2. Boxers, Open Door and Friendly Persuasion

The empress dowager, despite her inherent incapacity to rise above palace intrigue and to develop a program of reform, was determined no longer to lie down in front of imperialist demands.1 She sought out sources of Chinese strength and thought she had found them in a strange popular movement. This decision of Ci Xi led China into a bizarre and destructive adventure which undermined most of the remaining foundations of the Qing dynasty.

The movement had risen in 1896-98 as the main force of a furious antiforeign uprising in Shandong, generated primarily by German mining prospectors whom the peasants thought were upsetting the "spirits of wind and water." The band called itself the Yi He Quan, meaning a branch of the ancient calisthenic fighting or boxing art (guan or fist) devoted to righteousness and harmony (yi he).2 In the West it was known as Boxers.

Partisans were mostly credulous, illiterate peasants, frightened by foreign advances and pressures to convert by Chinese Christians, led by Western missionaries. Christians, they felt, were defaming their gods and sages as well as their traditional beliefs. The peasants also were being damaged by the foreign-imposed maximum customs duty of 5 per cent ad valorem, which permitted machine-produced foreign cloth to undersell fabrics made in peasant households and local handicraft shops. Peasant conditions were worsened by floods on the Yellow river followed by droughts over several previous seasons. Theirs was only the most recent of many popular movements in rural China over the centuries, stirred by desperation and, in the case of the Boxers, also expressing the traditional Han or native Chinese opposition to the Manchus, foreigners from the northeast who had seized an opportunity in 1643-44 to set up the Qing dynasty and had ruled ever since. To the strangely confused set of grievances pronounced by the Boxers was added one volatile and destabilizing element: the movement's leaders convinced the peasants that the Boxer ritual possessed members of spirits that made them invulnerable to the foreigners' bullets.3

The first part of the Boxers' slogan, "Overthrow the Qing, wipe out the foreigners," seemed to guarantee persecution by the dynasty. But it was the second part that appealed to the Old Buddha, as Westerners called the empress dowager. She saw a chance to drive the foreigners out of China. In the fall of 1899 Boxer leaders approached the court and a gradual shift away from hatred of the Qings toward concentration against foreigners began.

At this moment, John Hay, United States secretary of state, made known his alarm that the imperialist spheres of influence were beginning to resemble colonies, which might be closed to the U.S. and other nations. Hay learned that the British planned to use Kowloon, the territory on the mainland opposite Hong Kong recently wrenched from China, to smuggle imports into China without paying the tariff. If other powers followed suit, the tariff would no longer be collected and the way opened for separate policies in each sphere.4

In September, 1899, Hay sent notes to the imperial powers which raised no objection to spheres of influence and merely asked that the powers grant all nations equal treatment and agree to collect China's customs revenue within their spheres.5 Behind the note was the long-standing American position that all powers should have an "open door" to trade with China. However, the open door and spheres of influence were not compatible and combining the two would lead to failure.6 Actually the first open-door note indicated an ambivalence over what American policy should be in China. Throughout this period Hay was trying to acquire a United States naval base at Samsah bay in Fujian, an aim exactly opposite to the principle of China's territorial integrity. The U.S. backed off only because Japan objected, citing a previous Chinese agreement giving Japan influence in the province.7

The United States was toying with becoming one of the exploitative imperial powers and giving up its traditional role of merely sharing in the China trade with other countries. The vast expansion of American presence in the Pacific as a result of the Spanish-American War opened up intoxicating possibilities to many Americans, who, as George Kennen writes, "liked the smell of empire."8 The Philippines appeared to be an ideal base from which to extend American influence over China and East Asia. Hawaii, Wake and Guam could house way-stations. Ripening plans for the Panama canal meant the U.S. could move ships quickly into the Pacific.9

But the United States could not make the jump into full-scale imperialism. Many Americans were reluctant to get embroiled in the Far East and endanger the Monroe Doctrine. There had been an underlying isolationist strain in the American people at least since President George Washington's farewell address (September 17, 1796), when he told Americans "it is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world." Many Americans didn't sufficiently understand that they had been able to isolate themselves behind their two oceans only because they were sheltered by the British fleet and British diplomacy to maintain a balance of power in Europe.10

The rise of Germany in Europe and Japan in the Pacific were stretching British naval resources beyond their limit and were a signal that the U.S. would have assure its own interests in the Pacific. However, there was practically no awareness in the U.S. at this time that Japan was embarked on a drive to create a closed East Asian empire and that such an empire ultimately would pose a severe threat to American security, trade and acquisition of raw materials. Isolationists, still holding a parochial view of American affairs, asked how the U.S. could forbid Europe to interfere in the western hemisphere when Americans were interfering in the eastern.

Another major reason for American hesitation was a fundamental opposition to ruling other people by force, a feeling inherited from America's colonial past. An anti-imperialist league became virulent in the case of the Philippines. There was little hope the islands could ever be assimilated into the American political fabric and would therefore have to be ruled as a colony. Although expansionists were strong enough in the Senate to push through the peace treaty with Spain that included acquisition of the Philippines, the 57-27 vote (February 6, 1899) was only one over the necessary two-thirds majority.11 Opposition to imperialism therefore stopped the flirtation with establishing an American sphere of influence in China but also obscured the more fundamental need of the United States to develop a counter to Japan's ambitions, now that the British fleet no longer could be counted on to provide America's security gratis.

The immediate outcome of America's retreat from imperialism was a changed viewpoint concerning the open door in China. It would have come sooner or later anyway but the catalyst was the Boxers, with whom the empress dowager in May, 1900, consummated a secret alliance to drive the foreign devils out of China. The Old Buddha had convinced herself that the Boxers' magic could indeed protect them from foreign weapons.

The assault began in Shandong with attacks against Christian missionaries but soon spread over north China and Manchuria. Boxers and Qing soldiers killed many thousands of Chinese Christians and 242 missionaries and other foreigners, prompting the terrorized survivors to rush to safety in coastal treaty ports.

When Boxers appeared around the foreign legations in Beijing, diplomats feared an attack and foreign powers assembled 2,100 troops at Tianjin, all then available, and set them marching to Beijing. Boxers met them halfway and forced the troops back. This victory sent the Boxers into a frenzy and on June 13-14, 1900, they broke into Beijing and Tianjin, killing Christians and looting. On June 20 they laid siege to the legation quarter in Beijing. Although the siege lasted eight weeks, the mostly unarmed Boxers never seriously assaulted the quarter because leading figures at court realized to do so would be suicidal. Inside the quarter were 475 foreign civilians, 450 troops of eight nations and 3,000 Chinese Christians. There were also 150 racing ponies, which provided fresh meat. On June 21 the empress dowager, Ci Xi, declared war against all powers.12

U.S. Secretary of State Hay feared that the imperialist powers would seize on the Boxer outrages as an excuse to partition China. If this occurred, the U.S. would likely be squeezed out. Consequently, Hay on July 3, 1900, sent a circular note to the powers saying the U.S. sought to preserve the "territorial and administrative entity" of China while protecting all existing foreign treaty rights and "the principle of equal and impartial trade with all parts of the Chinese empire" by all foreign states. This second note eliminated the inconsistency of the first: now the U.S. combined territorial integrity with the open door.13 Although Hay was still jockeying to get a naval base in Fujian, the opposition to annexing the Philippines had signaled a powerful anticolonial ground current in the U.S. Hay concluded the best hope for the U.S. was to discourage breaking up the Chinese empire. The imperial powers accepted but whether they truly believed was something else again.

Meantime, the foreign powers slowly assembled troops on the coast to relieve the Beijing legations. On August 3, a multi-national force of 18,000 started out. Most were Japanese and Russian but there were 2,100 Americans from the Philippines. On August 14, the force entered Beijing, relieved the legation and began to exact vengeance.14

Whether because of Hay's note or not, the imperialists agreed not to partition China. Perhaps the benefits of partition were not worth another popular uprising, possibly one led by determined patriots rather than the ineffectual Boxers and therefore a far more costly conflict. But the powers did exact a terrible indemnity: 333 million dollars (450 million taels) to be paid over 39 years at 4 per cent interest. The U.S. was assigned 25 million; but U.S. losses were only half this amount and Washington agreed to remit the balance. China decided to use the remitted portion to send young Chinese to American universities.15 Other nations were not as generous.

For the Russians, the Boxer uprising was a godsend. When the Russian war minister, A.N. Kuropatkin, heard of it, he exclaimed: "I am very glad. This will give us an excuse for seizing Manchuria."16 The Russians did just that, blithely explaining that they were suppressing rioters and tried to make a separate pact with China to exclude all foreign influence and investment other than Russian in Manchuria and beyond the Great Wall of China. All the foreign powers, but especially Japan, were deeply worried about the Russian aggression. Under great pressure from Japan, China rejected Russia's proposal but, though the Russian government said it would withdraw the troops, they remained, despite frequent protests by Hay.17

During this period of Secretary Hay's activity in China, the United States brought to flower a peculiar and ultimately damaging policy that was to dominate American thinking for the next forty years: the U.S. took strong moral positions regarding China but made it clear that the U.S. would not defend these positions with military power. It was easier to preach than to act and Hay's open-door notes were only moral exhortations that did little to restrain voracious powers.18 To aggressive nations in the Far East, the United States came to look like a barking dog that never bites.

Yet Hay advertised his open-door notes as great diplomatic coups. Since other nations were not willing to admit publicly that they opposed the high moral principles contained in them, a powerful myth arose in the U.S. about the great effectiveness of the American démarches, despite the fact that practical results were nil. All of this could quickly have been passed by as an example of American naiveté. But the seeming success of this policy, plus the fact that, being moral only, it required no ships or troops to enforce it, encouraged American leaders thereafter to preach about the open door and the territorial integrity of China. Time after time, foreign powers would give evasive replies and American leaders, as George Kennen says, "would present these replies to our own people, despite their qualified nature, as diplomatic achievements."19 As the aggressions of Japan in the Far East became more and more ominous, this head-in-the-sand American policy became both ludicrous and dangerous.

Hesitation in the use of force was by no means a typical American trait. During the same era that Hay developed his policy the U.S. fought a decidedly aggressive war for colonies against Spain, took over Hawaii, made it plain to Colombia that it would brook no interference in its plans for a Panama canal, set up protectorates (irrespective of local feeling) in Cuba, Nicaragua, Haiti and the Dominican Republic and intervened aggressively in Mexican internal affairs, including violent occupation of Vera Cruz in 1914.20

The profound difference between U.S. attitudes about East Asia and its pugnacious actions in the Caribbean was due, of course, to the danger to American security that U.S. leaders feared from any disturbances in Caribbean republics that might bring great-power incursions into the region. They turned the Caribbean into an American lake not only to protect the U.S. directly but to secure the new American strategic lifeline: the Panama canal. American leaders, still basking in the security of the British navy, did not see the far greater threat to U.S. interests in the Far East. Besides, the weak countries of the Caribbean basin could offer no substantial opposition. It was another story entirely to try to push around the great world powers arrayed in East Asia.

Yet a far greater danger to the United States lay on the western rim of the Pacific ocean where a great and aggressive sea power was rising. If Japan could control China it could control East Asia. With such an enormous power base, Japan could extend its influence over the great natural resources of southeast Asia. Such an empire would deny the U.S. and other nations materials and trade, destablize the world politically and, in time, make Japan invincible.21

The requirements of American security could not sustain so powerful a world state controlling the western Pacific. America's security lay, therefore, in preventing the rise of Japan as a great sea power. But this was not apparent to American leaders in this flood tide of imperialism. The U.S. was only a newcomer to Pacific power and still a bit player in the Far East. In the days of John Hay, American leaders quite naturally assumed that the real decisions in East Asia would be made by the great imperial states.

Chapter 3: Japan Expands, China Revolts >>

1. Revolution, p. 136.

2. Ibid., p. 137; Jansen, pp. 41-46.

3. Hsü, pp. 387-91.

4. Pratt, p. 435; Kennen, pp. 25-37.

5. Fairbank, p. 321; Pratt, pp. 435-6. Notes went to Britain, Germany, Russia, France, Italy and Japan. Five governments replied they'd abide by the principles set forth by Hay provided the others did. But Russia's response didn't address equal treatment of all nations and implied its promise to abide by the Chinese tariff applied to Chinese territory outside the Russian sphere, not inside. Hay, however, decided to view all replies as satisfactory and, on March 20, 1900, announced that the U.S. regarded acceptance by all as binding. As Tyler Dennett says in John Hay, from Poetry to Politics, New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1933, p. 293, "What began as straightforward diplomacy...ended in diplomatic prestidigitation."

6. Clymer, pp. 144-6.

7. Pratt, p. 440; Clymer, pp. 145-6; the correspondence regarding Samsah bay is published in FRUS, 1924, pp. 113-115, note.

8. Kennen, p. 17.

9. Pratt, p. 385.

10. Kennen, p. 5.

11. Pratt, pp. 82, note; 389-91; Dulles, pp. 104-6.

12. Fairbank, pp. 210-12; Revolution, pp. 138-9; Pratt, pp. 436-8; Britannica, Macropaedia, vol. 4, p. 364; Hsü, pp. 387-96; Eva Jane Price, China Journal 1889-1900, An American Missionary Family During the Boxer Rebellion, New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1989, pp.239-43. Two excellent studies are Victor Purcell, The Boxer Uprising: a Background Study, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1963; Hamden, Conn.: Shoe String Press, Inc., Archon Books, 1974, and Chester C. Tan, The Boxer Catastrophe, New York: Harper, 1959.

13. Pratt, p. 437-8; FRUS, 1900, pp. 304, 316, 317, 328, 344-5, 359.

14. Pratt, p. 438; Revolution, p. 138; Hsü, 397-8. Of the expedition to Beijing, the Japanese numbered 8,000, the Russians 4,800, British 3,000, Americans 2,100, French 800, Austrians 58, and Italians 53. The German contingent of 7,000 arrived too late to participate but on October 17, 1900, joined the other forces at Beijing.

15. Pratt, p. 439.

16. Purcell, Boxer Uprising, p. 258.

17. Jansen, p. 77; Hsü, pp. 401-4; Dulles, pp. 123-4. Hay wrote Theodore Roosevelt, who became President after the assassination of William McKinley in 1901, that the U.S. might as well recognize Russia's "exceptional position" in Manchuria and forget it, which is hardly consistent with his open-door pronouncements. Roosevelt didn't agree to such a meek response but he did not propose that the U.S. take any positive action. Under pressure from the other imperial powers, Russia in 1902 agreed to withdraw from Manchuria in three stages, "provided that no disturbances arise and that the action of other powers should not prevent it." Russia carried out the first step as scheduled, but balked at the second, invoking the proviso to justify remaining. A few months later the Russians reoccupied Shenyang (Mukden).

18. Kennan, p. 37; Tsou, p. 10.

19. Kennen, pp. 39, 46.

20. An excellent summary of American activities in Latin America and the Caribbean is given in Pratt, pp. 412-33.

21. Dulles, p. 125; Hoyt, p. 28.