Opinion / Op-Ed Contributors

Learning the lessons of defeat

By Liu Yazhou (China Daily) Updated: 2014-04-28 07:20

On the 120th anniversary of the outbreak of the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-95), China should reflect on the causes for its defeat

This year marks the 120th anniversary of the outbreak of the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-95). As China gears up for the anniversary, it is essential and actually more realistic for the country to reflect upon and draw a lesson from the defeat of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), than to expect a former invader to express regret over what it has been trying hard to glorify.

Japan's victory in the First Sino-Japanese War was built on its successful institutional reform. The Opium Wars, two wars fought between Western powers and the Qing Dynasty from 1839 to 1860, were a cautionary tale for China and Japan, prompting the two neighbors to embark on learning from the West, although in a different way. Japan was determined to adapt itself to Western learning from the inside out during the Meiji Restoration, a period spanning the 1860s to the early 1910s that was responsible for Japan's emergence as a modernized nation.

The Qing Dynasty, however, kept the learning superficial. The reason behind the Qing court's reluctance to fully adopt Western knowledge and technologies was, for the large part, bureaucratic. Take the Beiyang Fleet for example. As a product of the Qing Dynasty's Self-Strengthening Movement from the 1860s to the 1890s after the Opium Wars, the Beiyang Fleet emerged as a dominant navy in East Asia and a match for Japan's maritime force before the onset of the First Sino-Japanese War. The fleet garnered greater resources than others mostly because of its patron Li Hongzhang. But Li as an influential vassal with Han Chinese origins had many rivals, especially the bigwigs of Manchu origin. His opponent and imperial tutor Weng Tonghe, for instance, occupied several important posts in the Qing administration and used his influence to cut and even suspend naval expenditure in peacetime.

In the eyes of Li's political enemies the fleet was Li's private asset, and it should be weakened to prevent Li from becoming more powerful. In the words of Liang Qichao, a leading reformist who lived during the late Qing Dynasty, Li was a hero revealed by hard times. but he was not one capable of confronting the entire elite group and turning the tide relying on his own strength.

After three decades of the movement, the Qing court failed in its military reform due to bureaucratic division and factionalism, despite the establishment of a well-equipped maritime force and army. Many fine soldiers fought their best, especially those from the Beiyang Fleet, but this did not alter the result of the war. The more courage they demonstrated, the less competent the Qing court appeared to be. Yet the defeat of the Qing court was more than a result of reform failure.

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