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article number 475
article date 06-23-2015
copyright 2015 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
Attempt To Reopen China, 1905, Part 2 – Economic Difficulties plus the Need for Social Reform
by Jerry Israel

From the book, Progressivism and the Open Door, America and China, 1905-1921.

* * *

Reform Impulses

The failure of the Boxer Rebellion, designed to end foreign control of China’s affairs, strengthened rather than weakened the hand of the Western allies now tied together by the second Open Door notes, military cooperation, and the financial settlement or indemnity demanded of China. As ’World’s Work’ reviewed the situation in 1901 it was apparent that the failure of anti-foreign insurrection and the dawn of a new century would spell the awakening of China from the somnolence of centuries and “what we regard as progress will be greatly accelerated.”

The image of the sleeping Chinese was so prevalent that it may literally be said that Americans felt China could become overnight what one diplomat called “thoroughly progressive, thoroughly American.”

W. W. Rockhill, drafter of the Open Door notes, negotiator at the 1901 indemnity proceedings, and student of Chinese affairs, felt there was no alternative for the empire save “develop or decay.” Reform, Rockhill wrote for ’Collier’s,’ must “come from without ... under direct pressure from abroad.”

Reform and progress were seen necessary for their own sake but also as the hinges to swing open the door to commerce and investment opportunities in China. Thus the three elements of American policy would work hand in hand as Seth Low understood when, before the Asiatic Association in 1902, he toasted prosperity, good government, peace and commerce.

The very indemnity resulting from the Boxer Rebellion was the prime tool in fitting together the various pieces of the Open Door policy. It was to become eventually a most successful instrument when used to educate Chinese students in the United States after 1907. Such a program developed a useful link between American attitudes and the soon-to-be-influential elements of the Chinese political and business communities.

In the first years of the century, the indemnity was seen in an even-more-basic economic sense as a way to reform China’s nonexistent currency system by placing it on a gold standard. Personally chosen by Roosevelt, Charles Conant, Cornell political scientist Jeremiah Jenks, and labor expert Hugh Hanna worked as a commission on international exchange to achieve such a standard although they were soon compromising and hoping to achieve at least a bimetallic or even a trimetallic system including copper and silver but based on a gold standard.

Less directly involved in economic reform, others were concerned with what Parsons had scorned as “what China will do eventually with progress.”

Evidence of the hope for a new era in China “pregnant with opportunities” came at the St. Louis Louisiana Purchase Exposition of 1904 and the establishment of an East Asiatic Committee working in conjunction with the American Museum of Natural History, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Columbia University. Headed by Morris Jessup of the Natural History Museum and distinguished Columbia anthropologist Franz Boas, this committee sought a great Oriental school in America in order to gain a deeper understanding of the peoples and countries of East Asia.

Nowhere was the relationship between the reform and commercial goals of the Open Door more clearly shown than in the membership of the East Asiatic Committee. Working in behalf of what Boas himself labeled “our commerce and political intercourse” was a roster reading much like a Who’s Who of the America China Development Company, including Parsons, Schiff, Harriman, and Cary, as well as James J. Hill of the Great Northern Railway and John Foord of the Asiatic Association.

Missionaries had been the major American group striving to awaken the sleeping Chinese before 1900 and remained so after as well. As Paul Varg notes, however, after 1900 education generally replaced evangelism as the missionaries worked to implant their kind of Christian progress in a China they felt moving in new, challenging, perhaps revolutionary directions.

"The Cambridge Seven," Missionaries to China, 1885.

Once again as Kenneth S. Latourette, leading student of Christian missions in China, has noted, missionaries came as part of “the desire of merchants, manufacturers, and investors for access to the markets, and the raw materials of China.” Yet their dream, for they too like Adams saw China as past, present and especially future, was an economic advance or invasion combining a “political revolution, a moral advance, an intellectual renaissance, a religious reformation and a nineteenth century of scientific and industrial development.”

Education was the key to unlock the door to Chinese reform, or so Americans believed. Every imperial edict establishing schools or abolishing ancient examinations as the sole criterion for civil and military office was hailed as a sign of progress, a modernization, and a transfer of values to Western standards. Still, more argued, the world must surely educate China.

While foundations were being built for bringing Chinese to the United States, Americans helped to establish places of higher learning in China. Under the auspices of the United Board for Christian Colleges, American schools were begun after 1900 to join such institutions as Hangchow Christian and the University of Nanking which had been started in 1845 and 1888 respectively.

Medical colleges were also founded, and one of them, the Hsiang Ya Medical College—which eventually became Yale-in-China at Changsha—deserves special mention.

Imbued with the spirit of John Hay’s words that “the storm center of the world has gradually shifted to China” where world politics would be decided for the next five centuries, a group of Yale undergraduates met in February 1901. They discussed what their role could be now that, as Yale Reverend Harlan Beach had proclaimed, “dawn had broken on the hills of T’ang” and China had “opened her doors.”

With nothing but what one later recalled as “consummate self-assurance,” Yale men led by recent graduates Warren Seabury and J. Lawrence Thurston set out to “tell the world what was the matter with it.”

They had little plan but a pragmatic, flexible attitude troubling to more doctrinaire missionaries. By mid-1903 they concluded that only a new institution, a great Christian educational center, a veritable Yale-in-China could win over to them the leaders of Chinese society. “Win the leaders,” Thurston wrote to Beach, “and we win the Empire.”

As was so often the case, the real rather than the idealized Open Door forced them to remove themselves to the remote Hunan province. From their school Henry W. Luce, father of the more well-known magazine editor, wrote to New Haven.

In Hunan they had “a clear field to work out a consistent and harmonious plan from the lower schools to the higher.” As a consequence they could “exert a wide influence on a large body of people. We may work together,” Luce sincerely hoped, “for God, for China and for Yale.”

By 1906, the institution, which would eventually include a school of arts and sciences and a preparatory school in addition to the medical college, was working as a center for the “uplifting of leading Chinese young men toward civilization” and the establishment of a “stable and progressive government” though not so rapidly nor as significantly as Luce may have dreamed.

A part of Yale-in-China’s course work was devoted to the nonreligious technical and engineering work. This was in keeping with a part of American education for China which concentrated on the more practical future concerning river and forest conservation so as to preserve the richness all so hopefully foreseen for China and its friends.

University of Nanking, started in 1888, shown here in the 1920s.

American forester Gifford Pinchot visited China in 1902 and reported on an incredibly lovely, rich, and beautiful landscape especially in Manchuria. Yet Pinchot also observed Shanghai’s filth and Manchuria’s unbelievable death rate. While Pinchot traveled, others worked to restore China’s rivers and canals.

If commerce was to be unloaded at Shanghai, the Whangpoo River must be made navigable. If it was then to be shipped into the interior, the thousand-mile Grand Canal system leading toward Peking must be made more modern and effective than the prevailing form which dated back to the very year Columbus had discovered the New World.

Herbert Hoover was also in China before and after the Boxer Rebellion as a mining and railway engineer. He too visited the far reaches of the empire and was struck by the need to bring the mind and tools of Western administrative machinery to agrarian, impoverished China so as to make it a suitable market for American trade and democracy.

With the example of the isthmian canal so fresh in its mind, the American Asiatic Association thought engineers like Hoover more important than educators.

In August 1902 the journal of the association summarized its feelings on China and the future: “the supreme figure in the modern world is the engineer, and the supreme test of any material position is efficiency.” There was only one test: “If it makes for greater economy, it will prevail, if it makes for needless waste, it will fail. The rule runs the same whether the thing tried by it be a tool, a labor-policy, a ship-canal, a government or a human institution.”

One other domestic organization joined in the drive for reform in China. Implored by John R. Mott of the Student Volunteer Movement for Foreign Missions not to be “satisfied with exerting influence on one side of the world,” Fletcher Brockman and D. Willard Lyon of the Young Men’s Christian Association sailed for China in the mid1890s.

The Association, as it soon came to be known in China, set itself up by 1899 in the great cities, Shanghai in particular, as an organization for businessmen residing in the port. It soon became China’s first all-embracing social work group.

Feeling a religious need to bring Jesus of Nazareth to the “Open Door in Paotingfu,” as well as a desire to be a part of the reorganization of China’s national systems of finance, army, and education, the YMCA did most of its work correcting urban woes, much like those they sought to eradicate in America—gambling and prostitution.

To replace these the Association, under the influence of Robert Lewis in Shanghai and the not-to-be-outdone Princeton-in-Peking movement, sponsored industrial education through lectures. China’s upper-class literati heard all about the steam engine, the railway, and the electric telegraph in the Association’s effort to teach the “languages, commercial customs and business methods of the west.”

There were then few areas in which Americans of many different backgrounds did not feel they could succeed just as they could at home with large doses of such education. In political reform, equal attention was paid to the empress dowager’s rumored conversion to representative government with Chinese dispatched to study international governmental structures.

“Progressive and humanitarian” efforts were also inaugurated to abolish slavery, to develop postal, telegraph, and customs services, to modify the existing penal code by eliminating “slicing, exposure of the head, beheading of the corpse, strangulation and branding,” to build an army and navy, and most symbolically to outlaw the ancient female tradition of foot-binding.

In fact while a suffragette movement gained support in the United States, the role of women in Chinese society was stressed by American reformers in the Far East. The duty of a Chinese woman was to be married in a polygamous society where concubinage was common.

One in ten thousand Chinese women could read and write. Two hundred thousand girls a year did not survive infancy.

The field was open for America’s feminists and Lillian Wald, Mrs. John B. Mott, the National American Women’s Suffrage Association, and the Women s Boards of Foreign Missions repeated that all other reforms and opportunities depended on this one.

"All workers in reforms realize", a suffragette advised Minister Edward Conger, “the advance in civilization is relative to the status of women.”

Writing in 1905, missionary spokesman Arthur Smith surveyed the China reform field and concluded proudly, “China had more progress in the preceding five years than any other nation upon the face of the globe.” From the effort expended at least, it would seem that Smith’s conclusion could not but be correct.

American missionaries in China included those concerned with the role of women in Chinese society.

Problems with the Chinese Stereotype

Although almost all shared some part of the dream of America in China’s future, some, like Mark Twain, dissented. In his “To the Person Sitting in Darkness” Twain announced his complete support of the Boxer’s anti-foreign drive of 1900. “It is all China, now, and my sympathies are with the Chinese,” declared a man never reconciled to the Gilded Age and what came after.

Striking out at his missionary critics, Twain stated what was almost a unique negation of the commercial, investment, and reform ambitions of the Open Door: “We have no more business in China than in any other country that is not ours.” In an earlier characterization of the Chinese, Twain had found them a harmless race when let alone—quiet, peaceable, free from drunkenness, and most industrious.

Seeing the 400,000,000 Chinese as stereotypes, Twain was here far more in step with his peers than in his views of the Open Door. Ironically, the persistent American image of the Chinese, which Twain shared, usually pictured a people who could not but benefit from the very involvement Twain so openly protested.

John Chinaman, to use the popular term of the day, was helpless yet industrious, frugal yet honest, indifferent yet successful in business. He could be wise, friendly, reliable, and scholarly, or ignorant, cruel, lazy, and backward.

These images were widespread, from Elihu Root who believed the Chinese helpless yet capable of the highest arts of civilization to muckraker Lincoln Steffens who seemed to feel that the Chinese could predict the weather but could only be employed to fish and launder.

The determining factor was that a Chinese in China had all the good virtues, while a Chinaman in the United States took on all the bad habits.

The years after 1900 brought about West Coast agitation over Japanese immigration and the subsequent Gentlemen’s Agreement of 1907.

During the period the issue of Chinese exclusion was by no means settled either. Since 1882 the door to the United States had been closed to Chinese laborers, once so sought-after for work on the transcontinental railroad. Congressional intent had been to cut off cheap labor competition.

The exclusion bill rested deeply, however, on the untrustworthy part of John Chinaman’s image.

Theodore Roosevelt was representative of the deep cleavage between optimism about the future of America in the Far East and dislike of the Chinese as people. A great admirer of Japan, Roosvelt cannot be taken as one paranoiacally fearing a “yellow devil,” yet his “dissatisfaction with the Chinese attitude” fit with that of many who did have such fears.

Roosevelt’s negative image of the Chinese was the complete contradiction of what he felt America should be. “We cannot play the part of China,” he began his essay, “The Strenuous Life,” and “be content to rot by inches in ignoble ease within our borders.” Roosevelt warned that “China has already found that in this world the nation that has trained itself to a career of unwarlike and isolated ease is bound to go down before other nations which have not lost the manly and adventurous qualities.”

Chinese in the United States working on the Transcontinental Railroad.

Even those intimately connected with Chinese commerce, such as former minster to Siam John Barrett, could not dismiss the “great danger to the United States” and its “progressive ideals” posed by the “vast hordes of China.” Yet certainly Barrett was horrified when such exclusionist sentiment led to an effort to restrict even the temporary entrance into the United States of those people, merchants, teachers, students, travelers, and government officials whose influence was needed to make possible American commerce, investment, and reform in China.

Such an event took place right under Barrett’s eyes as special commissioner for Asia at the St. Louis Exposition of 1904. In what was supposed to be “splendid cooperation” and a new era, employees of the Chinese exhibit were subject to Treasury Department regulations for admission including the posting of bonds and the furnishing of photos as well as ordered not to leave the fairgrounds and to exit from the country not more than thirty days after the end of the exposition.

When this humiliation, which almost caused the withdrawal of the Chinese, was followed the next year by the detainment of members of the family of the mayor of Shanghai at the port of Boston, Chinese merchants responded with the first full-scale boycott of American goods. As one historian has noted, Barrett would surely have preferred a policy whereby influential Chinese could “come in but close the door behind you.”

’The Nation’ perceptively pointed out, however, that America’s negative image of the Chinese was having disastrous effects on the interests of the Open Door in China, in this case with a boycott hurting American trade. “The attitude of our Government,” ’The Nation’ scolded, “is one of distrust and contempt and smacks of the same spirit which makes the average American look upon every Chinaman as an underfed and overworked laundryman, to he kicked or stoned if the policeman’s back is turned.”

Problems Threaten Plans

Little evidence exists to show that the boycott had any real influence on trade, outside of a portion of South China. Still such a boycott had important repercussions. It explains the presence of Taft simultaneously with Alice Roosevelt. It can be seen as partly responsible for a reconsideration of American tactics if not goals in the Far East.

Roosevelt was under pressure from those who feared the results of the boycott on American business. As in the 1882 congressional debate, those opposing exclusion or in this case pressuring for a relaxation of existing standards agreed that workers must be restricted but that influential Chinese must not be offended.

In commercial and not humanitarian terms, the boycott stood as a direct threat to the hopes of the Open Door.

From every quarter the same theme ran across the President’s desk. Seth Low besieged Roosevelt to restore good relations with the privileged class of China if America was to have any influence in that country’s awakening.

On the floor of the Senate, Joseph Foraker accused the closed door of having robbed America of a market. Letters from George Perkins of United States Steel, the Portland Chamber of Commerce, and the British American Tobacco Company and alleged phone calls from Standard Oil argued the same way.

’The Nation’ felt that for once justice would spell dollars and cents. James J. Hill, spokesman for railway and shipping interests, thought the boycott “the greatest commercial disaster America has ever suffered.”

Former Secretary of State John Foster feared the consequences should China reciprocate by barring the same kind of Americans as there were Chinese barred in the United States. Foster thought that such a disaster would mean an “effective stop to all American enterprises in China; . . . all American bankers, capitalists, railroad contractors, builders, and engineers, mining experts and operatives, manufacturers and machinists, missionaries and physicians,” the whole Open Door complement, would be kept out of China.


American diplomats kept up a steady pressure as well on the State Department for a restoration of good feelings. Rockhill in China, Huntington Wilson in Japan, and Root, once established as secretary of state, demanded congressional changes in the law so that all Chinese non-laborers might enjoy full benefit of an eastward opening door.

For his own part the president intended to “do justice” and was “taking a stiffer tone with [his] own people than any President has ever yet taken.” In addition to dispatching Taft, Roosevelt made public pronouncements in opposition to exaggerated fears of a yellow peril, issued instructions to enforce the exclusion laws without harshness and appointed another committee with Jeremiah Jenks as chairman to investigate the whole operation of the Bureau of Immigration.

At the same time as they warned of the dangers of the boycott, Americans in China advised that the railroad building plans of the American China Development Company were in even more serious danger. Aware that major control of the company had fallen into foreign, mostly Belgian hands, Chinese led by the Director General of Railways, Sheng Hsuanhuai, threatened and in fact gave notification of a planned revocation and buying-back of the original concession for a Canton-Hankow railway.

Just as in the boycott, the death notice of the company was taken as a sign of growing Chinese hostility and a threat to all the golden dreams of the Open Door.

Roosevelt and Senator Henry Cabot Lodge agreed that commercial interests in the Orient were in great danger. Jenks warned of the risk a discrediting of the company would prove to be.

Rockhill urged meeting Chinese objections by increasing American or Chinese control of the company. To do this, in January the House of Morgan had purchased twelve hundred shares of the company from King Leopold of Belgium. Roosevelt now had to forestall the sale of this remaining American interest back to China as well as convince the Chinese that American control did in fact exist.

Still practicing his profitable role as legal advisor to Morgan and before moving to the State Department, Root urged sale of the shares to China. Roosevelt assured the banker, “In every honorable way the Government will stand by you and will do all that in its power lies to see that you suffer no wrong whatever from the Chinese or any other power in this matter.” In January, Morgan had asked John Hay for just such an endorsement.

Now despite Roosevelt’s statement of close Washington-Wall Street cooperation, the banker accepted a six and three-quarter million dollar indemnity for sale of the concession when it seemed clear that the Chinese were serious in their determination to cancel.

Roosevelt’s anti-Chinese attitudes were thus strengthened by Chinese “duplicity” in this matter. Although he was informed the railway plan might have been saved if Morgan was willing to take only a modest profit, Roosevelt could not blame the banker for pulling out. “The risk is too great for them to go on,” he wrote Rockhill in late August. The Chinese, he informed the minister, rank just behind the Russians in arrogance and insincerity.

As the president wrote, his daughter’s party approached China. Among its ranks was E. H. Harriman with a most important mission resulting directly from the American China Development Company failure. As a last-minute compromise while negotiating with Morgan, China had promised Americans first preference on the financing of the sale to China of a Manchurian railway from Port Arthur to Harbin, currently owned by Japan but under negotiation at the end of the Russo-Japanese War.

With Harriman already interested in building a worldwide transportation network to link his American railway and Atlantic and Pacific steamers with a Eurasian railway, opportunity emerged from failure. The beginning of a still grander plan to give Americans a foothold in the Far East was of even more importance than the failure of the Canton-Hankow business in bringing Harriman along on these adventures in wonderland.

Harriman’s interest in Manchuria, a much-desired territory for the extension of American influence, is a fitting illustration of the total situation in 1905. Exaggerated fears of a yellow peril had produced a crisis in confidence with a commercial boycott as the primary result.

Yet, the dream of China as a market for American goods and ideas had not been shattered. In fact, to many on the scene, this show of solidarity among the Chinese indicated that reform of the empire was underway and needed only more American-inspired progress to become a real awakening. This increased Chinese awareness in their own affairs demanded a more attentive response, thus the many personal and official representatives of American business, government, and reform in the Far East.

Another lack of confidence, this one in the ownership of the American China Development Company and its relations with the American government, doomed the long-planned Canton-Hankow railway link. Here again, past failure was vastly overshadowed by new projects, thus also explaining the importance of Harriman’s visit in the autumn of 1905.


New Perspectives—Foreign and Domestic

While China remained then a veritable wonderland for American adventures, two developments, seen really for the first time in 1905, would cause a change in the tactics, if not the almost universally accepted goals, of American policy in the Far East.

Japan’s victory over Russia and the acquisition of Korea at the Portsmouth Conference completely reversed the international power balance. The great Russian menace feared by Mahan and Brooks Adams, the danger of a landed, reactionary, non-Anglo-Saxon power dominating Chinese and especially Manchurian affairs was swiftly and dramatically replaced by the sudden succession of Japan.

In the summer of 1905, Secretary of War Taft had stopped in Japan for secret discussions with Count Katsura. He would return again to both China and Japan in 1907. The readjustment made necessary by the realization that the once friendly and docile Japan had become a seagoing, progressive, yet oriental empire began gradually in 1905. It would become one of the two prime factors causing a rethinking of American tactics toward China.

Of equal significance after 1905 was the feeling that American efforts had gone astray not because of policy errors, but because of a lack of definition in the organization and administration of such policy. For all the historical honors heaped on Roosevelt for the realism of his diplomacy, American thinking about China in this period had been as vague as it was promising.

A part of the suggested answer would be a general reorganization of the machinery of both the State Department at home and the consular service abroad, resulting in the creation of a Far Eastern division within the department in 1906. Those like Huntington Wilson, Rockhill, and Root, who suffered through the trial of sought to apply the lessons of that year as they understood them.

These administrative changes fit into a larger pattern of reform of the means by which Americans sought widely accepted goals. Efforts to rationalize the industrial system and make it more efficient were under way at home and would become important enough to be characteristic of the period as a whole.

So too the lesson of 1905 in China was that changes were necessary to make the means by which the door was to be opened both more efficient and therefore, it was felt, more successful.

The struggle between the conflicting nature of such changes—whether they should consist of more strenuous independent anti-Japanese American efforts or a mutual cooperation with others in the Far East—would be the second factor directing the shape of America’s future in China after 1905.

The wonderland of China remained intact after 1905. The fact that it did, despite the trying conditions making Alice’s adventures necessary, is perhaps the most important legacy of that year.

Having suffered through boycotts and concession cancellations, the myth of the golden door would stay untarnished for many years to come.

The struggle to wrench it open would continue as well. New international and domestic perspectives would see to it that the process of opening the door would never seem as simple or disorganized as it had in the first five years after John Hay officially declared it under way.

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