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The ‘Nanjing Decade’: China Under Jiang Jieshi, 1927-1937

Overview: The unification of China after a long period of political, economic and social turmoil and disintegration was Nationalist leader Jiang Jieshi (Chiang Kai-Shek)’s primary aim. This era is known as the ‘Nanjing Decade’ because of the choice by Jiang’s Guomindang (Kuomintang) government to move the Chinese capital from the northern city of Beijing to Nanjing in the south. The period of national unification under Jiang’s government was brought to a sudden end in 1937 when the Japanese transformed the whole political situation in China by invading the country from their ‘puppet’ state in Manchukuo (Manchuria).

The Northern Expedition and the Establishment of the Nationalist Regime: Jiang launched the Northern Expedition for the unification of China in 1926. This military expedition against the local warlords who ruled most of China began in the Guomindang’s power base in Guandong Province (in the south) and pushed into central China in early 1927. The next year Jiang advanced to north China, carefully and somewhat inconveniently avoiding Japanese troops who had been stationed at the railway junction at Jinan. In June his forces took Beijing, and later that year the major Manchurian warlord pledged allegiance to the government in Nanjing, thus bringing about the formal unification of the country after a long period of warlord rule.

Chiang Kai-shek [wikipedia.org]

In terms of the foreign impact, before his regime assumed national power Jiang had adopted a rather crude anti-imperialism, attributing almost all China’s ills to the influence of foreigners. In fact, however, his regime had insufficient national strength to take any significant actions based on that rhetoric and the Nationalists switched to a softer policy towards the West.

Limited Unification: Although in formal terms Jiang had accomplished unification by the end of 1928, in fact he only really controlled the provinces of the Lower Yangzi River, from which he had to draw nearly all his revenue. Other areas like Manchuria and North China remained under the control of warlords. In addition, much of the South was ruled by the one of the country’s most powerful warlord cliques, the so-called Guangxi clique. Although by the mid-1930s Jiang was able to extend his control into new areas, that control always remained partial and incomplete. And he never fully succeeded in overcoming what he saw as the main obstacle to unification, the Communist armies (see below).

In one key respect Jiang admitted the shallowness of his control. That is, his government made over to the provincial governments and warlords the right to collect and use the land tax. Traditionally the largest source of revenue for the Chinese government, income from the land was therefore denied to the central government, forcing it back on reliance on income from the modern sector — thus crucially limiting its options in developing that sector.

Kangde Emporer of Manchukuo [wikipedia.org]

The Communist Challenge: One of Jiang’s principal and most expensive challenges during the ‘Nanjing Decade’ was the opposition mounted by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). After he annihilated their urban bases in 1927 the Communists retreated to the countryside and began to establish Soviets in a number of areas, especially in the south; Mao’s Jiangxi Soviet was the most important and best known of these, but it was far from the only one. Confronted by the shocking and painful hardships of Chinese peasants under the traditional patriarchal socio-economic structure, hardships that were aggravated by the effects of the World Depression of the 1930s, the Communists learned to profit from the failure of the Nationalists to tackle the issue of acute injustice and inequality in the countryside. Jiang saw the Communists as the main challenge to his authority, and flung five ‘Encirclement Campaigns’ using up to a million soldiers, against the Jiangxi Soviet, eventually forcing the Communists to retreat on the famous Long March. Throughout the Long March they were harried by Jiang’s forces, who were by no means blind to the opportunity this gave their leader to extend his authority into new areas of south and west China. In 1936, Jiang was preparing to make a final assault on the main Communist base, now in the north-west, when he was kidnapped by his own troops and forced to agree to co-operate with the Communists against the increasingly hostile Japanese. Jiang’s policy was very clearly and explicitly ‘first to pacify internal enemies, and only then to resist foreign aggression’. Thus he put the defeat of the Communists ahead of resistance to Japan. But the majority of politically aware Chinese saw things differently and believed that the main enemy was Japan. Popular opinion became a more difficult problem for Jiang after the Japanese occupied Manchuria in 1931 and attacked Shanghai in 1932. Even though the Japanese withdrew from Shanghai under foreign pressure, they retained Manchuria, turning it into a puppet state under the old Qing Dynasty Emperor Puyi, and over the next years gradually pushed their military and political influence into north China. Possibly partly as a result of Jiang’s pact with the Communists against Japan, in July 1937 the Japanese army in Manchuria launched what was to become a full-scale attack on China and the real beginning of the Second World War.

Philip Charrier, Department of History
March 2010

Last Revision: 2011-Feb-16