HL Deb 17 June 1898 vol 59 cc546-52

My Lords, I beg to ask my noble Friend the Prime Minister whether any reply has been received from Sir Claude MacDonald to the dispatch from the Marquess of Salisbury; dated the 4th of April 1898, with respect to the desire of the Chinese Government to reform their military and naval forces; whether any reply has been received by Her Majesty's Government to the inquiry addressed by telegraph to Sir Claude MacDonald with respect to the concession given some time ago to a Belgian syndicate for a line uniting Pekin with the Yang-tsze? With regard to the first question, the dispatch to which I desire to call your Lordships' attention is in these words— As regards the Chinese request for British naval officers referred to in your telegram of the 3rd inst. we sympathise entirely with the desire of the Chinese Government to reform their military and naval forces. My Lords, it was said the other day by my noble Friend the Prime Minister that what China wanted was courage to stand up against her enemies. The military resources of China may be said to be enormous. The Emperor of China has under his sway at least a million of soldiers; and it may be said, I believe, that the war expenditure amounts to over 15 millions sterling. My Lords, notwithstanding that the military resources of China are enormous, China has always prided herself more upon the education of her civilians, and the result is that at this moment very few honest or competent officers are to be found amongst the military men of China, and I believe that not one general is to be found there who is capable, from a military point of view, of holding any rank at all amongst military men. My Lords, it may be in the recollection of your Lordships that there is plenty of courage to be found amongst the sons of China. Your Lordships will recollect that in 1862 General Gordon, in the suppression of the Tai-Ping rebellion, showed what Chinese soldiers could do under discipline and skilful leading. My Lords, with regard to the navy, it was believed and hoped that China had made considerable progress. She had purchased some very fine vessels, and her naval resources were supposed to be considerable, but the Japanese war totally dispelled that illusion. Both the naval and military forces of China are in a most miserable state. Nothing strikes one more in travelling through that country than the utter disruption of the military forces of the Government. We all know, from a perusal of the correspondence that has taken place, that the last thing that Her Majesty's Government wish to see brought about is the dismemberment of China. My Lords, the only thing that can prevent that dismemberment is the reform of her military and naval forces, and that is the reason why I ventured to put down the first question of which I have given my noble Friend notice. With regard to the second question, as to the Pekin and Han-kau Railway, it has been stated in another place that an inquiry was addressed to our able and energetic Minister in Pekin upon that subject. My Lords, I am fully aware that that able Minister is perfectly alive to the importance of the subject, and has already directed his attention to the entirely new policy with respect to railways which has lately characterised the Chinese Government, which, in fact, amounts to a complete reversal of everything that China has been distinguished for in relation to her dealings with foreigners and foreign Governments. Since I gave this notice two events have taken place bearing upon the question which your Lordships may allow me to mention. The first is that a deputation from the Chambers of Commerce have waited upon my noble Friend the Prime Minister, and the second is that several dispatches and telegrams from the well informed correspondent of the Times newspaper have appeared, giving the results of recent Russian, French, and Belgian negotiations with respect to railways in almost every part of China. My Lords, I have carefully read and re-read the reply which the noble Marquess addressed to the Chambers of Commerce at the Foreign Office—his sympathy with the objects of the deputation, his desire that the Chinese Empire should be permeated with the beneficent influences of British trade, and his promise to support English capitalists in China—and I have not forgotten that my noble Friend also said that in looking over the field traversed by the speakers he saw a great deal more that he ought not to say than that he ought to say. It is also quite clear that my noble Friend is giving his most careful attention to the consequences of the railway concessions in China. Under the circumstances I do not wish to press for any information which my noble Friend may be in the least unwilling to give, and therefore I will conclude the observations which your Lordships have allowed me to make by putting the questions which stand in my name.


My Lords, we have received no direct reply to the telegram of April 4, but further communications have passed between Her Majesty's Government and the Government of China with respect to the reorganisation both of the Chinese Navy kind the Chinese Army. With respect to the Chinese Navy, I think our negotiations are more advanced, and we have every hope that the distinguished officer who has already performed valuable duties in that service will make arrangements with the Chinese Government by which we shall be able to help them to reorganise their Navy. Your Lordships, of course, will readily understand that, although there is on our part the utmost willingness to facilitate any undertaking of this kind, it cannot succeed unless there is also a willingness on the part of the Chinese Government to accept our assistance, and the difficulty has hitherto been, not that they will not accept our assistance, but that they will not give, or have not been willing to give, a sufficiently independent position to the officers whom we desire to send out. Until we can wholly overcome that reluctance my hopes of a very satisfactory issue are not very sanguine. Of course it is a concession, if one can call it a concession, or a precaution which they are very naturally unwilling to offer, and we will make the matter as easy for them as we can. But we cannot conceal from ourselves that, unless a free hand is given to the advisers whom they ask us to send out, it is very unlikely that the traditional and deeply-seated evils which have hitherto paralysed both the Chinese Navy and the Chinese Army can be removed. At all events, that must take some little time. I have found no unwillingness on the part of the Chinese Government, so to speak, in principle, to accept our assistance. The only question is whether they will accept it under conditions which are likely to make it of real value, and on that point communications are still passing. Of course we shall give them every facility that is in our power; but it is probably present in the minds of your Lordships that it is very difficult to reform those who do not wish to be reformed. Though some very satisfactory and hopeful sentiments have issued from the Throne, it has yet to be seen how far they permeate the great official bodies by which China is governed. I entirely concur with my noble Friend, though I do not anticipate any danger in the immediate future, and though I do not think that any catastrophe is threatened, there can be but one end, one issue to all these events as far as the Chinese Empire is concerned, unless their means of defending themselves both by the Navy and the Army are developed on lines involving an entire reform. With respect to the railways, Sir Claude MacDonald has been informed by the Tsung-li-Yamen that in regard to the particular railway to which my noble Friend refers there has been no change. The concession granted to the Belgian syndicate in 1897 for the construction of the Pekin and Hankow line will be carried out by that syndicate, but the control remains with the Chinese Director General of Railways. We have asked for some more information, which has not yet reached us, but which I shall be happy to give to my noble Friend the moment we receive it. The statement which I have made will tell him the point to which the negotiations for concessions have advanced. I confess to some apprehension lest the great fear which animates most of the Powers that any other Power should obtain a concession may end in no railways being made at all. That, at all events, is, I think, one of the serious dangers and difficulties of the situation; but every effort, as I informed the deputation on Wednesday, will be made by Her Majesty's Government to secure for capitalists concessions where they show a capacity for fulfilling the engagements that they undertake. I cannot promise that the Chinese Government will always grant to us more than to other Powers, but no effort on our side shall be wanting in order to induce the due appreciation of the valuable efforts which English capitalists are willing to make.


My Lords, with regard to the assistance which Her Majesty's Government have tendered to the Chinese Government in reorganising their Army and Navy, I entirely concur in the observations made by the noble Marquess. I do not know who the officer is that they have in view, but whether it be the same officer who went there before or not, my own experience confirms what the noble Marquess says. We had an officer there, and he became entirely useless, not through any fault of his own, but because the Chinese Government would not allow him to exercise any such authority as was absolutely essential to render him of any use whatever. The noble Marquess, I am sure, is fully alive to that difficulty, and I am extremely glad to hear that if such assistance is to be given to the Chinese Government, Her Majesty's Government will insist that the conditions are such as will make that assistance really valuable and effective. My Lords, with regard to the other point, I am very glad indeed to hear the noble Marquess repeat emphatically the assurances that he gave to the deputation that Her Majesty's Government would do their utmost to support British capitalists who are ready to embark their capital in the construction of railways in China. And I am, perhaps, a little more hopeful that Her Majesty's Government may be successful in this when I remember the very pertinent observations which the noble Marquess made in the course of his answer to the deputation, that we must not always expect to obtain the help of foreign Powers in obtaining concessions from the Chinese Government. It seems to me that the course of events in China shows that that help will not be wanting, as more than one foreign country is most earnestly pressing the Chinese Government for concessions. The noble Marquess need not, therefore, despair of getting that aid which he mentioned. I do not doubt for a moment that it is the intention of the noble Marquess and Her Majesty's Government to give all the aid in their power to such enterprises; but we must not forget—and I am sure the noble Marquess will not forget—that an immense change has come over the whole scene in China. Methods which were formerly perfectly opposite to the ways of diplomacy, which were entirely justifiable in times past, may no longer be applicable to the situation at which we have now arrived. All I hope is that our Minister at Pekin—whom I believe to be a very able man indeed—and Her Majesty's Government will do their best to adapt their methods to the new situation in which we find ourselves. If they do so, and use all the energy they have, and apply every effort to support British capitalists in taking their fair share in railway enterprise in China, then I should look for very hopeful results. Of this I am quite certain—that the country here, especially those interested in Chinese affairs, are becoming fully alive to the necessities of the situation, and I cannot believe that enterprise will be wanting on their part to come forward with such propositions as may receive from Her Majesty's Government the support which has been promised to them.