HL Deb 16 May 1928 vol 71 cc77-90

LORD PARMOOR, who had put a Notice on the Paper to ask His Majesty's Government whether they can give any information on recent events in China, and to move for Papers, said: My Lords, I put down the Question which stands in my name before the events in China had been discussed in another place and before I had seen the answer of the Foreign Secretary. Of course I accept most fully what he said, but there are three points which I desire to raise of which I have given some indication to the noble Lord, Lord Cushendun, who I understand will answer for the Government. I hope the information which I sent him was sufficient for his purpose. The most important point of all is the question which has arisen as to how far the League of Nations can deal with these disputes which have gone on for a long time now in China. Of course our interest—I need not spend any time on the point—is not to impoverish China and still less to prolong the devastation there of civil war, but to do what we can to make China a land of peace, so that our industrial relations with China should be to the profit and advantage of both parties. I suppose that, while unemployment is general in this country at the present time, Lancashire is suffering in a very special way because not only has there been some feeling against the purchase of English goods, but the poverty of the Chinese has prevented the country from being the profitable market which it ought to be for our great textile industries.

When this matter first started in China, two or three years ago—or I think even longer than that—I ventured to suggest in your Lordships' House that the matter even then might have been referred to the League of Nations. I am glad to see the noble Viscount, Lord Cecil of Chelwood, here, because at that time he was a member of the Government and, speaking at Trowbridge as a member of the Government and with all his authority and knowledge with regard to the League of Nations, he stated that the Government would not be disinclined that this matter should go to the League of Nations provided it could be properly sent there. No doubt there was difficulty—everyone recognises that—in bringing this question for decision to the League of Nations, but I thought then as I think now, that by sympathetic arrangements and consideration any technical difficulty which stood in the way might have been overcome. That, I think, was the view which was expressed by the noble Viscount. Of course, where there are technical difficulties it is extremely easy to make them a ground for refusing to proceed to settle matters of this kind by friendly or pacific means, but if the desire is present to get a pacific settlement and avoid the horrors and devastation of civil war it is generally possible to devise means by which a result of that kind can be brought about. Before I go into the matter in detail may I say one word about what was said in this House last night when the American proposal was discussed and approved? The basis of that proposal is that disputes should only be settled by pacific means. If you were to approach a question of this kind in that spirit, it appears to me that an immense amount of misery and poverty might be saved in China itself, and that there would be a chance—and that is what we desire above everything else in this country—of the recovery of the industrial position and comparative wealth of China (for China was never a wealthy country) which existed before this prolonged civil war.

There is one matter upon which I should like to say a word in order that there may be no confusion. I am sure the noble Lord will not desire to suggest that any Party approaches this question from other than the national standpoint. It has been suggested sometimes that all that was done in China was necessary for the protection of British citizens. So far as that is so I entirely agree with it. I have several times said in this House that in my view and in the view of the Party with which I act, it is the bounden duty of every Government to see that the rights, or at any rate the lives, of British citizens abroad should be protected and safeguarded. Upon that point no doubt what was said by the Foreign Secretary in another place is quite satisfactory. He said that in the Province of Shantung no injury, so far, had been done to any British citizen. I think he said that without any reservation. He went on to say that as regards the protection of members of our nationality in China there was ample provision as regards ships and men to see that they would be protected against any chance of injury. Of course, whilst civil war is going on the matter at times becomes difficult, but I am glad to think—to agree with him if I may put it in that way—that, so far as protection is concerned, everything has been done and there is no risk whatever.

There is one other point that I might mention in this connection. I hear a good deal from British missionaries in China, a magnificent body who have done splendid work. The other day, as your Lordships probably know, there was a great missonary conference at Jerusalem, the largest missionary conference that has ever been called together. A resolution was passed to the effect that missionaries in their missionary work, whatever risks of life and liberty they had to run, did not desire to invoke the assistance of armed force or of armed ships for their support, whatever the conditions might be. I think that they were quite right from the missionary standpoint, and that is, in fact, the only attitude that a Christian mission could fairly take up. Subject to that exception, if it is an exception, it is undoubtedly the duty of every Government to see that its citizens are fairly protected in their rights and interests in any foreign country.

A further point which arises on this question is an important one, as I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Cushendun, will recognise from the experience that he has already had at Geneva. An application, I understand, has been made to the Secretariat at Geneva, coming apparently—I will ask him to correct me if I am wrong—from the Nanking Government. Nanking at the present time represents what I may call the Southern Government in China. It may be that technically there is a difficulty in the way of the Secretariat entertaining that application and bringing it before the Council of the League, but if that application were backed by the authoritative opinion of the British Government and the British Empire, I have no doubt that any such technical difficulty would dissolve and disappear. These matters are not highly technical judicial projects, and if the Council had the Chinese representative present, and if, as would undoubtedly be the case, any inquiry would be wide enough to embrace the whole Chinese question, I put it to the noble Lord what an enormous advantage it would be as regards conditions in China, the industrial interests of this country and the prestige of the League itself.

I am glad to see that the noble Viscount, Lord Cecil of Chelwood, who knows more about Geneva than any one else in this House, is present. My own opinion is that, this application having been made and China being a Member of the League, as she is, and having her representative on the Council at the present time, then, with goodwill and a desire that this matter should be settled in a friendly and pacific manner, no technical difficulty need stand in the way. That is what I am going to suggest to the noble Lord, because this question of China is of enormous importance at the present moment. This application has been made to the League and has to be considered by the Secretariat and the Council of the League. What I want to ask the noble Lord, if he can give the House that information, is whether that application, whatever the technical difficulties, might not be supported in substance and in fact by the authoritative influence of the British Government. The noble Lord must know that that influence is very great indeed at Geneva, and quite properly so, and if it were exercised in that direction I believe that a settlement might be obtained. I do not want to enlarge upon the advantage of such a settlement because it is really self-evident.

The other two points to which I wanted to call the noble Lord's attention are really involved in the point that I have already mentioned. First of all, I was going to ask how far has the Southern Force now effectively advanced in the direction of Peking, and is it or is it not the fact that Chang Tso-lin has gone northward in the direction of Manchuria? It may be that this information has not yet come from the consuls. I read only what I find upon these matters in the Press, and each day I find a different outlook in the information supplied. Mean- while as I say, I hear from private sources, and I am asked: "Cannot England with her power do something to preserve us from the further miseries of the civil war which is going on at present, and will go on until it can be brought to an end, because it is supported largely by what is known as the Nationalist Party in China?"

There is one other matter which is really very relevant to the relations between the League and China, and upon which I should like to ask the noble Lord for any information that he has. I see it stated in the Press that the difficulties at Tsinanfu have largely been got over, that the administration has now been handed back into the hands of the Chinese as local administrators and that the Chinese are prepared to withdraw their troops and regard the matter as a local incident, subject, of course, to proper reparation that the Chinese Government may be called upon to make. That is a very important matter. While the conditions remain as they are, incidents of this kind may at any time arise and cause very far-reaching difficulty. It may be very difficult to solve these problems in the interests of this country or of China, but if this incident has passed by, and if the country between Peking and Canton should come in substance under one authority, although that authority must be weak at the start, then surely it is a time when the matter might be brought for pacific settlement before the League of Nations, which in a matter of this kind ought to have due authority. So long as a position of this kind goes on, as it has, year after year to the detriment of everyone, it is a standing menace to the power of administration which the League has at the present time. I do not wish to take up more of your Lordships' time at this period of the evening, but I do sincerely hope that the noble Lord, Lord Cushendun, may be able to hold out some hope for the Chinese and some prospect of a just and rapid settlement of these international disputes, by having them referred to the Council of the League at Geneva.


My Lords, it is only because my noble friend who has just spoken was good enough to make several references to myself, that I venture again to trouble you with a few observations. My noble friend is, of course, quite right in saying that two years ago, when the British Government decided, rightly as I thought, to send troops to Shanghai, they did state, not only through my mouth but otherwise, if I remember aright, a very strong view that if it were possible to transfer the whole of the dispute in China to the League of Nations, it would be a desirable thing to do. I have not by me the actual document, bit I have a very strong recollection that in the Despatch sent either to the Secretary-General, when we were explaining what we were doing in China, or possibly to the French Government, we expressed in very strong language that we should desire to raise no meticulous objections, but would be only too glad to get the matter transferred to an atmosphere where a real settlement could be arrived at.

That was certainly the policy of the Government at that time, and I venture to think it was certainly right, because undoubtedly the controversies and difficulties with China have gone on for years and years. Every device of diplomacy has been employee. There have been negotiations without end, proposals and counter-proposals. I am certainly far from criticising what has been done, but undoubtedly if you could get all the Powers—the Ambassadors or Ministers to China sitting in one room and the Chinese representatives in another room, or whatever may have been the actual procedure at Peking—if they could be got together at Geneva I think there would be a far better chance of a settlement than in any other way. That was the view of the Government at that time. The chief difficulties then—there were technical difficulties, as there still are—was that no party in China had expressed any wish for interference by the League, there had been no appeal from the recognised Government at Peking, and no suggestion by the Southerners that they desired the intervention of the League.

We were then the principal parties to the dispute—that particular phase of the dispute—and we were quite ready to discuss the matter at Geneva if the Chinese desired it, or if it was possible to do so. I imagine that that is still our attitude, but the situation has been to some extent changed, and I should be very grateful if my noble friend is in a position to give us further information as to the appeal from the Southern Government at Nanking, asking for League interference. The Southern Government at Nanking is a very important body at this moment. How important nobody can tell, because things change so rapidly in China, but apparently the Southerners are marching unopposed to Peking. When they get there they may possibly fall out among themselves, and we may have just the same sort of things in a new form: but it is possible that they will become the only Government in China. Then their appeal will become of greater importance still. In any case I should be very grateful if my noble friend is in a position to give us further information on the point, and if he can give us any assurance that His Majesty's Government still desire to see the matter brought into what has been called the "atmosphere of Geneva."

As my noble friend opposite knows quite well, it is possible for any member of the Council acting under the powers of Article 11, I imagine, to bring this matter before the League, but (I do not know at all) I should doubt myself whether that would be a very feasible or useful policy, unless you had some guarantee that when it came before the Council all the Chinese, the great mass of the Chinese, or some form of constitutional government in China, were prepared to accept and consider any decision come to. On that I have really no right to speak. No doubt the Government have far more information than any of us can have, but I venture to that extent to support what Lord Parmoor has said, that if there is any means of bringing this matter within the cognisance of the League I hope and trust and believe that His Majesty's Government will make use of that means. I believe that it might be the means of reaching a settlement of this miserable state of affairs in China. I am confident that that is what we want and what everybody wants, for we have no kind of interest in one warring faction or the other; our only object is to see a peaceful and contented China.


My Lords, the question that the noble Lord opposite has raised is one of very great importance and interest, but one of very great difficulty, and difficulty which is more than a mere matter of technicalities, although the noble Lord appeared to think that there were no difficulties in the way except such as he described as mere technicalities.


I did not put it in that way. I said that there were technical difficulties.


I will not quarrel about definitions. There are very real and substantial difficulties and no doubt they have technical aspects as well as others. Both the noble Lord opposite and my noble friend Lord Cecil of Chelwood have said that they are anxious for an assurance that His Majesty's Government are prepared so far as possible to apply to this terrible state of affairs in China the machinery of the League of Nations, or to introduce what my noble friend described as the "atmosphere of Geneva." I absolutely agree with all that the noble Lord opposite said with regard to conditions in China—the welter of confusion and chaos, which is most harmful to our trade, although I do not know that that is the first consideration. It is far more than harmful to China herself, and when one gets any idea of the devastation committed by these enormous Armies, that are living always on the country and have, so far as I can gather, no organised system of supply, one wonders how the great Provinces which have been the field of this civil war for so long are able to subsist at all.

It then becomes a question of whether there is any possibility of restoring peace, which is what everybody wants. The noble Lord will not be surprised to hear that my right hon friend the Foreign Secretary, who, I think, has shown his complete loyalty to the League of Nations and his desire in every possible way to use it, has not allowed this state of affairs in China to go on up to the present moment without considering whether it was possible to introduce the League of Nations in some form or another; and a very considerable time ago, in a quite informal way—which was the only possible way—he did make inquiries with a view to ascertaining whether any suggestion in that direction would be acceptable or not, and he got absolutely no encouragement; quite the contrary. It was made clear that any proposal of that sort at the present time would not only meet with no success, but would probably add to the difficulties of the situation.

Can anything be done with regard to the League now? The difficulty is that there is no such thing as a Government of China. It is quite true that the Chairman of the Political Committee in Nanking has sent a telegram to the Secretary-General asking for the machinery of the League to be applied. It was here that the noble Lord spoke of technical difficulties which he thought might be swept away by the British Government giving their support—I suppose their prompt and immediate support—to that application from the Nanking Political Committee. Well, I am really not in a position to give the noble Lord any assurance on that point. I am not at all sure that we might not run the danger of playing the part of a bull in a china shop if we were to interfere in a matter of that sort without the very clearest right and the very clearest information as to the effect that would be produced. After all, the machinery of the League of Nations itself is clearly laid down. No appeal whatever has been made to His Majesty's Government. The proper procedure is to proceed under Article 11 when a nation applies. But before I go on I ought to point out that no nation has applied. So far as I know, there is nothing in the Covenant which enables an application of that sort to be made except by a Member of the League. China is a Member of the League, but the Nanking Political Committee is not a Member of the League. In so far as there is a Government of China at all I suppose it is still technically the Government at Peking. But that Government has not applied to the League.

Therefore you are met at the outset with this difficulty, that the machinery of the League of Nations, at any rate Article 11, is intended for dealing with belligerents. The first question you have to ask is: Are these Southern forces belligerents, or are they not? Is there a way by which the League of Nations—having received a telegram from a Political Committee which is not the Government of any country—can take any steps? I am not in a position to answer that. But, even if that difficulty were not there, it would not be the duty or, I submit, the right of any Government represented upon the Council to butt in immediately and volunteer their support to an application, even supposing that it had been made by a regular Government a Member of the League. The procedure is that the Secretary-General consults the Acting President of the Council and—I will not be dogmatic upon this point, because there have been very few precedents as yet to go upon—what I suppose would be the procedure is that the Secretary-General, consulting with the Acting President, would determine with him whether or not the machinery laid down in Article 11 should or should not be put into operation.


Might I interrupt, because we do not want to get at moss-purposes. In my reference to Article 11 I had in view this paragraph:— It is also declared to be the friendly right of each Member of the League"— each member of the League— to bring to the attention of the Assembly or of the Council any circumstances whatever affecting international relations which threatens to disturb international peace or the good understanding between nations upon which peace depends.


Exactly, that it the second paragraph of Article 11. But that is a different thing altogether. What my noble friend is implying apparently is that the British Government might act as a friendly nation. But what we are dealing with here is an actual application that has been made—not by us at all, and not by a Member of the League, and not dealing with international affairs. I see that the noble Lord, Lord Parmoor, shakes his head, and he may belittle a point of that sort as a mere technicality. But, after all, when you are dealing with matters of this importance you cannot altogether ignore technicalities.


I quite agree.


You have a clause in the Covenant which deals with international affairs, and I suppose the point of the noble Lord is that there is a local quarrel existing between the Nanking Political Committee on the one hand and the Japanese Government on the other, and that that constitutes an international quarrel. Well, in one sense it is perfectly true that it may, but, after all, Japan is a permanent Member of the Council, and I do not know what the attitude of the Japanese Government is, but it is quite clear that in a case of that sort you cannot treat it in such a rough and ready way as the words of the noble Lord would seem to imply. I do not think we have got any locus standi whatever at the present moment. I do not see how the situation may develop, but at the present moment it does not appear that the British Government have any locus standi to interfere in support of the application that has been made by this Nanking Committee. But the application has only been very recently made. The Government here have no information as to what the Secretary-General and the President may be intending to do. It is quite possible that they may take some action which would alter the situation, and enable the British Government at any rate to give an opinion, or an encouragement, or something of that sort, but for the moment that situation has not arisen. All that we know is that we have been told of the telegram that was sent to the Secretary-General, and there, for the moment at all events, I think we must be content to let the matter rest. I entirely share the view expressed by the noble Lord opposite, and if, by the machinery of the League of Nations, or by any other machinery, we can get over this frightful chaos in China, I am perfectly certain that His Majesty's Government would not be deterred by a technicality. They would seize any opportuity of being helpful that they could legitimately seize, if they saw it.

But when the noble Lord speaks about the Political Committee at Nanking possibly becoming the Government of China, there again it is quite impossible for me to prophesy, and I confess I do not even know enough about the conditions of the Southern forces to say whether I hope that will occur or not. At the present moment there are, as I understand the situation—and it is a very difficult one to follow—three main Armies under three different Generals who are invading the North of China from the South. Those three Generals, technically speaking, are all Commanders under the Government at Nanking. They are supposed to be taking their orders, if they have any orders—at any rate, the only technical position they have is that they are commanders carrying out the policy of the Government at Nanking. They are separated over a very extensive country. I do not think that any one of them will take orders from any other. One never knows what the relations between them may be from day to day, and so far as we are able to ascertain, though nominally allies they are really rivals, and at the present moment they appear to be engaged in a race to Peking. Which of them will get there first nobody quite knows, and what the result will be of one or other of them getting there no one can foretell.

If one or other of them manages to bring his troops within striking distance of Peking and occupies the capital it may possibly then be that he will succeed in establishing a Government or something in the nature of a Government for the whole of China. If so, and if he succeeds in establishing anything like a peaceful condition of affairs, the noble and learned Lord may depend upon it that any assistance or encouragement he might get from the British Government will not be withheld, if it points to a condition of that sort. On the other hand, it is not unlikely, if such a thing were to happen, that one of the other Generals would try immediately to oust him, and that we should merely have another invasion of Peking by another Army, from another quarter. When there is a state of chaos and confusion it really is impossible, with the experience we have had in the last few years of the instability of the military commanders themselves and the troops under their orders, to forecast in any way what the immediate future may bring forth.

The noble and learned Lord referred also to the question of the position of the Japanese at Tsinanfu. It is true that the Japanese have sent troops to Tsinanfu for the protection of their own nationals, just as we did, with the approval of everybody I think, to Shanghai. The Japanese Government have assured us and have assured the world that that is the limit of their intention, that it is entirely to protect the lives and property of their own nationals at Tsinanfu, that as soon as that has been accomplished they intend to withdraw their troops, and that they have absolutely no intention of any kind of interfering with the integrity or territorial independence of China. Therefore, it is, I think, quite a local operation. It is unfortunate that there was a clash between the Japanese and the Chinese there which resulted in some loss of life. I am afraid from the accounts that have reached us that, perhaps, rather terrible atrocities were committed. Such things will happen, unfortunately, in wars of this sort. At all events it has been successfully localised, and to that extent it is, of course, a matter for congratulation. But the advent of the Japanese at Tsinanfu naturally has interfered to some extent with the northward march of one, at any rate, of the Armies coming from the South. Whether that will have an effect on the race between these different Generals I would not like to say; but that is the position of affairs.

The noble and learned Lord expressed interest in the position of Chang Tso-lin, and asked me whether I could say where he was. I am not sure that, I know exactly where Chang Tso-lin is at this moment, but the noble and learned Lord has probably seen in the Press a rather remarkable manifesto which Chang Tso-lin issued only a few days ago, in which he called upon his troops not to fight any more. Whether this is a Chinese manner of suggesting a general peace all round I really do not know. At all events, up to the present it does not seem to have produced very much response from anybody. Apparently, as far as we can gather, there are two parties advising Chang Tso-lin, one of them being in favour of defending Peking and the other advising him to continue his retreat into Manchuria. The latter advice seems to have carried the day with him, and I fancy that Chang Tso-lin and probably the bulk of his troops have either already withdrawn to the north or are preparing to do so. At all events we have evidence of a very considerable withdrawal of guns and material. I am afraid that is all I can tell the noble and learned Lord. This is not official, but he may have observed in The Times of this morning that his troops have withdrawn from Northern Shansi to the Nankow Pass.




That Pass is about 30 miles west of Peking. South of that he holds the Hankow railway as far as Paotingfu, which is about 80 miles south of Peking. His troops hold a position at Tsangehow which is 60 miles south of Tientsin, but the rear of these troops is threatened and they will probably have to retreat further. I am afraid I cannot pretend that this gives a very clear idea of the actual situation, although I studied it so far as I could on the map before coming down to address your Lordships on the subject. I realise that it reflects, to a certain extent, the confusion of the conditions which obtain out there. Unfortunately, that is not under our control, and I am afraid there is no further or more precise information which I am in a position to give to your Lordships.


My Lords, I thank the noble Lord sincerely for the very valuable information he has given and for what he said concerning the views of the Government as to pressing forward with the League any scheme, if I may use the expression, any practicable scheme in order to produce peace in distracted China. That, I think, is most satisfactory, and I thank him for what he has said. I do not want to press it at all unduly, because at the same time he stated frankly and clearly what the difficulties were. I only wish to add this. For three years or more—I think that was the time the noble Viscount stated—I very carefully considered this question of Article 11 of the League of the Covenant to which he referred. I do not put out of mind the difficulties, but I came to the conclusion then, and I think so now, that it may become at any time capable of immediate application. I am satisfied, after what the noble Lord has said, that if the Government see a chance of its being applied, they will do their best to see what can be done. I thank the noble Lord most sincerely and I hope that what he has said will be spread widely so that all the various interests at Geneva, all of whom ought to desire and I think do desire a Geneva atmosphere—a peace atmosphere—may do what is possible to bring about a settlement of these horrors in China.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.

House adjourned at ten minutes before seven o'clock.