CHAPTER XXI. THE REGENCY
Prince Kung had been most anxious for the speedy arrival of the flotilla; and the doubtful fortune of the campaign in Kiangsu, where the gunboats would have been invaluable, rendered him extremely desirous that they should commence active operations immediately on arrival. But he found, in the first place, that Mr. Lay was not prepared to accept the appointment of a Chinese official as joint-commander, and in the second place, that he would not receive orders from any of the provincial authorities. Such a decision was manifestly attended with the greatest inconvenience to China; for only the provincial authorities knew what the interests of the State demanded, and where the fleet might co-operate with advantage in the attacks on the Taepings. Unless Captain Osborn were to act on the orders of Tsen Kwofan, and particularly of Li Hung Chang, it was difficult to see of what possible use he or his flotilla could be to China. The founders of the new Chinese navy claimed practically all the privileges of an ally, and declined the duties devolving on them as directing a department of the Chinese administration. Of course, it was more convenient and more dignified for the foreign officers to draw their instructions and their salaries direct from the fountain-head; but if the flotilla was not to be of any practical use to China it might just as well never have been created. The fleet arrived in safety, but remained inactive. The whole summer and autumn of 1863, with its critical state of affairs round Soochow, passed away without anything being done to show what a powerful auxiliary Mr. Lay's ships might be. The ultimate success of those operations without the smallest co-operation on the part of Captain Osborn or his flotilla virtually sealed its fate. In October, Wansiang, in the name of the Foreign Office, declared that the Chinese could not recognize or ratify the private arrangement between Mr. Lay and his naval officer, and that it was essential for Captain Osborn to submit to receive his instructions from the provincial authorities. In the following month Mr. Lay was summarily dismissed from the Chinese service, and it was determined, after some delay and various counter suggestions, to send back the ships to Europe, there to be disposed of. The radical fault in the whole arrangement had been Mr. Lay's wanting to take upon himself the responsibility not merely of Inspector-General of Customs, but also of supreme adviser on all matters connected with foreign questions. The Chinese themselves were to take quite a subordinate part in their realization, and were to be treated, in short, as if they did not know how to manage their own affairs. Mr. Lay's dreams were suddenly dispelled, and his philanthropic schemes fell to the ground. Neither Prince Kung nor his colleagues had any intention to pave the way for their own effacement.
After Mr. Lay's departure the Maritime Customs were placed under the control of Mr. Robert Hart, who had acted during Mr. Lay's absence in Europe. This appointment was accompanied by the transfer of the official residence from Pekin to Shanghai, which was attended with much practical advantage. Already the customs revenue had risen to three millions, and trade was steadily expanding as the rebels were gradually driven back, and as the Yangtsekiang and the coasts became safer for navigation. Numerous schemes were suggested for the opening up of China by railways and the telegraph; but they all very soon ended in nothing, for the simple reason that the Chinese did not want them. They were more sincere and energetic in their adoption of military improvements.
The anxieties of Prince Kung on the subject of the dynasty, and with regard to the undue pretensions and expectations of the foreign officials who looked on the Chinese merely as the instruments of their self- aggrandizement, were further increased during this period by the depredations of the Nienfei rebels in the province of Shantung. During these operations Sankolinsin died, leaving Tseng Kwofan in undisputed possession of the first place among Chinese officials. Sankolinsin, when retreating after a reverse, was treacherously murdered by some villagers whose hospitality he had claimed.
The events of this introductory period may be appropriately concluded with the strange stroke of misfortune that befell Prince Kung in the spring of 1865, and which seemed to show that he had indulged some views of personal ambition. The affair had probably a secret history, but if so the truth is hardly likely to be ever known. The known facts were as follows: On April 2, 1865, there appeared an edict degrading the prince in the name of the two regent-empresses. The charge made against him was of having grown arrogant and assumed privileges to which he had no right. He was at first "diligent and circumspect," but he has now become disposed "to overrate his own importance." In consequence, he was deprived of all his appointments and dismissed from the scene of public affairs. Five weeks after his fall, however, Prince Kung was reinstated, on May 8, in all his offices, with the exception of that of President of the Council. This episode, which might have produced grave complications, closed with a return to almost the precise state of things previously existing. There was one important difference. The two empresses had asserted their predominance. Prince Kung had hoped to be supreme, and to rule uncontrolled. From this time forth he was content to be their minister and adviser, on terms similar to those that would have applied to any other official.