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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