Chinese Capitalists in Japan's New Order: The Occupied Lower Yangzi, 1937-1945, by Parks M. Coble. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003. xvii + 296 pp. US$60.00/£40.00 (hardcover).
In this carefully researched and important book, Parks Coble uses case studies of Chinese business firms during the Second World War to offer new insights into both the war and the nature of China's business culture. Focusing on the area of the lower Yangzi River valley in and around the city of Shanghai, Coble divides the changes in Japanese policy toward Chinese business into three periods. From the initial invasion in July of 1937 to late 1938 came a period of destruction, chaos, confiscation and forced procurement. In November of 1938 the Japanese declared the establishment of a "new order" in which there was a concerted attempt to reinvigorate the Chinese economy in order to "use the war to sustain the war". This period lasted through 1942, the first year after Pearl Harbor. The Japanese encouraged the participation of Chinese capitalists in this new order, but it remained a "colonial regime" (p. 66) in which Japanese firms were given more favorable treatment and the Chinese were given few real incentives. True Sino-Japanese cooperation did not come until the third period, from late 1942 (the "Great Departure") to 1945, when the Japanese faced reversals in the war and had to offer Chinese capitalists better terms for collaboration.
After providing a general history of the role of Chinese business in the war period, Coble presents his series of case studies. The Rong family and their textile empire take up an entire chapter. Other case studies are treated more briefly: textiles and consumer products, chemicals, matches and rubber. In these case studies, Coble points to the diversity of war experiences by firm, by individual and by sector. He emphasizes the specificity of the war experience, arguing that "Chinese capitalists did not experience the war as a class; they did so as individuals" (p. 101).
This conclusion points both to the diversity of individual experience and the vagaries of war, where some factories were destroyed completely in the fighting while facilities next door survived. Coble argues against the "new remembering" of the war in China, where capitalists from the 1930s and 1940s are simplistically portrayed as either patriots who refused to cooperate with the Japanese occupation or traitorous collaborators who did. In reality, the picture was much more complicated. Many capitalists simultaneously ran businesses in free China under the Nationalists and in occupied China under the Japanese. Coble repeatedly argues for a complex reading. For example, China's most famous chemical magnate, Fan Xudong, appears to be one of China's greatest patriots, but Coble points out that the Japanese interest in dominating strategic industries like chemicals left no room for collaboration.
Amidst this complexity Coble does note some patterns, but these relate more to the nature of Chinese business culture than to the false dichotomy of patriotism/collaboration during war. To him, the two defining characteristics of Chinese business culture are a reliance on personal connections rather than contractual ties, and the dominance of the family firm. From this premise, Coble comes to the conclusion that China's business culture helped capitalists survive the war. …