HC Deb 18 February 1903 vol 118 cc203-16
*MR. JOSEPH WALTON (Yorkshire, W. R., Barnsley)

I rise to move the Amend- ment standing in my name, in order to draw attention to the urgent necessity for taking adequate measures for the safeguarding and promotion of British commercial and political interests in China, and also in Persia. The necessity for more vigorous action on the part of His Majesty's Government in upholding the commercial interests of the British Empire in China, is clearly shown by the recent statistical commercial report concerning the trade of China which we have received. As compared with 1896, the total foreign trade of China in the year 1901 showed an increase of about £9,000,000, and, not-withstanding this fact, we find that British trade in 1901, as compared with 1896, showed a diminution of no less than 16 per cent. Then again, as regards tonnage, the carrying trade in connection with China amounted to 48,500,000 tons; but whereas in 1896 the British proportion of the carrying trade amounted to no less than 65 per cent., in 1901 it had gone down to 53 per cent.—a diminution of 12 per cent. This is still more serious when we have regard to the fact that whilst we in our carrying trade in the far East are losing ground on the one hand, Germany has between 1896 and 1901 had an increase of 10 per cent., and Japan an increase of 9 per cent. I think these figures clearly show that there does exist great necessity for taking vigorous measures for the upholding and the promotion of our commercial interests in China.

There has recently been concluded a new commercial treaty between Great Britain and China, and on the whole one is bound to say that if that treaty comes into force, and is reasonably carried out, it will prove to be a considerable step in advance as compared with the Treaty of Tientsin under which we have been previously trading in China. But in connection with the new commercial treaty there are two or three considerations which I would like to put before the House, and on which possibly the noble Lord, the Under Secretary for Foreign Affairs, may be able to give us some further information. Under the existing Treaty as amended by the Protocol of last year, the 5 per cent. ad valorem duty on imports was increased to 12 ½ per cent. by a 7 ½ per cent. surtax, which duty was also to be charged on goods crossing the land frontiers. The Likin under the new treaty is to be abolished. Well, we can all hail that news with satisfaction, though some of us may have some doubts as to whether in reality that will be by any means wholly carried out. It may be that no Likin under that name will be levied, but there is a fear—and it is to this point that I draw the attention of the Government—that when we find that the Chinese Government still retain the right to tax salt and opium, and also to levy what is termed in the treaty, a "consumption tax," throughout China, on all goods consumed of Chinese origin, and that they will continue to have native custom houses, there is great danger that by this machinery the duty will still be levied on foreign goods imported into China. I am in doubt whether the provisions of the treaty will prevent such illegal charges. The treaty provides that such cases shall be remitted to a tribunal consisting of a British officer, an official of the Imperial Maritime Customs, and an official of the Chinese Government. My own personal opinion, whatever it may be worth, is that we should have had a stronger guarantee for the carrying out of the new treaty. We know that the Treaty of Tientsin has not been carried out, and that in addition to the 7 ½ per cent. which was to be the maximum duty, there have been squeezes extorted from all those transmitting goods in the country, and that they have had to pay much more than the treaty allowed. The greatest possible vigilance should be exercised to secure the proper carrying out of the provisions of the treaty, and I am of opinion that we should have made the payment of the surtax of 7 ½ per cent. conditional on the effective carrying out of the provisions of the treaty.

Now, this treaty, good though it is in many respects, will not come into operation until assent has been given to it by all the other Powers enjoying the Most-Favoured-Nation treatment in connection with trade in China. In any case it will not come into force until January 1904; and I should like the noble Lord the Under Secretary to tell us if His Majesty's Government are aware whether any of these Powers have, up to the present, given their assent to that treaty, and will fall into line in this matter. The position we stand in is this, that we have agreed to give the Chinese 12 ½ per cent. on goods im- ported into that country. That is a great advantage to China, but the danger is that whenever other Powers are approached by them seeking their assent to this treaty, some of them will endeavour to extort from China concessions on condition of their giving that consent. Now, I am quite aware that the treaty contains a provision which sets forth that no commercial or political concession shall be given by China to any other foreign Power as a condition of assent ot the treaty; but we know from experience how often things are done behind our backs, quite contrary to the understanding arrived at. However, I am bound to say that this treaty does bear evidence of an enormous amount of thought, time, and care expended on its negotiation, and I think we may congratulate the Foreign Office and the gentlemen associated with them in getting through the treaty in so favourable a form. The only question is as to whether it will ever come into force, and whether adequate measures are taken that its provisions will be honestly carried out.

We were told that in 1898 an agreement had been arrived at under which British ships would be able to carry British goods to every riverside town on the great inland waterways. We know that that has been an absolutely dead letter. I am glad to see a certain amount of redress had been obtained by a provision for opening five new Treaty ports. Steamers are to be allowed to take in cargo and passengers at certain of the ports on the Yang-tze and West rivers; and there is also a provision that obstructions to navigation shall be removed in the Canton river, and that the harbour of Canton shall be improved. No provision, however, has been made in regard to the removal of obstructions in the waterway of the Yang-tze, leading up to Chung-King. I am glad ot see that the improvement of the Whang-po is to be under the supervision of an International. Board, for we have had experience in the north of China, on various rivers, that these improvements have not been sufficiently carried out. Another great advantage of the new treaty, on which I congratulate the Government, is that they have secured that the same duties shall be levied on junks and steamers; and in addition to that, we have also the right to introduce the best appliances for hauling our steamers up the rapids on the Yang-tze river. Altogether in the negotiation in regard to the navigation of the inland waterways, certain progress has been made. On the whole, I trust that the Under Secretary for Foreign Affairs will be able to reassure us as to the likelihood of this treaty coming into force, and that His Majesty's Government will exercise all vigilance to see that its provisions are carried out. By the treaty the revenues of the provincial governments are taken away, although there is a provision of some sort to secure to them a share of the sur-tax equal to the revenues they have hitherto been receiving. That provision, however, seems to me to be a little too vague; it is not sufficiently definite, and it is simply to be found in letters appended to the treaty, and not in the body of it. I hope the noble Lord will be able to give us some assurance on that point.

Turning to the question of British trade in China, I wish to refer to railways. We have been told in this House, and through the Government documents, that British concessionaires had secured concessions to the extent of 2,800 miles of railway. Now, China, the greatest and richest Empire on earth is for the first time being supplied with a system of railways. But what is the position today so far as British investors and manufacturers are concerned? Go where you like in China, Russians, French, Germans, and Belgians are busily engaged in laying down railways, the whole of the railway material and rolling stock for which must be drawn from the countries of the concessionaires, to the exclusion of British manufacturers. And not a single mile of the 2,800 miles of railway granted to British concessionaires has yet been finally ratified, although I am glad to know that one or two concessions appear to be in a fair way to be ratified. I think that the British manufacturers and investors must feel that, somehow or other, they do not receive from the British Government the same support that the Russians, Germans, Belgians, and French receive from their Governments in securing their concessions, and in carrying through their railway enterprises. At any rate, no one can deny that it is a most unfor- tunate, most disappointing, and most unsatisfactory position for this country, which had always been ahead of all other countries in the world in railway enterprise, and which had now practically no share or lot in the matter. Another point in connection with the railways is that we have not had any assurance of a definite character that all nations shall enjoy the same rights and privileges in regard to railway rates. The ex-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs had pointed out the importance of it in his communications with China; but the question is, how far has any agreement been arrived at, and, if an agreement has not been reached, is it being sought for at the present moment?


It is in the Treaty of Tientsin.


I should much rather it were included in the new treaty, and brought up to date and expressed in form that would be more applicable to present conditions than is the antiquated Treaty of Tientsin. The very fact that it is in the Tientsin Treaty shows that it ought to have engaged the attention of the Government in negotiating the new treaty, which, I imagine, supersedes the Treaty of Tientsin. The danger is that this provision may fall to the ground. Then there is the question of hindering our commerce with China by having imposed on that country too heavy burdens in the shape of indemnities. I am bound to say that the Government in their despatches have shown that they did not wish to press too hardly on China; it is an unforuntate circumstance, however, that what the Chinese nation is feeling so much now is the great fall in the price of silver, so that instead of 450,000,000 taels being sufficient to pay off the indemnity, it means at least a third more, a result of the fall of the tael from 3s. to 2s. 3d. since the Protocol was signed. The Chinese asked that they should not be required to pay more than 450,000,000 taels. I find from the Blue-book that the German Government understood that the bonds, together with the Sinking Fund and interest, were to be ex- pressed in taels, whereas the British Government said that the bonds should be expressed in sterling, reckoning the tael at 3s. The British Government knew perfectly well that the demands of some of the Powers were extravagant, and they were anxious that the burden should press as lightly as possible on China. Therefore, in view of the fact that the Government adheres to the bonds being expressed in sterling, I would urge that there should be some abatement in the terms.

I wish to know whether Shanghai has been evacuated by all the Foreign Powers; also whether the noble Lord can give us any information as to the important question of the arrest of Chinese in the International Settlement on a warrant issued by the French, counter signed only by the senior Consul, and without a primâ facie case having been made out before a mixed court in the International Settlement. I should be glad to know whether a settlement has been arrived at in this matter, because it is manifestly unsatisfactory. The French would not tolerate for a moment the entrance into their settlement of police officers to arrest Chinese, and we should not tolerate it either. There are 250,000 Chinese living in our Shanghai International Settlement, and they should not be subject to arrest without proper examination of the charges against them. Then I would ask the noble Lord if he can give us any further information with reference to the situation at Niuchwang. Has it been handed back to Chinese administration, and are the Customs being collected by the Imperial Maritime Customs officers? I should wish to know whether there is any foundation to the statement that Russia has demanded, and has insisted upon, the appointment of a Russian officer to collect the duties at Niuchwang Custom House. Niuchwang is a treaty port in which Russia has no greater right than the British or any other Power.

Returning to Shanghai, and to the conditions under which it was evacuated, we have another proof of the undesirability of acting too much, at any rate, in concert with Germany in Chinese affairs. The history of our association with Germany in the far East is a most unfortunate one. To have our troops under the command of a German General after we had opened up China to trade, and after we had been the predominant trader there for generations, was, to say the least of it, not satisfactory to British feelings and British patriotism. As an Englishman, I felt ashamed to be allied with the Germans, and to have to stand by and see marauding expeditions in Northern China which destroyed villages withoutany provocation whatever. But the history of our association with Germany in China is further unsatisfactory in this respect, that when we concluded the Anglo-German Agreement we foolishly, as I think, not only recognised her priority of right in Shangtung, but we admitted her to equal rights with ourselves in the Yang-tse region, which was regarded as our special sphere. The Germans, indeed, call this Agreement the Yangtse Agreement, but, notwithstanding the fact that they had this clear and definite Agreement with us admitting them to equal rights and privileges in the Yangtse region, they thought it necessary to go behind our backs and get another undertaking from the Chinese, which was certainly directed against British interests, if it were specially directed against any interests at all. Under that undertaking China was— Not to grant to any Power special advantages of a political, maritime, military or economic nature, nor to allow the occupation of any other points commanding river, either above or below Shanghai. To this our Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs most properly replied— The British Government's objection was that it was an arrangement which would affect not only the economic, but also the political, military and maritime conditions of the region concerned, and it would be binding only upon a limited number of Powers and restricted in its operation to portion only of the Chinese Dominions. Subsequently the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs stated that we would not regard ourselves as in any way bound by that arrangement, but unfortunately it still remains a fact that that undertaking has been given by China to Germany, and if China does not observe it Germany will call her to account for any breach of it. Therefore, whether we regard ourselves as bound by it in any way or not, it remains. It is most unsatisfactory that after the manner in which we treated Germans in regard to Shang Tung, as well as admitting her to equal rights and privileges in the Yang-tse region, her statesmen should have thought it fit or necessary to extort an undertaking of this nature behind our backs from the Chinese Government.

In connection with the evacuation of Shanghai, it was very satisfactory to note that our Japanese allies gave us most cordial and complete support in the objections which we raised. The only other point to which I will refer in connection with China has reference to Southern China and to piracy on the West River and Cantonese waters. It appears to me, from all the information that I have received, that a complete patrol by gunboats is required in these waterways. There is still a great deal of piracy, and my information is that our French neighbours are extremely busy in promoting, extending, and making their influence felt in that part of the Chinese Empire. We admit freely that the French have equal rights and privileges with ourselves in Southern China, but, having regard to the importance of our trade and our long association with that part of China, and to our having for generations practically policed these waters, I do not think that the House will agree that the Government should relinquish their position or cease to play the part they have played in the past in ensuring the observance of law and order in China. With reference to Manchuria, the noble Lord in previous debates read extracts from speeches and despatches leading the House to understand that the evacuation of Manchuria by Russia would be complete, and that its administration would be handed back to the Chinese as it existed before the occupation. Well, an agreement was arrived at between Russia and China, but what do we find from the latest reports to hand? That although the Russian troops have been moved from the location they were in a short time ago, there are to be found today, along the railway which Russia has built in Manchuria, not the small number of railway guards which their Agreement provided they should have, but in all probability 30,000 Russian troops. We find that the Chinese arsenals have been despoiled of their guns, and that all the war material and ammunition has been taken away from them, and that the Chinese are not allowed by Russia to have a larger number of Chinese troops in Manchuria than Russia sanctions. What does this amount to? To this: that Russia today is in complete and effective military occupation of the whole of Manchuria, and that the idea of its being returned to Chinese administration as it was before has neither been fulfilled, nor appears likely to be fulfilled. The last communication that we have in the Blue-book is to the effect that Russia adhered unswervingly to her intention, as fairly and frankly declared, to withdraw the troops of occupation, and to restore the province to its position as soon as the state of affairs in Peking and the normal condition of China would permit. I am afraid that the normal condition of China will be very long delayed, and, in fact, is never likely to arrive. But the question of importance to us as a nation is how far our treaty, commercial rights and privileges are going to be upheld throughout Manchuria, and whether any steps have been taken by the Government to protect them. I am sorry to have had to detain the House by asking for this information with regard to China, but some of the questions, at any rate, to which I have referred the House will feel are of very considerable importance.

I am interested in upholding and extending the trade of the British Empire. The same applies to what I shall have to say as to British interests in Persia. The fact is that British trade is diminishing rapidly in Persia. In 1889 Lord Curzon estimated that British trade in Persia amounted to £3,000,000 a year, as compared with Russian trade £2,000,000. But the last estimates we had, the estimates of 1900-01, more than reversed the position, because we find that Russian trade has gone up from £2,000,000 to £4,500,000, and British trade has gone down from £3,000,000 to £2,000,000. That is to say, Russian trade has increased 125 per cent., and British trade has decreased by 33 per cent. That is a most unsatisfactory situation for British traders to have to face. After all, many millions of the people of this country depend upon our foreign trade for a livelihood, and if we have a dwindling trade in China, Persia, and other places, it is no wonder that we have unemployed who cannot get work to do. The Economist gives some further statistics. During the first eight months of 1901 our exports from England to Persia amounted to £700,000, but in the first eight months of the following year, 1902, they amounted to only £423,000. One Manchester firm reports a diminution of no less than 80 per cent. in the course of a few years, although they have made every effort to retain it.

With regard to our political relations with Persia and our ancient prestige there, it is a matter for regret that our prestige and influence in Persia to-day has diminished enormously as compared with what it was in the past. Yet Persia is a country capable of being greatly developed. In the past its ancient cities, like Persepolis and Isfahan, had 1,000,000 inhabitants each, and we cannot forget that these regions only require irrigation, and that if that were applied there are potentialities of wealth in them that would astonish us, and would afford room for an enormous development of trade. The traditional policy of this country with regard to Persia is to preserve the integrity and independence of that country. We ask for and wish to have no preferential privileges and rights in Persia. We only desire to have the open door maintained, with equal rights to trade there under the most-favoured-nation Clause; but unfortunately we are handicapped in our trade with Persia.

We did a large trade with North Persia formerly, but after the Treaty of Berlin Russia practically strangled our trade by enforcing large import duties on British goods passing through Russia for sale in Persia. She has closed the Caspian Sea to all ships who do not fly the Russian flag, though we have, on the other hand, in that other practically inland sea, the Persian Gulf, done police work, and yet given all other nations an equal opportunity to trade there along with us. But the result of Russia closing the Caspian Sea to the flags of other nations, and the imposition of heavy import duties on goods passing through her territories for sale in northern Persia, has been that we have lost our trade in northern Persia. Russia has gained trade not only in this way, but also by giving bounties upon goods sold by Russian subjects in Persia, and giving facilities on her railways, etc., for the carriage of Russian merchandise for sale in Persia. She also, as the noble Lord knows, has built, at a cost of nearly half a million, three great highways down into the north of Persia to facilitate trade. Those roads have not been built by private enterprise; to a large extent the cost has been borne by the Russian Government. What has been the result of this policy? That our trade has diminished.

I do not wish to point out how our trade has diminished without endeavouring to show also how in the future our trade may be maintained.

As the Russian Government has employed these means in Northern Persia, so I would urge the importance of the Indian Government, or the British Government, employing the same means to promote British trade in Southern Persia. Regard should be had to the position of Persia in relation to India, that it lies on the borders of India to a large extent, and that its seaboard is adjacent to the seaboard of India. By our supineness in not taking up a proper commercial position in South Persia we shall soon be within measurable distance of finding Russia also dominant on the Persian Gulf. First, by a commercial harbour soon to be turned into a naval base and connected by railway with the Russian Empire. What would then be the position of our Indian Empire? We have always considered that India was virtually protected by the Great North-Western mountainous frontier, but with Russia on the Persian Gulf they would have turned the flank of our North-Western mountainous frontier, and the natives of India would have to find millions of money for increased defensive forces. We are the trustees of that Empire, and the problem of safeguarding it is one of the first importance, and one to which the Government ought to address themselves without a day's delay. No doubt the Government may say we are not prepared to risk money in foreign countries; but what about the Indian Government? Will any one tell me that when the British and Indian Governments refused to guarantee the two and a-half million loan to Persia in 1900 they were not committing a suicidal act with regard to the commercial and political interests of this country and of India? The Government of India had better have guaranteed ten times two and a half millions than have had the impecunious Government of Persia handed over to the Russians. We are told that the security for the loan was not satisfactory, but Persia has since obtained another loan of one and a quarter millions from Russia, and two-thirds of the Customs receipts cover both interest and redemption of principal on both loans.

And, it being half-past Seven of the clock, the debate stood adjourned till this Evening's Sitting.