Tsingtao Beer and the First Sino-Japanese War

China’s economy is slowing. Its annual growth rate has dropped to 6.9%, a 25-year low. That said, Chinese exports remain a source of resentment for millions of people, whose livelihoods have been taken away or put in jeopardy by the ultra-competitive prices offered by the ‘world’s factory’.

China remains the world's leading manufacturer but economic growth is slowing
China remains the world’s leading manufacturer but economic growth is slowing

One Chinese export that appears to be growing in global popularity – certainly it is in the UK – is Tsingtao, a rather find brand of lager with an interesting history of its own.

In 1894, the modernising Japanese began a bold bid to expand their influence away from their homeland by acquiring large swathes of territory across East Asia. Korea was their first target.

Korea was a Chinese vassal state at the end of the 19th century and, as such, had the right to ask China to send troops to its aid should Korean sovereignty come under threat. Whilst the Chinese were not particularly attached to their vassals during this period – and had been prepared to cede influence to Western powers in some instances – the fact that Korea had a border with Manchuria was significant. If Korea fell into enemy hands then the Chinese homeland would come under direct threat, Manchuria also holding a place of particular importance as the birthplace of the ruling Qing Dynasty.

Unlike the Japanese, China’s rulers were stuck in a cycle of inertia under their young Emperor Guangxu, having made significant progress during the previous three decades when the Empress Dowager Cixi effectively ran the country. Oblivious to international affairs and the potential power of the Japanese, Guangxu failed to spend sufficient funds on improving the Chinese Army and Navy.

Emperor Guangxu lacked the modernising tendencies of his Japanese rivals
Emperor Guangxu lacked the modernising tendencies of his Japanese rivals

Japanese and Chinese troops were already stationed in Korea in order to ‘protect’ their own nationals and interests. Buoyed by its own increasing military prowess and the seemingly enfeebled Chinese monarchy, Japan escalated tensions by seizing Seoul in July 1894, establishing a puppet government with the authority to expel Chinese troops. The Chinese belatedly responded by sending a naval force with troops to Korea, only for one of its ships to be sunk by the Japanese Navy in a preemptive strike.

In August 1894, China and Japan declared war on one another. It would begin a humiliating process for Beijing, whose forces were routed on land and at sea by the adventurous Japanese. The Chinese were soon forced out of Korea, with the Japanese crossing the border in October. In November 1894 the strategic harbour of Port Arthur fell and by February 1895 the Japanese had overrun Weihaiwei, home of China’s Northern Fleet.

Japanese troops with modern Western weapons during the First Sino-Japanese War
Japanese troops with modern Western weapons during the First Sino-Japanese War

With defeat inevitable and mainland China under real threat, Emperor Guangxu sued for peace. In April 1895, the Japanese revealed their extravagant demands for an end to the war:

  1. Cession of Taiwan.
  2. Cession of the Pescadores Islands.
  3. Cession of the Liaodong Peninsula.
  4. 200 million taels war indemnity (nearly ten times the total of the Japanese state revenue at the time).

With a promise that Japanese troops would march on Beijing should he try and negotiate, Emperor Guangxu ordered his diplomats to accept these disastrous terms and the Treaty of Shimonoseki was duly signed.

Treaty of Shimonoseki
Treaty of Shimonoseki

Incensed by China’s capitulation and Japan’s brazenness, and the potential strategic implications of the treaty, the Western powers – particularly Russia, Germany and France – put pressure on Tokyo to revoke its demand for the Liaodong Peninsula.

China therefore retained sovereignty over the Peninsula for the time being. However, it would soon become clear that the Europeans wanted to be rewarded for pressuring the Japanese to back off.

In 1897, Kaiser Wilhelm II’s Germany demanded control of Jiaozhou Bay in Shandong Province, including the naval station of Qingdao (Tsingtao). With German warships patrolling the coast, Emperor Guangxu agreed to give the Germans a 99-year lease for the territory. This was soon followed by the Russian acquisition of Port Arthur, the British takeover of Weihaiwei and the concession to the French of Guangzhouwan, an enclave to serve as an outlier to French Indochina.

German Tsingtau in 1898 and 1910
German Tsingtau in 1898 and 1910

It was this series of events that led to the Germans creating an indigenous Chinese lager in 1903, albeit based on trusted ingredients from the fatherland. As with Anheuser and Busch in the USA, German immigrants successfully created a national product for China that has stood the test of time.

Perhaps this can be considered one of the consolations of a particularly dark moment in Chinese history.


Reform Remains an Ill-Fated Word in China: but it cannot be ignored forever

On Wednesday, some of China’s most prominent scholars, activists and journalists published an open letter calling for the government to implement political and social reforms. In particular, the letter called for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. This follows on from a similar letter written several months ago, in which pressure was applied on the government to adopt democratic reforms, including the creation of an independent judiciary.

It appears as though the world is taking an interminably long pause as it waits for China to change. Whilst economic growth has remained high over the past two decades, arguments against implementing political reforms have been easy to formulate. A strong, authoritarian state breeds rising living standards; end of discussion. At the same time, no mass movement calling for change has been witnessed since the fateful events at Tiananmen Square in 1989.

Since Tiananmen Square, there has been no mass movement for reform in China
Since Tiananmen Square, there has been no mass movement for reform in China

China’s government has always appeared anathema to reform, conservative in the strictest sense. Think of the years of economic failure endured under Mao Tse-Tung when the CCP hierarchy plowed stubbornly forward with their backward policies, masking disappointment with aggressive propaganda. Deng Xiaoping’s “opening up” of the economy in the 1980s was long overdue and testament to the typical conservatism at the highest level of government in Beijing.

As the Tiananmen Square protests showed, and countless other small-scale regional uprisings in recent years have reinforced, the CCP thinks little of popular pressure. Even reformist tendencies at the highest level tend to be ignored unless supported by a majority. Such are the trappings of a non-democratic system. Having said that, the CCP would do well to learn from the past and realise that persistent opposition to change can lead to disaster.

In 1898, the Guangxu Emperor, ruler of the Qing Dynasty, attempted to implement a series of political, economic and cultural reforms to modernise the archaic imperial state. After 104 days, Guangxu and his few supporters in government were sidelined by a coup d’etat led by his aunt, the Empress Dowager Cixi. At a time when reform was essential to preserve the imperial dynasty into the twentieth century, the conservatism of those in power, including the military, effectively set the seal on the Qing’s decline.

Empress Cixi retained a belief in the traditions of the Qing, something shared by China's military
Empress Cixi retained a belief in the traditions of the Qing, something shared by China’s military

By the time the last emperor, Puyi, ascended the imperial throne in 1908, the Qing Dynasty was dead. Preserving outdated policies and a belief system of absolutism eradicated from Europe centuries before, the Qing were out of touch and Puyi was effectively held a prisoner in the Forbidden City, as a succession of warlords fought for control of China.

Even after a “century of shame”, in which the imperial powers of Europe had humiliated China through opium wars and unfair trade negotiations, and shortly after the country’s humiliating defeat to Japan in the Sino-Japanese War, reform had been avoided. The subsequent collapse of the Qing had become inevitable.

Similar parallels can also be drawn with the “Gang of Four”, the brains behind the Cultural Revolution, which sought to preserve the Maoist dictatorship at the expense of government reform, and whose ultimate demise was inevitable after Mao’s death and Deng’s rise.

The CCP is by no means in a similar decline to the Qing, or as isolated as the “Gang of Four”, and whilst economic growth remains steady its leadership should not face a severe challenge to its rule. Nevertheless, for the Chinese population to continue to tolerate one-party rule – in an era when many of its youth are being educated in the West and have access to social networking sites that provide more than the state-sanctioned news – the CCP will need to change.

The very fact that yesterday’s letter was published openly is a sign that the government’s thought police are slipping. Such publications would have been unthinkable in recent years. Continuing to promise reform and then hoping to hide behind economic growth is not a sustainable platform for future government. A time will come when popular sentiment for reform begins to gain momentum. Either that, or the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) – so important to China’s stability – could force the government’s hand as a preemptive measure against a popular uprising. The CCP has the opportunity to implement reform voluntarily, on its terms, and forgo the possibility of forced action in the future.

But as has typified China’s long history, its leaders often wait just that bit too long.

The PLA may ultimately hold the balance of power between government and the reform movement
The PLA may ultimately hold the balance of power between government and the reform movement