The Boxer Rebellion (or Uprising, depending on which terminology you use) is not considered politically-correct history. I certainly never learned about it in school. It is a fascinating story with many lessons for the present-day world, yet in the West it is regarded with a mixture of shame and embarrassment. After all, didn't we oppress the Chinese to the point where they rose up against us?
To summarise a complicated story, the Boxers were a secret society in China dedicated to throwing out the ‘Foreign Devils’ – the Westerners (and Japanese) who had attacked China, forced concessions out of the weak government and seemed bent on eventually carving up and partitioning up China between them. They believed that they had magic powers which could be used against the outsiders; more importantly, several members of the Chinese Government also believed them (and feared that the Boxers might become an anti-Manchu movement too.) In 1900, with China suffering under the combination of a drought and outside interference, they struck. A series of attacks on foreigners culminated in the siege of the foreign embassies in China’s capital, Peking (Beijing). To some extent, those attacks were aided and abetted by the government.
In response, the major Western powers (and Japan) put together a multi-national force, which marched into China and eventually saved the embassies before they could fall to the Chinese (which didn't stop newspapers at the time reporting that the embassies had fallen and printing obituaries for the various ambassadors). The force then rampaged through Peking, looted heavily and forced the Chinese to pay reparations for the uprising. In the long run, the Boxer Rebellion helped weaken the Chinese Government still further, to the point where it collapsed a few years later.
It is something of a mystery just how serious the Chinese Government was about the affair. On one hand, it would be hard to find a Chinese official who actually liked the Westerners; on the other, the balance of military power should have ensured the destruction of the embassies a long time before the relief force arrived in Peking. Is it possible that the Chinese Government, having realised that the Boxer claims to supernatural protection were bunk, decided to ensure that the Westerners were not wiped out? The destruction of the embassies would certainly have galvanised Westerners who wanted to divide China up between them, destroying the local government completely. In truth, we will probably never know.
Modern eyes tend to side with the Chinese in the affair. It is true that the West did force its way into China, which wished to remain isolated from the world. It is also true that the diplomats behaved very undiplomatically, that missionaries demanded special concessions for their Chinese converts and various Western powers took pieces of China to use as their own territory (such as Hong Kong.) To us, the whole affair seems very embarrassing, an case of shameless imperialism at its worst.
And yet it is also true that the Chinese behaved badly too. Chinese pretensions to being the sole source of global civilisation rang hollow in the ears of ambassadors who knew that the Chinese were no match, militarily speaking, for the West. Indeed, the Chinese Government was almost sickeningly ignorant of the outside world, addressing – at one point – Queen Victoria as a Barbarian Chieftain. Even when China’s back was to the wall, the Chinese Government continued to tell itself that the outsiders were merely coming to pay homage to the Son of Heaven, or that their armies could be beaten easily. China bears a large measure of responsibility for the poor relationship between her and the West.
But leaving that debate aside – because it can be argued both ways, suggesting that there is merit in both sides of the case – what are the lessons of the Boxer Rebellion?
First, trouble can seem to come out of nowhere. It is true that only a handful of foreigners (and perhaps Chinese officials) predicted the uprising, despite numerous signs of impending trouble. Hindsight is, of course, clearer than foresight; it’s easy to blame someone for missing signs that, in retrospect, seem clear. In modern times, who predicted either 9/11 or the Arab Spring?
Second, local governments might covertly support the rebels, fearing that otherwise they might turn against their own governments. In modern terms, we have Pakistan’s curious relationship with the Taliban and Pakistani extremists – and sizable sums of money flowing from the Gulf Oil States to various extremist factions. If there were a major anti-foreigner uprising in Saudi Arabia or Pakistan, which way would the local government jump?
Third, a display of weakness or irresolution can invite attack. Prior to the Boxer Rebellion, Italy made demands on China – which, in an unusual show of determination, the Chinese Government rejected. Firm and resolute actions might well have prevented the whole uprising from growing out of hand. In modern times, America’s hesitation in dealing with rogue governments merely encourages them to press further.
Fourth, resolute action can prevent a tragedy. The advance of Western forces (I believe) helped convince the local government not to allow the embassies to collapse. In modern times, the American failure to rescue the hostages in Iran – and, later, the delay in coming to the aid of Libyan rebels – only encouraged the enemies of civilisation.
It is said that those who do not learn from experience are condemned to repeat it. How right they are.
[Those interested in reading more about the Boxer Rebellion might wish to consult The Fists of Righteous Harmony: A History of the Boxer Uprising in China in the Year 1900 (Henry Keown-Boyd) and The Boxer Rebellion: The Dramatic Story of China's War on Foreigners that Shook the World in the Summer of 1900 (Diana Preston).]
There is a popular trope in military fiction (both general and SF) that tends to brand Ambassadors and Diplomats as cowards, traitors or simply idiots. The ‘Ass in Ambassador,’ as TV Tropes names it; the diplomats are the ones who talk, talk, talk and compromise, compromise, compromise ... seemingly unaware that they are giving away far too much for far too little. A typical example would be Reginald Houseman of David Weber’s The Honour of the Queen, whose effective ignorance of his own ignorance leads him to offend his hosts and threaten to damage relations between them and Houseman’s state. As one of the other characters points out, Houseman’s suggestion basically boils down to giving their hosts sworn enemies more economic muscle to beat them to death with.
From Houseman’s point of view, there was great merit in his suggestion. It did not, however, take into account the antagonism between the two worlds, or that both sides were not always capable of acting rationally – or, for that matter, that the enemy world was governed by fanatics who brutally oppressed anyone who didn't agree with them. Houseman was a caricature of the Ivy League Diplomat, merged with a hefty dose of ‘the know-it-all who doesn’t.’
This is not, sadly, averted in the real world. History is replete with examples of weak diplomacy leading to wars. Chamberlain of Britain was desperate to avoid war, so much so that he missed the bus when it came to fighting and winning a war (in 1936 or 1938) when it could have been won with minimal bloodshed. His problem, put simply, was that he failed to comprehend the true nature of Hitler’s regime. There would be war as long as Hitler was in power.
However, the diplomats have other problems. Their job is to maintain the lines of communication between their state and their host state. Offending their hosts gratuitously is a good way to damage relations (and, if they go too far) to end their careers. This is nicely illustrated by the FBI’s operations in Yemen, prior to 9/11, where the FBI team clashed constantly with the US Ambassador to the country. They saw themselves as investigators, digging out the truth; the ambassador saw them as clowns who knew little of local realities and would merely offend their hosts. In a sense, both the investigators and the ambassador were correct. Their objectives clashed quite badly.
A secondary problem lies in competition between diplomats and military men (in American terms, the State Department and the Pentagon.) Passing the buck to the Pentagon, for whatever reason, might make the State Department look like a failure. This led to problems when diplomats on the ground realised that certain problems were intractable, but their superiors were unwilling to press for military action. As weird as it seems, the State Department regarded the Pentagon as its natural enemy (and vice versa) rather than accepting that they had to work together. This makes perfect sense if you realise that they also compete for funding from the American Government.
A third problem lies in the fact that foreign governments often do not have the ability to do what the foreigners want, no matter how simple it seems. Saudi Arabia did not move against terrorists (and their funding networks) in Saudi after 9/11 because it would have risked considerable upheaval and civil unrest, perhaps even the fall of the House of Saud. The government was reluctant to commit suicide on America’s behalf. It was not until terrorists started striking within Saudi itself that the government found the nerve to take the offensive against them.
They also have interests of their own. Pakistan’s links to the Taliban are considered borderline treacherous by Americans, not without reason. The United States has, after all, supplied (and still supplies) Pakistan with billions of dollars worth of aid. However, the United States can simply withdraw from the region; the Pakistanis have to deal with the Taliban indefinitely. If extermination isn't an option, the Pakistani Government has to come to an accommodation with them. What choice do they have?
As I write these words, American Embassies in a number of countries are being closed in light of an undisclosed terrorist threat. As physical manifestations of American soil (legally, embassies are part of the country they represent), they are tempting targets for attack by anti-American factions. Nor can the United States always count on the host governments to provide protection, even though – legally – the protection of foreign embassies is the responsibility of the host government. (The governments that do take this seriously are not ones the United States has a problem with, although it is worth noting that the American Embassy in Moscow was never attacked.)
This is a wise precaution. Ever since President Carter failed to respond vigorously to the Iranian Hostage Crisis (which stated with an attack on the American Embassy in Tehran), American and other Western embassies have been seen as fair game. Problems in one country can often lead to attacks on American Embassies in another; the Mecca Uprising of 1979 led to attacks, including the burning of the American Embassies in Pakistan and Libya. The fact that America had nothing to do with the uprising (which was carried out by Sunni fundamentalists of the same strain that would eventually lead to Al Qaeda) was of no concern to the demonstrators. And the local governments did nothing to stop the attacks.
Iranians have problems understanding why their country is so distrusted by the West, particularly America. After all, they argue, the average Iranian has no hatred for the United States. The answer is simple; Iran, in choosing to assault the embassy and start a major hostage crisis, stepped outside the bonds of civilised discourse. No one would have blamed the Iranians for evicting every last American official (it would be their right, under diplomatic protocol) but taking hostages and threatening their lives was unacceptable. Iran acted in a manner that showed a total disregard for international norms, a manner that was not even emulated by Hitler, Stalin or Imperial Japan, none of them paragons of good behaviour.
President Carter’s paralysis in the face of looming disaster did much to cement the poor reputation of the United States. When the going got tough, it was whispered, the US got going, not a message to encourage America’s friends and allies across the world. It is true that a more vigorous response might have risked the lives of the hostages, but it is also true that it might have convinced the more rational elements of the Iranian Government that backing the extremists would merely lead to pain. Even if the hostages died, exacting payment for their lives would have strengthened the United States’ reputation and made future such crises unlikely.
It is this that allowed host governments to think that they could get away with allowing mobs to threaten, ransack and destroy Western Embassies. And, unfortunately, in many cases they have been correct. The attack on Benghazi in 2012, which included the death of the American Ambassador, might not have happened if it had been made clear that such attacks would draw a vigorous response.
There are no shortage of excuses for such attacks. I don’t see any such excuses as valid; the concept of diplomats remaining untouched is a core principle of international relations, allowing nations to actually talk to one another face-to-face. Choosing to accept such attacks (and the host country’s disregard for the safety of foreign diplomats) is a dangerous misstep.
It must not be allowed to continue.
Christopher G. Nuttall
Kuala Lumpur, 2013