The British Embassy to the Department of State45

No. 56

His Britannic Majesty’s Ambassador presents his compliments to the Secretary of State, and has the honour to inform him that he has been instructed to make the following communication to the United States Government concerning the attitude of His Majesty’s Government towards the present situation in China.

His Majesty’s Government are of opinion that the lesson of recent events at Hankow is grave. It shows that if the Chinese authorities cannot or will not control the mob and that if the mob gets out of hand, the Nationalist army will act with it rather than against it.

In consequence of what has passed there, where the pressure of a disorderly mob, encouraged by the authorities and closely supported by the Nationalist Army, forced upon His Majesty’s Government the choice between immediate evacuation of the concessions or the resort to force with certain loss of life among the British subjects there including women and children in the residential quarters outside the concessions, His Majesty’s Government have felt it necessary to review the whole situation in China.

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The Canton forces under Bolshevik leadership and influence will be encouraged by this success to adopt similar methods at other settlements unless it is clear to them that not only is the force available amply sufficient to control the mob, but also to deal with the mob if reinforced as at Hankow by individual soldiers and backed by armed forces which would be immediately drawn into the conflict as soon as firing began. If this danger threatens, it will be necessary to evacuate other small settlements, but Shanghai and Canton (Shameen) stand on a different footing especially Shanghai.

Here, owing to the numbers of the foreign community involved, evacuation is, His Majesty’s Government are advised, physically impossible and if attempted would involve loss of life, while the effect of evacuation on the position and rights of the treaty powers in China would be disastrous.

His Majesty’s Government consider, therefore, that the duty to protect their nationals makes it necessary to hold that part of the international settlement at Shanghai within which British interests are concentrated, at all costs, and are taking the measures required to enable them to do so if need arises.

His Majesty’s Government most cordially welcome the collaboration of the United States civil and military representatives at Peking and Shanghai to secure the force immediately necessary to police the settlement, but Hankow has shown that this alone is insufficient.

Having regard to the magnitude of Japanese interests at Shanghai, and to the proximity of Japan to China, His Majesty’s Government have sought the co-operation of Japan in the formation of an international force sufficient for the purpose, or at least a definite assurance that Japan would act at once if need arose. Greatly to the regret of His Majesty’s Government, the Imperial Japanese Government have replied that they do not consider that any such preparations are at present necessary or that the time has come even to discuss them. They decline even to give an assurance that in case of emergency they would be prepared to take the measures necessary to the defence of the settlement pending the arrival of contingents from other Powers which, owing to the distance, could not then be made available in time.

His Majesty’s Government have, therefore, decided to send reinforcements to the East from India and Europe, and have issued the necessary orders.

In cooperation with the French they will hold Shanghai if possible. They intend in any case to protect their interests at Shanghai against an attempt to drive them out by mob violence or armed force, and in so doing, they invite and would warmly welcome any assistance which the United States Government is prepared to give.

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It will be clearly understood in this connection that the military measures taken by His Majesty’s Government are purely precautionary. They are dictated by their imperative duty to afford protection of life and by the distance from China of troops which may be needed for this purpose and which might otherwise prevent them from arriving in time to avert a catastrophe.

His Majesty’s Government earnestly hope that a peaceful and friendly agreement may be reached which will render the use of force unnecessary. They are actively continuing conversations at Hankow and in Peking with this object on liberal lines as described in His Majesty’s Ambassador’s note No. 41 of the 19th instant,46 and will do everything in their power to bring them to a successful issue. They are warned, however, by Mr. O’Malley,47 who is now negotiating with the Cantonese Government at Hankow, that Bolshevik influences are so strong in the Nationalist Army and Government that the Cantonese, in the belief that the result obtained at Hankow can be secured elsewhere by similar means, are unlikely to be satisfied with anything short of complete and practically unconditional surrender first by Great Britain and then by all the other Powers of the whole treaty position.

In the event of the United States Government sharing the above mentioned apprehensions, and agreeing that such a surrender is impossible, His Majesty’s Government will gladly inform them fully of the steps which they are taking as to co-ordination of their action with that of other Powers.

  1. A reply was drafted by the Department of State, but was never sent; undated draft reply not printed.
  2. Post, p. 344.
  3. Owen St. Clair O’Malley, Acting Counsellor of the British Embassy at Peking.