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10-08-2015, 16:18

The Climax of Imperialism in China

In their weakened state, the Qing rulers finally began to listen to the appeals of reform-minded officials, who called for a new policy of “self-strengthening,” under which Western technology would be adopted while Confucian principles and institutions were maintained intact. This policy, popularly known by its slogan “East for essence, West for practical use,” remained the guiding standard for Chinese foreign and domestic policy for decades. Some people even called for reforms in education and in China’s hallowed political institutions, but such radical proposals were rejected. During the last quarter of the century, the Manchus attempted to modernize their military establishment and build up an industrial base without touching the essential elements of traditional Chinese civilization. Railroads, weapons arsenals, and shipyards were built, but the value system remained essentially unchanged. In the end, the results spoke for themselves. During the last two decades of the nineteenth century, the European penetration of China, both political and military, intensified. At the outer edges of the Qing Empire, rapacious imperialists began to bite off territory. The Gobi Desert north of the Great Wall, Chinese Central Asia, and Tibet, all inhabited by non-Chinese peoples and never fully assimilated into the Chinese Empire, were now gradually removed totally from Beijing’s control. In the north and northwest, the main beneficiary was Russia, which took advantage of the dynasty’s weakness to force the cession of territories north of the Amur River in Siberia. In Tibet, competition between Russia and Great Britain prevented either power from seizing the territory outright but at the same time enabled Tibetan authorities to revive local autonomy never recognized by the Chinese. On the southern borders of the empire, British and French advances in mainland Southeast Asia removed Burma and Vietnam from their traditional vassal relationship to the Manchu court. Even more ominous developments were taking place in the Chinese heartland, where European economic penetration led to the creation of so-called spheres of influence dominated by diverse foreign powers. Although the imperial court retained theoretical sovereignty throughout the country, in practice its political, economic, and administrative influence beyond the region of the capital was increasingly circumscribed. The breakup of the Manchu dynasty accelerated during the last five years of the nineteenth century. In 1894, the Qing went to war with Japan over Japanese incursions into the Korean peninsula, which threatened China’s long-held suzerainty over the area (see the box on p. 48 and “Joining the Imperialist Club” later in this chapter). To the surprise of many observers, the Chinese were roundly defeated, confirming to some critics the devastating failure of the policy of self-strengthening by halfway measures. More humiliation came in 1897, when Germany, a new entrant in the race for spoils in East Asia, used the pretext of the murder of two German missionaries by Chinese rioters to demand the cession of territories in the Shandong peninsula. The approval of this demand by the imperial court set off a scramble for territory by other interested powers. Russia now demanded the Liaodong peninsula with its ice-free harbor at Port Arthur, and Great Britain weighed in with a request for a coaling station in northern China. The latest scramble for territory had taken place at a time of internal crisis in China. In the spring of 1898, an outspoken advocate of reform, the progressive Confucian scholar Kang Youwei, won the support of the young emperor Guangxu for a comprehensive reform program patterned after recent changes initiated in Japan. Without change, Kang argued, China would perish. During the next several weeks, the emperor issued edicts calling for major political, administrative, and educational reforms. Not surprisingly, Kang’s ideas for reform were opposed by many conservatives, who saw little advantage to copying the West. Most important, the new program was opposed by the emperor’s aunt, the Empress Dowager Cixi, the real source of power at court. Cixi had begun her political career as a concubine to an earlier emperor. After his death, she became a dominant force at court and in 1878 placed her infant nephew, the future emperor Guangxu, on the throne. For two decades, she ruled in his name as regent. Cixi interpreted Guangxu’s action as a Britishsupported effort to reduce her influence at court. With the aid of conservatives in the army, she arrested and ex- ecuted several of the reformers and had the emperor incarcerated in the palace. Kang Youwei succeeded in fleeing abroad. With Cixi’s palace coup, the so-called One Hundred Days of reform came to an end.

 

 

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