Japanese Influence on Chinese Industrial Development


A review of Where Imperialism Could Not Reach: Chinese Industrial Policy and Japan, 1900-40, by Joyman Lee.

This dissertation examines the influence of Japan in the industrial development of China from the late Qing to the beginning of the Asia-Pacific War. It argues that the engineers of industrialization in China consciously emulated the model of the “information infrastructure” (pp. 30-37) established by the Japanese government in the late Meiji period to guide native industries with technical knowledge and trade opportunities, through the hosting of exhibitions, the creation of commercial museums and the publication of magazines. The model was first adopted by reform-minded Qing officials in the last decades of the empire to develop the rural economy of Zhili Province. It continued to shape Chinese industrial development at both the national and local level throughout the Republican era leading up to the Asia-Pacific War.

The dissertation includes five chapters in addition to the introduction and conclusion. Chapter one argues that the new policies on economic development that the Japanese government adopted during the 1880s provided a model for the late Qing regime to emulate. In response to the budget crisis triggered by the Satsuma Rebellion in 1877, the Meiji state withdrew its protectionist policies and made massive cuts to its direct investment in industrialization. Instead, policy makers, particularly in the Ministry of Agriculture and Commerce, established trade associations and an “information infrastructure” to stimulate economic growth by offering local entrepreneurs information on new technologies and trade opportunities, both domestically and abroad, through the circulation of magazines, the hosting of local trade expositions and the creation of commercial museums nation-wide. The chapter further documents the various efforts made by intellectuals and government officials in the late Qing to transplant this new model from Japan.

Chapter two begins with a discussion of the important role of the Zhili Industrial Crafts Bureau, spearheaded by Zhou Xuexi, in the development of agriculture-based industry in rural northern China in the final decade of the Qing Empire. Mirroring the policies implemented by the Ministry of Agriculture and Commerce in Japan, the Zhili Industrial Crafts Bureau provided technical guidance and trade information to local gentry and entrepreneurs through the hosting of commercial exhibitions, museums, lectures and the establishment of industrial schools, in addition to the granting of financial subsidies and tax exemptions. After the collapse of the Qing Empire, the apparatus of the bureau continued to lead industrial development in rural Zhili under the new Republican regime.

Chapter three illustrates the continuities between the industrial policies of the Beijing and Nanjing governments of Republican China during the interwar period through a discussion of the ideas of four important policymakers and technical specialists. The study shows that the Japanese model of “information infrastructure” worked well in China where state power was weak. Both Chapters two and three also elaborate the complicated role Japan played in Chinese industrial development. For Chinese policy makers, entrepreneurs, and intellectuals, Japan was not only a successful model to emulate, but also a chief competitor. This double role of Japan, the dissertation convincingly points out, explains why the Chinese imitated the Japanese model in labor-intensive industries, such as cotton, where Japanese competition was most severe.

Chapter four analyzes the perspectives of Japanese industrialists, chambers of commerce and economists on the contemporary political and economic changes in China during the interwar years. While information on China was abundant, Japanese business community was only able to view the country as a market, an inferior competitor, or an object of imperial expansion. Because of massive influence of the late Meiji model of “information infrastructure” in China, there were similarities in the native industries of these two countries, as well as opportunities for cooperation. But they failed to realize them.

Chapter five provides an overview of Chinese economic policies during the Nanjing decade. It argues that while the overall strategy for economic development shifted towards interventionism, the influence of the late Meiji model remained. The chapter illustrates both the direct and indirect impact of the Japan model on regional industrial development in northern China and Guangdong.

Through a comprehensive examination of a wide range of primary sources, such as government and institutional archives, magazines, and diaries, in China, Taiwan, and Japan as well as secondary sources in Chinese, Japanese and English, this important study analyzes in depth the histories of industrialization in both China and Japan in the modern era and the intersections between them. Through international and comparative perspectives, it moves our understanding of the industrial histories of China and Japan beyond national boundaries. It also challenges the Euro-centric view of industrialization by highlighting the labor-intensive nature that distinguished both Chinese and Japanese native industries from that of the West. The study highlights the relative weakness of the Japanese economy vis-à-vis the West and the agency of Chinese policy makers and intellectuals in transplanting the Japanese model of industrialization.

It thus offers a new way to understand Sino-Japanese relations from the late nineteenth century to the 1930s, which was previously characterized by the intensification of Japanese political and economic intrusion into China. Positioning the overlap of the industrial development between China and Japan in a global context, this research joins recent scholarship on Latin America in demonstrating the decentralized nature of idea exchanges in the economic development of the modern world. It destabilizes the conventional paradigm that views knowledge as only traveling from the West to the rest. Making important contributions to a variety of fields, this study is significant for scholars in the histories of modern China and Japan, as well as anyone interested in the history of industrialization in general.

Sidney Xu Lu
University of Tennessee at Chattanooga

Primary Sources
Chinese Academy of Social Sciences
First Historical Archives
Guangdong Provincial Archives
Nankai Institute of Economics
Tianjin Municipal Archives

Dissertation Information
Yale University. 2013. 308pp. Primary Advisor: Jonathan D. Spence.

Image: A temple in Zhili (Hebei) province. Photograph by author.

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