The Opium War and Foreign Encroachment
Two things happened
in the eighteenth century that made it difficult for England to balance
its trade with the East. First, the British became a nation of tea
drinkers and the demand for Chinese tea rose astronomically. It is
estimated that the average London worker spent five percent of his
or her total household budget on tea. Second, northern Chinese merchants
began to ship Chinese cotton from the interior to the south to compete
with the Indian cotton that Britain had used to help pay for its
tea consumption habits. To prevent a trade imbalance, the British
tried to sell more of their own products to China, but there was
not much demand for heavy woolen fabrics in a country accustomed
to either cotton padding or silk.
The only solution was to increase the amount of Indian goods to
pay for these Chinese luxuries, and increasingly in the seventeenth
and eighteenth centuries the item provided to China was Bengal opium.
With greater opium supplies had naturally come an increase in demand
and usage throughout the country, in spite of repeated prohibitions
by the Chinese government and officials. The British did all they
could to increase the trade: They bribed officials, helped the Chinese
work out elaborate smuggling schemes to get the opium into China's
interior, and distributed free samples of the drug to innocent victims.
The cost to China was enormous. The drug weakened a large percentage
of the population (some estimate that 10 percent of the population
regularly used opium by the late nineteenth century), and silver
began to flow out of the country to pay for the opium. Many of the
economic problems China faced later were either directly or indirectly
traced to the opium trade. The government debated about whether to
legalize the drug through a government monopoly like that on salt,
hoping to barter Chinese goods in return for opium. But since the
Chinese were fully aware of the harms of addiction, in 1838 the emperor
decided to send one of his most able officials, Lin Tse-hsu (Lin
Zexu, 1785-1850), to Canton (Guangzhou) to do whatever necessary
to end the traffic forever.
Lin was able to put his first two proposals into effect easily.
Addicts were rounded up, forcibly treated, and taken off the habit,
and domestic drug dealers were harshly punished. His third objective
— to confiscate foreign stores and force foreign merchants
to sign pledges of good conduct, agreeing never to trade in opium
and to be punished by Chinese law if ever found in violation — eventually
brought war. Opinion in England was divided: Some British did indeed
feel morally uneasy about the trade, but they were overruled by those
who wanted to increase England's China trade and teach the arrogant
Chinese a good lesson. Western military weapons, including percussion
lock muskets, heavy artillery, and paddlewheel gunboats, were far
superior to China's. Britain's troops had recently been toughened
in the Napoleonic wars, and Britain could muster garrisons, warships,
and provisions from its nearby colonies in Southeast Asia and India.
The result was a disaster for the Chinese. By the summer of 1842
British ships were victorious and were even preparing to shell the
old capital, Nanking (Nanjing), in central China. The emperor therefore
had no choice but to accept the British demands and sign a peace
agreement. This agreement, the first of the "unequal treaties," opened
China to the West and marked the beginning of Western exploitation
of the nation.
Other humiliating defeats followed in what one historian has called
China's "treaty century" (major aspects of the so-called "unequal
treaties" were not formally voided until 1943). In 1843, France
and the United States, and Russia in 1858, negotiated treaties similar
to England's Nanking (Nanjing) Treaty, including a provision for
extraterritoriality, whereby foreign nationals in China were immune
from Chinese law. To compel a reluctant China to shift from its traditional
tribute based foreign relations to treaty relations, Europeans fought
a second war with China from 1858-1860, and the concluding Treaty
of Tientsin (Tianjin) and Convention of Peking (Beijing) increased
China's semi-colonial status. More ports were open to foreign residence
and trade, and foreigners, especially missionaries, were allowed
free movement and business anywhere in the country.
Conflicts for the rest of the century wrung more humiliating concessions
from China: with Russia over claims in China's far west and northeast
in 1850 and 1860, with England over access to the upper reaches of
the Yangtze River in 1876, with France over northern Vietnam in 1884,
with Japan over its claims to Korea and northeast China in 1895,
and with many foreign powers after 1897 which demanded "spheres
of influence," especially for constructing railroads and mines.
In 1900, an international army suppressed the anti-foreign Boxer
Rebellion in northern China, destroying much of Beijing in the process.
Each of these defeats brought more foreign demands, greater indemnities
that China had to repay, more foreign presence along the coast, and
more foreign participation in China's political and economic life.
Little wonder that many in China were worried by the century's end
that China was being sliced up "like a melon."
Acknowledgment: The consultant for this unit was Dr. Sue Gronewold,
a specialist in Chinese history.
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