china's incredible 19th century -- 8/27/19

Today's selection -- from President McKinley by Robert W. Merry. The grim, war-ridden history of China in the 19th century culminated in the bloody Boxer Rebellion of 1902, which pitted ordinary Chinese against Western missionaries. The Revolution of 1911 saw the end of two thousand years of empire, and during period, it was President William McKinley who likely prevented China from being carved up among the Western powers as Africa had been:

"But [in 1839-42] China sought to curtail Britain's lucrative Chinese opium trade. With superior firepower and warfare tactics, Britain scored successive battle­field victories, leading to the 1842 Treaty of Nanjing, which opened up five Chinese cities to British trade, including Shanghai, and imposed a robust indemnity upon the ruling dynasty. Hong Kong became a Brit­ish crown colony.

"Inevitably the Qing's weakness spawned further internal revolts, including the Taiping Rebellion of 1850-64, whose messianic leader, Hong Xiuquan, promised a utopian future that included 'both the end of the world and its perfection, possibly at the same time,' as historian David J. Silbey wryly noted. The Taipings captured Nanjing and ruled it for years before a Qing army brought them down. The struggle killed millions and further despoiled Chinese society.

"During this time China's rulers also fought Britain and France in the four-year Second Opium War, as it was called (though it had little to do with opium) [and was coincident with the murderous internal Taiping Rebellion]. The hostilities, stemming from an incident in Hong Kong Harbor involving a British sea captain and local Chinese officials, easily could have been settled diplomatically. But British arrogance and Chinese defensiveness stirred animosities that precluded a quick settle­ment. It finally ended in 1860 after a British-French force marched on Beijing and looted it 'with great gusto and no small amount of destruc­tion,' as Silbey wrote.

"Shortly thereafter, China's Emperor Xianfeng died and left the gov­ernment to his five-year-old son, Tongzhi. His mother, Noble Lady Yi, methodically gained power through a series of crafty and sometimes brutal maneuvers and ruled China as Empress Dowager Cixi. A sharp-edged woman with a keen sense of survival, she was once described as 'the only man in China.' She developed a festering anger over her country's long struggles with the West that had produced Portugal's ac­quisition of Macao, France's takeover of lndochina through various ac­tions of conquest and cession, and Britain's two Opium War victories. The latest humiliation was China's defeat in the 1894-95 Sino-Japanese War, which led to Japan's acquisition of Formosa and the nearby Pes­cadores Islands, along with Japanese access to Chinese trading ports. 

Empress Dowager Cixi

"Through the early McKinley years, the Chinese exploitation gathered momentum. After Germany obtained rights to Kiao-Chau Bay, Russia demanded the same rights over Port Arthur and Ta Lien-Wan, along with permission to construct a railway in Manchuria. China complied. Britain demanded a lease for Wei-Hai-Wei, on the Shan Tung peninsula, as well as a strategically significant coastal island. France got a lease for a coaling station. When Italy demanded a coal­ing station at San-Mun Bay, China balked, but Western pressure soon forced a reconsideration. Former U.S. secretary of state John Foster explained the power calculus to reporters. 'China,' he said, 'cannot withstand any assault from the sea, and Italy knows her helplessness.' Italy stopped short of a military attack but hovered nearby with threat­ening military force.

"The Washington Post captured the situation in a headline: 'China Taken by the Throat.' Many international experts predicted the eradi­cation of China as an independent nation with its partition into West­ern spheres of influence. One high European official at Beijing even suggested to the New York Times 'that the moment has now arrived for international control of China.' He added that the 'spheres of in­fluence' surge likely would bring America into the fray, probably in pursuit of the province of Chi-Li.

"The official was wrong. President McKinley had no interest in join­ing the frenzy and wanted to get Western hands off China's throat. [He instead brought about an open trading system with a policy that] contained three points: first, that all powers would recognize the other powers' vested interests, leased territory, and spheres of influence in China; second, that Chinese treaty tariffs would apply equally to all and would be collected by Chinese officials; and third, that no power would discriminate in favor of its own nationals with regard to harbor dues or railroad charges.

"This was a brilliant diplomatic stratagem. Though McKinley didn't want America involved in the sordid China land grab, he feared his country's diplomatic asceticism could lock it out of the vast China trade as the feeding frenzy continued. The open door policy ended that frenzy and put America on an equal footing with the other powers (leav­ing aside the concessions and spheres of interest already established). ...

"[This] handiwork soon was overtaken by the revolt that enveloped northern China when a call went forth that quickly inspired millions: 'Support the Qing; exterminate the foreigners.' It came from yet an­other secret society, Yi-He quan, translated as Righteous and Harmo­nious Fists and known among Westerners as 'the Boxers.' Like earlier Chinese secret societies, the Boxers emerged almost spontaneously among Chinese peasants, particularly in the fertile, densely populated northern province of Shandong, a strategic expanse that encompassed long stretches of the Yellow River and the Grand Canal and extended to the Chinese coastlands nearest Beijing. The Boxers of Shandong, displaying red sashes of defiance, were out for blood.

"Their initial targets were Chinese Christians. Western missionaries, both Catholic and Protestant, had arrived throughout the nineteenth century to spread the Word and deliver beneficent works through the establishment of churches, schools, and hospitals."



Robert W. Merry


President McKinley: Architect of the American Century


Simon & Schuster


Copyright 2017 by Robert W. Merry


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