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Monday, Jan. 8, 2001

Revisionists open a front in China

NORTH CHINA AND JAPANESE EXPANSION, 1933-1937: Regional Power and the National Interest, by Marjorie Dryburgh. Richmond, Surrey: Curzon, 2000, 249 pp., 50 pounds (cloth).

China is not only the world's most populous nation, but it is also one of the largest. In territorial reach, Russia and Canada alone outrank China. Furthermore, in the politics of nations, size has consequences. China's vastness ensures that regionalism is a force to be reckoned with in the national life of this Asian giant.

Centralization is the traditional Chinese cure for the perpetual threat posed by regionalism to national unity. In other words, the size and diversity of China's regions offer a formidable challenge to any dynasty, regime or ideology that seeks to govern this huge realm tightly from a single center. The task dominates the nation's entire history.

This centralizing imperative has left its mark even on Chinese literature. The elegant poems written by imperial governors and other mandarins lamenting the trials and tribulations of years of service on China's frontiers are literary monuments to the price of empire.

Between the millennia of imperial government (won, lost and regained) and today's journalistic insistence that regional power is unwinding the coils of Communist Party rule, China paid the price for not paying the price of imperial rule. During the half-century between the Boxer Rebellion and the birth of communist China, regionalism, in one form or another, almost tore China apart.

In this excellent study, as detailed as it is balanced, Marjorie Dryburgh attempts to demystify our understanding of Chinese regionalism while giving it a human face. She has chosen to examine regionalism in North China at the moment of greatest national danger: when the Chinese Republican regime faced the full brunt of Japanese imperialism.

Dryburgh subscribes to the conventional view that "in the China of the 1930s, the quest for national unity and integration dominated domestic politics, and relations with Japan dominated China's foreign affairs." But she goes on to squeeze this generalization by observing that "these two challenges combined to shape the predicament of north China, a region alienated from the center and threatened by further Japanese expansion."

Alienated? Were the local authorities of North China in some crucial sense unconvinced that they had to follow the lead of the central government at Nanjing (the capital was temporally moved to Luoyang in 1932) in the struggle against Japan? Dryburgh's analysis thus challenges both the commonplace notion that all societies unite in the face of an external threat and the view that the Chinese response to Japan's invasion was uniformly resisting and nationalist in spirit.

If, under Japanese pressure, the political dynamics of North China had more in common, for example, with Vichy France than the portrait of Chinese resistance presented in Hollywood wartime propaganda films, then the hour of the Asia-Pacific War revisionist may be upon us. Certainly Dryburgh's conclusions subtly undermine more than 60 years of Western liberal orthodoxy on the subject of the causes and nature of World War II.

This will cause more unease among journalists than among scholars. Having decisively shattered the official Roosevelt administration version of the "truth" behind events that led to Pearl Harbor, as well as the official Truman administration spin on the "facts" about the atomic destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Western academic revisionists are gradually turning their guns on other chapters of the WWII story where a complacent consensus, both moral and empirical, still prevails.

In the Asia-Pacific struggle, two major topics are vulnerable to radical reassessment. One is the largely uncontested Allied interpretation of the military struggle between Pearl Harbor and the Battle of Okinawa ("The Good War"). The other is the conflict between Republican China and Imperial Japan.

Drawing on an impressively wide range of Chinese- and Japanese-language archival material, Dryburgh piles up evidence that challenges the hoary and unlikely assumption that the Sino-Japanese struggle was just one more episode in the seamless Allied struggle against fascism. Only this conclusion allows us to be faithful to the facts of the Chinese experience of regionalism during the 1930s.

She concludes, "It is a truism that the Chinese nation was forged under the pressure of Japanese aggression, and that the external pressure forced it to unite against a common foe or face destruction. Yet external pressure can divide as well as unite, and nowhere was this divisive tendency more practically damaging than in the north."

In making her case, she highlights the importance of the so-called "demilitarized areas" between Beijing and Japanese-occupied Manchuria. These zones served as a kind of buffer between the two sides during the crucial period between the consolidation of Japanese power in Manchuria and the outbreak of full-scale war between China and Japan after the Marco Polo Bridge Incident in September 1937.

Something far more than a "phony war" but far less than full-scale strife prevailed in and around these zones until the autumn of 1937. This twilight contest set the political agents of the Japanese armed forces against Chinese provincial governors and field commanders, most notably Song Zheyuan, "commander of the 29th [Chinese] Army, and successively provincial governor of Chaha'er and Chairman of the Hebei-Chaha'er Political Council."

Setting aside some of the claims of Chinese patriotic dogma on the subject, Dryburgh deeply probes the dilemmas that Song faced as a result of the Japanese political pressure (rather than military violence) that encouraged and exploited "conflicts of interest between the central government and local administrators."

The goal was "to reframe regional priorities, aspirations and loyalties to Japanese advantage" and, to a larger degree than the liberal "Allies vs. Axis" orthodoxy allows, the agents of the Kanto Army and the North China Garrison succeeded. Constant and sometimes effective pressure was placed on provincial loyalty to the policies and ideology of the Nanjing government. More revealing still, the renewal of Japan's military offensive in 1937 forced Nanjing to adopt the "suspect" strategies of negotiation and concessions that Song and his provincial colleagues had used to salvage the crumbling remnants of Chinese autonomy, more regional than national, in the face of superior Japanese arms.

In all of this, Dryburgh grinds no political axes. She is not attempting to bolster the new, suspect forms of Japanese prowar revisionism. Nor does her research affirm the subtle strategy of Hideki Tojo, Japan's premier during most of the Pacific War, who appeared to believe that if he observed strict silence (once he had resigned) on his wartime conduct, his critics would eventually endorse his interpretation of events out of boredom with their own.

No, Dryburgh is asking us to look at the hitherto largely ignored facts of the case. The results may be uncomfortable for anyone who still subscribes to the old orthodoxies. But, after more than 60 years, this, too, can be liberating.

David Williams, author of "Japan and the Enemies of Open Political Science," is currently writing a book on Japanese attitudes toward the attack on Pearl Harbor.

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