Rebellions and Revolutions: China from the 1800s to the 1980s

By Jack Gray | Go to book overview

5
THE SELF-STRENGTHENING MOVEMENT

Opportunities, Political and Economic, 1861-1894

The years 1861 to 1894, between the end of the Third War with the West and the outbreak of the First Sino-Japanese War, were make-or-break years for the reform of the old system. The period had begun with defeat, and rebellion still raged. The Taipings were to hold Nanjing for three more years. In the north the Nian rebels, strengthened by remnants of the Taipings, still maintained their power. In the south-west, in the north-west, and in Chinese Turkestan, Muslim rebels controlled large areas. Yet during this span of over thirty years China enjoyed many advantages. Defeat by modern weapons had forced some degree of realism upon Beijing. The need for the acquisition of these modern weapons was accepted, and with their aid the Chinese Government was able to destroy the rebellions one by one.

China's main international advantage was that the Western powers were in agreement that they must co-operate with each other in order to preserve the unity and integrity of China, to assist China to increase her strength, and to induce the government in Beijing to accept the responsibilities and assume the powers of a unified and centralized state and to accept international law as the basis of China's relations with the world.

It may be argued that this view is difficult to reconcile with the steady encroachment on China's frontiers which proceeded throughout the period. China proper, however, was not much touched by these encroachments. It was the remote, non-Chinese borderlands and the tributary states which were detached from Chinese influence. The theory of universal sovereignty, upon which Chinese claims to rule beyond the area populated by the Han were based, proved in the nineteenth century to be a source of weakness. China had no frontiers; imperial government shaded off through feudal suzerainty into tribute relations long drained of political significance. These areas had become a power vacuum. The advance of Russia across the Asian heartland, scarcely controllable from St Petersburg, found little to check it. The extension of British power in and beyond India, motivated mainly by concern for the security of possessions surrounded by areas which were constant sources of conflict, brought British authority into Nepal and Burma, historically tributaries of China but tributaries in which the imperial government no longer exercised any discernible influence. As the distance shortened between the areas of British and Russian rule, the existence of the remaining power

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