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Rice, Power and People: The Politics of Food Supply in Wartime Shanghai (1937- 1945)
“Rice, Power and People: The Politics of Food Supply in Wartime Shanghai (1937- 1945)”

Rice, Power and People: The Politics of Food Supply in Wartime Shanghai (1937-1945)* by Christian Renriot During the Sino-Japanese war, food became a vital object of concern for the Shanghai population and a major stake among the authorities that competed for the control of the city. Either as a result of objective factors-such as devaluation of the Jabi, population increase due to refugees, and bad harvests-or of intended and unintended moves by the authorities or the merchants, the price of foodstuffs remained on a constantly ascending course. Yet crude statistical tables only tell one part of the story. To many people an increase of a few yuan could make the difference between subsistence and starvation, or fear of starvation. What made the food supply situation especially critical, and eventually disas- .trous, was that itbecame “hostage to politics.”1 This paper will examine the issue of food supply and control in Shanghai during the war. It will argue that the enormous difficulties and hardships the population endured were not so much the result of economic problems as the consequence of deliberate and inherent political struggles between and within the various authorities in charge of overseeing or administering the city. The first part of the paper examines the evolution of prices, supplies, and the policies implemented by the local authorities, especially in the foreign settleme~ts. The second part is devoted to the attempt to organize a relief program for impoverished groups of the population, its failure, and its ultimate transformation into a rationing system. The last part focuses on the implementation of a policy for developing a “controlled economy” (tongzhijingji) in Shanghai under the Wang Jingwei government, and its counterpart, the thriving black market that developed as a result of the authorities’ inability to provide the population with adequate food supplies. FOOD SUPPLY AND FOOD PRICES When armed conflict between Chinese and Japanese armies started in and around Shanghai, all communications were suspended at once. * The transporta- * Thispaperisbased on documentaryresearchconducted in associationwith Feng Yi,junior research fellow at the Institut d’ Asie Orientale. Twentieth-Century China, Vol. 26, No.1 (November, 2000): 41-84 42 Twentieth-Century China tion of food and other commodities became impossible for three full months, and resumed only slowly thereafter. As soon as the conflict erupted, the authorities of the foreign settlements began to worry about supplies. The situation was made especially critical by the influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees from the areas under Chinese administration. As the war moved inland, however, the situation gradually returned to “normal” in Shanghai. Obviously, many problems remained, but despite the destruction of buildings and displacement of the population the local economy quickly bounced back. Although the Chinese municipality was occupied by Japanese troops, the foreign settlements were preserved, at least until December 1941, and provided free access to overseas markets. In 1937, Shanghai had a population of 3.8 million.2 It is very difficult to assess with accuracy the needs for rice of the city during the war.3 A July 1939 report from the U.S. consulate placed the monthly requirements at 25,000 tons.4 A French source gave 20,000 to 25,000 tons in May 1941, while the British consulate indicated a higher figure, 32,000 tons.5 This would place the annual requir~ments for rice during the war in the range of 240,000-300,000 tons. To feed its inhabitants, the city depended on its vast hinterland, especially the ricegrowing provinces of Jiangsu, Zhejiang, and Anhui. The privileged location of Shanghai, at the confluence of the Yangzi and Huangpu rivers and in the middle of a dense network of canals and rivers, made the supply of the city very smooth. In years of bad harvest, rice was purchased abroad from Australia, Indochina, or even North America. Throughout the Republican period, the population remained very sensitive to price increases. During the Nanking decade, the authorities had. to intervene several times to rein in the movement of prices or to distribute cheap rice to low-income families.6 Except under exceptional circumstances (such as in 1931), however, Shanghai was guaranteed a regular and endless supply of foodstuffs…

Twentieth-Century China, vol. 26, No. 1 (November 2000) pp. 41-84