Thursday, April 8, 2010

The Bonds That Sparked the Chinese Revolution - Part Four

Prelude to Revolution: Until this point, opposition to foreign control of China’s railroads and mines had come from two sources with different aims and motives: a popular revolutionary movement, and the more organized “Rights Recovery Movement” promoted by gentry, merchants, landowners and officials. The revolutionaries wanted nothing less than the overthrow of the Manchu dynasty; to them the government’s surrender of rights to foreign governments and companies was just one of many objectionable policies. In contrast, the Rights Recovery Movement focused on foreign control of the mines and railroads, which it opposed primarily because it coveted that control for itself; it was essentially conservative and had no intention of overthrowing the Manchu government, on which it depended for the privileges it already enjoyed as well as those it hoped to gain.

After the abrogation of their Hukuang Railway contracts, though, the infuriated gentry fomented anti-government protests in Szechuan. As summarized by Woodhouse (2004),
  • [The gentry-merchants power group] demanded the cancellation of the Hukuang Loan contract. The provincial government supported this demand, for the provincial assembly was often made up of the local ruling class. The central government tried to pacify these groups without success. It proposed to exchange its railway shares for interest-earning government bonds, for the people in Hupeh and Hunan provinces. For the Szechuanese, however, it offered to redeem the sums spent solely for railway purposes rather than the sums actually subscribed. It was believed that such a policy was taken because Sheng Hsuan-huai[ ] had invested significantly in bonds in Hupeh and Hunan provinces but none in Szechuan province. The outraged Szechuanese groups protested that the government intended to sell Szechuan to the foreigners... The local ruling class mobilized students, workers and peasants into their “patriotic” protest. On 5 August 1911 the Szechuanese banded together and convened the Defend Railways League, declaring their defiance of the Hukuang Railway Loan contract... By mid-September, the protest took the form of rioting and street fighting, and the revolt quickly spread throughout the province.
Even so, the Szechuan uprising is not considered by historians to have been anti-dynastic in motive. The revolution is traditionally considered to have begun, not with the uprising in Szechuan, but with a coup at the Imperial Army garrison at Wuchang on October 10, 1911.

The Revolution Begins by Accident: Wuchang, directly across the Yangtze from Hankow, was the nearest garrison to Szechuan, and two regiments had been sent from there to suppress the uprising. In their absence, the revolution began by accident. The Hankow/Wuchang region was a hotbed of revolutionary activity, and with the garrison depleted, plans for an uprising were accelerated. A significant percentage of China’s New Army harbored revolutionary sentiments, especially at Wuchang, where potential rebels numbered an estimated one-fourth to one-third of the troops, and many had joined revolutionary secret societies. On October 9, 1911, a rebel bomb maker secreted within the Russian quarter at Hankow accidentally exploded one of his products. The ensuing police investigation uncovered a cache of incriminating evidence, and within hours three revolutionary leaders were arrested and executed. Among the materials found was a membership list of the Literary Society, whose innocent name belied subversive goals, which included soldiers at Wuchang. Alerted to their impending arrest and probable execution, they staged a successful coup the following day, taking the garrison and the city. The revolt spread rapidly; by October 16 the Prince Regent had proclaimed the abdication of the boy emperor from the throne, and within six weeks, fifteen provinces had seceded.

Tilting at Windmills
: The government of the new Chinese Republic pledged in 1912 to honor the debts of its imperial predecessor, and a succession of subsequent governments made similar guarantees, with foreign loans always a high priority. In 1921 the Chinese government declared bankruptcy, and began defaulting on its loans, but interest on the Hukuang Railway bonds was paid until 1938, when Japanese invasion intervened. The government of the People’s Republic of China repudiated all such debts in 1949, but numerous lawsuits have been brought against it and the government of the Republic of China seeking redemption of various bonds. A quixotic 2005 judgment in a New York court, factoring in the stratospheric increase in the price of gold, placed the then-current value of a 1913 £100 gold bond at $27.75 million!

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From: "The Bonds That Sparked the Chinese Revolution" by Michael Mahler.

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