China Under Chiang Kai-shek and the Imminent Japanese Threat


By Richard Baum, Ph.D., University of California, Los Angeles

One of the major political players in China’s modern history, Chiang Kai-shek, Commander-in-Chief of the National Revolutionary Army, consolidated his political power in 1928. Under Chiang’s military-style leadership, the Guomindang, or Chinese Nationalist Party, embraced former warlords, foreign imperialists, wealthy financiers, and criminal gangs.

Image showing a statue of Dr. Sun Yat-sen.
After Chiang Kai-shek came into power, he abandoned Sun Yat-sen’s ‘Three Principles of the People’. (Image: ben bryant/Shutterstock)

An Authoritarian Dictatorship

By making peace with the unsavory classes and strata, and by co-opting them into his inner circle, Chiang Kai-shek essentially abandoned Sun Yat-sen’s ‘Three Principles of the People’, reducing them to hollow cant.

By the mid-1930s, the Nationalist Government had ceased being a progressive political force, resembling more closely a classic right-wing authoritarian dictatorship. Although the regime Chiang and his associates established in Nanjing was nominally republican in nature, it proved to be increasingly corrupt, ineffectual, and ultimately repressive.

Dominated by a handful of rich and powerful families closely interlinked by marriage and by overlapping financial interests, including the Soong family dynasty, Chiang’s elitist regime never effectively addressed the problems of the country’s 500 million impoverished peasants. Nor did it ever learn how to deal with growing urban demands for middle-class political participation.

Learn more about rural misery and rebellion, 1842–1860.

Shanghai as a Playground for the Rich and the Elite

Although it was Sun Yat-sen who turned the Nationalist Party into a disciplined, hierarchical organization under Comintern guidance, it was Chiang Kai-shek who first realized the Guomindang’s full authoritarian potential. The city of Shanghai was emblematic of the new regime’s elitist zeitgeist. Ruled by an unlikely alliance of Nationalist generals, financiers, and underworld chieftains, it was the crown jewel of the Republic of China.

By the late 1920s, Shanghai had become the playground for the rich and near-rich, a place to enjoy a slice of Europe’s la belle vie in east Asia. Western social mores and European haute couture were aped wholesale in the new Shanghai. Modern schools and hospitals were built, along with modern theaters, museums, racetracks, gambling parlors, and opium dens.

But while Shanghai’s elites were enjoying the good life, all around them, for those who cared to look, there were signs of deepening malaise. Two problems were of particular concern. The first was growing Japanese military pressure in the northeast. The second was a Chinese Communist movement in the south, where Mao Zedong was achieving success in mobilizing land-hungry peasants.

Learn more about the self-strengthening movement, 1860–1890.

Japan’s Growing Military Power

In the early 1920s, Japan had experienced a post-war surge of democratic development and international reconciliation. Under Western pressure, Tokyo had withdrawn its odious 21 Demands. Internally, the process of political liberalization had brought to power in Tokyo a new and more progressive Japanese government.

But even as Japan was emulating Western political and socio-economic institutions, Japanese military power was growing steadily. In 1921 Japan was invited to join the Washington Naval Conference as a full participant, marking its emergence as Asia’s first modern great power.

By the middle 1920s, Japanese military commanders were growing increasingly contemptuous of civilian authority. They were openly coveting the rich mineral, industrial, and agricultural resources of Manchuria. By the end of the decade, a civil-military showdown was looming on the horizon.

This is a transcript from the video series The Fall and Rise of China. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Japan’s Concern Regarding the Chiang Kai-shek Nationalist Regime

One thing that concerned the Japanese was the Nationalist regime of Chiang Kai-shek. Having vanquished the warlords and driven the Communists deep into the rural hinterland, Chiang appeared to be succeeding in his effort to create a unified national Chinese government. As he consolidated his Nanjing regime, the Japanese began to consider the relative costs and benefits of early versus delayed military action in China. Their conclusion was that the longer they waited, the more difficult it would be to overcome Chinese resistance.

Making things even more problematic for Tokyo’s military planners, Japan’s domestic economy faced serious difficulties in the late 1920s. These included a sharp rise in urban unemployment and a deepening agricultural recession. The U.S. stock market crash of October 1929 further exacerbated these domestic strains by triggering a collapse in the Japanese silk market.

Assassination of Zhang Zuolin

A black and white photo of Zhang Zuolin.
Zhang Zuolin was a Manchurian warlord who was assassinated by the Japanese. (Image: Unknown author/Public domain)

Friction between Tokyo and the Nanjing regime had reached a critical point as early as 1928 when a group of Japanese army officers planted a bomb on a railroad car carrying the Manchurian warlord Zhang Zuolin.

Zhang was Manchuria’s most powerful political and military figure. He had fought against Chiang Kai-shek during the Northern Expedition, and he was one of only a handful of warlords who refused to be co-opted by the Nationalist regime.

Japan’s objectives in assassinating Zhang Zuolin were twofold: the first was their desire to fan the flames of internecine conflict between Zhang’s Manchurian army and Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist forces. The second goal was to create a general atmosphere of military crisis within Japan, a crisis that would discredit the modern civilian government in Tokyo and give imperial hard-liners the excuse they needed to mobilize for war.

Learn more about the barbarians at the gate, 1800–1860.

Tokyo’s Reaction to Zhang Zuolin’s Assassination

The imperialist government in Tokyo, the civilian cabinet, reacted to the assassination of Zhang Zuolin not by giving the army a green light to mobilize for war, but by exerting restraint over Japan’s military forces in China.

However, rather than abandon their ambitions, the militarists made a fateful decision to act preemptively. On the night of September 18, 1931, they detonated a series of bombs on a railroad track outside the city of Mukden (now called Shenyang), in southern Manchuria. In the confusion that followed, Chinese and Japanese troops began shooting at each other.

Though the civilian cabinet in Tokyo urged restraint, Japanese commanders on the ground pressed their military advantage, attacking the Nationalists’ barracks at Mukden and capturing the city itself.

Common Questions about China Under Chiang Kai-shek and the Imminent Japanese Threat

Q: Who is Chiang Kai-shek?

Chiang Kai-shek was the commander-in-chief of the National Revolutionary Army of China and rose to political power in 1928.

Q: What was Shanghai’s status under Chiang Kai-shek’s rule?

Under Chiang Kai-shek, Shanghai was the crown jewel of the Republic of China and had become the playground for the rich and near-rich.

Q: What were Japan’s objectives in assassinating Zhang Zuolin?

Japan’s objectives in assassinating Zhang Zuolin were twofold: create conflict between Zhang’s Manchurian army and Chiang Kai-shek‘s Nationalist forces; and create a general atmosphere of military crisis within Japan.

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