear, but historians generally agree that an alliance was formed between the Nationalist occupying forces and the Green Gang to strike against labor unions and the Communists.

At 4 A.M. on 12 April, while Chiang was away trying to establish his capital in Nanjing in Jiangsu Province, a militia led by associates of Huang carried out a well-organized attack on union headquarters around Shanghai. The militia was made up of approximately one thousand men who were heavily armed and wore plain blue clothes and white armbands with the Chinese character for labor (gong). In several instances they were assisted by Nationalist troops. They were allowed to pass freely through the foreign settlements. Hundreds of labor unionists and Communists were shot or arrested and turned over to the Nationalist troops, who executed them. A few leaders, such as Zhou Enlai, narrowly escaped. The next day the labor unions responded with strikes and demonstrations, which were dispersed with machine guns, swords, and bayonets.

The White Terror spread to other cities controlled by the CNP, and several Communist attempts to establish city communes were suppressed. Having ended Communist activities in Shanghai, Chiang Kai-shek began to collect payment from the privileged classes for his services. Assisted by criminals of the Green Gang, the CNP forced the rich to donate money or to extend “loans” to finance its armies. Those who refused to comply were imprisoned and released only in return for huge sums of money or had their property confiscated or their children kidnapped.

The White Terror in Shanghai and other urban Communist strongholds had a large influence on the development of Communist strategy in China. Having lost its influence in the cities, the CCP concentrated its efforts on the rural areas and based its revolution on peasants rather than on industrial workers.

Further Reading

Coble, P. M., Jr. (1980). The Shanghai capitalists and the Nationalist government, 1927-1937. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Martin, B. G. (1996). The Shanghai Green Gang: Politics and organized crime, 1919-1937.
Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Ruthlessness is key to a man’s accomplishment.


Wú dú bú zhàng fu

Source: Nielson, Bent. (2009). White Terror. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 2444–2446. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

White Terror (Báisè Kǒngbù 白色恐怖)|Báisè Kǒngbù 白色恐怖 (White Terror)

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