Regimes of occupation

The history of Shanghai during wartime has too often been written on the before/after mode, with a strong propensity to simplify the political and military configurations that prevailed at different times during the war. In this short post, I would like to address the issue of the regimes of occupation in Shanghai between 1937 and 1945. I will argue that the common trope of the “lone island” (孤島) is not just a historical fallacy — first, Shanghai remained intensely connected to its hinterland and to the world; second, we need to think in terms of shades of color, not just black & white — it actually blinds us to a far more moving landscape and the consequences this had on actual living conditions in wartime Shanghai.

Shanghai: August 1937

In August 1937, just before the hostilities between the Chinese and the Japanese armies broke out, the city was divided in three autonomous administrative areas: the International Settlement, the French Concession, and the Chinese Municipality (上海市政府). The latter was far more extensive than represented on the map above, but for our purpose we have chosen to focus on the urban area, excluding the large rural districts that were part of the Chinese municipality. The color code for each area will remain the same in the succeeding maps, with additional colors and shades to reflect historical change.

Shanghai: November 1937

The most dramatic effect of the Chinese defeat after three long months of fighting that saw the deaths of hundreds of thousands of soldiers on both sides was the occupation of the districts formerly under Chinese administration (上海市政府) by the Japanese army (red). Although the latter tried to set up a local collaborationist administration (Dadao government 大道政府), it was a dismal failure. The two foreign settlements remained unaffected in their autonomy despite a constant pressure and repeated attempts by the Japanese authorities to intervene in their affairs, especially regarding the activities of the institutions, groups, and individuals that remained faithful to the National Government (re-located in Chongqing).

Shanghai: October 1938

In October 1938, the Japanese army anointed Fu Xiao’an (傅筱庵) as mayor of the newly-established Shanghai Special Municipality (上海特別市政府). Although power remained firmly in the hands of the Japanese army and Special services, the establishment of the Chinese-run municipal government changed the political and administrative landscape. Despite its dubious legitimacy, the municipal government of Fu Xiao’an offered a presentable face to the population and to the authorities of the neighboring settlements. It operated under the formal jurisdiction of the Reformed Government (中華民國維新政府), also established under Japanese influence to replace the Nationalist Central Government. One should keep in mind two elements here. Under the Nationalists, throughout the Nanjing decade, the establishment of the Shanghai Municipal Government and the appointment of its leaders, especially the mayors, had all been decided by the Central government. Popular participation or voting had never been on the agenda. With Fu Xiao’an as a Chinese mayor overseeing a Chinese municipal administration, the Chinese municipality regained a modicum of power, which we chose to represent with a shaded red/yellow.

Shanghai: July 1940

This may not have created a visible change in the city, but the events that unfolded in Europe with the beginning of the war between France and Germany brought a significant transformation of the political configuration. The reader may have noticed that in the captions for the different areas in the city, I chose to point out the political regime they were related to rather than using the name of the area as it appears on the map itself. In June 1940, France was defeated by the German army and Marshall Pétain was sworn into power as the president of the Vichy Government. Whereas the French authorities in Shanghai has stood firm against Japanese threats and demands (yet with some compromises), they adopted a cooperative attitude after July 1940. On the one hand, the Vichy Government became an ally, at least a friendly government, of Japan. On the other hand, it appointed a new consul general, Roland de Margerie, who locally proved to be an ardent supporter of Vichy policies. Although there was no change of boundaries and no occupation by the Japanese, this created a new political configuration (blue to purple) for both the British/American-dominated Shanghai Municipal Council and the Chinese population, especially those involved in resisting the Japanese occupation.

Shanghai: December 1941

There is no denial that the take over of the International Settlement by the Japanese army on 9 December 1941 — on the wake of the Pearl Harbor attack — constituted the second most important change in wartime Shanghai. Although the Shanghai Municipal Council and the International Settlement had made concessions to the Japanese, they had remained the most autonomous institutions in Shanghai, with a cautious, but defensive attitude toward the Japanese. As noted above, the French authorities in Shanghai no longer played this role. Since they did not have the manpower and expertise to fully replace the hundreds of foreigners (mostly Westerners) who managed the municipal services in the settlement, the Japanese chose to leave them in place while they appointed civil and military executives at all levels of the Council. This was a temporary phase of hybrid municipal administration during which power was shared, however unequally. Undoubtedly, it was also a form of collaboration.

Shanghai: January-February 1943

The last shred of autonomy and Western dominance of the Shanghai Municipal Council came to an end when the Japanese army decided to intern all the nationals from the Allied Powers (Great Britain, United States, Netherlands) and their colonies (India, Burma, Philippines, etc.) present in Shanghai. Political power in the International Settlement came fully into the hands of the Japanese army. The process of internment had started in November 1942, but it became universal at the beginning of the 1943. At the same period, the Japanese also decided to regroup all the stateless Jewish refugees in a single area in Hongkou. The French Concession could count as the last “Lone island” immune from direct Japanese occupation. These processes radically changed the social configuration with the fading away of the previously dominant Western communities (British, Americans), the rise of the heretofore less privileged Russians (many served in substitution in the municipal services), the prevalence of a demographic regime of exception for the French (historically a minority in their own territory), and the prodigious expansion of the Japanese community (it peaked at 120,000 in this period).

Shanghai: July 1943

July 1943 was a fateful month. It saw the abolition of the two foreign settlements and their retrocession to the collaborationist Wang Jingwei Government. Locally, it translated into the abolition of both the Shanghai Municipal Council and the French Municipal Council and the integration of their territories and administrations into the Shanghai Special Municipal Government (上海特別市政府) headed by Chen Gongpo since October 1940, following Fu Xiao’an’s assassination. The influence of Japanese power remained very present in Shanghai, with advisors at all levels, but it is undeniable that the Chen Gongbo administration strove to exist and proved to be a less malleable instrument than the Japanese had foreseen. Although the two foreign settlements disappeared from the map, so to speak, they were retained on a temporary basis as District no. 1 (International Settlement) and District no. 8 (French Concession), with much of their original services still in place. Their inclusion into the Chinese municipal administration proceeded slowly, especially in the former French Concession where the French municipal officers and workers had remained in place until July 1943. The retrocession of the two settlements, however, removed the final traces of the political and physical fragmentation of the city for good.

Shanghai: September 1945

The Chen Gongbo administration failed to homogenize and unify the territories under its administration before the Japanese defeat in August 1945. Although the city had been divided into new districts (unfortunately no map of this new territorial organization has come to light so far), it is unclear whether this included the former foreign settlements. We can trace the first general overhaul of the spatial and administrative organization in Shanghai to September 1945 with the establishment of the postwar Shanghai Municipality (上海市政府). The city was finally fully unified under a single administration that organized the urban area into 20 districts (and 10 rural districts). It fully erased the spatial configuration that the foreign settlements has established. The new districts deliberately cut across the former districts and fully disassembled the former spatial organization. This reorganization marked the end of the succession spatial, political and administrative regimes in wartime Shanghai.

The regimes of occupation in wartime Shanghai were not just an issue of the “Japanese occupation”. The presence of the Japanese army needs to be linked to the various institutions that had an impact, locally or from far away, on the conditions of living in the city. Some changes may not have been felt in everyday life, while some more forceful actions definitely had a direct and profound impact. Yet each modification of the balance of power, of territorial organization or institutional setup meant a different scope of action for the Shanghai residents, all the more so for the more politically active or for the organizations and institutions that continued to support the National Government in Chongqing. These sometimes subtle shifts translated into further restraints and curtailment of social and political life.

Cite this blog post
Christian Henriot (2018, November 2). Regimes of occupation. Blog Virtual Shanghai. Retrieved June 23, 2024, from

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