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Articles Blog

China's Opium Wars

Karyn Planett

British Imperialism in China

The history of imperialism in Asia began with the Portuguese in the 15th century. They were the first to establish a virtual monopoly over the spice trade between Asia and Europe on the strength of their superior naval power. Prior to that time European economies had been largely self-sufficient but the trade of commodities begun by the Portuguese was a foretaste of today’s capitalist system.

By the 17th century the Portuguese had been eclipsed by the Dutch and the Dutch East India Company became the dominant trading force from their heavily fortified base in Batavia (now the Indonesian capital of Jakarta). The British weren’t far behind in recognizing the commercial importance of trade and with the rise of their own naval strength, they too established bases in India. Their Honourable East India Company (also known as the John Company) was given a monopoly over trade with Asia and they were soon operating out of Bengal (now Bangladesh). These fortified bases were never intended to be colonies, merely centers of commerce protected by private armies overseeing trade that stretched to China, Japan and Korea.

Tea Time

By the 1800s, Europe’s demand for oriental products had blossomed beyond spices to embrace a broad range of exotic goods from shimmering silk to precious stones. And in England the hottest commodity was the newest sensation—tea—a thirst that has yet to be quenched even today. The major source of tea was China where it grew in abundance and the Chinese were only too happy to trade heaps of it to the English.

Unfortunately, what the Chinese wanted in return wasn’t something England had in abundance, like coal or itchy wool clothing or British humor. They wanted silver, something the Chinese valued more highly than gold and which the British had to get from continental Europe at a decidedly disadvantaged exchange rate.

Desperate to find a valuable commodity closer to the source, the enterprising “Honourable” East India Company came up with opium—a product grown in profusion in India. But in the 1800s opium was illegal in China and virtually unknown to the general populous. There was no demand for it so the Brits created one by smuggling it in. In a few short years they had encouraged a nice base of over two million addicts and the value of opium soon reversed their trade deficit.

Qing Bling

Leaders of the Qing government (whose members were the primary drivers of Chinese silver lust) soon became alarmed by the drift of events, their people’s health, and the reversal of their silver trade. Attempts to crack down on the traders inevitably led to increasingly violent exchanges that, with the imbalance of military strength and resources, the Chinese were destined to lose.

British pressure increased to the point where they were able to mount military incursions (the First Opium War), soundly defeat outdated Chinese forces, and dictate a peace treaty. The Treaty of Nanjing became the first of the so-called Unequal Treaties forced upon the Chinese by more powerful western imperialists. In it, the Chinese committed to fixed tariffs on British goods, opened several ports to British merchants, and ceded Hong Kong Island to Queen Victoria.

The Arrow War

By the mid-1800s, many outposts established as trading centers had begun to morph into full-fledged colonies and western powers were pressing for the expansion of their overseas markets against still-backward Asian regimes. The British wanted all Chinese ports opened to their merchants, the legalization of the opium trade and the establishment of an ambassador in Beijing. The Qing’s court rejected these demands so the hunt was on for another “incident” that would provide the necessary excuse to force a result.

They soon had it when Chinese authorities detained a Chinese-owned but British-registered ship suspected of piracy. The British claimed that their ensign was treated disrespectfully during the seizure (not exactly a WMD event) and the Second Opium War was on. Meanwhile the Chinese attempted to poison the entire British garrison in Hong Kong by spiking their bread with arsenic. Unfortunately, they were a bit heavy-handed and the alarm was raised before anyone was harmed.

The Treaty of Tianjin further eroded Chinese hegemony by opening even more ports to western trade, allowing foreign embassies to be established in Beijing, and granting foreign travelers passage into the interior regions.

The humiliating military defeats and subsequent Unequal Treaties so shocked the Chinese people that these events led to the Taiping Rebellion in 1850, the Boxer Rebellion in 1899, and to the eventual downfall of the Qing Dynasty, replaced by the Republic of China in 1912 and bringing 2,000 years of imperial China to an end.