893.01/223: Telegram

The Minister in China (MacMurray) to the Secretary of State


325. My telegrams 275 of July 7th and 301 of July 24th.64

There has been no regime at Peking since 1918 asserting an even plausible claim to being a legitimately constituted government. [Page 672] Each has in turn exercised diminishing power. Nevertheless we and other powers have found it advantageous hitherto to grant at least de facto recognition to each group succeeding to control of the capital and offering to carry out the obligations of the Government of China, even though in other respects the requirements usually regarded by accepted international practice as conditions precedent to recognition were obviously not met by such administration. This continuing acceptance of diplomatic relations with administrations not having essential qualities of a government has not been due (at least in our case) to mere inertia but has been due in each instance to the result of a deliberate decision that we had less to lose than to gain in maintaining a diplomatic fiction by which we could continue necessary contacts with China through an instrumentality which admitted its international obligations and which would have a feeling of responsibility for the protection of the lives of foreigners and of their rights as declared in treaties or as generally incumbent upon a state in its international relations. It was obviously worth-while to deal with a central government which we clearly understood to be a fiction as if it were really substantial so long as it continued to be, within the limitations of its power, a conservative force which employed what influence it had in safeguarding legitimate foreign interests against violation through arbitrary action by local authorities.
In recognizing on these grounds the successive administrations set up in Peking hitherto, I still believe we have been well advised in each instance. However, through various stages of uneasy doubt I have arrived at the definite conviction that conditions have been brought about by developments of the past year or so under which we cannot expect that a conservative or even friendly influence will characterize any new regime here. The Central Administration, with the dwindling away of its actual authority and power recently accelerated, has naturally lost its sense of responsibility for the carrying out of the obligations of the country as a whole. It is unable beyond a small locality to make its will effective. Having no stake in the maintenance of prosperity and order in other areas, its interest in the trading sections of the country has ceased, as has its concern for the maintenance there of normal relations with foreign countries and their interests, and whether agitations disrupt the normally mutually profitable economic structure and jeopardize the safety of foreigners. Increasingly the governmental entity maintained at Peking has become a mere agency of whatever military factions control it. Witness the levy of the 20 percent cigarette tax. A year ago the Foreign Office admitted that tax to be in violation of treaties and its inability to prevent it in the Yangtze provinces was [Page 673] deplored. Now, for the profit of the occupying forces, it is levied within the walls of Peking and is defended by the Foreign Office with sophistries to which no resort was earlier attempted. The tendency of the Peking administration has been to become a local political organization, like, for instance, those at Canton and at Shanghai; its distinction from other than merely regional organizations lies fundamentally in the recognition by the foreign governments which it enjoys. While this fact confers no power upon Peking to control other sections of China in behalf of foreign rights, it does afford to Peking the opportunity of making an appeal through the country to nationalistic sentiment as the doughty champion of China for the Chinese. Thus, when Peking pursues a policy of whittling down or repudiating China’s obligations, it can be sure of sympathy even from its domestic enemies. A degeneration in the morale of the administrative organization has resulted. The permanent officials of that organization have been a steadying influence until recently, but this is the case no longer. For the most part, those officials whose salaries are in arrears and who have available no other livelihood have become mere place holders. Each, by a record of patriotic zeal in opposing foreigners, is bent upon insuring his tenure.
The matter of rendition of the Shanghai Mixed Court67 has forcefully illustrated this. Last December the Foreign Office repudiated all previous negotiations and a preposterous arrangement ignoring foreign rights was insisted upon. A committee representing interested Ministers sought for months to work out a compromise with a technical commission in the Foreign Office which would preserve essential foreign interests and rights. No disposition was found to accord an even open-minded hearing to the foreign point of view. The chairman of our committee, Peck,68 then enlisted the personal interest of Wang Ch’ung-hui.69 The latter was impressed with the fairness of our proposals and their conciliatory spirit. He offered to use his great influence to the utmost with the officials of the Foreign Office and Ministry of Justice to persuade them, before this question became acute, to accept the proffered solution. He acknowledged his complete failure two days later … In regard to any consequences possibly ensuing in Shanghai should a breakdown of the negotiations occur, they were altogether reckless. The interested Ministers resolved at that point upon the experiment of transferring the negotiation of a preliminary agreement, [Page 674] along the lines they had tried in vain to get the Foreign Office to consider, to the consular body at Shanghai. An offer of a more satisfactory arrangement from the viewpoint of foreign interests than the compromise proposed by the Ministers to the Foreign Office was made within a few days to the consuls by Sun Ch’uan-fang. Presumably this was not because he is better than other Chinese militarists, but because in fact he does control the Shanghai area, is involved in its prosperity himself, and, therefore, is interested parties [party?] in assuming responsibility for seeking a settlement which might contribute to produce conditions of order in his bailiwick favorable to trade. The upset of this agreement is even now being attempted by interested bureaus of the Peking Government.
The lack of a sense of international responsibility in the Peking regime is illustrated from a somewhat different angle by representations made by it recently to the British Legation, bearing upon the negotiations regarding the Hongkong strike and boycott with the Canton authorities. Occasion was taken by the Foreign Office to state that although the claims of Canton for compensation were viewed with approval by the “Chinese Government”, a caveat must be entered against the suggested loan to the Canton authorities from the Hongkong government for industrial development. Its intervention in this matter had for its sole purpose the imposition of an additional condition of settlement as though from above. Thus, while professing to represent the whole of China internationally, the Peking regime stultified that claim by recognizing complacently that, with its approval but without its participation, negotiations relating to questions of its own treaty obligations to Great Britain were being carried on by a section of the country ignoring the existence here of a so-called government.
I feel convinced from these and similar indications of its attitude that neither the regime now in existence nor any likely to succeed it will, except as moved thereto either by some quid pro quo of support of this factional group against its rivals or by coercion, make any attempt to meet its international responsibilities. Of these means of influencing, neither is open to us. The practical reason for a continuation of the diplomatic fiction of a central government has come to an end. The fact must be accepted by us. When in the future China is able again to constitute such a government as can be recognized because of its merits, conformably to the practice prevailing in other countries, recognition will have to be considered according to those circumstances. However, under the circumstances now existing and which will exist while we continue to offer a basis for [Page 675] the North China militarists to believe that semiautomatic recognition will be accorded by us to any group occupying Peking by force, nothing more in the way of a conservative or stabilizing force can be expected by us from this Central Administration. From it we will never get again any recognition of our rights, nor will we get any willingness to deal in a spirit of good will with us, or of good faith. It will continue, on the contrary, to be an irresponsible agency, always currying popular favor, as far as it dares, by undermining the rights of foreign nationals and the position of foreign powers. It is as though we had taken to the Central Government as a life raft in the political shipwreck of the Chinese Republic; and that raft, its buoyancy lost now, is no longer keeping us afloat. To keep it afloat we are swimming, but despite this, it must soon drag us down.
In the eyes of the country, the Central Administration represents less in status than it has ever before. It formerly commanded throughout the country some slight degree of prestige and respect at least … since it was the only formulation politically of the feeling of cultural and racial unity found among the Chinese people. It has been brought into shame and derision by the events of the last six months, becoming in the hands of the Northern militarists a neglected toy. No serious effort was made for several weeks by Wu Pei-fu and Chang Tso-lin to reconstruct a cabinet after the flight of Tuan. Then for another series of weeks, when at Wu’s instance W. W. Yen consented to act as Premier, Yen was left without the support of a single colleague. The body functioning now was constituted only after a cynical announcement was made by Wu that serious consideration must be given to the matter of a government as the only means for getting from the powers the additional revenues to be made available by the Conference. Even the Cabinet members (which I may say include several of my friends) make little effort to conceal their attitude that it is a farce. Two of them who are nonpartisan and who have been associated on and off for years with Central Government have privately given clear intimations of their feeling of distaste for the whole adventure. Naturally this so-called government is taken no more seriously by the people at large than by itself. I have grave doubts whether any Chinese consider it to be more than a pawn used in a fantastic game being played among military rivals having no loyalties and no principles. My feeling is that the idea of central government has lost its traditional prestige so far that in the future no administration can command greater respect than can be enforced by it upon the country.
Regardless of what is effect or cause, this decline of central government politically accords with an unmistakable trend in the [Page 676] political ideas of the Chinese. However little we may like the idea of administrative decentralization from the standpoint of American interests or from that of what we regard as the interests of China, it is becoming established. This is going on in the midst even of the so-called nationalistic movement, which, to a large degree, has aroused the people to a common impulse of assertion of themselves as against alien peoples. As I foresee the development through which China is destined to pass before it will be able to evolve a reasonably coherent organization of government, it must experience first a resolution into a loose confederation, with autonomous component regions, held together by bonds of sentiment rather than of law, merely tolerating in degrees both various and fluctuating the continuance of essential national services such as the railways and telegraph, customs, salt, posts, and perhaps the judicial system. I conceive it as possible that were these organizations able to keep beyond the control of any faction and aloof from politics, they might be permitted to function as quasi-independent entities fairly generally and regularly, as is now done in large degree by the Customs Administration. But if their subordination to the authority of a nominally central government exercising control only locally and for the benefit of a faction is to continue, they are bound to break up sooner or later.
This tendency towards decentralization, which is at least temporary, we cannot check through an attempt to confer a factitious existence upon a central administration not considered by the Chinese people to be representative. Nor would our appearing to stand in opposition to the course of the political development of China be something we could afford. In my opinion, the time has come when an accommodation to the progress so far shown by this development must be made by us. We have begun to do this to a certain extent already. For some time cases involving protection have been handled, not through the Foreign Office which lacks authority to act even if it should possess the good will, but more and more frequently through consular officers who deal with local authorities possessing all responsibility and power. And certain categories of claims, as arranged with the Foreign Office, are taken up in a number of provinces with the local commissioner for foreign affairs. This official acts under the instructions given by the provincial authorities, though nominally he holds his post under the Minister of Foreign Affairs.
Our position in regard to endeavoring to protect our nationals and secure fair treatment for them is anomalous in the present ultimate phase of the breaking up of central authority. Though the Peking administration really exists by virtue of the recognition extended [Page 677] by us and other powers, it gives us no help. Rather it is disposed more and more to act as a devil’s advocate against our interests and our rights. And the various regional or provincial authorities, resentful over what is construed by them to be our support of the rival faction in control of Peking, are antagonized and are only too ready to renounce those responsibilities which, if we dealt directly with them, they might be prepared to undertake. If our supreme duty in China is, as I conceive it to be, to do everything we can do legitimately and honorably to maintain the interests of Americans here and at home, we must to that end adopt methods conforming to actual conditions. We do not need to temporize, nor need we alter in its essentials our policy toward China as a whole, but, even though we look forward still hopefully and with a desire to be helpful to eventual reestablishment here of an actual central government, we should face the fact that no longer in China’s political turmoil is the Peking regime more than an unrepresentative unit.
We do not recognize today the existence in Peking of a government. We ought to withhold such recognition, in my opinion, not only until a substantial government has come into being, but we should declare our intention publicly and unequivocally to that effect. Should I have wrongly estimated how hopeless it is to expect in the reasonably near future the reconstituting of a representative central government, then the taking of such a position by us would stimulate such latent potentialities as may exist and result in a serious, possibly successful, effort toward bringing a real government of China into being. Yet, whether that fortunate result should or should not follow, in my mind there is no doubt that if we took such action, it would enable us, despite all the difficulties as to details which obviously would be involved, to get results far better than we can obtain at present in protecting just American rights and interests. Our nationals everywhere in China are on the defensive and are deprived of that protection from Chinese authorities which we might expect to be able to secure for them were we to place responsibility squarely upon those having the power to act and the incentive to do so.
The proposal I am making, that we discard frankly the fiction that a central government exists in Peking, has for a considerable time been maturing slowly in my mind. I did not feel warranted, however, in committing myself in regard to it even in my own thought up to the time when the possibilities of carrying out the Washington Customs Treaty provisions were exhausted by the American delegation to the Tariff Conference.71 If we could on July 3rd have obtained [Page 678] consent from the other powers to proceed immediately to the negotiation of an agreement on the Washington surtaxes, with the cooperation of those members of the Chinese delegation still remaining, despite the fact that at the moment there was no recognized government, I would have regarded it as a defensible sequel, and probably a wise one, to the negotiations previously conducted in connection with the Conference. However, on that date, in the meeting of the foreign delegations, it was disclosed that a resumption of negotiations would come about only after indefinite delay and, furthermore, only with a recognized government. Thus, if the implementation of the Washington surtaxes were made by us an occasion of recognition rather than a consequence of recognition, we would find ourselves bound to the wheel of a policy of extending recognition to anything in Peking which declared itself to be a government, regardless of its representative character, its competence or its willingness to deal with our rights and interests faithfully. I do not feel, in view of the unreality and the futility of the administration which has been formed in the meantime, that we can so commit ourselves either with dignity or with safety to those national interests in regard to which we are trustees.
The prospect that we may find that it is now impossible to conclude any arrangement with a government of China for giving effect to the Washington Customs Treaty, gives me a feeling of deep concern. But, according to the situation, that is not dependent upon our attitude toward the Peking regime. It is dependent upon facts beyond our control and independent of our policy. One of these facts is that the British and Japanese, among others, are unwilling, until there again is a recognized government, to proceed with Conference matters, and another is that the status of the Central Government has changed so far since the Conference began, that, whereas at that time we could have implemented the Washington Treaty, feeling that the utmost was being done by us to realize the purposes contemplated by that treaty, now we could not do so without being conscious that what we were professedly doing for the whole of China in fact would benefit nobody save that faction in China which, at the moment, might be in a position to convert into immediate cash, for the purpose of conducting civil war, the proceeds of surtaxes for years [ahead?]. Except for the somewhat remote possibility of the establishment of a real government here, the working out of an arrangement for accomplishing this purpose might prove feasible by means of a separate arrangement, either severally or collectively, with the various regional administrations.
With regard to anticipated benefits from the Conference, it is my mature opinion that our position would be no worse than if we concluded an agreement with a central administration which is and [Page 679] for years must be a political nonentity. The promises to relieve trade of the incubus of likin and other inland taxation are not seriously believed by anybody to be realizable. Nor, under the circumstances that have come to exist, could an undertaking for the consolidation and funding of unsecured debts possibly be carried out. Seizure of control of customs by leaders in each area would merely be provoked by the attempt, which would thus precipitate a break-up of Customs Administration: the only stabilizing influence and the only source of revenue by which the indebtedness of China can conceivably be met. The suggestion of the British two months ago that our agreement with the existing regime be concluded by us, subject to the condition that assent be given to it by other regions, falls between two stools, it seems to me: the “outs” would take our committing of ourselves to an arrangement profitable to the “ins” as a challenge; the “ins” would be resentful of our offering them an agreement, of which the precedent condition obviously could not be fulfilled. In my judgment, we must dismiss as absolutely futile and illusory any hopes based upon the possibility that a central administration in China could carry out any obligations it might assume in connection with the Conference.
After consulting Strawn,72 who indorses strongly the above views, I have considered carefully this question: whether our position regarding the manner of our contacts with China ought to be determined and announced immediately or whether developments in respect to the present indeterminate situation in North China should be awaited. My firm conviction is that this position, if it is to carry the moral weight of a decision formed with a view to the larger aspects of our relations with China, must be taken without dependence upon any exigency confronting us incidental to the factional contest in progress at present. Its significance would tend inevitably to be limited were some concrete situation made the occasion of our action, and implications that partisanship influenced our action would be involved.
This question has still greater urgency because of the possibility or probability that a return of the Kuominchun to power in Peking may shortly occur. I would have less apprehension in regard to the policy which that party might pursue were there not reason for believing that in that event, Feng Yu-hsiang,73 who has been freshly schooled at Moscow in revolutionary methods, as contrasted with evolutionary methods, and in the doctrines of repudiation, would return to China. In such a case, possibly arising soon, Feng, in the name of the central government he had set up, would quite probably [Page 680] have all existing treaties with the United States and other “capitalistic” powers canceled by a declaration he would cause to be made. It seems to me that in such a contingency we would be in a much stronger position tactically if our policy that there is in existence no government representing China had been taken definitely already.
Though the views set forth above are novel in some respects, they are not peculiar to this Legation or to me by any means. In speaking recently with members of the Danish, British, and Dutch Legations, and Saburi of the delegation from Japan,74 I have learned that among them there is a drift toward similar views. This arises out of recognition of the fact that the most important problem faced today by foreign interests is the question concerning the reality of any government professing to represent China.
I am offering in another telegram concrete suggestions with regard to the action I would recommend pursuant to the views herein indicated.
  1. Telegram in six sections.
  2. Post, pp. 712 and 847.
  3. See pp. 1023 ff.
  4. Willys R. Peck, Chinese Secretary of the Legation.
  5. Chinese member of the International Commission on ExtraterritoriaUty and former Chinese Minister of Justice.
  6. See pp. 743 ff.
  7. Silas H. Strawn, American commissioner to the Special Conference on the Chinese Customs Tariff.
  8. In control of the Kuominchun prior to his retirement in January 1926.
  9. Sadao Saburi, of the Japanese Foreign Office, a delegate to the Special Conference on the Chinese Customs Tariff.