The Boxer Protocol 1901.


On the 14th August 1900, the Western allies entered the capital of China, Beijing, after almost eight weeks of fighting between foreign troops and volunteers and China’s regular government forces under Dong Fuxiang and Ronglu. The role of the Boxers in Sino-foreign relations had by this time reduced as many abandoned the battle to return to their normal lives. The next morning, the Empress Dowager and other high court officials fled west. Following the Relief of the Legations, the foreign powers set about punishing China. In the eyes of the West, the Chinese court and nation would have to pay and they would ensure it was a heavy penalty. This saw the emergence of a struggle, not only between China and the powers, but among the powers themselves as the emphasis shifted towards matters of diplomacy. The West showed little remorse towards beleaguered China in their agreed punishment. They were determined to ‘re-order’ China and gain revenge for the ‘barbaric’ atrocities committed by the Boxers on the foreign presence and contrived by the Manchu imperial court. The terms which the Chinese were forced to comply with were finally signed under the protocol of 7 September 1901.

The negotiations for a settlement to the Boxer War began almost as soon as the foreigners began to occupy Beijing. The city was divided into sectors. From the outset this was for policy purposes while in reality it represented a solution to international rivalry. (1) The central theme of the discussions among the foreign diplomats appeared to be the most appropriate way to deal with China. Nevertheless, the powers were very suspicious of each other and this proved to be a dominant underlying theme throughout the discussions as each looked to protect their individual interests. Russia on one hand had seen the victory as an opportunity to seize Manchuria and had therefore been opposed to any involvement in the operation to relieve the legations as Count Witte (Russian Finance Minister) believed the Empress Dowager would not negotiate if Beijing was occupied. Germany, on the other hand, under Kaiser Wilhelm took a much harsher line against the Chinese. As a result, when Russia achieved the sudden and successful Relief of the Legations without German participation, the Kaiser was disappointed. (2) To counteract the Russian threat Germany turned to Great Britain with the objective of maintaining the ‘Open Door’ policy to prevent any one power becoming too dominant. This was upheld in the end for that reason, but did check Britain’s objective of becoming established in the Yangtze basin. Such discrepancies between the objectives of the powers were therefore fairly evident and presented themselves again when they tried to agree the terms of the settlement. Some countries such as Germany and Great Britain favoured stiff penalties whereas Japan, Russia and the United States were more inclined to be gentler to maintain their assets in China. (3)

In extension of these underlying currents, members of the western negotiating body were also concerned with whether they were dealing with suitable representatives from the imperial court, keeping the affair within the constraints of international law and the most efficient way of collecting any indemnities. Overriding these was the central concern of how best to treat Chinese sovereignty. Central to addressing this problem was the place China held in the consciences of westerners. It had often been characterised as formerly a great civilisation, which could be embraced into the family of nations, while others feared the characteristics of the population perceived through the actions of the Boxers. Nevertheless, only under the co-operation of a legitimate sovereign monarch could foreign rights and aspirations be satisfied, the law be challenged and further disorder be avoided. However, this presented a problem because the Chinese emperor did not fulfil the western ideal and therefore relations were always problematic. In the eyes of the west, the emperor had to be restored and refashioned i.e. re-constituted as a monarch, equal to others, but at the same time bow to western demands. In essence, the west wished China would conform to western diplomatic pressure and to do so would have to adjust to western practices and provide an organisation to implement the terms of the treaty. The terms of the treaty were such that the west was in fact able to forge a new order in China.

After almost one year of wrangling among the foreign powers and with the Chinese government, the final terms imposed on China were incorporated in a protocol signed by two Chinese plenipotentiaries and eleven foreign ministers in Beijing, 7 September 1901. In the end, the result was a foregone conclusion, the West were always going to have their own way since they occupied Beijing. It comprised of twelve articles. The most intense negotiations were over how to treat the so-called ‘pro-Boxer’ officials. It demanded severe punishment of the leading Chinese officials in the episode: the execution of Yuxian, other high court officials such as Prince Zhuang were to die by suicide and Prince Duan would spend the rest of his life in exile in Xinjiang. In addition, missions were to be sent to Japan and Germany to convey regrets for the deaths of Sugiyama and von Ketteler respectively. Monuments were also to be constructed not only marking the location of the German minister’s death but also in areas where foreigners had perished or been maltreated.

The powers also enforced the prohibition of the importation of arms and ammunition for two years, the destruction of forts such as Dagu, foreign occupation of specified points between Beijing and the coast and an enlarged legation guard was to be stationed in the capital. All such measures were to ensure the future safety of the powers against the Chinese but also represented an infringement on China’s own national security. Finally, a huge indemnity bill was placed on China. It amounted 450 million taels to be paid over thirty-nine years with interest and was a huge burden on the already depleted Chinese resources.

The terms of the protocol resulted in alterations to the Manchu-Chinese imperial court and represented an assault on imperial sovereignty which contributed to the demise of Qing Kingship. In fact, the conservative policies which reversed the 1898 reforms were completely discredited. To ensure the terms of the settlement could be guaranteed within international law, the West created a new foreign office higher than any other in Chinese government. Perhaps more significantly, the imperial court ceremonial was re-organised to bring it into line with European methods. This had the effect of raising the emperor from his lowered position to one fulfilling the role of a monarch representing the sovereignty of China. Nevertheless, this monarch created by the Western diplomats was hardly on a par with his Western counterparts.

Of perhaps greater significance than the effect on Chinese politics was the disastrous impact the treaty had on China’s reputation. The terms of the protocol, being so harsh, made it clear that China was ‘responsible’ for the Boxer War. Manchu princes and the superstitious, ill-disciplined peasants were targeted as the main villains. Indeed, it seemed strange that many of the terms imposed on China by the Powers appeared to be aimed at harming a sovereignty which was already in chaos. It was as if they directed their actions against a fantasy of emperorship, i.e. if Qianlong was in power rather than the helpless Guangxu. In other words, the reason for their very presence in Beijing was because there was no emperor.

The impact on the Chinese government and the population at large cannot be understated. The indemnity proved to have a crippling effect on China’s finance resources. The indemnity of 450 million taels represented over four times the annual revenue of the Beijing government and with an annual interest rate of 4 per cent, amounted to about one fifth of the national budget. (4) It increased the grip of the foreign powers over China’s resources (5) and in doing so, restricted the Qing’s own political power. This added to the weaknesses of the Qing already visible to the world after the poor performance of the Chinese military during the war of 1900, the cowardly escape from the legations by the court once the foreigners arrived and perhaps most importantly, the humiliating and unequal settlement terms forced on China by the foreign presence (6), who were, after all, imposing on Chinese soil.

Although the protocol hindered China’s economic progress and disrupted the political structure, the penalties imposed on them did pave the way for future reform. (7) The obvious incompetence of the Qing dynasty encouraged the reformers and revolutionaries of Chinese society to act. The court also embarked on a program of reform which reshaped the environment of Chinese politics. The Qing’s search for new revenues to satisfy the terms of the indemnity helped lay foundations for the modern state. There were further dramatic reforms during the last decade of the Qing dynasty. The examination system was abolished and replaced by new schools, industry and mining were encouraged, military and administrative advances were made and a programme was established for the transition to constitutional monarchy and self-government. However, although advances were made in Chinese politics, the Qing dynasty itself could not survive the changes and was replaced in the revolution of 1911 after 260 years of rule.

The Protocol of 1901 represented the final chapter in the Boxer episode. The event had impact on both a domestic and international level. It represented the culmination of forty years of foreign onslaught whereby the western nations had chipped away at imperial sovereignty. This was coupled with the decline of Manchu kingship, again as a direct result of internal challenges and foreign encroachment. Levels of sovereignty, which had existed under Kangxi, Yongzheng or Qianlong emperors had already, began to demise. The foreign powers contributed to this rather than cause it. . The Western re-organisation of the imperial court imposed the western view of sovereignty onto China. To some, the Boxer movement represented the intensity of Chinese resentment of the foreign presence, military invasions forcefully opened ports of trade and established foreign concessions on Chinese soil, treaties controlled tariff duties and ‘spheres of influence’ appeared to sub-divide the nation. Such xenophobia was seen to have contributed to the emergence of Chinese nationalism. This ended the possibility that China would be ‘carved up’ among the foreigners who instead had to settle for keeping the ‘Open Door’ policy giving all powers equal access to China’s resources and markets. China had survived the foreign onslaught, although at a price.

1 L K Young British Policy in China 1895-1902 p.192

2 V Purcell The Boxer Uprising: A Background Study p.259

3 V Purcell The Boxer Uprising: A Background Study p.259

4 J W Esherick The Origins of the Boxer Uprising p.311

5 PA Cohen History in Three Keys: The Boxers as Event, Experience and Myth p.56

6 PA Cohen History in Three Keys: The Boxers as Event, Experience and Myth p.56

7 PA Cohen History in Three Keys: The Boxers as Event, Experience and Myth p.56