“News Under Fire” by Shuge Wei

After the collapse of the Manchurian empire, Japan was keen to expand its holdings in Korea and the Pacific into Manchuria and eventually into Mongolia and the Russian Far East. Their argument was that Japan had to feed its huge population with scarce resources, so imperialist expansion was a matter of life and death.

News under Fire: China’s Propaganda against Japan in the English-Language Press, 1928–1941, Shuge Wei (Hong Kong University Press, March 2017)
News under Fire: China’s Propaganda against Japan in the English-Language Press, 1928–1941, Shuge Wei (Hong Kong University Press, March 2017)

The term “imperialist expansion” jars today, but in the early 20th century it was public policy for Britain, France and Italy and unstated policy for the United States. They may have had little sympathy for Japan’s imperialist ambitions per se, but they were very protective of their extraterritorial privileges in China’s treaty ports, which left them poorly placed to oppose Japanese aggression.

China at the time was a mess. The communists, the Kuomintang and an entire menagerie of other warlords struggled to claim the new mandate of heaven. Their shifting alliances and internecine warfare remain opaque to all but specialist historians even today. Thus occupied, every thinking Chinese realized that China’s best hope of deterring Japanese aggression lay in recruiting the other imperialist powers to China’s defense. That motivated a 20-year propaganda battle between China and Japan aimed primarily at the UK, France and the US.


The details of that battle are the topic of Shuge Wei’s News Under Fire. Its public struggles were fought in the foreign language (mostly English-language) press of the treaty ports. Wei introduces each of the treaty port newspapers and their owners and editors, and then proceeds to describe their coverage of the key events of the day. Of particular significance are what are known today as the Jinan, Mukden, Shanghai, Marco Polo Bridge and Panay “incidents”. Wei gives only the briefest sketch of what actually happened in each of these cases, but then discusses in some detail how each was covered in each of the treaty port newspapers. That sort of line-by-line analysis of the press coverage is good scholarship, but much of it is less than gripping for the general reader. There is also quite a lot of “who did what to whom” in terms of papers opening up and closing down and key journalists and editors moving around among them. In most cases it’s more than the reader really wants to know.

Another strand of the story follows the evolution of censorship in warlord China. With China itself in utter confusion, it was in fact Japan that did most of the censoring. They could do so because wireless communication was not yet very effective and all of the cables from China led out through Tokyo. Japan was able to ensure that coverage of China unfavorable to Japan was pretty thoroughly suppressed. China’s only advantage in that aspect of the struggle was that many of the most active treaty port journalists had trained in the US. They had no particular commitment to imperialism in general and were mildly opposed to Japan’s efforts in particular. They worked out ways to partially avoid the censorship, to China’s advantage.

One suspects that News Under Fire may be an amplified version of Wei’s PhD thesis. There’s a fair bit of academic pomp (“… transnational networks characterized China’s propaganda experience”) and there are quite a few sentences in the scholarly passive, impersonal voice. Rare is the page without a few footnotes guiding the reader to mostly inaccessible sources.

This is one for the dedicated history buff.

Bill Purves is a Hong Kong-based writer. He is the author of several books, including A Sea of Green: A Voyage Around the World of Ocean Shipping and China on the Lam: On Foot Across the People’s Republic.