06 April 1916 – Hong Kong

A Chinese jewel in the British imperial crown, Hong Kong was a prize of the First Opium War. Floating past the shore of Kowloon peninsula (see above) into the South China Sea, the waterways of southern China bring trade from Szechuan and Yunnan provinces, both of which are still chief producers of opium in 1916. Republican China is less than five years old and already dominated by generals; poorly equipped for politics, their missteps have led to political crisis and the breakdown of order in China. Among other blunders, the central government in Beijing has threatened to prohibit the opium trade altogether, alarming the merchants in Macao and Hong Kong.

When General Yuan Shikai determined to make himself an emperor, both European enclaves provided a political sanctum for dissidents and businessmen to protest his restoration of Chinese monarchy. Shikai’s heedlessness sparked violent rebellion in December, leading to a series of clashes in the south of China known as the National Protection War. Forced to repeatedly postpone his ascension, Shikai finally canceled it altogether on March 22nd, when the scope of the revolt had outgrown his ability to respond with military force. Matters have continued to deteriorate for Shikai, however, especially in Guangdong (Kwangtung, Canton) province, the gateway to southern China; Hong Kong sits before it like a welcome mat.


The city of Victoria ca. 1898-1904. Note the European architecture on an Oriental shoreline

A tide of 70,000 refugees has filled the British colony by floating south on the Pearl river from Guangzhou the metropolitan port city and the administrative center of Guangdong, where the military governor (tu-tu) Lung Chi-kuang has ruled with a heavy hand since the summer of 1913, when he quelled the Kuomintang (Nationalist Party) uprising after a few bitterly destructive weeks. Despite the growing instability, Lung Chi-kuang has the full confidence of Sir Francis Henry May, the British governor of Hong Kong, whose reports have reassured London that the general has the situation well in hand, even if his own family has evacuated to Hong Kong.

But May’s apparent faith is betrayed today when Lung Chi-kuang unexpectedly declares the independence of Guangdong, joining the revolt against Yuan Shikai’s central government. His sudden turn of coat is all the more outstanding because he was one of Shikai’s most ardent supporters in his bid to assume the throne, receiving a dukedom for his fealty. Carried under the oceans by cable, the news is published around the world, including the Sacramento Union. Datelined in Shanghai, the note reads: “The independence of Canton was formally declared yesterday after a conference of military and naval officers and leading citizens with Lung Chi-Kuang, the governor of Kwang-Tung province. No fighting took place.” It is far too simple of a reading in a complex and dangerous situation.

Rice immediately begins to pile up at the wharves as credit and trade markets freeze. Reinforcing his defenses against possible attacks, the British colonial governor also redoubles his efforts to monitor and eject the abundant rebels and revolutionaries looking to turn the situation to their advantage, such as the followers of Sun Yat-sen. May has noted a swing in public opinion, which agitated “at first against the monarchical movement and subsequently veered in its favour on the outbreak of disturbances in Kwangtung,” and has “now again changed to favour General Lung throwing in his lot with the rebels in order to secure the immunity of the Province from invasion by the rebel forces.”

There is also at least one personal factor involved. Caught between rebel forces at Yunnan and Kwangsi and disarmed, Lung Chi-Kuang’s brother, an officer in Yuan Shikai’s army, has telegraphed him with an appeal to declare independence. Seeing the tide turn against his old liege, Lung Chi-Kuang is saving his own neck — and others. Rather than join the military uprising, he has withdrawn his garrisons into a tighter defensive cordon, leaving a vacuum of authority in the Guangdong countryside. Without a police presence, stations on the prestigious Kwangtung-Kowloon railway are soon besieged by muggers and bandits.

Governor, Sir Henry May, and his wife inspect the tracks of the British Section at Lo Wu, Kowloon–Canton Railway

Mr. and Mrs. Sir Henry May, right, inspecting the tracks at Lo Wu on the Kowloon-Guangdong Railway before the war

General Lung Chi-Kuang will never really have the full confidence of his new comrades. Distrust is mutual, and on April 12th, he murders a rebel officer sent to confer with him in the Guangdong suburb of Hai-chu; a companion escapes the building and runs away, surviving. Lung Chi-Kuang later threatens ostensible allies, a testy and paranoid partner at best.

Generals tend to be old, and most of the key military leaders in the National Protection War will not live much longer — indeed, Yuan Shikai will not survive the summer. But the sad trend into warlordism has already begun. Previewed in Lung Chi-Kuang’s own pacification of Guangdong, the next phase of Chinese history will be shaped by competing cliques in periodic fighting. A brief attempt to resurrect civilian political control this year fails, leaving military power as the sole mode of legitimacy left in the benighted Chinese nation. Returning to Guangdong in the course of the war, the Kuomintang will resume its former bastion and take its turn uniting the Republic through force of arms.