|Part of Second Sino-Japanese War|
|United Kingdom||Empire of Japan|
The Tientsin incident (天津事件?) was an international incident created by a blockade by the Imperial Japanese Army's Japanese Northern China Area Army of the British settlements in the north China treaty port of Tientsin (modern day Tianjin) in June 1939. Originating as a minor administrative dispute, it escalated into a major diplomatic incident.
Starting in 1931 with the seizure of Manchuria, Japan had a policy of attempting to reduce Chinese independence with the ultimate aim of placing all of China within the Japanese sphere of influence. Britain's relations with China had not been particularly warm or close before the mid-1930s, but the rise of Japan had improved relations between London and Nanking. The British historian Victor Rothwell wrote: "In the middle 1930s, if China had a Western friend it was Britain. In 1935-36 Britain gave China real help with its finances and showed real concern about Japanese encroachments in north China. Realising that the only hope of inducing Japan to moderate these activities lay in an Anglo-American joint front, Britain proposed that a number of times, but was always rebuffed by Washington." In turn, improved Anglo-Japanese ties had strained relations between London and Tokyo.
On July 30, 1937, Tientsin fell to the Empire of Japan as part of a military operation in the Second Sino-Japanese War, but was not entirely occupied, as the Japanese for the most part continued to respect the integrity and extraterritoriality foreign concessions in Tientsin until 1941. In December 1937, Japanese took Shanghai, China's business capital. This was a major blow to the government of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek as 85% of all Chinese government revenue came from Shanghai. After the loss of Shanghai, the economic ability of China to continue to resist Japan was very much in doubt. Flush with a series of Japanese victories in China, in early January 1938, the Japanese Prime Minister Prince Fumimaro Konoe announced a set of sweeping "non-negotiable" war aims that would have transformed China into a virtual protectorate of Japan's if implemented. Since the beginning of the war in July 1937, the Japanese had taken much of northern China including the former capital of Beijing while in the Yangtze valley, they had taken Shanghai and China's capital, Nanking. After taking Nanking on 14 December 1937, the Japanese had perpetrated the infamous Rape of Nanking, where the Imperial Army had gone on a rampage of arson, looting, torture, rape and murder that destroyed Nanking and killed somewhere between 200, 000-300, 000 civilians. After these victories, Konoe regarded the war as good as won. Ominously for the Chinese, Konoe spoke of the status of Manchukuo as the ideal basis for a Sino-Japanese peace. Sometimes Konoe went even further and mentioned the protectorate that the Japanese had imposed on Korea in 1905 (which had been followed up by Korea's annexation in 1910) as an ideal basis for peace. Whether Manchukuo or Korea was the model of new relationship with Japan, Konoe was quite open that the Chinese would have to accept a subordinate position to Japan if the war were ever to end to Japan's satisfaction. Konoe's terms for making peace were so extreme and harsh that even the Japanese military objected to them on the grounds that Chiang would never accept peace on such humiliating terms. The German Foreign Minister, Baron Konstantin von Neurath-who was attempting to mediate a compromise peace between China and Japan as the Reich, which had friendly relations with Japan and China did not wish to choose between the two-complained upon seeing Konoe's peace terms that these were so intentionally outrageous and humiliating demands that they seemed to be designed only to inspire rejection on Chiang's part. Konoe's main demands were that China recognise Manchukuo, sign the Anti-Comintern Pact, allow Japanese officers to command the Chinese National Revolutionary Army, allow Japanese troops to remain indefinitely in all the areas of China they had occupied, and pay reparations to Japan. In regards to the latter, China was not only to pay the entire costs of the war run up by Japan, but also a punitive amount so that the Chinese people might reflect on the folly of seeking to challenge the might of Japan.
Konoe had deliberately chosen extreme war aims in order to sabotage any effort at a diplomatic compromise and thereby ensure that the war could end with Japan winning a total victory over China with the destruction of Chiang's government. Because of Konoe's speech, for Japan to achieve anything less than his "non-negotiable" war aims would seem like a defeat. As Chiang immediately in a speech of his own rejected Konoe's war aims as the basis for making peace, Japan would had to win a decisive victory in China to see the Konoe programme implemented, which was Konoe's intention all the long. On 16 January 1938, Konoe gave a speech announcing once more his "unalterable" commitment to achieving his programme, and further announced that since Chiang had rejected his peace terms, the Japanese government was now committed to the destruction of Chiang's government. On 18 January 1938 Konoe made another speech in which he frankly admitted to seeking unacceptable peace terms so that Japan might achieve his real goal of seeking to "eradicate" Chiang's government off the face of the earth. Japan would never make peace with a China led by Chiang, which meant a compromise peace was now impossible, and Japan would have to win a total victory over China. As the Chinese government retreated deep into the interior of China, this posed major logistical problems for the Japanese Army, who simply could not project the sort of power into the interior of China to win the "total victory" that Konoe programme required. The Japanese Army, which understood the logistical problems of attempting to conquer such a vast country as China far better than Konoe ever did, had objected to the Konoe programme for precisely that reason; it committed Japan to winning a total victory over China that Japan did not have the power to achieve while at the same time making anything less than the achievement of the Konoe programme seem like a defeat for Japan. In July 1938, Japan launched an offensive intended to capture Wuhan, and finally win the war. The summer offensive of 1938 succeeded in taking Wuhan, but the Japanese failed to destroy the core of the Chinese National Revolutionary Army, who retreated further up the Yangtze. After the Wuhan offensive, the Imperial Army informed Tokyo that the troops in the central Yangtze valley were at the end of a long, tenuous and very overstretched supply line, and no further advances up the Yangtze were at present possible. Unable to win the final victory on the battlefield, the Japanese turned to bombing as an alternative, launching an all-out bombing campaign intended to raze the temporary capital of Chongqing to the ground. Japanese bombing destroyed Chongqing while killing hundreds of thousands of civilians, but failed to break the Chinese will to resist. Another alternative Japanese approach to victory in China was the establishment in November 1938 of a puppet government under Wang Jingwei, the leader of the Kuomintang's left-wing who had lost out to Chiang in the succession struggle following the death of Dr. Sun Yat-sen out of the hope this would lead to an exodus of Kuomintang leaders to Wang's government and thereby cause the collapse of Chiang's government. However, the refusal of the Japanese to give Wang any real power discredited his government as a puppet regime in the eyes of the vast majority of the Chinese people.
At the same, time, Dai Li, the much feared chief of the Chinese secret police had began a policy of sending undercover operatives into the areas of China occupied by the Japanese to assassinate collaborators and Japanese officials. Sometimes working closely with Triad gangsters (Dai was a close friend and business partner of the crime lord Du Yuesheng aka "Big Eared Du", the leader of the Green Gang triad), Dai's men were responsible for hundreds of assassinations during the Sino-Japanese war. Between August 1937-October 1941, Juntong agents were responsible for about 150 assassinations of Chinese collaborators plus 40 Japanese officers in Shanghai alone (Chinese collaborators who lived amongst the Chinese population were much easier to kill than Japanese officers who tended to stick to their barracks). Undercover Juntong agents tended to be young men who graduated from provincial schools rather than universities (the ultra-conservative Dai was contemptuous of intellectuals whom he felt were exposed to too much Western influence for their own good) and were usually skilled in martial arts; above, Juntong agents were expected to be unconditionally loyal and willing to die for the cause at all times.
With the war stalemated and Japan unable to win a decisive victory in China, Tokyo increasingly placed its hopes for victory on the economic disintegration of Chiang's government. This was not an unreasonable hope, given that the western regions in the upper Yangtze river valley around Chongqing were one of the most poorest and backward regions in China, and thus incapable of providing the necessary economic base for sustaining the huge costs needed to fight a modern war. Furthermore, Japanese atrocities, most infamously the Rape of Nanking in December 1937 had sent 12 million Chinese civilians fleeing up the Yangtze river valley in the largest movement of refugees yet seen in world history to escape the Japanese. All of these people required shelter, food and often medical treatment. By 1938, the Chinese government was caught in a "scissors crisis" between the enormous expenditure required to fight the war, and a rapidly plummeting tax base. Between 1937-39, Chinese government spending rose by a third while tax revenue fell by two thirds. Faced with a lack of funds to continue the war, Chiang started to engage in increasing desperate measures to raise revenue such as organising sales of opium via Hong Kong and Macau in an operation overseen by Dai and Du. That the Kuomintang government was prepared to run the risk that the opium shipments via Macau and Hong Kong be intercepted by the either Policia de Segurança Pública de Macau or Hong Kong police-thereby running the risk of a public relations disaster-reflected the need for money. The Chinese Finance Minister H. H. Kung simply printed more and more money, leading a spiral of hyper-inflation, leading to the worse case of hyper-inflation yet seen in the world. The inflation seriously undermined the Chinese war effort as Chinese soldiers and civil servants were paid in worthless yuan. It was at this point that Britain made a series of loans to China intended to stabilize the yuan.
The British government subscribed to what one might call a 1930s version of the "domino theory", where if Japan took control of China, then inevitably Japan would follow that up with attacking Britain's Asian colonies and the Dominions of Australia and New Zealand. As such, the Chamberlain government while unwilling to go to war with Japan, was not prepared to accept a Japanese victory over China either. From the viewpoint of London, it was much preferable that Japan remain embroiled in China rather attacking Australia, New Zealand or any of the British possessions in the Far East. The British Ambassador in China, Sir Archibald Clark-Kerr reported to London that unless Britain gave China loans to continue the war, then the economic collapse of Nationalist China that the Japanese were banking on might very well occur. Starting in late 1938, Britain made a series of loans to China, to allow Chiang to continue the war. By 1939, the Chinese government had received loans worth £500, 000 pound sterling from Britain, which provided Chiang with some badly needed money to continue the war. Furthermore, starting in March 1939 the British government began to an effort to stabilize the yuan by offering government guarantees to British banks who made loans to Kuomintang China and who took in Chinese silver as collateral. Thanks to the guarantees, British banks lent China some £5 million, a step which the Japanese government publicly denounced as a "frontal attack" on the "New Order" in Asia that the Imperial government was attempting to build. The British loans to China greatly offended the Japanese, who believed if only the British would cease their financial support of China, they would finally win the war. In Japanese eyes, it was the British effort to stabilize China's currency and thereby preventing the complete economic collapse of China was the only thing standing between them and the total victory required by the Konoe programme. Since the loans to China were guaranteed by the British government, the Chinese silver as collateral was not strictly necessary from economic point of view, but it was felt from a public relations point of view that it was necessary for the Chinese to put up collateral as the British people might otherwise disapprove of their government guaranteeing loans to a country with chaotic finances like China. At the same, both the United States and the Soviet Union also made loans to the Kuomintang government, again with the aim of keeping Japan embroiled in China. The Americans lent China some $45 million starting in December 1938 while the Soviet Union lent a sum of rubles equivalent to $250 million US. In order to persuade the Soviets not to supporting China, the Japanese began a border war with the Soviet Union in 1938-1939 that was to end with the Japanese being badly defeated by the Red Army at the battle of Nomonhan in August 1939.
The Assassination of Cheng Hsi-keng
In the summer of 1939, a major crisis in Anglo-Japanese relations occurred with the Tientsin Incident. On April 9, 1939 Cheng Hsi-keng, the manager of the Japanese-owned Federal Reserve Bank of North China was assassinated by Chinese nationalists at Tientsin's Grand Theatre. The bomb attack that killed Cheng also killed several innocent bystanders who had the misfortune to be sitting close to him in the theatre. The Japanese accused six Chinese men living in the British concession of being involved in the assassination. The local British police force arrested four of the six, and handed them over to the Japanese with promises that they would not be tortured and would be returned to British custody within the next five days. Under torture, two of the four confessed to being involved in the assassination. Although the confessions were obtained by torture, the local British police concluded that the accused were involved in the assassination. Once the four men returned to British custody, Madame Soong Mei-ling, the wife of Chiang Kai-shek admitted to the British Ambassador in Chongqing, Sir Archibald Clark-Kerr that the accused assassins were Chinese operatives involved in resistance work, and lobbied Clark-Kerr to prevent the accused being returned and executed by the Japanese. The local British consul, Mr. Jamieson, had not kept London well-informed on the details of the case, especially the fact that he had promised the Japanese that he would hand over the accused assassins. The British Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax, hearing that the confessions had been obtained by torture, ordered that the accused assassins should not be handed back to the Japanese. The commander of the Japanese North China Army, General Masaharu Homma, was regarded as friendly by the British, but his Chief of Staff, General Tomoyuki Yamashita, was known to be a believer in abolishing all the Western concessions in China. Since early 1939, General Yamashita had advocated ending the British concession in Tientsin, and he used the British refusal to turn over the alleged assassins to convince his superiors in Tokyo to order a blockade of the concession.
On June 14, 1939, Imperial Japanese Army forces of the Japanese Northern China Area Army surrounded and blockaded the foreign concessions over the refusal of the British authorities to hand over four Chinese who had assassinated a Japanese collaborator, and had taken refuge within the British concession. Anyone wishing to leave or enter the concession was publicly strip-searched by Japanese soldiers while food and fuel were not permitted to enter the concession. To cut the concession off, the Japanese Army built an electrified wire fence around it. The Japanese government declared the issue of the accused killers was not the point of the blockade, and that handing over the four would not end the blockade. A Japanese spokesmen stated: "The arrow is already off the bow and therefore the question cannot be settled by the mere transfer of the four suspect assassins". The Japanese demanded that the British government turn over all silver reserves belonging to the Chinese government within British banks to them, forbade all anti-Japanese radio broadcasts from anywhere in the British Empire, ban school textbooks that the Japanese government considered offensive, and ended the issuing of fapi currency. The real aim of the Japanese was not the handing over of the assassins, but rather the end of British financial support of China.
For a time, it appeared likely that the situation would precipitate an Anglo-Japanese war, especially when inflammatory reports of insulting treatment by the Japanese of British subjects attempting to enter or leave the concession appeared in the British press. British public opinion was especially offended by reports of British women forced to strip in public at bayonet-point by Japanese soldiers, which led to a flood of "Yellow Peril" stereotypes being widely invoked in the British media. British Admiral of the Fleet Sir Roger Keyes considered the situation to be tantamount to a declaration of war. At the time, Tientsin had a population of approximately 1500 British subjects (half of whom were soldiers), and was a major centre for British trade in northern China. The British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain considered the crisis to be so important that he ordered the Royal Navy to give greater attention to a possible war with Japan than to a war with Germany. Within Japan, the media, the Army and various right-wing groups waged a violent anti-British propaganda campaign in the summer of 1939. Much to the pleasure of the Japanese right-wing, the Home Minister Kōichi Kido did nothing to restrain them in their anti-British media offensive.
On June 26, 1939 the Royal Navy and the Foreign Office reported to the British Cabinet that the only way of ending the blockade was to send the main British battle fleet to Far Eastern waters, and that given the current crisis vis-a-vis Nazi Germany threatening Poland, this was militarily unadvisable. If the bulk of the Royal Navy was sent to Singapore, Britain would not be able to impose a blockade on Germany should the Reich invade Poland, and as such one of Britain's main deterrents against Adolf Hitler invading Poland would be removed, something that could only encourage Hitler to choose war. In addition, Chamberlain faced strong pressure from the French not to weaken British naval strength in the Mediterranean, given the danger that Benito Mussolini might honor the Pact of Steel should war break out in Europe. The French Premier Édouard Daladier made it very clear to London that he would much prefer to see the British Mediterranean fleet stay in the Mediterranean rather than being sent to Singapore, and that Britain could expect no support from France in the crisis with Japan. Following an unsuccessful effort to obtain a promise of American support (who told the British that the United States would not risk war with Japan for purely British interests), Chamberlain ordered Sir Robert Craigie, the British Ambassador in Tokyo, to find any way of ending the crisis without too much loss to British prestige.
During the course of negotiations with the Japanese, Craigie took advantage of divisions within the Japanese leadership, especially between the Prime Minister, Baron Hiranuma Kiichirō who wished for a greater degree of control over the military and the military itself, which wanted less civilian control. In addition, there were divisions within the Japanese government between one faction that wanted to use the crisis to start a war with Britain, and another that argued that, given the war with China plus the border war with the Soviet Union, starting a third war at this time was unwise. At the same time, the British applied economic pressure on the Japanese by raising their tariffs on Japanese goods. Though Craigie knew that the dispatch of the British battle fleet had been ruled out, he often implied during his talks with the Japanese that Britain would go to war to end the blockade. Through his policy of bluff, plus divided counsel within different factions within the Japanese government (which Craigie exploited), Craigie was able to persuade the Japanese to back down from their more extreme demands – such as the demand to turn over the Chinese silver in British banks – while agreeing to submit to the Japanese demand to hand over the Chinese suspects. The decisive pressure for a compromise solution on the Japanese side came from the Shōwa Emperor who made it clear that he was displeased with the prospect of a war with Britain while the war with China was still unresolved and Japan on the brink of an all-out war with the Soviet Union. Additionally, the Shōwa Emperor felt a war with Britain would push Japan too much into the embrace of Germany to the latter's advantage. Since the Emperor was worshipped as a living god by the Japanese people, the knowledge of his unhappiness about the Tientsin crisis was a powerful force for a peaceful resolution of the crisis within the halls of power in Japan.
Craigie and the Japanese foreign minister, Hachirō Arita, agreed on a two-paragraph "formula" to form the basis of a settlement. Britain recognised that there was a state of war in China, which necessitated certain Japanese actions, and promised not work against Japan's taking these actions. On August 20, 1939 the British thus chose to turn over the four Chinese fugitives to end the standoff; the Chinese were later executed by the Japanese via public beheadings.
The Tientsin Incident highlighted the gap between the foreign policy of Japan's civilian government, as expressed through Japanese ambassador to the Court of St. James, Mamoru Shigemitsu, who attempted to defuse the situation through negotiation, and the Japanese Army under the War Minister, General Hajime Sugiyama, who was escalating the situation through demands for an end to the foreign concessions in Tientsin altogether. The British historian D.C. Watt argued that the partial diplomatic victory by the Japanese helped to keep Japan neutral during the first year of World War II. It also highlighted the weakness of the United Kingdom's position in Asia, both militarily, and diplomatically with its failure to enlist the United States to take a stronger position in its support. The Japanese did succeed in forcing the British to turn over the four Chinese suspects, but failed in to achieve their main aim of forcing Britain to end its economic support of China. By October 1940, the British government had provided loans to China to the value of £10 million. This figure does not include the loans made to China by British banks. The loans from Britain together with loans from the United States which by the fall of 1940 had provided China with $245 million in loans allowed Nationalist China a modicum of economic stability and allowed the Chinese to continue the war. More importantly, the Tientsin incident marked the beginning of a pattern where Japan would seek a confrontation with the Western powers backing the Chinese in order to force them to abandon their support of Chiang, a practice that would ultimately end with Japan going to war with the United States and the British Empire in December 1941.
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