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Imperialism and Chinese Nationalism

January 29, 2010

John E. Schrecker. Imperialism and Chinese Nationalism: Germany in Shantung. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971.

Gerry Iguchi (2000)

This is a study of the history of the German sphere of influence in Shantung. In the years following the Sino-Japanese war, the “scramble for concessions” among imperialist nations drove the Germans to first identify a suitable territory, a place for a German Hong Kong, and then to take advantage of some pretext, in order to acquire that territory. Because it was a good harbor in northern China and because German missionaries were already in the province, the Germans chose Chiao-chou bay in Shantung. Luckily for German leaders, the murder of two German missionaries provided the pretext for establishing the capital of the concession at Chingtao (Tsingtao to the Germans), a small fishing village on the bay in 1897.

The Germans involved in Shantung, under the ultimate leadership of the navy, wanted to develop Shantung into a “model colony and a focus for commercial growth” (210). This meant developing transportation and communications, industry, commerce and finance, and an educational system for Chinese and Europeans. Despite successes, “Germany did not, on the whole, benefit from its involvement in Shantung.” Furthermore, because of an upsurge in a nationalism centered around the idea of Chinese sovereignty which was becoming prevalent among elites involved in Chinese diplomacy, the Chinese had managed to curtail the German control over Shantung. In short the colony was a failure.

Schrecker outlines three responses to imperialism that characterized Chinese elites in the late 19th century: 1) militant conservatism, meaning anti-foreignism and violence; 2) the mainstream, meaning abhorrence of violence and an attempt to keep foreigners in China under control; and 3) reformism, meaning learning to play along with the West, utilizing the categories and ideologies of imperialist powers in order to ultimately ensure Chinese sovereignty. By the turn of the century and especially after the Boxer Rebellion, the reformists, notably K’ang Yu-wei, were exercising the most influence over policy. They engaged in tactics such as providing security for foreign interests, such as the railroad the Germans built, so as to not give the Germans pretexts for demanding more concessions; carefully using loopholes in the text of the treaty originally granting Shantung to the Germans in order to slowly wrest back what had been taken; and in pointing out how elements of the original treaty were antithetical to German interests.

Schrecker’s thesis is not ultimately completely convincing. It seems to me that nationalism is one among many ways to explain the German failure in Shantung. For example, as Schrecker notes, the international situation of Germany in the years between the turn of the century and the First World War was a factor in German inattention to the realization of their original goals in China. Why then is the answer to the problem ultimately to do with nationalism for Schrecker? His conclusion answers quite clearly: Imperialism does not work, for anybody, when the subject nation has a sense of nationalism. In his words, “the effort to assist economic development in a foreign country may be successful only if great concern is shown for the rights of the nation involved; active intervention for the sake of furthering political modernization or in order to achieve some political system desired by a great power is still prone to disaster” (259, my emphasis). Clearly, despite the fact that as the first study of spheres of influence in China Schrecker’s book was a valuable contribution to knowledge of modern China’s history, the volume’s thesis had as much to do with an attempted critique of America’s war in Vietnam as it had to do with Shantung.

Despite Schrecker’s implicit anti-war stance, in sum, his critique of imperialism is somewhat problematic for the reason that he suggests that it can be good for the victims in some ways, for example by instilling a sense of nationalism in them. Imperialism is not good, as far as Schrecker is concerned, because of the fact that it is not profitable for the perpetrators, be they Germans, or Americans. Please see the contemporary review by Harold Z. Schriffrin, Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 88, Issue 1 (March, 1973) 134-135.

© Copyright 2000. All rights reserved.

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