HL Deb 20 June 1939 vol 113 cc549-52

4.18 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to ask His Majesty's Government if they are able to make a statement on the present position with regard to Tientsin.


My Lords, on April 9 Dr. S. G. Cheng, manager of the Federal Reserve Bank at Tientsin and newly appointed Superintendent of Customs, was assassinated in the British Concession. This was the first case of violence which had occurred in the Concession since the outbreak of hostilities. The assassin, a Chinese, escaped. The municipal authorities invited Japanese co-operation and carried out a number of raids in the Concession, as a result of which several arrests were made. The Japanese authorities alleged that four of these were members of a terrorist gang connected with this murder and with the death of three Japanese soldiers. These men were handed over to them for questioning and two made confessions implicating themselves, which, however, they later retracted when returned to the custody of the British municipal authorities.

In the course of the lengthy negotiations which followed, the Japanese authorities failed to produce independent evidence connecting the men with the crime, and in the absence of such evidence His Majesty's Government did not feel justified in giving instructions for them to be handed over to the local District Court. This attitude is in accordance with the practice followed for the past twenty-two months. His Majesty's Consul-General accordingly informed his Japanese colleague on June 6 that the four men would be held by him pending the production of further evidence, failing which they would be eventually expelled from the Concession, that two other men found in possession of bombs would be handed over, and that in future any breach of neutrality would be dealt with either by handing over the culprit to the de facto authorities for trial or by expulsion from the Concession. A proclamation to this effect was issued in the British Concession on June 7.

The Japanese authorities, however, indicated that they considered this reply to be unsatisfactory and demanded that the four men be handed over. In pursuance of their efforts to find a just and amicable solution, His Majesty's Government then proposed that the available evidence, and any other evidence which might be secured, should be submitted to an Advisory Committee consisting of one British, one Japanese and a neutral member. The United States Government agreed to nominate a member and the United States Consul-General at Tientsin was at the same time authorised to use his good offices. The Japanese military authorities at Tientsin rejected the proposal for an Advisory Committee and initiated a blockade of the British and French Concessions at Tientsin at 6 a.m. on June 14.

The British military authorities have taken all precautions possible for the maintenance of order, and His Majesty's ship "Lowestoft" is moored alongside the Bund of the British Concession. Barrier restrictions have since been enforced with extreme rigour. While foreigners other than British appear to have been allowed through the barriers on production of passes, all British subjects have been held up and closely searched and in four cases have even been subjected to considerable indignities. Three British subjects have been arrested—Major Law, Mr. Mayell, and a Mr. Smith. Of these the two former have been released but the third remains under detention despite the requests of His Majesty's Consul that he should be handed over. The entry of perishable foodstuffs, including vegetables and milk, and ice into the British Concession has been delayed by rigid search carried out at the barriers, and arrivals therefore continue to be spasmodic. Normal supplies are reported to be reaching the markets in the adjoining French Concession. As regards shipping, it has been announced that all ships arriving at Tientsin will be stopped and inspected, and this has been carried out against British vessels including tugs and lighters. On June 18 two British coasting steamers however came up river to Tientsin without stoppage or search, and another vessel was stopped and subjected only to perfunctory search.

Protests have been addressed by His Majesty's Consul at Tientsin to his Japanese colleague concerning the indignities inflicted on British subjects and the search of British ships and against the interference with food supplies, and strong representations have also been made by His Majesty's Ambassador at Tokyo to the Japanese Minister for Foreign Affairs who has taken note of them and undertaken to make inquiries. Sir Robert Craigie has also further drawn attention to the serious implication of the statement made by the Japanese military spokesman at Tientsin to the effect that the questions at issue cannot now be settled by the handing over of the four suspects but that the objective of the blockade is to secure a much wider form of co-operation from the British authorities in North China.

The general position is not yet clear. It would appear that the original demand for the handing over of the four men has been confused by the introduction of larger issues of general policy. No formal representations have been received from the Japanese Government on this subject, and it is still hoped that a local settlement will be found possible. His Majesty's Government have expressed their willingness to discuss measures to secure what has always been their aim at Tientsin—namely, that the neutrality of the Concession should be maintained and that it should not be in any way the base for hostile activities. His Majesty's Ambassador at Tokyo is endeavouring to clarify the situation with the Japanese Government and I discussed it yesterday with the Japanese Ambassador. His Majesty's Government trust that the Japanese Government will not desire, any more than do His Majesty's Government, to widen the area of disagreement or to complicate a situation that is already extremely difficult. At the same time, they are fully alive to the reactions of the present dispute on the position of other British and International Settlements in China. His Majesty's Government are maintaining the closest touch with the French and United States Government.