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Boxers: Rebellion and Anarchy Are Expected

March 24, 2009, 10:43 am

The first half of March witnessed three themes mingling in the New York Times coverage of China. First was the “Open Door” policy of Secretary of State John Hay, an attempt to leverage open the Chinese markets for American manufacturers.

Secretary of State John Hay

Second was the continuing imperial rivalries over China itself, most particularly that of Russia and Japan. Third was the growing perception that the Dowager Empress of China was resolutely anti-foreign and trying to do everything she could to break such influence in China. In this latter, the Boxers–or “Bozers” as one unfortunate typo declared in mid-March–were seen as one part of her anti-foreign effort. [1]

Hay’s policy seemed to be on the brink of global adoption, or so the President of the University of California, Benjamin Ide Wheeler (a Cornellian), said in a speech in San Francisco on March 11, 1900:

In the course of the week, Secretary of State Hay will announce to the people a victory, not of war–call it of diplomacy, if you please–in that the ports of China will be opened to the commerce of the world. He has reached an understanding with Great Britain, France, Russia, and Germany, which does away with territorial spheres of influence. According to the terms of the agreement, there will be no longer any spheres of influence in the Flowery Kingdom….The idea is to make the ports free to the world’s commerce and give all nations a free hand in exploiting their markets. [2]

It should be noted, of course, that the “open door” did not refer to immigration, where the Chinese Exclusion Act (coming up for renewal in 1902) restricted the number of Chinese who could enter the United States. Nor was this announcement greeted with universal happiness. The next day, Senator Joseph Rawlins, Democrat of Utah* rose to the floor of the Senate and in the course of a long speech opposing the U.S. presence in the Philippines, took a side-swipe at the “Open Door” policy:

Mr Rawlins, referring to the ‘open door’ in China, for which much credit had been given Secretary Hay, said that it was purely an English triumph, not a triumph for this country. ‘What right has a great trust of nations like Russia, Great Britain,, and Germany to form a conspiracy and declare to China “Our behests you must obey,” and then proceed to parcel out the markets, and possibly the territory of China?’ [3]

But despite Rawlins’ criticism and Hay’s hopes, this “great trust of nations” did not appear actually to be coming together. War between Russia and Japan instead seemed imminent. “Close observers are of the opinion that Japan and Russia may come to blows at almost any moment.” The Japanese, the Times pronounced, believed such a war was “inevitable,” the outbreak driven by the ticking clock of the building of the Trans-Siberian Railway. That rail linkage, connecting European Russia with the Pacific rim at both Vladivostok and Port Arthur, would allow a much greater Russian strength in Asia.

Railway in China
Trans-Siberian Railway in China

In interests of preparing for such a conflict, the Japanese were cozying up to the Dowager Empress to “play upon [her] reactionary and anti-European sentiments.” They would reform the Chinese Army to put it on a “modern footing” and establish a “firm alliance…between these two kindred empires.” Such behavior, the Timesbelieved, also made Japan, England, and the United States natural allies, a thought reinforced by an article the same day on Russian complaints about American business inroads in Siberia, “an industrial and commercial conquest,” as one Russian commentator put it.[4]

Unrest in China thus, in a sense, became part of a Chinese version of the Great Game. Certainly, foreign associations in China explicitly tried to make that link, perhaps hoping to spur their parent countries into action.

The American Association [in Shanghai] telegraphed to the United States Government today that the attitude of the Empress Dowager toward the reformers will upset the ‘open door’ policy. They also say rebellion and anarchy are expected, to the detriment of foreign interests, and advocate prompt concerted action on the part of the powers. [5]

Having said that, neither the Times nor the State Department were necessarily eager to see the connection everywhere. The telegram from the American Association was greeted with skepticism, with the paper weighing in that “at first reading it is not clear just what connection exists between the attitude of the Chinese Empress Dowager…and the ‘open door’ policy.” Instead, the paper pointed out that the U.S. government was much more concerned about the “serious attacks…made upon the American Mission in Shantung by the ‘Boxers’, a powerful and numerous anti-foreign league of Chinese.” The State Department, the paper went on, had decided to send a warship to the Chinese coastal city of Dagu, near the incidents. But “it is distinctly understood that this little-naval demonstration will have no connection with the [struggle over reform], for this may be regarded as a matter of purely internal politics with which our Government has no right to concern itself.” [6]

What is striking at this moment is the kaleidoscope of intersecting issues and agendas in China, ranging at every level from the individual to the organizational to the governmental to the national. In a sense, the imperial powers were discovering, somewhat to their shock, that the Chinese blank slate upon which they were drawing their spheres of influence and writing their great trusts was not bare at all, but covered in characters that they were only beginning to decipher.

*It really was a different electoral world back then.

[1] 16 March 1900
[2] 12 March 1900.
[3] 13 March 1900.
[4] 18 March 1900.
[5] 16 March 1900.
[6] 16 March 1900.

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