The great powers of the interwar period

During the first half of the 20th century, the world was largely divided between a handful of great powers, their colonies and spheres of interest. Neither the first world war nor the formal independence of China did much to lessen their influence in Chinese affairs and Shanghai in particular. Which countries were great powers and what state were they in in 29127?

The United Kingdom

During the 18th and 19th centuries the mighty British Empire had conquered greater territories than any other empire in the history of the world. In particular, it was known for its vast Indian holdings. The British Empire had also been the country that more than any other had established European access to and partial dominance over China. However, the first world war had significantly weakened the empire, both through losses of citizens and material during the war itself and by forcing it to turn its attention from its colonies. This tendency was exacerbated by a strong independence movement in India under the leadership of the lawyer Mohandas Gandhi. Despite this weakness, the British Empire was still one of the strongest of the great powers, had the largest territory in the world and the British was the dominant foreign group in Shanghai.


Like the United Kingdoms, France had built a vast colonial empire spanning the globe during the 19th century and were the second most important group of foreigners in Shanghai with their own independent territory. However, France had been weakened even more by the first world war and their colonial empire was significantly smaller and its role in Chinese affairs was often to serve as the right hand man of the British.


Following its unification and the proclamation of the German Empire in 1871, Germany had been a rapidly growing power that attempted to build its own colonial empire, primarily in the parts of Africa, China and the Pacific not already occupied by the British and the French. The German defeat in the first world war, had meant that its colonial holdings had been split among the victors, in China this primarily meant Japan. Thus Germany had become largely economically and politically irrelevant on the world scene in the 1920s. This changed after Hitler's rise to power in the early 1930s after which Germany became China's foremost international partner for a few years, before instead allying with Japan in the middle of the decade.

The United States

By the turn the 20th century, the US had not only definitely conquered the vast territory between Canada in the north and Mexico in the south, but had also established itself as a colonial power with the conquest of the Philippines. Furthermore, the first world war had shown the country to be the world's foremost industrial and military power. However, the US still remained a more geographically constrained power than the great colonial empires and the US played a smaller role in China than the UK, France, Russia and Japan.

The Soviet Union

Due to Russia's gradual colonization and conquest of vast territories in northern Asia, the British long viewed it as its main rival in China. This came to a grinding halt with the Russian Revolution in 1917 and the subsequent civil war. The civil war displaced a tens of thousands of Russians and a significant number ended up in exile in Shanghai, where they found themselves in a precarious position as the absolute bottom of the white hierarchy. Following the civil war, Russia was reborn as the Communist Soviet Union, which supported both the Chinese Communists and the Guomindang as part of its search for international partners. This allowed the country to play a significant role in China in the interwar period.


Interwar Japan was a rapidly rising power, not just in East Asia but globally as well. Following a coup in 1868, it had become the only country without a white leadership to successfully modernize its economy and administration. Subsequently, Japan had fought a series of war to establish its dominance over much of East Asia, most prominently Korea, and shown its might by defeating Russia in the Russo-Japanese war in 1905. The peace settlement following the first world war, granted dominance over the Russian and German spheres of interest in China to Japan. A series of military coups during the interwar period reinforced this expansionist policy in China with the annexation of Manchuria in 1931 and the invasion in 1937 as the consequence.

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Does Japan threaten white rule?
Are current Japanese policies a threat for the civilized nations or should we instead see the Japanese as the newest members of this group?

Despite the tense situation caused by the siege, some concerned citizens have voiced the opinion that neither the bolsheviks nor the misguided Chinese nationalism is the real threat to white rule over Shanghai. Instead the concerned point to a different group of orientals, the Japanese whose aggressive expansion and large numbers in the International Settlement should be a vision of what their ambitions for China would bring. These people also point to the idea that there is considerable anger among the Japanese over being excluded from important decisions in the League of Nations. Shanghai Modern's expert in international politics discuss these thoughts to determine whether or not there's cause for concern.

Expansionism and colonial ambitions

Japan has without a doubt waged war against their neighbors China and Russia and the country did indeed win these wars. This allowed them to create an empire consisting of not only their natural territories on their archipelago, but also in backwards Korea and even more backwards Taiwan. But our correspondent would like to stress that it is only natural for more advanced nations to subjugate those more backwards to bring them the light of civilization and make their natural resources productive and that competition between great powers is only natural. And nothing the Japanese did is beyond what the white great powers did in their quest for their own empires, the difference rests solely on the oriental origins of the Japanese.

Modernization and westernization

And we advice caution in overstating the importance of these origins. Of course the Japanese have their own peculiarities, but they have shown a dedication to modernizing their country on the pattern of superior western civilization. They have modern parliamentary institutions and modern industry based on the finest precedents the west has to offer. Nor should one forget that during the Great War the Japanese sided with the free nations against the central powers and made real sacrifices bringing Germany's eastern possessions under allied control.  Japan has also made great efforts to keep the scourge of Communism off its shores. Besides, only a few firebrands in the army fail to realize that the primary purpose of the League of Nations is to prevent a future war in Europe from spinning out of control and that it is thus not relevant for Japanese interests to be deeply involved in this. And here in Shanghai we can all see how peaceful and orderly the Japanese are. They keep to their own territories without any undue imposition on others. Based on this, it is the judgement of China Modern that there is no basis for concern that the Japanese should somehow threaten white rule over the city.

Søren Hein Rasmussen
Christina Maria Jessen

Ying Chen
Sissel Vennike Ditlevsen
Christina Maria Jessen
Carsten Lysbjerg Mogensen
Søren Hein Rasmussen
Rikke Holst Thomsen

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