The Huanggutun Incident was a successful attempt by the Japanese Kwantung Army to assassinate Zhang Zuolin, a Fengtian warlord by blowing up his train. The assassination, which occurred on June 4, 1928, takes its name from the Huanggtun train station, near Shenyang, where the attack took place. At the time, news of the attack was covered up within Japan, being referred to only by euphemisms such as “An Important Incident in Manchuria.”
Background to the Incident
After the 1911 Xinhai Revolution, centralized power in China weakened enormously, to the extent that effective power was exercised by military and official figures on a regional or even purely local basis. In the north of the country, the Beiyang Army, which had once been particularly strong, split into a number of warring factions in 1916, following Yuan Shikai’s death. The leader of the Fengtian group was Zhang Zuolin, who took control of Manchuria’s three northeastern provinces to put himself among China’s most significant warlords.
By 1924 and the appearance of the First United Front, three cliques were supported by major foreign powers. The Soviet Union backed the Kuomintang group, which would later go on to rule all of China under Chiang Kai-shek. The United States and most of the European powers supported the Zhili faction, while Japan threw its weight behind Zhang Zuolin’s Fengtian Army. Since the end of the Russo-Japanese war almost two decades earlier, Japan had had both political and economic interests in the development of the region, in particular its mostly untouched mineral wealth.
The Japanese Kwantung Army was responsible for the security of the South Manchurian Railway. Its troops were stationed in areas of Manchuria which allowed them to give both logistic and material support to the Fengtians. At first, the trade-off was satisfactory to both sides: the railroad’s security – and therefore the economic interests of Japan – were guaranteed by Zhang. In return, Japanese investment in Manchuria was increased, and the region’s long-standing problems with bandit attacks were considerably reduced. The Imperial Japanese Army also helped Zhang militarily, including in the putting down of an anti-Fengtian uprising.
Problems arose later on, however, when the needs and intentions of the two parties to the agreement began to diverge. Japan hoped for a future in which it occupied Manchuria in partnership with Zhang. However, Zhang himself was only interested in gaining Japanese aid so that he could secure his grip on the territory he already controlled, before making further territorial gains. Once Zhang was satisfied with his progress, he opened talks with both the United States and Britain, giving both nations a foothold in the economic and trade opportunities to be had in Manchuria – opportunities previously only open to Japan.
Meanwhile, Japan was concerned about the power of both Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists, who were growing in strength, and the still relatively young Soviet Union. For Manchuria to become dominated by either of these forces was completely unacceptable to Japan, which became unconvinced of Zhang Zuolin’s continued ability to maintain Manchuria’s effective independence. This was combined with a loss of trust in his leadership skills, and led to Japan plotting to establish de facto control over the region without either open military action or the intervention of any foreign power. The chosen course was to remove Zhang and replace him with a puppet leader.
On the evening of June 3, 1928, Zhang boarded a train in Beijing, intending to travel to Shenyang via the Jingfeng Railway. This line was closely guarded by loyal Fengtian troops, except for a bridge a few miles to the east of Huanggutun train station in the suburbs of Shenyang. This bridge was the place where the Jingfeng railroad crossed with the South Manchuria Railway, and as such it was particularly vulnerable to attack by outside forces.
It was the belief of Daisaku Komoto, a colonel in the Kwantung Army, that the best way to achieve the hoped-for change of leadership in the clique was to kill Zhang, being careful not to receive any direct orders from Japan which might be intercepted. Kaneo Tomiya, one of his captains, was put in charge of the operation, and one of that man’s subordinates actually placed the bomb on the bridge. Zhang’s train passed over the bridge at dawn on June 4, at which point the bomb exploded. Several of Zhang’s staff were killed at once, and Zhang himself died of his injuries a few hours later.
Aftermath and Consequences
The leadership of the Kwantung Army was caught unaware by the assassination, and was therefore unable to take advantage by blaming enemies of Zhang from within China for the attack. This in turn meant that Japan had no pretext to intervene militarily. International opinion was highly critical of the assault, with even the authorities Tokyo refusing to speak out in its favor. Instead, Zhang’s son, Zhang Xueliang, emerged as the surprise new leader of the Fengtian clique. Keen to avoid conflict with Japan, the new leader began talks with Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists. It was to be several more years before the Kwantung Army was able to mount another attempt at establishing a puppet leadership in Manchuria.