China's Lost Empire

By Frederick Moore

[The World's Work, June 1916]

The dramatic chain of events by which it has been stripped of its dependencies and now is threatened by Japan with loss of sovereignty even in Chicna proper and with Japaneses exploitation of the country’s resources and commerce—America’s interest in this new problem of the East.

Within the last five years Mongolia and Tibet have passed from under Chinese control; Chinese Turkestan, because of its geographical position, has been cut off from direct communication with Peking; and Manchuria has gone through another stage in the process of passing over to the Japanese and the Russians. These are not all the political changes that have taken place detrimental to China's sovereignty, but they are enough to justify the title of this article. The great dependencies of China, vaster in extent of territory than all her provinces, have passed away; and, moreover, the independence of China proper is being assailed and is already seriously impaired.

It is an intensely interesting story.

Why should a nation with three or four hundred million people submit to the invasion of their country by a few hundred troops from a smaller state seeking to control them? Why should they appeal to other countries to interfere and riot depend on their own strength and patriotism?

A little more than a year ago, five or six hundred Japanese troops under orders from their Government proceeded by rail, despite the protests of the Chinese authorities, to the city of Tsinanfu, a strategic central point on the north-and-south railroad that connects the capital, Peking, and the principal shipping port, Shanghai. Japanese troops (about five hundred) were already established in barracks at Hankow, in the heart of China. This latter contingent had control of the other of the two railroads that connect Peking with the Yangtze River. And Japanese troops still occupy these two cities. It is, geographically, as if St. Louis and Chicago were occupied by foreign soldiers.

In Wuchang, across the riverfrom Hankow, and in and around Tsinanfu, large permanent Chinese armies have been maintained. At times there have been a hundred thousand Chinese soldiers at Wuchang and probably forty thousand near Tsinanfu. Yet the Chinese Government restrains its troops, petitions the Japanese in vain to withdraw, and has sought to persuade Great Britain and America to induce the Japanese to depart.

The history of the last five years, since Yuan Shih-kai came back to power, has been cabled to this country in the briefest form and piecemeal; and the facts have been disputed and contradicted by emissaries of the Japanese Government and American partisans of both Japan and China (some in each case being compensated advocates) until they have become a tangled maze in the minds even of close observers. For that reason it is worth while to recount them.

In the summer of 1911, the Manchu Government seemed as secure as it had been for a score of years. It was a feeble government, as every one knew, but there was no immediate pressure from without and no serious disorders within. Huge parliament buildings were being erected, a constitution had been promised, railroads were being constructed, though slowly, and the Government’s credit was so good that loans of millions could always be obtained from France, Great Britain, and Germany. And the United States, through the so-called “American Group” of bankers, was endeavoring to get into China on the same basis as other lending nations.

The programme inspiring the American and British governments in particular was the maintenance of the independence of China and the “Open Door.” Accordingly, in the matter of loans and franchises, compromise and an understanding was sought with other nations so that a repetition of the Battle of Concessions which brought China to the verge of partition in the nineties should not again take place. The Quintuple Group of British, French, Russian, German, and Japanese bankers, supported by their governments, was the result reached prior to the European War. The American Group of bankers, who had entered the international group supported by the Republican Administration, withdrew when the Democrats came into office, because President Wilson condemned the scheme as restrictive to fair competition and tending to the financial control of China.


On October 10, 1911, suddenly the revolution broke out in the south. It was a feeble revolt, with little more than the strength of public opinion behind it. Inefficient and spiritless though the Government’s army was, it could have defeated the rebels; but the Manchus themselves: had not character enough to give the soldiers orders to fight. They became terrified, sought to negotiate and compromise, sent their wealth into foreign banks for safety, offered concession after concession to their adversaries, and finally called upon Yuan Shih-kai—a Chinese of exceptional character, being a man of action—to come to Peking and administrate for them.

In an article published in the February number of the WORLD’S WORK, the writer explained how Yuan Shih-kai, once established in Peking, manipulated affairs to satisfy his own ends—not without conducting them also, however, with patriotic motives. But while Yuan was working out his schemes and projects serious events took place in the dependencies.

For a very long time Mongolia and Tibet had been dissatisfied with Chinese domination, and as soon as the revolution broke out in Southern China these two vast Buddhist territories expelled the Chinese ambans (official representatives) from their capitals and proclaimed independence. Hostilities resulted, and the Chinese troops were worsted repeatedly by Mongol raiders in the north and worthless Tibetan soldiers in the west. There was no inducement for the Chinese troops to fight, and they could not be persuaded to proceed to a dangerous distance into the frontiers of the rebellious dependencies.


In the case of Mongolia, Russia soon assumed a protectorate, and in that of Tibet, Great Britain took action amounting to the same thing, notifying the Chinese Government that no Chinese troops would be permitted to reenter Tibet. And in each case tripartite conferences were held to determine the future political and administrative status of the seceding dependency. An agreement was reached with Russia and Mongolia saving China’s “face” by giving her nominal suzerainty over Mongolia. But tribute is ended and no authority is now held by China except in foreign affairs.

This appears to be a clever political move played by the Russian diplomatists, to whose advantage it works, for by the arrangement no other state may interfere or even send diplomatic emissaries to Urga, the Mongolian capital. The representatives of other countries must go to Peking to negotiate regarding Mongolian affairs, while Russia” may deal with the Mongol Government direct, being especially privileged by the agreement to do so.

Concerning Tibet no agreement has been reached, the British-Tibetan-Chinese Conference having failed to come to terms. To the British and Tibetans, however, it does not matter whether the legal status of the Dalai Lama’s country is ever settled with the Chinese, and to the Chinese it is only a matter of pride. Fighting on the frontier has to all intents ceased.

If, now, you will look at a map of the Chinese Empire, you will see that, these two dependencies having been lost to China, the connection between China proper and Chinese Turkestan is through a comparatively narrow neck of land running out through the western province of Kansu. Even over Kansu itself the domination of the Peking Government is at times most doubtful. Kansu is difficult to reach, as no railroad runs into the province; and should the province revolt, troops must march overland hundreds of miles to get to the scene. This being the case, it is not easy to keep there a governor loyal to Peking, and sometimes intrigue, persuasion, and trickery have to be employed. To send troops farther through this province and for hundreds of miles beyond to the principal cities of Chinese Turkestan is entirely out of the question.

Chinese officials are permitted to make their way thither by means of the Siberian Railway and its branches running southward, but Chinese troops may not travel through Russia. The Russians have not failed to lay plans for the future, but their railroads along the borders of the Chinese dependency serve already as the only modern means of transportation for commodities coming from or going into Chinese Turkestan. It was unnecessary for them to encourage declarations of independence in Turkestan as well as in Mongolia, for their protectorate over the latter placed the former under their control as far, apparently, as they wish it to come at the present time.

The lopping off of these dependencies meant nothing to the outside world. England and Russia had protested at the annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina only a few years before, but no word of objection was spoken when territory scores of times their size was here manipulated evidently in one case for ultimate annexation.

The newspapers in Europe and America gave but a few paragraphs on remote pages to the subject. But there was a difference. Bosnia and Herzegovina was territory that might precipitate a European war, and did do so, whereas Mongolia, Tibet, and Chinese Turkestan mattered to nobody. No country wished to make it even an excuse for interference—except Japan.


The action of the Japanese, which shortly followed that of Russia and Britain, attracted comparatively greater attention, for it meant more. The question of the Mongolian frontier had been left open, both the Russians and the Mongols undoubtedly wishing it so. But should they succeed ultimately in including what is known as Inner Mongolia within the newformed Russian protectorate, another question would have been created between Russia and Japan, for Inner Mongolia menacingly flanks the Japanese section of Manchuria. The Russian Government evidently obscured the boundary issue in order to try the Japanese out. They did not have long to wait. Official announcements and statements on foreign affairs were soon forthcoming from the Tokyo Government showing that Japan would extend her “sphere of influence” into, if not entirely over, Inner Mongolia. These statements in turn were left vague. Russian agents and officers began appearing in Mongolia, coming as far down as the Great Wall, and Japanese agents penetrated inner Mongolia, staking out, in a manner, their future claims.


But the great opportunity for Japan came when the European war began. All the European Powers holding territorial positions which might in the future menace her entered the struggle that absorbed their effectiveness. Japan, too, entered the war. Japan had driven the Russiana back from the menacing position of Port Arthur; now was her opportunity to get rid of another strategic European outpost, Tsingtau. At the same time she would pay off an old score, for Germany had signed the polite note, with France and Russia, “advising” Japan to withdraw from Port Arthur after taking that place from China in the war of 1894.

But even a greater opportunity was given to Japan by the war, namely, the chance to attain the dominating position in China, such a position that will in future prevent the break-up of that feeble country and the partitioning of it among the-European states. It gave her also—some of her statesmen believed—the opportunity to enhance the power and wealth of Japan to a degree that will make her forever an invincible nation.

Japan is a poor country overtaxed to a pathetic degree to maintain a great army and a navy. Here, at her door, is a territory like another Europe, undeveloped, inhabited by swarming millions of people who cling to ancient inefficient ways. Why not dominate it, develop its wealth, and make soldiers of its stalwart coolies?

Japanese officials reasoned with the Chinese and explained that the two peoples were no longer permitted to emigrate to the United States, Australia, or Canada. On the other hand, Britishers and Americans came to China as they pleased. The natural wealth of China was sufficient for both the Chinese and the Japanese, but it needed organization, capital, and protection. All these the Japanese could provide. But the Chinese objected. Of all the foreign troops in China the Japanese were least considerate of the Chinese people, who fear intensely a Japanese overlordship. They suspected that the proposed alliance would,be an alliance of master and slave. They did not say this, for to speak frankly, is not the way of the East, but they gave excuses. The Japanese then put on pressure and made their notorious demands. They had no excuse, but they made one. It amounted to this: that the Chinese should appreciate what Japan had done for them in driving the Germans out of Shantung, and, instead of protesting (the Japanese had come needlessly far into the interior and had driven the Chinese guards and officials out of many towns), should show their friendship and appreciation. The Chinese did not see the matter in this light; they preferred, indeed, the presence of the Germans of any other Europeans to that of the people who call themselves a kindred race.


It was on January 18, 1915, two months after the fall of Tsingtau, that the Japanese Minister in Peking, His Excellency Ekr Hioki, appeared before Yuan Shih-kai and presented to the President in person, with little explanation and no warning, the startling list of Japan’s demands. Mr. Hioki made a brief speech warning the President that secrecy was essential, suggesting that worse calamities would befall China if the document was divulged and foreign assistance sought. It was stated in the highest circles, and I believe correctly, that the Japanese Minister also intimated that Chinese rebels then sojourning in Japan might be put in a position successfully to undo Yuan’s authority if the latter failed to comply promptly with Japan’s wishes.

The timorous Chinese Government was terrified, knowing that its army, equipped with a hodge-podge of weapons and to all intents without ammunition, was utterly incapable of opposing the Japanese. Had any Chinese other than Yuan been in power, things would have gone badly for the country, but Yuan is a man of remarkable ability. He was not dismayed. After a few days, he decided upon a course of action “which was to save what “he could and give the Japanese no excuse for fighting. It was evidently his determination tolet them come to Peking if they wished. One or two of his generals wanted to fight,, but Yuan restrained them. One of them, old Chang Hsun, came to Peking and went around the streets in the President’s motor car, a bodyguard riding on the steps with revolvers in hand. Though hostility to the Japanese ran so high that men cut their fingejs and wrote petitions in their own blood—one being sent to the American Legation—and two or three men committed suicide, the Chinese as a rule cringed or fled before the Japanese whereever they came.


The Japanese demands, were more severe than those Austria made of Serbia, causing the present European war; and they were contrary to both the letter and spirit of Japan’s alliance with Great Britain. The opportunity was so great that the Japanese Government disregarded their country’s foreign pledges. The demands, if complied with in full, would have meant more than establishing a Japanese protectorate over China. As far as Manchuria, Inner Mongolia, and Shantung are concerned, the Chinese conceded sufficient to make the Japanese a controlling power in those areas. They also acceded to demands regarding Fukien which will give the Japanese precedent for further interference there whenever they like. Over the extensive coal and iron mines known as the Han-yeh-ping (from which ore can be brought to the United States at a price which will compete with that of American ore) the Japanese secured permanent control.

They demanded, also, participation in the policing of some of the cities of China (the names and number, undoubtedly with design, were not specified); the right to supply China’s army with more than half its munitions; the appointment of supervisors (not advisers) in the Central Government; the right to send Buddhist missionaries to China; and certain railroad concessions. The Chinese were confident that the Buddhist priests would be political agents. One or more of the railroad concessions were designed to traverse territory competing with or already pledged to companies. When this was pointed out to the Japanese they replied to the Chinese officials that Japan would relieve China of responsibility of negotiations with “the Power concerned.’

None of these latter demands was granted, but they were tacitly recognized when the Japanese mobilized a part of their army and navy, ordered their citizens out of China, and sent an ultimatum to Peking. The Chinese accepted the modified terms of the ultimatum, thereby acknowledging that those, demands which the Japanese Government “temporarily suspended” remained open for discussion.

It is said by friends of Japan that her Government was only bartering in the way of the East, asking more than they expected to get. But having had occasion to watch closely the attitude of the Japanese Legation in Peking, during the several months of the negotiations, I am of the opinion that they intended to put through as many as possible of those demands, and that they were restrained only by publicity and finally by the decision of the Genro (the Elder Statesmen) who feared at the last moment to take the risk of employing the forces they had sent to China.

Many of the same officials who pressed the original demands on China continue in office; there is an army party that is aggressive; and the people are being cultivated in the idea of Japan's right of domination in the Far East. Meanwhile Japanese agents in this country and Americans who are partisans of the Japanese are seeking to persuade the people of the United States that their policy is a Monroe Doctrine. The application of the phrase, though false, has the effect desired by the Japanese and is therefore being worked systematically.

It is interesting to observe the following clauses in Japan's Treaty of Alliance with Great Britain. In the Preamble, Clause B provides for "the preservation of the common interests of all Powers in China by insuring the independence and integrity of the Chinese Empire and the principle of equal opportunities for the commerce and industry of all nations in China."

Article I states that, " It is agreed that wherever in the opinion of either Japan or Great Britain any of the rights and interests referred to in the Preamble to this Agreement are in jeopardy the two Governments will communicate with each other fully and frankly and will consider in common the measures which should be taken to safeguard those menaced rights or interests."

Article V states that, "The high contracting parties agree that neither of them will, without consulting the other, enter into separate arrangements with another Power to the prejudice of the objects described in the Preamble of this Agreement."

Japan had also an understanding with the United States known as the Root-Takahira Agreement, which is in the form of identical notes exchanged between the two Governments in 1908. Here are two articles from that Agreement:

"Article IV. They [i.e., the United States and Japan] are also determined to preserve the common interests of all Powers in China by supporting by all pacific means at their disposal the independence and integrity of China and the principle of equal opportunity for the commerce and industry of all nations in that Empire.

"Article V. Should any event occur threatening the status quo as above described or the principle of equal opportunity as above defined, it remains for the two governments to communicate with each other in order to arrive at an understanding as to what measures they may consider it useful to take."

Despite these agreements the Japanese Government did not make known the nature of its demands to the other Powers until the middle of February, by which time publicity and diplomatic inquiry were pressing the Tokio officials hard. The communication then made to Great Britain, the United States, France, and Russia embraced only twelve of the articles and not the true version but a modified form of them. Subsequently the Japanese Government communicated the full twenty-one, giving the excuse that the nine originally withheld were meant only as requests, but even in making these known they tempered and toned down the English translation which they put out officially.

When Japan had finally obtained from Yuan Shih-kai those articles upon which she insisted, President Wilson, in May, 1915, sent the following identical note to China and Japan:

"In view of the circumstances of the negotiations which have taken place and which are now pending between the Government of China and the Government of Japan and of the agreements which have been reached as a result thereof, the Government of the United States has the honor to notify the Government of the Chinese Republic that it cannot recognize any agreement or undertaking which has been entered into or which may be entered into between the Governments of China and Japan impairing the treaty rights of the United States and its citizens in China, the political or territorial integrity of the Republic of China, or the international policy relative to China commonly known as the Open Door policy. An identical note has been transmitted to the Japanese Government."

But the American note was delivered after the ultimatum had been, presented and accepted, and was intended only to register America's position in case of future difficulties. It was the attitude of Great Britain that, above that of any other nation, caused the Japanese to restrain their hand at the last moment. The British press in the Far East is influential, and it spoke emphatically and repeatedly, condemning Japan's deception. Some of the papers in England likewise expressed their disappointment and distrust, though most of the editors remained silent, feeling that Great Britain could not afford to make Japan an enemy at the present time of crisis. Sir Edward Grey, the British Foreign Minister, pressed in Parliament for a statement of Great Britain's attitude, made the very' diplomatic reply that the policy of the British Government in the Far East continued to accord with the terms of the Anglo-Japanese Alliance.

The Anglo-Japanese Alliance continues to exist, not having been denounced. But dislike has grown up seriously in Japan in return for the suspicion and distrust which the action of Japan naturally engendered among Britishers, Manifestations of it have recently become glaringly evident in the writings of Japanese editors and university professors in Tokio papers and others. The irritation is such that, if the Japanese come to believe Great Britain too seriously involved in the European struggle to interfere in the future, they will probably renew their pressure on China and and proceed to take control of that country.

That Japan may be justified in taking over charge of China is open to controversy. The Chinese are a backward race, wasting their opportunities because of ignorance and the intense selfishness which centuries of most wretched individual struggling for sustenance has engendered. That China would be materially better off under their organization cannot be disputed. Before the Japanese came to Manchuria the people used to raise enough soy beans to support life. If they raised more there was no means of shipping them, and if they made money brigands or officials robbed them of the surplus. Today tens of thousands of coolies cross the Gulf of Chihli annually from Shantung Province to help harvest the great bean crops which go by Japanese railroad and steamship lines to Europe and compete there with the products of American cotton seed. It would be so, I have no doubt, with all China, were the Japanese to assume control. The Japanese would profit most, but the Chinese would also greatly benefit. The majority of the people (we have Manchuria as an example) would be glad of the opportunity to make a living where they are on the constant verge of starvation today. A coolie is lucky in China to draw a regular wage of three dollars a month; he will even raise a family on that income.

But there would be considerations for America and Great Britain to take into account. The Japanese have driven Russia part way and Germany entirely out of China. They do not like the Americans or the British, because of our assumption of superiority. Our attitude has cut the Japanese, who are sensitive, to the quick. In the Far East it is evident at every turn. We are keeping them out of the United States, Canada,, and Australia. Will they drive us out of the Orient? They will not attempt that for the present and may never do so; but I shall be much surprised if they do not control China, despite agreements to the contrary, before the termination of the present war in Europe. It all all depends on the British fleet, or, to go a step farther, on the success or failure of the German submarines.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

If you appreciate the articles, read the e-novel informed by them —


A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald

The Headlong Fury