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Empire and Imperialism

AsiaImpact On China

Meanwhile, the trading activities of the English EIC had extended to China. But unlike the Mughal Empire of the eighteenth century, Qing China remained strong and united. Under the reigns of the Kangxi (r. 1662–1722) and the Qianlong (r. 1735–1796) emperors, the Chinese economy and territorial expansion as well as cultural refinements reached their apogee, although several symptoms of decline began to emerge by Qianlong's later years. Under a new set of regulations promulgated by the Chinese government in 1760 that came to be known as the "Canton System," all of the rules of engagements, including trade with all the Europeans, as well as the Americans who came after their War of Independence, were conducted on Chinese terms. And the Chinese authorities were unsparingly harsh in restricting all foreign trade to the port of Canton (since renamed Guangzhou), in limiting access of these foreign traders to a small number of specially licensed Chinese merchants who alone could trade with them, and who, when needed, would carry their petitions to the attention of Chinese officials. Some of the petitions involved European complaints about seemingly unjust punishments meted out to their sailors who had committed infractions under a Chinese legal system that was so different from their own. But various efforts by the English EIC and the government to negotiate for a more equitable relationship, culminating in the dispatch of Lord George Macartney as King George III's emissary to China in 1792–1793, did not affect any change. Lord Macartney arrived at Qianlong's court on the occasion of the emperor's eightieth birthday; he was treated as the head of a tribute-bearing mission, and Qianlong's reply praised the English king for his solicitations but firmly rejected all his requests for less restrictive trade or more direct communication.

The Chinese had made their response out of ignorance of how their world and the Western world were becoming more and more interconnected through rapid political, economic, and technological changes. Since the Canton system was put in place in China in the mid-eighteenth century, the English had begun an industrial revolution that allowed them to greatly increase their capability to produce more manufactured goods at far lesser costs. This in turn led them to try secure more raw materials and more markets to sell their finished products, and to the extent they were successful in these efforts, the nation reaped the benefit of greater wealth and stronger military power. Moreover, England's advances in military technology only made the Chinese unimproved military more and more obsolete. It was just a matter of time before the English felt that they had sufficient military logistical support to engage China in a war off China's own doorstep.

That came in 1839. The English, having chafed at unbalanced trade for many decades during which the Chinese had much to sell but would buy very little in return, had been importing larger and larger quantities of illegal opium until the trade imbalance switched against the Chinese side. After a court decision to strictly enforce the ban and an order then went out forcing all foreign merchants in Canton to surrender all opium still in their possession, the English official representative soon escalated the confrontation into a military conflict. The Opium War (or Anglo-Chinese War) ensued, and with their inevitable defeat the Chinese had no choice but to sign the Treaty of Nanjing with the English in 1842. This became the first of several treaties between China and the Western powers over the course of the next hundred years, for there would be other conflicts, more defeats, and further concessions. The series set up a new "treaty port" structure, providing territorial concessions and administrative autonomy for foreign settlements in specific treaty port cities like Shanghai. Other areas would be ceded (Hong Kong) or leased (Hong Kong's extension, the New Territories), while all Western imports could land on any treaty port—by the 1890s, there would be almost one hundred of them along the coast and on interior riverbanks—and at nominally low customs duties the rates of which the Chinese government could not raise. All Western residents in China, including Christian missionaries, were also granted extraterritoriality so that they would not be subject to Chinese laws. By thus giving away these and other rights, China from the mid-nineteenth century on no longer exercised full sovereign powers. But unlike India or the East Indies, it did not become a colony. Indeed, by the late nineteenth century, increasing rivalry among the major Western powers meant that it was in their interest to maintain the survival of the weakened Manchu regime in Beijing so that each one could turn China into a part of its own informal empire in East Asia.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Electrophoresis (cataphoresis) to EphemeralEmpire and Imperialism - Asia - Imperialism And Market, Impact On China, Varieties Of Imperialism In The Twentieth Century, Imperialism Reconsidered