Never Tickle a Sleeping Dragon:

The Rise of the New Chinese Empire


by Chris Nuttall




Defeat – humiliating defeat – in the Sino-Japanese War spurred the then Emperor, Guangxu, to order what became the Chinese Reform Movement. Within ten days, or so later historians would claim, China embarked upon a massive program of reform, with a serious commitment to military development. Under the supervision of several hired foreign experts, China began a genuine military reform program and, within three years, had something reassembling a modern army. Although there was an attempt at removing Guangxu – launched by the Manchus, who condemned the announced reform as too radical and proposed instead a more moderate and gradualist program – popular demand for something that could defeat Japan was too great.

The conservatives, led by Yuan Shikai and Empress Dowager Cixi, attempted to overturn Guangxu in a coup. They had, however, underestimated the school of thought that had gathered around Guangxu; the reformers had waited literally centuries for a chance to reform China and they were not going to lose it easily. In what has been described, from time to time, as a night of terror, the reformers discovered that Guangxu had managed to outsmart them and have many of them killed or exiled. The deaths were blamed, ironically, on the Japanese. Guangxu held supreme power in China.

This led to continued expansion of the development project. China’s farms and other sources of food were redeveloped, despite some limited opposition; the peasants, for the first time, had enough to eat. The internal development of industry, including a concentration on weapons and railways, proceeded apace; Guangxu was determined that China would have the ability to back up its confidence in itself. Using the army in a series of ‘bandit suppression’ campaigns, opposition from a handful of warlords and local authorise was swiftly destroyed; Guangxu’s people might not have been the best army on the planet – they were rated as barely superior to Italy in 1902 – but their training and firepower was superior. Most important of all, the Chinese Army was developing a new and dangerous confidence in itself – and, for the first time, it enjoyed the support of the people.

[The Boxer Rising did not take place in this timeline.]

China’s development was noticed with some outside alarm. The French, in particular, were concerned about the falling rates of conversion to Christianity; Chinese natives were paying less attention to Christian missionaries. Both Japan and Russia eyed China with greedy eyes – Japan had taken Korea from China in the recent war – and it was no secret that Russia intended to colonise parts of China. The fact that the Triple Intervention had prevented China from greater humiliation meant nothing to the Chinese; they had seen it – correctly – as being intended to prevent the Japanese from becoming powerful, rather than helping them. Quite the reverse; almost all of the outside powers had helped themselves to bits of China. As Chinese confidence grew, Guangxu became more and more determined to have a showdown with one of the powers.

By the time that the Second Sino-Japanese War broke out (1905-06), China had achieved much more than had been thought possible…and if outsiders still sneered, they missed some of the more important points. China’s army had reformed to a fairly decent level and was well-armed; the older, traditional, units had been either abolished or regulated to ceremonial duties, and the Chinese were confident. Their industry might not have matched Japan’s – yet – but they could produce all the weapons and supplies they needed. The Japanese might have mocked – not without reason – the Chinese attempt to build a modern ship, but the Chinese did not need a navy.

The war broke out over allegations – never proven – that China was trying to formant a war between Russia and Japan. The Japanese, grimly aware of just how vulnerable they were, made a series of secret agreements with Russia – and a public alliance with Britain – and attacked Chinese ports and bases near the Korean border. Although Japan – at first – seemed to be successful, the Japanese had not bargained on a long and costly war. The Japanese march to Beijing ran into much larger Chinese forces, including some of the best German-trained divisions, and was broken. Chinese hatred of the Japanese ensured that the fighting was utterly merciless; almost every Japanese solider was killed.

The remainder of the war became almost an anticlimax. Chinese forces pushed the Japanese back into Korea and then launched an invasion, while smaller forces recovered Japanese enclaves on China’s mainland. While Teddy Roosevelt – then President of the United States – attempted to meditate, the Chinese weren’t interested…and the Koreans rose in rebellion against the Japanese. The ensuring three-way war ended Japanese domination of Korea – and any Japanese influence on China’s mainland. Technically speaking, Japan and China never signed a peace agreement, but the war is commonly believed to have ended in 1906, with the Guangxu Declaration.

It has been hailed as either a new Monroe Doctrine or as an expression of Chinese arrogance, depending upon whom you talk to, or what nation they represent. In short, stripped of the many flowery phases, Guangxu informed the world that – in future – China’s territory would remain Chinese and China’s integrity would remain intact. China had effectively ripped up the Unequal Treaties…and dared the world to do anything about it. Although powers such as Germany and Italy – with little at stake – called for a massive global response, enthusiasm for war among the powers with much at stake was too muted…and Guangxu managed to get away with it. Respect for China, however, was not high; international conferences called to discuss world matters continued to exclude China (and Japan).

Guangxu’s death in 1913 – and his succession by his nephew Puyí (in effect Puyí’s father, the 2nd Prince Chun as Puyí himself was a minor at the time – allowed China to take a breath as the massive process of reforms continued. Guangxu had already done so much for the country, including the development of a fairly-capable army (German advisors, as of 1910, regarded it as more driven by mass than skill), a working industry and actually a blossoming export market, not least food to Japan to rub in Japan’s humiliation. Railway lines reached all the way to Tibet, much to British alarm, and the authority of the Imperial Government was total. The experiment with a ‘House of Commons’ - in reality dominated by the new business interests – gave China much more of a democratic veneer.

Prince Chun found himself in charge at the time when war looked likely to break out between an alliance of Britain, France and Russia, versus Germany, Italy and Austria. Although several chancy missteps towards war, including the assassination of Grand Duke Ferdinand, had been averted before a prolonged crisis could break out, everyone knew war was coming. China found itself courted by both sides…and, despite various slurs, Germany’s seemed to be the best side to pick.

[As the Russians avoided the Russo-Japanese War and their defeat, Russia seems much stronger than it actually is, hence more concern from the Kaiser in starting WW1.]

War finally broke out between Germany and France, over colonial clashes in Africa, in 1916, rapidly dragging in the other powers. Prince Chun hesitated before becoming involved – he was a naturally cautious man – but Japan’s agreement to join the British/French/Russian alliance cemented the decision to go to war. China continued to both hate and fear the Japanese, despite destroying their army; the decision was only natural. Chinese forces waited only long enough for the Japanese to seize Tsingtao – later, the Germans would claim that the Chinese deliberately waited long enough so they could end up with their former port – before jumping. Despite a pair of harder-than-expected battles at Hong Kong and Port Authur – Weihaiwei was surrendered without a fight – the Chinese completed the task of liberating their country.

The victory did something that should have been predictable; it whetted Prince Chun’s appetite for conquest. Despite German requests for action against Russia – Russian troops were hammering the Germans hard – China attacked French Indochina, utterly crushing French opposition, followed by further incursions into Malaya and Burma. The Chinese logistics were actually made easier by two factors; railway links they themselves had established…and considerable help from the local population. This was a mistake on their part; Prince Chun had no intention of treating them as equals. As Singapore repelled attack after attack, it became increasingly obvious that Prince Chun’s appetite had suddenly grown…and then Russia attacked China in Manchuria.

Russia had never recognised Chinese annexation, in all, but name, of Korea. Under pressure from their allies, the Russians invaded China directly and attempted to destroy Prince Chun’s regime. The fighting was savage in places – the name of Russia is still hated in some parts of China – and Japanese attempts to re-invade Korea didn’t help. The Chinese held the Russians, but the scale of the devastation prevented a Chinese counterattack until after the Russians withdraw from the war.

It is generally believed that only Germany’s focus on France – and to some extent Britain – saved Russia from quick defeat. The Russians were able to avoid a second defeat after the first disaster through the quick and prompt action of a young Russian general, who pulled the army back before the Germans could surround and destroy it. The fighting retreat went on until Germany tried to stabilise the war front for a ‘final’ offensive into France, which failed, allowing Russia to launch its own final offensive. As the Germans struck the Russian Army, rapidly breaking through, it disintegrated, sending shockwaves all the way to St Petersburg. In the ensuring chaos, a new Russian Government arose and made peace with Germany.

[The Communists did not take power in this timeline.]

By 1920, the war had stalemated, despite the British introduction of tanks. America’s offer to mediate a peace agreement was accepted by almost every nation involved – Japan refused to attend and in fact ended up keeping the islands ceded to it as its price for war – and China, for the first time, was a full member. President Wilson’s treaty had many clauses, but the ones concerning China are of greatest importance. China would remain in control of Indochina, Burma – although under a client king – Malaya, Siam and the territory seized from Russia at the end of the war. The presence of a Chinese army on the borders of British India – Tibet returned to Chinese ‘supervision’ – alarmed the British enough that they made considerable reforms in India. Germany lost almost all of her empire, including Tsingtao; her conquests in the east were her only consolation.

Emperor Puyí’s accession to the throne came, therefore, during a long period of unrest. The chaos caused by the Russian Invasion needed years to repair – China was soundly criticized for using captured Russians as coolies, extracting revenge for the treatment of Chinese peasants – and the new conquests had to be brought to heel. China’s massive population movement was welcomed by the Chinese already living there, but detested by the locals; Chinese army units found themselves tied down providing security and conducting insurgency campaigns. By the time that the struggles were ended, through a process of near-genocide, China was caught up in the global economic shock caused by the war. Although Puyí was not to blame for this – he hadn’t been involved in the decision to go to war – he ended up taking more than a little of the blame; his father was assassinated. The threat of civil war was only a shadow, but it pushed Puyí to move to greater democratic reforms and – later – to become involved with the Russian Collapse.

The shockwaves caused by the war echoed across the world. Although America and China were largely spared the worst of the damage, there was major economic turmoil in Europe and to some extent Japan. The Japanese conquests simply weren’t enough to keep the Japanese going…and the Russians almost literally could not feed themselves. As civil war spread out of control, Germany – itself improvised by the war – and China took the opportunity to add more territory to their conquests, in some places being greeted as a relief force. Both sides attempted to make more railway links across Russia, setting up puppets as they went; eventually, puppet states controlled much of Russia. For China, it was something new and heady; they had occupied, in fact if not in name, one of their tormentors.

By 1940, the world was returning to normal, although the presence of a much larger German Empire and a growingly more aggressive Chinese Empire was having a dangerous effect on world politics. Germany’s alliance with the Turks, who had remained out of the First Global War, was starting to pay them dividends; the Turks had seen what the Chinese had done – the Germans claimed that their support had been vital – and had moved to develop themselves as well. A more aggressive Turkey swiftly developed to the point where it could try to threaten Egypt – still held by Britain – and French territory in Africa. Although neither cared to admit it, France and Italy had become second-class powers; the massive French Army was barely improved over the one that had held Germany during the FGW.

Britain, too, was weakening. Although the British had had some covert support from the Americans, who had started to worry about an influx of Chinese and Japanese immigrants, the Empire was weakening fast. India was restive – and required a much larger military commitment as the Chinese were on the border – Ireland had seized independence and then moved into civil war, Australia was looking nervously at the Japanese and Chinese…and the Royal Navy was aging. The Anglo-Japanese Alliance might have led to aircraft carriers and atomic technology – also under development in Germany and China – but it proved hard to maintain links in the face of opposition from Australia and India. In short, when the Germans trumped up an excuse and launched a second attack on France, the British stood aside. Italy, also considered as an enemy by Germany after its ‘betrayal’ in the FGW, was attacked as well…and both sides swiftly fell to German attack. Germany rapidly occupied Algeria, allowing the French nothing, but a life under Germany, while China threatened India. Only the development of a British atomic bomb prevented a Chinese invasion.

It remains questionable just how much impact the threat of nuclear attack actually had. Puyí was growing older and was much more reluctant than his father to start wars, while the business interests in China wanted to continue moving into British colonies and didn’t want a war. When India declared independence in 1951, China was quick to recognise it; it is fairly clear that Chinese support prevented a vigorous British response, but in any case the British had the new German super-empire to worry about. The Germans themselves had problems; the millions of annexed French and Italians were less than enthusiastic about living under increasingly permanent-sounding German rule and revolted. The Germans put down the revolts with astonishing brutality, while thousands of refuges tried to flee to the United States. When the Turks lost patience with negotiating over the future of Egypt and attacked, British forces were rapidly defeated…and the British Empire came apart.

In the chaos, Puyí launched what became known as Puyí’s War; the final war with Japan. China had come a long way since the first disastrous attempts, back during the First Reform Period, to produce a naval capability; now, China had all the naval might it needed to take on and strangle Japan, first by using submarines to cut off food and fuel supplies, and then landing forces on the Japanese mainland. The fighting was severe and ghastly, but in the end the Chinese had won and crushed the Japanese. It was just in time; the Russians were revolting, which meant that China’s plans to colonise Russia had to be sped up.

The shift in the balance of power – Germany got the bomb in 1951, China in 1952 and America in 1953 – changed the world again. The Chinese might have claimed the Japanese islands, but neither Australia nor the United States was prepared to allow that to stand. The American naval build-up, begun when it seemed that the Royal Navy was about to be destroyed, was used to safeguard the Australian states and the East Indies; the threat of an island-hopping campaign receded, even though Puyí was convinced that China would have won. His death in 1960 prevented the war from coming.

Puyí’s successor, known to the world as Chang, had many problems to handle, not least an increasingly bullish representative government. Although China still played lip service to all-powerful emperors, the representatives of the people insisted on having their say, including on how to handle the problems in Russia. Although the Chinese had sent in thousands of colonists, Russia was not a good place for them and, unlike the eastern conquests, the natives resisted with much more vigour. The Chinese Army was massive, easily the largest on the face of the planet…and it was dwarfed by the problems in Russia. The process of ‘Chinese-ing’ the state fell apart when confronted with the realities of the situation, starting with the fact that the Russian peasants were surely, xenophobic and restive to a man. They had killed their own nobles years ago…and they hated Chinese viceroys. Had they any coordinated action, they would have kicked the Chinese out years ago. They hated the germens, who occupied western Russia, and they hated the attempts to interfere with their lives.

Chang attempted to change all that. A long reform program was begun, linking Russian and Chinese interests together, and it produced some limited results. (Which were so much better than what they’d had that everyone was delighted.) The Chinese ended up occupying the cities, leaving the peasants alone; it didn’t solve all of their problems, but it reduced them. Chang refused to tax the peasants, something that, more than anything else, limited the resistance. By 1970, China had secured a place as a power of the first rank, with borders all around Asia and Europe. America led the way into space, but China and Germany followed.