Racial harmony in China's North-East

In honor of Black History Month I thought I would post something on W.E.B. Dubois and China. I knew that DuBois had dabbled in almost every radical movement imaginable during his long life but I had not known that he was also for a while much enamored of Japanese Pan-Asianism. I knew that the Japanese made considerable efforts to convince intellectuals from around the world that Manchoukuo was a heaven on earth, but I had not known that they got him.1 in 1936 Dubois toured Manchoukou as part of a Japanese-sponsored tour of East Asia. One result was the article below, which was published in the Pittsburgh Courier in February of 1937.

Japanese Colonialism

I brush aside as immaterial the question as to whether Manchoukuo is an independent state or a colony of Japan. the main question for me is: What is Japan doing for the people of Manchuria and how is she doing it? Is she building up a caste of Superiors and Inferiors? is she reducing the mass of the people to slavery and poverty? Is she stealing the land and monopolizing the natural resources? Are the people of Manchuria happier or more miserable for the presence of the foreign power on their soil? I have been in Manchuria only a week. But in that time I have seen its borders north, west and south; its capital and their chief cities and many towns; I have walked the streets night and day; I have talked with officials, visited industries and read reports. I came prepared to compare this colonial situation with colonies in Africa and the West Indies, under white European control. I have come to the firm conclusion that in no colony that I have seen or read is there such clear evidence of

(1) Absence of racial or color caste
(2) Impartial law and order;
(3) Public control of private capital for the general welfare;
(4) Services for health, education, city-planning, housing, consumers’ co-operation and other social ends;
(5) The incorporation of the natives into the administration of government and social readjustment.

There is undoubtedly much still to be done in all these lines, but the amount already accomplished in four years is nothing less than marvelous. the people appear happy, and there is no unemployment. There is public peace and order. A lynching in Manchoukuo would be unthinkable. There are public services to improve crops, market them and increase their prices. Manchoukuoans are in the police force and the schools and public services. I could see nothing that savored of caste: they separate schools for Manchoukuoans and Japanese. But this is based largely, if not wholly, on the fact that one people speak Chinese and there is no separation in the higher schools. The Japanese hold no absolute monopoly of the offices of the state. The new housing and the new cities take account of the Chinese as well as the Japanese. There has been private investment of capital on a considerable scale; but the railroads are partially owned by the state; electricity, water, gas, telegraph and telephone are public services. The largest open cut coal mine in the world is in Manchuria.: these mines send out 23,000 thousand tons of semibituminous coal in a day; they manufacture coke and sulphuric acid and 24,000 tons of gasoline; they employ 30,000 miners, they have schools, library, hospital, water, sewage and parks. Electricity for a large part of Manchuria is made here — a total of 130,000 kilowatts. Yet all this is not only half owned by the government, but the private employer is under strict government control and regulation. This does not mean that the government of Manchoukuo is controlling capital for the benefit of the workers. But neither, so far as that is Japan. There is, however, no apparent discrimination between motherland and colony in this respect. Nowhere else in the world, to my knowledge, is this true. And why? Because Japanese and Manchoukuoans are so nearly related in race that that there is nor can be no race prejudice. Ergo: no nation should rule a colony whose people they cannot conceive as Equals.

Tomorrow I leave Manchoukuo after a stay marked by courtesy, sympathy and hospitality. Today for four hours I have sat in conference with citizens, explaining by means of an interpreter the intricacies of the Negro problem. I was driven to Port Arthur and entertained at lunch and later invited for dinner. Graduates of several American universities were present. Tonight the American consul called.2

Du Bois also ended up visiting China, and in Shanghai made himself unpopular with the Chinese Banker’s Club. He “recklessly” suggested to the assembled dignitaries that China needed to free itself from European domination and that the only way to do that was under Japanese leadership. This was not a popular suggestion, and he was eventually denounced as a paid propagandist of Japan. Du Bois himself was unimpressed with the Chinese, referring to them later as Asian Uncle Toms in the grip of the “same spirit that animates the ‘white folks’ nigger in the United States”3

I find this piece interesting less because it shows how Du Bois saw everything through the prism of race (which is hardly news) but because of what it shows about Japanese attempts to manipulate foreign opinion about their empire. Although Du Bois may not have been given wads of cash by the Japanese government Mantetsu did sponsor his trip and his Japanese contact Hikeda Yasuichi was a frequent enough visitor to his home that he ended up giving Baby Du Bois piano lessons.  The Japanese no doubt concealed a lot from him, and could point to things like the absence of anti-black racism in Manchoukuo as signs of harmony  but he was not stupid or entirely passive. Du Bois spent 10 hours walking around Beijing on his own and during his stay in Japan became increasingly disenchanted with the place. The article however shows pretty clearly the line the Japanese were trying to sell. Their claims that Manchoukuo was a land of racial harmony would have seemed absurd (or pointless) to a European and obscene to a Chinese but obviously there was some audience for this type of talk, and Du Bois got an impression tailored to his biases.4 Du Bois’s talk about roads and hospitals and such is just a standard defense of colonialism that could just as well have been used by the British in Nigeria, but his emphasis on state control of capital seems to be explicitly Manchoukuoan. I hesitate to think about what conditions must have been like for the 30,000 Chinese coal miners working in the world’s largest open cut coal mine, but the fact that they were at least partly under state control rather than being oppressed by rapacious capitalists seems to count for a lot with Du Bois. I suppose I should check and see if Louise Young talks about Du Bois and his visit.


  1. Although given that he managed to praise both Stalinist Russia and Mao’s China at various points in his life he was not the most discerning chooser of allies  

  2. from Lewis ed. W.E.B. Du Bois A Reader 

  3. from Lewis W.E.B. Du Bois: The Fight for Equality p.414 

  4. Manchouguo was also presented as a bastion of anti-communism, but this seems not to have been mentioned to Du Bois 

1 Comment

  1. Du Bois doesn’t show up in Young’s index, nor can I find any reference to him, or any other American commmentator on Manchuria, in a quick scan of the book. Prasenjit Duara seems more likely to cite him, since Du Bois’s observations are a lot closer to his arguments.

    A lot of Americans went looking for alternatives in the early 20th century, and a lot of what they found outside the US was attractive on the face, but ultimately an historical dead-end: Communism, Fascism, Japanese developmentalism, etc.

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