China Power

When Americans Ruled Beijing

Recent Features

China Power

When Americans Ruled Beijing

In the early 20th century, the U.S. briefly ruled parts of China and gained its first experience in coalition warfare.

When Americans Ruled Beijing

Americans storming the walls of Beijing.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

On August 14, 1900 a motley crew of around 18,000 soldiers and sailors from eight different Western powers and Imperial Japan took Beijing (Peking) by storm, ending a 55-day siege of the international Legation Quarter by the Imperial Chinese Army and the Militia United in Righteousness, otherwise known in English as the Boxers. The capture of Beijing all but ended what was known as the Boxer Rebellion.

The rebellion, fueled by economic hardship and the growing encroachment on Chinese territory by imperial powers — the Boxers’ battle cry was “Support the Qing, exterminate the foreigners” — however, did not officially end until the signing of the Boxer Protocol on September 7, 1901. The official title of the document, capturing the number of countries involved, was  “Austria-Hungary, Belgium, France, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Japan, Netherlands, Russia, Spain, United States, and China—Final Protocol for the Settlement of the Disturbances of 1900.”

In between the conquest of Beijing on August 14-15 and the signing of the protocol on September 7 the following year, the city was occupied and administered by the Eight-Nation Alliance.

The United States committed around 2,500 soldiers and Marines — hastily sent over from the United States and the Philippines, where the U.S. military was fighting an insurrection — to the fight. It was to be one of the first instances of American troops engaged in coalition warfare and the post-conflict military occupation of foreign territory.

Immediately after the end of open combat in Beijing, the allies declared martial law and the Americans were given the southwest corner of the city to administer under the command of Colonel Adna Chaffee, who was given the rank Major General of Volunteers for the Boxer conflict. The immediate aftermath of the conquest of the Chinese capital was marked by wanton violence and looting, which lasted for several weeks with all occupying parties participating, although Russians and Japanese soldiers were especially notorious for their brutality.

Amar Singh, a Rajput nobleman and officer in the Indian Army, kept a diary while deployed in China and noted how the Russians “trashed” the Chinese “whenever they could not make them understand.” He also recounted the aftermath of an alleged Boxer attack when Russian troops rounded up suspects and “among the eight people who were called Boxers, six were women.”

“Probably they had been robbed, raped, and then slain to cover the whole thing,” he goes on to laconically state in his journal. To stop indiscriminate violence, General Chaffee immediately ordered a ban on looting by U.S. forces, but the ban was ineffectual.  The commander of British imperial troops, General Alfred Gaselee, recalled:

The condition in and about the city and along the line of communication was bad. Looting of the city, uncontrolled foraging in surrounding country, and seizure by soldiers of everything a Chinaman might have, as vegetables, eggs, chickens, sheep, cattle, etc… indiscriminate and generally unprovoked shooting of Chinese… It is safe to say that where one real Boxer has been killed since the capture of Peking, fifty harmless coolies and laborers… including not a few women and children have been slain.

The Americans, like all other allied nations, were also heavily engaged in looting and pillaging. A U.S. diplomat, Herbert G. Squiers, filled several railroad cars with loot. Assaults on civilians were also not uncommon.  For example, Stephen Dwyer, a U.S. Marine, forced his way into a Chinese home wielding a bludgeon to “brutally assault and strike a Chinese child of tender years… driving it from its home and thereby hastening its death.” He then went on to rape the two women living in the house.

Dwyer was quickly court-martialed and sentenced to life in prison in the United States, but many others went unpunished. The international press called the weeks following the storming of Beijing a “carnival of loot” and lamented that “the great Christian nations of the world are being represented in China by robbing, rapine, [and] looting soldiery,” as David J. Silbey writes in The Boxer Rebellion and the Great Game in China.

“The operation in China brought to light the savage and brutal dimensions of Social Darwinism, targeting the hapless Chinese citizenry, who were often dismissed as subhuman. The perpetrators of the violence against the innocent citizens of Peking and its environs believed that the Chinese, like animals, did not feel pain as much as white people did,” explains Robert R. Leonhard in his study “The China Relief Expedition – Joint Coalition Warfare in China, Summer 1900.”

However, despite of all of that, the American occupation of Beijing was considered to be both “sympathetic and efficient” relative to the other occupying forces, as Silbey notes in his book. The reason?  The United States military was guided by General Orders No. 100 : The Lieber Code, regulations promulgated in 1863 during the height of the U.S. Civil War to govern Union occupation of the South.

“These rules outlined a treatment of occupied territories as brother would treat brother, or parent, child. This was, in fact, quite literally the inspiration, as Francis Lieber, the lawyer who authored General Order 100, had sons fighting for both sides in the Civil War,” Silbey explains.

By mid-September, based on the Lieber Code, Chaffee tried to win the hearts and minds of Beijing’s inhabitants emphasizing that “all of this [violence] did not tend… to gain for the troops the confidence of the masses, with whom… we have no quarrel, but whose labor we need.”

On  September 12, he issued the following general order:

 All detachments of troops from this command sent outside of the walls… of Peking… will be placed under charge of an officer or sergeant…  Stringent orders will be issued by all officers and noncommissioned officers on duty on the line of communications prohibiting firing by enlisted men, except in case of personal danger… It is made the duty of all officers to arrest soldiers found violating this order… The sections of the city occupied will be divided into precincts under efficient subchiefs, supported by an efficient guard to preserve order and protect property, public and private… Seizure of products of the soil and farm or other property by individuals, soldiers, or detachments without due compensation on the spot is… strictly forbidden.

A strict curfew was imposed throughout the American occupation zone, no more than three Chinese were allowed to publicly gather, gambling was forbidden, all opium dens closed, and the Chinese inhabitants were not allowed to carry or own firearms.

In October 1900, the Committee for the Management of the City of Peking convened for the first time. The committee was composed of British, Italian, German, Japanese, and American representatives (the French refused to cooperate with other members of the Eight-Nation Alliance and the Russians were “confined to their own legation district” and “would not be consulted in any decision concerning the management of the city government”).

The committee handed over specific responsibilities to subcommittees. The Americans were involved in two subcommittees: the first, with the Germans,  on “general preservation of health, protection against epidemics, cleaning of and lighting of streets, latrines, assignation houses, hospitals, native and foreign physicians,” and the second with the British on “management of finances, customs, [and] money used in management of the city.”

All international military forces, including the Americans, were hunting for “Boxer insurgents” but after local protests by Chinese inhabitants of the occupation zone, Chaffee abandoned the controversial practice of raiding homes in the search for weapons. The U.S. administration also left the Chinese legal system in place, only handling crimes committed by foreigners.

Silbey lists some additional U.S. projects:

Captain John Tilson, the American liaison with the Chinese, hired a local company to clean up abandoned privies, and set up a program of medical checkups for the areas prostitutes. When winter came, Chaffee encouraged the reestablishment of shelters for the poor and charity food kitchens and put them under American protection.

American army doctors also started an inoculation campaign in order to prevent the spread of diseases. All of this led to thousands of Chinese flocking into the American occupation zone, leading to a critical housing shortage.

In March 1901, when the Americans were deliberating on withdrawing from the city — the troops were urgently needed in the Philippines — a petition signed by 13,000 Chinese was handed over to General Chaffee asking the United States to stay.

However, all of this should not divert from the fact the occupation of Beijing by the Eight-Nation Alliance remained a brutal affair with hundreds of suspected Boxers summarily executed by the occupying powers. The Americans were perhaps more benign in relative terms, but can hardly be compared to the G.I.s occupying Austria, Germany, and Japan in the late 1940s. As Leonhard notes:

The behavior of the international contingents at times violated what little international law existed at the time. The bigotry and high-handedness of the conquerors frequently brutalized the hapless Chinese and made little distinction between those who had been guilty of violence against foreigners and those who had not.

Despite their best efforts, this verdict also needs to be applied to the American occupation force. The United States may have installed a more humane military occupation regime than the other European powers and Japanese, but nonetheless remained an occupation regime — based on the threat of force and intimidation — throughout the brief time when Americans ruled parts of Beijing.