China specialists see and can almost touch an alternative history in which late-nineteenth century China managed to match the political and economic achievements of Meiji Japan, and in which China stood up economically, politically, and organizationally at the same pace of the Japan that won its short victorious war against Russia in 1905, negotiated as an equal with Britain and the U.S. over warship construction in 1921, and was perhaps the eighth industrial power in the world by 1929. In his In Search of Modern China, for example, Jonathan Spence praises the nineteenth century:
Confucian statesmen whose skill, integrity, and tenacity helped suppress the rebellions... showed how imaginatively the Chinese could respond to new challenges... managed to develop new structures to handle foreign relations and collect customs dues, to build modern ships and weapons, and to start teaching international law and the rudiments of modern science.... It was true that there remained complex problems... rural militarization... local autonomy over taxation... landlord abuses... bureaucratic corruption... bellicose foreign powers.... But with forceful imperial leadership and a resolute Grand Council, it appeared that the Qing Dynasty might regain some of its former strength...
And Spence laments that:
forceful leadership was not forthcoming... the empress dowager Cixi... coregent for her son Tongzhi from 1861-73... coregent for her nephew Guangxu from 1875-89.... [A]bsolute political authority... while Guangxu [was imprisoned in the palace]... on her orders from 1898-1908.... Cixi had clashed badly in 1869 with Prince Gong.... Zeng Guofan died in 1872... Wenxiang died in 1876... Zuo Zongtang remained preoccupied with the pacification of the Muslims in [Xinjiang].... The grand councilors... worthy... with distinguished careers... lacked the skill or initiative to direct China on a new course. Although self-strengthening programs continued to be implemented... a disproportionate number of them were initiated by one man, Li Hongzhang... governor-general of Hebei... commissioner of trade for the northern ports...
Li Hongzhang's achievements were indeed impressive: the 1872 China Merchant Steamship Navigation Company, the 1877 Kaiping coals mines, in 1878 cotton mills in Shanghai, the Tianjin arsenal, the telegraph between Tianjin and Peking, a seven-mile railroad to ship from Kaiping to the river and then downriver to Tianjin, and so forth. What was not undertaken by Li Hongzhang appears likely to have been undertaken by Zhang Zhidong, eighteen years governor-general of Hunan-Hubei: the railroad from Hankou to Beijing, the Han-Ye-Ping heavy industrial complex, and so forth. But what impresses me most is how little even the most active, energetic, and skillful of statesmen could accomplish in the prevailing institutional and political climate--how those attempting to modernize China in the late nineteenth century were trying to roll boulders uphill.
And so I find it interesting to note:
Albert Feuerwerker, Review of Ellsworth Carlson (1957), The Kaiping Mines 1877-1912 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press), in the 1959 Journal of Asian Studies: Professor Carlson's monograph is a welcome addition to the all too sparse literature on the problem of China's economic development. His subject, China's first modern coal-mining enterprise, is a particularly good one for the study of the format in which Western-style enterprises were introduced into China at the end of the Ch'ing dynasty. Thus the discussion of the characteristics of the system of "official supervision and merchant management" (kuan-tu shang-pan) in Chapter 2, while necessarily brief, is to the point and illuminating.
The Kaiping Mines, like a good many others of China's first modern industries, were inaugurated under the aegis of the Chihli governor-general, Li Hung-chang. The enterprise formed a part of Li's satrapy, and probably owed its origin to a desire to furnish bunker coal and return cargo from Tientsin for the steamers of the China Merchants' Steam Navigation Company, which Li also controlled. Its first manager, T'ang Ching-hsing (Tong King-sing), was also until 1884 an official of the shipping company. Under T'ang's direction, capital was raised from Chinese sources including the C.M.S.N Co., and digging begun: production averaged approximately 250,000 tons annually in the early 1890's. But under Chang Yen-mao, who headed the company from 1892 to 1900, heavy borrowing in order to expand production gradually brought Kaiping under the control of its foreign creditors--interestingly enough, a process in which Herbert Hoover, then a young mining engineer, played an important role. Carlson describes these developments in detail and concludes with an account of Chinese efforts to recover the mines, which resulted in the formation of the Sino-British Kailan Mining Administration in 1912.
Despite its pioneering achievements, Kaiping faltered in the face of two obstacles which it confronted in common with other kuan-tu shang-pan enterprises in the late nineteenth century. The first was the lack of sufficient capital and the inability to raise more from domestic sources. The second was the unpropitious political environment into which it was born. Little aid could be expected from the tottering Manchu regime either in the form of financial assistance to compensate for the reluctance of private investors, or protection from foreign encroachment such as eventuated in British domination of this enterprise. While Carlson does not explicitly make the comparison, the contrast with the history of early industrial efforts in Meiji Japan is a striking one, and invites us to examine more closely the bases of the widely differing experiences of China and Japan in the process of economic modernization.
This is not business history, strictly speaking, although some attention is given to the technical achievements of the Kaiping Mines. It is unfortunate that the available source materials did not permit the author to examine Kaiping more closely as a business enterprise per se. But this is not a shortcoming peculiar to Carlson's study alone; it is a problem that everyone dealing with China's economic history faces.