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3. Chinese Politics

It was shortly after that affair of the Amur river that Admiral Sah became Acting Premier. We wiped out what had gone before, and got together on the subject of a naval fund — a pet scheme of mine.

That there would be a period of civil war ahead was as certain as anything could be.

To the navy, the idea of being used as a pawn in the ambition of military leaders was repugnant; still more repugnant was the possibility of it being divided against itself — of one part fighting against another. In a civil war the navy in one way or the other — for example, defending transport of troops by sea or commanding the Yangtsze river — could control fifty per cent of the situation.

That it should become a political factor to that extent was highly undesirable. And dominating the situation was the matter of pay, the pay to provide for the parents, wives and children of the men, respectable family men — not riff-raff like the soldiers.

If a central government was bankrupt owing to the secession from it of the provinces, the navy must in due course be tempted beyond the possibility of resistance to go over to the side that had the money.

There was a fermentation process going on in China which must continue for some years to come. Chief among its elements were the military satraps and their armies. In that process the navy was not a necessary factor; its use as an ingredient could but increase the severity and the length of the period of strife; above all, it would destroy that morale of a nucleus for purely national defence which it had to a considerable degree, and the importance of which I had always urged upon the Admirals.

Yet there was no conceivable way by which the navy could be eliminated as a factor; but while that was so, there was a choice of evils. The lesser one was to adopt the principle that although the navy must never act against the central government, it would rest — though of course it would never be so stated — with the Admirals in consultation with the Captains to decide when a central government was unsupportable; and then stand neutral — a grave enough evil that, but much smaller than the alternative.

To make that scheme possible an arrangement would have to be come to with the Loan Banks whereby in critical times money, held by them on behalf of the Chinese Government, should be available for the payment of the fleet. That was the plan I advocated. Sir John Jordan approved and sympathized, but, with his term of office drawing to a close, he could not undertake to push it. It was over my vain efforts in this affair that Admiral Sah and I renewed our former friendship and that he made his generous friendly gesture of appointing me Honorary Adviser to the Cabinet. It was doubtless intended merely as a compliment; and anyhow I never had the chance to exercise the functions, Here is the translation which accompanied the Chinese document: —

The business of the Cabinet is very abundant and all of it requires proper attention. As you are well conversant with matters foreign as well as those Chinese, and your knowledge and views are broad and wide, you are appointed as an Honorary Adviser of the Cabinet by this letter.

` We earnestly request that you will come round to the Cabinet from time to time and give your advice as freely as you can.

There is a subject about which something must be said.

All of us — diplomats, bankers, merchants and the rest — backed the wrong horses. We pinned our faith in Yuan Shih-kai, and he proved a broken reed; and after him we continued to back the North against the South — the remnant of old-time officialdom and governance against the seemingly futile vagariousness of Sun Yat-sen. Yet it was the South that ultimately won.

Does that show that our judgment was defective — that we lacked in perspicacity? I do not think so. In effect we had no choice.

To the diplomat the nominally de facto government, to which he was accredited, was something which he could not go behind, and to all of us evolution was a more proper thing to back than revolution. We had no illusions about the virtue of the North; but at least it was something tangible, while the South was like a dream to deal with. Yet that reality of the North has disappeared for ever, and it is the dream that has materialized.

We, who know a little but not much of China, are astonished at what has happened, but only with the astonishment that one accords the conjuror on the stage; for China is the prestidigitator among the nations. Situations arise from which seemingly there can be no escape; but the spirit of the Chinese people waves a wand, and hey! presto! the whole affair is changed to something else. Here is a little picture of that sort of thing

The Boxers are besieging the Legations, and in the near-by palace the Empress Dowager is signing an edict instructing her viceroys to kill all foreigners on sight.

A few weeks later foreign troops are at one entrance to her capital while she is fleeing through another to the Western Hills.

Some months pass by, and we see the Empress re-entering her capital in state; and then she has the wives of diplomats to tea, and receives their adulation. If that could happen, how can one say what is impossible in China?

The victory of the Southerners has cleared the board to a great extent. The new Chinese are left untrammelled except by their own defects; but those are ample to provide for lots of trouble for some years to come, and it is just as well that that is so. A suddenly regenerated China would be a serious nuisance to the world and a misfortune as regards herself.

She is a giant in parturition. It is well that the process should be long and even painful; it is nature's method for securing an appreciation of the value of the result.

Already the prospective mother is claiming recognition for the offspring in her womb — recognition on terms of full equality. When it is born it will get that recognition.

Our previous backing of the North did not involve the support of one set of conceptions against another. We merely backed the people who could get the day's work done. And so it is to-day. We deal with the ganglion of interests centred at Nanking — which at this moment (1) controls no more than a very few of the eighteen provinces — because it is the only nucleus of some measure of concerted action. Now, as before, there is no choice about the matter. We do not know as yet what China, as an entity, really means nor what it really wants.
1 — i.e. March 1929.

There is Nationalism, of course, the desire to be untrammelled by extraordinary restrictions; that is something real which has come to stay. Apart from that, we have no knowledge that what Nanking stands for is representative of China. There is nothing for it but to wait and see. But between that degree of conforming to events and a vast commitment for the future, based on faith in the continuance of a momentary stability, there lies a monstrous difference. Such a faith cannot be justified, and action based on it may be disastrous.

The question of the change in contact between the East and West and the problem of the treaty ports are highly controversial matters, and, as they cannot be touched on briefly, they are unsuitable to be dealt with here.

Then there is the academic but yet practically important question of the more distant future of the Chinese people.

About that can anything be said? Very little; not more than that, running through the weft and warp of the infinite happenings that form the fabric of the future and seem to us fortuitous, there runs the thread of inevitability that China in due course — perhaps a century hence — will be a super-power of confederated states living side by side — and not as a Yellow Peril — with that other super-power, the English-speaking peoples; (and a third may be the Slays coalescing with a German matrix).