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Kong Xiangxi´s Pre-War Diplomacy
Vortrag vom 07.08.2021 an der Universität Witten
Kong Xiangxi (Dr. H.H. Kung, Kung Hsiang-hsi) is one of the most controversial politicians in China's modern history. In particular, his meetings with Mussolini and Hitler on a trip to Europe brought him close to fascism in the public eye. After several decades it is questionable whether this image is justified and corresponds to the newer state of evidence.
After the occupation of Manchuria by Japanese troops in 1931, the Republic of China was unable to adequately defend its territory, as large China was militarily weak and relatively small Japan was highly armed. That violent conflict escalated in the following years.
For certain states, cooperation with China was difficult because China's government had been forced to accept communists into the government and to cooperate with the Soviet Union again since the Xi'an Incident in December 1934, in which Generalissimo Jiang Jieshi (Chiang Kaishek) was arrested by two of his own generals. Fascist European states, in particular, felt a bond of anti-communism with Japan. Despite that fact, they still supplied arms to China and appeared to the Nanjing government as ideal mediators in the Sino-Japanese conflict. On the other hand, democratic countries, such as France, Great Britain, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, and the United States expressed solidarity with China, but exercised restraint in the League of Nations so as not to jeopardize their relations with Japan.
An opportunity coming into contact with the governments of these countries in a relatively short time was through the travel diplomacy of high-ranking politicians of the Republic of China. Therefore a welcome occasion for such a trip was the invitation to attend the coronation ceremony of King George VI in London at the beginning of 1937. Finance Minister Kong Xiangxi, who was 75th generation descendant of Confucius and related with Jiang by marriage with the sister of Jiangs wife, led the delegation and arrived in London on May 3, 1937, where he met Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, Foreign Minister Anthony Eden, and Australian Prime Minister Joseph Lyons in connection with the coronation ceremony, in addition to the royal couple.
Mentioning the Sino-Japanese conflict Kong asked for arms supplies, loans for military and civilian purposes, and the participation in a pact of nonaggression and mutual assistance for the Asia-Pacific region. As one result, the British gave him a loan of 20 million pounds.
An important stop was the meeting of the League of Nations in the Swiss city of Geneva, where Kong denounced Japan's aggression and campaigned for a peaceful solution to the conflict.
On the sidelines of the League of Nations meeting, Kong solicited support at a banquet to which he had invited diplomats from Great Britain, the United States, the Soviet Union, France, Germany, and the new member state Egypt.
His onward journey took him to Italy, of all places, the state that – likewise Japan - had been labeled as lawbreaker in the League of Nations in December 1935 after the Italian occupation of Ethiopia. Although Kong met with King Victor Emmanuel III and with Prime Minister and "Duce" Benito Mussolini, the negotiations were fruitless, to Kong's disappointment, given Italy's close relationship with Japan.
The situation in France was different: Kong had already purchased military goods on a large scale there in 1933 and 1935 and was therefore able to attract interest at this meeting with President Albert Lebrun, Prime Minister Léon Blum and others. France subsequently continued to supply military jets and offered to send air force experts to China. The French government secured these arms deliveries with loans. However, no agreement could be reached on the sale of submarines. Kong was honored by the French government with the Order of Merit First Class, thus also honoring his state.
Talks in Brussels with Belgian Prime Minister Paul van Zeeland and King Leopold III were also gratifying. Belgium continued to supply China with important defense equipment.
Germany had a long-standing relationship with China that continued even after Hitler came to power. As a fascist state, Germany had a key role as a possible mediator between China and Japan. One indication of whether Germany could play this role was its treatment of Kong during his visit and whether the planned invitation of Prince Chichibu, the brother of the Japanese emperor, to a Nazi conference would have a negative impact on Sino-German relations. Both criteria proved positive: the German government paid full tribute to its guest Kong and, among other things, ensured that he was awarded an honorary doctorate. It was also announced that Prince Chichibu had cancelled his trip "for health reasons".
Along with Economics Minister Schacht and Foreign Minister Neurath, Kong had a two-hour meeting with dictator Adolf Hitler, who assured him that Germany was not interested in war and that the alliance with Japan was not directed against China but against Bolshevism. Kong, in turn, emphasized the ideological similarities between China and Germany, especially with regard to autocratic governance.
In mid-June, Kong left for the United States and met with U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt, Secretary of State Cordell Hull and Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau. That prestigious trip brought Kong another honorary degree and his country the credit commitments it needed.
Finally, in August, Kong negotiated in Prague with Czechoslovakian President Edvard Beneš and his foreign minister, Kamil Krofta.
On the return trip, Philippine President Manuel Quezon warned him of a probable Japanese hijacking of his ship, so Kong continued by plane via Hong Kong. This fact shows that Kong's venture was not only diplomatically difficult, but also dangerous.
Contrary to what has often been portrayed in historiography, Kong's trip did not serve only to cultivate relations with the Axis Powers. In the fascist states, in fact, Kong's visit was fruitless, despite polite treatment. He was even under intelligence surveillance in Germany. Italy and Germany increasingly turned their backs on the Republic of China and made no effort to mediate in the Sino-Japanese conflict. Kong´s opportunistic diction toward Hitler is particularly questionable in this regard. In contrast to his remarks at the meeting with Hitler and his subsequent letter to him, diplomat Kong emphasized the democratic character of his harrassed nation to his democratic interlocutors in Washington, London, Paris, Brussels, or Prague in order to win support.
In summary, the topics of discussion in democratic states included the above mentioned agreement of nonaggression and mutual assistance for the Pacific and the Far East favored by Kong, monetary and foreign exchange cooperation, the extension of credit to China, and the sale of armaments.
But Japan also had influence on democratic states and their arms exports to China. After all, Kong was able to obtain funding from Great Britain, France and the USA for infrastructure measures and the modernization of the Chinese armed forces. Kong received support for cooperation in monetary and financial matters. China's position in the League of Nations grew and gained prestige. Those successes of his trip justified his assumption of the position of prime minister at the beginning of 1938. However, diplomatic efforts could not prevent a war. During this period the decision on war and peace laid solely with the government in Tokyo.