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Walter LaFeber : The Boxer Rebellion

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Walter LaFeber The Boxer Rebellion erupted in China in late 1899 and really reached a peak in the early part of 1900. The Boxers came from the north of China. They were largely peasants. About 70 percent of all the Boxers were peasants, it seems like. And they particularly were concerned about the westernization of their land. They targeted western railroad entrepreneurs. They targeted foreign missionaries. The Boxers actually had, as many Chinese had, great doubts about railroads. They weren't sure that they wanted railroads and one of the reasons they did not want railroads is because they identified railroads with westernization and they weren't sure they wanted westernization. As a consequence, by the early part of 1900, the Boxers have killed a number of foreign missionaries. They are beginning to kill engineers, foreign engineers, foreign business people, and they begin to move out of the north and in the spring of 1900 this mass movement this mass Chinese revolutionary movement is targeting Beijing, the capital of China, and particularly the foreign compound in Beijing where all of the foreign diplomats and many of the foreign business people live and in the early summer of 1900 they lay siege to this foreign compound. And everyone understands that if this siege succeed, that they are probably going to massacre all of the foreigners that they can get their hands on. It's a very dramatic moment in the United States in the summer of 1900, because for a period of weeks in July and early August the McKinley Administration lost touch with the US minister in China, a man named Edwin Conger, and as a consequence, we didn't know whether the Americans, including our top diplomatic representative there, was alive or whether they were dead. In the early part of August of 1900 we finally got a telegraph message through and Conger responded. The Secretary of State, John Hay, was so surprised that he thought that the Chinese were trying to fool him and so Hay cabled back to Conger "Tell me what your sister's name is." And Conger responded, "My sister's name is Alta." And at that point Hay said he knew that Conger was safe and Alta became one of the most popular names in America in the summer of 1900.

In the summer of 1900, as the Boxers are besieging the foreign ligation in Beijing and threatening to kill all of the foreigners they can get their hands on, McKinley has to make a historic decision. And the decision is whether or not to send US troops out of Manila and onto the mainland of Asia. Obviously, American troops had never fought in this theater before and what McKinley does is not only order the troops onto the Asian mainland to fight in China, but he does it without consulting anyone. He essentially goes to war without asking Congress anything about it. He uses his commander-in-chief powers and it becomes a very important point historic precedent, the kind of precedent that later American Presidents will use to order American troops around the world. So American troops are now on the China mainland fighting with other imperial powers. We have never been able to figure out exactly what the command structure of this was. It was so complex. But in the end, the foreign forces won simply because there were 20,000 of them, they had overwhelming power, particularly fire power, and they were absolutely brutal in the way that they used it. There are now vivid pictures of the Boxers rebels who were captured being decapitated with their heads put on poles outside the ligations. So that the Chinese would get the idea that they were never to try this again. McKinley participated fully in this. He understood that unless the United States became involved in this intervention, that the other powers would do what they wanted to do in China. And McKinley found that intolerable. He believed that we had a role in China, that, indeed, we had a destiny in China, that we had to keep China whole, and he was willing to commit American forces so that he could preserve the China market for American goods and for American missionaries.

When McKinley ordered the American troops into China in the summer of 1900, he found himself and he found American soldiers marching shoulder to shoulder with the Germans and Japanese and French and -- and British troops. These troops had been involved in China for a long time. They had their own agenda. Their agenda was to carve up China, colonize parts of China, to make sure that they had parts of China that they would have a secure market for the selling of their goods. McKinley wanted something quite different. He wanted a whole China for American interest, but he, nevertheless, had to associate himself with the devil. And the Chinese people were very quick to conclude that there were no difference among the barbarians, that the Americans were the same, they were fighting alongside these other imperial powers. And, as a result, when the Manchu Dynasty joined with the Boxers, when the Chinese government joined with the Boxers the United States found itself at war and the Chinese declared war against the United States just as they declared war against the European powers. They saw no difference.

The outcome of the Boxer Rebellion is in a short term the United States and the other imperial powers won and beat back the Boxers and massacred a number of the Boxers. In the long term, we can now see that it was the beginning of the Chinese Revolution, that the Chinese saw this as something that they would have to organize themselves to defend against. If you go to Beijing now, this is not called the Boxer Rebellion. What happened in 1900 is called the Foreign Intervention. And the Chinese are very quick to tell you that one of the reasons for the Chinese Revolution and the anti-foreignism in the Chinese Revolution that erupted within the next 20 years in China was in large part the result of the foreign brutalities, the foreign missionaries, the foreign industrial entrepreneurs who moved into China in the wake of the Boxers and who essentially tried to act as if nothing had happened. Quite clearly, something very profound had happened in China. What had happened had been that the Chinese for the first time had been able to organize themselves in a way and on a military level to drive back foreign influences. In the end they didn't succeed, but they had shown that it could be done. And, as a result, the Boxer Rebellion now is looked at as the beginning of this long Chinese Revolution that finally climaxed in 1949.

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