China’s defeats in the so-called Opium Wars brought on the unequal treaty system. Its main features, extraterritoriality and the 5 percent ad valorem tariff, clearly reflected imperialist imposition on China’s integrity and the decline of the Qing dynasty. Still, led by Great Britain, and perhaps best symbolized by Sir Robert Hart and the China Maritime Customs Service, these efforts led to an informal empire, China’s semi-colonial status, and rule, in a way, by missionaries and merchants, defended when necessary by military force.
Toward the end of the nineteenth century the situation changed greatly. In 1884-1885, France easily defeated China and took control of Indochina, a peripheral part of the traditional empire. Matters worsened when, in 1894-1895, Japan equally easily defeated Qing forces and demanded a series of territorial concessions including the island of Formosa, the nearby Pescadore Islands, Korea, and the Liaotung Peninsula in southern Manchuria.
The ”triple intervention” in which France and Germany joined with Russia temporarily halted Japanese expansion onto the Asian mainland. Russia demanded a reward for keeping Japan from taking southern Manchuria, and used construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway to gain approval for a shortcut across Manchuria. This shortcut, the Chinese Eastern Railway, saved 1,036 square kilometers (400 square miles) on the 12,949-square-kilometer (5,000-square-mile) trip from Moscow to Vladivostok, and became a vehicle for Russian expansion into Manchuria. Similarly, Germany demanded a concession in eastern Shandong. France also used railway construction to move from Indochina into the Chinese provinces, Yunnan and Guangxi, along the border. Japan sought control over Fujian and Zhejiang provinces that faced Formosa across the Taiwan Straits. And Great Britain, not wanting to lose out as its informal empire gradually collapsed, sought control of Guangdong province adjacent to its leasehold in Hong Kong and Kowloon as well as territory along the lower Yangtze River.
Indeed, many Chinese feared that China would soon go the way of sub-Saharan Africa, and that the Middle Kingdom would disappear from world maps. This hatred of foreign imperialism and the Chinese who, in converting to Christianity, seemed to turn their back on tradition, led to the rise of a secret society, the Righteous and Harmonious Fists, the so-called Boxers that conservative elements of the Qing dynasty encouraged to throw off the foreign yoke. The resulting rebellion surged to Beijing in 1900 and besieged the foreign embassies and the Chinese Christian converts hiding in the legations; a relief expedition advanced to Beijing and rescued the besieged.
For the United States, the scramble for concessions was troubling. After the 1890s depression and America’s new empire after war with Spain and the annexation of the Hawaiian Islands, American business wanted markets for surplus production, and the China market was tempting. The U.S. secretary of state, John Hay, with encouragement from the British government, issued two ”Open Door” notes in which he called on the imperial powers not to cut China to pieces and not to incorporate those pieces into mercantile empires closed to American business. Most of the foreign powers ignored Hay, and the situation in China devolved as the Qing dynasty collapsed, and Yuan Shikai seized control and the world moved to World War I (1914-1918). Thereafter, in the 1920s and 1930s, Japan and China began to move down the road to war.