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Response to Review of Britain’s Imperial Retreat from China 1900-1931

I thank Dr Hillier for his review and Reviews in History for giving me the opportunity to respond to what seems, at first glance, a dismantling of my entire argument. Upon more thorough reading, however, his review is a useful supplement to my book and I believe we have more areas of agreement than not.

Whilst I was pleased to see that my book was provocative enough to raise some questions from Dr Hillier, some of his questions are based on a misunderstanding of my main argument. He contrasts my ‘argument’ with Professor Bickers’ emphasis on domestic socio-political forces in China that mobilised to rid China of the foreign presence and an acknowledgment of the role of the international environment (Soviet Communism, American liberalism and Japanese expansionism). He says, ‘Chow, on the other hand, argues that the Foreign Office effectively orchestrated the retreat, influenced by, and responding to, the changing attitudes of British opinion-makers’. This is a complete mis-representation of my central point. I never meant to argue that the Foreign Office operated in a vacuum or that it single-handedly dismantled the imperial structure in China. The point of my book was to shine a light on an important and heretofore neglected part of the story of imperial retreat – the importance of changing cultural perceptions and public opinion about the Chinese and its impact on policymaking – working in conjunction with all the other factors Hillier cited.

He also sets up a false contrast when he says, ‘However, her argument raises a number of questions: first, whether there were any signs of retreat as early as 1906, secondly, whilst there may have been a shift in the official approach to China at that time, whether this reflected a policy of such retreat and, thirdly, whether there was ever any such policy as opposed to an ad hoc response to events as and when they occurred.’ In a couple of places he says that it’s difficult to see a ‘measured policy’ or a ‘measured retreat’. I never argued that there was a conscientiously-formed policy of retreat as early as 1906. British policy towards China could be both an ‘ad-hoc response to events as and when they occurred’ and also result in an erosion of the British position. My argument is not based on assumptions of purposeful or ‘measured’ retreat by the imperialists for most of the period, but rather, I wanted to show the gradual decline of the British position, despite the wishes of financial and government interests, because of events in China and international factors out of their control and the (mostly unwelcome) pressure of public opinion. Only in 1920s and 1930s did a policy of retreat become official and even then, it was slow-going.

The changes in perceptions about China are an important and interesting part of the story of retreat, but Hillier is troubled by my ‘suggestion that the conciliatory approach’ to China began in 1900 and says that it actually can be dated back to the 1860s. I did not mean to suggest that the conciliatory approach began in 1900 – in fact, I’d go further back than Hillier and say, as I did on the first page of my book, that concerns about morality existed from the beginning of Britain’s ‘informal empire’ in China and ‘continued to eat at and ultimately erode imperial resolve…’. If one were being pedantic, one could argue that advocates for conciliation were already active during the First Opium War (e.g. Gladstone) or that contradictory perceptions of the Chinese by Westerners existed from Roman times, but I don’t see much point in this exercise. I chose to begin the book with 1900 because the Boxer Crisis was a watershed in influential persons’ thinking about China. Hillier says that I neglect the ‘triumvirate’ of Peking institutions (the Legation, the Maritime Customs Service headed by Hart and the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank) whilst focusing on the Bland-Morrison dispute, but I do devote a section to Sir Robert Hart’s ideas and influence in the aftermath of the Boxer crisis. He does make a valid point, however, that I could have discussed the role of the Legation and the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank more.  

That is why I see his review as a useful supplement to my book – Hillier’s focus on the British institutions and interests in China will be helpful for any further research I do in this area. In the end, I believe that Dr Hillier and I would both agree that, despite minor disagreements on dates and emphasis, changing perceptions of China did contribute to 'retreat' from China and that the story of China in the British mind is still worth exploring.