Nov 2, 2017
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Traditionally, China had been a closed society with a self-sufficient economy. Till the 19th century, it pursued limited relations with the western powers, who she believed to belong to a “barbaric” civilisation. However, China’s isolation began to end in the first few decades of the 19th century as the British demand for new markets and new products increased and China provided such a new avenue. In addition to this, the smuggling of Opium into China enabled the British to balance out the unfavourable trade in tea and silk with China.

It was this lucrative trade for Britain that began to cause problems for the Chinese. The Opium trade was causing a huge financial and administrative problem for the Manchus and there was a threat of the influx of western ideas and values that would subvert the traditional Chinese order. Moreover, the Chinese seemed to be living under the illusion that they were a superior culture that could easily defeat the British in case of a war. Thus, they underestimated their enemy and began to take aggressive step against the British. Under Lin, they imposed strict restrictions on the British trade at Canton and even burnt down some Opium consignments that were docked at the port city. It was this, which provided the immediate context for the outbreak of the War. A number of theories have been propounded for the First Opium War; that it was a clash of civilisations, it was because of the growing British demand for free trade and China’s refusal for the same or that Opium was the most important factor that brought about the war between these two civilisations. It was the interplay of these factors, which resulted in the outbreak of the First Opium War (1839-42).

To avoid further disgrace, Lin was replaced by Chi Ying and Illipu, who negotiated with the British representative, Sir Henry Pottinger, and signed the Treaty of Nanking on August 29, 1842, bringing an end to the war. Jack Gray states that its clauses can be divided into three categories. The first included charges made as compensation for British property seized and destroyed to cover the cost of the war; these charges were aimed at deterring any future repetition of Lin’s seizure of the British community as hostages. Thus, it imposed upon China an indemnity of 21 million taels – $12 million for military expenses, $6 million for the destroyed opium at Canton and $3 million for the repayment of the hong merchants’ debts to the British traders. The second category included British demands for free trade that went beyond the existing rights. It provided for the opening of 5 Chinese ports – Canton, Amoy, Foochow, Ningpo, and Shanghai – to British traders to “reside and carry on trade”. All these were on the South Eastern coast of China and were among the more developed parts of the country. They could also buy land and open schools. It also provided for the cession to England of the island of Hong Kong. The final category was concerned with the redress of the grievances occasioned by the tightening of the Canton System in the 18th century, and by the inconsistencies and uncertainties of its operation. The Chinese agreed to abolish the Cohong and to set up regulations for a uniform and moderate tariff on imports and exports, fixed at 5% ad valorem. Any change in duties would be by mutual agreement. Moreover,  consuls were to be appointed at each of ports. British residents were under their consul’s legal jurisdiction, i.e., they had the right of extra-territoriality. However the treaty did not deal with the issue which the Chinese considered to be of greatest importance – the question of opium trade. This treaty was the first in a series of treaties which opened China to the Western world and established the ‘treaty-port system’. However, what was ironic was that Opium- the most immediate cause for the outbreak of the First Opium War- was not mentioned anywhere in the treaty. Three further treaties were signed to complete the first settlement. The British signed a supplementary Treaty of Bogue, concluded on October 18, 1843, which included the most-favoured-nation clause. This stipulated that any privileges which China might subsequently grant to other powers would automatically apply to Britain as well. The Treaty of Wanghia was signed on July 3, 1844 by the American Caleb Cushing. It secured for the US citizens the same treaty-port rights as the British, The French, under Théodore de Lagréné, negotiated the Treaty of Whampoa on October 24, 1844. This treaty was also along similar lines but, in addition, it secured permission for the establishment of Roman Catholic missions in the treaty ports and for the toleration there of Chinese as well as foreign Christians. None of these nations had an immediate trading interest in China, apart from the British. These treaties were signed in order to accommodate any future interests and since the British had already done the fighting, these treaties could be easily secured. The Chinese were anxious to avoid new conflicts. They also reasoned that denial would drive the Americans and the French to seek trade under the British auspices. They believed that these treaties would lead the western powers competing against each other and thus, prevent China from being completely at the mercy of the British. So the Chinese complied with these requests.

The treaties radically modified the West’s conditions of access to China and the scope of their activities there. They reinforced one another to form a single system of treaty law, which was further enriched by later agreements. They have also been called “unequal treaties” because they were not negotiated by nations treating each other as equals but were imposed on China after a war, and encroached upon China’s sovereign rights. There was increasing exploitation by the foreigners using the opportunities provided by the early treaties in the following years. They strengthened their positions by securing concessions, or privileged zones in the treaty ports, which set aside pieces of land for the residence of the citizens of the consul’s country. The respective consul was the highest authority on the spot and the residents regulated their affairs through municipal councils. In the late 1840s, another social evil developed in the form of the coolie trade, through which male labourers were shipped under contract to meet the demand for cheap labour in newly developing areas overseas, such as Cuba, Peru and Malaya. This had been opposed from the beginning by the Chinese authority as it had led to the exploitation of the Chinese people. They were transported to their destinations in packed ships like animals and the mortality rates on such ships were as high as 45%. These ships came to be known as “Floating Hell”. Once they reached their destination they were treated in an inhumane manner. This trade was illegal in China and all the coolies were bought through Chinese contractors. It was this trade that the British wanted legalised. There was also the growing menace of piracy. Foreign ships offered themselves for hire to Chinese owners of cargo-bearing junks to protect them against pirates. This practice lent itself to racketeering. Opium trade was not legalized but smuggling continued and expanded along the coast as far north as Shanghai. Opium addiction and import increased.

IY Hsu has argued that taking advantage of the fact that no provision was made in the Treaty of Nanking against the import of Opium, the foreign traders intensified their activities in this illicit and lucrative trade. The Chinese government was in no position to stop this trade because of which it practically became unrestrained and the volume of import rose from 33,000 chests in 1842 to 46,000 chests in 1848 and to above 52,000 chests by the 1850s. This trade led to a huge outflow of silver (almost 20-30M taels of silver every year), which further worsened the already grave economic situation in China and the copper-silver exchange rate. There was an almost 100% rise in the exchange rate, which virtually reduced a man’s income by half as it was the copper coin that was the basic medium of exchange in the market. The war and the consequent treaty had led to the general influx of foreign goods in the Treaty port areas. Local household and traditional industries were completely ruined and the self-sufficient economy also suffered dislocation. The most severely affected was the textile industry as the homemade goods could not compete with the better machine made goods coming from the west.

The Manchus lost more and more of their control over China. The treaties limited China’s autonomy in the administration of law and the control over tariffs. It broke down the Chinese system of controlled trade. The fixed customs rates deprived China of a protective tariff and allowed an influx of foreign goods, which affected the Chinese handicraft industry. Also, treaty-ports like Shanghai became centers of new economic development and the base of a new Chinese class outside the control of the Chinese government, i.e., the compradores, who were employed on contract to han dle the Chinese side of a foreign firm’s business with Chinese merchants.

Many important unresolved issues, however, still remained unresolved between the West and China. The hope that this treaty would resolve all the major conflicting issues between China and the west could not be fulfilled. In fact, the treaty complicated things further. For instance, the Opium Trade still wasn’t legal. In 1844, the British raised the issue of legalization of opium trade and called for a treaty revision. This was however just a pretext for war. There were various other factors which were building up towards another Sino-Western clash.

Firstly, Westerners were still refused access to the Walled City of Canton. The British had been able to obtain the right to entry into every other port town that they had acquired through the treaty except for Canton. The residents of this town had a long history of refusing entry to foreigners and dealing with them in a hostile, aggressive manner. Moreover, they stated that the clauses of the treaty had only given the British the right to trade in Canton but it did not specify that foreigners be allowed inside the city. Thus, the British were forced to live only in the old factory area. The appeasement policy being followed by Ch’i-ying, who was the governor-general at Canton led him to open the city to the British. However, his decision instigated such a strong public condemnation and violent mob attacks that the British decided to postpone their entry into the city. However, elated by their ‘success’ the Cantonese people continued to attack the British. This resulted in a raid carried out by the British in 1847 ended in a Chinese promise to open the city in 1849. Popular resistance, however, did not allow this to happen, intensifying British dissatisfaction. Moreover, Ch’i-ying was replaced by anti-foreign elements in the government due to which Sino-British relations deteriorated further. Also, the foreigners still had no direct contact with the Emperor at Peking. All the relations between the Emperor and the British were handled by the imperial commissioner at Canton, who acted as the foreign ministers. As a result of this, the British were usually tossed “to and fro like a shuttle between Imperial and Provincial authorities.” They believed that their interests could only be furthered if they had the right to establish a diplomatic mission at Peking especially since the Imperial Commissioner was not willing to announce anything unwelcome to the Emperor. Moreover, though English goods were allowed in China they were subjected to high custom dues that prevailed all over the country for all goods. The British wanted these dues to be completely removed for their goods or to be atleast reduced significantly, especially in light of the general fall in prices in the post-war period.

However, the most profound cause for dissatisfaction and disappointment was that foreign trade in China had not developed as much as had been expected. Chinese imports actually declined in 1850. They believed that this could be resolved through the opening of more trade routes and centers in the North and the interior of the country. So they now turned their attention to the Northern and inland ports, to increase the scope for business.

All these points-opening all of China to British merchants, legalizing the opium trade, exempting foreign imports from internal transit duties, suppression of piracy, regulation of the coolie trade, permission for a British ambassador to reside in Beijing and for the English-language version of all treaties to take precedence over the Chinese-were presented to the authorities in 1845 by France, Britain and the United States, demanding that the treaties be revised. The Chinese refused, evading on one pretext or the other. The foreigners could now resort to force again, as in the previous war, to gain concessions.

In 1856, an incident occurred which led to the beginning of the Second Opium War. This was the ‘Lorcha Arrow incident’. It was on account of this incident being the most immediate cause for the Second Opium War that this war has often been referred to as the “The Arrow War”. In October, the Chinese authorities charged one Chinese ship with British registry – a lorcha called the “Arrow” – that there was a pirate was among the Chinese crew. They hauled down the British flag and took off 12 of the crew. The British officials in Guangzhou demanded the release of the sailors, claiming that because the ship had recently been British-registered, it was protected under the Treaty of Nanking. Only when this was shown to be a weak argument did the British insist that the Arrow had been flying a British ensign and that the Qing soldiers had insulted the flag. The British demanded an apology but the Chinese refused on the grounds that there was no flag flying at that time and claimed that they had every right to arrest Chinese citizens from a Chinese owned ship. Moreover, the registration had expired by that time although this was something that the Chinese did not know at that time. The British were aware of this fact and knew that in such a case, the British protection could not be legally granted. However, an ordinance of Hong Kong provided that if the expiry occurred, while, the vessel was at sea, the registration remained valid until its return to Hong Kong. Since the vessel was at Canton at the time the Chinese raided it, the British insisted that it was their right to take action against the Chinese. After this the British ships started firing on the Canton forts. They also got French support, since the latter had a special grievance of their own. A few years earlier, a French missionary, Abbé Chapdelaine, who had entered Kwangsi illegally, had been arrested by the Chinese authorities, together with some of his Chinese converts, and put to death. So the French were aroused.

The “Arrow Incident” was looked upon highly unfavourably by the western press as they believed that the registry had expired and hence, it was a Chinese ship, thereby, giving the Manchus every right to raid and attack the ship. However, by now the British had already decided to wage against the Chinese in order to have their demands fulfilled and wanted to use any pretext to declare. The Second Opium War now begun.

All these factors prompted the British, in alliance with the French, to renew hostilities with China in 1858. After the suppression of the “Great Rebellion” o f 1857 in India the British could spare some of their forces for China and no more would they have to fight on two fronts simultaneously. They were also aware of how weakened the Ch’ing Empire had become after several years of coping with major rebellions in different parts of the country. In 1858, the Anglo-French forces attacked and captured Canton. Following this, they moved north and for the first time launched an assault on Peking itself. The capital, including the beautiful imperial summer palace, was ravaged, and the Emperor was forced to flee.

Thus, it can be Once again, the Chinese were defeated. Canton was lost in 1858, and this was followed by the signing of the Treaty of Tientsin. It provided for the opening of 11 new treaty ports, including Tientsin and Hankou. The Yangtze River was also opened to foreign navigation and commerce. The tariff schedules were revised. Foreign imports of all kinds were allowed to pass freely in the interior on payment of a further transit duty of 22%, which allowed them to compete with native products. Opium was included in the tariff schedules and thus became a legal import. The treaties also provided for the residence in Peking of diplomatic representatives of foreign countries. Moreover, the Westerners were given the right to reside and acquire land anywhere in the country.
The French secured the Chinese agreement for toleration of missionaries and converts at all places in China. Russians too took advantage of the situation, demanding a redrawing of the frontiers in their favour. In 1858, the Treaty of Aigun was signed, ceding to Russia all the territory north of the Argun and the Amur. The conclusion of the Opium War marked another–but not the final—chapter on the opening of China to Western expansionism.

A new clash occurred in 1859 at the Taku forts near Tientsin. After that, the allies moved on to Tientsin and from there to Peking in 1860. They also looted and destroyed the Imperial Summer Palace outside the city and the Emperor was forced to flee to Inner Mongolia. This defeat was followed by the signing of the Conventions of Peking on October 24, 1860. The Chinese agreed pay to England and France indemnities of 8 million taels each and to cede to the British the tip of the Kowloon peninsula, opposite Hong Kong. The right of missionaries to preach Christianity throughout the empire was recognized and they had the right to own property anywhere in the interior, a right denied to other foreigners, who could travel in the interior but not reside there. This was followed in 1876 by the Chefoo Convention which opened more ports arranged for inland trade with British Burma and increased local taxes on commerce.

The Second Treaty Settlement took away from the Chinese government their control over the economy and the government was no longer able to prevent the forcing of Western goods on the Chinese people. Foreign control over the collection of customs, which was not entirely top the disadvantage of the central government, was a further invasion of Chinese sovereign rights. The treaty ports led to a concentration of industry, education and westernization along the coast and in a few inland centers. The treaty port communities soon came to include Chinese as well as foreigners, and under foreign protection there grew up a new westernized social class of Chinese, which was to have a great influence on China’s future development.     


Thus we see that the Opium Wars resulted in a gradual encroachment of Chinese sovereignty and reduced her to the status of a ‘semi-colony’ or ‘informal colony’ by the end of the 19th century. China’s isolation ended for first time as it came to be partitioned among the Western powers, though it was never completely colonized. The impact of the two wars thus posed a challenge to the age-old conceptions held by the Chinese about their place in the world and fundamentally transformed the relations between China and the Western powers in the favour of the latter. They also set a pattern for China’s relations with the West that lasted for the next 100 years. The Opium Wars had a far-reaching effect on Chinese society and economy as well, accentuating the prevailing internal crisis and presenting a serious threat to the traditional Confucian order for the first time in Chinese history. 

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