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.

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