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Manchuria, 1931-32

The film Investigation of the Lord Lytton Mission into the Manchurian Incident focuses on two issues: the travels of the Commission and the situation in the first months after the establishment of the puppet state of Manchukuo. The tangled state of affairs was fraught with conflict. Immediately after the Manchurian Incident and about half a year before the beginning of the Commission’s enquiry, military contingents of the Japanese Kwantung Army 関東軍 accused Chinese soldiers of being the initiators of the conflict and attacked the Chinese North Barracks near the point of explosion. Within hours after the attack on the railway, they occupied the city of Mukden and several other strategically important places in the region. The rapid Japanese occupation of Manchuria (the three Chinese Eastern Provinces) and further parts of Northeastern China resulted in the proclamation of the new state Manchukuo 満洲国 in February 1932, which, though formally independent, was practically under Japanese control.

A Political Map of Manchuria (Source: League of Nations (ed.): Appeal by the Chinese Government. Report of the Commission of Enquiry. Appendix, Map No. 2, Geneva: League of Nations, 1932)

The Sino-Japanese conflict erupting in 1931 was the culmination of tensions and diverging interests in a contested region with a highly complex political, economic and social situation. Situated in the northeast of China, Manchuria bordered the Soviet Union, Mongolia and Korea, which had been occupied by Japan since 1910. For centuries Manchuria had maintained close connections to China; the Qing 清 emperors of China’s last dynasty were of Manchu origin. Since the late nineteenth century, the bonds with China had increased considerably on several levels as millions of Han Chinese 汉族 emigrated to Manchuria and formed the majority of its population. At the same time migrants from numerous other countries, among them many Japanese, Koreans and Russians, gave some Manchurian cities such as Harbin (哈尔滨 / ハルピン/ Харбин) the character of cultural melting-pots and established a variety of cultural and trading networks*.

The construction of railroads and the increasing influence of Russia and Japan profoundly changed the three Chinese Eastern Provinces. In 1897 the Russian tsarist government began to build the Chinese Eastern Railway (C.E.R., 東清鐵路/東清鉄道 / Китайско-Восточная железная дорога, КВЖД) to improve their connections with the Russian Far East. The Japanese followed in 1906, after the Russo-Japanese War, by building a southern railway line, of which the state-owned South Manchurian Railway Company (S.M.R, 南満洲鉄道株式会社) was in charge. The juncture between the two lines was Harbin. The new railways initiated an economic boom in the region, which now attracted millions of immigrants to new urban centres. Through their authority in certain Manchurian territories and their creation of infrastructure, the railway companies established and secured permanent foreign influences and control.

A Railway Map of Manchuria (Source: League of Nations (ed.): Appeal by the Chinese Government. Report of the Commission of Enquiry. Appendix, Map No. 3, Geneva: League of Nations, 1932)

While the former Chinese periphery and borderland Manchuria turned into an economically significant region with important coal and metal deposits, Japan’s influence increased in accordance with its imperialist claims, thus reinforcing long-lasting tensions with China. What additionally complicated the situation was that economic connections between the two countries were very close at the time: the majority of Japanese foreign investments were made in China, with a particular concentration in Manchuria (Steiner 2005: 713-715). This already complex political and economic situation was further aggravated by the confusing variety of political, military and so-called "bandit" actors in Manchuria with their shifting relations, alliances and networks of influence and by the continuing unstable political conditions throughout China. In the late 1920s, much of Manchuria was dominated by regional warlords such as Zhang Zuolin 張作霖, Chiang Kai-shek’s major rival in the North East. After his assassination by a Kwantung officer in 1928, his successor Zhang Xueliang declared his cooperation with the Chinese Kuomintang government at Nanjing and tried to reduce the Soviet influence in the region.

At the same time, the state-owned Japanese S.M.R. territory formed the basis of the Japanese Kwantung Army 関東軍 with its task to protect Japanese possessions and enterprises. This territory had originally been leased by Czarist Russia from China but had passed into the hands of the S.M.R. in 1906. The commander in chief of the Kwantung Army possessed an almost autonomous scope of action in his military power as he was subordinate only to the Japanese emperor. Ever since the late 1920s, Kwantung forces had argued against moderate voices and were in favour of an extension of Japanese influence over Manchuria and Mongolia to mitigate Japan’s overpopulation and social problems and the consequences of the world-wide economic depression which had grasped Japan with particular force. Internal Japanese frictions about their China policy continued all the while, including during the later debates at the League of Nations. Regardless of this, the Kwantung army took it upon themselves to aggressively pursue Japanese foreign policy aims abroad. The moment of invading Manchuria was well-chosen: the Soviet Union was not prepared for a large military intervention in the East and Western powers who might have had an interest to intervene, such as the Great Britain and the United States, were struggling with immense economic and financial problems; only two days after the Manchurian Incident, Britain abandoned the gold standard in view of massive capital outflows. In addition, Chiang Kai-shek’s Nanjing government was involved in political contests and had just resumed campaigns against Communists (Steiner 2005: 719-20).

Chart of the Mukden Incident (Source: League of Nations (ed.): Appeal by the Chinese Government. Report of the Commission of Enquiry. Appendix, Map No. 6, Geneva: League of Nations, 1932)

In view of all this, the League of Nations Commission of Enquiry was confronted with a highly complex and intricate situation comprising many entangled levels. “Manchuria simply bristles with difficulties which at present seem insoluble,” the head of the Commission, Lord Lytton, wrote to his wife during his travels. “Conditions are going to be too difficult for the League machinery” (citation from: Nish 1993: 113-114; Steiner 2005: 739).