How Worried Should I Be? The Coronavirus vs the Manchurian Plague

As the Chinese coronavirus death toll approaches 1,000 and new cases are reported in more than 20 countries, the obvious question on many people’s lips is: How worried should I be?

On the streets of Wuhan

This previously unknown pneumonic infection has not only affected large numbers of people in China, and dozens of others across the globe, but it has led to major logistical disruption, social dislocation and, particularly in the case of the city of origin Wuhan, mass quarantining.

Whilst it is still very early days in monitoring the evolution of the coronavirus, it does appear that the mortality rate is fairly low, perhaps as few as 2% of people infected. Of course, it is always tempting in such a scenario to make comparisons with past epidemics, and I shall do no differently. Whilst the relatively recent outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in China took a smaller toll than initially anticipated, another pneumonic infection originating in the country’s northeast shortly after the turn of the 20th century was grossly more severe.

The Manchurian Plague of 1910-1911 killed some 50,000 people and had a mortality rate touching 100 per cent, an unprecedented figure. Transmitted to humans by the tarbagan marmot – whose fur was highly prized by hunters – this airborne disease was spread at a frighteningly rapid pace, with none of the immediate restrictions on movement such as those enacted after the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan.

Manchurian Plague victims. Freezing temperatures in the region led to close-quarters living for extra warmth, helping the plague to spread quickly

Despite lingering in perpetual decline at the end of the Qing Dynasty, the Chinese and their foreign benefactors had developed sophisticated railway corridors across parts of the country, including in the northeast. The South Manchurian Railway was a conduit along which the plague spread, ripping through provincial capitals such as Harbin and Changchun. Worst affected were the poorer classes who lived in crowded villages with poor sanitation. Those with greater means were largely able to isolate themselves from the virus and cases outside of Manchuria were sporadic.

If ever the corrupt and weakened Qing needed a providential sign that their time was up it was this plague, originating like the Qing in Manchuria. In 1912 the dynasty fell and the great upheaval that followed brought squabbling warlords, dabbling in republicanism, nationalist dictatorship and finally, after World War Two, communism.

Coffins being hauled to a cremation ground near Changchun

Yet by the time of the Qing demise the Manchurian Plague had been halted in its tracks. Despite a vicious initial march into the Chinese hinterland, efforts to contain the disease, quarantine the sick and thoroughly burn the carcasses of the dead proved fruitful. Aided by Russia and Japan, the Chinese imperialists overcame a terrible affliction that had initially appeared to be the preface to a new Black Death.

Despite a far lower mortality rate and a plethora of nations and global bodies united against its further spread, there is anxiety amongst some experts that the coronavirus will become a pandemic, potentially mutating within carriers to ensure a more efficient transmission. Fears that our increasingly globalised world would necessitate such an outcome have been popularised by movies such as Contagion and, whilst these are dramatic creations for commercial gain, it would be naive to ignore worst-case scenarios.

The Manchurian Plague killed at least 50 times as many people as the coronavirus has so far. But this occurred in one of the more remote and inhospitable regions of China, in an era of improving but far from interconnected transport networks. With huge resources being committed against it, there is every hope that the coronavirus will soon be brought to heel and the restrictions on global travel and interaction lifted.

Hypnotic but deadly: the coronavirus

However, we must never forget the power of nature. Humankind has the ability to tame and cajole, but it can never force complete submission. Complacency now would be very foolhardy indeed and it will take a concerted, global effort to safeguard us all from the spread of this particular contagion.

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.