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Taft Today

Taft Today

2 Days in Champaign: The Boxer Rebellion at MUNI

Col. Adna Chafee breaking the Siege of Beijing, as illustrated by H. Charles McBarron

It was Apr. 6: a cold, humid day – inopportune for negotiations but the last chance for them. The Great Qing was on the brink of disaster. They had to open a conference with the Europeans and end their war. Stuffed in a too-small room, stifled by too-muggy air, diplomats fought to determine the fates of millions. It was a world-changing occasion… 

…but none of it was real. 

The event’s delegates were simulating what happened a century ago. It was all a Joint Crisis Committee, where Model UN delegates competed at the University of Illinois. On one side, the Eight-Nation Alliance, the West’s grandest powers. On the other, Qing China. Anti-foreign elements had taken root in the Middle Kingdom and besieged Beijing. They were the Boxers, fanatics to a man.

The Qing Empress refused to lay down condemnations. The Alliance had to respond. 

“Will you carve up China once more? Or force its reform,” asked Committee Dias Daniel Reisner from the University of Illinois. “The choice is yours: a 5000-year-old civilization is up for grabs.”

However, within both sides laid deep divisions. The Western nations were fundamentally at odds over how their Boxer response – Japanese Admiral Yamaguchi Motomi and German missionary Johann Baptist von Anzer refused to participate in a first strike. Their concerns were twofold – escalating the conflict could endanger diplomats in Beijing and discredit the pro-Western Qing led by Prince Qing.

“Any response must keep the faithful of China in mind,” said von Anzer’s Urbana delegate. “Those souls are the West’s responsibility, and it would be a sin to condemn them to destruction.”

Unfortunately, events outstripped peaceniks on both sides.

British Admiral Edward Seymour and Austrian Captain Georg von Trapp refused to back down. They were vocal hardliners – and prominent targets. For Boxer leader Cao Futian and Grand Councilor Xu Tong, his conservative ally, the warmongers were perfect targets for assassination. The plotters were in place, blades ready, but the British knew. This attack served their purposes just fine. 

With the failed attempts, any chance for a peaceful resolution died in Hong Kong. 

The imperial nations, now spurred by Seymour’s rhetoric, acted quickly. Seymour and von Trapp plunged deep into Southern China while Russian Vice Admiral Yakov Hildebrant and American Colonel Adna Chaffee raced to Beijing. The Alliance intended to end Qing resistance with decisive force – but even with superior technology, it would not be that easy.

“We will burn China’s fields if it means you will starve,” threatened Xu Tong’s Taft delegate. “Thousands may die, but China will endure as it always has.”

These threats set the stage for both sides to scorch the earth. The Empress, having fled Beijing ahead of the Marines, ordered Boxers to conscript every able-bodied man to the army of General Yuan Shikai. Surrounding her court’s new fortress of Wuwei with as many bodies as she could, Cixi dared the West to war with her entire nation.

Seymour obliged. 

“We can hold back no technology,” remarked Seymour’s Taft representative . “Nor keep our troops away. This fight will define our nations, or it will break them.” 

The Alliance brought the horrors of war to China – incendiary rounds, Maxim guns, and even dirigibles to bombard Shikai’s armies. Generals bought inches of land for hundreds of soldiers. Fields laid trampled beneath advancing troops. The four horsemen rode through China as Famine and War took their dues. Chongqing, Wuhan, and multitudes of cities fell – with more teetering.

It was at this moment the Qing sued for peace.

Prince Qing, pro-diplomacy as always, told the Empress in no uncertain terms that the situation was untenable. If Cixi were to save China, it would be through diplomacy, not feeding millions into Shikai’s army. The Empress, sensing her time drew near, finally conceded. She headed to Beijing, waiting for the Alliance to take its pound of flesh.

Here, the conservatives had different plans.

Commander Ronglu, Cixi’s former military chief, could not stand the Empress conceding anything. Though nominally moderate, Ronglu drifted towards conservative allies to topple Prince Qing’s capitulations. Xu Tong and Cao Futian eagerly received him, for with Ronglu’s force, they could retake Beijing.

Back in April, these developments overshadowed the peace conference. Tong, flush with victory, threatened Qing with Beijing’s annihilation should he make a deal with the West. But the Prince was tired. China was tired. A handshake later, and it was all done. Peace was signed, but Ronglu marched forward. 

Beijing would fall. The war would continue.

Here, the delegates would have no say. The committee was over, and everyone returned to their regular lives. But for two days, unremarkable students held the world in their hands, and they let it burn. 

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About the Contributor
George Zemenides
George Zemenides, Reporter