Perhaps the simplest indication of the different natures of the respective revolutions is the difference in the terms that Russians and Chinese use, to this day, to describe their own revolutions. In Russian, the period before 1917 is naturally referred to as dorevoliutsionnyi, literally “prerevolutionary.” However, in Chinese, the period before 1949 is not called geming qian, “before the revolution,” but rather jiefang qian, “before the liberation.” Though similar means were adopted by both sides, at least until the late 1970s, the underlying aims of the two revolutions were different, a fact that would impact not only the domestic conduct of the revolution but also understandings of global processes and historical trends and, ultimately, the respective abilities of each side to reform. In this section, we cover topics like Henk Sneevliet's task as instilling Comintern discipline in China, sovereignty (the 'lost countries), Canton as one of the most unruly and radical of China’s cities.

And where Chiang Kai-shek's Guomindang (Kuomintang, KMT) today is considered a prime representative (right-wing) Nationalism, in 1918 also Chiang traveled to Moscow to meet Lenin. In Moscow, Leon Trotsky, the Red Army head, told Chiang that the Soviet Union would not send troops into China, but weapons, money, and military advisers. He urged him not to rely on military force alone: ‘a good newspaper is better than a bad division’.1 Chiang was impressed with Trotsky’s candor. He was impressed with aspects of the new society, especially the youth organizations, but recorded in his diary that many Soviet high officials were ‘cads and rascals.’ His meeting with Zinoviev and the Comintern Executive did not go well. He told them the Chinese revolution happened in stages, and he could not embrace Bolshevism and class struggle openly. Chiang was stung by the ‘superficial and unrealistic’ Comintern communiqué that was issued after the meeting, which urged an opposite course: ‘It considers itself the center of the world revolution, which is really too fabricated and arrogant.’2 Nevertheless, Chiang’s visit raised Comintern's hopes for their alliance with the Kuomintang, and Chiang remained deeply impressed by the promise of material aid.

The western conquest of Asia had begun in 1498 when the Portuguese under Vasco da Gama first carried the wars against the ‘Moors’ into the Indian Ocean. It traveled full circle when the United States acquired the Philippines from Spain in 1898, fought a campaign against the ‘Moros,’ or the Muslims of the south's islands, which dragged on until 1913. But this marked a caesura, not an ending: new fields of the imperial competition were opening up in China. In Southeast Asia, Siam alone had seemingly escaped formal colonization after a resourceful modernization program during the reign of King Chulalongkorn from 1868 to 1910. But the kingdom could not avoid territorial concessions to the British and the French and crippling, unequal treaties. Some among the Thai elite now saw Siam as a ‘lost country’ too.3 

But how was a ‘lost country’ to be regained? Phan Boi Chau concluded that to confront such overwhelming firepower would be like a child trying to fight a warrior capable of pulling the horns off wild bulls: ‘How could we not be defeated?’4 All that was left was a war of words, to recast the old system to meet new challenges. Perhaps the most compelling voice was the writer and journalist Liang Qichao, who, aged just twenty-five, was in 1898 a principal architect of one of the last major attempts by the Qing state to revitalize itself: the Hundred Days Reform movement comprehensively. After its failure, Liang wrote prolifically from exile in Japan and America. He looked beyond ‘the false classics’ of Confucian learning to explore the modern meanings of statehood, citizenship, freedom, and truth. He broke from China's worldview as a civilization entire in and of itself. From a cyclical, dynastic vision of history, to see China as merely one entity within world-historical time, which progressed linearly from the ancient to the medieval to the modern.5 This allowed persuasive new comparisons to be made. ‘I love Confucius,’ Liang famously wrote in 1900, ‘but I love the truth more. I love my elders, but I love my country more. I love my friends, but I love liberty more.’6 The path to reclaiming the ‘lost country’ lay through popular sovereignty. As we have seen, the word - sovereignty was initially introduced to modern Chinese vocabulary through William A. P. Martin's translation of Henry Wheaton's Elements of International Law in 1864. Previously it was also translated as 薩威棱貼. Martin's translation became definitive and also traveled to Japan. So this most important term in the international relations of modern China was coined by an American.

The search to recover a ‘lost country’ began with ‘that universal response to the crisis, the demand for a history to instruct the future.’7 A new understanding of human history was gaining currency across Asia, shaped by Social Darwinism ideas – particularly the struggle between nations for the survival of the fittest – as popularized by Herbert Spencer and others. A translation of T. H. Huxley’s 1893 lecture ‘On Evolution and Ethics’ introduced Social Darwinism into China in 1898, it came to Vietnam. For westerners, Social Darwinism fortified a sense of moral and scientific triumph and racial hubris. Read within a ‘lost country’ like Vietnam, it had the force of revealed truth, exposing elemental weaknesses within Vietnamese society and history. But where the determinism of western Social Darwinism seemed to condemn weak nations to perpetual defeat, for some members of Vietnam's defeated elites, who saw through the confusion of loss, it was a call to arms. It transformed themselves into agents of historical change. There was an echo of the old Confucian ideal of the cultivation of the ‘perfect man.’ But now there were new models of conduct.8 

One of the most discussed works of the day was a Japanese political novel from the 1880s entitled Strange Encounters with Beautiful Women (Kaijin No Kigu). It was written by Shiba Shiro, who was born into a samurai family, fought on the losing side in the Meiji Restoration, but then traveled abroad and studied commerce and business in San Francisco and Philadelphia before returning to a successful career in the new legislative assembly. Under the pen name ‘Tokai Sanshi,’ or ‘Oriental Traveller,’ he recounted from first-hand experience the travels of a young Japanese through the United States, Europe, and Egypt. He introduced readers to a kaleidoscopic cast of contemporary revolutionaries. It was shot through with empathy for those nations that had suffered at the hands of the hegemonic powers.9 

Vietnamese readers approached the novel through a Chinese adaption by Liang Qichao, which he began in 1898 onboard the ship on which he fled China for Japan. Phan Boi Chau’s fellow searchers for Hue's new learning was a young man called Phan Chu Trinh. He recorded his response to Strange Encounters with Beautiful Women in verse: 

The scramble for survival is shaking the entire world; with their hearts broken, heroes and heroines meet at the Liberty Bell; though his hairs already turn grey, a man of high purpose shows concern for his country, Fashionably attired, elegant young women vow revenge on behalf of their lands, Indignant at world affairs, they converse spiritedly, Indifferent to life and death, their names will go into history.10

This was when local nationalisms were still nascent, and when the colonial world's political future seemed uniquely open. Many of these men and women believed that the solidarities they made – born from a shared history of oppression and exploitation and negotiation of borders and exclusion – would prevail over the narrowness of nations and usher in a common utopian destiny. Although many were loyal disciples of Lenin and Stalin, they molded Marxist-Leninist doctrine to Asian realities in innovative ways. And when it was unyielding, they often broke with it: such ideas were a method, not an iron dogma. A new generation of intellectuals sought to weave together seemingly irreconcilable doctrines – anarchism, nationalism, communism, even religious revival – in the name of unity and opposition to western imperialism. They shared a central dilemma regarding how far violence could be employed for political ends and what arguments might legitimize its use. They shared a conviction that Asia led the struggles for human freedom from subjugation and impoverishment: what Tan Malaka was to call ‘100 percent independence’. He also gave the future a name: ‘Asia’ – a new unity within a world order remade. This was just one of many such visions. 

The itineraries of these dangerous men and women repeatedly converged in some of the most monumental events of the twentieth century as seen from the west: the two world wars and the rise of communism. But they often experienced this history through a very different lens, a different sense of time and place. As a different story altogether: that of a contest between western empires and their most dedicated opponents, they fought across the globe by a generation whose intertwined lives gave their experience a unity. 


Enter Henk Sneevliet

Hendricus Josephus Franciscus Marie Sneevliet, known as Henk Sneevliet or by the pseudonym "Maring," was a Dutch Communist active in both the Netherlands and the Dutch East-Indies. As a functionary of the Communist International, Sneevliet guided the formation of the Communist Party of China. He arrived in Shanghai at the beginning of June 1921, deeply unhappy. As a European in Java, he was used to traveling with a certain status and style. Now his European bank savings had been wiped out by hyperinflation following the war, and bad hotels, hardship, and harassment weighed down on him. His letters to Moscow were a constant complaint about his finances. Eventually, under Andresen's name, he settled into digs in a Russian woman's house in Wayside Road in the International Settlement. In Java, he had worked closely with local allies such as Semaoen and Darsono. But he was at something of a loss in Shanghai, with only a sketchy knowledge of the country and dependent entirely on interpreters. He based his advice, he later admitted, principally on what he saw as the successful experience of organizing trade unions and other left-wing groups within the Sarekat Islam in Java.11 He gained his entrée into leftist circles through a Russian, Nikolsky, from the Far Eastern Bureau in Irkutsk. But the lines of authority were unclear, and Sneevliet’s brief was vague. As with the proconsuls of the Dutch trading empire of old, the slowness of communications to and from Asia gave a great deal of discretion to the man on the spot. However, for every action, there would later be a stern reckoning. 

Sneevliet saw his primary task as instilling Comintern discipline. His first step was a first-hand report on the ‘National and Colonial Questions’ at the Second Congress. This carried weight with those who heard it. But Sneevliet’s easy assumption of authority generated tensions from the outset. As Zhang Guotao, a witness to May Fourth in Beijing and now the ‘small group’s’ chief organizer, put it: ‘he saw himself coming as an angel of liberation to the Asian people.’ His Comintern diction, laced with terms such as ‘backwardness’ and ‘infantilism,’ betrayed a man who had lived too long as a ‘colonial master.’12 Translating the loose Comintern policy into a tactical blueprint for the Chinese situation immediately escalated tensions. In Sneevliet’s analysis, an alliance with the bourgeois movement was a priority. It was also an imperative of Soviet foreign policy. In Shanghai's turbulent labor politics, the reading of the situation, the sense of pressing need, was quite different. To the professional revolutionary, which Sneevliet had become, the only way to settle the issue was to call for a ‘national congress.’ 

The gathering was organized by Li Da and Li Hanjun at the latter’s residence in the French Concession, in the small living room of a shikumen house at 106 Wangzhi Road, on 23 July 1921. It brought together thirteen representatives from various study circles and small groups across China for the first time. They spoke for just fifty-three party ‘members.’ Those present were mostly intellectuals and not hardened labor organizers. The classrooms of a nearby ‘alley’ girls’ school were used as a dormitory for delegates from out of town: two from Beijing – including Zhang Guotao, who chaired the meeting – two from Wuhan, two from Jinan, two from Hunan – one of whom was Mao Zedong, who departed from Changsha in late June – one from Canton, one from Japan and one ‘unattached.’ They masqueraded, very plausibly, as students from Beida on a summer excursion.13 They were not the only group to see themselves as a communist ‘party’; there were other simultaneous groupings of Chinese in Tokyo and France who made similar claims. But it was the Shanghai meeting that was later known as the First Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). 

Sneevliet attended under his work name, ‘Maring,’ to speak for the Comintern and Nikolsky for the Far Eastern Bureau. But the unease at Sneevliet’s presence, and his lack of understanding of China, was such that the two outsiders were absent for key debates on the party program. The most intense discussion was over how far the party should be a working-class organization aiming for the proletariat's dictatorship, or whether it should remain a looser study group, reaching out to students and intellectuals party of ideas. If the first line was followed, cooperation with the nationalists was impossible; if the second, then it was entirely feasible for members to participate in national assemblies and open public work. The path of the proletariat was a path underground. Sneevliet, on the outside of this discussion, returned to Wangzhi Road on 30 July. But, as he did so, the meeting was interrupted by a stranger at the door. It appeared to be a case of mistaken address, but the attendees guessed that it was a prelude to a French police raid. It was likely that Sneevliet was being watched, and the police had caught wind of the meeting. Added to this, the next morning, there was a murder in a hotel next to where the delegates were staying. The delegates scattered and reconvened on a boat at a beauty spot, the South Lake at Jiaxing, some two hours away by train, without Sneevliet. There the proletarian line was endorsed, and the party adopted an exclusive membership. The question of cooperation with Sun Yat-sen’s party was deferred. There was no mention of the Comintern in the new party constitution, which was mostly culled from that of the Communist Party of the United States. The proceedings were not published, and there was considerable haziness as to what had been resolved and what remained open for discussion. 

The two most prominent leaders of the movement did not attend. Li Dazhao remained in Beijing, and Chen Duxiu was away in the south, in Canton, working for Chen Jiongming as a public education director. When Chen Duxiu returned to Shanghai around August or early September, he was reluctant to meet Sneevliet, still less to concede Comintern authority or accept its gold. When they did meet, the mood was frosty. Having spent much of his adult life fighting a closed bureaucracy, Chen Duxiu was irked by the Leninist model's organizational obsessions, such as Sneevliet’s insistence on constant reports on party work among labor. In truth, there was little new going on.14 Relations only softened in October when the French Concession police arrested Chen, and Sneevliet helped bail him out of prison. Thereafter, the CCP came to rely on Comintern funds. Word went out for the party to recruit members and build a structure from the district level upwards. However, the question of relations with Sun Yat-sen’s nationalists remained unresolved and gathered urgency. Sun’s movement in exile, the Kuomintang, had been refounded in October 1919. It had only a few thousand members within China; its greater strength, and the source of its funding, was overseas. There were around thirty-six branches and sub-branches in British Malaya alone, based in reading rooms, clubs, and clan associations.15 But, to the communist leaders, the Kuomintang seemed the cleanest break with the vilified ‘warlords.’ As Sun Yat-sen became increasingly enigmatic to the European powers and more radical in his attacks on China's ambitions, the Kuomintang also appeared to be China’s strongest defense against imperialism. 

In December 1921, Sneevliet set out for the south. After his return to Canton in November 1920, Sun had, by May 1921, controversially contrived his election as president of the republic. With the help of warlord armies, he moved to establish a forward base for his northern campaign at Guilin in Guangxi province, but his plans stalled through lack of finance. Sneevliet traveled via Hankou and Changsha, the capital of Hunan, where he lectured to the youth circles in which so many of the Chinese activists in France and elsewhere had been active. Over the next two weeks, Sun and Sneevliet, his guest at Guilin, shared their experiences of struggle, their understandings of the Bolshevik Revolution, and their views on Sun’s national movement. They agreed that the Kuomintang needed a firm party structure and that it should develop its military training to abandon its reliance on the warlords. There seemed to be a consonance between Sun Yat-sen’s notion that the Chinese masses lay under the ‘slave psychology’ of centuries and needed a period of ‘political tutelage’ under the Kuomintang and the Leninist ‘dictatorship of the proletariat.’16 Sneevliet lectured on this to Sun’s cadres. Where the two men differed was over cooperation with the communists. While Sun Yat-sen was content to accept the friendship of the Soviet Union in the international arena, he still held hope for British recognition and support in the struggle against his rivals in China itself. To Sneevliet, Sun Yat-sen was ‘far more militant than Gandhi, but he thought purely along the lines of a military conspiracy.’ He was also wary of Sun’s ‘mystical’ mentality.17 Leaving Guilin, Sneevliet headed further south and arrived in Canton on 23 January 1922. ‘In Shanghai,’ he reported to Moscow, ‘I had become very pessimistic about China's movement and its possibilities. In the south, I became convinced that fruitful work was possible.’18 

Around 1920 there was a fad for rubber-soled in Canton. Ten factories were set up to produce them, the largest of which turned out 1,500 pairs a day. The British consul drew attention to this in a despatch, with some puzzlement: ‘The use of these soles by the modernized young Chinese is becoming almost universal.’19 They were popular, not least for running in crowds. The level of foreign investment in the city was slight compared to Shanghai; the Canton economy was dominated by light industry, often of a traditional kind. Chinese capital predominated: over half the value of Canton’s exports lay in silk. But for centuries, the Pearl River delta had been a sprawling center of production, the final terminus of the old Silk Road. A 1923 survey of money-making enterprises in the city listed 31,802 different concerns, classified into 233 types. For example, there were twelve western-style banks, ninety-six local banks, forty-eight customs brokers, fifty-three underwriting firms, and seventy-five pawnshops, with great fortress-like structures to store goods.20 Not least of the nationalists’ goals was to make Canton the epicenter of China’s future economic development. 

The delta was perhaps the greatest concentration of toiling humanity on earth. Comprising some 8,000 square miles, it was the densest area of settlement of China's` most crowded region, with 1,170 people per square mile. The population of Guangdong province was around 37.1 million: in 1923, perhaps half of it was urbanized, although the borders of city, town, and village tended to blur into one another.21 As the center of gravity of politics and trade in China moved from inland cities, rivers, and canals to the coast, Guangdong sat in the middle of a watery continuum facing outwards to the southern and eastern seas and was a principal point of departure for migrants. 

Canton stood at the edge of empires. Its neighboring province, Guanxi, bordered French Indochina. Just over 100 miles to the southeast, near where the Pearl River entered the South China Sea, stood the British colony of Hong Kong. Canton was a shallow river port; Hong Kong a deep-sea ocean port. Since 1839 it had been Britain’s principal gateway to China and a vital entrepôt for China itself. The British likened the dependency of the two cities to that of Manchester and Liverpool. By 1921, 90 percent of Hong Kong people were natives of Guangdong, and people still traveled freely by steamer and by rail from one city to the other, 900,000 by train alone.22 Since 1839, the British had used their foothold in China to police the delta's maritime badlands, what they saw as nests of piracy, smuggling, and trafficking in people – potential flashpoints that seemed to multiply as China’s crisis deepened. Sun Yat-sen and other revolutionaries looked to Hong Kong and its wealthy businessmen as a bank to draw upon and as a bolthole

Canton was one of the most unruly and radical of China’s cities. This was led from the waterfront, where, unlike Shanghai, the labor force tended to have strong local ties. Wages had not been kept in line with the soaring cost of living during and after the war; sub-contractors demanded their earnings cut, so too did the police. When alternative organizations of laborers formed to counter this, they received a crucial impetus from organizers committed to anarchist self-help ideas. Many had come to these beliefs through travel overseas. In the city, translations of Kropotkin, Bakunin, and Malatesta were more widely available than radical literature of any other kind. As a doctrine, anarchism was malleable to individual needs: it represented freedom from the state and feudal structures and a new moral purpose. It was less a systematic system of thought than a utopian horizon. Like Marxism and Leninism, it was not passively received but elaborated on locally by men and women, making sense of their alienation from the old order. The ideas of Liu Shifu, who had brought anarchism and Esperanto from Japan in 1912, were embedded in the city, and, after he died in 1915, were carried far afield by his followers. By 1918, thirty-two newspapers were operating freely there – in which the full spectra of the new politics of Asia found a new voice. Between 1922 and 1923, over seventy anarchist publications had appeared in Chinese at home and abroad, making it perhaps the most discussed ideology of its day. Canton was the major center for anarchist influence, especially within its labor movement. This was a major obstacle to the small party of Chinese communists who were beginning to focus their organizational efforts away from Shanghai towards the relative sanctuary of the south.23 

Chen Duxiu’s attempts to create a Leninist organization during his short sojourn in Canton earlier in 1921 had been rebuffed by local anarchists deeply suspicious of its ‘dictatorial methods.’ He claimed to have founded three workers’ schools, supported one strike, and identified a mere thirty-two communists in the city.24 But it was here that Chinese Bolshevism was first encountered by British intelligence. They saw it as a strange cult in which ‘filial affection was a back number and that promiscuity and free love form the height of human happiness.’25 This image lingered in both the foreign and Chinese publics: in March 1921, the Huazi Ribao of Hong Kong elaborated on the ‘promiscuity’ of a man who ‘dares to poison our youth, destroy our moral values.’26

When Sneevliet reached Canton, the Pearl River delta was at a standstill. Its chaotic labor conditions had spread to the British enclave in Hong Kong. There was a large-scale mechanics strike in 1920, and in February 1921, a Chinese Seamen’s Union was formed, tightly organized around the workers’ dormitories. After issuing a series of calls for revision of wages in the face of soaring inflation throughout 1921, the Union’s demand for a 40 percent rise was accompanied by a seamen strike on 13 January 1922, on a scale that took employers and the authorities by surprise. It was led by worldly men exposed to trade unionism outside China, who experienced every day onboard ship the insidious comparison with European sailors’ wages and privileges. Although the causes of the strike were economic, the movement became increasingly vocal in its opposition to British and Chinese capital and colonialism. It involved at its height some 20,000 men, and some 10,000 more – part of the same family networks and working communities – came out in Canton in a sympathy strike and street demonstrations. There was an exodus of laborers by train to Canton, where many had families: a tactic of ‘asylum’ used to good effect in the earlier mechanics’ strike. On 18 January, some 7,000 strikers paraded in the city, and the next day pledged themselves at the memorial of the 72 Martyrs of the 1911 Revolution. Reginald Stubbs, the governor of Hong Kong, declared the union illegal and used martial law to prohibit workers from leaving the colony to press-gang labor. Employers tried to sign on strike-breakers in Shanghai but were rebuffed by support for the strikers among labor and had to recruit as far afield as the Philippines and the Netherlands Indies. On 28 February, a sympathy strike rolled out from the waterfront bringing in stevedores, tram drivers, street coolies, houseboys, and clerks, including Government House staff. Commerce froze, and expatriate families were left marooned on the Peak, unable to fend for themselves without servants. From a tally by the expatriate South China Morning Post, the total number involved was around 120,000, which is 20 percent of the entire population of Hong Kong. On 5 March, a procession of around 2,000 workers was stopped from crossing into China; jittery police and soldiers opened fire, killing five workers and injuring others. What became known as the ‘Shatin Massacre’ and the ensuing nationalist outrage showed how rapidly a wage dispute could escalate into an elemental threat to colonial order. Within days of the march, labor, and management had come to terms; it was a victory for organized labor and an unprecedented shock to imperial prestige.27 In the last stages of the strike, as one British report had it: ‘The delta is in chaos, no junks on the move, and the silk cocoon market, on which the main bulk of Canton’s foreign trade depends, cannot be held, as it is unsafe to carry about silk or money to pay for it.’28 

This made a deep impression on Sneevliet. Here the drive to organize labor he had failed to find in Shanghai was everywhere to be seen. The seamen’s strike was not communist-led, but it goaded communist activists into taking the lead, and they later claimed it as a triumph of their own initiative. Nor was the strike backed unequivocally by the Canton government.29 But the city authorities' tacit support confirmed Sneevliet’s impression that the Kuomintang was a progressive force. He met three times with Chen Jiongming but was ultimately unconvinced by his support for ‘socialism.’ Chen was, Sneevliet later observed, a sort of ‘Chinese Stalin’, chasing a vision of ‘nationalism in one province.’30 However, once Sun Yat-sen re-established himself in the city, Sneevliet concluded that it was ‘the only city in the Far East where … a permanent representation was possible without being bothered by the authorities’.31 He took this news back to Shanghai, a sea journey slowed by the aftershock of the strike in ports along the coast. The Dutch colonial authorities believed Sneevliet was behind its spread. After a side trip to Beijing, Sneevliet resumed his bitter dispute with Chen Duxiu and others when he arrived in Shanghai. He then left to carry his impressions to Moscow, traveling back as precariously as he had arrived. The Japanese would not grant him a visa to cross by rail through south Manchuria to reach Harbin. Still under pressure from the Dutch, the British would not allow him to land in any port they controlled between Hong Kong and Port Said. He left on 24 April 1922 on a Japanese ship from Shanghai to reach Marseilles in early June.32 But, two days earlier, the ground shifted once again. Sun Yat-sen and Chen Jiongming clashed bitterly over the necessity and funding of the northern expedition. There were attempts on Chen’s life, and on 22 April, he withdrew from Canton with 10,000 of his troops. But Chen remained popular in the war-weary city, and the struggle between the two men reached a climax on 16 June, when Sun’s presidential palace was bombarded by the forces loyal to Chen Jiongming. Sun escaped by car, on to a boat off the bund, leaving his wife, Soong Ching-ling, the second of three daughters of the Shanghai financier Charlie Soong, to flee on foot and under fire, dressed as an old peasant woman. Sun took refuge on a gunboat, and – in a move that shocked local opinion – bombarded the city, causing civilian loss of life. After five weeks, protected by his closest military aide, an officer called Chiang Kai-shek, Sun was eventually given ignominious safe passage to Hong Kong by a British warship and then headed into exile in Shanghai.33 Canton's opinion was bitterly divided by the affair. As one paper remarked, ‘Canton was originally a majestic and prosperous city. Since the return of Sun Yat-sen, it has become a world of terror.’3461 Suddenly, the Asian revolution seemed to have stalled.34


The new Asian underground

A new Asian underground had started to take form. However, as its travelers began to pass through Moscow or Shanghai, they connected only haphazardly to the belle époque and war years' older networks. They did not possess a secure foothold in the laboring communities of the world abroad. The Vietnamese pioneers of the ‘Journey to the East’ of 1905–7 were scattered across Siam and China; Phan Boi Chau continued to live quietly in Hangzhou, China. Of the Netherlands Indies' radical leaders, not only Sneevliet, Baars and Darsono were in exile, the PKI leader, Semaoen, followed them to Moscow in late 1921. Rash Behari Bose was joined in Japan in 1922 by the Provisional Government of Free India's erstwhile leader in Kabul, Raja Mahendra Pratap. The conspiracy trials of 1914–19 had pulled in South Asians across Southeast Asia, the Pacific, and the United States. Those who had avoided prison or had received lighter sentences, such as Taraknath Das and Bhagwan Singh in the US, were forced out of the public eye; others retired to private life. 

The full force of imperial retribution was felt by those languishing in a series of isolated penal colonies scattered across oceans. As the aftermath of the war unfolded, the ‘seditionist' prisoners in Port Blair in the Andamans followed events through a weekly edition of The Times of London. There were hardly any Indian newspapers, but rumor and the tales of incoming prisoners brought word of Punjab's recent disorder. After some years of good behavior, a prisoner might be allowed to write a petition for clemency. Vinayak Savarkar had been punished eight times in 1912–14 for refusing to work and possessing forbidden articles. But his behavior over the ensuing five years, the superintendent reported, was ‘very good.’ He was ‘always suave and polite, but like his brother, he has never shown any disposition to assist government actively.’35 When the amnesty was announced in 1919 to mark the Allied victory, many prisoners appealed for release. Savarkar asked for the remission of his second term of twenty-five years. ‘So far from believing in the militant school of the Bukanin [sic] type, I do not contribute even to the peaceful and philosophical anarchism of a Kropotkin or a Tolstoy.’36 He elaborated this in a letter to his brother. ‘We were revolutionists under necessity and not by choice. We felt that the best interests of India as well as of England, demanded that her ideals be progressively and peacefully realized by mutual help and cooperation.’ The Raj was not satisfied: there was to be no remission. Savarkar had one visit over 30–31 May 1919 from his wife and brother, one and one and a half hours respectively. Some prisoners were released to mainland prisons, others under warrant for good behavior. In one sense, the dismal experience of captivity could reinforce a sense of the solidity of the Raj in a prisoner’s mind; it left no sphere of one’s physical or mental life untouched. Daily indignities wore down the mind. But, then again, violence committed, contemplated, witnessed left no one untouched.37 In another sense, long-term imprisonment mirrored the revolutionary aesthetic adopted by many young men, even down to the cell-like structure that governed their lives. Savarkar saw a role for himself in prison in fighting mental languor and promoting spiritual discipline. Fortified by a growing prison library, he read and began to write. Influenced perhaps by the mostly Muslim guards' ever-present tyranny, the nation's vision that emerged on paper was fashioned in Hindu terms, in defiance of external aggressions. This took form in two new histories of India and a treatise published in 1923 entitled Hindutva: Who is a Hindu? 38

Many of the radicals of the pre-war years were seeing the future in more exclusive terms. Bhai Parmanand, who remained in the public eye as one of the most controversial prisoners from the 1915 rebellion, went on a hunger strike at Port Blair and was force-fed through a tube. He was released after signing a warrant that he would not take part in any anarchist activity. He had always maintained his innocence. He saw this as a victory and likened his release to the fall of the Bastille. He traveled by train to Lahore and his wife. She was now the family's teacher, supporting their daughters; as Bhai Parmanand told the prison superintendent, ‘perhaps I shall do her work at home.’ After a short rest in Kashmir, he attended the Congress Special Session in Calcutta on 4 September; it was a reunion with Gandhi, whom he had last seen when he had stayed in his house in the Transvaal. He now accepted him as a new Avatar’. He also concluded that ‘the salvation of this country was possible through Hindus and Hindus alone’.39 

As he traveled, Bhai Parmanand shared a railway carriage with a visiting British Labour politician, J. C. Wedgwood, a scion of the fine-china family, who published his version of the encounter in the Daily Herald under the headline, ‘Hell in Andamans.’ Under pressure from within India, the British authorities had already launched an inquiry to a wider investigation into prison conditions. In the distorted world of high prisoner mortality, 46.73 per 1,000 in 1919, routine brutality and sexual predation could not stand up to scrutiny.40 As a result of this, the sending of seditious prisoners to the Andamans was briefly halted, but, given the scale of the investment, the islands' ideal as a model settlement endured. Around 4,000 of the estimated 11,532 convicts and the 3,000 local-born persons were sent back to the mainland, but they were soon replaced in 1922 by 1,000 men serving life sentences for rebellion in south India. By 1925, their wives and families were encouraged to join them.41 This vision of quarantine colonies was common among empires. Political prisoners from French Indochina were shipped across oceans, from French Guiana to Congo or Gabon, Madagascar, or New Caledonia. There were instances of escape from French Guiana. It was harder to abscond from nearer to home, from the prison on Poulo Condore, off Saigon, or from those built-in montane areas, such as the penitentiary at Lao Bao.42 In the Netherlands Indies, the nineteenth-century practice of using convict labor in remote coal mines in West Sumatra or southeastern Borneo persisted into the 1920s. The average prison population in the Indies in 1920 was 57,006, or 106 in 100,000. Overcrowded prisons led to the creating of a new-style ‘agricultural colony’ at Nusa Kambangan, an island off the south coast of Java, which by 1922 held more than 3,200 convicts. All of these regimes were known for their high mortality, violent punishment, and corruption and stood ready to absorb new populations of political internees.43 

The imperial dragnet was global in its reach but not all-encompassing. In the face of the Bolshevik panic, a conference on ‘The International Struggle against Bolshevism’ was convened in Munich in December 1920 and attracted twenty-four police officials from six European countries. But the major imperial powers, Britain and France, were absent. International criminal policing was strengthened by the formation of Interpol in 1923. But cooperation in political policing tended to be ad hoc, informal and bilateral. In the face of the wartime anarchist scares and the new Bolshevik panic, intelligence sharing between the British, United States, and Canada was formalized in 1919.44. On paper, a formidable coven of intelligence bodies now oversaw the secret governance of British Asia. The Central Security Department in London, the Intelligence Bureau of the Home Department of India, the Joint Naval and Military Intelligence Bureau in Hong Kong, the ambassadors and consuls in Bangkok, Batavia, Singapore, and elsewhere. In the aftermath of the Singapore Mutiny, in late 1918, a Special Branch was formed there. The Sûreté built up its index of fingerprints from 7,751 records in 1906 to 203,075 in 1927. In 1921, a new Malayan Bureau of Political Intelligence was augmented, based in Singapore, which tracked moving targets across the region and liaised with other agencies. Its brief was explicitly political, separate from the criminal, ‘except in so far as the criminal is “political.”’ ‘Many crimes which appear to be ordinary are afterward seen to be “political,” and vice versa.’ It built up an archive of ‘political’ files inherited from the military. It also dabbled in counter-propaganda. Europeans of long-standing in Asia staffed it. Its first head was an Englishman, A. S. Jelf, with twenty-two years’ service in Malaya, who had worked as a counter-espionage officer for Ridout in 1917 and MI5 1918. But all this did not prevent ‘suicidal’ turf wars between Indian intelligence and the new Secret Intelligence Service (MI6).45 In the first annual review of its workings, the Malayan Bureau of Political Intelligence director complained that district officers communicated to it ‘so little of the people's common talk.’ Nor in its first year did any branch of government in Malaya call on its services. The police had their own paid informers, and on these, the Political Intelligence organization depended: it had none of its own, nor its own translation staff. It maintained lists of suspects and proscribed publications and a flagship monthly, Bulletin of Political Intelligence, printed by the 2nd Middlesex Regiment. It was an article of faith that only Europeans should handle: the Bureau's staff consisted of Jelf and one confidential typist: a married European lady. Over time, the ledger and list empire began to catch up with the fieldcraft of the underground.46 

The Great Game, the ‘beautiful game’ of old, was to be played with new rules. Officials in New Delhi were now chary at the thought of swashbuckling freebooters flashing subsidy payments to potentates beyond Raj's borders. As he donned a native disguise in Tashkent, inspired by John Buchan’s Richard Hannay's heroics, Frederick Bailey admitted that he found little encouragement from on high. He went so deep underground that he was out of contact with his superiors entirely from October 1918 to January 1920, when he reappeared miraculously in Meshed in Persia after he had been reported dead in India. The Soviets in Tashkent had given him a funeral in absentia with full military honors.47 It was increasingly unclear what such adventures achieved. It was reported in the Bengali press that Charles Tegart, the nemesis of Jatin Mukherjee, ‘dressed as a dandy’ to survey the bazaars. But this was part of his growing myth, and in truth, most British police officers dealt with agents at a remove through local subordinates.48 The Raj had forward posted on India's overland routes at Meshed and at Kashgar, in Xinjiang, from where the road to India, such as it was, led to Gilgit, which took twenty-six days, or, via Leh, thirty-eight days. As Roy and his associates in Tashkent had found, there were only two plausible overland routes from Russia into India, through Afghanistan to Peshawar or over the Pamir mountains to the Karakoram, where the British picked up ten men in early 1922.49 

The British were confident that all of the muhajirun trained and despatched to India overland by M. N. Roy was accounted for.50 If an act by one person or a few could set great revolutionary events in motion, equally the right man at the border post, or in the harbor master’s office, could stop them in their tracks. The first line of imperial defense was the mail censor. Few Indians received letters from abroad, and the foreign mail that arrived was all channeled through the Foreign Post Office in Bombay. Local post offices could screen it out, even if letters were under several covers, as the police looked first to the addresses from which they were despatched. As Muzaffar Ahmad later observed, it became impossible to guide an international movement ‘through the postal department.’51 The first Comintern emissary to get through to India from Europe was Nalini Gupta, a man who had spent the war in Britain and moved to Berlin and Moscow with Chatto’s party. Alone of that group, he had gained Roy’s confidence, and his relative lack of involvement in the wartime plots perhaps recommended him as a discreet messenger. He left Berlin in mid-September 1921, traveling by sea. He tarried in Colombo for some weeks, treating an injured leg, arriving in Calcutta two days before Christmas. He brought the first direct communication from Roy to India: a manifesto, signed by Roy and Abani Mukherji, for the Congress meeting in Gandhi’s home city of Ahmedabad in December 1921. In Moscow, Nalini claimed to have connections with the Bengal underground. But in Bengal, it transpired that this acquaintance was thin. The old guard would not see him and had no reason to trust him. Some remembered that he had been involved in the Burdwan Flood Relief in 1913, as many patriotic young men were. But he was recollected more for his ‘instinctive flair for fanning personal resentments.’ There was talk of a statement he had given to the police back in 1914. He had had a comfortable war, working in munitions factories in Britain. Rebuffed by the Bengal underground, he sought out the younger revolutionaries through their newspapers. Via an intermediary, he met Muzaffar Ahmad, then running a periodical for workers. Muzaffar Ahmad accepted that he was what he said he was. Still, while Nalini seemed to know a good deal about bombs, Muzaffar was struck by his ignorance of the International's workings, about which he and his friends were hungry for knowledge. And at every stage, the British were watching him.52


1. David R. Stone, ‘Soviet Arms Exports in the 1920s’, Journal of Contemporary History, 48/1 (2013), pp. 57–77, at p. 69. 

2. Taylor, The Generalissimo, pp. 43–4; Yang Tianshi, ‘Perspectives on Chiang Kaishek’s Early Thought from his Unpublished Diary,’ in Leutner et al. (eds), The Chinese Revolution in the 1920s, pp. 77–97, at pp. 90–91.

3. Shane Strate, The Lost Territories: Thailand’s History of National Humiliation, Honolulu, University of Hawaii Press, 2015. 

4. Chau, ‘History of the Loss of the Country’, p. 345. 

5. Tang Xiaobing, Global Space, and the Nationalist Discourse of Modernity: The Historical Thinking of Liang Qichao, Stanford, CA, Stanford University Press, 1996. Discussions of Liang’s historical significance start with Joseph Levenson, Liang Ch’i-ch’ao, and the Mind of Modern China, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 1953. For Liang in a wider context see Pankaj Mishra, From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt against the West and the Remaking of Asia, London, Penguin, 2012, ch. 2. 

6. Quoted in Peter Zarrow, After Empire: The Conceptual Transformation of the Chinese State, 1885–1924, Stanford, CA, Stanford University Press, 2012, p. 58. 

7. Here I borrow John Lonsdale’s dictum, and acknowledge an enduring intellectual debt. See John Lonsdale, ‘Anti-Colonial Nationalism and Patriotism in Sub-Saharan Africa’, in John Breuilly (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of the History of Nationalism, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2013, pp. 318–37, at p. 320. 

8. Bradley, ‘Becoming Van Minh’; Hue-Tam Ho Tai, Radicalism and the Origins of the Vietnamese Revolution, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 1992, pp. 20–22. 

9. Atsuko Sakaki, Obsessions with the Sino-Japanese Polarity in Japanese Literature, Honolulu, University of Hawaii Press, 2006, pp. 158–9. 

10. Bradley, ‘Becoming Van Minh’; Sính Vĩnh, ‘“Elegant Females” Re-encountered: From Tökai Sanshi’s Kajin No Kigü to Phan Châu Trinh’s Giai Nhân ky Ngô Dien Ca’, in K. W. Taylor and John W. Whitmore (eds), Essays into Vietnamese Pasts, Ithaca, NY, Southeast Asia Program Publications, 1995, pp. 195–206, quotation at p. 202.

11. Harold R. Isaacs and Albert Treint, ‘Documents on the Comintern and the Chinese Revolution’, China Quarterly, 45 (1971), pp. 105–6. For an elaboration of this and the importance of Sneevliet’s role, see Dov Bing, ‘Sneevliet and the Early Years of the CCP’, China Quarterly, 48 (1971), pp. 677–97. 

12. Tony Saich, The Origins of the First United Front in China: The Role of Sneevliet (alias Maring), Leiden, Brill, 1991, pp. 32–3; Michael Williams, ‘Sneevliet and the Birth of Asian Communism’, New Left Review, 123 (1980), pp. 81–90. 

13. For the account of the meeting in this paragraph and the following I have drawn chiefly on van de Ven, From Friend to Comrade, pp. 85–97, and Ishikawa, The Formation of the Chinese Communist Party, pp. 227–93. 

14. Lee, Chen Duxiu, pp. 164–5. 

15. C. F. Yong and R. B. McKenna, Kuomintang Movement in British Malaya, 1912–1949, Singapore, National University of Singapore Press, 1990. 

16. Shao Chuan Leng and Norman D. Palmer, Sun Yat-sen and Communism, New York, Praeger, 1960, pp. 48–50. 

17. Isaacs and Treint, ‘Documents on the Comintern and the Chinese Revolution’, p. 104. 

18. ‘Report of Comrade H. Maring to the Executive’, 11 July 1922, in Tony Saich (ed.), The Rise to Power of the Chinese Communist Party: Documents and Analysis, Armonk, NY, M. E. Sharpe, 1996, p. 28.## 

19. TNA, FO 228/3276, ‘Canton Intelligence Report, December Quarter, 1922’. 

20. For the detail see Wilbur C. Martin, ‘Problems of Starting a Revolutionary Base: Sun Yatsen and Canton, 1923’, Bulletin of the Institute of Modern History (Taipei), 2/4 (1971), p. 8. 

21. For a detailed study see Ming K. Chan, ‘Labor and Empire: The Chinese Labor Movement in the Canton Delta, 1895–1927’, PhD thesis, Stanford University, 1977. 2350 

22. Daniel Y. K. Kwan, Marxist Intellectuals and the Chinese Labor Movement: A Study of Deng Zhongxia (1894–1933), Seattle, University of Washington Press, 1997, pp. 54–5. 

23. For this see Arif Dirlik, Anarchism in the Chinese Revolution, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1991

24. Kwan, Marxist Intellectuals and the Chinese Labor Movement, p. 86. 

25. TNA, FO 228/3276, ‘Canton Intelligence Report, March Quarter, 1921’. 

26. Issue of 17 March 1921, cited in Chen, Chen Jiongming, p. 128. 

27. For the strike see Chan Wei Kwan, The Making of Hong Kong Society: Three Studies of Class Formation in Early Hong Kong, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1991, pp. 166–91; Jean Chesneaux, The Chinese Labor Movement, 1919–1927, Stanford, CA, Stanford University Press, 1968, pp. 180–85; for events in Canton see Chen, Chen Jiongming, pp. 146–7. 

28. TNA, FO 228/3276, ‘Canton Intelligence Report, June Quarter, 1922’. 

29. For this see Ming K. Chan, ‘Hong Kong in Sino-British Conflict: Mass Mobilization and the Crisis of Legitimacy, 1912–26’, in Ming K. Chan (ed.), Precarious Balance: Hong Kong between China and Britain, 1842–1992, London, Routledge, 1997, pp. 27–57, at pp. 43–4. 

30. Isaacs and Treint, ‘Documents on the Comintern and the Chinese Revolution’, pp. 100–115, at p. 103. 

31. H. Maring ‘Explanatory Memorandum’, 11 July 1922, in Tony Saich and Benjamin Yang (eds), The Rise to Power of the Chinese Communist Party: Documents and Analysis, Armonk, NY, Sharpe, 1996, p. 33. 

32. Saich (ed.), The Rise to Power of the Chinese Communist Party, pp. 90–91.

33. Chen, Chen Jiongming, pp. 165–206; Marie-Claire Bergère, Sun Yat-sen, Stanford, CA, Stanford University Press, 2000, pp. 299–303. 

34. Huazi Ribao, 14 July 1921, cited in Chen, Chen Jiongming, p. 221. 

35. H. D. Special Volume no. 60-D (a) of 1919, quoting a report from the superintendent, Port Blair, in Government of Bombay, Source Material for a History of the Freedom Movement, vol. 11, p. 464. 

36. A. G. Noorani, ‘Savarkar’s Mercy Petition’, Frontline, 22/7 (12–15 March 2005), (last accessed 22 May 2020). 

37. ‘Jail History Ticket of V. D. Savarkar, in Government of Bombay, Source Material for a History of the Freedom Movement, vol. II, pp. 478–81. 3562

38. There is a large literature on this, but focusing on the prison context see Choi Chatterjee, ‘Imperial Incarcerations: Ekaterina Breshko-Breshkovskaia, Vinayak Savarkar, and the Original Sins of Modernity’, Slavic Review, 74/4 (2015), pp. 850–72, esp. pp. 862–4; Vinayak Chaturvedi, ‘Rethinking Knowledge with Action: V. D. Savarkar, the Bhagavad Gita, and Histories of Warfare’, Modern Intellectual History, 7/2 (2010), pp. 417–35, esp. pp. 425–30. 

39. Bhai Parmanand, The Story of My Life, Lahore, The Central Hindu Yuvak Sabha, 1934, pp. 174, 180, 187. 

40. Government of India, Report of the Indian Jails Committee (1919–1920), vol. I, Simla, Government Press, 1920, esp. pp. 296, 277–8. Discussed in Aparna Vaidik, Imperial Andamans: Colonial Encounter and Island History, Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, 2010, pp. 169–73, for ‘cult’ p. 172. For colonial perceptions see Manju Ludwig, ‘Murder in the Andamans: A Colonial Narrative of Sodomy, Jealousy and Violence’, South Asia Multidisciplinary Academic Journal, 2013, (last accessed 23 May 2020), and for distinctions of dress see Clare Anderson, Legible Bodies: Race, Criminality and Colonialism in South Asia, Oxford, Berg, 2004, p. 179. 

41. Taylor C. Sherman, ‘From Hell to Paradise? Voluntary Transfer of Convicts to the Andaman Islands, 1921–1940’, Modern Asian Studies, 43/2 (2009), pp. 367–88. 

42. Peter Zinoman, The Colonial Bastille: A History of Imprisonment in Vietnam, 1862–1940, Berkeley, University of California Press, 2001; Lorraine M. Paterson, ‘Ethnoscapes of Exile: Political Prisoners from Indochina in a Colonial Asian World’, International Review of Social History, 63/S26 (2018), pp. 89–107. 

43. Matthias van Rossum, ‘The Carceral Colony: Colonial Exploitation, Coercion, and Control in the Dutch East Indies, 1810s–1940s’, International Review of Social History, 63/S26 (2018), pp. 65–88, at pp. 83–7. 

44. Mathieu Deflem, Policing World Society: Historical Foundations of International Police Cooperation, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2002, p. 123. 

45. Ban Kah Choon, Absent History: The Untold Story of Special Branch Operations in Singapore 1915 to 1942, Singapore, Raffles, 2001, pp. 74–84; fingerprinting, p. 66; TNA, FO 371/8053, ‘Malayan Bureau of Political Intelligence, Report on First Year (1922)’, October 1922. 

46. TNA, FO 371/8053, ‘Malayan Bureau of Political Intelligence, Report on First Year (1922)’, October 1922. 

47. As argued by L. P. Morris, ‘British Secret Missions in Turkestan, 1918–19’, Journal of Contemporary History, 12/2 (1977), pp. 363–79. For a more sympathetic interpretation of Bailey’s role see Peter Hopkirk, Setting the East Ablaze: On Secret Service in Bolshevik Asia, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1986. 

48. Michael Silvestri, ‘The Thrill of “Simply Dressing Up”: The Indian Police, Disguise, and Intelligence Work in Colonial India’, Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History, 2/2 (2001), p. 25. 

49. Richard J. Popplewell, Intelligence and Imperial Defence: British Intelligence and the Defence of the Indian Empire, 1904–1924, London, Frank Cass, 1995, pp. 309–16. 

50. Sir Cecil Kaye, Communism in India, with Unpublished Documents from National Archives of India (1921–1924), compiled and ed. Subodh Roy, Calcutta, Editions India, 1971, pp. 14–15. 

51. Muzaffar Ahmad, Myself and the Communist Party of India, 1920–1929, Calcutta, National Book Agency, 1970, pp. 288–9. 

52. Muzaffar Ahmad, The Communist Party of India and Its Formation Abroad, Calcutta, National Book Agency, 1962, pp. 112–15, quotation at p. 114; Kaye, Communism in India, p. 7.


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