Imperialism To The Rescue? United States infantry storm the walls of Beijing as part of the Eight Nation Alliance's successful attempt to put down the "rebellion" of Boxer terrorists and restore "civilised values" to the benighted people of China. But, the actions of the imperialist powers in 1900 are regarded very differently with the hindsight of 115 years. How shall the West's imminent actions in the Middle East be judged in 2130?
IT WAS CALLED “The Eight Nation Alliance” and it had but one purpose: to punish the Chinese people. In 1899, the Shandong peasantry had resolved to drive all “foreign devils” out of their country, rising in their thousands under the leadership of a secret society known as the Brotherhood of Righteous and Harmonious Fists. The British, with characteristic disdain, referred to these patriots as “Boxers”, and dubbed their uprising the “Boxer Rebellion”.
By 1900 the Boxers were close to achieving their goal. They had shamed the Empress Dowager, Cixi, into supporting their movement and with the assistance of the Chinese army had the “foreign devils” bottled up in Beijing’s diplomatic quarter.
It was the unthinkable prospect of these legations being over-run, and their terrified inhabitants slaughtered, that persuaded the world’s leading imperialists: Great Britain, France, Russia, Germany, the USA, Austria-Hungary, Italy and Japan; to announce the formation of a joint force to lift the siege and restore the status quo ante.
The German Kaiser, Wilhelm II, felt obliged to mark the departure of his own nation’s contingent with a speech. If you ever wondered why, in both world wars, the German’s were referred to as “The Hun” – wonder no more:
“Should you encounter the enemy,” said the Kaiser, “he will be defeated! No quarter will be given! Prisoners will not be taken! Whoever falls into your hands is forfeited. Just as a thousand years ago the Huns under their King Attila made a name for themselves, one that even today makes them seem mighty in history and legend, may the name German be affirmed by you in such a way in China that no Chinese will ever again dare to look cross-eyed at a German.”
Confronting the Yellow Peril: The Christian West is enjoined by the archangel Michael to strike down the Asiatic threat from the East.
Needless to say, the Eight Nation Alliance – whose forces numbered in excess of 45,000 soldiers and marines – made short work of the poorly armed and inadequately led Chinese forces. Beijing was sacked and the Forbidden City ransacked of its treasures.
Never again would the imperial powers of Europe and Japan go to war alongside – as opposed to against – one another. Just 15 years after the subjugation of China, the members of the Eight Nation Alliance were tearing themselves to pieces in the First World War.
Of course, had you been reading the newspapers of the period, the foreign intervention in China would have seemed entirely reasonable. In an era when the Christian churches of the West were filled-to-bursting every Sunday, the stories of Christian missionary families being beheaded, burned alive, raped and even crucified by the brutal Boxer mobs, left Europeans feeling stunned and sickened.
These were not civilised people to be reasoned with. Indeed, the suicidal tactics of the Boxer “rebels” – many of them armed only with swords and spears – charging headlong into the murderous fire of the allies’ Maxim guns (an early type of machine-gun) struck the “reasonable men” of 1900 as the very antithesis of civilisation. In their ears, the bombastic racism of Kaiser Wilhelm did not sound nearly so shocking as it does in our own.
Perhaps the leaders of the world’s great powers should pause to contemplate the difference 115 years can make to way people interpret the behaviour of their forebears. In the minds of Presidents Hollande and Putin, the case for bringing together another Eight Nation Alliance to crush the barbaric Islamic State no doubt seems as strong as the arguments for punishing the murderous Boxers and their treacherous Empress Dowager, Cixi.
That the egregious behaviour of the imperial powers made such an uprising inevitable would have been dismissed by the political leaders of 1900 as an outrageous slur. The British Government’s open support for the 19th Century opium trade, and its callous indifference to the enormous suffering it inflicted on the Chinese people, went largely unremarked. With the benefit of 115 years hindsight, however, Britain’s culpability is as obvious as it is detestable.
How shall our own generation of political and military leaders appear from the perspective of 115 years in the future? Given the West’s numerous interventions in Middle Eastern affairs since World War II, will the atrocities committed by Islamic State strike our great grandchildren as any more worthy of historical condemnation than the atrocities of the Boxers?
As China is today, so may the Islamic world be in 2130. What will its judgement be?
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 20 November 2015.