The Self-Strengthening movement was conditioned by situations and its achievements were rather limited
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China was facing the Western threat and the Anglo-Chinese wars in the beginning of the 19th C. The continuous defeated by the superficial Westerners made the Chinese realized that they were weak technologically, and needed a reform to strengthen themselves militarily. They started the Self-strengthening movement in 1864. But the defeated of China by her student, Japan in the 1st Sino-Japanese War, illustrated that the self-strengthening movement was a failure. Foreigners defeated China in both Anglo-Chinese wars.
By this, China was forced to sign many unequal treaties with them, such as the Treaty of Nanjing, Treaty of Bogue and Treaty of Tianjin. These treaties opened China completely and brought humiliation to the Chinese. There were fixed tariff, heavy indemnity, and erosion of China’s sovereignty, extraterritoriality and the most favored-nation treatment. The people was discontented and started to rise up against Qing’s rule which led to the Mid Century Rebellions.
Although these rebellions were all failure, they led to the rise of Chinese leaders such as Tseng Guo-fan, Li hungzhong, Zuo-zongtong, these leaders later led the Self-Strengthening movement. Also by opening of treaty ports, helping of the Ever Victories Army and Imperial Maritime Custom Service, their contacts with the West had been increased. Qing government saw the advance technology of the foreigners and their military superiority. All of this exposed the weaknesses of the Qing government.
Qing knew her backwardness in technology and was forced to have reforms in order to strengthen herself against foreign invasion so as to save the dynasty. Therefore it started the Self-Strengthening movement in 1864. There were a lot of reforms carried out during this strengthening period. But most of them aimed at military strengthening. The reform movement was half hearted. For military reform, China built a lot of arsenals, such as the Kiangnan Arsenal, Nanking Arsenal, Foochow Shipyard and Tientsin Arsenal. But because lacking of co-operation among the provincial leaders, these projects were overlapping and did not function effectively.
For example, during the Sino-French War 1885, the Peiyang Fleet gave no help to the Foochow Fleet. Foreign instructors and engineers were employed. Yet the Chinese were ignorant, they might not know how to choose the right man for the right job. Money was wasted in these low quality products and overlapping projects. Chinese employers only took up hard labour. Training was inadequate and the resignation of foreigners brought the enterprise to a standstill. Weapons were mostly imported, only the minor items were locally manufactured.
China needed to depend on the imported weapons and a strong reliance on foreigners for advice. The productions were on the whole below standard of the West, ineffective in resisting foreign aggression, only good for suppressing internal rebellions. The quality of production fell far below western standard, and as the Chinese had blinded faith in foreign goods, the westerners might cheat them. The Chinese officials concerned were corrupt and not well equipped with adequate training and knowledge, their way of management and administration were backward and ineffective.
China wanted to strengthen themselves militarily, although they were really strengthened and have better weapons than before, their military strength were in no compete with the West. It was just a waste of money to produce the low quality weapons. But because they did not have the technology, they could not product the weapons by themselves. Therefore, from 1881 onwards, China returned to the purchase of western weapons. Government controlled businesses. They administrated the businesses and would borrow the profit of the investors. By investing in the businesses large amount of investment was needed.
But as the officials were corrupted and the government was inefficient, the government wasted a lot of money in the businesses projects. Also, money was spent on heavy industries, in producing weapons, arsenals. Light industries were neglected. Therefore the common people did not really gained a better live by the government investment. The provincial leaders were responsible for carrying out provincial projects. They were lacked of co-operation due to their self-interest. They were competing among themselves in order to gain power and support.
This led to the bad organization and lack of discipline of army. For diplomatic modernization, Zongliyamen was originally established to deal with foreign officers, collecting the tribute and treated foreigners as barbarian. But after 1864, Tongwenguan and Custom office were under Zongliyamen. Prince Gong and some officers supervised it, but because they all have other posts, as it was just a concurrent post and an additional duty, they did not fully devoted to their jobs. Tongmenguan was established. It established schools for teaching foreign language and training of translators.
Foreign instructors were employed, such as Martin. Despite of the introduction of Western learning, the students produced were of low quality, as the officials were still conservative and have culture superiority, they did not allow their sons to learn from Tongmenguan. The Imperial Maritime Custom Service supposed was governed by the Chinese officials in Shanghai. When the foreigners attacked on it, the officials ran away, the foreigners helped China to run this service, and they did it very well. Therefore, in 1861, it was institutionalized for the foreigners to collect it for China.
It helped China to gain a large among of revenge, but it also provided the chance for them to infiltrate into China. The collection of money was under their control. Because of the heavy indemnity and war expenses, there were also financial reforms. A new system of supervision was introduced. It was government supervision and merchant operation. Merchants were the one to invest, merchants gained the profit and bare the lost, but the organization and structure were by the government. By this, the inefficiency of government and old style of administration were applied, corruption occurred.
Merchants dared not to invest again, as the government might borrow the profits from them. Therefore there was limited development in trade. At the 3rd period of reform, there was a change in the style of supervision again. I was joint enterprise of government and merchants. Government would also invest and merchants could organize the industries. But this created mutual jealousy among the merchants, because government might invest more in one of the project and led to the increase of profit of the merchant. Struggle of power was oblivious.
There was little chance for the private enterprise, because of keen competition between private and joint enterprises. The Self-Strengthening movement was a half-hearted one as it just stressed on military strengthening. The reforms in education and finance, were incomprehensive and aimed not for modernization, but all for the sake of military strengthening. Money were spent on building weapons and arsenals. Students were educated for being soldiers or translators of military books. Chinese were still conservative and with cultural superiority. They uphold Confucianism and supported classical learning. The officials did not want changes which might threaten their positions. Cixi was anti-foreign due to the lost in the two humiliating wars. She opposed reforms, but was forced to change. Central government gave limited help. The mass was ignorant and the reforms were mostly in military, they did not support this movement. Therefore, there was a lack of planning and leadership. There was more oppositions to the reforms. The reform was part of the Tong Zhi Restoration and was looking backward, as they were conservative. China could not be fully modernized by limited reform aspect.
Although the Self-Strengthening was limited in scope and with limited support. China stressed on military reforms, but the defeat of China in the 1st Sino-Japanese War illustrated the failure of the military reforms. It achievements were limited. It did have some achievements. It brought about the increasing of capitalism with growing industry development, cites, towns and a new generation of leaders and intellects. The people were more demanding and critical to the government. China also learnt a lesson that in order to have a successful reform, it couldn’t be half hearted and needed to gain support of the mass.