Category Archives: China

14 MARCH, 1917: Breaking China

One reason the First World War outside Western Europe has been consigned to obscurity by modern popular history is that the world order of the day dictated posterity’s priorities.  To clarify that deeply pompous preamble, most places outside the centres of global wealth and power in the early 20th century seemed relatively unimportant to contemporaries studying or writing about the War, the loudest and most numerous of whom came from the centres of global wealth and power. In other words, the West wrote the history and bequeathed its priorities of the day to future generations.

One reason I write this stuff is because a lot of those places that seemed relatively unimportant during the War – and in many cases for a long time afterwards – have become central to the way our world runs today. Africa, the Middle East, Japan, the USA, the outer reaches of Europe and the Caucasus, you name it, the First World War helped shape it and it really matters today. That brings me to the empire that was, in 1917, a strife-torn, crumbling, apparently decadent, politically feeble carcass ripe for dismemberment, and is now the world’s most formidable centre of wealth and power.

So how was the world war playing in China, and why did the Chinese government sever diplomatic relations with the Central Powers on 14 March 1917?   With apologies for my fairly random selections from the Chinese-to-English spelling multiverse, here’s some background.

The Chinese Empire was in very bad shape when the War broke out, and had been for some time. Politically isolated and industrially backward, its population of around 420 million (in 1911) was ruled, at least in theory, by the Manchu dynasty during the late nineteenth century, but the imperial government’s power was under republican pressure in Beijing and, with individual warlords in control of the provinces, barely extended beyond the region immediately around the city.

The 1890s had seen the Empire lose control of Taiwan and Korea after military defeat by an expansionist Japanese Empire, and concede economic control to European empires across large swathes of the southern coastal zone. Outrage at European penetration triggered the 1900 Boxer Rebellion by nationalist elements in Beijing, but its main effect was to give European powers an excuse to increase their military presence in China. Meanwhile, in northeast, the Japanese were establishing economic and political control over the vastness of Manchuria, a process hastened after Japan effectively eliminated the competition with victory over Russia in the war of 1904–05.

This prolonged series of imperial disasters came home to roost in October 1911, when republican revolution erupted in Beijing. Led by Sun Yat-sen’s ‘Alliance Society’, it forced the child emperor’s abdication the following February, but within a few days Sun Yat-sen lost power to Yuan Shi-kai, who became president of the new republic and reorganised the Alliance Society as the Kuomintang Party. Yuan remained in office until his death in June 1916, but only ever controlled an enclave around Beijing while a rival Kuomintang government sat at Canton, a Japanese client regime ran Manchuria and the rest of the provinces were ruled by independent warlords.

Sun Yat-sen was a major 20th-century figure, seen as the ‘father’ of post-imperial China… but his career amounted to a series of failures, and when a chance at success beckoned, in 1925, he died.  Check him out anyway.

The outbreak of war in Europe didn’t provide China with the economic boost felt by so many other neutral states, partly because rapid economic expansion was virtually impossible in a vast country with only some 13,000km of railways, and partly because almost all modern Chinese industry was in foreign hands. Cotton and opium remained the country’s principle exports throughout the period, and the War’s main effect was to distract European powers from restraining the ambitions of Japan, which wasted no time seizing the German enclave of Tsingtao in 1914 and forced major economic concessions from China under the threat of war in early 1915 (18 January, 1915: Statement of Intent).

The Chinese government did, on the other hand, experience the diplomatic pressure to join both sides that was common to most neutral states after August 1914. Yuan and his strongly pro-Allied prime minister, Tuan Chi-jui, favoured British over German advances because they promised an end to reparations owed since the Boxer Rebellion, but never came close to achieving a consensus among neutralist nationalists or warlords with better things to do. After Yuan’s death in June 1916, Tuan Chi-jui remained prime minister under his successor, Li Yuan-hung, and overrode opposition from both the president and the Kuomintang to pursue negotiations with the Allies.

Negotiations bore fruit in the diplomatic break with Germany and Austria-Hungary, voted into effect by Tuan’s cabinet on 14 March 1917 and followed by seizure of the half dozen German ships in Chinese ports. Having simply ignored opposition, Tuan was ready to go the whole way, but on the same day president Li and the Beijing parliament joined forces to block any declaration of war. Tuan reacted by moving his headquarters north of Beijing and building up military strength, while Li and parliament pursued their new and hitherto unlikely alliance by voting Tuan out of office in April.

At this point, Chinese politics melted down into a summer of warlord mayhem, with Tuan threatening to attack the capital, Li and the Kuomintang summoning warlord Chang Hsun to protect the city, and Chang instead seizing control as regent in the name of a restored emperor. The new emperor, Puyi, lasted a fortnight after his installation in the Forbidden City on 1 July, before Duan marched on Beijing in the name of the republic and Chang fled.

 

Beijing in 1917. Not industrialised.

In theory, the pro-Allied party had won the day. In practice the process of persuading China into the War, albeit carried out with less ferocity and urgency than the bullying directed at more strategically useful neutrals, put a wrecking ball through the fragile edifice of Chinese central government. Republican politicians forced from Beijing by Chang’s short-lived coup fled to Canton, which became the centre of mounting political and military opposition to new president Feng Kuo-chang, the former vice-president and an ally of Tuan, who replaced Li on 18 July. China would go on to declare war against the Central Powers in August, a move that made little or no strategic difference to the wider conflict and barely impinged on the sprawling, violent internal disorder that consumed the vast majority of Chinese energies and resources for the duration, and for decades after the War.

I’m not for one moment suggesting that the Chinese Republic would have prospered if European empires had left the place alone during the First World War. Its constituency of squabbling nationalists and old-school warlords was a civil war waiting to happen and showing no signs of immediate resolution, while white imperialists can’t really be blamed for Japan’s altogether more disruptive behaviour. Then again, the casual (and in this case primarily British) diplomatic vandalism that helped turn Beijing into a war zone for a few months in 1917 had no real strategic justification, and was yet another case of the imperial fever that accompanied the new concept of ‘total war’. As understood in 1917, total war was an all-consuming fight to the finish that threatened the losers with extinction, providing European empires with all the justification they needed for ruthless pursuit of every alliance, sphere of influence or resource base, however trivial.

Just as they did in Greece, in Portugal, in the Middle East and pretty much everywhere else in the world, European diplomats and strategists brought only trouble to China during the First World War. Memoirs suggest many of them were aware of the damage they were causing but considered it necessary for the protection of their own homelands. They had no reason to believe that their homelands might one day be materially altered, even threatened, by changes in what were then geopolitically unimportant, often distant countries. On the other hand they, and the generation of historians that came after them, had every reason to suppose that the Chinese Empire was doomed to disintegration and of little significance to the futures of their homelands – but they were wrong, and we know that now, so maybe posterity should re-jig its priorities and pay some attention to the ways we messed with China.

18 JANUARY, 1915: Statements of Intent

A century ago, out on the eastern edge of England and under cover of darkness, low-flying German Zeppelins dropped bombs on Great Yarmouth and Kings Lynn, killing one or two residents in each and raising the curtain on a means of waging war that would blight much of the twentieth century.

You probably won’t hear much about the curse of ‘strategic’ or ‘area’ bombing from the heritage industry, or about the mounting enthusiasm for air attacks on civilian targets among military strategists all over Europe, and especially in Britain. Media consumers will, however, be seeing and hearing plenty about the raids themselves, the towns affected and the feelings of those involved, as reported by subsequent generations, so I’ll leave the eastern edge of England for now and turn instead to the eastern edge of the world.

I mentioned back in August that Japan, governed by a militarist, expansionist regime, treated the First World War as an opportunity to learn modern methods of warfare and to get in a little empire building while Europe’s big guns were busy elsewhere. Though in theory on the side of its European ally, Great Britain, and therefore able to seize the German enclave of Tsingtao on the Chinese coast, Japan’s interest in the wider war was purely notional. Like most relatively marginal belligerents, it had joined the conflict for gain – and the thing Japan most wanted to gain was control over China.

China was a mess. A nationalist regime had deposed the child emperor in 1912, but with warlords or rival parties in control of most provinces the new government’s writ never ran far beyond the area around Peking (as Beijing was then known to Europeans). Meanwhile the Empire’s vast territories were being chipped away by the incursions of major European powers, all of which had established well-defended coastal enclaves for trading purposes during the nineteenth century, and by Japan.

A victorious war in the mid-1890s had enabled Japan to detach Korea and the island of Formosa (Taiwan) from Chinese control, and to establish a dominant economic presence in the sprawling northeastern province of Manchuria. Once any danger of Russian rivalry had been eliminated by naval victory in 1904, Japan made no secret of its ambition to gobble up more of China, and was ready to act by the end of 1914.  On 18 January 1915, the Japanese government presented its Chinese counterpart with a list of grievances, known to history as the Twenty-One Demands, to be settled immediately on pain of war.

The Demands required China to stop leasing coastal enclaves to European powers, to give up effective control of both Manchuria and Shantung (Shandong) provinces, to permit Japanese part-ownership of Chinese heavy industries, and to accept Japanese ‘advisors’ at almost every level of government.  Barely surviving amid what amounted to internal chaos, the nationalist Chinese government could only accept the terms, although negotiations dragged on until May and British intervention prevented the appointment of Japanese advisors.

The Twenty-One Demands created a worldwide sensation at the time, and were generally viewed as a naked power grab. As anticipated in Tokyo, the major European states were too busy to do more than express disapproval, but the Demands did significantly heighten suspicion of Japan among politicians, soldiers and businessmen in the neutral United States. As such, they contributed to the momentous build up of naval and economic competition in the Pacific that would explode into warfare in 1941, but from a Chinese perspective they were merely a stage in a fifty-year war with Japan that would continue with barely a pause until 1945.

This was important stuff, helping shape the geopolitical landscape of the Second World War, and warping the economic and political development of China in ways that are still being played out. There is an argument that the entire first half of the twentieth century was one long world war, in which case China’s prolonged struggle for efficient self-determination could be seen as its defining tumult. Maybe not, but for all the long-term significance of bombs over Yarmouth, the world’s big story this time last century was the Twenty-One Demands.