Knowing China’s History Is Vital To Our National Interest

Apr 6, 2021 by

April 12, 1927.  A day that will lived in infamy – in the People’s Republic of China.

The April 12 Purge, April 12 Incident or the White Terror are all ways of describing what was a pivotal point in Chinese history. 

Few in the West have a clue about what happened that day in Shanghai.  It was the violent suppression, an attempt to eviscerate the Chinese Communist Party of China, then a small,fledgling organization in Shanghai. Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek and conservative factions in the Kuomintang/Nationalist Government were going to snuff out this rival to his power and purge, by murder and terror, the Communists in Shanghai and all areas under their control. 

Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek

In March of 1927, the Shanghai labor union under the thumb of the Communists, controlled urban Shanghai except for the international settlements.

Chiang Kai-shek planned to wipe out the Chinese Communistsknowing that if he failed, he would be doing battle with them inthe future. It was a massacre of significant proportions, referred to as the “White Terror”. Chiang Kai-shek had the support of much the Chinese merchants and traders along with foreign businesses, bolstering their economic and military position. They too wanted to do away with the pesky Communist organizers that were disrupting the cozy relationship between the legitimate businesses and the vice that was an internal part of the Shanghai scene in the 1920’s.  

Street Executions

Over 1,000 Communists were arrested, some 300 were officially executed, and more than 5,000 went missing. The “missing” and those that went underground became the perpetual irritants to Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek for the next 22 years. 

While Chiang struck terror with his actions, he did not kill all the Communists and they continued to elude him for many years, ending in the Communists’ Long March to ultimate victory.

The irony? The Nationalists eventually 

drove the Communists-out of their urban base into the countryside, following the lead of the Soviet Communist model, organizing urban industrial workers and thus transforming the Communist Party’s base of support from cities to the countryside. This is where the majority of Chinese people lived at the time, scratching out a bareexistence, beholden to the greed and abuse of landlords and where the battle for the hearts and minds of the Chinese people were fought and won. 

Ultimately, Mao Zedong drew both the Nationalists and the Japanese into the ‘People’s War’. The concept behind this strategy was to maintain the support of the masses of population,drawing the enemy deep into the countryside, stretching their supply lines where the population will bleed them dry using guerrilla tactics. 

The Shanghai Massacre was the spark that set in motion , a raging fire – the beginning of the Chinese Civil War or the conflict between the Chinese Nationalists (Nationalist Party, or Kuomintang (KMT)) and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) that lasted until Chairman Mao Zedong declared, on October 1, 1949, that China had stood up. The People’s Republic of China under the control of the CCP was the new sheriff in town when the Chinese Communist Party was victorious over the Nationalist Forces, driving Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek and his remaining forces to flee with their lives and whatever riches they could take with them to Taiwan in the hopes of living to fight another day. They are still waiting. 

Chiang Kai-shek did not use his standing army to strike terror and to purge the Communists. Instead, he enlisted the Green Gang a Chinese secret society, a criminal enterprise, that employed thugs to carry out his dirty work. Chiang had lived for two years (1916–17) in Shanghai, where he reportedly belonged to the Green Gang (Qing Bang), a “secret society” – a group deeply engaged in criminal, social, and political activity during the early to mid-20th century.

In 1918 Chiang Kai-shek ingratiated himself with Sun Yat-senthe leader of the Nationalist Party, or the Kuomintang, beginning his march for power. And the rest – as they say – is history. 

Zhou Enlai

The White Terror went on to massacre thousands of Communists on April 12, not only in Shanghai but in cities all across China. Yet, they did not get them all – Zhou Enlai went on to help Mao govern a more modern China. And the Nationalists, now led by Chiang Kai-shek, also lost the support of their “big brother”, the Soviet Communists.

If You Strike, Do Not Miss

There is an old saying, attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson, “You come at the king, you best not miss.” And Chiang Kai-shek missed. 

To the Victors Go the Spoils 

Many believe, in retrospect that the U.S. backed the wrong pony, siding with the 4 C’s  corrupt, Christian- supposed Capitalist, Chiang Kai-shek – against his enemy and ours, the Chinese Communist Party. 

As I have written, not unlike the global COVID pandemic fiasco, it is not one lone decision that sets the course of history,but rather a tyranny of small decisions, both in the US and China, that added up to monumental and deadly consequences on a global scale.

tyranny of small decisions can and does change the course of history. The tyranny of small decisions is a situation in which a number of decisions, individually small and insignificant in size and time perspective, cumulatively result in a larger and significant outcome which is neither optimal nor desired.

Mao Ze Dong

Imagine if you will, how the world may have changed if Mao had declared at the founding of the People’s Republic of China, that rather than being a mortal and ideological enemy of the U.S., we were instead, aligned and allied. How might the remainder of the 20th century have played out historically?

The US and China had a good 40 year run, benefiting both nations and now, we are once again at odds and the relationship is in decline.

Our relationship today reminds me of my 93-year-old dad, who has been negatively impacted by his isolation during COVID and actually been affected by the virus itself. I hope he rallies as I brace for an outcome that we desperately wish to avoid. A similar feeling smothers me about the U.S./China relationship deteriorate today. 

The US and China have stark difference but their respective leadership is needed to addressing the global challenges facing us all. 

It is clear that the US and China are in a stiff competition over who will define and lead the 21st century.  Our views of the world are diametrically opposed as evidenced by our two nations’  recent Alaskan summit

The US/China relationship remains critical to our respective countries and all of humanity. 

In his first press conference, President Biden made clear what is at stake saying, “Look, I predict to you, your children or grandchildren are going to be doing their doctoral thesis on the issue of who succeeded: autocracy or democracy? Because that is what is at stake.”

The Chinese Communist Party celebrates its 100th anniversaryon July 1. They did not disappear under the White Terror of 1927, no one should expect them to do so any time soon. How our leaders in the US manage this most important bilateral relationship of the 21st century will impact the people of China, the US and all of humanity. 

History has a way of defining destiny.

Tom Watkins- t-shirt reads- Michigan

Tom Watkins, Michigan’s former state superintendent of schools and president and CEO of the economic council of Palm Beach County, Florida has worked, traveled and initiated cultural, economic and educational bridges between the US and China for nearly 4 decades. He is a regular contributor to US/China focus:
Read: The People’s Republic of China Turns 70- A 30 year look back

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1 Comment

  1. Thank you for the walk through history. I doubt many Americans understand the history of this century, let alone the long history of China. We need to wake up and grow up from our own arrogance otherwise we will be looking at short side of history. If we can figure how to create a win-win situation, there is enough for all.

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