Is Instability In China’s Future?

The 1890s have resulted in turmoil for the Chinese empire. Since the introduction of western nations into the politics of East Asia the economic, political and military power of China has been threatened. Successive concessions to the foreigners have eroded China’s ability to function. The Treaty of Shimonoseki triggered a realization that the empire is failing to provide protection and security for the citizens of China. Recognizing the threat to the power of the throne, the Guangxu Emperor and the Dowager Empress Cixi were forced to endorse Kang Youwei and the Boxer Rebellion in order to remain in power, but these affirmations paved the way for further political instability.

Following the Arrow war, top ranking bureaucrats acknowledged that China was not modernizing at a level comparable with foreign powers and a change was initiated to ameliorate the gap. The Self-Strengthening movement resulted. There was a push to modernize industry in China. Although effective in certain industries, such as the military and navy, accomplishments of the effort were soon lost to warfare. The treaty of Shimonoseki following the first Sino-Japanese War severely hampered the effort to industrialize and marked a end to the movement. The Self-Strengthening movement was concluded to be a failure. Since the imperial bureaucracy could not accomplish industrialization, the Guangxu emperor was forced to accept the revisionist notions of Kang Youwei as an alternative. China clearly needed to reconstruct its power and Kang Youwei’s ideas provided a possible ideological structure.

Kang Youwei’s ideas were a radical change from past tradition. He maintained that Confucius promoted reform instead of the preservation of past institutions. In 1895 Kang issued the Ten Thousand National Word Memorial in response to the Treaty of Shimonoseki, proclaiming it a national humiliation.(1) Kang’s rhetoric was convincing and the imperial bureaucracy had no other place to turn. The Guangxu emperor endorsed Kang’s ideas and began the Hundred-Days reform movement. It is likely that the Guangxu emperor also used Kang as a way to secure power from Cixi. During this period the examination system was terminated. Kang pushed a new definition of the Chinese state based on a constitution and national assembly.(2) Empress Cixi unexpectedly regained power and the Guangxu emperor was placed under house arrest. She revoked the reforms of the Hundred Days movement.

The return of the Dowager Emperess did not change China’s politically crippled state. Cixi tried to cope with the same problems plaguing the empire. In 1899 the Righteous Harmony Society launched the Boxer Rebellion. The combination of natural disasters and a failing central government led to an escalating cycle of violence. This rebellion contained anti-foreign, anti-Christain, and anti-Manchu elements.(3) The Qing government failed to suppress the rebellion. Facing few options and hoping to maintain a position of power, Empress Cixi adopted an anti-foreign view and elected to support the rebellion.  In 1900, the Eight-Nation Foreign Expeditionary Force intervened in response to violence against foreigners. The force crushed the rebellion, and punished the Qing. Due to the rebellion’s anti-foreign direction, it is clear that the Treaty of Shimonoseki was fresh in the minds of the people. The defeat by the foreign force only worsened the lingering embarrassment resulting from the treaty. The harsh Boxer Protocol, featuring an enormous indemnity, reminded the Chinese of their powerlessness and the need for future reform.

The Guangxu Emperor and the Dowager Empress Cixi were driven to accept Kang Youwei’s influence and the Boxer Rebellion because Chinese could not function as a sovereign nation following the Treaty of Shimonoseki. The new concessions forced by foreigners after the Boxer rebellion only exacerbated the situation, making future instability and reform to the Chinese political system inevitable. Both the Guangxu Emperor and the Dowager Empress Cixi adopted radical doctrines in an attempt to protect withering Qing power. Unfortunately the outcome resulted in a situation which only further undermined imperial power making future instability likely.

1. R. Keith Schoppa, Revolution and its Past: Identities and Change in Modern Chinese History (Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Education, Inc., 2011), 107.

2. Ibid., 117.

3. Ibid.,119.

Repercussions of the Boxer Rebellion Through a Political Cartoon


Repercussions of the Boxer Rebellion Through a Political Cartoon

This is a western cartoon, published by Puck magazine on the 15 of August, 1900, depicting the current situation in China during the Boxer Rebellion. The caricature of China is clearly displayed as beaten and trampled by western nations. They are fighting over the spoils of victory. From the western perspective China is clearly a conquered foe that can be divided and manipulated at will. The Qing, at this stage in their reign, are clearly unable to cope with threats to Chinese authority. Once again, this is another example of China’s vulnerability and instability. China must reform in order to survive.

This is written as a Chinese reporter’s opinion evaluating a foreign cartoon.

Image from: “The Boxer Rebellion in Editorial Cartoons,” accessed December 2, 2013,

The Sino-Japanese War Cripples China

The first Sino-Japanese war, fought from August 1894 to April 1895, shook China to its very core. China had traditionally been the center of the world. Previous defeats to European powers chipped at this veneer. The defeat by Japan, a supposedly inferior Asian power, shattered this notion. Following the Arrow War, China attempted a modernization movement, known as the Self-Strengthening movement, to increase the economic and industrial potential of China. The Treaty of Shimonoseki ended the Self-Strengthening movement and destroyed China’s ability to further industrialize which also impeded China’s ability to function as a sovereign nation.

The treaty begins by stating Korea is completely independent.(1) The origins of the first Sino-Japanese war can be traced to an escalating rebellion in Korea. When a rebellion was incited on the peninsula, Japan sent troops claiming that the Chinese were unable to control the territory. Chinese troops later arrived and the situation escalated.(2) By declaring Korea independent, the Japanese are effectively claiming rights to the region because there are no other major powers in the region besides the Japanese. In the next article of the treaty, Japan claims a series of regions. These include Taiwan, the Pescadores Islands, and areas of southern Manchuria.(3) When a empire can not hold onto the territories there is a serious threat to its sovereignty. Both Western nations and the citizens of China recognized this weakness. The people living in China likely thought that the empire could no longer serve their needs and protect them. When there is a belief that the empire is not able to function, instability and uncertainty result.

The Treaty of Shimonoseki further harmed China by forcing indemnity payments. Japan requested “200,000,000 Kuping Taels; the said sum to be paid in eight installments,…”(4) These payments would have been devastating for the Chinese empire. Following the loss of the Arrow war, leading Chinese bureaucrats pushed a policy of self-strengthening and industrialization. Most impressive was the development of a modern navy. Unfortunately many of the accomplishments were lost in war with France over Vietnam and the Sino-Japanese war. (5) The extra money that is needed to pay the indemnity would make industrialization impossible and possibly hinder more basic government duties.

China was further handicapped economically by the treaty. Japan required China to allow Japanese businesses to manufacture goods in ports that are open to foreign trade.(6) Compounding the effect of this clause is the “Most Favored Nation Principle”, established earlier by a series of unequal treaties with foreign nations. All foreign powers were now able to manufacture goods on Chinese soil. This fact further hampers China’s economic sovereignty. Any industrialization would help foreigners and not the Chinese. The fact that foreigners could exploit China’s resources shows the weakness of the Chinese state. The weakness of China, evident to foreign powers, gave China no flexibility to negotiate previous treaties. China was pinned to the consequences of the Treaty of Shimonoseki.

The Treaty of Shimonoseki highlights the failings of the Chinese empire. The effort to industrialize was thwarted by a large indemnity and the foreigners’ ability to build factories. This combines with the loss of territory to weaken Chinese sovereignty and status as a world power. As a result of the Treaty, China sovereignty was weakened by the loss of territory to the Japanese and by the considerable economic losses. If this was the result of the Self-Strengthening movement, it can only be considered a failure.

1. David G. Atwill and Yurong Y. Atwill, ed. Sources in Chinese History (Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Education, Inc., 2010), 92.

2. R. Keith Schoppa, Revolution and its Past: Identities and Change in Modern Chinese History (Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Education, Inc., 2011), 109.

3. Atwill and Atwill, Sources in Chinese History, 92.

4. Ibid.

5. Schoppa, Revolution and its Past, 101.

6. Atwill and Atwill, Sources in Chinese History, 93.

Interview with Kang Youwei

The North China Herald was able to obtain are rare interview with Kang Youwei, a rising reformer with unique ideas.

Reporter: Welcome Kang Youwei. Thank you for your time. What do you feel is currently plaguing China?

Kang Youwei: I am happy to be here and hope this interview will help convince China of the reforms needed for China to survive. China’s fundamental issues arise from clinging to ancient institutions, most specifically the inefficient political bureaucracy and examination system. Over time all political institutions acquired deficiencies that must be dealt with. “A survey of all states in the world will show that those states which under took reforms became strong while those states which clung to the past perished.”(1) The present political system in China is a remnant of the system of past dynasties. The remnants do not reflect the intentions of our ancestors. These current institutions to not demonstrate the wishes of Confucius. They are shadows of their original form. The imperial bureaucracy and examinations system may have been effective in the past but the political environment has radically changed. In order to survive as a unbroken entity, China must change.

Reporter: Why do you believe that the present is different than the past?

Kang Youwei: Our recent defeat by Japan is the most obvious example. Japan was able to utilize the deficit in China’s influence in the Korean peninsula. Japan used a series of minor protests to send troops under the pretense that China did not have control.  The tributary system is no longer a viable way to control border territories. China has been repeatedly abused by foreign powers and unless we change this trend will continue. The Treaty of Shimonoseki is a extraordinary embarrassment for China. All efforts must be made to avoid addition humiliation. How can China function when we are scoffed by the powers of the world?

Reporter: What sort of political system should China adopt?

Kang Youwei: China is unique. Even though past institutions are not serving China well today, the past should not be forgotten. I do not propose we completely abandon our institutions. Democratic republics have served western countries well. But China is not like western nations. Our customs and history are very different. Instead, for guidance we must look to Japan. The Meiji Reformation addressed similar issues with Japanese institutions. The Shogunate was not destroyed but augmented by a parliament. China must do the same. It is time that the Emperor’s powers were under the control of a constitution and parliamentary body. While some may say the imperial bureaucracy and examination systems, based on Confucian ideals, are what define China, this is not the case. Confucius  himself was a revisionist, modifying past foundations of the Chinese political structure. Now in the present, we like Confucius must adapt.

Reporter: What do you believe are the first steps towards reform?

Kang Youwei: The Confusion examination system is outdated and needs to end. It wastes time and focuses on fine script and the traditional Chinese style of essay. This does not affect the candidate’s ability to govern in a modern sense. Administrative ability does not come from artful poetry. The competence of administrators needs to come from applicable subject matter. As a result of the Treaty of Shimonoseki, I know a wish to reform exists throughout China but the progress is haphazard. Government policy must guide the reshaping of China and the public will follow. I call upon the Guangxu Emperor to initiate the needed reforms.

From: David G. Atwill and Yurong Y. Atwill, ed. Sources in Chinese History (Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Education, Inc., 2010), 100-102.

1. David G. Atwill and Yurong Y. Atwill, ed. Sources in Chinese History (Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Pearson Education, Inc., 2010), 100.