893.01/302: Telegram

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


529. Department’s 202, June 23, 3 p.m., and 214, July 7, 2 p.m.

As to the desirability of negotiating prior to next January 1, along the lines indicated in the Department’s 202, a revision of the tariff provisions of our treaties, I am entirely in accord. It is assumed that it would still be satisfactory to take as a basis of negotiations the draft text which I discussed with the Solicitor last October and which you approved at that time.77
However, considering the disposition and attitude of the Nanking authorities with whom it would be necessary for us to deal, the immediate problem is not one of objective but of the method of proceeding toward that objective. Our position on this subject and our readiness to open negotiations were called to the attention of the previous Nationalist Minister for Foreign Affairs five months ago. A month ago this intimation was recalled to the personal representative of the present Minister for Foreign Affairs. In both instances the suggestion has been ignored. Meanwhile, there is a conspicuous contrast between the indifference exhibited by the Nanking authorities in regard to the suggestion of our readiness to go more than halfway in meeting them on the question of tariffs and the public declarations made at various times by the Minister for Foreign Affairs with respect to the urgency of treaty revision. It begins to appear that in tariff matters at least it is now the intention of the Nanking authorities to take an independent initiative in fixing tariffs regardless of the treaties rather than to seek an understanding with the treaty powers.78 An offer on our part to negotiate regarding tariff matters would be, under such circumstances, highly inexpedient as well as untimely. … It is a genuine danger that, having once committed ourselves to the relinquishment of our tariff rights without any other condition or consideration than that of a most-favored-nation clause, Wang would exploit our liberality by withholding even an assurance of the advantages of such a clause.
Although it is my belief that we should go fully halfway to meet the Nationalist Government in the event that they address to us any request for revision of the tariff provisions of the treaties, it is my very firm opinion that it would be a tactical mistake for us to show any inclination toward haste or to take any positive initiative in the matter, and that such action on our part would result almost certainly in a rebuff to us and in the frustration of our purpose. As to the best means for accomplishing our purpose, I believe it to be quite clear that the chances of our success are far greater if we show no indication of eagerness in the matter as to which the Nationalist authorities either feel or are feigning a very marked indifference with respect to our attitude. In fact, it is my feeling that the early adjustment of this matter would be encouraged if we ourselves act in a way that is indicative of the fact that, in connection with the treaty revision which they are demanding, it is they rather than we who have the most to be concerned about.
Accordingly, it is my belief that the making of any public statement of our intentions in this matter would be a mistake, and that until at least the method of approach has become clearer it is impossible to anticipate the sort of statement that would be suitable to the circumstances. Your desire in regard to a press statement will be borne in mind by me, however, and I shall, when the occasion arises, communicate with you on that subject.
As for consulting with other governments, it is my suggestion that the matter first be taken up in strict confidence and informally with the British and the Japanese, the two Governments most interested, and that it would not be wise to discuss the matter with the other governments signatory or adherent to the Washington Conference treaties concerning China until it is certain that the negotiations are proceeding favorably.
In view of the fact that we are not prepared to make a full and unconditional relinquishment of extraterritorial rights at the present time and considering that consequently any revision would have to make provision for establishing an interim system of jurisdiction requiring the assumption by the Chinese of an entirely new set of obligations, the revision of those treaty provisions which deal directly or indirectly with extraterritorial rights rests upon a completely different basis from the revision of tariffs. First of all, the Nationalist Government as now constituted would unquestionably not be able, even in the few central provinces where the degree of its control is fuller than elsewhere, to fulfill any such obligations. Second, it would not be politically possible, in the light of Kuomintang commitments, for any Nationalist Government to enter into such obligations as would be required. Retention of the status quo and the making of academic protests against the status quo would be vastly less difficult for them than the acceptance of any such remedy of the situation as we could accord. Consequently, even if we were willing to take the risk of nonfulfillment of promises made to us, an offer to negotiate on extraterritorial matters would thrust us into this situation: either it would be necessary for us to yield that which we would not feel warranted in yielding, or it would be necessary for us to reconsider our offer and to withdraw from the negotiations under circumstances which would make us the victims of agitation and reproach founded on the claim that the equity of China’s position had been recognized by us but that we had failed to abide by our convictions. With possibly two exceptions, every thoughtful and intellectually honest Chinese leader with whom I have talked privately has acknowledged that the legal and judicial institutions of China are not yet sufficiently established to warrant the raising of this issue, for if once raised it [Page 459] would lead to circumstances that could not be coped with by either side without further needless bitterness. It is my earnest recommendation, therefore, that until there emerges a stable government capable of meeting its responsibilities in such matters the question of negotiations for revision of the treaty provisions on extraterritoriality be postponed.
I believe that the comments above are responsive to your request for an expression of my views in regard to the subject matter of the Department’s telegram.
  1. Telegram in three sections.
  2. Not printed.
  3. Governments signatory or adherent to the nine-power treaty relating to Chinese customs tariffs, signed at Washington, Feb. 6, 1922, Foreign Relations, 1922, vol. i, p. 282.