Zunyi: The three-day meeting that pushed the CCP toward Mao

Society & Culture

On January 15, 1935, a warlord’s palace in the remote mountains of Guizhou was the setting for a meeting that, over the course of three days, changed China’s political course for decades.

This Week in China’s History: January 15, 1935

The Chinese Communist Party has a thriving trade in anniversaries. The centennial of the Party’s founding in 2021 was a nationwide celebration. Each October 1, the People’s Republic commemorates its founding. May Fourth is often marked as the start of modern Chinese nationalism. We could throw in October 10 — the start of the revolution that ended the Qing dynasty and is celebrated as Taiwan’s National Day — as another moment of revolutionary change that was part of the path to the People’s Republic.

But if I had to pick one date that cast the die toward China’s future under CCP rule, I might choose none of these. On January 15, 1935, a warlord’s palace in the remote mountains of Guizhou was the setting for a meeting that, over the course of three days, changed China’s political course for decades.

Not that many people noticed at the time. In January of 1935, the Communist movement was struggling to survive. In 1927, the party had been dealt what most observers felt was a mortal blow, massacred by their supposed allies, the Kuomintang, in Shanghai. Only a few Communist armies eluded extermination.

Since its founding in 1921, the Chinese Communist Party had relied on support and advice from the Communist International (Comintern), the Soviet Union’s foreign policy arm. Personified by European agents like Otto Braun and Henk Sneevliet, the Comintern endorsed an orthodox Marxist view of revolution, insisting that the Communist revolution would come, first, after a nationalist revolution that would empower the bourgeoisie, and, second, through the actions and will of industrial workers.

These two premises had driven the CCP’s successes of the 1920s, but had also left the party vulnerable and unsuspecting when the KMT turned on it. The decimated party faced not only a literal battle to survive, as Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石 Jiǎng Jièshí) focused on eliminating what remained of the Communists, but also an ideological one. The Comintern’s approach had provided funding, arms, and international recognition, but could its urban and industrial model work in China?

Not everyone thought so. Máo Zédōng 毛泽东 was among those who theorized that China’s Communist revolution could be fueled not by its few industrial workers, but by its peasants, which he redefined as a “semi-proletariat.” Mao, who had been part of the Communist movement from its beginning, but not until now was a very important part, saw his standing increase swiftly after the debacle of 1927. Many of his opponents had been eliminated; those who survived were inclined to question the wisdom of the policies that had led to the massacre. Mao began building a movement that reflected his policies in the mountains of Jiangxi. Developing his theories of guerrilla warfare — “The enemy advances, we retreat; the enemy camps, we harass; the enemy tires, we attack; the enemy retreats, we pursue” — Mao’s armies lived and worked among the peasants, frustrating Chiang Kai-shek’s attempts to eliminate the last of the Communist forces. Mao’s Jiangxi Soviet stubbornly persisted, evolving into a small state with its own infrastructure, currency, and bureaucracy, all protected by its mountain refuge.

The success of the Jiangxi Soviet proved its undoing, when the CCP leadership — Europeans like Braun and Chinese who had trained in Moscow, earning the collective nickname “the 28 bolsheviks” — gave up their attempt to rebuild an organization in Shanghai and arrived in Jiangxi to take power.

Besides their doctrinaire approach to revolution, the Comintern/CCP leadership took a conventional approach to military strategy and tactics, rejecting Mao’s insurgency methods and preferring standing armies and pitched battles. Whether it was because of Communist tactics, Nationalist strategies, or the disparate resources each side brought to bear, by the autumn of 1934, the Jiangxi Soviet was untenable. In October, 100,000 Communist soldiers and supporters broke out of the Nationalist encirclement and began what would become the origin myth of the CCP: the Long March.

It took the Communist armies two months to break through the last of the Nationalists’ defensive lines, but by the end of December they had made it out of Jiangxi, through Guangdong and Guangxi, and into Guizhou province. For a week, they rested and resupplied; then, the leadership decided to take stock. Starting on January 15, around 20 Party leaders gathered in what had been the home and headquarters of regional warlord Bǎi Huīzhāng 柏輝章 to discuss past mistakes and possible ways forward.

Exactly what was said, and even who spoke, at the meeting is not entirely clear. In his 1986 China Quarterly article, Benjamin Yang notes that the most common record of the meeting — that Mao himself and then-general Zhū Dé 朱德 began the meeting by attacking the Comintern and the decisions that had led to the collapse of the Jiangxi soviet — is unlikely. Rather, Yang argues, Bó Gǔ 博古 spoke first as chairman of the conference, giving a report on the political situation facing the party. Then, Zhōu Ēnlái 周恩来 reported on the military situation. At that point, Mao ended the conference’s first phase with his well-rehearsed and detailed criticism of the party’s leadership in Jiangxi.

For two more days, delegates debated what had gone wrong and how to move forward. Momentum turned quickly in favor of Mao’s faction, accompanied by future Party leaders like Péng Déhuái 彭德怀, Zhou Enlai, Chén Yún 陈云, and Liú Shǎoqí 刘少奇. Otto Braun sat in the corner fuming, both metaphorically and literally, as he consumed pack after pack of cigarettes while his leadership was attacked. A litany of mistakes were laid at the feet of Braun and “the 28 bolsheviks.”

When the conference ended, the Comintern line was determined to have been wrong. Mao’s military strategy was deemed to have been correct.

It is tempting to say that at this moment Mao became the leader of China’s communist movement, where he would remain for four decades. This was the effect of the Zunyi Conference, but it is not quite so straightforward.

The Zunyi conference was a crucial stepping stone on Mao’s path to leadership, but its results depended on what followed. When the meeting ended, Mao was a member of the five-person Politburo Standing Committee, but was neither the Party nor military commission chairman. He was Zhou Enlai’s assistant on military matters. His star was in the ascendant, but his formal power was limited.

But from another perspective, Mao had achieved much at the meeting. As Yang writes, “Mao for the first time became one of the five top leaders of the entire Party and won the right to decide all important Party and army actions. More than that, he developed a reputation as the only man who had represented a correct Party line in the past and who had the potential to lead the Revolution to victory in the future…this first step led Mao to the supreme leadership.”

In the months that followed, Mao was affirmed in decision after decision. Communist forces survived and reorganized. Conflicts in the party remained, but at each juncture, Mao and his allies gained the upper hand. It may be, as Yang argues, that the Zunyi conference “was just one step in [Mao’s] bid for supreme power,” but it was an essential and decisive one. So, if we acknowledge Mao Zedong as the single most influential figure in China’s 20th century, then let’s mark the date that his power in the party was confirmed — January 15, 1934 — as a crucial milestone.

This Week in China’s History is a weekly column.