The ‘11-9 incident’: When police fired on Chinese student protesters

Society & Culture

In November 1928, students marched through the streets of Harbin. When they began forcing their way through police lines, things turned violent.

Illustration for The China Project by Alex Santafé

This Week in China’s History: November 9, 1928

On November 9, 1928, as many as 6,000 students, in defiance of a government prohibition of such demonstrations, marched through the streets of Harbin, China’s northernmost major city. The students were protesting Japanese aggression and promoting Chinese nationalism, but as they approached the gates to Daowai district — one of the city’s three main divisions — they were confronted by Chinese civil and military officials who ordered them to disperse. When the students demurred, the officials warned that they would use force if they did not comply: police in black uniforms appeared in front of the students with weapons drawn.

Rejecting the orders, and emboldened by several previous days of demonstrations, the students began forcing their way through the police lines. Shots rang out.

How was it that Chinese authorities were firing weapons against their own people?

Modern Harbin had been founded as a Russian semi-colony in the last decade of the 19th century. With the demise of the Russian empire, conflict between Russians and Chinese became common in the city, and with the rise of the Chinese republic, Chinese nationalism became a consistent theme as the city government sought to promote the city’s Chinese identity. But the protests of 1928, while nationalist, were not directed against Russians, nor were they supported by the Chinese authorities. What was going on?

The target of these protests were railroads. Japan, like Russia, saw Manchuria as a resource-rich territory with which to fuel its imperial ambitions, and after defeating Russia in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05, Japanese interest in Manchuria accelerated and expanded. In late 1927, a treaty gave Japan the right to develop five new railroad lines in Manchuria. These lines would feed into the existing South Manchurian Railway, running south from Harbin to Dalian on the Bohai Gulf. These lines would permit easy transportation of Manchurian resources — especially coal from Fushun — for export to Japan.

The railroad lines were agreed to by the central government in Nanjing, on the principle — endorsed by Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石 Jiǎng Jièshí) — that China was not yet strong enough to resist Japanese encroachment. Acquiescing to Japanese demands would, in this view, gain time to enable China to strengthen its military and economic ability to fight Japan. On the frontier, though, this approach seemed weak, perhaps treasonous. In Harbin, the influx of Japanese workers and soldiers in connection with the railway project aroused resistance.

In early November, merchants, students, and workers in Harbin organized to petition the government to reject the new railroads. As I described in Creating a Chinese Harbin, all the city’s Chinese secondary schools, universities, and law schools joined the movement, as did workers with the transit company, electric company, major newspapers, and religious groups including organizations of Chinese Christians and Muslims. On November 5, about 1,500 people reached the Japanese consulate and demonstrated outside, chanting “Down With Japanese Imperialism!” and “Preserve Railway Rights!” Local officials, led by city administrator Zhāng Huànxiāng 张焕相, encouraged the demonstration and supported the protesters, who marched across the city for several hours.

The protest drew swift and stern rebuke from Japanese officials and press (Harbin had a dozen newspapers, published in numerous languages, led by Chinese, Japanese, Russian, English, Hebrew, French, and German). Outraged that students had been permitted to stand outside the consular gate and “shout slanders at Japan,” the consulate demanded that officials condemn the protests and take steps to prevent a repeat.

The Japanese pressure reached the provincial government in Changchun (Harbin at that time was part of Jilin province), which ordered Zhang to take action. Zhang, following his instructions to the letter, issued a half-hearted edict declaring that “Harbin is a place where Chinese and foreigners mix together” and that anti-foreign demonstrations would not be allowed.

Despite these orders — and it is not clear if Zhang even issued them prior to the march — organizers planned an even larger demonstration for November 9. Gathering at 8 a.m. at the city’s No. 2 Middle School (where writer Xiāo Hóng 萧红 was a student at the time), the ranks swelled to 6,000, and they marched through the symbols of the city: St Nicholas Cathedral and cobblestoned Zhongyang Street, a street that even today resembles a small European city rather than a large Chinese one.

The protests called on the Chinese of the city to rise up against not only Japanese imperialism but the frailty of their own government. “At this very moment, our government is being forced to sign treaties [surrendering our sovereign rights],” student speakers intoned, according to Chinese press reports. Predicting the near future, the speaker went on to warn that these railroads were just the beginning: “Before long, [Manchuria] will be invaded by Japan.” (In less than three years, as it happened.)

But despite the anti-Japanese tone of the protests, it was not until Chinese police intervened that violence ensued. The local administrator, Zhang Huanxiang, had made clear that he would take no action against the protests. But county- and provincial-level officials stepped in to enforce the will of the central government, confronting the protesters and insisting that they disperse. When the students refused, trying to push through police lines instead, rifle shots rang out. The police had fired into the air, but the gunshots provoked panic, and as the marchers sought safety, additional police moved in from behind.

One student from the first middle school described what happened: “We students shouted at the top of our lungs. The military police raised their rifle butts and began beating us. Many students were injured and bleeding [but] charged the police line.” Then, the police commander, riding on horseback, ordered the soldiers to open fire on the protesters.

Accounting for casualties in events like this is never easy, and in this case it’s especially challenging because the sources diverge so greatly. One Japanese newspaper reported that 11 people were killed, though no other source corroborates this. The American consul contended that the police fired in the air and that no one was killed, but that “during the resulting scramble several of the students were injured in the crush, but none evidently very seriously.” Chinese student reports claim nearly 250 injuries; the official provincial investigation put that number at about 50.

The outcome of what in Harbin is called the “11-9 incident” was just the opposite of what the protesters sought. Japanese pressure forced provincial authorities to remove Zhang Huanxiang. Although there were unintended consequences to this — Zhang’s replacement was not as compliant as Japanese officials had hoped — the ability of a foreign power to remove a Chinese government official was grim foreshadowing of growing Japanese influence in the region. In March 1932, Harbin was part of an independent Manchukuo, sponsored and directed by Japan.

The case of Chinese students and officials coming to blows over what amounted to a difference between local and national interests is of course relevant today. Xí Jìnpíng’s 习近平 China is one that insists on the subordination of all regional interests to those of the nation (and the Party). As we have seen, much depends on the ability of the central government to enforce its will on those who disagree. Ironically, in 1928, it was the local interests — derided by the central government as a dangerous path that would lead to war or disintegration — that may have offered a way to save the budding republic.

This Week in China’s History is a weekly column.