A New Asia in the Making

Europe’s troubles could not be confined to one continent. They were bound soon to cramp her ability to dominate affairs elsewhere and the earliest signs of this came in Asia. European colonial power in Asia was, in the perspective of world history, only very briefly unchallengeable and unchallenged. By 1914 one European power, Great Britain, had made an ally of Japan in order to safeguard her interests in the Far East, rather than rely on her own resources. Another, Russia, had been beaten by Japan in war and had turned back towards Europe after twenty years of pressure towards the Yellow Sea. A century’s bullying of China which had seemed likely to prove fatal at the time of the Boxer rebellion was coming to an end; she lost no more territory to European imperialists after that. Unlike India or Africa, China had somehow hung on to her independence into an era where European power in Asia was ebbing. As tensions in Europe mounted and the difficulty of frustrating Japanese ambitions indefinitely became clear, European statesmen realized that the time for acquiring new ports or dreaming of partitions of the ‘sick man’ of the Far East was over. It would suit everyone better to turn to what was always, in effect, British policy, that of an ‘open door’, through which all countries might seek their own commercial advantage. That advantage, too, showed signs of being much less spectacular than had been thought in the sanguine days of the 1890s and that was another reason to tread more softly in the Far East.

Not only was the high tide of the European onslaught on Asia past by 1914 but the revolutionizing of Asia by colonialism, cultural interplay and economic power had already produced defensive reflexes which had to be taken seriously. As early as 1881, a Hawaiian king had proposed to the Meiji emperor the creation of a ‘Union and Federation of Asiatic Nations and Sovereigns’; this was only a straw in the wind, but already such reflexes were now apparent in Japan. Their indirect operation as catalysts of modernization, channelled through this local and Asian force, set the pace of the next phase of the Hundred Years’ War of East and West. Japanese dynamism dominated Asian history in the first forty years of the twentieth century; China’s revolution had no similar impact until after 1945 when, together with new change-making forces from outside, that country would once more surpass Japan in importance as a shaper of Asian affairs and would close the Western Age in Asia.

Japan’s dynamism showed itself both in economic growth and territorial aggressiveness. For a long time the first was more obvious. It was part and parcel of an overall process of what was seen as ‘westernizing’, which could in the 1920s still sustain a mood of liberal hopefulness about Japan and helped to mask Japanese imperialism. In 1925 universal suffrage was introduced and in spite of much European evidence that this had no necessary connection with liberalism or moderation, it seemed to confirm once again a pattern of steady constitutional progress begun in the nineteenth century.

This confidence, shared both by foreigners and by Japanese, was for a time helped by Japan’s industrial growth, notably in the mood of expansive optimism awoken by the Great War, which gave it great opportunities: markets (especially in Asia) in which it had been faced by heavy western competition were abandoned to it when their former exploiters found they could not meet the demands of the war in their own countries; the Allied governments ordered great quantities of munitions from Japanese factories; a world shipping shortage gave its new shipyards the work they needed. The Japanese gross national product went up by 40 per cent during the war years. Though interrupted in 1920 expansion was resumed later in the decade and in 1929 the Japanese had an industrial base which (though it still engaged less than one in five of the population) had in twenty years seen its steel production rise almost tenfold, its textile production triple, and its coal output double. Its manufacturing sector was beginning to influence other Asian countries, too; it imported iron ore from China and Malaya, coal from Manchuria. Still small though its manufacturing industry was by comparison with that of the western powers, and though it coexisted with an enduring small-scale and artisan sector, Japan’s new industrial strength was beginning to shape both domestic politics and foreign relations in the 1920s. In particular, it affected its relations with mainland Asia.

A contrast to the pre-eminent and dynamic role of Japan was provided there by the continuing eclipse of China, potentially the greatest of Asian and world powers. The 1911 revolution had been of enormous importance, but did not by itself end this eclipse. In principle, it marked an epoch far more fundamentally than the French or Russian revolutions: it was the end of more than two thousand years of history during which the Confucian state had held China together and Confucian ideals had dominated Chinese culture and society. Inseparably intertwined, Confucianism and the legal order fell together. The 1911 revolution proclaimed the shattering of the standards by which traditional China lived. On the other hand, the revolution was limited, in two ways especially. In the first place, it was destructive rather than constructive. The monarchy had held together a vast country, virtually a continent, of widely different regions. Its collapse meant that the centrifugal regionalism which so often expressed itself in Chinese history could again have full rein. Many of the revolutionaries were animated by a bitter envy and distrust of Peking. Secret societies, the gentry and military commanders were only too ready to step forward and take a grip of affairs in their own regions. These tendencies were somewhat masked while Yuan Shih-k’ai remained at the head of affairs (until 1916), but then burst out. The revolutionaries were split between a group around Sun Yat-sen called the Chinese National People’s Party, or Kuomintang (KMT), and those who upheld the central government based on the parliamentary structure at Peking. Sun’s support was drawn mainly from Canton businessmen and certain soldiers in the south. Against this background warlords thrived. They were soldiers who happened to have control of substantial forces and arms at a time when the central government was continuously weak. Between 1912 and 1928 there were some 1300 of them, often controlling important areas. Some of them carried out reforms. Some were simply bandits. Some had considerable status as plausible pretenders to government power. It was a little like the end of the Roman empire, though less drawn out. When no one took the place of the old scholar-bureaucrats, the soldiers hastened to fill the void. Yuan Shih-k’ai himself can be regarded as the outstanding example of the type.

This reflected the second limitation of the revolution of 1911: it provided no basis of agreement for further progress. Sun Yat-sen had said that the solution of the national question would have to precede that of the social. But even about the shape of a nationalist future there was much disagreement, and the removal of the dynasty took away a common enemy that had delayed its emergence. Although eventually creative, the intellectual confusion marked among the revolutionaries in the first decade of the Chinese Revolution was deeply divisive and symptomatic of the huge task awaiting China’s would-be renovators.

From 1916 a group of cultural reformers began to gather particularly at the university of Peking. The year before, one of them, Ch’en Tu-hsiu, had founded a journal called New Youth, which was the focus of the debate they ignited. Ch’en preached to Chinese youth, in whose hands he believed the revolution’s destiny to lie, a total rejection of the old Chinese cultural tradition. Like other intellectuals who talked of Huxley and Dewey and introduced their bemused compatriots to the works of Ibsen, Ch’en still thought the key lay in the West; in its Darwinian sense of struggle, its individualism and utilitarianism, it still seemed to offer a way ahead. But important though such leadership was and enthusiastic though its disciples might be, an emphasis on a western re-education for China was a handicap. Not only were many educated and patriotic Chinese sincerely attached to the traditional culture, but western ideas were only sure of a ready welcome among the most untypical elements of Chinese society, the seaboard city-dwelling merchants and their student offspring, often educated abroad. The mass of Chinese could hardly be touched by such ideas and appeals, and the demand of other reformers for a vernacular literature was one evidence of this fact.

In so far as they were touched by nationalist feeling the Chinese were likely to turn against the West and against the western-inspired capitalism which, for many of them, meant one more kind of exploitation and was the most obvious constituent of the civilization some modernizers urged them to adopt. But for the most part China’s peasant masses seemed after 1911 relapsed in passivity, apparently unmoved by events and unaware of the agitation of angry and westernized young men. It is not easy to generalize about their economic state: China was too big and too varied. But it seems clear that while the population steadily increased, nothing was done to meet the peasants’ hunger for land; instead, the number of the indebted and landless grew, their wretched lives frequently made even more intolerable by war, whether directly, or through its concomitants, famine and disease. The Chinese Revolution would only be assured success when it could activate these people, and the cultural emphasis of the reformers sometimes masked an unwillingness to envisage the practical political steps necessary for this.

China’s weakness remained Japan’s opportunity. A world war was the occasion to push forward again her nineteenth-century ambitions. The advantages offered by the Europeans’ quarrels with one another could be exploited. Japan’s allies could hardly object to her seizure of the German ports in China; even if they did, they could do nothing about it while they needed Japanese ships and manufactures. There was always the hope, too, that the Japanese might send their own army to Europe to fight, though nothing like this happened. Instead, the Japanese finessed by arousing fears that they might make a separate peace with the Germans and pressed ahead in China.

At the beginning of 1915 the Japanese government presented to the Chinese government a list of twenty-one demands and an ultimatum. In effect, this amounted to a proposal for a Japanese protectorate over China.

The United Kingdom and United States did what diplomacy could do to have the demands reduced but, in the end, the Japanese got much of what they asked for as well as further confirmation of their special commercial and leasehold rights in Manchuria. Chinese patriots were enraged, but there was nothing they could do at a moment when their internal politics were in disorder. They were so confused, indeed, that Sun Yat-sen was himself at this moment seeking Japanese support. The next intervention came in 1916, when Japanese pressure was brought to bear on the British to dissuade them from approving Yuan Shih-k’ai’s attempt to restore stability by making himself emperor. In the following year came another treaty, this time extending the recognition of Japan’s special interests as far as Inner Mongolia.

In August 1917 the Chinese government went to war with Germany, partly in the hope of winning goodwill and support which would ensure her an independent voice at the peace, but only a few months later the United States formally recognized the special interests of Japan in China in return for endorsement of the principle of the ‘open door’ and a promise to maintain Chinese integrity and independence. All that the Chinese had got from the Allies was the ending of German and Austrian extraterritoriality and the concession that payment of Boxer indemnities to the Allies should be delayed. The Japanese, moreover, secured more concessions from China in secret agreements in 1917 and 1918.

Yet, when the peace came, it deeply disappointed Chinese and Japanese alike. Japan was now indisputably a world power; it had in 1918 the third largest navy in the world. It was true, too, that it won solid gains at the peace: it retained the former German rights in Shantung (promised by the British and French in 1917), was granted a mandate over many of the former German Pacific islands and a permanent seat on the Council of the League of Nations. But the gain in ‘face’ implied in such recognition was offset in Asian eyes by a failure to have a declaration in favour of racial equality written into the Covenant of the League. On this line (the only one on which Japanese and Chinese stood shoulder to shoulder at Paris), Woodrow Wilson rejected a majority vote, ruling that approval should be unanimous. With the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand against it, it fell by the wayside. The Chinese had much to feel aggrieved about, too, for in spite of widespread sympathy over the Twenty-One Demands (notably in the United States) they were unable to obtain a reversal of the Shantung decision. Disappointed of American diplomatic support and crippled by the divisions within their own delegation between the representatives of the Peking government and those of the Kuomintang at Canton, the Chinese refused to sign the treaty.

An almost immediate consequence was an upheaval in China to which some commentators have given an importance as great as that of the 1911 revolution itself. This was the ‘May 4th Movement’ of 1919. It stemmed from a student demonstration in Peking against the peace, which had been planned for 7 May, the anniversary of China’s acceptance of the 1915 demands, but was brought forward to anticipate action by the authorities. It escalated, although at first only into a small riot and the resignation of the head of the university. This then led to a nationwide student movement (one of the first political reflections of the widely spread establishment in China of new colleges and universities after 1911). This in turn spread to embrace others than students and to manifest itself in strikes and a boycott of Japanese goods. A movement which had begun with intellectuals and their pupils spread to include other city-dwellers, notably industrial workers and the new Chinese capitalists who had benefited from the war. It was the most important evidence yet seen of the mounting rejection of Europe by Asia.

For the first time, an industrial China entered the scene. China, like Japan, had enjoyed an economic boom during the war. Though a decline in European imports to China had been partly offset by increased Japanese and American sales, Chinese entrepreneurs in the ports had found it profitable to invest in production for the home market. The first important industrial areas outside Manchuria began to appear. They belonged to progressive capitalists who sympathized with revolutionary ideas all the more when the return of peace brought renewed western competition and evidence that China had not earned her liberation from tutelage to the foreigner. The workers, too, felt this resentment: their jobs were threatened. Many of them were first-generation town-dwellers, drawn into the new industrial areas from the countryside by the promise of employment. Any uprooting from the tenacious soil of peasant tradition was even more important in China than in ancien regime Europe. Family and village ties were even stronger in China. The migrant to the town left behind patriarchal authority and the reciprocal obligations of the independent producing unit, the household: this was a further great weakening of the age-old structure which had survived the revolution and still tied China to the past. New material was thus made available for new ideological deployments.

The May 4th Movement first showed what could be made of such forces as these by creating the first broadly based Chinese revolutionary coalition. Progressive western liberalism had not been enough; implicit in the movement’s success was the disappointment of the hopes of many of the cultural reformers. Capitalist western democracy had been shown up by the Chinese government’s helplessness in the face of Japan. Now, that government faced another humiliation from its own subjects: the boycott and demonstration forced it to release the arrested students and dismiss its pro-Japanese ministers. But this was not the only important consequence of the May 4th Movement. For all their limited political influence, reformers had for the first time, thanks to the students, broken through into the world of social action. This aroused enormous optimism and greater popular political awareness than ever before. This is the case for saying that contemporary Chinese history begins positively in 1919 rather than 1911.

Yet ultimately the explosion had come because of an Asian force, Japanese ambition. That force, not in itself a new one in China’s affairs, was by 1919 operating on a China whose cultural tradition was dissolving fast. The ending of the examination system, the return of the westernized exiles and the great literary and cultural debate of the war years had all pushed things too far for any return to the old stable state. The warlords could provide no new authority to identify and sustain orthodoxy. And now even the great rival of the Confucian past, western liberalism, was under attack because of its association with the exploiting foreigner. Western liberalism had never had mass appeal; now its charm for intellectuals was threatened just as another rival ideological force from the West had appeared on the scene. The Bolshevik Revolution gave Marxism a homeland to which its adherents abroad could look for inspiration, guidance, leadership and, sometimes, material support, a great new factor was thus now introduced into an already dissolving historical epoch, and one bound to accelerate its end.

Both the February 1917 revolution and the Bolshevik victory had been warmly welcomed by one of the contributors to New Youth, Li Ta-chao, who was from 1918 a librarian at Peking University. Soon he came to see in Marxism the motive force of world revolution and the means to vitalize the Chinese peasantry. At that moment of disillusion with the West, Russia was very popular among Chinese students. It seemed that the successors of the Tsar had driven out the old imperialist Adam, for one of the first acts of the Soviet government had been a formal renunciation of all extraterritorial rights and jurisdictions enjoyed by the Tsarist state. In the eyes of the nationalists, Russia, therefore, had clean hands. Moreover, her revolution - a revolution in a great peasant society - claimed to be built upon a doctrine whose applicability to China seemed especially plausible in the wake of the industrialization provoked by the war. In 1918 there had begun to meet at Peking University a Marxist study society of whose members some had been prominent in the May 4th Movement. One of them was an assistant in the university library, Mao Tse-tung. By 1920 Marxist texts were beginning to appear in student magazines and in that year the first complete Chinese translation of the Communist Manifesto appeared. Now, too, the first attempts were made to deploy Marxist and Leninist principles by organizing strikes in support of the May 4th Movement.

Yet Marxism opened divisions between the reformers. Ch’en Tu-hsiu himself turned to it as a solution for China’s problems in 1920. He threw his energies into helping to organize the emerging Chinese Left around Marxism. The liberals were beginning to be left behind. The Comintern observed its opportunities and had sent its first man to China in 1919 to help Ch’en and Li Ta-chao. The effects were not entirely happy; there were quarrels. Nevertheless, in circumstances still obscure - we know precisely neither names nor dates - a Chinese communist party was formed in Shanghai in 1921 by delegates from different parts of China (Mao Tse-tung among them).

So began the last stage of the Chinese Revolution and the latest twist of that curious dialectic which has run through the relations of Europe with Asia. Once more an alien western idea, Marxism, born and shaped in a society totally unlike the traditional societies of the East, embodying a background of assumptions whose origins were rooted in Judaeo-Christian culture, was taken up by an Asian people and put to their use. It was to be deployed not merely against the traditional sources of inertia in China, in the name of the western goals of modernization, efficiency and universal human dignity and equality, but against the source from which it, too, came - the European world.

Communism benefited enormously in China from the fact that capitalism could easily be represented as the unifying, connecting principle behind foreign exploitation and aggression. In the 1920s, China’s divisions were thought to make it of little account in international affairs, though nine powers with Asiatic interests were got to guarantee its territorial integrity and Japan agreed to hand back former German territories in China which it had taken in the Great War. This was part of a complicated set of agreements made at Washington whose core was the international limitation on naval strength (there was great uneasiness about the cost of armaments); these in the end left Japan relatively stronger. The four major powers guaranteed one another’s possessions, too, and thus provided a decent burial for the Anglo-Japanese alliance, whose ending had long been sought by the Americans. But the guarantee to China, everyone knew, was worth no more than the preparedness of the Americans to fight to support it; the British had been obliged by the treaties not to build a naval base at Hong Kong. Meanwhile, foreigners continued to administer the customs and tax revenues on which the Peking government of an ‘independent’ China depended and foreign agents and businessmen dealt directly with the warlords when it suited them. Though American policy had further weakened the European position in Asia, this was not apparent in China.

CHINA 1918-49

The apparently continuing grip of the foreign devils on China’s life was one reason why Marxism’s appeal to intellectuals went far beyond the boundaries of the formal structure of the Chinese Communist Party. Sun Yat-sen stressed his doctrinal disagreement with it but adopted views which helped to carry the KMT away from conventional liberalism and in the direction of Marxism. In his view of the world, Russia, Germany and Asia had a common interest as exploited powers against their oppressors and enemies, the four imperialist powers (Germany was well-regarded after it had undertaken in 1921 to place its relations with China on a completely equal footing). He coined a new expression, ‘hypo-colony’, for the state of affairs in which China was exploited without formal subordination as a dependency. His conclusion was collectivist: ‘On no account must we give more liberty to the individual,’ he wrote; ‘let us secure liberty instead for the nation.’ This was to give new endorsement to the absence of individual liberty, which had always been present in the classical Chinese outlook and tradition. The claims of family, clan and state had always been paramount and Sun Yat-sen envisaged a period of one-party rule in order to make possible mass indoctrination to reconfirm an attitude which had been in danger of corruption by western ideas.

There was apparent, then, no grave obstacle to the cooperation of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the KMT. The behaviour of the western powers and of the warlords provided common enemies and the Russian government helped to bring them together. Cooperation with the anti-imperialist power with which China had its longest land frontier seemed at least prudent and potentially very advantageous. The policy of the Comintern, for its part, favoured cooperation with the KMT to safeguard Russian interests in Mongolia and as a step towards holding off Japan. The USSR had been left out of the Washington conferences, though no power had greater territorial interests in Asia. For her, cooperation with the likely winners in China was an obvious course even if Marxist doctrine had not also fitted such a policy. From 1924 onwards the CCP was working with the KMT under Soviet patronage, in spite of some doubts among Chinese communists. As individuals, though not as a party, they could belong to the KMT. Sun Yat-sen’s able young soldier Chiang K’ai-shek was sent to Moscow for training, and a military academy was founded in China to provide ideological as well as military instruction.

In 1925 Sun Yat-sen died; he had made communist cooperation with his followers easier, and the united front still endured. Sun Yat-sen’s will (which Chinese schoolchildren learnt by heart) had said that the Revolution was not yet complete and while the communists made important advances in winning peasant support for the Revolution in certain provinces, the new revolutionary army led by idealistic young officers made headway against the warlords. By 1927 something of a semblance of unity had been restored to the country under the leadership of the KMT. Anti-imperialist feeling supported a successful boycott of British goods, which led the British government, alarmed by the evidence of growing Russian influence in China, to surrender its concessions at Hankow and Kiukiang. It had already promised to return Wei-hai-wei to China (1922), and the United States had renounced its share of the Boxer indemnity. Such successes added to signs that China was on the move at last.

One important aspect of this Revolution long went unremarked. Theoretical Marxism stressed the indispensable revolutionary role of the industrial proletariat. The Chinese communists were proud of the progress they had made in politicizing the new urban workers, but the mass of Chinese were peasants. Still trapped in the Malthusian vice of rising numbers and land shortage, their centuries of suffering were, if anything, intensified by the breakdown of central authority in the warlord years. Some Chinese communists saw in the peasants a revolutionary potential which, if not easy to reconcile with contemporary Marxist orthodoxy (as retailed by the Moscow theorists), none the less embodied Chinese reality. One of them was Mao Tse-tung. He and those who agreed with him turned their attention away from the cities to the countryside in the early 1920s and began an unprecedented effort to win over the rural masses to communism. Paradoxically, Mao seems to have continued to cooperate with the Kuomintang longer than other Chinese communists just because it was more sympathetic to the organization of the peasants than was his own party.

A great success followed. It was especially marked in Hunan, but altogether some ten million or so peasants and their families were by 1927 organized by the communists. ‘In a few months’, wrote Mao, ‘the peasants have accomplished what Dr Sun Yat-sen wanted, but failed to accomplish in the forty years he devoted to the national revolution.’ Organization made possible the removal of many of the ills that beset the peasants. Landlords were not dispossessed, but their rents were often reduced. Usurious rates of interest were brought down to reasonable levels. Rural revolution had eluded all previous progressive movements in China and this was identified by Mao as the key shortcoming of the 1911 revolution; the communist success in reaching this goal was based on the discovery that it could be brought about by using the revolutionary potential of the peasants themselves. This had enormous significance for the future, for it implied new possibilities of historical development throughout Asia. Mao grasped this. ‘If we allot ten points to the democratic revolution,’ he wrote, ‘then the achievements of the urban dwellers and the military units rate only three points, while the remaining seven points should go to the peasants in their rural revolution.’ In an image twice-repeated in a report on the Hunan movement he compared the peasants to an elemental force; ‘the attack is just like a tempest or hurricane; those who submit to it survive, those who resist perish’. This image was significant; here was something rooted deeply in Chinese tradition and the long struggle against landlords and bandits. If the communists tried hard to set aside tradition by eradicating superstition and breaking family authority, they nevertheless drew upon it, too.

Communism’s rural lodgement was the key to its survival in the crisis which overtook its relations with the KMT after Sun Yat-sen’s death. Sun’s removal permitted a rift to open in the KMT between a ‘left’ and a ‘right’ wing. The young Chiang, who had been seen as a progressive, now emerged as the military representative of the ‘right’, which reflected mainly the interests of capitalists and, indirectly, landlords. Differences within the KMT over strategy were resolved when Chiang, confident of his control of his troops, committed them to destroying the left factions and the Communist Party’s organization in the cities. This was accomplished with much bloodshed in Shanghai and Nanking in 1927, under the eyes of contingents of European and American soldiers, who had been sent to China to protect the concessions. The CCP was proscribed, but this was not quite the end of its cooperation with the KMT, which continued in a few areas for some months, largely because of Russian unwillingness to break with Chiang. This had already made easier the destruction of the city communists; the Comintern in China, as elsewhere, myopically pursued what were believed to be Russian interests refracted through the mirror of dogmatic Marxism. These interests were for Stalin in the first place domestic; in external affairs, he wanted someone in China who could stand up to the British, the greatest imperialist power, and the KMT seemed the best bet for that. Theory fitted these choices; the bourgeois revolution had to precede the proletarian, according to Marxist orthodoxy. Only after the triumph of the KMT was clear did the Russians withdraw their advisers from the CCP, which gave up open politics to become a subversive, underground organization.

Chinese nationalism had in fact done well out of Russian help even if the CCP had not. Nevertheless, the KMT was left with grave problems and a civil war on its hands at a time when the Revolution needed to satisfy mass demands if it was to survive. The split within the Revolution was a setback, making it impossible to dispose finally of the warlord problem and, more serious, weakening the anti-foreign front. Pressure from Japan had continued in the 1920s after the temporary relaxation and handing back of Kiao-chou. Its domestic background was changing in an important way. When the wartime economic boom finally ended in 1920, hard times and growing social strains followed, even before the onset of the world economic depression. By 1931, half of Japan’s factories were idle; the collapse of European colonial markets and the entrenchment of what remained of them behind new tariff barriers had a shattering effect as Japanese exports of manufactures went down by two-thirds. Japan’s export outlets on the Asian mainland were now crucial. Anything that seemed to threaten them provoked intense irritation. The position of the Japanese peasant deteriorated, too, millions being ruined or selling their daughters into prostitution in order to survive. Grave political consequences were soon manifest, though less in the intensification of class conflict than in the provocation of nationalist extremism. The forces which were to pour into this had for a long time been absorbed in the struggle against the ‘unequal treaties’. With those out of the way, a new outlet was needed, and the harsh operation of industrial capitalism in times of depression provided anti-western feeling with fresh fuel.

The circumstances seemed propitious for further Japanese aggression in Asia. The western colonial powers were clearly on the defensive, if not in full retreat. The Dutch faced rebellions in Java and Sumatra in the 1920s, the French a Vietnamese revolt in 1930; in both places there was the sinister novelty of communist help to nationalist rebels. The British were not in quite such difficulties in India. Yet although some Englishmen were not yet reconciled to the idea that India must move towards selfgovernment, it was by now the proclaimed aim of British policy. In China the British had already shown in the 1920s that they wanted only a quiet accommodation with a nationalist movement they found hard to assess, and not too grave a loss of face. Their Far Eastern policies looked even feebler after economic collapse, which also knocked the stuffing out of American opposition to Japan. Finally, Russian power, too, seemed in eclipse after its attempt to influence events in China. Chinese nationalism, on the contrary, had won notable successes, showed no sign of retreat and was considered to be beginning to threaten the long-established Japanese presence in Manchuria. All these factors were present in the calculations made by Japanese statesmen as the depression deepened.

Manchuria was the crucial theatre. A Japanese presence there went back to 1905. Heavy investment had followed. At first the Chinese acquiesced, but in the 1920s began to question it, with support from the Russians, who foresaw danger from the Japanese pushing their influence towards Inner Mongolia. In 1929 the Chinese in fact came into conflict with the Russians over control of the railway which ran across Manchuria and was the most direct route to Vladivostok, but this can only have impressed the Japanese with the new vigour of Chinese power; the nationalist KMT was reasserting itself in the territories of the old empire. There had been armed conflict in 1928 when the Japanese had tried to prevent KMT soldiers from operating against warlords in north China whom they found it convenient to patronize. Finally, the Japanese government was by no means unambiguously in control on the spot. Effective power in Manchuria rested with the commanders of the Japanese forces there, and when in 1931 they organized an incident near Mukden, which they used as an excuse for taking over the whole province, those in Tokyo who wished to restrain them could not do so.

There followed the setting up of a new puppet state, Manchukuo (to be ruled by the last Manchu emperor), an outcry at the League of Nations against Japanese aggression, assassinations in Tokyo which led to the establishment there of a government much more under military influence, and the expansion of the quarrel with China. In 1932 the Japanese replied to a Chinese boycott of their goods by landing forces at Shanghai; in the following year they came south across the Great Wall to impose a peace which left Japan dominating a part of historic China itself and trying unsuccessfully to organize a secessionist north China. There matters stood until 1937.

The KMT government thus proved unable, after all, to resist imperialist aggression. Yet from its new capital, Nanking, it appeared to control successfully all save a few border areas. It continued to whittle away at the treaties of inferiority and was helped by the fact that as the western powers saw in it a means of opposing communism in Asia, they began to show themselves somewhat more accommodating. These achievements, considerable though they were, none the less masked important weaknesses which compromised the KMT’s domestic success. The crux was that though the political revolution might have continued, the social revolution had come to a stop. Intellectuals withdrew their moral support from a regime which had not provided reforms, of which a need to do something about land was the most pressing. The peasants had never given the KMT their allegiance as some of them had given it to the communists. Unfortunately for the regime, Chiang fell back more and more at this juncture upon direct government through his officers and showed himself increasingly conservative at a time when the traditional culture had decayed beyond repair. The regime was tainted with corruption in the public finances, often at the highest level. The foundations of the new China were therefore insecure. And there was once more a rival waiting in the wings.

The central leadership of the CCP for some time continued to hope for urban insurrection; in the provinces, none the less, individual communist leaders continued to work along the lines indicated by Mao in Hunan. They dispossessed absentee landlords and organized local soviets, a shrewd appreciation of the value of the traditional peasant hostility to central government. By 1930 they had done better than this, by organizing an army in Kiangsi, where a Chinese Soviet Republic ruled fifty million people, or claimed to. In 1932 the CCP leadership abandoned Shanghai to join Mao in this sanctuary. KMT efforts were now directed towards destroying the communist army, but always without success. This meant fighting on a second front at a time when Japanese pressure was strongest. The last great KMT effort, it is true, drove the communists out of their sanctuary, thus forcing them on the ‘Long March’ to Shensi, which began in 1934, the epic of the Chinese Revolution and an inspiration ever since. Once there, the 7000 survivors found local communist support but were still hardly safe; only the demands of resistance to the Japanese prevented the KMT from doing more to harass them.

Consciousness of the external danger explains why there were tentative essays in cooperation between the CCP and KMT again in the later 1930s. They owed something, too, to another change in the policies of the Comintern; it was an era of ‘Popular Fronts’ elsewhere which allied communists with other parties. The KMT was also obliged to mute its anti-western line and this won it a certain amount of easy sympathy in England and, above all, the United States. But neither the cooperation of communists nor the sympathies of western liberals could prevent the nationalist regime from being forced on the defensive when the Japanese launched their attack in 1937.

The ‘China incident’, as the Japanese continued to call it, was to take eight years’ fighting and inflict grave social and physical damage on China. It has been seen as the opening of the Second World War. At the end of 1937 the Chinese government removed itself for safety’s sake to Chungking in the far west while the Japanese occupied all the important northern and coastal areas. League condemnation of Japan and Russian deliveries of aircraft seemed equally unable to stem the onslaught. The only bonus in the first black years was an unprecedented degree of patriotic unity in China; communists and nationalists alike saw that the national revolution was at stake. This was the view of the Japanese, too; significantly, in the area they occupied, they encouraged the re-establishment of Confucianism. Meanwhile, the western powers felt deplorably unable to intervene. Their protests, even on behalf of their own citizens when they were menaced and manhandled, were brushed aside by the Japanese, who by 1939 made it clear that they were prepared to blockade the foreign settlements if recognition of the Japanese new order in Asia was not forthcoming. For British and French weakness there was an obvious explanation: they had troubles enough elsewhere. American ineffectiveness had deeper roots; it went back to a long-established fact that however the United States might talk about mainland Asia, Americans would not fight for it, perhaps wisely. When the Japanese bombed and sank an American gunboat near Nanking the State Department huffed and puffed but eventually swallowed Japanese ‘explanations’. It was all very different from what had happened to the U S S Maine in Havana harbour forty years before, though the Americans did send supplies to Chiang K’ai-shek.

By 1941, China was all but cut off from the outside world, though on the eve of rescue. At the end of that year its struggle would at last be merged with a world war. By then, though, China had been badly damaged. In the long duel between the potential Asian rivals, Japan was by then clearly the winner. On the debit side of Japan’s account had to be placed the economic cost of the struggle and the increasing difficulty experienced by its occupying forces in China. On the other hand its international position had never seemed stronger; this was demonstrated by humiliating western residents in China and by forcing the British in 1940 to close the Burma Road by which supplies reached China, and the French to admit an occupying army to Indo-China. Here was a temptation to further adventure, and it was not likely to be resisted while the prestige of the military and their power in government remained as high as it had been since the mid-1930s.

Yet there was also a negative side to this. Aggression made it more and more imperative for Japan to seize the economic resources of south-east Asia and Indonesia. Yet it also slowly prepared the Americans psychologically for armed defence of their interest. It was clear by 1941 that the United States would have to decide before long whether it was to be an Asian power at all and what that might mean. In the background, though, lay something even more important. For all its aggression against China, it was with the window-dressing slogan of ‘Asia for the Asians’ that Japan advanced on the crumbling western position in Asia. Just as its defeat of Russia in 1905 marked an epoch in the psychological relations of Europe and Asia, so did the independence and power which Japan showed in 1938-41. When followed by the overthrow of the European empires, as it was to be, it would signal the beginning of the era of decolonialization, thus fittingly inaugurated by the one Asian power at that time successful in its ‘westernization’.

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