THE chaotic conditions in China during the last few years have obscured the changes that have taken place in the old rivalry between the Russians and the British for power in the Far East. Prior to the Great War, the Russian Imperial Government sought to consolidate its political influence in North China without interfering with British commercial interests. In the background of Russia's China policy, however, was the hope of ultimately displacing British supremacy in Asia. It is not unlikely that the Tsar's ministers thought of him as the logical heir of the Mongol Emperors. Great Britain, confident in her great political and naval strength, was willing to confine herself to extending and consolidating her commercial hold in China, as long as Russia did not interfere with this by bringing political pressure to bear on China. In matters political, Great Britain sought to check Russia only in her attempted advance on India from the north.

The World War temporarily eclipsed Russia in China. She lost all her special privileges and concessions, including the Russian section of the foreign city at Tientsin. She also lost the rights of extra-territoriality throughout the republic. Great Britain's trade in the meantime increased largely, and her principal political concern was to see that Japan did not become too powerful on the Asiatic mainland. This policy, according to some of the British on the China coast, was rendered more difficult by the expiration of the Anglo-Japanese alliance with the signature of the Four-Power Treaty at the Washington Conference. There is a growing opinion among the British in China that Great Britain made a serious error in relinquishing the influence over Japan which the Anglo-Japanese alliance gave her.

Britain has been handicapped in her Far Eastern policy since the war by the internal political conditions in England. It has been clear, for example, that the anti-war reaction following the Peace Treaty, together with the anti-imperialist ideas of the Labor party, have made it difficult for Great Britain to take any action in China that might involve the use of force. This has, of course, been well-known to the Chinese who have not failed to take advantage of it in order to serve their own interests. The gunboats have been kept on the Chinese rivers, and a small detachment of the British fleet has remained in Chinese waters. These have only been used, however, in rare cases when it was obvious that there would be no opposition to them sufficient to make an actual conflict likely. This new tendency was manifested at the time of the firing on the Island of Shameen at Canton in June, 1925. The British Consul General, Sir James Jamieson, was urged by many of his compatriots on Shameen to use the gunboats to bombard Canton. They felt, even as do many still today, that if this had been done there would have been no further trouble with the Chinese. Sir James, however, not only was wiser in his knowledge of the Chinese than were his critics, but also had to consider home politics. He realized that the temper of the Chinese people was different in June, 1925, from what it had been during the previous decade, and that drastic action might be answered with violence. He knew that sufficient force did not exist to meet this violence, and that unless the Chinese were instantly crushed, it might develop into a new war which most certainly would not have the support of the British Foreign Office. In other words, he perceived that the day of the gunboat policy in China was ended.

Many of the "old China hands" who feel that the gunboat policy is obsolete, as well as those who believe in using force, are secretly resentful of the determination of the British Government to work closely with the American Government. They feel that the United States is not sufficiently well informed about Chinese affairs, and that the State Department is too much under the influence of the missionary element. They resent the fact that the missionaries tend nearly always to accept the suggestions of the Chinese Nationalists, and that on numerous occasions they have unconsciously played the game of Soviet Russia against Great Britain in China.

The first signs that Russia was again looking towards Asia, and that the foreign policy of the Tsars had become the foreign policy of the Commissars, were not apparent till 1922. The old Russian ambition of dominating Manchuria and being the preponderant power in Peking was then again manifested. The Bolshevik leaders, having failed to stir up revolutions against the governments of Europe, decided to try to undermine these governments by striking at them through their colonies. This meant fomenting trouble in India and the overseas possessions. Two years later, the astute Mr. Joffe, Russia's representative in China, conceived the idea of utilizing the unrest in China for hampering Great Britain's trade in China. He knew that the Chinese markets were one of the most important outlets for British goods, and that an effective blow to British trade in China would surely be felt in England. A situation thus arose in which the interests of the Russians and the new Nationalist group in China coincided. The Russians played their part with considerable skill and vigor, and so long as it was to the interest of the Chinese to help them were successful. Their principal weapon was anti-foreign propaganda, but skillful as they were in using this, they failed to see that in the long run it would become a boomerang and work against them as well as against other foreigners.

The existence in China of a small but loud-mouthed group of young Chinese, imbued with the western conception of nationalism, played into the hands of the Russians. Foreign observers in China differ as to whether or not this nationalism is more than a new form of the age-old contempt for all foreign barbarians. English and Americans -- more particularly the missionary elements -- have, during the quarter century since the Boxer troubles, been inclined to believe that the modern Chinese are no longer hostile to foreigners as were their ancestors. This impression is due largely to the fact that until a year ago there were few active demonstrations against foreigners. During this period there was a marked tendency on the part of the young Chinese to go to the mission schools, and to study in England and America. This was taken by the complaisant foreigners to mean that the Chinese at last realized that European and American culture was superior to their own. It is undoubtedly true that a small group of Chinese foreign students were convinced that the salvation of China lay in adopting and adapting the culture of Europe. They therefore pretended to ignore and look down upon the old Chinese culture. In the last two years, however, the swing has been in the other direction. A movement is on foot to revive and modernize Chinese culture, and with it has come a new scorn and bitterness towards the western peoples.

This latent hatred which had the sanction of age-old tradition made it easier for the Russians to spread the catchwords of western radicalism among the Chinese. They encouraged the use of such terms as "foreign imperialism" and "unequal treaties," and did what they could to stimulate bitterness towards the foreigners. It is a safe statement that not one Chinese out of one hundred thousand who rejoices in denouncing "foreign imperialism" has the remotest idea of what he is talking about. Furthermore, when he speaks of "unequal treaties," he imagines that China in some past age had been virtually enslaved by the foreign powers, and that, if the treaties made with these powers are torn up, all of China's troubles will disappear. He ignores the fact that most of the stipulations in these treaties which he has been told are "unequal" were inserted by the European powers as concessions to the policy of the old Imperial Chinese Government of keeping the foreigners out of China. He forgets that the foreign "settlements" were granted to the foreigners in order to isolate them from the rest of China. When the territory of Hongkong was turned over to the British by the Chinese in 1842, it was barren, rugged and inhabited only by a handful of Chinese fishermen. The story is told that the Chinese at the time prided themselves on their cleverness in giving the hated English barbarians this utterly worthless piece of property. In the case of the Shanghai concession, the territory turned over to the British and the other foreign powers was a piece of marsh land which even the poorest Chinese considered unfit to live on. On both these sites thriving cities were built and great sea-ports developed by the foreigners. It is not surprising that the Chinese of today covet these territories and feel that they should be handed over to China. Any Chinese Government that succeeds in getting them back will do a good piece of business for itself.

The Russians wisely sought to guide the anti-foreign propaganda primarily against the British. It was easier to concentrate the hatred of the Chinese on the British, as they had been longer in China than the other Europeans and were there in greater numbers. Furthermore, the British, in their individual relations with many Chinese, had given cause for bitter personal resentment. In some parts of China, notably in Canton, the anti-British sentiment was traditional and had been marked during the previous century by a number of serious clashes. Also, Great Britain was the country which had the largest and most successful foreign concessions within Chinese territory. In urging the Chinese to demand that these be handed over to China, the Russians were appealing to the natural cupidity of the Chinese.

It would be a mistake to exaggerate the part that Russia has played in the recent attacks on Great Britain in China. It is commonly said on the China coast that she has spent from thirty to one hundred million dollars in propaganda, and that she has thousands of agents throughout the entire country. Although no accurate information is available, there can be no doubt that such figures are recklessly high. A small sum of money goes a long way in China. Furthermore, the Russians have very wisely used the only cohesive organization in China -- the student body -- to spread their propaganda. Owing to the fact that the schools have been badly paid in recent years, it has not been difficult to enlist the services of teachers, for a very small sum a month, who, in turn, encourage radical groups among the students in their general anti-foreign campaign. A few leaders, here and there, modestly paid, can do and unquestionably have done a great deal to cause trouble throughout all of China. It is doubtful, however, whether this work has cost the Russian Ambassador in Peking more than a few thousand dollars a month. To the credit of Mr. Karakhan, the present Russian Ambassador, and his predecessor, Mr. Joffe, it must be said that their campaign of influencing the students was shrewdly conceived, and for a long time shrewdly executed.

The exact part that the Russians played in engineering the strike in Shanghai in May, 1925, and in the subsequent shooting in Shanghai, and later in Canton, will probably never be accurately known. Circumstantial evidence points to their having been deeply interested in all three affairs. Certainly they used these incidents skilfully to their own advantage in stirring the Chinese against the British.

The Canton incident is probably the best single example of this Russo-English conflict in China and of its results. It will be recalled that following the Shanghai shooting on May 30, 1925, a strike was started in Canton against the British. As feeling was running very high, a parade was organized which was to march past the Island of Shameen, where the foreigners doing business in Canton live. The British Consul General, Sir James Jamieson, an old China hand, thoroughly familiar with the political leaders in Canton, foresaw that there might be trouble and warned the Chinese authorities that the parade should not be permitted to pass along the Shakee Bund, as the street along the water front is called. His warning was ignored and when the parade took place on June 23, it filed past the Island of Shameen for a number of hours, and as one of the last detachments, including members of the so-called "Whampoa Cadets," which had been trained under Russians, passed the Island, shooting occurred and for about ten minutes the foreigners on the Island and the Chinese fired at each other. The Russians and Chinese insist that the first shots came from Shameen. Reliable British and American observers on the Island of Shameen have stated categorically that the first shots came from the Chinese. Aside from this testimony of men whose integrity and judgment cannot be impugned, the circumstantial evidence all points to the fact that the shooting was started from the Chinese side. The foreigners on the Island had nothing to gain from firing first; the Chinese and in particular their Russian advisers in Canton had a great deal to gain. If the popular ill-will against the British was to be kept alive in Canton, occular proof must be given to the people of Canton that the British were indeed the harsh imperialists that the Russians had said they were, and that as such they would not hesitate to shoot down Chinese in cold blood.

The result played finely into the hands of the Russians. The Cantonese were greatly enraged, and willingly, and even enthusiastically embarked on the policy of boycotting effectively all British trade in South China. They refused to permit British articles of any kind to be brought into Canton, and forbade any ship which had even stopped at Hongkong, whether or not it was of British ownership, to land in Canton. In order to enforce these regulations, the so-called strikers' committees, which differed only a little from the councils of soldiers, sailors and workingmen of the Russians in Moscow, were armed and examined all goods after they left the Maritime Custom House, and seized those which they suspected of being of British origin. They also watched strictly against smuggling.

So effective was this boycott that a number of years will elapse before the merchants of Hongkong recover their losses. For several months after the boycott was started the business activities of Hongkong were practically paralyzed. The complete trade figures for Hongkong for the year 1925 are not yet available. Only those for the first three quarters of the year have been published. Inasmuch as the boycott did not start till the end of June, this means that one quarter alone, namely the third quarter, gives any indication of the extent to which trade has fallen off. The drop in exports for this quarter was nearly 50 percent of the corresponding quarter in 1924, and the drop in imports a little more than 40 percent. The losses during the last quarter were estimated in Hongkong last February to be even greater. It was pointed out there at the time that the trade figures by themselves did not tell the whole story, as the losses on insurance, on shipping, and on goods in storage were, and would continue to be, very large. In the face of the obvious difficulties of making a correct estimate, it is impossible to suggest a definite figure to represent the actual money losses to the merchants and bankers of Hongkong. Recent reports from Hongkong indicate a steady return to more normal conditions. According to reliable estimates in Canton, the trade of that city declined only about 20 percent.

The effects of the Hongkong boycott have been felt by British interests throughout the Far East. The checking of importation into South China of cotton and other manufactured goods from England has had a repercussion on industries in the home country. From Borneo, Singapore, and other eastern possessions under the British flag have also come reports of serious curtailment of business owing to the fact that the South Chinese markets have been closed to British goods. Oil and lumber from Borneo were formerly shipped to Hongkong for distribution in the interior of China. The volume of trade in these articles was never very great, but from the point of view of the producing country, was sufficient to cause serious hardships when the South Chinese market was cut off.

The Chinese have resorted to the boycott as a weapon against foreigners in past ages. Only twenty years ago American goods were proscribed in China with serious resultant losses for some of the American concerns that did a large trade in China. Never before, however, has a Chinese boycott done so much damage, nor from the point of view of the Chinese, been so successful as this one. A spread of the boycott movement might do much damage to all foreign business in China. Its effects would probably be felt even by the missionary group.

Experience has shown that the missionaries nearly always have suffered from what may be termed by-products of the boycott. This has been notably true in Canton, where mission schools and hospitals have been subjected to great inconveniences. The Canton hospital, for example, the oldest American medical mission in South China, was forced to close on March 12, 1926, by the high-handed procedure of the Canton Government. The trouble arose when Chinese agitators sought to force the Chinese employees of the hospital to join the Canton "miscellaneous workers' union." This was followed by a demand for an increase of about 40 percent in wages. Had the matter rested here it might have been peaceably settled. The agitators, however, sought to obtain control over the workers and to exercise the right of approving the employment or dismissal of any employee of the hospital. To this proposal the hospital authorities refused to acquiesce. The hospital management stated that the discharging and employing of workers was in the control of the hospital foreman, and that any protest which a discharged employee wished to make could be addressed to the Arbitration Association of the hospital. This, however, did not satisfy the union agitators, and as a result the Chinese workers of the hospital were urged by them to go out on strike. Pickets were placed at the doors of the hospital and neither persons nor supplies were permitted to be brought in. Shortly afterwards the water and electric connections were cut.

Upon the foreign staff of the hospital thus fell the entire care of the patients. The task was so formidable, and the difficulties of getting food and water past the pickets were so great, that there was no alternative for the hospital authorities but to close down. Inasmuch as this hospital had for nearly a century ministered freely to the needs of the Chinese people, and inasmuch as it was the Chinese patients and not the American and other foreign staff who suffered from the strike and boycott of the hospital, the impression of this incident on American missionaries and others in South China was deplorable. The Canton Hospital incident was followed by the closing down of the Stout Memorial Hospital at Wuchow. Furthermore, pressure was brought to bear on the Canton Christian College to force it to cancel the expulsion of student agitators, and other American schools and hospitals were threatened.

In this Anglo-Russian struggle in China, Great Britain has of course risked the greatest losses. Russia had practically no trade with China and had been forced to give up her territorial concessions and special interests following the war. Great Britain, on the other hand, had hundreds of millions of dollars invested in China and in the China trade. She therefore suffered heavily when this trade was hampered and these interests paralyzed.

There have been many stories during the past year of Great Britain and Russia using various Chinese war lords for their own purposes. Plausible as are some of these tales, it is safe to discount most of them. The one most commonly repeated is that the British have been back of Marshal Wu Pei Fu and that the Russians have backed the so-called "Christian General" Feng Yu Hsiang. This story has rested on the assumption that Wu, controlling a large part of the great interior basin on the Yangtse in which British economic interests are still paramount, has naturally had financial aid from the British. Whether or not private British financial resources have been put at his disposition is impossible to ascertain. If they have been, it is doubtful whether Great Britain has received a fair return for her investment. Wu helped to drive out Feng, but there is no reason to believe that this could not have been accomplished by Marshal Chang Tso Lin of Manchuria, unaided by the troops furnished by Wu. In other words, although it was clearly to the interest of the British to see Feng driven out of Peking, there is every indication that this objective could have been accomplished without any interference of any sort on their part.

The case of Feng is clearer. The Russians openly boasted that he was "their man," and reliable eye-witnesses reported during the last eighteen months seeing truck trains of ammunition being brought across the Gobi Desert to the neighborhood of Kalgan. As the leader of the Kuominchun party of North China, which is allied with the Kuomintang party of Canton, which in turn is actively supported by the Soviet authorities, Feng had had close relations with the Russian leaders in China. Furthermore, it was his troops, acting under the direct inspiration of Karakhan in Peking, who fortified the Taku forts off Tientsin early in March, 1926, and endeavored to blockade the port of Tientsin in violation of the special stipulations of the treaties made between the foreign powers and China at the close of the Boxer uprising.

The failure of this effort to control the approaches to Tientsin marked at the same time the beginning of the decline of Feng and of the influence of Karakhan and the Russians in North China. The Powers, it will be recalled, issued an ultimatum to the Chinese Government on March 11, demanding that the troops be withdrawn from the Taku forts and that these be dismantled. The Soviet representatives in Peking sought to stiffen the Peking Government, dominated by Feng, to resist this latest act of "aggression" by the "hated imperialist powers." The crisis, as a matter of fact, was much graver than the outside world has yet realized. Had Feng refused to accede to the demand of the Powers, they would have been put in a most embarrassing position and serious trouble might well have been started. But as Chang Tso Lin's troops were already beginning to advance on Feng's troops, the "Christian General" decided to accede to the demand of the Powers. His supporters not only dismantled the Taku forts but at once started to retreat through Peking to Kalgan. Thence Feng fled across the Gobi Desert to the Trans-Siberian railroad and Moscow.

While the Taku incident was being settled, the Russians sought to encourage the students in Peking to demonstrate against the leaders of the Peking Government. They were met with machine guns, and about forty students lost their lives. The efforts of the Russians to turn the blame upon the "imperialist nations" for this ruthless act of the Chinese authorities did not succeed. Instead, the Chinese papers took the attitude that the student riots had already exceeded the bounds of usefulness and propriety, and blamed the Russian agitators for having incited the students to lawless activities. About two weeks later came the news from Harbin that the Chinese municipal authorities had decided to take over the government of the Russian section, which had retained control of the municipal organization in spite of the relinquishment by Russia of extra-territoriality and other special privileges in China. Coming after the Soviet ultimatum to the Chinese Government demanding the release of the Russian manager of the Chinese Eastern Railway who had been arrested by the Chinese, these incidents seriously damaged Russia's prestige in China. A few weeks later a number of the principal Russian agitators in Canton were expelled, and the general impression throughout China was that the Bolshevik influence, for the moment at least, was failing.

As has already been pointed out, Russia's great weakness in attempting to carry out her China policy is that her only weapon is propaganda. This weapon, to be sure, she has used with exceptional skill. It is not powerful enough, however, to enable her successfully to combat policies which rest on large trade interests or on strong military power.

Despite the weakened military prestige of Great Britain in China, she derives great strength from the fact that the Chinese need her products. So long as Britain can prevent other nations from winning her markets in China, the Chinese will be compelled to compromise with her. It is the knowledge of this fact which has made the British always so insistent on coöperation between the foreign powers in their attitude towards China. This has been particularly true in the case of the Hongkong boycott. The British have resented bitterly the fact that America and the other nations refused to join her in boycotting Canton in return for the Hongkong boycott. Not only have they felt that this would have ended the trouble immediately, but they have seen the Japanese, the Scandinavians, and nationals of other countries entering markets in Canton and elsewhere in South China where formerly British trade had been supreme. The British do not want to lose any of this trade permanently, not only on account of its inherent value, but because of its importance in Great Britain's political policy in the Far East.

Although in no country is the venture of prophecy so hazardous as in China, yet it may be stated that there are in China today two tendencies -- first, the gradual weakening of British economic and political supremacy in China, and the concentration of Great Britain's interests west of Singapore; and second, the advance of Russia on Manchuria and North China, strangely parallel to what was taking place prior to the Russo-Japanese War. Both of these tendencies will be hastened or delayed by the development of the so-called Nationalist movement in China and by the activities of Japan on the Asiatic mainland.

Russia still dreams of dominating North China and of ultimately being able to force the hated British out of Asia. Russia's rôle, therefore, is fundamentally an aggressive one. For Great Britain the great problem is to know how to hold what she already has.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now