Friday, May 4, 2012

The Italian Presence in China

Most of those familiar with Italian history will be aware of the Italian presence in places such as Eritrea, Libya and Somalia but relatively few are aware of the Italian presence in the Far East. Early on there were high hopes and some preliminary proposals for Italian colonial expansion in southeast Asia, mostly in Burma and Thailand. Nothing ever came of such plans but the Kingdom of Italy did establish a foothold in China. Italy had for some time been working with China and the other European powers to obtain a coaling station on the Chinese coast for her trade traffic. However, Italian aspirations depended a great deal on the goodwill of the British whose Royal Navy ruled the waves and who held a stronger position in China than any other European power. However, the British were reluctant to take any risks, diplomatic or otherwise, on behalf of Italy which might jeopardize her own position. This was not immediately clear, however, and in early 1899 an Italian expedition was dispatched to China with the goal of establishing a coaling station in the bay of San Mun, near Ningpo south of the Chusan islands.

The effort was hampered, however, by opposition from the other powers and by division amongst the Italians at home. The British were not supportive, nor were the Germans (supposedly Italy’s ally at the time) who advised against it and at home leftists opposed such efforts to expand Italian trade and influence, feeling instead that Italy should be content to be a ‘second-rate’ power. King Umberto I was supportive as was Admiral Canevaro, the Foreign Minister, but the political establishment in Rome refused to make a definite commitment. The situation was exacerbated when the Chinese government, which had previously seemed open to the idea, suddenly refused the Italian request when it was presented. Admiral Canevaro was outraged at this turnaround, broke off diplomatic relations between Rome and Peking and resigned from office to be replaced by Senator Visconti-Venosta. The plan was dropped and the British breathed a sigh of relief as they had feared Italian competition in the Yangtze basin. German and Russian advanced were also of concern but these were far enough removed not to cause undue difficulty to the “Yangtze First” policy advocated by British statesmen such as Salisbury and Balfour.

However, Great Britain and Germany had made a serious mistake in not supporting the Italian effort. When Italy backed down this provided a major morale boost to the anti-foreign element in China which was rising already and would soon give birth to the so-called “Boxer Rebellion”. Anti-foreign Chinese elements pointed to this turn of events as proof that the foreign powers would retreat in the face of opposition, that they were not united in their common interests and that if the Chinese moved against them with sufficient boldness and fervor they could wipe out all the foreign elements in China. It must be remembered that these “foreign elements” consisted largely of European missionaries and those Chinese who had converted to Christianity were also included amongst the enemies of this new movement. A terrible famine had also struck China and the suffering this caused aroused immense discontent. The foreigners were a convenient scapegoat for Chinese suffering and in the summer of 1900 this powder keg erupted as the Boxers unleashed a bloodbath against Christian missionaries and Chinese converts. Boxers besieged the foreign legation in Peking and eventually Chinese Imperial forces were drawn in as well as the ruling Empress-Dowager decided to take a chance on the Boxers being victorious.
Italians to the rescue! From the film "55 Days at Peking"

Italian troops were dispatched to meet this threat, put down the rising and rescue the besieged foreign legation in Peking where Italians were being held under threat along with Americans, French, British, German, Austrian, Russian and Japanese. Along with the others, Italian military forces on hand to guard their legation helped hold off the Boxer hordes for 55 days when the combined forces of the “8 Nation Alliance” arrived to save the day. The Boxers were suppressed and in the subsequent peace agreement the Kingdom of Italy was granted a concession in Tientsin on September 7, 1901. The following year the Italian government took control of the concession and appointed a consul to administer the area. Following World War I the former Austrian concession was added to the Italian concession, doubling its size. The Italian concession in Tientsin also served as the base of operations for the Italian Legion “Redenta” who were sent to the Far East as part of the effort of the Allies to aid the White forces against the Bolsheviks in the Russian Civil War. Their name came from the fact that the legion was made up of Italians from the “unredeemed” areas previously under Austro-Hungarian rule. They fought against the Russian communists in 1919 throughout large parts of Siberia and Manchuria, keeping the Trans-Siberian Railway open to friendly White Russian forces.

The Italian foothold in China remained unchanged until 1943 when the Kingdom of Italy agreed to an armistice with the Allies prior to declaring war on Nazi Germany. When this happened Imperial Japanese forces occupied the Italian concession, taking prisoner the 600 Italian troops stationed there. Later in the year the puppet Italian Social Republic in the Nazi occupied north of Italy under Mussolini agreed to sign over the Italian concession to the Republic of China government under Wang Jingwei. This was not the officially recognized “Republic of China” but was the Chinese regime allied with Japan. The Kingdom of Italy did not recognize this government nor that of the Italian Social Republic which claimed to have handed the concession over. However, nothing would ever come of this dispute. King Umberto I had been one those who believed that great opportunities would come from the Far East in the future and he had pushed for a greater Italian role in the region. King Vittorio Emanuele III had never had much interest in the Far East (though he knew a great deal about it). After he abdicated and the Italian monarchy came to an end the new republican government formally surrendered the Italian concession in Tientsin to the Republic of China government under Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek on February 10, 1947.

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