m_topn picture
Atlantic Monthly Sidebar

A U G U S T  1 8 9 9

The Break-up of China

THE literal "cycle of Cathay," or period of sixty years,--not the vague literary expression of Lord Tennyson,--which has just ended, was probably the most momentous for China, if not for the world at large; for it was in 1839 that the difficulties of intercourse between the East and the West came to the first crisis. The year 1899 seems to mark another crisis, which, as regards the integrity of the Chinese problem, may prove final. Yet the situation in Far Eastern Asia was grasped by only a few Western observers before 1895, when the struggle for suzerainty over Corea revealed the helplessness of China, and lifted Japan to a seat in the council of Powers. Though worsted in two foreign wars and nearly wrecked by an internal convulsion, the government of the "Son of Heaven" had learned nothing new and forgotten nothing old. The abortive issue of the French attack in 1884 seemed even to give it greater arrogance, and to increase the deference with which it was treated by Europe.

For ten years after the late Jules Ferry had declared Peking to be "une quantite negligeable" events conspired to prove his estimate incorrect. The Burlingame burlesque was forgotten, and the Dragon was again believed to be awakening. He looked very formidable--at a distance. Taking into consideration the blindness of the British, who had been the pioneers of trade, and whose commercial supremacy was still unthreatened, to the political and social conditions of the country, we need not wonder at the ignorance displayed by other peoples. English military experts referred to China as a desirable ally in the struggle, then thought imminent, of Slav and Saxon over India. A succession of muzzled or incompetent envoys represented Queen Victoria at Peking, and set to the consuls throughout the Chinese Empire an example of subservience to native authorities intensely mortifying to the foreign commercial communities which had grown to prosperity under a more vigorous regime. The lives and property of the Queen's subjects became so cheap that they were the favorite toys of petty mandarins.
During all this period the attitude of the American government and people was different, but hardly more enlightened. The relations of the United States to china were peculiar; the few American resident merchants, who had built up fortunes by exporting Oriental produce, disappeared, and no large importers had arisen. The delusions of a prohibitive tariff and a purely home market paralyzed American enterprise abroad, and the effect of our navigation laws was to deprive us of that share in the carrying trade of Asia which we had enjoyed before our civil war. On the other hand, an enormous influx of Chinese peasants upon the Pacific coast had glutted the labor market, and produced as bitter a racial hostility to them as could be reciprocated by the untraveled multitudes of the Flowery Land. Familiarity with the Chinese individual in our own country had bred contempt for his nation at home, and the interests, missionary rather than commercial, of American citizens in China were more courageously though not more skillfully upheld than those of European subjects.

How long the nations of the West might have indulged in pleasant dreams of a self-instructed Chinese monarchy holding out both hands for the world's commerce and civilization, varied by that strange recurrent nightmare known as "the Yellow Peril," it is difficult to say. But the internal ferment and consequent expansion of Japan hastened the awakening. At first the attention of Europe was concentrated on the naval struggle in the Yellow Sea, from which it was thought possible to learn valuable lessons in armament and tactics. Even after the destruction of Chinese sea power and the occupation of Corea by Japanese troops, the danger threatening the Celestial Empire itself was not realized in Europe. China, it was widely and confidently asserted, could absorb Japanese armies as she would a duststorm. They must simply melt away, leaving their island homes depopulated. The conservative prophets were so rapidly discomfited that bewilderment seized the press and politicians of Great Britain. The Yellow Peril bogey was transferred to Japan, and when Germany, Russia, and France decided to interfere, the authorities of Downing Street seemed willing to be ignored. Had a strong personality ruled the counsels of the Queen something might have been done to save British prestige; but Lord Rosebery was a man of many moods and many minds, hampered by an unpopular domestic policy which he had inherited together with that Elijah's mantle of leadership which was soon to trip him up.

The events which followed the Treaty of Shimonoseki are within the memory of every adult reader of the newspapers. Book after book has been published, professing to give a solution of the Far Eastern question, and often embodying merely the prejudices of a compiler or the perfunctory notes of a flying journalist. The utterances of the Honorable G.N. Curzon and Mr. Archibald R. Colquhoun were the most important, until the publication recently of Lord Charles Beresford's report to the British Associated Chambers of Commerce. (The Break-up of China. Harpers.) Lord Charles appeals not only to the commercial classes of his own country, but to the public of the United States as well; he is, like his predecessors, a believer in a fair field and no favor for all nations in China, but in addition to this he advocates an Anglo-American entent, which, with the probable adhesion of Japan and possibly of Germany, he regards as necessary to maintain the "open door." The alternative policy he judges "certain to encompass the doom of China, and equally certain to produce international strife. Mastery in Asia under a system of 'spheres of influence' will not be determined by effusion of ink."

The merit of this report lies in the fact that it gives the results of careful investigations on the spot by a man of world-wide fame in his profession, having extensive knowledge of human nature and a judgment as open and impartial as robust patriotism and special associations ever leave to us at maturity. Beresford received the confidence of all Anglo-Saxon communities in China, as well as assurances of sympathy from German traders and of hearty support by the people and press of Japan. He had access to the highest officials of the Chinese government, and almost every facility for verifying the military and naval collapse of the empire. He was also interviewed by the fugitive leader of the ill-fated Reform Party in China, which was overthrown by the coup d'etat of September, 1898. He saw the Russians at work in Manchuria and the Germans in Shantung, and he listened to the grievances of Englishmen against their consular service, to which some reformers in this country are wont to point as a model. He has studied the treaties, and observed the administration and effects of the tariff which depends upon them, as conscientiously as the forts and arsenals which might have more personal interest for a rear admiral who has seen active service. Above all, he has learned how to assimilate and condense the vast amount of information which he received, how to discard the extreme view, and how to sift the unfounded assertion. Whether or not one may agree with the practical utility of the open door policy, the Break-up of China is the most available and authoritative statement of essential truths for a student of politics or a seller of produce in the Orient.

Lord Charles has assuredly made out a good case against the inaction or opportunism of the British government amid recent developments, and he shows how seriously British and American trade is menaced by the closing of an immense general market. The advent of the United States to a seat on the court-martial of Powers which is trying the case of China is likely to be of great moment. Hitherto the majority has been distinctly inclined to give a sentence of summary decapitation and dissection. America, secure in a splendid isolation and confident in the permanent sufficiency of her domestic market, regarded the Oriental problem as academic, and its solution as immaterial to her welfare, until the guns of Admiral Dewey stirred the masses of his fellow countrymen to a keen sense of their needs and responsibilities. But other than sentimental reasons must be advanced for our undertaking with Great Britain or a syndicate of Powers to buttress the tottering colossus of China.

Almost all statistics of the foreign trade of China are based upon the returns of the Imperial Maritime Customs, which do not include the figures of import or export by overland routes. But the commerce of Western Europe and America is almost wholly sea-borne, and Lord Charles Beresford shows how great our export trade to China is, and how much it increased during the decade which ended with 1897. In free competition with British plain gray and white cotton goods, the American variety has risen from fourteen and a half per cent of the total import eleven years ago to twenty-nine and a half per cent during the year before last. The figures given by Consul-General Jernigan in his report of October 25, 1895, indicated that the value of the direct sea-borne trade relations between China and the United States for 1894 was greater than that between China and the European continent (Russia excepted); that it was more than double that between Russia and China, and amounted to nearly five eighths of the direct trade of Great Britain with China. Mr. A.R. Colquhoun stated that "the volume of the United States trade with China represented more than one seventh of the entire foreign trade of the empire in 1896. While the import trade from China has increased slowly, the export trade to China has increased one hundred years, and is more than fifty per cent larger than the German exports." (China in Transformation, page 156.) A depression in 1898, due in part to our war with Spain, is more than offset by the estimates for 1899. And all this notwithstanding the purchasing power of Chinese silver has fallen thirty per cent since 1893.

Our present rivalry with Russia is in kerosene oil. But the Russian oil is so much inferior that dishonest methods are employed to introduce it. Tins and cases which have contained American oil and still bear its trademarks are used to pack Russian oil, to the injury of the American exporter and the native consumer. Another branch of American trade, and one capable in an open market of indefinite development, is the importation of flour for the northern provinces; but if these regions of China, where wheat instead of rice is the staple food of the people, should be acknowledged as the Russian "sphere of influence," the exclusion of American flour and oil by administrative enactment is sure to follow. It is, moreover, noteworthy in the statistics of the northern ports that American imports have more generally increased in that section than in the Yangtse Valley or the southern provinces, where they are not at present threatened with political discrimination.

Russia has always been served by the best men she has in the career of diplomacy. With her especially it may be said that "a diplomat is an honest man sent abroad to lie for his country." There may be significance in the fact that her present ambassador at Washington has played a great part in the overshadowing influence of the Tsar at Peking. Of course, the cabinet and the press are given to understand, with extreme unctuousness, that Russian influence in Asia is friendly to American interests; but it is well to remember, as a guarantee of Russian good faith, the recent crime against the liberties of Finland.

Lord Charles Beresford's chapters on Railways and Waterways are highly interesting, because it is by facility of travel and transportation that the dough of Cathay must be leavened. But the distinguished defender of the open door is not always consistent in his exposition. He is inclined to surrender in practice a crucial part of his policy for the sake of getting it adopted in theory. "If the open door policy is maintained throughout China," he writes, "the more countries who employ their capital and energy in making railways, the better it will be for British trade; but in order to secure the open door policy, it may be that we shall have to concede to other countries preferential rights or spheres of interest, as far as railway enterprise is concerned. This we have already done with regard to Germany in Shantung and Russia in Manchuria, and the question arises, What is our position in the Yangtse Valley, where other Powers possess railway concessions?" Very pertinent; but if there are to be spheres of railway influence, why should there not be spheres of mining, bridging, conservancy, or other engineering influence? Where are they to cease, and how are they to be regulated? It would be a jungle of jurisdictions, a gnarled knot of privileges which only the sword could cut. We have already, as pointed out by Lord Charles, an example of conflicting courts in the residential concessions at the port of Hankow, where the invalidity of certain titles to real estate is the distress of the occupants, and would be the despair of an American conveyancer.

The trouble is that there has been no definite agreement among the Powers since the collapse of China was made clear to the meanest intellect. Each government has been bullying Peking in its turn, demanding this or that contract or concession with or without the color of a pretext. Where only a harbor or a fringe of seacoast is involved, the disadvantages of the scramble policy may not be immediately patent; but when it is extended to the complicated charters of public carriers, the development of mineral resources, or any enterprise requiring the employment of intricate machinery and skilled labor, the absurdity is manifest. It might reach such proportions that the consent of five Powers would be necessary to construct a breakwater in the Gulf of Pechili, or that one Power could veto the opening of a switch at a railway junction in the Yangtse Valley.

No such compromise is possible. Either, as Lord Charles Beresford believes and in the main strongly presents to us, "the world must adhere firmly to the open door and equal opportunity policy," with its logical sequence of a revival of the imperial authority in China by injecting stimulants and vigorously chafing the extremities, or there must be accurately surveyed and delimited geographical regions, where Briton, Cossack, Frank, Teuton, Japanese, or Yankee may grow whatever crop of institutions he may prefer and the soil can bear.

Is it for the benefit of the United States to deal with China as a vast unit under her native flag, or as fragments under many flags? That is what we have to decide; and Lord Charles confesses that, when he passed through America, the public mind was partly distracted from his message by the acute stage of the Philippine problem. It is to be hoped that our government is silently exercising the utmost vigilance in behalf of our commercial privileges on the continent of Asia. Failure to do so might not be politically disastrous to the present administration, but posterity will not forgive nor history condone faults of omission or indifference after such warning as have already been given. Surely, no American administration would seriously contemplate the establishment of a dependency or protectorate on the mainland of China, while our interests there may be safeguarded by international control and reciprocity; but it is difficult to see how these securities can be obtained without more definite engagements on the part of our State Department than our uninformed public opinion now demands. Nevertheless, the signs of a healthy and growing interest are numerous. The American Asiatic Association of those directly interested in the Far East was formed last year, with headquarters at New York, corresponding to the British China Association, and may in time possess equal weight. A very valuable document, Commercial China in 1899, has been issued by the Bureau of Statistics of the Treasury Department at Washington, and gives in a concise and intelligible form the main facts and prospects of the situation. A wide dissemination of this pamphlet is earnestly to be desired; and every factor is to be encouraged that brings home to American manufacturers and merchants the opportunity that awaits them,--an opportunity that, by a wise foreign policy and far-sighted commercial methods, can add immensely to our trade and to our international influence.


"The Break-Up of China, and Our Interest in It", The Atlantic Monthly, August 1899; Volume 84, No. 502; pages 276 - 280.
m_nv_cv picture m_nv_un picture m_nv_am picture m_nv_pr picture m_nv_as picture m_nv_se picture