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17 t w o Clearing the Decks: Preparing for War in South China, 1935 to July 1937 Chinese resistance during the Sino-Japanese War (1937–1941) was surprising to many Far Eastern observers, but the Chinese determination to continue was encouraged by third powers that provided military equipment and training. By supplying the Chinese army with large quantities of weapons during the conflict, the USSR used the Chinese to fight a proxy war against the Japanese. Similarly, but less aggressively, Great Britain allowed Hong Kong to be used as a transshipment point for munitions arriving from abroad. Hong Kong thus became a militarily strategic center in East Asia in the war against Japan. This situation was partly a product of the prewar consolidation of power in the hands of the Chinese central government under Generalissimo Chiang Kai Shek, as well as a divergence of British Far Eastern strategic goals between the Foreign Office and the military . In preparation for war, the Chinese central government improved its logistical network in southern China, and the region became a bastion of resistance in order to keep war supplies moving northward in 1937. In 1936 the Chinese greatly enhanced their military capabilities by completing major infrastructure improvements such as the Hankow-Canton railway , which served as the only all-rail link between central and southern China. The completion of this railway also increased the Chinese central government’s authority over Kwangtung, allowing Chiang Kai Shek to control military operations within the province and fight the war in an area of British economic and military interest. This was similar to the strategy he employed at Shanghai in 1937. For its part, the British Foreign Office encouraged Chinese resistance by allowing Hong Kong to be used as the primary Chinese military supply source once the war began. Prior to the outbreak of war, however, diplomatic and economic steps were taken as early as 1935–1936 to stiffen Chinese resolve to challenge Japanese expansion in northern China. In the process, British foreign policy began to exceed the level of support that could be provided by British military forces. The British thus adopted a confrontational diplomatic posture from a position of military weakness, and this eventually led to a Japanese military attack on Hong Kong in 1941. Although Japanese aggression had the greatest impact on upsetting the established order in Asia, British and Chinese geopolitical maneuvering contributed to the outbreak of the SinoJapanese War, as well as to its subsequent escalation into a war of global consequence. The Canvas of War: Geography and Politics in South China One of the most important ways in which the Chinese government prepared for war was by improving transportation networks. In 1934 the total length of rail lines in China amounted to 18,000 kilometers, two-thirds of which were national railways; 2,400 kilometers were private railways, and 3,300 kilometers were foreign owned. Two years later, hard-surfaced highways totaled 43,521 kilometers in length, and there were 65,979 kilometers of dirt roads.1 Most of this fell under Japanese control soon after the start of the war, but the establishment of the Hankow-Canton railway in 1936 was a signal event that gave the Chinese their only all-rail link to the sea through the south. For the first time, central and northern China were directly linked by a rapid transportation system to the south’s most important commercial region at Canton and the British colony of Hong Kong.2 It was an impressive engineering feat, and it proved to be commercially successful partly because it offered travelers some remarkable scenery as the railroad cut through difficult mountainous terrain. An American missionary, R. D. Rees, described it in early January 1937: “The journey is a most picturesque one, especially on the new section over the border between the two provinces. The line runs for hours up a deep gorge, the track being cut out of the side of the gorge and the river running down 18 chapter two below.”3 A trip from Changsha to Canton took approximately thirty-three hours, and passenger trains heading south ran twice a week on Tuesday and Friday nights at 2300 hours.4 The primary significance of the Hankow -Canton railway, however, was that it would become the core military lifeline of the south China front. Southern geographic features presented many construction challenges, which explains why so few road and rail systems had previously been built in this region. The two great...


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