Guangzhou 1927: the Paris Commune of the East

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Some of the parallels made with the Paris Commune in this issue are not necessarily explicitly genealogical. As Tings Chak explains in this text, the 1927 Guangzhou Commune, on the other hand, claims such a direct genealogy between the Parisian and Cantonese uprisings.

Article published in The Funambulist 34 (March-April 2021) The Paris Commune & the World. Click here to access the rest of the issue.

It was in the Russian autumn of 1920 when Qu Qiubai first heard L’Internationale, the socialist anthem born of the 1871 Paris Commune. Eugène Pottier, author of the song’s lyrics, was a Communard and elected member of the workers’ state that lasted 72 days in the French capital. Though written nearly half a century earlier, that song had been adopted only recently as the anthem of the Bolshevik Party. Until today, this song is one of the most translated and sung anthems of the oppressed around the world. Qu was attending the third anniversary celebration of the October Revolution, having traveled through Harbin (China’s northernmost provincial capital) to reach Russia. Fluent in French and Russian, he was sent to be a correspondent in Moscow for the Beijing Morning News (晨报), covering the early years of the Bolshevik Revolution.

In 1920, the communist movement in China had barely begun, but the nation was hungry for its ideas. The colonial plunders of two Opium Wars marked the beginning of the “century of humiliation,” which saw the ceding of Hong Kong to the British and the sacking of the Old Summer Palace by Anglo-French forces. The Qing dynasty fell in 1911 only to be succeeded by a puppet Republican government. The country was divided, feudalism and warlordism were rampant. The Chinese people were hungry — physically and spiritually — for its nation to be set free.

Chak Funambulist
“Commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Paris Commune.” / Poster from 1971.

Like the thousands of young radicals of the time, Qu was politicized in the May Fourth Movement of 1919. The Paris Peace Conference at the end of World War I saw the ultimate betrayal of China’s interests — instead of having its territories returned, the Western Allies would agree to transfer Shandong Province from the colonial hands of Japan to Germany. In response, a national movement led by students in Beijing was born, anchored in anti-imperialist, anti-feudal and anti-patriarchal politics. This awakening gave birth to the New Culture Movement — with New Youth as its key publication — and an opening for new ideas to guide the country’s transformation. Among its leaders were Beijing University professors, Chen Duxiu and Li Dazhao, who were pivotal in bringing Marxist ideas into China. They both helped found the Communist Party of China (CPC) in 1921.

The betrayal by Western Allies was felt all the more after the contributions that the Chinese people made to the Great War. To meet their growing labor shortages, French and British states relied heavily on the colonies across Africa, Indochina and China. 140,000 Chinese people — mostly peasants — joined the French and British war efforts, while another 200,000 fought on the Eastern Front with the Russian Red Army. The Chinese Labor Corps did every task but bear arms: they dug trenches, worked in munition factories, repaired equipment on the frontlines, buried the dead. Thousands died, though this part of history is little told in the West. Around that same time, there was another group of young Chinese people heading to France. Originally initiated by Chinese anarchists in 1908, the program became formalized into the Diligent Work-Frugal Study program in 1919 that brought 2000 Chinese workers and peasants to Paris: they would work in factories in return for their Western education. The poor living and working conditions politicized many of these students. On February 28, 1921, 400 Chinese work-study students demonstrated against further reductions in bursaries. Events like this one brought the movement closer to the World War I generation workers as they began organizing together in the Renault factories from the industrial banlieues (suburbs) of Boulogne-Billancourt and La Garenne-Colombes. It was from the factory floors and in the university halls where Marxism would enter the Chinese revolutionary thought. Among the students were Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping, founders of the European branch of the CPC. Zhou Enlai would serve as Premier for 26 years and Deng Xiaoping, the Chinese leader who succeeded Mao Zedong upon the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC).