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Facing Japan: Chinese Politics and Japanese Imperialism, 1931-1937

March 19, 2010

Parks M. Coble. Facing Japan: Chinese Politics and Japanese Imperialism, 1931-1937. Cambridge, MA: Council on East Asian Studies, Harvard University Press, 1991.

Miriam Gross (2006)

In 1931 after the Japanese seized Manchuria Chiang Kai-shek was a man with a problem. He knew that China was not strong or unified enough to fight Japan and therefore appeasement was necessary. On the other hand, if the Nanjing government did not fight the Japanese, it was faced with the loss of all popular support for its already shaky authority. Coble sets out to explore the incredible balancing act Chiang conducted throughout the 1930’s. He analyzes three groups: the Nanjing government and its leaders; the regional leaders, warlords such as Feng Yuxiang, Zhang Xueliang, and Yan Xishan; and the forces of independent public opinion, the 10% of the Chinese population who were literate urbanites interested in public affairs.

In an extremely detailed picture backed by an assiduous use of sources Coble shows how Chiang had to weather crisis after crisis: from increasingly determined popular resistance to Japan such as the 1931 boycott movement, to Japanese pressure through additional land seizure and coercion forcing Chiang to stop the boycotts, to Communists building an alternative national vision in the boondocks, to regional warlords who took advantage of the situation to strengthen their own alliances or attacked the Japanese unsolicited in order to gain power and popular support. Chiang felt the China’s only hope was to become unified under his control (“first internal pacification, then external resistance”) through suppressing both the Communists and independent warlords. At each step of the way Chiang did not consciously decide on a policy of Japanese appeasement, but rather, was forced into it through Japanese aggression, the shaky Nanjing government, and China’s military weakness. Some of the many factors behind Chiang’s evolving policy aside from military weakness and the concern over a two-front war include: the initial desire for Japanese support of his government over his internal competitors; the belief that if appeased, Japan would have reasonable aims with regard to China and would stop demanding more than Chiang could give (Chiang was unaware that Japanese extremists were pushing Japan beyond the scope of normal international affairs); the need to keep the pro-Chiang Northern warlords in place through a short-term conciliatory policy (so the anti-Chiang northern coalition would not revive); the concern that some of the anti-Japanese forces were backed by the Soviets and would lead to active Soviet intervention in Chinese affairs, the anxiety that warlords engaged in anti-Japanese activities would leach public support away from Chiang’s government; and finally, the belief that if all else failed the League of Nations would bail China out. In many ways, Chiang was right. Pushed mercilessly by public opinion expressed through the National Salvation Movement and the Xian Incident in December 1936, Chiang agreed to a United Front Policy and engaged with the Japanese in July 1937. Shortly afterwards China was soundly defeated.

Coble’s interesting conclusion was that Chiang’s endless harrying of the Communists had unintended consequences. By linking the lack of domestic unity with the Communists to the possibility of successfully fighting off the Japanese, Chiang emphasized how strong and powerful the Communists were. Only be uniting with them could China free itself and stand upright as an independent nation. Thus despite himself, Chiang’s policies helped set the stage for popular support of the party he hated the most.

Reviewers (Diana Lary, Pacific Affairs, Vol. 66, No. 2, 1993; Akira Iriye, The China Quarterly, No. 133, 1993; and Alan Macfarlane, The Historical Journal, Vol. 36, No. 2, 1993) greatly admired the book. Their only critique was the desire for more information about the international scene: the impact of the Western powers and the League of Nations on China and a more detailed exploration of Japan, both its internal politics and the effect of the many educational and technical exchanges with China on Chinese decision-making. Overall, an exceptional book, well worth a read.

© Copyright 2006. All rights reserved.

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