Sun Yat-sen [middle behind the table] and Chiang Kai-shek [on stage in uniform] at the founding of the Whampoa Military Academy in 1924 (public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Founded in 1912, the Guomindang (中國國民黨, literally China National People’s Party) is the oldest still active political party in the Chinese-speaking world. It constituted the first elected majority in the Chinese National Assembly of 1913. After Yuan Shikai‘s coup d’etat, the Guomindang devoted itself to the mission of reunifying China, defeating the warlords, and defending the country’s territorial integrity from foreign powers. From 1927 on, the Guomindang ruled over China with an iron fist. But in 1937 the “golden era” of Nationalist China came to an end, as Japan invaded the country.  

The Guomindang fought at the side of the Allies and won the war of resistance against Japan. Yet only four years later it lost the civil war to the Communists led by Mao Zedong. In 1949, the Guomindang apparatus and the whole government of the Republic of China retreated to Taiwan. There, once again, the Guomindang governed with authoritarian methods, wiping out opposition to its one-party rule.

In the 1980s, however, the party leadership loosened its grip on society and allowed the formation of an opposition and free elections (for a history of the Guomindang, see Peter Moody: Political Change on Taiwan: A Study of Ruling Party Adaptability, 1992, pp. 13-35).  

But despite the fact that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the Guomindang were bitter rivals, they also share a common element: Leninism. It is the purpose of the present article to analyse how the Guomindang, after having been suppressed by Yuan Shikai and marginalised by the warlords, reorganised itself through the aid of Soviet advisers and incorporated fundamental elements of Leninism.



Sun Yat-sen and the Old Guomindang

Prior to 1912, Sun Yat-sen had been the most prominent leader of the anti-Manchu revolutionary movement. For years he had fought to overthrow the Qing dynasty and bring a Republican government to power. In Sun’s mind, the corrupt and inefficient imperial government and the lack of national spirit were the reasons why China had been unable to resist foreign invasions and exploitation. In 1905 Sun founded the Tongmenhui, an organisation supported by a small group of intellectuals, professionals, and overseas Chinese. The Tongmenhui was based on the tradition of China’s secret societies. The underworld and temporary alliances with imperial army officers were the only military means that Sun’s revolutionaries possessed to organise their anti-imperial revolts.

After the success of the Xinhai Revolution in 1911 and the foundation of the Republic of China on January 1912, Sun’s focus shifted from Han nationalism to the peaceful coexistence of all races of the defunct Empire, including the Manchus. Sun believed that the demise of the imperial government and the establishment of a Republic would as a matter of course re-establish China’s position as one of the world’s leading nations. In December 1912, Sun and his followers of the Tongmenhui and other organisations founded the Guomindang. He believed that the accomplishment of the revolution was also the accomplishment of his life purpose. He said in an interview given to an American magazine:  

Having finished the task of bringing about a political revolution, I am now devoting my thought and energies to the reconstruction of the country in its social, industrial, and commercial conditions (Leng Shao-Chuan and Norman D. Palmer: Sun Yat-Sen and Communism, 1960, p. 37).

In the first national elections held in January 1913, the Guomindang won 269 out of 596 seats in the House of Representatives, and 123 out of 274 seats in the Senate (Jonathan D. Spence: The Search for Modern China, 1999, p. 276). A clear majority that seemed to confirm Sun’s optimism.

However, Sun had underestimated the problems of a political transition after a revolution that had overthrown a thousand-year-long form of government. Just a few months after the elections, general Yuan Shikai seized power and outlawed the Guomindang.

After the death of Yuan Shikai, the country plunged into a period of chaos. Warlords divided up China and established de facto independent states. Until 1927, the central government existed only in name. Moreover, Western countries had not stopped exploiting and attacking China, as Britain’s designs in Tibet and Russia’s penetration in Mongolia show.  

After World War I, pro-Western Chinese were once again shattered when at the peace conference in Versailles the victorious powers decided to give the former German concessions in China’s Shandong province to Japan. The student protests that followed gave rise to the May 4th Movement and to a wave of nationalistic fervour that would shape China’s anti-Western sentiment for years to come.

Sun Yat-sen, too, was embittered. He understood that both the liberal West and Japan would not help his cause. While Japan became increasingly menacing, the West supported the warlord government in Beijing as the legitimate Chinese government. When in 1914 one of Sun Yat-sen’s followers visited Washington, Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan assured Beijing that President Woodrow Wilson regarded Yuan Shikai’s presidency as legitimate and that he would not give audience to a representative of Sun’s party (Leng / Palmer 1960, p. 42).  

Moreover, Sun Yat-sen’s faith in Western democracy was fading. After 1912, the Republican experiment in China had been a failure. The government of the Republic existed only on paper. The true leaders of the country had not been elected by the people, but had seized power by force. Sun Yat-sen became convinced that the Guomindang had to create its own army and defeat the warlords, and that democracy was not possible in China until a stage of “political tutelage” by the Guomindang had nurtured in the Chinese people a democratic spirit. Sun explained this principle in 1923:  

The fault [of our revolution] was the failure to enforce the revolutionary fundamentals. The revolutionary fundamentals … divide the course of revolution into three stages: first, military rule; second, political tutelage; third, constitutional government. These are the inevitable stages leading from malgovernment to good government, and none of them should be overlooked. China cannot be a true republic unless she undergoes such a transition. It was a matter of deep regret that the revolution of 1911 neglected the revolutionary fundamentals: they were shelved and obstructed. As a basic error engenders many side issues, the ship of state was left to steer in an uncharted sea (Leng / Palmer 1968, p. 37, my emphasis).

But could the Guomindang create a modern army from scratch? And how could the party succeed in governing China and completing the revolution? Sun Yat-sen recognised that the Guomindang could not accomplish this task without a deep change. The main flaw of the party lay in the fact that it was just a loose group of intellectuals, people from the underworld, politicians and other individuals from different classes and with different backgrounds. Like the secret societies from which it was inspired, the Guomindang was a small organisation with no mass support and incapable of building a modern centralised state. There was nothing that held this group together except for the charisma of Sun Yat-sen, and many Guomindang members were even willing to betray him for their personal advantage.

In 1917, Sun Yat-sen and his followers set up a government in Guangdong Province opposed to the government in Beijing. They believed to be the true representatives of the Republic of China and the defenders of its 1912 Constitution. Sun was proclaimed “Generalissimo” by the party, a title that later was inherited by Chiang Kai-shek (Lyon Sharman: Sun Yat-Sen. His Life and Its Meaning. A Critical Biography, 1960, pp. 211-212). 

His Guomindang government, however, was weak, as it was not backed by any military power.   But in the same year, the October Revolution broke out in Russia. Within a short period of time the Bolsheviks organised a revolutionary government capable of annihilating its internal and external enemies. Sun Yat-sen followed the events in Russia with great interest. He understood that the Soviets were accomplishing something in which he had failed. He was therefore eager to learn from them.  


The Guomindang and the Soviets

In 1921, Sun Yat-sen met Maring, the representative of the Comintern. Later he sent a telegram to the Russian foreign minister Georgy Chicherin:  

I am extraordinarily interested in your work and in particular in the organization of your Soviets, your army, and education. I would like to know all that you and others can tell me of these matters, particularly about education. Like Moscow, I would like to lay the foundation of the Chinese revolution deeply in the minds of the younger generation — the workers of tomorrow (Leng and Palmer 1968, p. 51, my emphasis).

As a gesture of friendship to the Chinese people, the Soviet government renounced all the possessions acquired by Russia in China during the Tsarist regime (ibid., p. 52). This act of goodwill was received positively in China. For the first time, a Western country was treating China as its equal and respecting its sovereignty and dignity. After lengthy negotiations, in 1923 Sun Yat-sen and Adolph Joffe, a Soviet diplomat, signed a joint declaration, known as the Sun-Joffe declaration. Apart from confirming (though in a somewhat ambiguous way), that Russia renounced all its possessions and special rights in China, the declaration stated:  

Dr. Sun Yat-sen holds that the Communistic order or even the Soviet system cannot actually be introduced into China, because there do not exist here the conditions for the successful establishment of either Communism or Sovietism. This view is entirely shared by Mr. Joffe, who is further of the opinion that China’s paramount and most pressing problem is to achieve national unification and attain full national independence, and regarding this great task he has assured Dr. Sun Yat-sen that China has the warmest sympathy of the Russian people and can count on the support of Russia (ibid., p. 63, my emphasis).

This statement shows the contradiction inherent in the Guomindang-Soviet pact. Sun Yat-sen was not a Marxist. He did not endorse the principle of class struggle or of the dictatorship of the proletariat. He just wanted to learn from the Soviets how to build a strong party and a strong army. However, the Soviets had a very different long-term goal for China’s future. In August 1923, Sun Yat-sen sent Chiang Kai-shek and other representatives to Moscow to learn more about the Soviet system. Chiang carried with him letters of introduction written by Sun for Lenin, Trotsky, and Chicherin (ibid., p. 66). Sun and Chiang strongly disagreed on the Guomindang’s policy towards the Soviet Union. It was during this trip that Chiang became a staunch anti-communist. In his memoirs, Chiang recalls his impressions during his stay in Moscow:  

Upon Dr. Sun’s instructions I arranged a meeting in Shanghai on August 5, 1923, with Maring to discuss the composition, etc. of the mission to Russia. Accompanied by Shen Ting-yi, Wang Teng-yun and Chang Tai-lei, I left Shanghai on August 16, crossed the border at Manchuli on August 25 and reached Moscow on September 2 … 

During the three months in Russia we studied its party, the military and political organizations, inspected various installations and listened to briefings by responsible officials … At meetings of the Communist International’s Executive Committee, which I was invited to attend, I expressed my confidence that our National Revolution, having as its highest aim the fulfillment of the Three People’s Principles, would succeed in two or three years’ time. I also pointed out that the Communist International did not fully understand the actual conditions of our revolutionary movement and the work we were doing, and hoped that the Communist International would send more men to China to see things for themselves. 

Later on I saw a resolution of the Communist International-vis-à-vis Kuomintang. By its tenor I could tell that the Communist International did not fully understand the real nature of China’s National Revolution and arbitrarily divided Chinese society into classes and advocated struggles between them. In fact, they paid more attention to the task of devising ways against their friends than their foes. I was profoundly disappointed. 

In military affairs we inspected the Red Army, military schools of various services at different levels and army party organizations in Moscow. In Petrograd we inspected the Naval Academy and other service schools as well as the Kronstadt naval base and the Russian fleet there. My impression was that the Military Academy and the troops in Moscow were well organized and looked neat and trim, but the Naval Academy at Petrograd and the Russian fleet appeared to be depressed in spirit …

In political affairs we visited various ministries and commissions of the Russian Government, inspected village and city Soviets and observed proceedings at the Moscow Soviet Congress. From my observation of the ways whereby discussions were held and resolutions were passed in the Soviets at various levels and from my conversations with important party and political leaders, I easily perceived that fierce struggles, both open and secret, were going on among various sections of the Russian society and among the Russian Communists themselves. I became more convinced then ever that Soviet political institutions were instruments of tyranny and terror and basically incompatible with Kuomintang’s political system which is based on the Three People’s Principles. This was something that I had to go to Russia to find out; I could never have imagined it if I had remained in China (Chiang Kai-shek: Soviet Russia in China, 1957, pp. 19-21). 

Despite the hostility towards the Communists of Chiang Kai-shek and many other Guomindang members, Sun Yat-sen continued to defend the alliance with the Soviets. In October 1923, Michail Borodin, a Soviet adviser, arrived at Guangzhou. Borodin took charge of the Guomindang and reorganised it according to the hierarchical, disciplined and top-down Soviet model. “In the first place,” Borodin said to Sun Yat-sen, “the Kuomintang organization is very incomplete, and there is no discipline worth speaking of. Second, there are many impure elements in the Kuomintang, corrupt bureaucrats and adventurers. Then the Kuomintang lacks a popular basis in the form of the organization of the masses” (Leng / Palmer 1968, p. 68). Sun quickly learnt the lesson Borodin had taught him. He was determined to establish a strong leadership and party discipline. He now required from all Guomindang members to sacrifice their individuality for the sake of the party and its mission. In 1924, Sun declared:  

There is one thing of the greatest importance in a political party, that is, all party members must possess spiritual unity. In order that all members may be united spiritually, the first thing is to sacrifice freedom, the second is to offer ability. If the individual can sacrifice his freedom, then the whole party will have freedom. If the individual can offer his ability, then the whole party will possess ability…. The past failures of our Party were due to the fact that while the individual member had freedom, the Party as a whole had none, and that while the individual member had ability, the Party as a whole was powerless. Herein lay exactly the failure of the Kuomintang. In our reorganization today we must first get rid of this shortcoming (ibid., pp. 76-77, my emphasis).

The same year, the Whampoa Military Academy was established. Chiang Kai-shek was its commander, while Liao Zhongkai was its political commissar (a function obviously borrowed from the Soviets). Another thing that the Guomindang learnt from Communist Russia was the role of propaganda and the mobilisation of the masses.    

The last message addressed by Sun to his comrades confirmed his belief in the Guomindang-Soviet alliance:  

You are at the head of the union of free republics — that heritage left to the oppressed peoples of the world by the immortal Lenin. With the aid of that heritage the victims of imperialism will inevitably achieve emancipation from that international regime whose foundations have been rooted for ages in slavery, wars, and injustice … Taking my leave of you, dear comrades, I want to express the hope that the day will soon come when the U. S. S. R. will welcome a friend and ally in a mighty, free China, and that in the great struggle for the liberation of the oppressed peoples of the world both those allies will go forward to victory hand in hand (ibid., pp. 82-83, my emphasis).

However, Sun seems to have not understood the real message of Communism. He was never in his life in favour of class struggle. His ideal was to promote harmony between all classes and groups, to use nationalism as the basic principle of national reconstruction. The Guomindang’s Leninist roots did not include Marxist doctrines. After the Guomindang had reunified China in 1927, the new government, now led by Chiang Kai-shek, enshrined the principles of one-party dictatorship and political tutelage in the Constitution and the criminal code of the Republic of China.  


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