Retrospective

01

Dec
2021

The new generation in Tonkin and Annam

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Activist members of the new generation in Tonkin, galvanized by the events of 1925–1926, gathered in Hanoi and were initially involved in publishing efforts. The  level of French surveillance and censorship, however, stymied them, and in Decem- ber 1927 they organized the Vietnamese Nationalist Party under the leadership of  Nguyen Thai Hoc (1902–1930). This organization was modeled on the Chinese Nationalist Party, which for several years had been based in southern China. It was of necessity a clandestine party but, spreading rapidly to include adherentsin nearly all parts of Tonkin, it was soon infiltrated by French agents. In Annam, people imprisoned after the 1908 disturbances began to be released in the 1910s. At that time, some of them aimed to associate with Phan Boi Chau’s Restoration Society, and they formed a clandestine organization, many members of which resided at Vinh in Nghe An, Phan Boi Chau’s home province where his in-country contacts were thickest. Students, teachers, and other members of the new generation began to join in 1926. This organization changed its name several times through the years as it repeatedly redefined its aims and became progressively more radical. It is usually referred to either as Phuc Viet, one of its early names, to resonate with Phan Boi Chau’s Restoration (Quang Phuc) Society or as Tan (“new”) Viet, one of its last names. Because of Phan Boi Chau’s influence, it had connections with exiles in China, which it maintained even after Phan Boi Chau’s capture. By 1926 it was in contact with a group in southern China known as the Vietnamese Revolutionary Youth League, in which several of its younger members had become active, and in 1927 there was a failed effort to merge the two organizations. The Youth League had been formed in 1925 as part of the extensive Comintern presence in Guangzhou to support the alliance between the Chinese Nationalist Party and the Chinese Communist Party in preparation for a joint expedition against the warlords who dominated central and northern China. Building on a group of young anti-French Vietnamese who had gathered in southern China and led by a Comintern agent later known as Ho Chi Minh  (1890–1969), the Youth League was busy establishing networks in the Vietnam- ese regions of Indochina, disseminating propaganda, and clandestinely bringing  young people to Guangzhou for training. Ho Chi Minh, originally from Nghe An, came to China at the end of 1924 after a year and a half in Moscow; prior to that, he had spent several years in France, where he had participated in the founding of the French Communist Party. The Youth League’s earliest and strongest in-country connection was with the Vinh group, but, by 1927, it had also established a network in Cochinchina by tapping into what remained of the Jeune Annam movement. In 1927, the Youth League’s activities were disrupted when civil war broke out between the Chinese Nationalists and the Chinese Communists, prompting Ho Chi Minh to flee back to Moscow. By early 1928, the Youth League had leadership committees in all three Vietnamese regions and a central committee located in Hong Kong. During the next two years, the Hanoi committee began to follow an independent line. It was competing with Nguyen Thai Hoc’s Nationalist Party for followers and by late 1929 had gained influence over that party’s “leftist” wing. It was also susceptible to influences from within the Chinese Communist Party through its members in the local Chinese community and cross-border contacts. The rise of Li Lisan within the leadership of the Chinese party at this time contributed to the Hanoi committee’s growing alienation from the Youth League’s Central Committee,  which appeared relatively passive in comparison with Li Lisan’s efforts to pro- mote a revolutionary upsurge. Furthermore, the 1928 Sixth Comintern Congress  held in Moscow marked a shift toward greater emphasis on class struggle, an issue on which the Hanoi committee members considered that they were more correct than the Central Committee. In 1929, the Youth League split into two competing communist parties, one based in Hanoi and the other with most of its strength in Cochinchina. In early 1930, Ho Chi Minh arrived in Hong Kong following his escape to Europe and a  sojourn in the Vietnamese community of northeastern Siam. He summoned repre- sentatives from both parties and papered over the schism to form a united party to  which the Tan Viet group of Annam subsequently adhered as well. Problems remained, however, and the Comintern was not satisfied with what Ho Chi Minh had achieved. Tran Phu (1904–1931), an early recruit of the Youth League from Ha Tinh who had meanwhile arrived from Moscow with fresh instructions, chaired the “first plenum” of the new party in October 1930 at which the Indochinese Communist Party was inaugurated as the Comintern arm for the French colonial state. After Comintern assignments in China, Ho Chi Minh suffered a brief imprisonment in Hong Kong, and then, in 1934, he again returned to Moscow, where he spent the next four years. While the formation of the Indochinese Communist Party was the work of exiles working in an international organization, much of its energy and capacity to operate inside the colonial state came from movements that grew up within Indochina: the Tan Viet of Annam, the Jeune Annam of Cochinchina, and the Nationalist Party of Tonkin. What was apparent by the end of the 1920s was that Vietnamese were not confined to the colonial relationship. Young anti-colonial activists of both reformist and revolutionary persuasions traveled, lived, learned, organized or were being organized in China, France, and the Soviet Union, and they brought their new ideas and skills back to Indochina. Their parents’ generation had been oppressed with a sense of having “lost” their country, which had been reinforced by Social Darwinist thought arriving via Chinese translations of European books. But this generation learned European languages and had knowledge and experience of parliamentary democracy, electoral politics, anarchism, print activism, Comintern communism, and Trotskyist communism, all of which contextualized the colonial relationship in a world of wider possibilities. In the  1920s, the French colonial authorities lost the attention of the younger gener- ation of Vietnamese. In the early 1930s, the consequences of this forced the  French regime into a defensive stance, from which it never regained the initiative. Events in Cochinchina, driven by influences from France, had stimulated the politicization of young Vietnamese in the mid 1920s. However, it was in Tonkin and northern Annam, where French idealism was less plausible and where exposure to the political cultures of China was more compelling, that a fateful crossover into violence occurred. During 1928, the Vietnamese Nationalist Party led by Nguyen Thai Hoc was expanding its organization among educated youth, workers, and soldiers in Tonkin. Nguyen Thai Hoc’s ideological orientation was rather vaguely defined by the “three principles” – national unity, democracy, and social welfare – of the revolutionary leader who founded the Chinese Nationalist Party, Sun Yatsen (1866–1925), and by the French revolutionary motto of “liberty, equality, and solidarity.” Despite efforts to maintain a clandestine profile, the arousal of eager but undisciplined revolutionaries severely challenged organizational control and  created a vulnerability to French surveillance. Furthermore, the Tonkin commit- tee of the Youth League was competing with the Vietnamese Nationalist Party  for recruits. Negotiations to merge the two organizations failed because they  could not agree on the issues of class-based politics and adherence to a foreign- led organization.  In February 1929, a rogue member of the Vietnamese Nationalist Party, seeking to prove his party’s anti-colonial prowess to those tempted to join the Youth League, defied his party’s instructions and assassinated a Frenchman, Hervé Bazin. Bazin was in charge of recruiting laborers from Tonkin, often  through trickery or coercion, for plantations in Cochinchina and New Caledo- nia. His death provoked the French to arrest several hundred Nationalist Party  members, including most of the central leadership. Several members of the Youth League were also swept up in the arrests, which continued throughout the year. Nguyen Thai Hoc escaped and tried to rebuild the party, but finally concluded that there was no time to do this and that an insurrection was the only way to stave off disaster. This was also a critical time in the fortunes of Chinese and Vietnamese adherents of the Comintern. In December 1928, struggle over leadership of the Youth League in Cochinchina had resulted in homicide, the so-called Rue Barbier Affair, triggering a wave of arrests that crippled the southern committee of the Youth League. Furthermore, in 1929 the split in the Youth League broke open with the Hanoi-based committee responding to the Li Lisan leadership in the Chinese Communist Party. The Chinese communists, endeavoring to survive Chinese Nationalist Party efforts to destroy them, were building military bases in remote places, which they called soviets. In 1929, hostilities erupted in Guangxi, just north of the border, between Chinese Nationalist forces and Chinese Communist forces. Defeated, the Chinese communists led by Deng Xiaoping withdrew upriver into the mountains north of the Cao Bang border where, from December 1929 to February 1930 they organized uprisings and formed soviets. These soviets, the Youjiang Soviet at Baise and the Zuojiang Soviet at Longzhou, existed for about six months, during the first half of 1930. Some Vietnamese who were residing in the area or serving with Chinese Communist forces were involved in these events. At the same time, Ho Chi Minh was in Hong Kong bringing together the Youth League factions to form a united Vietnamese Communist Party. The unification of Vietnamese communist organizations simultaneous with the appearance of Chinese communist soviets on the Vietnamese border increased enthusiasm for action among party members in Tonkin and northern Annam. When French military forces were deployed to help suppress the Chinese soviets, Vietnamese communists were tempted to assist their Chinese allies by distracting French attention back to Indochina. This temptation was particularly strong because the leader of the Chinese Communist Party at this time, Li Lisan, was advocating that communist parties throughout Asia should implement general uprisings. The central leadership of the Vietnamese Communist Party initially hesitated to follow the Li Lisan line because it seemed to be at odds with Comintern policy. But the line was also being conveyed to Vietnamese through Chinese Communist  Party members among overseas Chinese in Indochina, particularly in Cochin- china. Furthermore, Vietnamese communists were unavoidably involved  in the protests, strikes, and insurrections that broke out in the Vietnamese parts of Indochina at the beginning of 1930 and that continued for more than a year. The unrest and violence of 1930–1931 arose first of all from the politicization of youth in the mid 1920s, which began a general shift in Vietnamese attitudes toward the French. Varenne’s failure to surmount the colonial regime’s resistance to change brought an end to the Sarraut dream. Aside from confirmed élitists,  such as the Constitutionalists, and those attached to the Hue monarchy, Viet- namese increasingly lost interest in cooperating with the French. Instead of being  a potential mentor or partner for developing structures of reform, self- government, and autonomy, the French had become an obstacle to the aspir- ations of young Vietnamese.  Consequently, Vietnamese inclined toward public activism, whether among workers or peasants, soldiers or intellectuals, having lost their respect for the French, and without alternate paths toward their goals, dared to stand up in demonstrations, strikes, and uprisings. In particular, labor unrest on plantations and factories grew in the late 1920s to reach a crescendo in 1930 with labor strikes throughout Vietnamese Indochina that mobilized hundreds, sometimes thousands, of workers at a time.

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