Today, in 2008, China is believed by many to be headed towards having the world's second largest national economy (currently Japan has that status) in the near future, and then is headed to having the world's number one economy before the end of the century. China includes several areas that, currently or in the past, have or had majority ethnic groups that do not see themselves as Chinese. The region most Americans know about that might be characterized as occupied by a distinct national group within China is Tibet. Passions run high about Tibet. While keeping Tibet as a reference point, this essay will examine the history of the area known as Manchuria to see what lessons can be learned from it. [Article and map of Manchuria at Wikipedia]. When most Americans think of Manchuria they think of the movie The Manchurian Candidate; they know nothing of the history of Manchuria or its present status.
Free Tibet! is a slogan that has echoed around America for decades. It is one idea that unites both many on the left, who are influenced by the "New Age" component of the counterculture, with many on the right, who hate China and its communist government. While I don't agree with either of those prejudices, the Tibet national question raises the idea of national autonomy in general. It is a common idea that nation-states should correspond to national cultures. This implies that cultural nations have a right to leave a government (even if it is run on a democratic basis) and set up on their own. Of course in the United States of America it was decided by military force that no one has a right to leave our empire, not native American nations, not the Confederate States of America, not Hawaii (the exception being the Philippines, which were allowed to become an independent nation only after being conquered by the Japanese in World War II).
Free Manchuria! is a slogan that Americans have not heard of late. Yet in the 1930's it was the idea of the Manchurian independence movement, and it came to fruition briefly in the nation-state of Manchukuo. The nation of Manchukuo existed between 1932 and 1945. It was conquered by the U.S.S.R. at the end of World War II and then turned over to the Communist Chinese government, which became the government of all of China (including Tibet) after it defeated the Kuomintang government in the Chinese civil war.
Or you can take the standard, non-objective, United States of America propaganda view of Manchukuo. In this version of the world Manchukuo was not an independent state established by a Manchurian independence movement, but a "puppet state" created by the (evil) Japanese military. In particular I should point out the non-objectivity of the Wikipedia article, and it may change by the time you read it, but as I write this it reflects the U.S. view: Manchukuo.
To a large extent this is part of the standard re-writing of history by the winners. If the current U.S. ruling elite and the current Chinese ruling elite can agree on only one thing, they can agree that Manchukuo's government was set up by the Japanese. There are many problems with this view. For instance, both other major candidates for being legitimate rulers of Manchuria during this period have also been accused of being puppets. Chiang Kai-Shek and his Kuomintang party certainly were U.S. puppets by the end of their reign, if not at the beginning. Mao and the Communist government were accused (by Chiang, Japan, the U.S., and virtually everyone who was not a communist) of being puppets of the U.S.S.R.
Let us begin our dissection with a look at Manchuria before it became part of China. We call it Manchuria because the dominant tribe were called Manchus. After the Mongol empire fell apart, they rebuilt their regional empire and then went on to conquer China. The Emperor of China and most of the ruling class were Manchus (much like the Normans became the king and ruling class of England) from 1644 until 1912.
When the Manchus lost power in China in 1912, the idea that Manchuria was part of China was well-established, but it was the part that was the homeland of the people that ruled China. Between 1912 and the communist triumph in 1950 there was no single government of China. In addition to the communist government(s), "nationalist" government(s), and the governments recognized by Japan, there were numerous "warlords" (that is, historic losers) with varying degrees of power and territorial control. Manchuria was never effectively controlled by a would-be Chinese government until the Russians handed it over to the communist Chinese government. Between 1912 and the establishment of Machukuo in 1932, a complex history of Manchuria can be summed up as a period of anarchy, foreign intervention, and local warlord control. But long before 1912 the Manchu government had trouble maintaining control of its old homeland. The Russians and Japanese had intervened there with their militaries, and all the great world powers, including the United States, sought to join in Manchuria's commercial exploitation. If they did not land armies in Manchuria, it was because they could threaten military action against the Chinese, Russians, or Japanese elsewhere to get the leverage they needed. Recall that this was the era of the American Open Door Policy (read: you can't lock your door, or even close it: we can come in and rape and pillage whenever it pleases the U.S.).
According to Cameron et al, when the Japanese "created" Manchukuo, "Japanese policy had gone to great lengths to create the impression that the separatist movement which cumulated in "independence" was both spontaneous and purely local in character." [p. 453] The Manchurians chose Henry Puyi as head of state. Had the Manchu's continued as emperors of China, he would have been the emperor of all of China. Which leads to the question: is it possible that the, or at least some, Manchurians did not want to be part of China? Probably there was a purely local nationalist Manchurian movement that preferred to be allied with the Japanese rather than allied with Chiang Kai-shek, or the Chinese communists, or absorbed into the U.S.S.R. Weak people face often face less than optimal choices.
And where do U.S. historians get permission to call governments Japanese puppets? How many governments in Latin America and elsewhere could be called U.S. puppets in 1932? In 1940? Today?
The existance of Japanese troops in Manchukuo has been given as proof that it was not independent. How many so-called nations have American military bases in them today? Are they all puppet states, or is there some other criteria we should use? America had troops in China throughout the period under discussion; is this, perhaps, one reason that Chiang Kai-shek was called an American puppet. Or was it that he was married into the wealthy and powerful Chinese-American Soong family, and converted to an American religion?
I think perhaps historians had best define the term puppet very clearly, and then apply the standards of puppetness objectively, if they want their history books to be anything besides a record of national prejudice.
In any case, one of the big surprises for me, in history, is that Joseph Stalin did not just keep Manchuria once his troops took control of it. I doubt he had any real fear of the U.S., despite its possession of and proven willingness to use atomic weapons against civilians. I think it must have been a personality quirk combined with a desire to cement good relations with the Chinese Communist Party.
I would not suggest, at this point, that Manchuria should seek any autonomy within China. For exactly the same reason, I see no reason for Tibetan autonomy. The Tibetans should start calling themselves Chinese. I would think that would be more than acceptable to the government of China. I see every indication that the Chinese government wants harmonious relations with all the people within its territories. I believe the Chinese government has no desire to favor Han Chinese over other ethnic groups. I am sure that message does not always get across to everyone in China, just as the idea of ethnic equality still has non-practitioner in the United States. Tibet became part of China (back in the middle ages) because the Chinese got tired of military raids conducted by those nice Tibetan Buddhist monks. Buddhists are famous for despising women, getting a bunch of men together in one place for too long, and then going out and fighting wars. Tibet needs a peaceful culture where woman have an equal social status, which is also what the Chinese government wants (although it, too, has a long way to go to reach true sexual equality).
The area formerly known as Manchuria is today called Northeast China and has a majority ethnic Han Chinese population. Are there disgruntled people in Manchuria. You can bet there are. Does the U.S. have any right to interfere in any part of China, in any way, when it has never fixed its own problems at home? I think not.
Biography: Cameron, Meribeth E., et al, China, Japan, and the Powers, The Ronald Press Company, New York, 1952