Retrospective

01

Dec
2021

The soviets in Nghe-Tinh and western Cochinchina

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Aside from the change in Vietnamese perceptions arising from the obduracy of the French regime that affected all Vietnamese regions, Tonkin was particularly responsive to developments in southern China that inspired Vietnamese efforts to  build clandestine anti-colonial organizations modeled on the Chinese Commun- ist and the Chinese Nationalist Parties. In late 1929, Nguyen Thai Hoc, the  leader of the most volatile and vulnerable of these organizations, the Nationalist Party, was running on a very short fuse of desperation, barely keeping ahead of the arrests that were ruining his party even as he made plans for an insurrection.  The Nationalist Party was disintegrating under the pressure of French repres- sion and the turning of some members toward the Communist Party when the  uprising was triggered in early February 1930. A mutiny in the Vietnamese garrison at Yen Bay and uncoordinated uprisings around Tonkin were quickly suppressed. Nguyen Thai Hoc and most of his party’s leadership were arrested  and eventually executed. The French repression in Tonkin destroyed the Nation- alist Party, although some members escaped into Chinese exile. The Communist  Party in Tonkin was damaged but not destroyed. The demise of the Nationalist Party and the disturbance it produced in Tonkin were but a prelude to the most spectacular episode of anti-colonial action, which broke out at Vinh and its hinterland in the Nghe-Tinh region of northern Annam. All three regional communist organizations that had been theoretically united following Ho Chi Minh’s intervention at the beginning of 1930 were involved in organizing and leading the demonstrations and strikes that reached a crescendo in the month of April as the French bombed the Chinese soviets and exterminated  the Nationalist Party in Tonkin. However, because of the repression in Cochin- china following the Rue Barbier Affair and in Tonkin following the Nguyen Thai  Hoc uprising, and because vigilant protectorate magistrates had minimized  communist influence in southern Annam, the only region in which the commun- ist network was relatively strong and intact was northern Annam, in particular  the region of Vinh where the Tan Viet movement had been active for several years and was most firmly embedded. With Ho Chi Minh away on a Comintern assignment in Singapore and Bangkok to assist in organizing Malayan and Siamese communist parties, a  group of leaders, most of whom were from the northern branch of the Vietnam- ese Communist Party, met in Hanoi in April 1930, calling themselves the “pro- visional central committee.” This group, seemingly inspired by the Li Lisan line,  the Chinese soviets across the border, the strikes and demonstrations, and the atmosphere of French repression in Tonkin, decided to organize an uprising in Nghe-Tinh. Two men from Tonkin, Nguyen Phong Sac (1902–1931) and Nguyen Duc Canh (1908–1932), were assigned to go to Vinh and implement this plan. Beginning in May, a campaign of peaceful demonstrations by peasants and workers was initiated in Nghe-Tinh against excessive taxation and the colonial salt monopoly. Within a few weeks, this campaign turned violent and local administration began to disintegrate. By September, Nguyen Duc Canh and Nguyen Phong Sac were organizing revolutionary governments in villages, which came to be called soviets. During the next six months approximately thirty soviets were organized in the Nghe-Tinh countryside. The manner in which these soviets were organized reflected the methods espoused and taught by the Chinese Communist Party about how to organize peasants. Efforts were also made to organize soviets in southern Annam in the regions of Dong Hoi, Quang Tri, and Quang Ngai but were unsuccessful.  It took the French nearly a year to put down what became known as the Nghe- Tinh Soviets. Not trusting their Vietnamese soldiers, they employed military  units composed of upland minority groups and the French Foreign Legion. Even with aerial bombardment and a policy of pillage and slaughter, it took months  for the French to begin to regain control of the Nghe-Tinh countryside. Mean- while the “first plenum” of the Vietnamese Communist Party was convened in  Hong Kong in October. Despite the events in Nghe-Tinh, this meeting was primarily occupied with putting the Comintern stamp on the new party, changing its name to the Indochinese Communist Party and sidelining Ho Chi  Minh in favor of Tran Phu, who more faithfully espoused the ascendant Comin- tern line in favor of class struggle. At the same time, the plenum went on record  as criticizing the Nghe-Tinh uprising and predicting its failure, this at a time when the Comintern was moving against Li Lisan and his policy of general uprisings. When the “second plenum” was held at Saigon in March 1931, Tran Phu  re-emphasized class struggle and the need to remove class enemies. The Nghe- Tinh Soviets, in the last phase of being destroyed and led by increasingly radical  elements, translated this into a homicidal campaign against suspected informers, those without revolutionary enthusiasm, and the wealthy. In April and May, the top level of leadership in the soviets was arrested, including both Nguyen Phong Sac and Nguyen Duc Canh. Tran Phu was also arrested at this time in Saigon. By the end of summer the French had pacified Nghe-Tinh. By the end of the year, nearly all the leaders of the Indochinese Communist Party had been arrested or had fled, and the party was a shambles. During the high tide of the Nghe-Tinh Soviet movement in late 1930, a less spectacular but, in the long term, more significant breakdown of colonial authority occurred in rural Cochinchina, particular in western districts such as Cao Lanh and Cho Moi where short-lived soviets were organized. Although French security forces maintained general ascendancy, this was the beginning of a gradual erosion of administrative control in parts of western Cochinchina that continued for the next quarter-century until the French colonial effort finally collapsed. Here, communist propaganda and organizing activities mixed with the millenarian tendencies revealed most recently in the disturbances of 1913 and 1916. In 1931 and 1932, the French arrested many communist activists in  Cochinchina. Although a certain calm was restored, it was deceptive. The world- wide depression severely damaged the rice export market and the potential for  political and religious excitement remained.

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