2015 Sophia Symposium

Empire and Aftermath: New Perspectives on the Legacies of the Japanese Empire

Amy KING (The Australian National University)

“Empire, Industry and War: Rebuilding the China-Japan Relationship, 1949-1972”

This paper stems from a book project exploring the post-WWII rebuilding of economic relations between China and Japan. Drawing on hundreds of recently declassified Chinese documents, it argues that in the wake of the Second World War, China’s Communist leaders saw Japan as a symbol of a modern, industrialised nation, and Japanese goods, technology, expertise and development path as crucial in helping to meet their goal of rapid industrialisation. Japan’s history of imperialism in China meant that Japanese goods, machinery and industrial practices had already penetrated China’s economy and society and were readily accessible to the Chinese Communists in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. More importantly though, during these decades, China’s leaders viewed Japan as the only Asian country to have made the successful transition from an agrarian country to a modern, industrialised one. Like China, Japan was a fellow ‘late industrialiser’ whose officials understood the challenges of rapid industrialisation, and the importance of technology in achieving ‘catch up’ growth.

Though it is no longer notable to suggest that the legacy of Japanese empire did not come to an abrupt end in 1945, this book breaks new ground by showing how Japanese empire continued to penetrate Communist China at a time when the two countries were ostensibly ‘closed’ to one another. Yet it also shows that Japanese ideas of economic development and industrialisation were not accepted wholesale in Communist China. This paper therefore focuses on some of the significant limitations to China’s understanding of Japan’s economic development model. I explore Japanese pre- and postwar ideas of economic development, and show how these Japanese ideas were made to ‘fit’ the local Chinese context by being filtered through Chinese actors, institutions and extant ideas. By studying this process of idea localisation, and the movement of ideas around East Asia, I argue that Chinese policy-makers developed a number of ‘mistaken’ ideas about Japan’s economic and industrial achievements. The paper concludes with a discussion of Japanese postwar assessments of the legacy Japanese empire and economic planning in China.