I’ve been reading a lot about China lately; this is a bit of a teaser.

Reading about the 19th century is embarrassing: it was one reverse for China after another, starting with the first Opium War in 1839-42. China had been trading with the West for a few centuries. The West wanted various things– silk, porcelain, tea, carpets– while about all the Chinese wanted was silver. But Britain had recently come up with a new product: opium, grown in India. This was a winner, though immoral.

Dowager Empress Cixi, the de facto ruler for the last half of the century

Dowager Empress Cixi, the de facto ruler for the last half of the century. It was her fault, in part

The Chinese understandably objected, and sought to ban the trade. Britain responded with war, and trounced China. The price was high: an indemnity; extraterritoriality; Hong Kong Island; opening several treaty ports, and of course allowing the opium trade. This was only the first of many humiliations.

Which raises many questions: Didn’t people realize what was at stake? Why didn’t China modernize, when Japan managed it so fast that it became one of the Great Powers oppressing China by 1894? For that matter, how could Dèng Xiǎopíng do it a hundred years later?

There is no one answer, but a constellation of factors:

  • It was a huge, sudden adjustment. The 18C in China had been a huge success. China had never had a larger empire; it was stable and prosperous; it was largely peaceful at a time when war between the Western powers was near-constant; it wasn’t troubled by Western problems like religious wars and aristocracy. As late as 1800, the Chinese could feel that they were the most civilized nation on Earth, and see little around them to contradict this.
  • If you’ve been on top of the world, it’s hard to grasp that things have changed. This is a lesson we might learn today. In a hundred years, people will have as many questions about us as we have about the Qīng: Why did they ignore climate change? Why did they persist with a government structure that obstructed itself? Why did they ignore the domination of the 1%?
  • It didn’t help that China wasn’t run by the Chinese, but by the Manchus. As a foreign conquest dynasty, their chief priority was hanging onto power, and their basic attitude was conservative.
  • Yet the Manchus were perhaps too flexible. For millennia Chinese policy was to both fight and appease the barbarians, as seemed appropriate. You gave way a little in order to buy time and lessen threats; most likely the barbarians would all sinify sooner or later anyway.
  • Peasant rebellions, especially that of the Tàipíng, were far more destructive than the Western incursions, and till the end were more of a preoccupation to the elite.
  • China’s civil service examinations produced an elite defined not by wealth or blood, but by their shared achievement in mastering the Confucian classics.  The scholars could not embrace any educational reform that would eliminate their achievement and their status. In the 1870s there was a program to send Chinese students to US universities. It was controversial— and was canceled—because the students were being deprived of the opportunity to take the Confucian examinations.
  • The government was not well structured to address either development or foreign affairs. Much of the work that was done, including setting up factories and even fighting wars, was left to local officials.
  • China had long had merchants, but little of the underpinnings of capitalism: banks, insurance, civil law, an effective administration, bourgeois self-government.
  • The Western nations (including the US) had all protected their native manufactures by high tariffs; this was forbidden to the Chinese by the unequal treaties.
  • There was no real model to follow— contrast Dèng, who without even leaving the Sinosphere could contemplate Táiwān, Hong Kong, and Singapore.

Curiously, there was a precedent for the unequal treaties, only a few years before. Chinese power in Xīnjiāng, 3500 miles from Běijīng, had to be excercised with a light hand: the local population was Muslim, and were best ruled indirectly, through their own leaders. Kokand, in modern Uzbekistan, just outside Xīnjiāng, demanded extraterritoriality for its merchants, and fought a war to get it (1826-35).

Things did get done— after the first few wars, there was something China wanted very much: rifles and steamships.  It built arsenals, steelyards, shipyards.  It should also be noted that the service firms Westerners dealt with (‘compradors’), essentially their local partners, became huge enterprises that sometimes became richer than the Westerners they dealt with.

As for why Japan could modernize— just forty years after Commodore Perry’s visit in 1853 it was able to win a war with China— I’d point to some key differences:

  • Japan had less than a tenth of China’s population; smaller nations are easier to control and change.
  • It was used to borrowing ideas and institutions from abroad, whereas China had not really imported anything major after Buddhism.
  • Japan’s modernization required a coup d’état; but once this was done it had an effective government— when orders were issued, things got done. The Manchus never had that guarantee.
  • There was no scholar-bureaucrat class. The samurai elite defined itself militarily, and had less trouble embracing Western science and technology.
  • The Japanese had a stronger mercantile and maritime focus,which seems to offer a leg up on development— it was Britain and the Netherlands that led the way to modern capitalism.

Things started changing in 1911… but then everything fell apart.  But that’s a story for later.

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