Far Eastern Imperialism: 2. China

S. J. Rutgers

Published: International Socialist Review, vol. 16, no. 4. October 1915. Pages 212-214.
Transcription/Markup: Micah Muer, 2021.

China, with its immense population and a surface exceeding that of Europe, has always struck the imagination of European capitalists, and golden dreams were dreamt a long time ago of Chinese possibilities.

However, the results of the opening of China proved rather disappointing and the share of China in the world's trade during the period of commercial colonialism was comparatively small. Even in our days, Chinese commerce per capita is only one-hundredth of that of England and one-sixth of that of Japan.

To understand this, we must bear in mind that importing industrial products in non-capitalistic countries demands that certain conditions be fulfilled. Either must foreign industry be able to produce cheaper than natives can do with their more primitive methods, or new needs must be developed, together with such conditions as to allow people to satisfy those needs.

Historical development in China, however, has brought about such a degree of intensified labor and reduced needs, that only the recent Japanese cheap-labor-industry has some chance in competing with Chinese handcraft. And as to the developing of new needs, this means the bringing about of a revolution in an economic system, crystallized during centuries. The large majority of Chinese population, being small farmers, living in such wretchedly poor conditions we cannot even imagine[01], it proved to be a gigantic task to bring those people into contact with the world market, and to make money a predominant feature in their economic life. Of course, it must be understood that in the cities near the coast and among wealthy Chinese, there has been an increasing trade, but this did not affect the whole. To reach the interior it was not only necessary to construct better roads and other means of access, but the whole economic and governmental system had to be reorganized.

Commercial methods could perhaps perform this in the course of centuries, but such an evolutionary way is not to the taste of profit-hungry capitalism, unless it is preaching to labor. Moreover, this gradual development would bring foreign capitalism into a deadlock, on account of the fact, that together with the import of industrial products from Europe, there is already the beginning of a Chinese industry. There are to be found factories for the production of paper, glasswork (especially bottles and very cheap lamp glasses), matches, soap, candles, cigarettes, oil, flour, cement, leather, etc. And besides these smaller industries, there are already more than thirty cotton mills, large plants for making tea bricks, ironworks, chemical industries, etc., producing partly for export.

I recently visited a tea brick factory in Hankow, with 2,000 laborers, turning out 16 millions of bricks every year, the total export from Hankow being about 70 millions English pounds. Conditions of labor, of course, were very poor. I noticed a large number of children working in the hot atmosphere of this factory and in a corner on the floor there were sleeping numbers of people, who remain in this hell day and night to earn about eight or ten cents a day. In the Hanyang iron and steel works the earnings were almost double those in the tea brick factories, but still this must seem a paradise to American capitalists. Those Hanyang steel works are able to produce 100 tons of rails, beams, etc., each day, and are under Chinese management. Most of the foreign engineers left during the revolution and did not return without causing trouble to business. During my visit in the beginning of this year a new furnace was being built and projects were made to build an additional plant at Shi Hui Yao, seventy miles below Hancow, near the place where iron ore is found in exhaustible quantities.

All this is only a beginning, but it shows that application of the old commercial methods will gradually develop China to Chinese capitalism and will not give to Europe and America the big profits that are expected. It was the capitalist disappointment in recognizing these facts that caused the cry about a "yellow danger" some twenty years ago, and new methods were practiced. Japan, the land of the rising sun, being young and without troublesome traditions, was the first to take an aggressive policy in declaring war, but after having been successful, the other "interested" nations told Japan to keep hands off. They all began this most disgusting struggle for railroad and other concessions, using all methods of corruption to get a greater share of influence. England most seriously threatened with war and claimed the highly valuable Yang-tse-Kiang valley as its sphere of influence. Russia in the north, France in the south and Germany from Kiautchow, join in the effort to swallow the yellow dragon. The first to destroy the peace among the robbers was Japan in its successful effort to check Russia in its progression. The result of Japan in 1905, however, caused a mighty uprising of the self-consciousness of the Chinese people, especially among the Chinese intellect and the Chinese merchants. There springs up a mighty opposition against giving concessions to strangers and the general unrest among those Chinamen who see the danger of being swallowed by western capitalism reached such dimensions that it became one of the principal causes for the revolution of 1911.

When, for instance, in 1907, the Chinese government made a contract with the "British and Chinese corporation" to build a railroad from Shanghai to Ningpo, the population opposed it and an offer was made to the central government to raise the money among Chinese people from all different classes, there came cablegrams to protest. Many officials offered to give part of their salary. Every city in this part of China held large meetings; even the street girls of Hanchow brought together a sum of $1,000—and the total of the subscriptions reached the amount of 20 millions of American dollars. When notwithstanding this result, the contract with the English corporation was approved by the central government, the desperation was general. A Chinese engineer named Tang Sin refused to take any food and died, a student died of wrath and several other persons committed suicide, a form of strong protest that is only known in China.

We may learn from this and similar events that the opposition against European aggression became a general feature. It even was successful in so far that after the Japanese-Russian war hardly a single railway concession was given to strangers. But the government needed money and so there was a new chapter in Chinese foreign relations, in which the European and American rivals, by all means of diplomacy and bribery, try to get a share in the lending of money to China. In return they ask securities, which means economic influence. Some efforts of the Chinese imperial government to make reforms result in more robbery on the part of the mandarins, higher taxes and little effect. No wonder the opposition was growing, and although it was most popular among the intellectuals and bourgeois, it reached deeply into different classes and so made possible a revolution, capable of crushing the old corrupt government.

However, this revolution did not change in any fundamental way the economic conditions of China, and Yuan Shi Kai remains as before dependent upon western finance.

The European war may give a handicap to Chinese capitalism, but Japan had already taken its chance and nothing indicates a development of Chinese capitalism to such a degree as that it could resist foreign aggression in due time. One of the European war parties being successful, they will use the situation also to extend their influence in China; the war being a draw, most probably will mean that the next imperialistic war will decide upon China, and no doubt America will take part in this struggle.

For we must clearly see that this is not some special policy of one or another aggressive government, but the result of a historical situation; on the one hand, the old European capitalism, to which American capitalism is joining, developed to such a degree that it cannot use its accumulated capital at home without a fall of the profits; on the other hand, the pre-capitalistic countries in which European commerce brings about the beginning of national capitalism, which means a future menace to European and American profits. The existing international capitalism must try to keep things as long as possible in their own hands and each nation is interested in getting the most of it. It must be clear that this policy means bankruptcy as well, only with a certain delay, but there has always been shown much energy in postponing one's own death sentence.

The old and new imperialists in the different Socialist parties will tell you that "We must go through it." But there is no economic necessity to enforce the development of those foreign countries by violence, only to hasten a process that is already growing; and there is no Socialist necessity, either, the technical development and organization of the principal industries in Europe and America being sufficient to form the basis of a Socialistic commonwealth. And even if it should prove to be a historial [sic] necessity, we will have to go through it fighting to our utmost against this new and most disgusting form of capitalism. This is a condition to enable us to fulfill our own historical task in Socialism, and at the same time it will be the direct result from the terribly bad conditions that will be put upon labor during this period of imperialism, the beginning of which has already brought so much despair. The sooner we recognize the new situation, the greater chance we will have to enforce our own solution of the problem.


[01]. See Village Life in China, by A. H. Smith, 1899.