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Understanding Chinese Politics

Neil Collins, Andrew Cottey
Manchester University Press

Chinese politics: the legacy of history


Of course, at the end of nineteenth century, following defeat in the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-95), China did indeed experience intensifying internal disorder and increasing foreign penetration. There were risings in various provinces. British warships were sent in to restore order several times in coastal areas. The public finances, already burdened by war reparations, were in chaos and inflation was rising. The situation and the sense of impending doom were exacerbated by a wave of natural disasters, including floods, droughts, plagues and famines. Some regarded these as a sign of a Heavenly rebuke. The foreign powers began to carve up China: Japan established outposts (known as 'treaty ports') in China where it was permitted to set up factories; Germany expanded into Shandong and the port of Qingdao5 ; Britain gained leases on territory north of Kowloon, opposite Hong Kong Island; France established footholds close to its posses­sions in Indochina; and, Russia expanded its influence into northern China. Under the Treaty of Shimonoseki of 1895, Taiwan became part of the Empire of Japan as its first overseas colony. The American government, also in expansionist mode, sought consensus among the foreign powers on an 'open door' policy to China. Though Japan and Russia resisted the policy, some scholars credit such approaches with preventing full-scale colonisation as the foreigners could achieve all their goals through 'unequal' treaties without the expense of full control.

By the end of the nineteenth century, '[T]he scale of China's defeat brought a wave of national questioning and a growing desire to make a fresh start' (Fenby 2009a: 61). There were increasing calls for reform, with arguments that China's rulers should be held accountable, but equally that the country's entire institutional, economic, technological and social basis needed radical modernisation. Reformers demanded the establishment of a modern army, a state banking system, a railway network and a merchant fleet. Study societies, modern schools and publishing houses were set up to encourage debate and reform, in what became known as the 'Young China' movement. The Guangxu Emperor (1875-1908) supported reform:

[Although he] had previously left all governmental affairs to his aunt, the Empress Dowager, and former concubine ... [In 1898, he] unexpectedly took over affairs of government himself. To the surprise of everyone he entered on a series of reforms as ambitious as they were visionary. He gathered about him some of the most progressive and radical reformers in the country and for 100 days issued an edict which threw down the established institutions and set up new ones. (Crow 1933: 77)