By Eric Vandenbroeck and co-workers

From Moscow To China

The land route to China was 3,920 miles on the Trans-Siberian Railway from Moscow to the branch east of Chita where the Chinese Eastern Railway dropped through Manchuria: the shortest way to Vladivostok and the Pacific. This thin strip of track was the most contested ground of the Russian Civil War. It was a line of supply for the White shadow government in Omsk, headed by the Tsar’s former war minister, Admiral Alexander Kolchak, fought over by partisans and controlled by the Czechoslovak Legion of ex-prisoners of war. In November 1919, Kolchak’s forces were dislodged from Omsk and slowly retreated along the line supported by the Japanese and US interventions in Siberia. Kolchak only reached Irkutsk on 15 January 1920 and perished at the hands of a Cheka firing squad in February after the city fell to the Red Army. The Far Eastern Republic, a nominally independent entity, arose in the power vacuum, but its control over the vast territories of the Transbaikal, Amur, and Maritime regions was tenuous until the anti-Soviet forces of Ataman Semenov were defeated at Chita in November 1920. In mid-1921, Japanese forces were still encamped in Vladivostok and in May 1921 a right-wing coup there created a last White redoubt. Only with the Japanese withdrawal, the Far Eastern Republic’s capture of Vladivostok in October 1922, and its dissolution into the Soviet Union did the borders of the new regime stabilize.1

The eastern gateway to China was the town of Harbin, which emerged at a strategic junction where the Chinese Eastern Railway branched south to the port of Dalian on the Yellow Sea to connect Shenyang to Tianjin and Beijing. The railway was, in theory, a joint Russo-Chinese enterprise, but effectively it was a Russian corridor 1,700 miles long, amounting to 40 percent of all of China’s railway track. It had served as a vital supply line during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–5 when Harbin was a place of rest and recreation for Russian officers. In 1921, it was a company town of some 200,000 people with a unique pidgin Russian as its lingua franca.2 No one heading to China could avoid it, and the flood of refugees overwhelmed the Russian administration. Existing residents – including over 9,602 young Russians born in the city – became émigrés ‘by default’; part of the growing ‘flotsam of the revolution’. Harbin’s population was swelled by an influx of Chinese as it became the gateway to the mines and frontier farming of Manchuria: it was fast becoming a Chinese town. Americans came to Harbin to sell their heavy agricultural machinery and saw it as a mirror of their own ‘Wild West’. And so too did the Japanese in greater numbers: laborers recruited from northern Kyushu, shopkeepers and prostitutes.3 Most of the branch line south of Harbin was in Japanese hands, and there were periodic clashes with Chinese troops. The Chinese occupied Harbin in December 1917, but there were disputes over the residual international control over the Chinese Eastern Railway. Only by June 1920 did Chinese troops finally oust Russian police and railways guards and deport 300 of them back to the Soviet Union.4 The issues of sovereignty in the region were entangled, emotive and fought over every foot of ground. They culminated in mass protests in February 1922 at the ‘Thirty-Six Sheds’, an area of cramped and squalid settlement for Chinese railway workers: a microcosm and metaphor for China’s impoverishment and desire for change.5

In this moraine of dislocation and asset-grabbing, the two great revolutionary forces in Asia reached across to one another. Ten years after the Wuchang uprising, the Chinese republic was more fragile than ever. The Beiyang government sat in Beijing and enjoyed the recognition of the western powers, but limited authority within China itself. It suffered from a lack of revenue from the provinces, and the government and the rump of the National Assembly were hostages to the struggle for ascendency between the rival northern warlords. In July 1920 this erupted into war between the Zhili and Anhui cliques. Sun Yat-sen struggled to create a foothold for his revolutionary movement in the south, but he too was constrained to act in alliance with the regional warlords.6

The Soviet Union launched one approach to China by open, legal means and another through the illegal underground. The formal diplomacy, with the Beiyang government, was aimed at securing and fortifying Russia’s geopolitical interests. The covert overtures were in the hands of the Comintern and directed at furthering the Asian revolution. They came to focus increasingly on Sun Yat-sen and the south. This pas de deux was often out of step. First contact with Sun Yat-sen had been made in 1918, when he telegraphed Lenin from his exile in Shanghai to express the hope for a common struggle against the European empires that encircled them both. Lenin had no illusions about what he termed the ‘virginal naiveté’ of Sun Yat-sen’s expressed commitment to socialism, but he needed allies.7 Soviet Foreign Minister Georgy Chicherin responded with a vow to take on the ‘iron ring of bayonets by the imperialist governments that had severed contact’. But it seems that this message did not reach Sun.8 The British and Japanese reported a string of supposed envoys: refugees, renegades or prisoners of war, most of whose credentials were uncertain. Sun’s main rival in the south, the reforming regional military leader Chen Jiongming, made a first move by despatching a letter to Lenin through an ex-Tsarist officer turned freelance intelligencer called Potapov, conveying his support for Bolshevism.9 Both sides had only the vaguest notion of what they were dealing with.

In China, as elsewhere in Asia, more had been reported about the February Revolution of 1917 than the Bolshevik takeover. The Japanese incursion in the east overshadowed the internal affairs of the new regime in Moscow. The Soviets accused the western powers of blocking information and Chinese intellectuals complained of a dearth of reading material. The Soviet capture of Irkutsk in eastern Siberia in 1918 had re-established direct telegraphic communication with China, and enabled the broadcast in March 1920 by the deputy commissar for foreign affairs, Lev Karakhan, that the Soviet Union ‘has given up all the conquests made by the government of [the] Tsars’.10 While the Soviet Union later backtracked from many of its pledges, the ‘Karakhan Manifesto’ was received in China with great excitement.11 Traffic resumed westwards as Japanese and Koreans travelled via Shanghai and Harbin for a Congress of the Toilers of the East, scheduled initially for Irkutsk in November as a belated follow-through to Baku. Due to the difficulty and spiralling costs of the journey, the meeting was moved to Moscow in the new year of 1922.12 Qu Qiubai had been part of Li Dazhao’s study circle in Beijing; he became one of the first Chinese journalists to travel to Soviet Russia and wrote two books and over sixty newspaper articles about conditions there. He soon found himself employed as a translator at the Communist University of the Toilers of the East; this marked his own initiation into the higher realms of Marxist-Leninist theory. In the spring of 1921, the first three groups of students set out from Shanghai to study there.13

The first official Soviet mission to China was launched by the Far Eastern Bureau of the Bolshevik party in Vladivostok. It was led by Grigory Voitinsky, a twenty-seven-year-old returned émigré who had worked as a printer and an accountant in the United States and Canada, where he was active in socialist circles. He had fought against the White armies in Siberia, was captured and sent for hard labour in Sakhalin. On his release in the autumn of 1920, he travelled by sea to Tianjin and to Beijing, posing as a journalist, with his wife and two others, one of them a Chinese interpreter. Through its Russian residents, in particular a sinologist, S. A. Polevoy, he met Li Dazhao, who had recently launched a campaign for students in the study circles of the city to ‘learn’ Marxism. Karl Radek was later to remark caustically that ‘many of our comrades out there locked themselves up in their studies and studied Marx and Lenin as they had once studied Confucius’.14 Certainly the Bolshevik movement in Beijing, such as it was, had little to do with urban workers. But Li Dazhao gave Voitinsky a letter of introduction to his collaborator, Chen Duxiu, who was now in Shanghai, having fled Beijing in February 1920 after being jailed for distributing political leaflets. This was Chen’s first encounter with the visceral reality of modern capitalism. Here in China’s most proletarian city – where in 1921 alone forty-two new factories were to open – the focus of the activism was very different.15

Through Chen Duxiu, Voitinsky soon gained an entrée into the radical circles in Shanghai, exploiting his cover as a journalist to feed their hunger for information. Around October or November 1920, Chen arranged an audience for Voitinsky with Sun Yat-sen in the library of Sun’s house on rue Molière, a comfortable villa in the French Concession built by donations from Chinese who had made their money abroad. Sun, Voitinsky reported, was ‘well-built and erect, had soft manners and very distinct gesticulations. The modesty and the cleanliness of his attire at once attracted our attention.’ They discussed connecting the two revolutionary bridgeheads, and Sun suggested that the Soviets might place a powerful radio station in Vladivostok or Manchuria capable of reaching Canton.16 On 25 November Sun left Shanghai and returned to the south, and it was here that he received his first letter from Lenin and responded via the Soviet trade mission in London. Sun’s overriding priority was to consolidate the republic in Canton, and then to march out to take the north. But his position rested on a fragile alliance with Chen Jiongming, who had a more circumscribed vision of the south as an industrial ‘model province’, as a prelude to a more gradual, peaceful reunification of China on a federal basis. In early 1921, Voitinsky travelled with Chen Duxiu to Canton to try to get the measure of Chen Jiongming, whose past associations and support for the work-study movement had earned him the sobriquet ‘the anarchist warlord’.17 By the time he left China shortly afterwards, Voitinsky had made Bolshevik Russia a firm presence in Chinese revolutionary circles, but it was unclear precisely how it mapped on to the fluid political landscape.

After its Second Congress in June 1920, the Comintern began to set up bureaux at key crossways of the global revolutionary underground, and Henk Sneevliet was appointed to oversee the revolution in East Asia from Shanghai. His passage to China from Moscow was through Berlin to Venice, from where he had to run the gauntlet of British-held ports of the eastern Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean. He was intercepted as soon as he reached Vienna. He had stopped there to get a visa for China but was picked up by the Austrian police. The other visas inside his passport revealed his travel plans and the Austrians passed these on to the British authorities, who placed a watch on Sneevliet after he joined a Lloyd Triestina steamship, the Acquila, at Venice and sailed to Colombo, Penang and, finally, Singapore, on 21 May 1921, where he was forbidden to land. His cover story was that he was travelling to Japan as a journalist. This was blown, and the Dutch tried to block his entry into China. But although the major powers shared a degree of information, it was harder to persuade other governments to apprehend a person who had committed no crime on their territory. In Singapore, old comrades from Java joined Sneevliet’s ship to Shanghai: Asser Baars, expelled from the Indies and off to join an engineering venture in Siberia, and Darsono, the first of the Indonesians to make his way to Moscow by the overland route.

In mid-1921, Shanghai was a vagrant city, a Nansen city, a modern Babylon. Around 5,000 Russians were living there, many of them stranded. The old Tsarist consulate on the waterfront opposite the Astor House Hotel was closed up; legal cases were left hanging in the air, valuables lodged in Chinese banks were sequestrated, and in 1921 Russian exiles were stripped of their citizenship, to become another people with no country. A good number of them drifted into an underworld of petty theft and trafficking. Les femmes russes were a staple of salacious newspaper reports and moral panics. In fiction and popular lore, they were a new erotic type, charged with a frisson of danger from their reputation for availability to both western and Asian men. This flouted the deepest taboos of foreigners increasingly ill at ease with themselves and their fragile status in China. These women were deeply implicated in the Bolshevik and émigré plots, imagined and real, which fed westerners’ myths of them and the city.18 This mystique was further embellished with the revival of the foreign-language press. One of the city’s two Russian newspapers, Shankhaiskaia zhizn’, ‘Shanghai Life’, was seen as a centre of Bolshevik influence. The Shanghai Gazette, established in 1918, was an English-language mouthpiece of Sun Yat-sen’s government, edited by the Trinidad-born Chinese and British national, Eugene Chen, who in 1922 became one of Sun’s closest supporters and his foreign minister. He promoted Sun’s anti-colonial foreign policies. The Shanghai Gazette’s most prominent staff writer, George Sokolsky, an American of Polish-Lithuanian extraction, who arrived from Russia in 1918, boasted of recent conversations with Lenin and Trotsky and his desire to spread Bolshevism in China. He soon became a confidant of Sun’s family. The Chinese and the western press, with its more protected position, were closely entangled in terms of personnel and finances, and in the acquisition of news and its translation.19

The austere post-war years – the continuing currency controls, the stifling social climate – were a stimulus to escape, far abroad.20 With the revival of long-distance shipping, a fresh wave of politically minded tourists arrived to examine what one of the most illustrious among them, Bertrand Russell, in 1920–21 defined in his book The Problem of China. Russell’s observations and reflections on China left him perplexed – the country was in turmoil from warlords, strikes and imperialist threats – yet he was drawn to its traditional culture. There were any number of more opportunistic adventurers. In 1919, the British followed a man called Goodman, one of many similar individuals, ‘giving conflicting accounts of himself and behaving in a most suspicious manner’: At the British Consulate he claimed to be an Egyptian, and said he wished to return to Egypt. 

As the only papers he could produce were written apparently in Arabic on dirty leaves torn from a notebook, and bearing neither seal not stamp, he was refused assistance until he could obtain proper proof. It was later discovered that he came from Tientsin [Tianjin] where he had represented himself as an American Presbyterian Missionary to the USA Consul, by whom he was rejected as an imposter. In Shanghai he booked rooms in three different hotels, and booked a passage to Hong Kong, saying he was a banker.

He also applied to the USA Consul for a passport to Hong Kong, saying he was born in New York, but has lost his papers. He is about 5 feet 10 inches in height, heavily built, very dark, looks like an Assyrian or Hindoo and wears black clothing.21

Such characters populated a new genre of romans cosmopolites, a model being Maurice Dekobra’s La Madone des Sleepings, or Madonna of the Sleeping Cars (1925), set in the world of the constantly mobile, and written in polyglossic style with knowing sketches of the denizens of the revolutionary demi-monde.22 In Shanghai, the underworld lay in plain sight. The city’s black economy was boosted by a bonanza in the illicit arms trade as China became the destination of much of the surplus weaponry of the Great War. It was financed by the opium trade, control of which gave aspirants in the struggle for China a decisive strategic advantage. It corrupted the police and created a more or less open shadow government of urban gangs. In 1922, the French consul-general dismissed an entire police post for being on the take. The head of the Chinese detectives in the International Settlement led a double life as a gangland boss. In the five years after 1922, armed robberies rose from forty-seven to 1,458 in 1927. Police raids only had the effect of pushing rackets into a Chinese-administered city or a neighbouring concession. Criminals no less than revolutionaries exploited the different police jurisdictions. To the police, revolution was merely an extension of crime by other means.23

Most of the new arrivals in the city were Chinese, mainly from the northern provinces, who now accounted for around 90 per cent of the population of 3 million people. Of all the transformations of post-war Shanghai, the most visible was its emergence as a city of petty urban dwellers, of loose connections, united in their exposure to hybrid cosmopolitan tastes and new ways of speaking. These years saw the bloom of a modernity that had been seeded from the end of the nineteenth century; a form of modern life experienced in other Asian cities, in a more accelerated and intense form than that of any country in Europe, ‘more plastic’, ‘more artful’. But Shanghai’s burgeoning culture of capitalism, its consumerism, was on a scale seen in few other places.24 Here, in the vocabulary of Bolshevism, the historic destiny of the Asian bourgeoisie would be tested as nowhere else. So too, in this ‘hypo-’ or ‘hyper-colony’, would be the authority of foreign imperialism, at the birth of its jazz age.

At the intersection of all this, and at the meeting point of Avenue Edward VII and Yu Ya Ching Road, in the open atmosphere of the French Concession, stood the Great World (Da Shi Jie). Founded in 1917, it was an extravaganza of the city’s worldly dreaming, spread over four floors, topped by a four-storey baroque-inspired tower. The entrance was a distorting hall of mirrors. The interior was a bricolage of peep shows, modern dramatic theatre, traditional storytellers in people’s home dialects, music hall and roller skating, with free beer on Sundays. Film serials showed on cheap continuous screenings late into the night, in front of perambulating pleasure-seekers who ignored the seating conventions of the regular movie theatres. There were Japanese acrobats and western dance bands. There was even an indoor zoo. In one sense, with its stalls and pavilions, curios and human curiosities, it was a pastiche reminiscent of the universal fairs and expositions: Paris of 1900 or Semarang of 1914 or the newly advertised Marseilles colonial exposition of 1922. In another, it represented the banal, everyday worldliness of the country of the lost. Here new and old residents, Chinese and foreigners, rubbed shoulders in an intimate proximity seen in few other spaces in the city. Women were seen on stage and – even more controversially – prostitutes left the old courtesan haunts to circulate, seeking clients. For many foreign arrivals, the Great World was a fantasy of the exotic and its erotic possibilities. For locals, for whom the city had been a place of darkness, it was a blaze of artificial light, a conquest of night. It was unpoliced and in the hands of the gangs, one of which ran a ‘Day and Night Bank’ next door. With its flexible hours it was the bank of choice for the poor and the demi-monde. The Great World soon welcomed 20,000 visitors a day.25

‘The time of the silver dollar’, the fragile prosperity after the war, saw ‘World fever’ spread across maritime Asia. In Shanghai there was also a ‘New World’ (Xin Shi Jie), established in 1915 at the centre of a new entertainment district on Bubbling Well Road; there were ‘sky gardens’ – a journey by lifts to the roofs of department stores – and all this became part of the accelerated syndication of styles and attitudes to other cities of China, Hong Kong and Singapore. The ‘New World’ of Singapore opened in 1923 and was an open labyrinth of fantastical halls and pavilions, connected by alleyways of restaurants, hawkers and sundry stalls. Here too were theatres, nightclubs, dances and an open-air cinema. In a new flânerie, crowds could wander from each to each, and impresarios would attract their attention by entr’actes of boxing, magic and other ‘special turns’. In a colonial city, the effect of this was even more powerful. The Singapore ‘World’ was a playground for all ethnic communities and income groups, a place of high and vulgar culture; a place of escape for the poor. It was a fantasia for the invisible city, in a walled enclave within the colonial quarter but outside its order and exclusions. It soon became a site for political meetings.26

Here the fate of the ‘national bourgeoisie’ was dramatized. The periodical press in Shanghai was dominated in the first two decades of the century by the sentimental fictions of the so-called ‘Mandarin Duck and Butterfly’ writers, so named for the motifs on their covers. The escapism of their stories seemed to signify a lack of social responsibility and promote indulgence in the pleasures of the world. This highly commercialized sphere had a total output of around 2,215 novels, 113 magazines and forty-nine newspapers and tabloids. They were a principal target of the angry young writers of the May Fourth generation, but they also fostered among readers a sense of group solidarity and utopian and republican sentiments.27 The Shanghai ‘Worlds’ had their own tabloid dailies, popular with those living in the city and with students, which took up the patriotic calls of May Fourth – especially to mobilize for boycotts – if not with any consistency. Often the appeal to collective pleasure – what the screenwriter Zhou Shoujuan called a ‘nation of joy’ – was at odds with the ethical earnestness of the radical intellectuals.28 The writer Lu Xun moved to Shanghai in 1927 and saw only a ‘scramble for money, openness of crime, waste of spirit, and rampage of carnality … Was this’, he asked, ‘the goal of mankind?’29 A similar repugnance at the self-seeking greed of Shanghai society deepened Chen Duxiu’s conviction that only the proletariat had the organization and moral vision to ‘abolish the old and institute the new’.30

This vision took form in other, more improvised cityscapes. A few streets away from the Great World, in the French Concession, its popular theatre and food stalls were re-enacted in the open air for even the poorest of the poor: a kaleidoscope of China on the move. Shanghai now had 800,000 urban workers, 250,000 of them in factories. Migrants brought their villages with them in the form of native place associations and returned to their villages when they could. New communities formed alongside more rooted city-dwellers, distinguished by the subtleties of choosing to communicate in Shanghai dialect as opposed to vernacular Chinese. In the words of an early publication by migrants from Zhejiang, one began by thinking of what is most intimate: ‘you can call it starting with one corner. The process doesn’t end here, but [one is] limited by what one knows.’ But, in the aftermath of May Fourth, these small corners formed common fronts, and the likes of Mao Zedong saw in this a prototype for ‘a great union of the popular masses’.31 These communities shared a distinctive urban form and worldview in the shape of the lilong or alleyway houses, tucked out of sight of the new commercial thoroughfares of the city. The ubiquitous building style, the shikumen, or ‘gates wrapped in stone’, were an amalgam of elements of a traditional Chinese house, impossible to build in the pressurized land market, with the terraced housing of the industrial cities of northern England. They formed a system of tight alleyways, where people were thrown into ever-closer proximity by multiple, diminishing sub-lets, and on an increasing scale. Siwenli, built between 1914 and 1921, saw 664 units compressed into eight acres. The shikumen was the staple interior for the realist Shanghai cinema, especially the back bedrooms or the pavilion rooms, which fancifully evoked a tranquil garden but were usually twelve square yards off a landing, above a kitchen. This was the most transient space, popular with workers, students, artists and intellectuals. The ‘pavilion room writers’ of Shanghai became a by-word for intellectual intensity, social commitment and political frustration. When Lu Xun settled in Shanghai, in the Japanese-dominated enclave of Hongkou, he would call his three collections of essays of the period Qiejieting: a clever pun suggesting ‘a pavilion room from the semi-concession’.32

The new politics inserted itself swiftly into these spaces. Among the shops and artisan workshops there were bookstores, places to tarry and to talk, and printing presses. They were a site of constant translation, both on an everyday level of strangers negotiating with each other and in print. There were schools and colleges in these lilongs; even Shanghai University was housed in an alleyway house in Zhabei district. Voitinsky’s wife was active in a ‘foreign-language school’ off avenue Joffre that prepared students for their trips abroad: this time to Moscow. Shanghai had been an early centre of the Esperanto-speaking world, and the inter-language was a medium in which anarchist literature was distributed from Shanghai by post to the colonial cities of Southeast Asia. When the famous ‘blind Russian poet’ and anarchist Eroshenko arrived in Shanghai from Harbin, after his banishment from Japan, in September 1921, his lectures on Esperanto had a powerful impact. He secured a post at Beijing University, and stayed in the family home of Lu Xun, who became his translator.33 It was impossible for the police of the foreign concessions to monitor this fully; they launched raids and confiscated materials, but urban radicals cloaked themselves in the bustle and anonymity of the alleyways. A small group emerged, the nucleus of a ‘proletarian party’, a self-conscious group of intellectuals, workers and teachers, journalists and translators, who spent more of their time trying to reach the real proletarians through a series of short-lived journals and by attempting to get involved in trade union organization and workers’ schools. They had mixed success in crossing the cultural gulf between them and fared better with the intellectuals and students. From the French Concession, Chen Duxiu launched a more theoretical Communist Party Monthly, which appeared for six issues from November 1920. Students’ unions began to adopt a ‘cell’-like structure and infiltrate existing organizations such as the YMCA and YWCA, which many activists in Asia – including Sun Yat-sen and Ghadar leaders – saw as a model for self-cultivation, civic education and for operating across borders.34 Shanghai was still a base for Korean radicals and disaffected Indians. The movement still carried the air of the anarchist-inflected, non-doctrinaire Pentecostalism of the global underground before the war. But to the Comintern and its new converts this now smacked of petty-bourgeois individualism.35

The principal theoreticians of the small group were Li Da and Li Hanjun, both students returned from Japan, where they had acquired a deeper knowledge of Marxist theory than their peers. Japan, not Russia, remained the principal source of the socialist writings translated in newspaper supplements with notes to explain their sociological vocabulary. This reading matter increased with the revival of socialist politics in Japan in 1920, after the reaction following the 1910 Kotoku Incident and was absorbed in circles close to Sun Yat-sen as well as by the younger, more radical students. In August 1920, the first full Chinese translation of The Communist Manifesto appeared, with a provenance that stretched back to a Japanese edition of 1904. To this was added material in English imported from the United States, which introduced the names and the writings of Lenin and Trotsky to many Chinese readers.36 So armed, and through their own work as translators, Li Da and others began to attack anarchist influence, not least its hostility to political discipline and to the state. Both, Li Da argued, could be used to transform production and social conditions, and his writings placed an emphasis on ‘true’ Marxism and the proletarian strategy as the sole path to an understanding of this. Li was a native of Hunan and his views carried weight with Mao Zedong and his circle in Changsha.37 Sneevliet arrived in Shanghai at the beginning of June 1921 deeply unhappy. As a European in Java, he was used to travelling 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 the name Andresen, he settled into digs in the house of a Russian woman 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.38 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 resolutions 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’.39 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 the turbulent labour politics of Shanghai, 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 a variety of 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 labour 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.40 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 to become 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 programme. The most intense discussion was over how far the party should be a working-class organization aiming for the dictatorship of the proletariat, or whether it should remain a looser study group, reaching out to students and intellectuals as a 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 director of public education. When Chen Duxiu returned to Shanghai around August or early September he was reluctant to meet Sneevliet, still less to concede Comintern authority or to 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 organizational obsessions of the Leninist model, such as Sneevliet’s insistence on constant reports on party work among labour. In truth, there was little new going on.41 Relations only softened in October when Chen was arrested by the French Concession police 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 to 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.42 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 their ambitions in China, the Kuomintang also appeared to be China’s strongest defence against imperialism.

In December 1921, Sneevliet set out for the south. Sun, after his return to Canton in November 1920, 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 travelled 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, in order 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’.43 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 a 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 military conspiracy’. He was also wary of Sun’s ‘mystical’ mentality.44 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 the movement in China and its possibilities. In the south, I became convinced that fruitful work was possible.’45

In Canton at that time there was a fad for rubber-soled shoes. 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.’46 They were popular not least for running in crowds. The level of foreign investment in the city was slight compared to, say, Shanghai; the economy of Canton was dominated by light industry, often of a traditional kind, in which 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 centre 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.47 Not least of the nationalists’ goals was to make Canton the epicentre 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 the most crowded region of China, 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.48 As the centre 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 neighbouring 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 per cent of the people of Hong Kong were natives of Guangdong, and people still travelled freely by steamer and by rail from one city to the other, 900,000 by train alone.49 Since 1839, the British had used their foothold in China to police the maritime badlands of the delta, 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 labour force tended to have strong local ties. Wages had not kept in line with the soaring cost of living during and after the war; sub-contractors demanded their cut of earnings, so too did the police. When alternative organizations of labourers formed to counter this, they received a crucial impetus from organizers committed to anarchist ideas of self-help. 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 something 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 his death 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, and Canton was the major centre for anarchist influence, especially within its labour 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.50

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 only to have founded three workers’ schools, supported one strike, and identified a mere thirty-two communists in the city.51 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’.52 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’.53

When Sneevliet reached Canton, the Pearl River delta was at a standstill. Its chaotic labour conditions had spread to the British enclave in Hong Kong, where 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 per cent rise was accompanied by a strike of seamen 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 on board 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 to 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 in street demonstrations. There was an exodus of labourers 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. The governor of Hong Kong, Reginald Stubbs, declared the union illegal and used martial law to prohibit workers leaving the colony in order to press-gang labour. Employers tried to sign on strike-breakers in Shanghai, but were rebuffed by support for the strikers among labour there 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 the staff of Government House itself. Commerce froze and expatriate families were left marooned on the Peak, unable to fend for themselves without servants. The total number involved, from a tally by the expatriate South China Morning Post, was around 120,000, that is 20 per cent 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, labour and management had come to terms; it was a victory for organized labour and an unprecedented shock to imperial prestige.54 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.’55

This made a deep impression on Sneevliet. Here the drive to organize labour 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 a lead and they later claimed it as a triumph of their own initiative. Nor was the strike backed unequivocally by the Canton government.56 But the tacit support of the city authorities 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’.57 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’.58 He took this news back to Shanghai, a journey by sea slowed by the aftershock of the strike in ports along the coast. The Dutch colonial authorities believed Sneevliet was behind its spread. When he arrived in Shanghai, after a side trip to Beijing, Sneevliet resumed his bitter dispute with Chen Duxiu and others. He then left to carry his impressions to Moscow, travelling 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. The British, still under pressure from the Dutch, would not allow him to land in any port they controlled between Hong Kong and Port Said. In the event, he left on 24 April 1922 on a Japanese ship from Shanghai to reach Marseilles in early June.59 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.60 Canton 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.’61 Suddenly, the Asian revolution seemed to have stalled.


Isolation Colonies

A new Asian underground had started to take form. However, as its travellers began to pass through Moscow or Shanghai they connected only haphazardly to the older networks of the belle époque and war years. They did not possess a secure foothold in the labouring 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 radical leaders of the Netherlands Indies, not only Sneevliet, Baars and Darsono were in exile, the leader of the PKI, Semaoen, followed them to Moscow in late 1921. Rash Behari Bose was joined in Japan in 1922 by the erstwhile leader of the Provisional Government of Free India 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 rumour and the tales of incoming prisoners brought word of the recent disorder in the Punjab. After some years of good behaviour, 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 behaviour 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 actively assist government’.62 When the amnesty was announced in 1919 to mark the Allied victory, many prisoners appealed for release. Savarkar asked for 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.’63 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, of one and one and a half hours respectively. Some prisoners were released to mainland prisons, others under warrant for good behaviour. 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.64 In another sense, long-term imprisonment mirrored the revolutionary aesthetic adopted by many of the young men, even down to the cell-like structure that governed their lives. Savarkar saw a role for himself in the 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 ever-present tyranny of the mostly Muslim guards, the vision of the nation 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?65

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 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 victory and likened his release to the fall of the Bastille. He travelled by train to Lahore, and to his wife. She was now the teacher in the family, supporting their daughters; as Bhai Parmanand told the superintendent of the prison, ‘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 came to the conclusion that ‘the salvation of this country was possible through Hindus and Hindus alone’.66

As he travelled, 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, as part of a wider investigation into prison conditions. The distorted world of high prisoner mortality, 46.73 per 1,000 in 1919, routine brutality and sexual predation could not stand up to close scrutiny.67 As a result of this, the sending of seditious prisoners to the Andamans was briefly halted, but, given the scale of the investment there, the ideal of the islands 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.68 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.69 In the Netherlands Indies, the nineteenth-century practice of using convict labour 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 creation 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.70

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, the sharing of intelligence between the British, United States and Canada was formalized in 1919.71 On paper, a formidable coven of intelligence bodies now oversaw the secret governance of British Asia. There was 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, Singora and elsewhere. In the aftermath of the Singapore Mutiny, in late 1918 a Special Branch was formed there. Learning from the Sûreté, it built up its index of fingerprints from 7,751 records in 1906 to 203,075 in 1927. In 1921 it was augmented by a new Malayan Bureau of Political Intelligence, also 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 afterwards 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. It was staffed by Europeans of long standing in Asia. 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 for MI5 in 1918. But all this did not prevent ‘suicidal’ turf wars between Indian intelligence and the new Secret Intelligence Service (MI6).72 In the first annual review of its workings, the director of the Malayan Bureau of Political Intelligence complained that district officers communicated to it ‘so little of the common talk of the people’. 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 it: the staff of the Bureau consisted of Jelf and one confidential typist: a married European lady. Over time, the empire of ledger and list began to catch up with the field craft of the underground.73

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 the borders of the Raj. Frederick Bailey, as he donned native disguise in Tashkent, inspired by the heroics of John Buchan’s Richard Hannay, 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, and the Soviets in Tashkent had given him a funeral in absentia with full military honours.74 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 policemen dealt with agents at a remove through local subordinates.75 The Raj had forward posts on the overland routes to India 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 1922.76

The British were confident that all of the muhajirin trained and despatched to India overland by M. N. Roy were accounted for.77 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 harbour master’s office, could stop them in their tracks. The first line of imperial defence was the mail censor. Few Indians received letters from abroad, and the foreign mail that arrived was all channelled 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. It became impossible, as Muzaffar Ahmad later observed, to guide an international movement ‘though the postal department’.78 The first Comintern emissary to get through to India from Europe was Nalini Gupta, a man who had spent the war in Britain and had moved to Berlin and to 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, travelling 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, but while Nalini seemed to know a good deal about bombs, Muzaffar was struck by his ignorance of the workings of the International, about which he and his friends were hungry for knowledge. And at every stage, the British were watching him.79


1. Laura Engelstein, Russia in Flames: War, Revolution, Civil War, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2018, pp. 417–44. 

2. Mark Gamsa, ‘Harbin in Comparative Perspective’, Urban History, 37/1 (2010), pp. 136–49.

3. Olga Bakich, ‘Russian Emigrés in Harbin’s Multinational Past: Censuses and Identity’, in Dan Ben-Canaan, Frank Grüner and Ines Prodöhl (eds), Entangled Histories: The Transcultural Past of Northeast China, London, Springer, 2014, pp. 83–100, at p. 88; Joshua A. Fogel, ‘The Japanese and the Jews: A Comparative Analysis of their Communities in Harbin, 1898–1930’, in Robert Bickers and Christian Henriot (eds), New Frontiers: Imperialism’s New Communities in East Asia, 1842–1953, Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2000, pp. 88–108.

4. Blaine R. Chiasson, Administering the Colonizer: Manchuria’s Russians under Chinese Rule, 1918–29, Vancouver, UBC Press, 2010, ch. 3, esp. p. 48.

5. James Carter, ‘Struggle for the Soul of a City: Nationalism, Imperialism, and Racial Tension in 1920s Harbin’, Modern China, 27/1 (2001), pp. 91–116.

6. For this see Arthur Waldron, ‘The Warlord: Twentieth-century Chinese Understandings of Violence, Militarism, and Imperialism’, American Historical Review, 96/4 (1991), pp. 1073–1100; Edward A. McCord, The Power of the Gun: The Emergence of Modern Chinese Warlordism, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1993.

7. Allen S. Whiting, Soviet Policies in China, 1917–1924, Stanford, CA, Stanford University Press, 1954, quotation at p. 22, pp. 110–11.

8. Xenia Joukoff Eudin and Harold H. Fisher (eds), Soviet Russia and the West, 1920–1927: A Documentary Survey, Stanford, CA, Stanford University Press, 1957, p. 217.

9. Yoshihiro Ishikawa, The Formation of the Chinese Communist Party, New York, Columbia University Press, 2013, pp. 90–91. For an exhaustive list of reported contacts see Liu Jianyi, ‘The Origins of the Chinese Communist Party and the Role Played by Soviet Russia and the Comintern’, PhD thesis, University of York, 2000, pp. 67–119.

10. Li Yu-ning and Michael Gasster, ‘Ch’u Ch’iu-Pai’s Journey to Russia, 1920–1922’, Monumenta Serica, 29 (1970), pp. 537–56; Karakhan text as quoted in Robert T. Pollard, China’s Foreign Relations, 1917–1931, London, Macmillan, 1933, p. 126.

11. Whiting, Soviet Policies in China, pp. 29–33.

12. George M. Beckmann and Genji Okubo, The Japanese Communist Party, 1922–1945, Stanford, CA, Stanford University Press, 1969, pp. 39–45.

13. Elizabeth McGuire, Red at Heart: How Chinese Communists Fell in Love with the Russian Revolution, New York, Oxford University Press, 2017, pp. 74–5; Stephen A. Smith, A Road Is Made: Communism in Shanghai, 1920–1927, London, Routledge, 2000, pp. 18–19.

14. Whiting, Soviet Policies in China, p. 96.

15. Jean Chesneaux, The Chinese Labor Movement, 1919–1927, Stanford, CA, Stanford University Press, 1968, p. 157.

16. Eudin and Fisher (eds), Soviet Russia and the West, 1920–1927, p. 218.

17. Leslie H. Dingyan Chen, Chen Jiongming and the Federalist Movement: Regional Leadership and Nation Building in Early Republican China, Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 1999, esp. pp. 97–109.

18. For the legal situation see Pollard, China’s Foreign Relations, pp. 153–5. For an indispensable general survey see Marcia R. Ristaino, Port of Last Resort: The Diaspora Communities of Shanghai, Stanford, CA, Stanford University Press, 2001.

19. Bryna Goodman, ‘Semi-Colonialism, Transnational Networks and News Flows in Early Republican Shanghai’, China Review, 4/1 (2004), pp. 55–88. For Sokolsky see TNA, FO 371/3816, ‘Secret Appendix to War Diary of the General Staff, Straits Settlements Command for September 1919: Suspected Persons’.

20. Paul Fussell, Abroad: British Literary Traveling Between the Wars, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1979.

21. TNA, FO 371/3816, ‘Secret Appendix to War Diary of the General Staff, Straits Settlements Command for September 1919: Suspected Persons’.

22. Tom Genrich, Authentic Fictions: Cosmopolitan Writing of the Troisième République, 1908–1940, Oxford, Peter Lang, 2004, pp. 93–141.

23. Brian G. Martin, The Shanghai Green Gang: Politics and Organized Crime, 1919–1937, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1996, pp. 30–35; Frederic Wakeman, Policing Shanghai, 1927–1937, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1995, pp. 6–8.

24. For example, Leo Ou-fan Lee, Shanghai Modern: The Flowering of a New Urban Culture in China, 1930–1945, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 1999; Wen-Hsin Yeh, Shanghai Splendor: Economic Sentiments and the Making of Modern China, 1843–1949, Berkeley, University of California Press, 2007; Alexander Des Forges, Mediasphere Shanghai: The Aesthetics of Cultural Production, Honolulu, University of Hawaii Press, 2007.

25. For the ‘Worlds’ see Zhen Zhang, An Amorous History of the Silver Screen: Shanghai Cinema, 1896–1937, Chicago, IL, University of Chicago Press, 2005, pp. 58–64. For the world fair comparisons and much else besides see Meng Yue, Shanghai and the Edges of Empires, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 2006, pp. 183–206; see also Andrew Field, Shanghai’s Dancing World: Cabaret Culture and Urban Politics, 1919–1954, Hong Kong, Chinese University Press, 2010, passim. For the underside of this see Christian Henriot, Prostitution and Sexuality in Shanghai: A Social History, 1849–1949, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2001.

26. Wong Yunn Chii and Tan Kar Lin, ‘Emergence of a Cosmopolitan Space for Culture and Consumption: The New World Amusement Park – Singapore (1923–70) in the Interwar Years’, Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, 5/2 (2004), pp. 279–304. For ‘World Fever’ see Zhang, An Amorous History of the Silver Screen, p. 58.

27. Perry Link, ‘Traditional-Style Popular Urban Fiction in the Teens and Twenties’, in Merle Goldman (ed.), Modern Chinese Literature in the May Fourth Era, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 1977, pp. 327–50, at p. 337.

28. For this see Lam Nga Li, ‘New World, New World Daily and the Culture of Amusement in early Republican Shanghai’, PhD thesis, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, 2015, quotation at p. 29.

29. Lu Hanchao, Beyond the Neon Lights: Everyday Shanghai in the Early Twentieth Century, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1999, p. 10.

30. Lee Feigon, Chen Duxiu, Founder of the Chinese Communist Party, Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press, 1983, pp. 157–60.

31. Bryna Goodman, Native Place, City, and Nation: Regional Networks and Identities in Shanghai, 1853–1937, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1995, esp. pp. 197, 258.

32. Lu, Beyond the Neon Lights, p. 368, fn. 101. See also Chenlan Zhao, ‘From Shikumen to New-style: A Re-reading of Lilong Housing in Modern Shanghai’, in James Madge and Andrew Peckham (eds), Narrating Architecture: A Retrospective Anthology, London, Routledge, 2006, pp. 453–78.

33. Mark Gamsa, The Chinese Translation of Russian Literature: Three Studies, Leiden, Brill, 2008, pp. 242–5.

34. Hans J. van de Ven, From Friend to Comrade: The Founding of the Chinese Communist Party, 1920–1927, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1992, pp. 59–64. For the ‘Y’, Charles A. Keller, ‘The Christian Student Movement, YMCAs, and Transnationalism in Republican China’, Journal of American-East Asian Relations 13 (2004), pp. 55–80.

35. Smith, A Road Is Made, pp. 24–5.

36. A principal argument of Ishikawa, The Formation of the Chinese Communist Party, pp. 7–8, 24–39 and passim.

37. Nick Knight, Li Da and Marxist Philosophy in China, London, Routledge, 1996, ch. 3.

38. 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 of the importance of Sneevliet’s role, see Dov Bing, ‘Sneevliet and the Early Years of the CCP’, China Quarterly, 48 (1971), pp. 677–97.

39. 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.

40. 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.

41. Lee, Chen Duxiu, pp. 164–5.

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

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

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

45. ‘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.

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

47. 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.

48. 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.

49. 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.

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

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

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

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

54. 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.

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

56. 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.

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

58. 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.

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

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

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

62. 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.

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

64. ‘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.

65. 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.

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

67. 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.

68. 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.

69. 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.

70. 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.

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

72. 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.

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

74. 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.

75. 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.

76. 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.

77. 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.

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

79. 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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