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The Making of a Contested Territory
What defines a place?
The Xing An (Jp. Shing An) land reclamation zone was a stretch of not particularly promising nor clearly delineated land in northeast China. Why were the different parties interested in Xing An?
The Trans-Siberian railroad had connected Moscow to Vladivostok in 1916. Soviet influence in the region remained strong even after the Russian empire ceded South Manchuria Railroad and informal control over the region to the Japanese as part of the settlement of the Russo-Japanese War (1904-5). From 1905, Japanese influence steadily increased its presence in the Northeast. A Manchuria-based army, the Kwantung Army, stationed in the region ostensibly to protect Japanese interests and the railroad from bandits, took action to expand Japanese territory even further. In June 1928, officers in the Kwantung Army conspired to assassinate the Manchurian warlord, Zhang Zuolin, who had attempted a dangerous game of playing Soviet and Japanese interests against one another, using one as leverage for demands for more weapons and aide from the other. An already tense political situation threatened to further spin out of control after Zhang’s assassination, which the Japanese had initially attempted to pass off as the work of Chinese bandits. That very fall, three units of men headed to Xing An to begin building a settlement.
For the Chinese military officer Zou Zuohua, the land signified a stance of resistance against foreign encroachment. Click on Zou's name to find out more about Zou and the other military officers involved in the Xing An settlement. Or continue on this path below.
The following is an except of a speech Zou gave to men under his command in November 1928. Click here for the full translation of the speech.
The chief motivating principle of tunken is to pursue economic development and reinforce national defenses (開發利源鞏固國防). We need to reinforce our national defenses because today’s international warfare entails economic encroachment in addition to military and political engagement. The Japanese lie in wait to the south of our northeastern provinces while the Soviets press from the north. Step by step, foreigners have moved into the interior and the guests have turned into the host. Of the perilous matters at stake, economic encroachment plays no small part. In order to salvage the situation, we propose moving troops to reinforce the frontiers and take part in tunken. We have carefully chosen the tunken zone with attention to frontier defense and economic development. - Zou Zuohua, 1928
From Borderland to Occupied Territory
Despite its geopolitical importance at the juncture between Soviet and Japanese claims, Xing An lay outside infrastructure networks connecting the region to larger populations centers and the interior provinces of China. Lacking even the roads, the successful development of the region required enormous capital and resource investments at a time when growing Japanese encroachment in the Northeast made large scale infrastructural projects nearly impossible to fund. A few tractors made for good photo opportunities, but did not essentially alter the balance between an unrelenting environment and the ill-coordinated efforts of a few military units and several thousand refugees.
For Japanese officers in the Kwantung Army, Zhang Zuolin’s assassination may not have led to the desired outcome, but the situation in Manchuria did not diffuse with Chinese appeasement. In 1931, another instigation, the Mukden Incident, would lead to the formation of the Japanese puppet state Manchukuo. Yet, the Xing An Land Reclamation Bureau was not wrong about the importance of the region nor about the Japanese interest. Within a year of the publication of the first Xing An Tunken Report, the research section of the Japanese-run South Manchurian Railroad had translated the report, minus the political rhetoric of Chinese nationalism but including two maps, which needed no translation. In that sense, modernizing officers had succeeded in their mission - from a blank space, Xing An came onto the map.