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TWENTIETH-CENTURY CHINA 81 THE SEARCH FOR OIL IN THE CHINESE NORTHEAST BEFORE 1949: A RESEARCH NOTE RICHARD T. PHILLIPS, UNIVERSITY OF AUCKLAND The discovery and subsequent exploitation of the highly productive Daqing oil field in the Chinese Northeast have been hailed as key examples of the application of selfreliance to the economic development of the People’s Republic of China. The new oil field came on stream in 1960 and over the next twenty-five years produced 792 million tons of crude oil, representing just over half of China’s total production.1 In addition, by the 1980s seven percent of China’s oil was being produced in the Liaohe basin, approximately halfway between Jinzhou and Anshan, with further fields in Jilin by the 1990s, suggesting that initial success at Daqing was not a unique opportunity within the Northeast.2 Nevertheless, from a historian’s point of view, what is intriguing is the failure in earlier decades of the twentieth century to discover viable oil deposits in the same general area.3 The results of this failure were to have profound effects upon the history of Asia and the Pacific, as Japan’s search for secure oil supplies drove it to desperate measures in 1941. In 1938 world oil production had totalled 274 million tons, with the Dutch East Indies as the only significant producer in eastern Asia.4 Total Chinese oil production was estimated at 55,000 tons in 1930, a number which had grown to 270,000 tons by 1938.5 Even a limited exploitation of Daqing’s mineral wealth at that time would have transformed Japan’s sense of isolation with respect to energy supplies. In 1931 Japan had invaded the Chinese Northeast. Japan converted the area into the nominally independent country of Manzhouguo (滿洲國 Manchukuo or, in Japanese, 滿州國 Manshūkoku) in 1932. Within Manzhouguo, the Japanese pursued a vigorous policy of planned economic development,6 but, despite 1 Heilongjiangsheng Difangzhi Editorial Committee, Heilongjiangsheng zhi, Vol. 16, Shiyou gongye zhi (Heilongjiang Province gazetteer: The oil industry gazetteer) (Ha’erbin: Heilongjiang Renmin Chubanshe, 1988), 3. The first commercially viable resource had been struck on 26 September 1959 at between 1357 and 1382 meters deep. Zhang Hong, chief compiler, Daqingshi zhi (Daqing City Gazeteer) (Nanjing: Nanjing chubanshe, 1988), 11. 2 James P. Dorian, Minerals, Energy and Economic Development in China (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), 74, 99-102, 104. 3 The more recent discoveries of extensive oil fields in the Tarim basin in the far west of China and of unseen oil and gas deposits off the China coast are not relevant to the argument being developed here because, even if their existence had been suspected, the exploitation of these resources by Japan would not have been possible in the pre-1945 period, for geographical and technical reasons respectively. For some detail of these resources, see, for example, Zhongguode shiyou gongye (China’s oil industry) (Beijing: Xinxing chubanshe, 1997). 4 A.V.M. Horton, “‘So Rich as to be Almost Indecent’: Some Aspects of Post-War Rehabilitation in Brunei, 1946-1953,” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 58 (1995): 92-3n. 5 Fiona Venn, Oil Diplomacy in the Twentieth Century (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1986), 175. 6 For an older description of this search, see Francis Clifford Jones, Manchuria since 1931 (London: Royal Institute of International Affairs, 1949); for more recent writings, see, for example, Nakagane Katsuji, “Manchukuo and Economic Development,” in The Japanese Informal Empire in November 2006 RICHARD T. PHILLIPS 82 the strong desire to acquire self-sufficiency in oil in the Japanese Empire and clear evidence of extensive oil shale deposits, the search for oil in Manzhouguo was not vigorously prosecuted. This research note seeks to elucidate why this should have been so. Historians are naturally wary of counter-factual questions, since they readily lead off into speculative realms beyond the field of history, but there are varying degrees of counter-factuality. Thus, to ask a large question such as why did China not undergo an Industrial Revolution before the twentieth century is to enter a huge potential debate on social, economic, political and cultural issues, which will also call into question whether the concept...


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