Media War Over Shanghai (II)

The 1937 battle of Shanghai was waged not just in the city’s streets, but also in the pages of the world’s major papers. Journalists such as Harrison Forman, pictured left, were important actors. Peter Harmsen, author of Shanghai 1937: Stalingrad on the Yangtze, offers his assessment of role played by the media in this article first carried by Nottingham University’s China Policy Institute Blog ( This is the second of two installments.

The reporters didn’t mince their words when bringing their stories to the breakfast tables of the west. In an age that strictly controlled what could be shown on film, there were paradoxically few inhibitions about what could be written in the papers. “Here was a headless man, there a baby’s foot, wearing its little red-silk shoe embroidered with fierce dragons,” foreign correspondent Percy Finch wrote after Chinese bombs had accidentally fallen in crowded streets. “One body, that of a young boy, was flattened high against a wall, to which it hung with ghastly adhesion.” [1]

Both the Japanese and the Chinese knew full well that the fight was waged not just on the battlefield, but also in the world’s newspapers. To take one example: Whoever was caught using gas – a weapon that had been seen as the ultimate horror of the Great War and still lingered in the public mind as the epitome of human depravity – would immediately be vilified around the world, and as a result accusations and counter-accusations of gas use were regular events.

Despite their efforts to ingratiate themselves with the western public, neither side could entirely cover up the brutal manner in which they were fighting. Foreign correspondents couldn’t help but notice a curious lack of prisoners in both camps. As a rule, captives were lucky to survive for a few hours, and only then because they were believed to be of intelligence value. But nearly all ended up dead eventually. Dead bodies floating down the city’s Suzhou Creek, often carrying clear signs of torture, became a familiar sight in the fall of 1937. The vast majority of the bodies were, of course, Chinese.

The mood among the foreign correspondents was overwhelmingly pro-Chinese. The daily Japanese briefings, usually carried out by mid-level officers from the army or the navy, often developed into tense and openly hostile exchanges with especially British and American reporters.[2] It’s easy to think of reason for the bias in favor of China. Japan was clearly the aggressor, and the behavior of its army won it few friends. It was a David and Goliath story in reverse, with the small and aggressive Japanese David battering away at the huge and weak Chinese Goliath.

For Chiang Kai-shek, world public opinion appears to have been a constant concern during the three months that the battle lasted. It may not only have determined why he started the battle, but also how he ended it. As the fighting slowly drew to a close, he was reluctant to give up Shanghai, even though his soldiers were dying by the thousands defending ground that was almost surely lost anyway. Rumors circulated among field commanders that he wanted the battle to last until November 13, so he could say the battle has lasted for three months.

However, a more decisive factor may have been the Brussels Conference, called in early November to allow a number of mostly industrialized nations to discuss the crisis in the Far East. By keeping the battle located in and around Shanghai, a city everyone in the west knew about, it would be much more obvious to the participants at the meeting what was at stake. If on the other hand the battle moved on into the Chinese countryside, affecting little villages and hamlets with unpronounceable named that no-one had ever encountered before, the sense of urgency would disappear.

Concern about world public opinion manifested itself in other ways as well. The battle for the Four Banks Warehouse on the north bank of Suzhou Creek, where 400 Chinese soldiers were holed up for several days against overwhelming Japanese forces was one bloody, drawn-out public relations exercise. The battle served no tactical purpose as that part of the city had already been evacuated. Perched near the edge of the International Settlement, a heroic stand at the warehouse simply helped show to the world that there was still fight in the Chinese. The 400 soldiers became known as “The Lost Battalion” and seized the imagination of the world for a short while before withdrawing to safety. The fight cost a large number of lives on both sides, but it may have done more than anything else happening on the Shanghai front to attract western attention to China’s plight.

Even so, as the battle for the city dragged on and ground its way towards its bloody end, the novelty wore off, and the resident correspondents slowly saw themselves partly reverting to their old peacetime beats. One of them, Carroll Alcott of the Associated Press, later reminisced about a typical day in Shanghai in late 1937: The morning spent witnessing a major battle between China and Japanese, followed by a walk through streets littered with gore after an air attack, culminating in a courtroom watching a case against a gang of jewelry thieves led by a dubious character known as Hatchet-Face Rosie.[3]

Despite heavy risk-taking among the western correspondents, only one of them was killed in the course of the entire three-month struggle for Shanghai. Pembroke Stephens of the Daily Telegraph was shot through the head by a sniper, in all likelihood Japanese, on November 11, Armistice Day. It was the very last day of the battle, which may have been the reason why he lost his life.[4] The Japanese may have started to care less about the impact they made on western public opinion. They may even have decided to deliberately target a foreign journalist to vent anger over the bad press they got in the west. Anyway, as the battle for Shanghai petered out, overseas public opinion was starting to matter less. Soon the war moved inland, and the world lost interest, directing its attention elsewhere.
[1] Finch, Percy. Shanghai and Beyond. New York NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1953, pp. 255-256.
[2] Schenke, Wolf. Reise and der gelben Front. Berlin: Gerhard Stalling Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1941, pp. 19-20.
[3] Alcott, Carroll. My War with Japan. New York: Henry Holt, 1943, p. 149
[4] A Japanese reporter, Iwakura Tomokata of Hochi daily, lost his life to a Chinese shell in the middle of October.

Categories: Battle, Media

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