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The Railway Protection Movement (simplified Chinese: 保路运动; traditional Chinese: 保路運動), also known as the "Railway Rights Protection Movement", was a political protest movement that erupted in 1911 in late Qing China against the Qing government's plan to nationalize local railway development projects and transfer control to foreign banks. The movement, centered in Sichuan province, expressed mass discontent with Qing rule, galvanized anti-Qing groups and contributed to the outbreak of the Xinhai Revolution. The mobilization of imperial troops from neighboring Hubei Province to suppress the Railway Protection Movement created the opportunity for revolutionaries in Wuhan to launch the Wuchang Uprising, which triggered the revolution that overthrew the Qing dynasty and established the Republic of China.
From the 1890s to 1905, nearly all railways in China were planned, financed, built and operated by foreign powers pursuant to concessions from the Qing government. To help local economies develop and retain earnings from railways, the Qing government granted the provinces the right to organize their own railway construction ventures.
In 1905, Sichuan Province established the Sichuan-Hankou Railway Company. To raise funds for the 1,238 km railway from Chengdu to Wuhan, the company sold shares to the public and the provincial government levied a special 3% tax on harvests paid by land owners, who were also given share certificates. In one way or another, much of the Sichuan gentry and merchant class became shareholders of the railway venture. By 1911, the company had raised 11,983,305 taels of silver of which 9,288,428 or 77.5% came from tax levies, 2,458,147 taels from public investments and 236,730 taels from government. The company was beset by corruption and mismanagement by government-appointed administrators, and construction efforts made little progress. In 1907, the company management was replaced by a board of trustees consisting of gentry, merchants and retired officials. In 1909, Zhan Tianyou, the Yale-educated builder of the Beijing-Zhangjiakou Railway, was hired as chief engineer. But the board remained divided by squabbles over the route of the planned railway and only about 10 miles of track had been laid by 1911.
Meanwhile, the Qing government, impatient with the progress of locally funded railway projects, returned to foreign lenders. At the time, the Qing authorities were under the financial pressure of having to pay back huge debts under the terms of the Boxer Protocol. By nationalizing the local rail ventures and then selling the rights to those ventures to foreigners, the government could raise money to pay debts owed to Great Britain, Germany, France and the United States. In early May 1911, lenders of the "Four Powers Consortium" including Hongkong Shanghai Banking Corporation (HSBC) of Britain, Deutsch-Asiatische Bank of Germany, Banque de l'Indochine of France, and J.P. Morgan & Co., Kuhn, Loeb & Co. and First National City Bank of New York (CitiBank) of the United States, agreed with the Qing government to finance the construction of railways in central China. On May 9, Sheng Xuanhuai, Minister of Posts and Communications, ordered the nationalization of all locally controlled railway projects and on May 20, signed a loan agreement with the Four Powers Consortium pledging the rights to operate the Sichuan-Hankou and Hankou-Guangdong Railway in exchange for a 10 million pound loan, to be repaid by custom duties and salt taxes. The Guangdong-Hankou Railway was a locally backed venture in Hubei, Hunan and Guangdong Province.
The nationalization order drew strong opposition across southern China, especially Sichuan, which had the largest public shareholding in the Sichuan-Hankou Railway venture. Investors were unhappy that they would only be partially compensated with government bonds, rather than silver.
The amount offered to Sichuan was much lower than all other provinces. Pu Dianjun and other influential members of the Sichuan Provincial Assembly organized the Railway Protection League on June 17, and made public speeches against the plan, which was widely regarded as a seizure of valuable economic assets by the Manchu court and conversion of local property to foreign control.
On August 11–13, more than 10,000 protesters held a rally against the proposal in Chengdu and organized a series of strikes and boycotts by students and merchants. On September 1, the Sichuan-Hankou Railway Company adopted a shareholders' resolution calling on the Sichuan public to withhold the payment of grain taxes to the Qing government. On September 7, the Governor-General of Sichuan, Zhao Erfeng had Pu Dianjun and other leaders arrested and closed the company. Enraged protesters then marched on the Governor-General's office in Chengdu demanding Pu's release. Zhao Erfeng ordered troops to open fire and dozens of protesters were killed. In Chengdu there were 32 deaths.
Bloodshed further inflamed the protests. Underground anti-Qing groups including the Tongmenghui and Gelaohui initiated armed clashes with Qing troops in and around Chengdu. On September 15, Wang Tianjie, head of the Gelaohui in Rong County south of Chengdu organized the Comrades' Army and led 800 followers to march on Chengdu, vowing to topple Zhao Erfeng. As tensions escalated in Sichuan, the Qing government removed Zhao Erfeng from the governorship and offered full compensation to investors. But armed groups numbering as many as over a hundred thousand were overwhelming government authorities in Sichuan.
The Qing court also ordered the Governor-General of Hubei and Hunan, Duan Fang, to reinforce Sichuan with troops from Hubei. The situation in Hubei and Hunan was slightly different; elites in those provinces were not as outraged as elites in Sichuan over the nationalization of the provincial railways. The press together with radical students in both provinces reproached local elites for their perceived passivity and servility, and compared them unfavorably to the protesters in Sichuan. As Joseph Esherick has explained, it was in this atmosphere of heated rhetoric that the public mood in both provinces began to radicalize: "[T]he general belief that the Manchu dynasty was coming to an end ... was slowly transformed into a wish that the dynasty would fall."
In turn, the mobilization of New Army troops from Hubei forced underground revolutionary groups there to expedite their planned uprising. The diversion of New Army troops weakened defenses in Wuhan but also took away some of the army units sympathetic to the revolutionaries. On October 10, 1911, revolutionaries in the New Army units that remained in Wuhan launched the Wuchang Uprising.
After the outbreak of the Xinhai Revolution, uprisings and clashes in Sichuan between loyalists and revolutionaries continued into November. Duanfang was killed by Liu Yifeng after a mutiny by the New Army. On November 14, Zhao Erfeng released Pu Dianjun from prison and negotiated an agreement to hand over power to a newly established Great Han Military Government of Sichuan. On November 27, Pu Dianjun declared Sichuan's independence from the Qing dynasty. Zhao Erfeng was subsequently accused of fomenting a coup that briefly swept Chengdu in December and was executed by the revolutionaries on December 28.
Ironically, the Sichuan–Hankou Railway, the underlying cause of all this trouble, remained unbuilt for decades due to political turmoil, warfare, inadequate funding, and extremely difficult terrain. The Chengdu–Chongqing Railway, built in 1955, and the Xiangyang–Chongqing Railway, completed in 1979, eventually connected Chengdu and Wuhan, but the journey takes an indirect path through Shaanxi Province. The long-dormant plans for a railway along the original Sichuan-Hankou Railway route were eventually brought to fruition almost a century later as the Shanghai–Wuhan–Chengdu Passenger Dedicated Line, a high-speed railway project. The last remaining section of this high-speed line between Wuhan and Chengdu, the Wuhan-Yichang Railway, opened on July 1, 2012.