The Nanjing Decade

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The Nanjing decade saw significant modernisation in cities like Shanghai

The Nanjing Decade refers to a period of relatively stable government in China between 1928 and 1937. During this time China was reunified, at least in name, and most of the nation was governed by Jiang Jieshi and the Guomindang. Jiang’s government attempted to construct and consolidate a second Chinese republic, with a more durable political system and policies to facilitate national development. But the Nationalist government faced several challenges, some of them exceedingly difficult. The first years of its rule were marred by continued internecine violence, as Jiang struggled to subdue hostile warlords. Attempts to create a modern state were hindered by the government’s continued lack of authority and control in many parts of China. Because of this, Jiang’s program of state-building, political tutelage and economic reform achieved only patchy results, while both the government and the Guomindang became increasingly militaristic. To outsiders in the West, the dapper and well-spoken Jiang Jieshi and his party seemed to embody the new China: civilised, progressive and willing to embrace modern political and economic values. But beneath the facade and outside the Guomindang-controlled cities, there was only limited change.

Though the National Revolutionary Army is often credited with unifying China in 1928, this unity was relative rather than absolute. The Northern Expedition was hailed by Guomindang propaganda as an unmitigated success. In some regions, however, the government’s influence ranged from patchy to almost non-existent. In the northern provinces, the Nationalist government relied on alliances Jiang had forged with warlords like Feng Yuxiang (Zhili) and Zhang Xueliang (Manchuria). But within a year Feng, Zhang and other warlords were bickering with Jiang over issues of political control and military organisation. By early 1930 several warlords had formed a clique that demanded Jiang’s resignation as president of China. In May 1930 these tensions led to the outbreak of the Central Plains War. Jiang’s 600,000-strong Nationalist army, equipped with Western-supplied aircraft and artillery, marched into central and northern China. Outnumbered and outgunned, the warlord coalition was defeated in less than six months. The Central Plains War was a victory for Jiang but it took a toll on his government, draining it of money and resources. It also distracted Jiang from taking more decisive action against the communist Soviet taking shape in Jiangxi. The Central Plains War exposed the fragility of Chinese unification and Guomindang authority. Another side effect of Jiang’s victory was that warlord armies in Manchuria were weakened or dispersed, removing an obstacle to Japanese infiltration and invasion there during the mid-1930s.

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Jiang Jieshi’s militarism was an important factor in the Nanjing decade

China’s political development under the Guomindang was to follow a model outlined by Sun Yixian in the early 1920s. According to Sun, the new republic would transition through three distinct stages. In the first stage, republican government would require several years of military rule to suppress warlordism, consolidate national unity and strengthen authority. The second phase, called political tutelage, would be a period of one-party rule under the Guomindang. During this period the party would govern autocratically while educating and preparing the people for participation in democratic elections and self-government. Sun believed the program of political tutelage would take approximately six years to complete, after which China would become a constitutional democracy, its third and final stage.

The Guomindang announced the formal commencement of political tutelage in 1929, however, this program was never fully completed. Continued opposition from hostile warlords, from communists and later from the Japanese prolonged military rule into the late 1930s. Both the Guomindang party structure and the government itself became increasingly militarised, a culture shift not helped by Jiang Jieshi’s own fascination with militarism and fascism. In 1934 the Guomindang government introduced censorship of the press, books and films; at least two newspaper editors were murdered for criticising Jiang’s government. Under the auspices of political tutelage, the Nationalists frequently trammelled on freedom of expression and other civil liberties. Guomindang ideologues tried to justify this by arguing that Chinese history, unlike the West, had no precedent or tradition of human rights. The rights of individuals, they claimed, were subordinate to the development of the nation.

The Nanjing Decade was also marked by attempts to facilitate economic development and modernisation. The Nationalists introduced policies to stimulate economic growth, industrialisation and private investment. In most cases, however, the government lacked the resources, authority and political will to achieve signification economic reforms. Some more successful changes included the formation of a reserve bank, the Central Bank of China, established in 1928. The government also moved to standardise currency values by issuing a national currency, based on paper banknotes rather than silver coins. In some regions, the government spent heavily on infrastructure, including highways, railways, public buildings, electrification, sewers, water storages and conduits and street lighting. But Nanjing’s refusal to impose a Western-style taxation system and levy corporate or income taxes meant it was chronically short of cash. By the mid-1930s, government revenue was barely three per cent of the gross national product – and a good portion of this revenue was derived from duties on opium sales. Approximately 47 per cent of revenue collected by the Guomindang was used to fund and supply the military, purchase foreign weapons or pay off warlord allies. In contrast, less than five per cent was spent on education programs and almost nothing on social welfare. Corruption was rife in all levels of the Nanjing government and its bureaucracy. There were thousands of accounts of bribery, extortion and ‘skimming’.

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Jiang Jieshi and his wife Soong May-ling, sponsors of the New Life Movement

Jiang Jieshi attempted to support his political, military and economic policies by manipulating social and cultural attitudes. In early 1934 Jiang, supported by his wife Soong Mei-Ling, initiated Xinshenghuo Yundong, or the New Life Movement. He called for the “social regeneration” of the nation to combat the “twin evils” of communism and corruption. The new republic would flourish, said Jiang, if its citizens adhered to conservative values that emphasised individual morality, responsibility, propriety, righteousness and honesty. In essence, the New Life Movement was an attempt to revive traditional Confucian values and give them some legitimacy in a modern context. It also reflected Jiang’s interest in European fascism and militarism (some later dubbed it ‘Confucian fascism’). Like European fascism, the New Life Movement sought to reinforce Jiang’s authority by fostering loyalty and obedience to a single leader. During 1934-35 the New Life Movement was integrated into government policy and propaganda. The Guomindang pushed the movement and its values extensively in printed material, public rallies and parades and changes to school curricula. But despite this government backing, the New Life Movement failed to gain widespread public support. Within government-controlled regions many recognised the New Life Movement for what it was; outside these regions, it was mostly ignored.

“During the Nanjing Decade, building a modern state seemed impossible, as the government was trapped in practices that had characterised the warlord years and, before that, the imperial government. Militarism and its control over finances were hard to overcome. At the same time, the relationship between state and private economy appeared to be following patterns developed in the late Qing Self-Strengthening period, when reforms had been implemented by informal networks of officials and private entrepreneurs.”
Margherita Zanasi, historian

Another enduring problem during the Nanjing Decade was the revival of the opium trade. During the Warlord Era the weak Beiyang government declared a token ban on the narcotic, however, opium was far too lucrative for powerful warlords to ignore, so its manufacture and trade flourished. By the mid-1920s, China was the world’s largest source of opium, producing more than 80 per cent of the world’s supply. Both Sun Yixian and Jiang Jieshi condemned the opium trade, describing it as a national economic addiction on top of a social-physiological addition. The Nationalist government backed anti-opium movements and rallies and in 1929 launched the Six-Year Opium Suppression Campaign. Jiang later became head of this campaign, while his New Life Movement also preached against opium use.

But while Jiang and the Nationalists were free with their condemnations of opium, behind the scenes many Nationalists encouraged, supported and benefited from the opium trade. Nanjing itself was too addicted to opium-derived revenue. Unofficial estimates suggest the opium trade yielded as much as $US100 million in government income each year. The Nationalist government did conduct numerous raids and crackdowns on opium farming and selling – but most of these campaigns targeted opium growers and traders operating outside government control. In other words, they were carried out to eliminate opposition and enforce a state monopoly on the opium trade, not to halt it altogether. During the Nanjing Decade, widespread opium production continued in the remote south-western provinces of Sichuan, Guizhou and Yunnan, with some high growth pockets in Manchuria, Fujian, Shaanxi and western Hunan.

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1. The Nanjing Decade describes a period of relative unity and government stability, under Jiang Jieshi and the Guomindang, between 1928 and 1937.

2. After the success of the Northern Expedition, Jiang’s military campaign to reunify China, Jiang and the Nationalists established a national government with a capital in Nanjing.

3. In line with the writings of Sun Yixian, the Nanjing Decade was considered a period of transition, beginning with military dictatorship followed by a period of political tutelage.

4. The Nationalist government attempted reforms to facilitate industrial growth and economic modernisation. These were only partly successful.

5. The Nanjing government was hindered by a lack of government authority across China, resource shortages and internal problems such as widespread corruption and opium trading.

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