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2. Peking Duties


Peking the mysterious; in some details very ugly; in its mass so beautiful; such a sharpness in its silhouettes, such a richness in its colours, due to that clear northern air; the yellow of the palace roofs shining in the sun; and many of the curly roofs with funny little figures on the eaves and ridges; crimson gates and crimson wooden outer columns of the houses; and general magnificence in such a palace as housed the British Minister.

We took a very modest house — for Peking. It and its many courtyards covered half an acre; a series of separate bungalows — there were five of them joined more or less by covered passages; the biggest was our drawing-room with no ceiling, its massive wooden beams exposed. Mostly the windows were of paper. It took sixteen tons of coal a month to warm that house in winter — it was carried in by camels.

And now about my post. It was the Ministry of Communications that wanted me. Nominally they wished me to frame a Merchant Shipping Act — a tidy little job; actually, as I later found, they did not care tuppence about that detail.

What they wanted was that I should show a way by which, in the control of Chinese shipping, the Customs Service could be ousted.

The salary I claimed for giving up the Coast Inspectorship was higher than there was any precedent for giving an Adviser; so my friend the Minister of the Navy came to the rescue and made me Adviser to that Ministry as well, and it was understood that mostly it would be a sinecure; lastly, there was a clause in my agreement making up the balance by an allowance of several hundred pounds a year for axle-grease — an archaic synonym for travelling expenses.

So I was launched; and then began a busy, a strenuous and a most interesting time. Twice a week I went the ninety miles to Tientsin to attend on Chihli river work. The other days I went to my specially built Shipping Law Office at the Ministry of Communications. Now and then I was given a special job; for example, a claim by a foreigner against the Government would be referred to me; and I would investigate and see the foreign Minister concerned and get the matter settled out of hand. My previous experience in shipping arbitration came in useful here. Of the River Commission at Tientsin I have not much to say, because to give even a minor picture of it would take several chapters. We were a happy, laughing, quarrelling lot of several nationalities: some Chinese, an Italian, a Dutchman, a Swede and myself, an Englishman. Apart from language there were different modes of thought to deal with. The Italian said, ' Mr Chairman, I demand an answer to my question '; but he only meant that he requested it. On the staff was an American engineer, as charming in his manners as he was capable in his work. At one time we had as Engineer-in- Chief a Greek. Now in our departmental correspondence we had dropped all honorifics and used simple memorandum forms. I wrote such a memorandum to the Greek soon after his appointment, and he returned it in the chit book as unbecoming to his dignity to receive — and he resigned. There was an affair that makes me very sad to think of. The Dutchman was a charming fellow, and I was very fond of him; but he became obstructive, so obstructive that eventually I considered it my duty to recommend his removal from the Commission. Later he had the opportunity to put a spoke in my wheel; I understood he took it, and I do not blame him. I was possibly too strenuous with him, and I have a feeling of remorse about it.

Eventually we decided to get the best river engineer the world could give us, whatever he might cost. The Mississippi with a physical regime somewhat similar to that of the Yellow river pointed to America for such a man; but I knew no means by which we could assure a satisfactory selection, and I feared a commitment that might lead to diplomatic trouble.

So we turned to India and got the services of Mr. Rose, the retiring head of the Public Works Department there, and, when I left China, he also took over my duties as Chairman.

In my Peking office my nose was buried in a mass of tomes on Shipping Law. As Coast Inspector I had already controlled the safety side of shipping and the details of tonnage measurement; but now came, for example, such a matter as the Limitation of Liability in accidents — which of course ought to be uniform throughout the world, but is not. In this and other matters I had to study what was done in other countries — a fatiguing operation calling for the closest concentration, but because I was interested it was not altogether dull.

The Ministry of Communications cared only for the ousting of the Customs from the control of shipping. I think now that they assumed I was intelligent enough to know their meaning without being told; but I was not. I assumed they wanted a practicable scheme; no such scheme was practicable without a preparatory period of mutual co-operation between the Customs and the Ministry, and that they vigorously objected to. Wang Tsung-wei, the Judge in charge of Law Revision, and a man of great capacity, tried to put me straight — to impress upon me that whether I was right or wrong, whether a scheme was practicable or not, the Ministry was determined to run the Customs out from the control of shipping.

Now came another complication. A bureaucratic control of shipping would mean innumerable posts, and so the Ministry of the Navy claimed it was they and not Communications who should run it; and they expected my support. And when I would not give it they impeached me for incompetence, and I was a member of the commission that was formed to investigate the matter, and which vindicated me. I believe that the instigator of that business was the officer who at Weihaiwei in '94 had been insubordinate and who had publicly apologized instead of having his head cut off. Yet the Minister of the Navy was undoubtedly my friend, which shows of course how much a Minister is in the hands of his departmental heads.

There at Peking I had a still wider scope for my faculty of interference in general affairs. I learnt something of how the several legations viewed or did not view the situation, and how little they were doing or could do about it owing to mutual jealousies. China was becoming more and more disgruntled.

She did not know enough to know what were her real grievances, and worried imaginary ones to death. Japan was steadily intriguing, as was natural, fomenting trouble from the South and getting Chinese statesmen in her clutches. In the absence of some Western statesmanship there seemed a danger of China becoming inoculated, against her will, by the Pan- Asiatic virus of Japan; and thus the seed of future serious danger for the Western world. So I wrote an anonymous propaganda pamphlet ` China, Japan, and the Peace of the World,' and provided that statesmen in America, France and England should read it. But it soon was out of date, for I had not foreseen the danger of Bolshevism.

Already in 1918 the British Intelligence Department had feared the effect of Bolshevism in China. I was spoken to about it. I did not believe in it. The soil of Bolshevism was a state of chaos, and China, whatever appearances might be, was the least liable to real chaos of any country in the world.

Effective government of sorts went on — regardless of the absence of a central government — by means of that peculiar automatism provided by the precepts of the ancient sages. I was only partly wrong.

In 1919 there happened a very curious political affair, concerning which I was the only Westerner who knew something of its ins and outs; and I think it was because of that that my box of archives was ransacked, and the dossier of the episode, my propaganda pamphlets, some diaries and other papers stolen.

A portion of the Amur river forms the boundary between Russia and Manchuria, but its lower part runs in Russian territory.

By a Russo-Chinese treaty of many years before, China had the right to send her merchant vessels up the river from the sea and to be in joint control of the river where it forms the boundary. 'There had, however, been no attempt to exercise that right, and unquestionably Russia, with her ambitions about Manchuria and her practical possession of its northern part, had later no intention that China should. But now, with the weakening of Russia from the war and revolution, Peking thought the time had come to act. Before I left the Customs Sir Francis Aglen passed on to me a suggestion from the Government that we send a Customs cruiser to earmark China's right; but I explained that the navigation of the Russian section was, by implication in the treaty, obviously restricted to Chinese merchant vessels, and I heard no more about the matter then. But when I was Adviser it was decided that there should be a Russo-Chinese meeting at Harbin to draw up a convention about the control of the jointly owned section of the river; and I was appointed as a delegate to it. A day or two before we left Peking I got some news that made my hair stand up on end. The Ministry of the Navy, acting in conjunction with the Foreign Office, was sending a flotilla of gunboats to Nikolaievsk to ascend the river. They thought they had the right to do so; the question did not come within the reference of the impending conference; so they thought it would be good policy to exercise it. But quite clearly that right did not belong to China, and, even had the matter been in doubt, the method was bound to kill the projected conference. So I visited the Foreign Office and told them of the facts; the expedition could end in nothing but disgrace; and I handed in my view in writing. The effect of what I said I could not tell; I could only hope that they might realize their utter foolishness before it was too late.

I reached Harbin about the 12th October 1919. There were no signs of Russian delegates; let it be said at once that there never was a sign of them. But to my astonishment I found there a Chinese Admiral of the Amur river, whose name was Wang. From time to time — I stayed three weeks at Harbin — he told me of the movement of that expedition. I wish I could give the details of that story — how Russia set the trap and baited it; but I have only my memory to trust to plus a few notes I still possess. The trap was baited with plaintive remonstrance about the object of the expedition so as to simulate regretted weakness; and the object of the trap was to make China so lose face about the Amur river that she would drop the rights she had upon it. But partly, perhaps, it was a joke by the Vladivostok military authorities — they would stage a booby-trap for China so as to have a cause to laugh at her discomfiture. On Russia's side there was, at the time, a muddle of conflicting authorities — at Vladivostok there were both Whites and Reds; at Peking the Legation had the old Imperial staff.

I am not sure what part Japan took in this affair; but for once her wishes and Russia's marched together. Neither wanted China on the Amur; Japan because she aimed at getting there herself some time in the future. Perhaps Japan took no active part in this burlesque; it may be she just looked on as at an entertainment.

On the 15th October I heard that the officer in charge of the flotilla on arrival at Vladivostok had been warned that he had no right to navigate the Russian Amur; but the nature of that warning only added to his hopes of carrying out his mission; and he proceeded up the coast.

It was now that I felt sure a trap was set, so I telegraphed to my Ministry asking it to pass on to the Cabinet a message from me that the expedition, if not recalled by a telegram to Nikolaievsk, must be involved either in humiliation or disaster. I had no right at that time to address the Cabinet and I did not expect to get an answer, but I did: a polite reply that gave no information. The next I heard was of the arrival of the boats at Nikolaievsk. They had been refused pilots in the complicated narrows between Saghalien and the mainland, but had managed quite skilfully to do without them. A Japanese cruiser had shadowed them on the way; and I supposed at the time that the Japanese were playing a double game, urging the Chinese on to their discomfiture and advising the Russians to resist them in due course. When the flotilla reached Nikolaievsk it was well received, and I believe the officers were entertained; and again they were told they must not go up the river. The Chinese Commanders, however, had no discretion in the matter; they had been ordered to go, and go they must unless actively resisted; and with winter coming on there was no time to lose. So at night time they left the harbour and steamed up the river, and that the prevention of their departure was deliberately withheld there cannot be a doubt.

And now I heard that a Russian General with troops and field-guns had entrained at Vladivostok for Khabarovsk, at the upper end of the Russian Amur, and somewhere in that neighbourhood they waited for the Chinese vessels.

That steaming up the river would be a great adventure to the Chinese Captains. They had defied great Russia and seemingly had gained their point; they would be chock-a-block with pride, and hope, and satisfaction. They had steamed five hundred miles, and in a few hours' time would reach Manchuria and gain complete success. But it was not to be.

Suddenly they were fired on; and inspired by the pride of their hitherto success and the nearness of their goal, they went to general quarters and fired back. The details of that fight I never heard. I believe those gunboats were the modern ones — like little battleships with armoured decks — which would take a lot of sinking by field-guns; but those guns on shore were mobile and could travel faster than the boats, which had the stream against them, and moreover they could hide, while the vessels were always in the open. There were casualties on either side, but I never heard how many. I believe those boats put up quite a gallant little fight, but in the end they gave it up; the trap had closed upon them. So they crawled back to Nikolaievsk; and then the river froze, and they had to stay there all the winter.

So far as I know no diplomatic word was said about the matter. The Chinese Government's sole concern was to hush it up. To me the Russian Legation shrugged its shoulders and regretted the affair; it was Vladivostok that had acted, and it was independent of control.