HL Deb 10 February 1902 vol 102 cc806-12

My Lords, in accordance with the notice standing in my name on the paper, I beg to ask the Under Secretary of State for the Colonies what are the intentions of His Majesty's Government with regard to Wei-Hai-Wei.


My Lords, I do not think I need trouble you with the early history of Wei-Hai-Wei, because it is probably well known to you. But I may say that the Government have held a careful inquiry into the advantages of the place as a military and naval station, and they have decided that the idea which was at one time entertained of fortifying it and keeping there a large garrison has been abandoned. There is at present there a Chinese regiment. That regiment will be gradually disbanded or withdrawn; and in future the administration of the colony will be undertaken by police, which will be raised by the Administration of the colony itself. The position has been found to be one which could only be fortified at very great expense; but it is an extremely useful place for small-arms practice and for gunnery practice for the Navy as the bay is large and the water is shallow. It is also an extremely healthy station, and it is believed that in the course of a very short time a number of persons will utilise it as a sanatorium for Hong Kong and Shanghai and other places on the coast of China. It will also be used as a sanatorium for our military and naval forces. It has been taken over by the Colonial Office from 1st January, and the new Administrator will be Mr. Lockhart, who has had many years official experience at Hong Kong. It is hoped that in his hands the place will be made to yield a much larger revenue than that at present, which is something like £2,000 a year. The inhabitants are mostly fishermen and agriculturists who are not rich nor very prosperous, but there are capabilities about the colony which lead us to hope that before very long it will yeild a much greater revenue than at present. Your Lordships will recollect that Hong Kong was in very much the same position as Wei-Hai-Wei is to-day. It has no custom duties, no railway communication with the interior, and yet it has proved to be a very important commercial port, and Wei-Hai-Wai has the advantage of being on the highway from the Gulf of Pechili to northern China. It has an excellent harbour, labour is cheap, and there is therefore every reason to believe that it will continue to be a useful and valuable possession. At any rate the rumour that there is an intention on the part of His Majesty's Government to give it up, either returning it to China or handing it over to any other Power, is entirely without foundation. His Majesty's Government have no intention of abandoning the place, which they believe to be a very valuable possession.


I am sure your Lordships must have listened to the statement which has just been made with the same mingled feelings with which I have heard it. I was in no degree prepared for the declaration just made by the noble Earl, or I should have refreshed my memory by reference to the statements which were made at the time when Wei-Hai-Wei was first occupied. I do not know whether I correctly pronounce the name of this place, but after the declaration made on behalf of the Government by the noble Earl it seems hardly worth while troubling to ascertain. I recollect that the acquisition of the place was announced with a flourish of trumpets, and now apparently all that is thought of it is that it is an important watering place. Am I to understand that the inquiry as to its naval and military value was held subsequent to its occupation by the Government? If so, some of the statements which were made at the time of its acquisition would appear to have been put forward with more rashness than was becoming in the case of a Government taking over an important port in an empire like China.


The inquiries were made subsequent to the lease.


Wei-Hai-Wei is no longer a naval base. It is no longer a place of arms; no longer a protection for our commerce or our fleets. It has become a sort of second-rate watering place. We are encouraged to hope that its salubrious climate will induce people to come and spend what is known as the unhealthy season there. I have no doubt that, if your lordships consult the original authorities, you will find that the statements made by the Government when this place was occupied, compare somewhat strangely with the very piano announcement we have just listened to from the Under Secretary for the colonies.


My Lords, I shall certainly refresh my memory with regard to the declarations of the Government on the occasion of the taking over of Wei-Hai-Wei. I am not at all sure that I did not myself point out some of its advantages; and as one who held a responsible position at the Admiralty when Wei-Hai-Wei was acquired, I have listened with a certain amount of sur- prise to some of the statements of the Under Secretary for the Colonies. I do not think he conveyed the impression which the noble Earl opposite seems to have derived from his statement that it is only lately that any inquiry has been made with reference to the stratagic and international position of Wei-Hai-Wei I can assure your Lordships that long ago the most exhaustive inquiries were made into the capacities of Wei-Hai-Wai in various respects. The question of the number of guns requisite for its fortification was carefully examined; and the subject of a breakwater was likewise considered. In fact, dredgers had been sent out to deepen the water. The number of battleships which could find anchorage within the bay was also fully inquired into. There was no lack of information originally; but I am disposed to think that on review His Majesty's Government have come to the conclusion on fresh information acquired that the first opinions as to the value of Wei-Hai-Wei as a naval and military base cannot be sustained. I have no doubt that the Government have consulted the best naval and military authorities on the subject. There can be no doubt at the same time that Wei-Hai-Wei occupies a most important position in the Gulf of Pechili; and any Power holding it possesses a strategical advantage. I am sure His Majesty's Government will be prepared to give your Lordships far more information with reference to the change of policy which has been considered advisable than has been afforded to-day. I hope the Government will state whether the decision not to fortify Wei-Hai-Wei is based on financial or stragetical considerations. I am glad to hear that if Wei-Hai-Wei is not to be fortified, there is no intention of handing it over to another Power or of returning it to China. Even if we do not fortify Wei-Hai-Wei, it would be very inconvenient for the whole of our naval operations in the China seas if it were held by any other Power. I feel that your Lordships have not sufficient information before you to enable you adequately to debate the the change of policy on the part of Government. As to the proposed disbandment of the Chinese regiment, I had always understood that the regiment had been a very successful experiment. but if there are any international reasons against making a fuller statement as to why it is to be disbanded, I shall be perfectly satisfied with the explanation of the Government.


My Lords, when I saw the Question of the noble Earl on the Paper, I referred to the speeches which were made in both Houses of Parliament by the responsible advisers of the Crown at the time of the occupation of Wei-Hai-Wei. The First Lord of the Treasury stated in the other House, when this matter was being conisdered, that— If any British subject is foolish enough to go to Wei-Hai-Wai for commercial purposes he will have every facility. It seems perfectly clear, therefore, that for commercial purposes Wei-Hai-Wei is not held in very high estimation by the Leader of the House of Commons. Within a very short time after that statement was made, the noble Marquess at the head of the Government stated in this House that— It is necessary that we should have a coaling station and a naval station in that region, and Wei-Hai-Wei will answer that purpose. I have no doubt that in commercial advantages it will amply secure us, and will more than compensate us for any expenditure which may be incurred upon it. If the statement of the noble Earl the Under-Secretary today means anything, it means that the Government are not going to spend any money upon Wei-Hai-Wei. If Wei-Hai-Wei is not to be fortified and no money spent upon it, I maintain that the place will not be a strength but a menace to us, and that, therefore, if we are not to take the necessary precautions to strengthen our position there, we had much better retire. I cannot help being impressed by a sense of the extraordinarily flippant and careless way in which the matter has been dealt with on the part of the Government.


My Lords, I shall be prepared to go into this question at length on any occasion on which any one of your Lordships brings it again before the notice of the House, and I think perhaps later on we shall be in a better position to discuss it in the fullest detail. But I have now and at once to say that the decision of this question has not been financial. It has been purely strategical, and that strategy was purely naval. Lord Rosebery spoke of Wei-Hai-Wei as a possible protection to British commerce. I think on reflection the noble Earl would not repeat that. The only protection to British commerce in Chinese seas is the Navy, and the value and importance of Wei-Hai-Wei is purely relative to the Navy. Naval opinion as to the proper method of utilising Wei-Hai-Wei has differed, and does differ; but speaking as one who has closely studied this question for more than a year, perhaps I may say that the balance of naval opinion is very decidedly in favour of the course which the Government has adopted. There are, roughly speaking, two alternatives. One is to make Wei-Hai-Wei a fortress like Hong Kong, the other is to use it as a peace base, and not to commit ourselves to the custody of a fortress. The naval opinion has been pronounced, and I thoroughly concur with it, in favour of the latter course as against the former. While that decision has been taken, and while naval opinion has pronounced itself in the degree I have mentioned in favour of this course, naval opinion is unanimous as to the value—the very great value—of this base to the Navy, its value to the efficiency of the Navy, and its value to the health of the Navy; and while I should oppose personally any attempt to turn Wei-Hai-Wei into a fortress like Hong Kong, I should also determinedly oppose any idea of surrendering it.


The speech of the noble Earl the First Lord of the Admiralty shows that since the lease of Wei-Hai-Wei there has been a complete change of policy on the part of His Majesty's Government. I wish to know whether it is the intention of the Government to produce Papers and Reports on the subject, in order that your Lordships may judge how far the action of the Government can be justified.


I am sure the noble Earl will recognise that some of the Papers are confidential and cannot be published.


Yes, but there must be some that can be presented.