HC Deb 28 September 1926 vol 199 cc395-401

I beg to ask the Prime Minister a question of which I have given notice to the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs—whether the action taken by the naval authorities in bombarding the town of Wanhsien arose out of instructions given to them by His Majesty's Government, and what action His Majesty's Government have since taken to ascertain the facts regarding the incident, and to institute an inquiry into responsibilities?


had also given private notice to ask the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs if he can inform the House what are the facts connected with the recent trouble at Wanhsien on the Yangtse; what negotiations have taken place on the subject, and what arrangements have been made to protect British interests in this and other regions in China?

The PRIME MINISTER (Mr. Baldwin)

I shall answer this question (Mr. MacDonald's) together with a private notice question on the same subject from my hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Mr. Foot Mitchell).

The facts regarding the naval action at Wanhsien are briefly as follow:

At the end of August General Yang Sen, the titular Civil Governor of Szechuan, seized two steamers belonging to the China Navigation Company, Limited, alleging that another steamer of the same company had sunk a boat carrying some of his troops and a certain amount of money. The six British officers of the two steamers were kept in custody by him.

The Commander of His Majesty's Ship "Cockchafer" endeavoured to conduct negotiations for the release of the ships and their officers, but General Yang Sen refused to discuss the matter with him, and threatened to fire on His Majesty's Ship "Cockchafer" if she moved or an ultimatum were delivered, posting troops for this purpose. His Majesty's Consul at Chungking proceeded to Wanhsien, and from 2nd September to 5th September was, under instructions from His Majesty's Minister at Peking, constantly using all his exertions to secure a peaceful settlement of the affair, including the offer of an inquiry, but General Yang Sen proved absolutely unyielding and defiant, ignoring even messages sent to him by Wu Pei-fu, his superior General, and imprisoning the messenger who bore them.

It was in these circumstances that His Majesty's Government reluctantly decided that, if a solution by conciliatory measures proved in the last resort absolutely impossible, the only alternative was to use force to rescue the imprisoned ships' officers. The naval expedition which proceeded to Wanhsien for this purpose was received with heavy fire: the fire was consequently returned. The British casualties were three officers and four seamen killed, two officers and 13 seamen wounded. Of the six imprisoned officers of the Mercantile Marine, five were rescued, the sixth being drowned. The Chinese casualties have not yet been realiably established, but my latest information indicates them to be very much less than originally rumoured.

As a result of this action, Yang Sen offered to discuss further the question of the return of the illegally seized ships, and sent the Commissioner for Foreign Affairs at Chungking to Ichang to meet Rear-Admiral Cameron, Senior Naval Officer on the Yangtse, for this purpose. In these negotiations, our attitude has been that, while we were willing to discuss the holding of an inquiry into the alleged sinking of the boat and of the drowning of General Yang Sen's soldiers,, the return of the steamers must be a condition precedent.

I am glad to be able to add that my latest information is that one of the steamers has been returned, and the other is now en route for Ichang, while General Yang Sen is reported to be adopting an amicable attitude. On the arrival of the second steamer, the question of holding an inquiry will be considered, and His Majesty's Consul at Ichang is proceeding forthwith to Chungking, with a view to expediting a settlement of all outstanding points connected with the incident.


Is it not a fact that the upsetting of the boats containing General Yang Sen's soldiers was due to their adopting the notoriously dangerous practice of making fast to the steamer while she was still under weigh?


I regret that, without notice, I am not in a position to answer detailed supplementary questions of that nature.


Is, the right hon. Gentleman in a position to say how many Chinese casualties were among non-military people, and whether firing on the town of Wanhsien was in any way authorised?


I am afraid I could not answer those questions without notice.


May I ask whether any posthumous rewards for gallantry will be given to Commander Darley and other officers and men who took part in the very gallant engagements?


I am not aware whether that has yet been considered.


May I ask whether or not British gunboats or any other British warships are still patrolling the Yangtse-Kiang?


It is not my own Department. I am afraid I shall require notice of any questions of detail of that kind.


Will the right hon. Gentleman extend any inquiry into the matter of shooting on Wanhsien, or will the inquiry be solely concerned with the sinking of the vessel?


With regard to that again, I have no information.


Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that there are many foreigners in China absolutely unprotected, and that the sending of these gunboats up these rivers is likely to provoke the Chinese, and endanger the lives of these people?


(by Private Notice) asked the Prime Minister whether any additions have been made to our naval, military and air strength in the Far East to meet the situation which has arisen there; and whether the Government is now satisfied that our forces in China are sufficient to secure the adequate protection of British subjects and British interests?


In so far as the naval position is concerned, His Majesty's Government are satisfied that the reinforcements now on their way to China, which consist of H.M.S. "Hermes" and a flotilla of one leader and eight destroyer, together with the forces already in China, will be sufficient for the present to secure adequate protection for British subjects and interests.

So far as the military forces are concerned, the situation up to date has not warranted any military intervention, and no military or air reinforcements have been sent.


Is the right hon. Gentleman aware of the menace to the British and foreign communities at Shanghai which would be created by the advance of the Cantonese army to that city, and may we have an assurance that the possibilities of such a menace have not been lost sight of by the Government?


That is a very hypothetical question, and I do not think a situation has yet arisen when it would be necessary for me to make any announcement to the House of Commons.


(by Private Notice) asked the Prime Minister whether any steps are being taken to confer with the Powers interested as to the situation which has arisen in China, and as to any joint measures to be taken for the protection of the foreign communities and otherwise?


No, Sir. His Majesty's Government regard it as a matter for any individual Government concerned to decide for themselves what measures it is advisable or necessary to take for the protection of their nationals or interests abroad, according to the circumstances arising in each case.


May I ask the Prime Minister whether he has any statement to make with regard to the question of boycotting in Canton?


The hon. Member has a private notice question down. I do not know whether he is going to put it?


May put the question, then, whether the Prime Minister has any statement to make on the situation in China?


That is the question I was expecting the hon. Member to put. I apologise for the length of the answer.

I have already dealt with the Wanhsien incident, in my previous reply. As regards Canton, the House is aware that for over a year past an agitation has been on foot, directed exclusively to the destruction of British trade. The attacks by the boycott organisation on British traders became so intensified as to compel His Majesty's Government to adopt measures to resist such acts of piracy, and orders were accordingly sent to the Commander-in-Chief. China Station, to take steps to seize and disable all boycott patrol beats, and to remove all pickets from British wharves. Operations to this end were taken on 4th September, but at the first sign of naval activity all boycott patrol boats fled. So there was no necessity to effect seizures, nor did His Majesty's ships fire a shot.

These steps evoked a prompt response from the Cantonese Government, who arranged with His Majesty's Consul-General that Chinese police should patrol the river, and guard the wharves. Accordingly, the naval activity was suspended. This arrangement has been scrupulously observed by the Cantonese Government, and no further incidents have occurred.

On 18th September the Cantonese Government informed His Majesty's Consul-General that they had made arrangements to end the boycott of Hong-Kong at the latest by 10th October, and that they proposed to levy certain taxes on imports and exports, for the purpose, it is understood, of liquidating the strike organisation. A notification to this effect was published in the "Canton Gazette" on 24th September, and at the same time the strike pickets guarding the approaches to Shameen were removed. In the meantime British steamers have been plying to Canton without obstruction, and have secured passengers and full deck cargoes.

As regards Central China, the Cantonese forces have captured Hankow and Hanyang, although Wuchang, the capital of Hupeh, continues to hold out against them. Some fear was felt lest their advent on the Yangtse might lead to a spread of the boycott to that area, but I am glad to say that, although there has been a certain amount of agitation, there has been practically no interference with British trade and industry at Hankow. The extension of the war zone to the Yangtse valley led to a certain amount of firing on British and other steamers. Representations were made to the Cantonese Government., and attacks of this nature now appear practically to have ceased.

Anti-British agitation broke out in the latter half of this month at Chungking, and considerable depredations on British property were committed. It became necessary to evacuate all British women and children. The latest reports, however, indicate a slight improvement in conditions there, and it is hoped that, with the return of the second captured ship, a further improvement will shortly take place.


Can the Prime Minister say whether the Government have taken any notice of the fiscal conditions attached to the removal of the boycott by the Cantonese Government?


The House will understand that I have not got all these details in my mind, and I think all I can say, in the absence of the Foreign Secretary—who I am glad to say will be back in a few days—is that that is a matter which is engaging our attention at the present time.


Can the right hon. Gentleman say how much of the agitation and boycotting in China has been clue to Soviet Russia?