The Ottoman and Chinese empires are said to have faced threats to their sovereignty that required them to defer economic development. For example, one reason given for the Chinese government's hostility to railways was that foreign militaries, merchants, or missionaries might use railroads to compromise the security of the country. Yet the choice itself was revealing. For one thing, it simply assumed that the Chinese themselves would not be able to adopt the new technologies, including military use of railroads, while the Japanese did just that. For another thing, denying the nation a revolution in transportation simply to refuse foreigners access to it implied that the threat to government influence outweighed the opportunity for economic growth. Imperial power and stability were more important than development. Eventually the imperial government reversed itself after it used railroads to move government troops around quickly during the Boxer Rebellion of 1899-1900, and it embarked on a program to try to build railroads, but this was forty years too late. The military necessity argument is precisely backward: The accelerating infringements on Chinese and Ottoman sovereignty over the course of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were a result of their economic inadequacies, not their cause.
In the case of India, its status as a militarily crucial jewel in the British crown is sometimes alleged to have retarded growth, because of colonial neglect of economic needs. It is true that military needs motivated the principal British expenditure in India, the building of an extensive railroad system. But far from retarding development, the railways were probably the single most important source of what economic successes India registered. This alone was insufficient, however. Both the British and their Indian allies were, like the rulers of China and the Ottoman Empire, primarily concerned with maintaining political control and regarded aggressive developmental policies with suspicion.
By the last decades of the nineteenth century the disastrous development gap was clear, and reform movements grew in all three countries. There were many clearheaded and well-meaning agents of change, even inside government, but in most cases their efforts were hindered by continued imperial resistance.
Some of China's rulers, for example, embraced economic and political reform. But the government's reformist credentials were suspect, as the Chinese empress dowager showed when she backed the anti-Western Boxer Rebellion. Even the changes the Chinese government did implement were distorted by the influence of the traditional ruling classes.
One of the most pressing tasks was the development of modern industry which was virtually nonexistent in China. Yet the few national and regional rulers who encouraged industry did so primarily as a way of extending their own influence. The provincial governor of Hubei and Hunan, for example, set up the Hanyang Ironworks under his personal auspices. He himself placed the mill's orders for equipment by way of the Chinese ambassador in London, apparently on the principle that he wanted the latest in British equipment. Given the governor's ignorance of metalworking, the blast furnaces were inappropriate for local ore, while the coal intended for the mill was unusable. To make matters worse, the mill was built in a location that was too small and too damp but that had the virtue of being within sight of the governor's palace. The mill cost a fortune and failed miserably. The economic historian Albert Feuerwerker studied a host of these last-ditch attempts by the imperial government to stimulate industry. In case after case the schemes enriched a few merchants and officials but did nothing to modernize the country's economy. 'The overwhelming political weight of the scholar-gentry elite,' he wrote, 'was opposed or indifferent to industrialization.'
As entrenched interests sabotaged reform, opponents of the ruling classes picked up the banner of national renovation. Indian nationalists who wanted greater autonomy for the colony led the movement for economic development. Mid-ranking officers in the Ottoman Army spearheaded the drive for reform there. The Young Turks took power in 1908-1909, but their plans were overtaken by World War One. The war demonstrated just how calamitous delay had been, with massive Ottoman losses to foreigners and to indigenous nationalist movements. As the empire collapsed, another young officer, Mustafa Kemal (Ataturk), led the empire's remnants toward modernity as the new secular, republican Turkey. The relative successes of Ataturk's Turkey served only to highlight the retrograde nature of the regime it replaced.
New social and economic forces only came to the fore by revolution in China too. The imperial government's reform program was timid, and in 1911 a coalition of insurgent army officers and civilian opponents brought down the monarchy. Sun Yat-sen and his Nationalist Party led the rebel movement to declare a republic in 1912. But as in the Ottoman Empire, reform came too late to avoid a further deterioration of the country's condition.