CHINA is an important Power by the measurements of geography, resources, and population. In geographical position it sprawls across the eastern rim of that ocean which we are often reminded is the next theater of man's major activities. Its resources, though popularly exaggerated, are great. Its population is the greatest -- a fourth of the human race.

Yet there is a constituent of national importance without which China cannot express the power residing in geographical position, resources and population. It is organization. From the standpoint of world power a country's population and resources are measurable mainly by organization. Machiavelli observed this in his political studies. In assessing France and the Germanic countries in the sixteenth century, he remarked that while the German states wholly exceeded France in social and political power, the French were vastly preponderant in "political power at home and military power abroad." The reason lay in the evolution of France out of the category of geographical expressions. China, too, is emerging from this category; it is reaching out to a national organization which will realize at home and abroad the latent strength of its population, resources and geographical position.

The new movement must be understood against the background of the polity of China in its pure state before the establishment of the republic in 1911. The unit of a modern society is the individual; of China it was the family. China was a vast aggregation of community-families lying midway between the western family and the primeval tribe which acknowledged no extrafamily responsibilities beyond those required by necessity. Coöperation, for example, was conceded through trade guilds, but public duty or even political consciousness were unknown conceptions.

The social unit imposed on its members an unwritten code of immemorial custom more binding than law. Having yielded so much of their individual liberty to the state and its agents, westerners find it difficult to appreciate the extraordinary discipline inculcated by this system called familism. At every breakdown of government in Peking I marvelled at the lack of popular reaction. Let the political machinery collapse: life would go on precisely as before; crime would be neither more nor less; the bazaar would not abate its buying or selling.

That sage and seasoned traveller, the Abbé Huc, has given us an urbane picture of this popular unconcern in the state. In 1851 he and his friends tarried overnight at a village inn near Peking, where they engaged the local worthies in conversation on the succession to the throne. They advanced hypothesis after hypothesis, but "to all our piquant suggestions they replied by shaking their heads, puffing out whiffs of smoke and taking great gulps of tea." "This apathy was really beginning to provoke us, when one of the worthy citizens, getting up from his seat, came and laid his two hands on our shoulders in a manner quite paternal and said, smiling rather ironically, 'Listen to me, my friend! Why should you trouble your heart and fatigue your head by all these vain surmises? The mandarins have to attend to affairs of state; they are paid for it. Let them earn their money then. But don't let us torment ourselves about what does not concern us. We should be great fools to want to do political business for nothing.' 'That is very conformable to reason,' cried the rest of the company; and thereupon they pointed out to us that our tea was getting cold and our pipes were out."

The complement of familism was a patriarchal state whose mandate was theocratic but whose chief support was philosophical non-interference. Confucius praised the Emperor Shun because he did nothing yet governed well; "religiously observant, he sat gravely on his throne, and that is all." The Chinese were practically free from regulation because they had regulated themselves through family codes; a written contract is still something of a novelty. Government trickled down to the people along a line of officials or mandarins constituted out of the literati, but it never overrode custom. Thus the Chinese social system produced a localism out of keeping with the modern tendency toward the mobilization of power.

The fall of the monarchy threw the system out of gear; China put on the outward forms of democratic government. Familism itself became corroded by the growth of internal and external communication. In a world organized on a western basis it was inevitable that it would be affected by the introduction of Occidental forms of social organization.

There has been a more active agency in the undermining of social foundations in China than the natural drip of Zeitgeist. The conversion of Chinese modes has been forwarded by the invasion of a new intelligentsia Occidentalized in western universities in China and abroad. The first batches of returned students found all avenues leading to official employment held and guarded by the old literati, who, steeped in tradition and secure in their vested privileges, diverted their challengers to the fields of business and education. In those fields flowed new springs of modern organization which by their introduction of new values were productive of discontent with existing standards.

The household industry and the family concern held sway until the homecoming of the students. It was a confirmed practice at the year-end to divide the profits and leave no surplus for reserves or contingencies; the business was the family ricebowl. The evolution from personal responsibility has given rise to difficult family adjustments, and there are many foreigners in China who have held lucrative berths in Chinese firms solely that they might act as buffers to divert profits at the year-end from the ricebowls of predatory relatives to the firm's bank account. So deeply ingrained was family responsibility that no business man would flout any such private demand upon his surplus earnings. Things are changing in this respect, and native corporations with far-flung ramifications are springing up rapidly, though the joint stock company is still rare. The next step was to de-personalize the threads of economic coöperation between businesses and strengthen them into nation-wide associations. These have proved their vitality by flourishing and expanding throughout the civil wars and revolutions since 1911. Some inkling of their growth may be gathered from the present-day interlinking of modern chambers of commerce and banking associations in national bodies whose influence upon affairs has been conceded many times since the Nationalists founded the new government at Nanking.

In this way the Occidentalized intelligentsia supplied the impetus to the broadening of Chinese familism into nationalism. The movement was totally unlike the French Revolution or the American Revolution in that it did not spring from the people themselves. There are 400,000,000 people in China, isolated by familism and lack of communication, and only a fringe of them were touched by these new activities. The new intelligentsia realized that in spite of the fact that, unlike India, China has no dividing lines of race, caste, or religion, progress would be slow if left to evolution. So they sponsored irredentism -- the redemption of Chinese sovereignty -- as the via media of nationalism. Because of the psychology of the Chinese, as well as the circumstances of treaty relations, the mechanics of China's economic relations with the outside world are a quasi-monopoly in the hands of foreign interests. It was the aim of the Nationalists to capture it. At the height of the Revolution, in 1926, General Chiang Kai-shek said: "Before imperialism is crushed no Chinese merchants, however powerful, can develop their business to the fullest extent. For example, if we do not beat down the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank [a British enterprise] Chinese will never be able to open their banks with any hope of lasting success." The crusade against "swallowing the poison of the imperialists" was directed primarily against those so-called unequal treaties which confer upon foreigners immunity from Chinese jurisdiction, control of the Chinese customs tariff, and concessions and settlements on Chinese territory. These treaties at that time were the reason for the concert of the Powers in dealing with China.

In the absence of religious or any other corporate sentiment with the properties necessary to rouse public spirit, here was the dynamite with which to goad the people into political unity. For the Chinese are innately hostile to non-Chinese; anti-for-eignism is the only social trait that has linked familism into a pattern of political uniformity. It derives its origin from the time when Chinese civilization was so preëminent in Eastern Asia that the surrounding peoples had to imbibe their culture from it. This has given to Chinese superiority that sense of living reality which the ancient Greeks felt for their civilization. Reporting the return of one of the first New England clippers from China, a correspondent wrote to James Madison: "It seems our countrymen were treated with as much respect as the subjects of any nation; i. e., the whole are looked upon by the Chinese as barbarians, and they have too much Asiatic hauteur to descend to any discrimination." It is only since 1860, by a special clause in the treaties, that the character signifying "barbarian," which had always been employed in official documents as synonymous with the word "foreign," has been disallowed. The banned word is still used as an epithet to throw in the wake of a foreigner, especially in time of trouble.

Anti-foreignism was used so efficiently that it has brought the new intelligentsia into political office, leaving China saddled with the relics of revolutionary slogans which give thousands of Chinese the impression that the revision of the treaties means that all foreign property in China will immediately revert to the Chinese people. Nanking is now trying to make cement out of this dynamite; irredentism and extravagance have to be led to true nationalism and sanity.


The Nationalist Revolution owes its present success as much to the complaisance of the Powers as to the exuberance of the Chinese. In marked contrast to the crushing of the T'aip'ings in the sixties and of the Boxers in 1900, no effort was made to frustrate the Nationalist movement. To understand the reason we must turn back many pages of contemporary history.

The World War destroyed an equilibrium based upon a balance of power in Asia as well as in Europe. The League of Nations redressed more or less the equilibrium in Europe, but its influence did not extend to Asia, and the Powers had therefore to make some move toward an understanding over policy in that continent. The need was first appreciated by President Wilson who, responsive to the traditional American attitude of coöperation in the Far East, engineered the first rapprochement. When he became President he caused the American banking group to withdraw from the first China Consortium, but during the Peace Conference he inspired a new international Consortium, destined to replace competition with coöperation in financial dealings with China and to abate the rivalries which it was feared would return in the Far East as soon as the industrial nations resumed the marketing of supplies from machines expanded by employment during the war. Being unrecognized by the Chinese, the new Consortium has advanced no loans; in any case the chaos in China would have kept money away. But its fruits, though negative, have been real, inasmuch as there has been a cessation of concession-hunting within the limits bounded by the agreement.

The second effort to reëstablish equilibrium on an equally broad basis came about at the Washington Conference. The aim in this case was political equilibrium. Though it determined politically to assume no responsibility for the settlement of European affairs or for the League of Nations, the United States took the initiative at the Washington Conference in proposing a new modus of relations in the Pacific. Both events were in line with tradition, but they were so accentuated as to reveal a new, almost subconscious, orientation of outlook toward the Pacific.

The fear of Pacific disorder was the main determinant of the Washington Conference. It gave birth to certain resolutions and pacts intended to cement the concert of Powers in diplomacy concerning the unequal treaties. The absorption in limitation of armament, however, has obscured the Pacific resolutions, and it is not generally appreciated how awry they have become. In an endeavor to insure a common front toward China the Nine Power Pact provided for "full and frank communication" among the signatory Powers in future diplomacy in China. This front has been shattered by the challenge of the Chinese Revolution. Over the head of the international tariff control set out afresh by the Washington Conference, Nanking has announced its own schedule of tariff duties, and it has done so on its own terms. It is arbitrarily denouncing, one after another, all the treaties conferring unreciprocal rights on foreigners. Extraterritoriality, which gives foreigners immunity from Chinese jurisdiction, is in the melting pot, though there is little evidence of the implementing of western codes of jurisprudence which the Powers have hitherto required and which the Chinese have drawn up. All these actions are the outward sign and symbol of China's unilateral abolition of that wardship which the Washington Conference at once mitigated and perpetuated. They are the effective assertion of sovereignty for the first time since China came into contractual relation with the western world.

The China resolutions at the Washington Conference failed to foresee this irredentism, the warning signal of which was furnished as far back as the Versailles Conference when China refused to sign the Peace Treaty. Subsequent events should logically have brought about unity of action among the Powers in preserving their treaty rights or in liquidating them. Instead, jealous of influence and fearful of inviting a Chinese boycott of their trade, they maintained a solid front on a plank of donothingness. France's quarrel with China for several years blocked the review of the Chinese tariff which China was promised at the Washington Conference. When the tariff conference met in Peking in 1926, the result was abortive; the Chinese had become interlocked in the nationalist revolution and it was impossible to secure the continuous attendance of a Chinese delegation. The search for delegates, however, was less ironical than the search for a palliative of the treaty régime which the Nationalists were rending the country to end.

The post-war concert of Powers was already weakened by the absence of Russia and Germany. China saw that the front patched up at the Washington Conference could be punctured by singling out one Power for boycott. Great Britain was the first victim. Eugene Chen, who injected forcefulness into Nationalist foreign policy, once told me that Britain was chosen, first, because the new elements in Britain's political life were conceding articulation to subject countries, and, secondly, because the blow to its economic life would not be serious enough to invite retaliation. England's trade with China is 2 percent of its total foreign trade; Japan's is 25 percent, and a boycott of Japanese goods would therefore have incurred trouble. On this assumption the pressure against England gathered strength until in 1927 it faced Great Britain with dispossession by mob violence of that important entrépôt of mid-China, the British Concession of Hankow. Downing Street did nothing to prevent it. Not only were the British sailors on duty restrained from affording protection; the Chinese revolutionary leaders were invited to collaborate in police measures, and, being themselves helpless, allowed the mob a free field. This is how a member of the foreign volunteers described the affair to me: "We were at the head-quarters awaiting orders when our officers came in with some Chinese officials. They conferred a while. Chinese soldiers came in and were lined up opposite us. I can tell you we were in a state of suppressed excitement. We fingered our Lewis guns and at the slightest provocation would have let go. But we were bewildered; what was happening? Then we got the order 'Take out bolts. Quick march.' That was a little too much. We mutinied; we would not leave the hall and march out among the howling Chinese without our rifles. We were allowed to take them, but under Chinese escort. Our last ceremonial act was to salute the Chinese officer. Many of us broke down under the humiliation."

Hankow is perhaps the outstanding example of Europe's humiliation in Asia from the standpoint of the prestige that the White Man built up in the nineteenth century. It marked a surrender dictated by profound changes in bases of conduct in Asia. It showed British imperialism of the old order in full retreat. Manchester commerce, which urged "tradesmanship" and "clever pacifism" as the new keynote, allied itself with the self-determinationists against the demands of those English Tories who saw foreign policy simplified for all time in the precedents of Palmerston. "We cannot do business at the point of a bayonet," said the Manchester Guardian, and this was the argument which prevailed over the views which saw in the Chinese challenge to overlordship such a menace to British imperialism as would, in the words of Lord Meston, "echo down the whispering galleries of Asia." In the teeth of Tory clamor the Hankow dispossession was ratified by agreement.

The other Washington Conference Powers looked on apathetically while Great Britain was made the whipping boy of the treaties. Action on the basis of British requests to revise relations in the light of this rumbling nationalism would have imperilled a unanimity insured by do-nothingness. The British memorandum of Christmas 1926 was the first recognition of dissension among the Powers on the question of reshaping the China provisions of the Washington Conference. Great Britain then publicly avowed its anxiety to revise the treaties as soon as there was a government in China capable of negotiation.

The announcement of the treaty-revision policy did not harden into a cornerstone of conduct without much heart-searching at Whitehall as to whether the quite different problem of protecting life and property should not countenance treaty protection instead of treaty revision. This arose out of the hoodlumism of 1927. The Chinese in Hankow failed for a long time to live up to their agreement, as was inevitable in the circumstances of the turbulent times; in consequence, the British Government considered the possibility of forcibly retaking the Concession. It put up the fateful decision to the British Minister in Peking for his judgment, and he called into conference several of the leading Britons in Peking and Tientsin. The response was unanimous that once having taken the step of admitting Chinese control, the British could not go back on that act and expel the new occupants. It was felt that this would brand the British as bullies, since at that time the Chinese, no longer exuberant but thrown into schism over the control of the revolutionary movement, were much more vulnerable than they were when the Concession was relinquished. These counsels prevailed.

A second problem arose over the outrages committed by the Revolutionary troops after they had captured Nanking in March 1927. These excesses almost drove the Powers back to unanimity, not in defense of any treaty rights but in reprisals. Under British leadership, the Powers, challenged by the vexatious Mr. Chen, had formulated drastic sanctions to blockade the entire Yangtze delta, when the State Department, alarmed at their possible implications, suddenly withdrew from participation in the démarche. Its action, historically considered, was one of the most significant in the foreign policy of the Coolidge Administration. It stopped in one swift stroke a reaction, dizzily gathering momentum, to return to gunboat policy on a large and immeasurable scale. The State Department set world policy toward China definitely along the line of forbearance and insured the success of Chinese Nationalism. The other Powers fell back into confusion, and sanctions were quietly buried with the shades of Palmerston and Salisbury.

In the last twelve months the Powers have accepted the breakup of their common front and have pursued separately their negotiations with the Chinese Government. The Nanking outrage has been settled unostentatiously by the offended Powers acting individually and insisting only on the mildest form of reparation. The denunciation of unequal treaties has been acquiesced in by the separate negotiation of new agreements looking to the establishment of relations with China on a footing more in harmony with the principle of reciprocity. The United States was the first Power to negotiate a new treaty and thereby to accord what has later been admitted as recognition of the new Nanking régime. Washington, which reasserted its leadership after the Nanking affair, has thus established it positively in reconciling the outside world with the new China. The treaty tacitly acknowledged the collapse of joint representations on rights and privileges held in common with the other treaty Powers. It restored to China freedom to levy its own tariffs but retained the most-favored-nation clause under which the United States would have shared in any tariff concessions to other Powers. Japan, the last contender against tariff autonomy, could not hold out, and the new Chinese schedules are now in effect.[i]

Will separateness in representation continue regarding unequal treaty rights other than those involving the tariff? The United States led the way over the tariff; Italy has agreed to relinquish extraterritoriality, with the same reservation that it must remain a gesture until the other Great Powers follow suit. The lesson of the scramble for agreements with Nanking would seem to be that we are entering upon a new era of "lone hand" diplomacy in China. "Full and frank communication" about these individual arrangements appears to have been relegated to the same limbo in which are disappearing all treaties and resolutions conferring common privileges and necessitating common action. The coming responses to the Chinese request for the abolition of extraterritoriality will afford another test for a united diplomacy.


China has not yet reached that haven of political unification in which it can apply itself to reconstruction along national lines. Order has to be restored after a decade of strife, military or factional schisms are again cropping out, agrarian discontent is rampant, vast areas represent a deadweight of political phlegmatism because familism is still the dominating factor of their organization. All this must retard the consummation of modern political organization. This is admitted in the form of government provided by the Nationalist régime. Phases of political development are mapped out in Dr. Sun Yat-sen's vade mecum of government[ii] in accordance with which China is ostensibly undergoing a political tutelage exercised by a clique of Nanking oligarchs. The source of their authority resides with the national congress of the Kuomintang, the convocation of which this year was more than two years overdue because these leaders, as they themselves admitted, were afraid to call it. To protect their own position they reserved the right to name a large proportion of the delegates from the district branches. Thus while the old familism is breaking up into individualism, the corporate soul of the people (even of the dominant party itself) is being arbitrarily held in safekeeping by the Nanking leaders until such time as this new-found individualism shall have cohered into a national consciousness.

Paternalism still, but paternalism in evolution. Watchers of the Chinese skies, thinking particularly of the restiveness of the Kuomintang rank and file, cannot imagine that the Chinese people will readily consent to political development by rote after their dormant powers have been so violently excited. Prognostication is idle in the case of a country which the dissolution of the disciplines imposed by the old order has made a Tom Tiddler's ground of misrule. Though revolutionary evolution is attested by history, progress sometimes veers away from original plans, and throws up leaders who contest for the privilege (not to mention the plums) of doing the tutoring. The present chrysalis of political organization in China may thus pass through many metamorphoses before it attains maturity.

It is evident that the Nanking government, like the world in general, stands appalled at the tasks involved in the nation-making process. It is acquiring power, but mainly from the concessions the Powers make to it. Though it has erected an impressive governmental façade called the Five-Council Government, it dare not test its domestic authority by descending from the intoxicating heights of irredentism to the practical but uneasy tasks of internal reconstruction. Of these the principal is the introduction of a system of separation of powers as between state and provinces resting upon the centralization of military and financial control. The time for this is not yet ripe. Thus we find that though China has obtained from other nations control of its import tariffs, it continues tacitly to acquiesce in the imposition of crippling taxes on internal trade by the more or less independent neo-Tuchuns (territorial governors) of the Kuomintang.

Reciprocity, indeed, may prove a boomerang. Eighty years ago China's refusal to extend reciprocity to "outer barbarians" caused the Powers to impose the treaties withholding reciprocity from China. Under a reciprocal régime non-missionary foreigners would not be restricted in residence to the treaty ports, as they are now, but would have full liberty to reside and carry on business throughout China. This liberty has been conceded in one of the first reciprocal treaties -- that with Belgium -- to the alarm of conservatives and radicals alike. They fear the extension of that foreign economic encroachment which has so far been confined to the treaty ports.

Nationalism may be furthered when China reaffirms the political responsibility which it jettisoned for the duration of the Revolution. With the return of responsibility may come a regard for Realpolitik, which is necessary not only to political but to economic reconstruction. Evidence of a realization of responsibility is not lacking in Nanking. It has not celebrated its newfound freedom to levy its own tariffs after eighty years of foreign control by putting up barriers as high and protective as its own Great Wall, but has adopted a tariff which the Powers themselves helped to draw up at the tariff conference of 1926. Such moderation may perhaps be traced as much to the growing influence of Chinese business as to the need for Realpolitik. For what is clear amid all the Chinese imponderables is that economic agencies are quietly binding the country into a national economy and reaching up toward political expression. This is the main nationalistic influence in China today. It may eventually keep this great people together and lead them to a power which they have hitherto been unable to express because of familism. It will be the best insurance of a status of equality in the world family.

China's march toward a national position corresponding with its potentialities may reveal one of the world's great transformations, but it will not come about without external aid. Here is the crux of future diplomacy toward China. That diplomacy, like all other diplomacy, will be increasingly concerned with economic relations. Will it disintegrate along with the diplomacy over common political privileges? Is the prospect a return to the pre-1900 conditions which were called the "Battle of the Concessions?" The new China will some day need financing, for which the machinery has been provided by the American-inspired international Consortium. It may be that the new order will call for changes in it or the creation of a new agency attracting Chinese confidence. But guarantees are required on China's part. Nanking's weakness is exemplified in the fact that while half the disbursements of the Nanking government go into the warlords' coffers, the interest on certain properly-contracted loans remains unpaid. The task of resuscitating and developing the subcontinent of China cannot therefore be achieved until a justifiable touchiness, having ceased to balk at the word "security," finds the basis of negotiations in realities. Just as weakness in Asia was the condition favorable to territorial aggrandizement in the nineteenth century, so strength and enlightenment are nowadays necessary to economic aggrandizement. East and west can meet in the economic world to their mutual advantage.

[i] Cf. Walter H. Mallory: "China's New Tariff Autonomy," FOREIGN AFFAIRS, April 1929.

[ii] Cf. Hiram Bingham: "New China's Political Bible," FOREIGN AFFAIRS, January 1928.

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  • HERBERT B. ELLISTON, Assistant Research Director of the Council on Foreign Relations; for some years correspondent in Peking of the Manchester Guardian
  • More By Herbert B. Elliston