China's Loss of Sovereignty in Manchuria 1895 - 1914

by James Graham

Published: May, 2004

Manchuria between the years 1895 and 1914 was under greater foreign control than any other major part of China. Russia and Japan competed fiercely to achieve this control, creating spheres of influence at China's expense and at each other's. The destructive Russo-Japanese War convinced the two powers of the need to work together and to exclude the Chinese from exercising real power over Manchuria. Chinese officials tried hard to block their advances with little success and only inter-power rivalry buttressed by Chinese settlement of the area saved Manchuria from annexation.


Excepting the 1858/1860 Russian Treaties, which cut deeply into 'Greater Manchuria' China had been relatively successful in restricting foreign activity to its coastal regions, treaty ports and parts of its tribute world. Japan's victory in the 1884-1895 Sino-Japanese War laid bare China's weakness and significantly altered this situation. Fought partly in Manchuria, this war left Japan in control of large stretches of Chinese territory. Soundly defeated, China was in no position to prevent Japan retaining possession of the Liaotung Peninsula. Her only option to maintain her sovereignty over the area was to lobby the foreign powers for support. That Russia, France and Germany did intervene by demanding a Japanese withdrawal from the area, via the Triple Intervention only ten days after the Sino-Japanese peace treaty was signed however had little to do with China's pleas. Russia the intervention's main driver wished to make Peking favourable to future demands including control of the peninsula herself. Germany wished to draw Russia's attention to its east and away from itself and France simply felt obligated to support Russia, its alliance partner. All three also agreed on the danger the Yellow Peril presented for European interests in the region. Each power thus intervened for its own reasons and it was nothing but good fortune that ensured China retained control of the Liaotung Peninsula in 1895.

Russia was not slow in extracting payment for forcing the Japanese out of Manchuria. The Li-Lobanov Treaty signed between China and Russia on June 3 1896 allowed Russia to significantly increase its presence in the area. It allowed the use of Chinese ports by Russia in the case of war and China's consent to the construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway across Manchuria. The railway nominally a joint project between the Chinese government and the Russo-Chinese Bank was financed and completely controlled by Russia. Thus while China could name the president, real control lay with the Russian general manager. The line's political motivation is evident in that over the land it was constructed on the company would have absolute and exclusive right of administration. Nor was China allowed to interfere with Russian troop movements or munitions and also had to grant Russia decreased tariff rates. Russia's other major demand was delivered in true gunboat diplomacy fashion by a naval fleet in December 1897. China after delaying for three months was forced to lease the southern tip of the Liaotung Peninsula to Russia and allow a railway line to be built connecting it to the main Russian line. Combined with the previous concessions this was a major lose of sovereignty for China. That China negotiated for the time a relatively short lease of 25 years was seen as a victory is a reflection of China's lack of bargaining strength. The Triple Intervention, while helpful for China in the short run, resulted in it losing a greater amount of sovereignty in Manchuria over the long run.

Construction of the Russian railroads played a part in fermenting the anti-foreign anger that was crucial in involving Manchuria in the Boxer rebellion of 1900. Boxers were religious anti-foreign societies. While the movement spread to only parts of China it was widespread in Manchuria where it became mixed up with a general Chinese anti-foreignness. Combined with the Qing court's decision on June 21 1900 to declare war on the foreign powers, the general population of Manchuria felt free to vent their anger at the Russians. This included attacks on both the Russian controlled railway construction sites and attacks on Russian civilians and businesses more generally. The worst anti-Russian violence occurred after Russia signalled its intention on July 19 1900 to invade Manchuria, an occupation it achieved by October that year through the use of 100,000 troops. It took the Anglo-Japanese agreement of February 1902 to force Russia into agreeing to withdraw them via the Manchurian evacuation agreement with China of April 8 1902. The withdrawal was only ever partially completed with an estimated 37,000-85,000 troops and railway guards remaining until Russian-Japanese tensions over their continued presence necessitated their rapid increase. For the period 1900-1904 Manchuria was under the military control of Russia.

Military control did not equate to complete Russian control of Manchuria. Foreign and especially Japanese, pressure on Russia prevented her from annexing Manchuria or turning it into a more effective puppet state. Perhaps more importantly Russia simply lacked enough skilled personnel to rule Manchuria by itself and was especially deficient in trained translators. Chinese officials were thus invited back into the area and continued to administer a large amount of the Chinese population. This included the collection of taxation though Russian tax collectors always took priority. These officials were still under Imperial control and did their best to undermine Russia's influence. They were however crippled by the Russian army and lack of adequate force. Thus even during the Russian military occupation Manchuria was administered in part by the Chinese.

The Russo-Japanese War occurred for and on Chinese territory, a very vivid example of how much sovereignty China had lost over Manchuria. China unsure who would win took the wisest option and remained strictly neutral during the war. The same can not be said for the Chinese citizens of Manchuria who suffered all the deprivations and dislocations a war brings to the surrounding population. Crops and buildings were destroyed, movements restricted and peasants shot by Russians convinced they were Japanese. Against this only the increased demand for Chinese labour and goods can be set. Between February 1904 and September 1905 war raged in Manchuria with the entire region either an area of hostilities or a rear area diverted to support the armies. China was not even a participant in the Portsmouth peace conference that concluded the war. The peace agreement provided for the transfer of all Russian rights in south Manchuria, the South Manchurian Railway and the Liaotung lease to Japan. Significantly both armies were required to withdraw but had eighteen months to do so. During this period Manchuria remained under effective foreign military rule. American president Roosevelt was instrumental in achieving the peace and argued for the return of Manchuria to China and for a balance of power to continue in East Asia. His motivation was to defend the open door of China a policy heavily supported by China itself. The Russo-Japanese War convinced Russia and Japan of the futility of working against each other in Manchuria and dragged the US into active participation in China's affairs.

China's Loss of Sovereignty in Manchuria 1895 - 1914

China's Loss of Sovereignty in Manchuria (Part 2)
China's Loss of Sovereignty in Manchuria (Bibliography)