|Article from the website ‘Geeks Informed’
China and the West During the Nanjing Decade
By Luthor Laine
The period between 1927 and 1949 saw the process of decolonization in China, a process which had eventually reached its conclusion in 1998. China experienced, during this time, a long and arduous period of modernization. In reference to the causes of the suffering experienced during this transformation in China, MacKerras argued that "The history of modern China shows ample shame and humiliation at the hands of foreign imperialism. Yet the causes of China's problems were essentially internal". This is a questionable statement. There is no denying that China has, during the early half of the 20th century, faced much internal strife and adversity. But to put the blame of China's problems to only the internal social structure during this time might lack depth in helping us to understand the root cause of China's difficulty with modernization - that of European colonialism, or more specifically, Westernization.
China's problems during the era of revolution, while for the most part detached from foreign influence, would not have occurred were it not for the foreign activity that was occurring in China since several decades earlier, during the Nanjing Decade, and prior to the establishment of the CCP government in 1949. One could be inclined to agree, after reading historical facts between 1927 and 1949, that the idea of wayward foreigners managing to cause such chaos in China's social structure bears insignificance, using reasoning based on the scarcity of foreign influence in China, and the lack of important or historical events that involved foreigners. The impact of the West during such a time, one may think, seems like it has been blown out of proportion by some Western historians.
Moreover, it can also be argued easily that foreigners did not play such a critical role in the involvement of China's affairs since 1927 because of the presence of Chiang Kai Shek's nationalist Guomindang government and its lack of interest in foreign affairs (Chiang himself was popularly considered an "anti-colonial hero" in China.) Vervoorn makes a double-edged argument by introducing us to the study of Asian Societies with the following statement: It is tempting, especially for Westerners, to assume that contemporary Asian societies can be understood without a knowledge of their social, economic and political traditions. 'Modern' or 'contemporary' Asia, it is sometimes asserted, begins with Western influences anyway, and one needs to know no more about local traditions than that they are an obstacle to progress, that is, to Westernization. Were this true, it would be gratifying for those Westerners who like to see themselves as the vanguard of civilization, and make international understanding much easier (we could no longer call it cross-cultural understanding)...however, nothing could be further from the truth. Vervoorn is non-committal about this argument by further stating that: "Theories, methods of interpretation, strategies for understanding, and philosophical approaches... date as facts do, but if they are worth anything they will now greater resistance to historical wear and tear."
It is indisputable that China experienced many problems during the first half of the 20th century, both from external and internal sources. China, despite boasting a civilization spanning about 5,000 years, struggled to modernize. The process of modernization in China was a long and painful one, involving many wars, uprisings, rebellions and revolution. MacKerras tells us that: The first half of the twentieth century... was a period when modernization became accepted as an ideal by governments... It saw great reforms at least attempted, albeit haltingly, in several major fields... Above all this period saw the continuation and climax of a revolutionary process that had begun in the middle of the nineteenth century. It is in my view that while it is true that the Chinese faced much adversary and struggle internally from during the rule of the Kuomintang, the root cause of the painful process of modernization was actually instigated by the West.
It is a popular argument among scholars that China has been the main victim of Western Imperialism. MacKerras tells us that in China, during the period from 1900 to 1949, we "saw the first serious flowering of the forces we associate with modernity". As it is held that modernization is directly related to Westernization, we can apply this idea to the situation in question: According to Vervoorn, it is widely held that "'Modern' or 'contemporary' Asia... begins with Western influences". Vervoorn backs up the idea of modernization equating to westernization by further stating that "some see [the globalization process] positively and describe it in terms such as development, modernization, progress. Others see it negatively and use the words such as Westernization, imperialism, neocolonialism".
Knight has also argued that most of Asia (especially China, in this case), has been, and is still "strongly influenced in numerous ways... by forces outside the region". Knight also asserts in his book Understanding Australia's Neighbours that China was "heavily influenced by the activities of the colonial powers", and in a later chapter reinforces that idea by mentioning that "no region can remain immune from international forces". The level of impact the West has made has justified the extent to which such an idea has been mentioned. Knight describes the impact by making the following statement: "European colonialism from the sixteenth century, while sporadic and uneven in effect, cumulatively exerted a profound impact on the region... European imports [such as nationalism and the concept of the nation-state] had a dramatic influence on the countless millions of people who lived in East and Southeast Asia".
Knight wrote that "some historians have argued that it is incorrect to interpret the history of East and Southeast Asia, from 1498 to the mid 1950's, as nothing more than the history of European colonialism, with the history of East and Southeast Asia limited to a response to this external influence". These scholars may be correct in their interpretation of modern history in Asia, as Knight presents a plethora of evidence to suggest so. Knight also makes a compelling argument by mentioning to us that we shouldn't view the impact of the West as having either too adverse or too little adverse effect on Asia countries (such as China): "The... history of East and Southeast Asia cannot... be adequately understood without some comprehension of the history of colonialism and the response of many Asian people to the disruption, oppression and exploitation which colonialism brought. By the same token, the history of East and Southeast Asia, from 1498 to 1955 should not be read just as the history of the impact of European colonialism and the Asian response that this engendered." Therefore, while it is evident that the West has made a profound impact on China in modern times, we can also agree that during the reign of Chiang Kai Shek and the National Government from 1928 to 1949, China's problems were essentially of an internal nature.
During China's process of transformation - which of itself was instigated by Western ideologies of modernization, as we have thus far argued, the country had, as expected, experienced several decades of internal instability. Thus, the idea that "the causes of China's problems were essentially internal (emphasis added)", is relatively shallow, given the scope of Western dominance in China during modern times.
In the year 1927, there was the coming to power and control of the state by the Nationalist Movement leader Chiang Kai Shek, leading to the proclamation of the new capital of Nanjing on April 18, 1927. The nationalist government's foreign policy during the Nanjing Decade was fittingly based on nationalism, one of Sun Yat Sen's three principles. The unequal treaties and other unfair policies implemented by foreign governments were removed as a result of the government's nationalist policies. China recovered many foreign concessions during this time, and Britain granted tariff autonomy to China in 1928. China recovered all of its territories except Hong Kong, which remained with the British until 1997. Basically, China reclaimed her sovereignty during this time.
The performance of China in the field of diplomacy, however, was a failure, according to Fung: "Despite some notable achievements in treaty revision, the performance of the National Government in the sphere of foreign relations was a failure on the whole. Owing to a combination of factors, Nanjing's was the diplomacy of weakness".
The Sino-Japanese war began in 1937, and during the war Chinese relations seemed to improve with the West. China became popular once Japan was defeated in 1945, and China's position in the world had improved remarkably since the beginning of the century. Shortly after the war, the Nationalist government starts to become unpopular due to growing support of the communist party, and after four years of conflict against the government, the CCP gains control of China in 1949. All of these historical events were part of the process of the modernization of China.
Talk of Western influence is scarcely found in the historical account of China between 1927 and 1949, so of course it would be easy to assume that the nation's problems were caused internally. It does however seem unusual to apply the argument that, all of a sudden, in the 20th century, China ran into a lot of strife.
The Chinese civilization has lasted in relative stability for the 5,000 years or thereabouts preceding the industrial age. K.R. Hall mentioned that "the story of economic development [in Southeast Asia]... begins long before the Christian era". So, given the historical scope of development in China and the fact that China's problems really began only in recent times, along with the encroachment of the West, it is reasonable to assert that although China's problems were of an internal nature, they were ultimately caused, or at least contributed to, by the West.
Sure enough, China experienced for the most part, a lot of internal troubles during the Nanjing decade and subsequent years until the coming to power of the CCP in 1949. But essentially, as we have demonstrated, none of this would have happened were it not for the meddling nature of the European colonialists during the preceding century. Ultimately, both the West and China had contributed to the era of revolution in China. The path to modernization in China was a hectic run of events that led to the ultimate transformation and the birth of the communist China we know today.
Luthor Erik Laine is a scholar at Griffith University in Queensland, Australia. He maintains a simple Japan-related web shop at JapanFunZone.com and a personal blog at Mesetaxchange.com.