Reinsch on the push for reform in China (1909)

In late 1909 the American political writer Paul S. Reinsch described the push for reform in China – and the enormous challenges confronting the Qing dynasty and reformists:

“The change which China is undergoing at present may be expressed by saying that Chinese society is becoming political. Hitherto it has lived from generation to generation by custom, with no consciousness of political aims or purposes; nor has the government itself been influenced in its action by definite policies. Secure in its authority, it has selected its servants on the basis of examination tests, reinforced by such favour as promising candidates might be able to obtain through douceurs of various kinds.

Now, all of a sudden, the political impulse is strongly awakening in the breast of the Chinese people. They see before them the nations which are consciously guiding their policy from the point of view of national life and national interests. It will no longer do to drift, to let customs take care of themselves, to deal with foreign nations from day to day in compromises, which never go to the root of a policy, but simply gloss over the difficulties of the moment. The intellectual and responsible among the Chinese people are feeling a deep need for a conscious expression of national policy, and for the use of careful reason and long-headed foresight, as well as calm firmness, in the management of their national affairs.

The impulse came from [outside China]. Chinese self complacency suffered a rude shock in the Japanese War of 1894. On account of the lack of centralisation and of a common patriotism, this shock would probably have remained without a deep influence upon Chinese life had it not been followed by other and more serious catastrophes. It was, however, the signal for inroads upon China by all sorts of political and economic influences from without. The division of China impended. The masses of the people, at first vaguely restless, were soon deeply moved by fears and passions akin to panic… So they rushed headlong into new trouble by attacking the foreigners and their legations…

The question was how to escape from this humiliating condition… The task of reform before the government was, indeed, an appalling one. To transform the easy-going system of administration, under which the Empire had lived for centuries in time of peace and in the absence of all foreign competition, into a centralised, modern engine of national action, is in itself an undertaking that calls for the greatest originality and statesmanship…

The last three years have been full of nervous action and reaction. Attempts to arrive at clear ideas with respect to great questions of policy have been interrupted again and again by personal controversy, court intrigues, and the panicky fear of revolutionary movements. The forces which the government has to deal with are complex in the extreme. The imperial clan itself, being non-Chinese, must avoid the appearance of following a mere family or clan policy… The government, acting through its high Chinese and Manchu officials, has to deal, further, with all the interests, desires, and tendencies among the 400 million people of the 18 provinces and of the dependencies. That the desire for a unified national life and for an effective expression thereof has become so strong that resistance to it would invite revolution, is fully recognised – but, as elsewhere, the people is composed of many elements, discordant and confused in their aims and ideas.”