Tuesday, May 21, 2024

A Political and Economic History of China: Part 20: The Taiping Rebellion of 1851-1864 (2 of 2)

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7 MIN READ - The Cautious Optimism Correspondent for Economic Affairs and Other Egghead Stuff concludes his two-part series on China’s Taiping Rebellion, the bloodiest civil war in history with a body count exceeded only by World Wars I and II.

The siege of Nanjing (1864)
Before finishing the story of the great Taiping Rebellion, the Economics Correspondent would like to recommend two sources.

First, for those who missed the opening of the greatest Chinese civil war and its early battles, you can go back to Part 1 at:


Second, for anyone interested in a much more detailed account of the Taiping Rebellion the Correspondent can recommend a fantastic book.

Stephen R. Platt’s “Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom”(2012) is not only a magnificent account of the Taiping Rebellion’s final years, it’s also one of the best books on Chinese history the Correspondent has ever read and in his opinion the most beautifully written.

With those two suggestions out of the way let’s continue with the conclusion of the civil war that from 1851 to 1864 killed at least 20-30 million Chinese.


As fighting raged between the bizarre, erratically-led Taiping rebels and the equally corrupt, unsteady Qing dynasty many top imperial generals were killed in battle. As replacement the Qing court elevated a competent commander who had previously languished behind the Taiping’s lesser flanks in a remote province.

Zeng Guofan (pronounced “zuhng gwoh fahn”), one of the classic Confucian scholar-soldiers of that age, was a frail ethnic Han Chinese from Hunan province. Making a name for himself with several small victories in southern China, he was called upon by the Xianfeng emperor himself to assume a leading role in the war. 

Zeng had little love for the alien Manchus and hesitated at the offer. Should he go down in history as the Chinese general who squelched a rebellion of his own Chinese countrymen?

But after seeing the animalistic slaughter launched by the Taipings, their indifference to the death and destruction laying China to waste, and their bizarre religion, economics, and politics, Zeng concluded China would descend into utter chaos under Taiping rule. Zeng was particularly alarmed to see the Taipings sweep away thousands of years of Chinese tradition replaced with their freakish society, in contrast to the Qing who embraced and promoted Confucianism. He made the thorny choice to side with stability over chaos and agreed to the promotion.

The incorruptible Zeng’s reform of the dilapidated military became legend in 19th century Chinese lore, and soon his “Standard Green Army” was winning major victories against increasingly confused Taiping forces. The emperor was pleased although his advisors fretted that a powerful army under non-Manchu leadership might pose a threat to Qing rule after the war.

On a side note Zeng’s protégé, the younger general Li Hongzhang who outlived Zeng by nearly thirty years and inherited his top command, had a major impact on post-Qing China. Although we’re getting a bit ahead of ourselves, as the post-Taiping Qing fell further into disarray—losing more territory to foreign powers while hopelessly plagued by corruption—the central government lost its ability to rule China’s outer provinces. Li’s military hierarchy filled the gap when he installed regional military governors who reported directly to him.

In the chaos of the Qing's swift and unexpected 1912 collapse, eleven years after Li’s death, regional military governors exerted greater authority over their provinces and China descended into the so-called “Warlord Era.”

Known well to Chinese historians, the Warlord Era’s precursors hail all the way back to the Taiping Rebellion when, at war’s end, a fully retired Zeng handed his generalship to Li Hongzhang who in turn unwittingly molded the order that would split China into bickering fiefdoms half a century later.


Britain and her allies fought the brief “Second Opium War” against China from 1856 to 1860, the middle two years being quiet while peace negotiations dragged on. An ultimate allied victory awarded Britain new trading ports, the territory of Kowloon, the legalization of Christianity throughout all of China, and new rounds of war reparation payments.

With the new treaty signed British attitudes began to side with the Qing.

As we noted in the first installment, both the British public and Parliament quickly learned they had little in common with the allegedly “Christian” Taipings whose bizarre version of the religion more resembled the early Ottoman Empire. The Taiping’s communist economics and wholesale slaughter of civilians won them no adoration from the west either.

(Unsurprisingly Karl Marx, exiled by Germany to London at the time, wrote in the newspapers that the Taipings were fighting for revolutionary class struggle and their victory would trigger the inevitable final collapse of British capitalism—two more things he got wrong) 

Moreover Britain worried about the security of both their old and newly won treaty ports, several of which Taiping armies were menacingly close to overrunning on the eastern Yangtze.

And lastly, the Qing government had just committed to years of monetary reparations for the Second Opium War giving Britain another reason to side with the incumbent rulers. Parliament feared a new Taiping government might not honor compensation agreements made by a defunct Qing dynasty.

Britain didn’t declare outright war on the Taipings, nor did it commit large numbers of troops, but Parliament did approve material aid including the sale of modern riverfaring warships and western guns. Most famous of all was battlefield leadership under British Major Charles Gordon, the very same Gordon who had partaken in and witnessed the looting and burning of the emperor’s Summer Palace in 1860.

(Gordon is such a colorful historical figure that Hollywood made a rather average action film about his adventures in Sudan, played by a very un-English sounding Charlton Heston)

American mercenary general Frederick Townsend Ward, a hothead alcoholic commanding the Qing “Ever Victorious Army,” was killed by a Taiping bullet in 1862. The Qing, who detested Ward’s drunkenness and temper, asked Britain for a more agreeable replacement leading to Gordon’s assignment.

Gordon himself had grown a deep personal affection for China and its culture, and he was heartbroken seeing the devastation, poverty and suffering of the Chinese people that only worsened during the war. Teaching Ward’s unruly troops discipline, well-honed fighting techniques, and enforcing strict ethics (which included, ironically, orders not to loot the local population) Gordon cemented the legendary Ever Victorious Army’s reputation, capturing hundreds of Taiping-controlled cities and reportedly never losing a battle.

Qing general Li Hongzhang, who we’ve already mentioned, extolled Gordon, writing…

”It is a direct blessing from Heaven, the coming of this British Gordon. ... He is superior in manner and bearing to any of the foreigners whom I have come into contact with, and does not show outwardly that conceit which makes most of them repugnant in my sight... What an elixir for a heavy heart to see this splendid Englishman fight! ...If there is anything that I admire nearly as much as the superb scholarship of Zeng Guofan, it is the military qualities of this fine officer. He is a glorious fellow!”

At war’s end the Qing government bestowed Gordon the equivalent rank of field marshal, dressed him in full mandarin regalia, and granted him the honorary “Imperial Yellow Jacket” reserved for only forty men in all of China—namely, the emperor’s ceremonial bodyguard.

Throughout his string of military victories Gordon was offered financial gifts from royalty and merchants alike but the incorruptible Englishman always refused, writing "I know I shall leave China as poor as I entered it, but with the knowledge that, through my weak instrumentality, upwards of eighty to one hundred thousand lives have been spared. I want no further satisfaction than this." Gordon’s achievements were widely reported in the British press where he gained the nickname “Chinese Gordon.”

Maj General Charles Gordon

Between Zeng Guofan and Li Hongzhang’s reinvigorated armies, British material assistance, Charles Gordon’s direction, and a little help from American mercenaries the Qing government finally got the upper hand on the Taiping. They also got help from the Taipings themselves whose top generals, coping poorly with their reversing fortunes, turned on one another. They also turned on Chinese peasants alongside the long-plundered landlords, alienating the masses through widespread looting, scorching and burning of villages and brutally massacring innocents.

Qing forces retook strategic cities on the Yangtze River and eventually laid siege to the Taiping capital of Nanjing. After several months of starvation and disease within the city walls, Nanjing finally fell. Hong Xiuquan’s body was found dead, poisoned either from eating noxious weeds or suicide. What few Taiping officials survived were interrogated by the Qing, then tortured and slowly killed, their remains finally blown out of cannons to prevent their entering heaven.

After fourteen years and 20-30 million deaths the Taiping Rebellion was officially over, but the Qing Dynasty was forever changed and weakened.


To conclude the Taiping Rebellion story, we’ll touch on how China regards two of its key figures today.

During the Chinese Communists’ years fighting Chiang Kai-Shek’s Nationalists, Mao Zedong openly revered Hong Xiuquan who he viewed as a fellow Marxist. Hong, like Mao, was also a peasant from the south fighting the hopelessly corrupt Qing dynasty, just as the CCP was rebelling against the corrupt Nationalist government.

Although Mao complimented Zeng Guofan’s military prowess, he nevertheless condemned the general as a traitor for siding with the alien Qing imperialists against his fellow Chinese who harbored primitive but virtuous communist ideals.

In the 21st century the CCP’s views on the Taiping Rebellion have “evolved.”

Zeng Guofan is now hailed as a hero. China, according to the modern version of history, would have fallen into chaos under the Taiping rebels and Zeng made the agonizing but correct decision to side with the government to “preserve stability.”

Hong Xiuquan, on the other hand, was a strange religious mystic similar to today’s Falun Gong. His attempt to usurp the government wrought widespread devastation which in turn invited further encroachment upon China by imperialistic foreigners. Now his legacy is “debated.”

(Never mind that Mao Zedong heaved China into his own destructive chaos during the Cultural Revolution, seeking to annihilate all vestiges of Chinese history and tradition just like the Taipings. Mao also preyed upon countless young women in his Zhongnanhai government compound, paralleling Hong’s bizarre orgies in his Nanjing palace.)

Now that the corrupt establishment is no longer Chiang Kai-Shek’s Nationalists but rather the CCP, the new dynasty no longer condones troublesome insurgents. “Stability” is paramount to revolution. Hong, a hero when the communists were the rebels, is now ambiguous. Zeng, a traitor when the Nationalists were the establishment, is now a patriot.

Thursday, May 16, 2024

A Political and Economic History of China: Part 19: The Taiping Rebellion of 1851-1864 (1 of 2)

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7 MIN READ - The Cautious Optimism Correspondent for Economic Affairs and Other Egghead Stuff devotes a special two part mini-series to the bloodiest civil war in history with the third greatest death toll of any conflict, trailing only World Wars I and II.

The Economics Correspondent has so far focused parts 11 through 18 of his history of China on the last imperial dynasty: the Qing (1644-1912, pronounced “ching”).

The Qing were actually not even Chinese but ethnic Manchurians who swept on horseback from the northeast to capitalize on the civil war raging between the declining, corrupt Ming dynasty and peasant rebels. After conquering China in 1644 the Qing, being alien outsiders, were disliked by their majority ethnic Han Chinese subjects. However after the enlightened rule of emperors such as Kangxi (1661-1722), Yongzheng (1722-1735), and for a while Qianlong (1735-1796) the Chinese reluctantly accepted their new masters' legitimacy.

By the 1790s rising taxes, government corruption, and a declining economy revived resentment among Chinese and several mid-sized rebellions erupted.

Complicating matters were the two “Opium Wars,” with Britain and later France and Russia, which exposed the Qing leadership as impotent in face of the “big nosed barbarians.” The ineffectual Qing was forced to cede territory including Hong Kong and Kowloon (Britain), one million square kilometers of Manchuria and Xinjiang (Russia) and foreign concessions in several port cities (all the above plus France and the United States).

As the 1840’s progressed, life for the average Chinese deteriorated further. Poverty, opium addiction, even sporadic famines were common, and Qing administration was hopelessly stymied by corruption.


It was against this backdrop that a poor peasant from Guangxi province—extreme south China, bordering Vietnam—would see a vision that would change history.

Hong Xiuquan (pronounced “hong shiew chwen”) had applied several times for an administrative position in Qing government, at the time a good career that could raise his impoverished family’s fortunes. But the civil service examination was notoriously difficult, requiring applicants to study the Confucian classics day and night to pass the ridiculously exhaustive test.

Hong failed four times and broke under the stress of his third attempt, suffering a nervous breakdown that cast otherworldly visions, both waking and sleeping. In a repeating dream Hong saw himself before an old bearded man on a throne who complained Chinese were worshipping demons instead of himself. He handed Hong a shield and sword, ordered him to go forth and kill every Manchurian demon in China and establish a new religious Chinese dynasty. Standing beside Hong was a younger bearded man in a robe.

For several years Hong believed the old man was Confucius, but upon reading a Christian missionary pamphlet years later the meaning of his vision became clear: Hong concluded he had been commanded by the Christian God, that the younger man standing beside him was Jesus, and that he was Jesus’ younger brother.

Hong began preaching in rural Guangxi, declaring himself God’s son and promising a new Christian dynasty rid of Manchus, run by and for Chinese. He called it the Taiping Tianguo (“Great Peaceful Heavenly Kingdom”), referred by contemporaries and historians both as simply the Taiping.

The blighted landscape of poverty and Qing corruption provided fertile ground for Hong’s revolutionary crusade and tens of thousands of peasants flocked to his proclaimed holy war: the Taiping Rebellion.


Soon Qing officials heard word of a religious peasant rebellion stirring in the southern provinces and sent troops to investigate.

By 1850 the Qing armies were a shell of their former selves. No longer were they the valiant horsemen and archers who had conquered China two centuries prior. Starved for funds, corrupt, and led by incompetent officers who achieved their ranks through bribery or graft, the Qing troops were defeated time and time again by fanatical Taiping armies.

So incapable was the Qing military that upon sighting Taiping armies its troops would simply run away. After Taiping forces had vacated the area, Qing soliders would enter the villages, slaughter the local civilians, dress their corpses in Taiping clothing, and report a great victory with impressive numbers of enemy casualties.

Of course none of this quelled the rebellion and by 1853 the Taipings, now numbering millions, had conquered most of southern China and seized the ancient Ming capital of Nanjing where Hong established his heavenly kingdom’s new capital and royal palace. The Taipings also controlled most of the Yangtze River valley and with it much of China’s commerce which the Qing government relied on for tax revenues. With so much momentum on their side, Hong’s newly appointed generals (which he called “kings,” subordinate to his “heavenly emperor’s” throne) launched an audacious offensive to take Beijing itself.

Initially the Taiping armies advanced north rapidly, but they failed to secure supply lines or take any cities along the way. As they neared Beijing the hopelessly incompetent emperor Xianfeng fled north to his Manchurian autumn hunting resort, but the Taipings made a serious error diverting resources to seize Tianjin before Beijing. This gave Qing generals time to gather more troops and, after two years of stalemate, Taiping forces were pushed back from northern China.

It’s hard to convey in one article how brutal each side of the war was to the other, how indifferent both were to the suffering of the people, and the scale of the devastation wrought by nearly fifteen years of civil war. Qing troops tortured and massacred the “longhairs” (named so because they refused to shave their heads as required by Qing law), then blew their remains out of cannons to prevent them from reaching the afterlife. Taipings, believing all Manchus were literally “monsters” or “demons,” mercilessly slaughtered any in their path including civilian women and children.

As fighting raged in China’s most fertile and populated regions, the violence laid waste to food production bringing hunger, disease, and death to tens of millions of everyday Chinese. Touring the countryside British geological surveyor Thomas Kingsmill witnessed...

”During [the civil war’s] continuance smiling fields were turned into desolate wildernesses; fenced cities into ruinous heaps. The plains of Jiangxi and Zhejiang [provinces] were strewn with human skeletons; their rivers polluted with floating carcasses; wild beasts descending from their fastnesses in the mountains roamed at large over the land… …No hands were left to till the soil; and noxious weeds covered the ground once tilled with patient industry.”

During the dark years of chaos and destruction many Chinese fled the country altogether, creating a global diaspora. Mass Chinese immigration to California during the 1850’s and 1860’s was largely compelled by the violence of the Taiping Rebellion.


Once the Taiping secured enormous territorial gains its more enlightened officials, notably Hong’s cousin Hong Rengan who had lived among westerners in Hong Kong, made diplomatic overtures to the European powers for assistance overthrowing the Qing.

Hong Rengan envisioned a modern Chinese state with western institutions, capital markets, railroads, foreign investment, and permanent diplomatic ties to the European and American powers.

Unfortunately the Taiping Kingdom reflected little in practice of this progressive vision. Once settled in Nanjing, “God’s son” Hong Xiuquan constructed a cultish, dictatorial state based on mysticism and proto-communism. Men and women were kept separate with most contact harshly punished, even between husband and wife, while the Chinese Messiah and his highest officials secluded deep inside the imperial palace, retreating into bizarre rituals that usually involved orgies with countless servant women.

Land and property were seized from private citizens for the alleged equal betterment of all, yet Hong lived in splendor while the average Taiping citizen was no better off than under the corrupt Qing. In many respects the proto-communist Taiping presaged the twentieth century Marxist dictatorships with poor masses living under the iron boot of a police state while the political elite lived out a regal “some animals are more equal than others” existence.

Initially word got back to Britain of heroic Chinese Christians rising up against their corrupt and alien Qing conquerors. Most Parliamentary and public sentiment sympathized with the rebels and there was debate over whether Britain should intervene on the Taiping’s behalf.

However once firsthand reports began flowing in describing Taiping society in detail—their merciless massacre of civilians, their medieval dictatorship over men-women relations, their very uncapitalistic state seizure of private property, and their bizarre religious rituals that bore no resemblance whatsoever to western Christianity—public sympathy waned. The British began to feel they had far less in common with these “Christian” Chinese than originally thought.

Meanwhile the Qing, who had always treated Europeans as primitive “hairy, big-nosed barbarians,” began appealing to the western powers for some help of their own. Facing the very real prospect of their dynasty’s end, the Qing court even solicited help from American politicians in the early 1860’s, framing their struggle with insurrectionists as common cause with the Union government. 

The now-late Xianfeng emperor’s half-brother Prince Gong told U.S. minister to China Anson Burlingame:

“It appears from this… …that by the rebellion of the southern parts of the United States against their government, your country is placed very much in the same position that China is, whose seditious subjects are now in revolt against her.”

In a bid to win Abraham Lincoln’s favor the Qing even closed off ports to ships flying the confederate flag but ultimately received no military support from the U.S. government, only private volunteers and professional mercenaries.

Britain, however, wrestled with which side, if any, to take. There was no love lost for the Qing government, whose high-browed dismissal of white “barbarians” had kept them out of Chinese markets for decades and even led to the First Opium War. But London found it impossible to support the Taipings either, with their bizarre version of Christianity, brutal and wholesale slaughter of all Manchus, and communist seizure of private property.

The Second Opium War would inform their final decision which we’ll save for the concluding installment.

Tuesday, May 7, 2024

A Political and Economic History of China: Part 18: The Second Opium War and Burning of the Summer Palace

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7 MIN READ - The Cautious Optimism Correspondent for Economic Affairs continues his series on Chinese history during the Qing dynasty and Great Britain’s razing of an imperial palace that still burns up (forgive the pun) many Chinese even today.

British and French troops loot and burn the Summer Palace

In the last column we discussed the events leading to China’s First Opium War with Britain (1839-1842).

The Qing Dynasty, hopelessly outmatched by modern British naval forces, capitulated at the Treaty of Nanjing where it ceded what London had sought for half a century: five new trading ports and less Chinese import protectionism. Britain was also granted the island of Hong Kong, monetary war reparations, the right to build Christian churches in treaty ports, and legal extraterritoriality for British subjects.

Upon hearing the news France and the United States rushed to negotiate their own separate treaties which established the so-called American and French “concessions” in treaty ports like Shanghai. Yet despite its defeat and weak position the Qing continued to resist additional contact or imports from foreigners by any means possible.

Compounding the Qing’s obstinance was a basic misunderstanding of western motives: Qing officials simply couldn’t believe that the 'big-nosed barbarians' only wanted free trade. Surely the British meant to conquer all of China and rule it themselves since, after all, that’s precisely what the Qing had done when their Manchurian ancestors swept into Beijing and conquered the Forbidden City in 1644.

Journalist Edward Behr encapsulates this misunderstanding, writing…

“The Manchu court firmly believed—in 1860—that the ‘big-nosed hairy ones’ intended to sit on the throne themselves. Only gradually did the imperial advisers realize that the British and French ‘barbarians’ merely sought trade—and a permanent diplomatic presence in Peking. Had they understood this earlier, thousands of lives… might have been saved.”


The Qing dynasty had been exposed as a paper tiger by the First Opium War, spurring western powers to take a more aggressive approach towards China for even more favorable terms of trade.

Worsening the Qing’s position was a continued decline within its leadership. The Daoguang emperor, well meaning but generally ineffective, died in 1850 leaving the throne to his son the Xianfeng emperor, arguably the worst of any Qing emperor who ever held power. Xianfeng was only halfway concerned with governing his unsteady empire and drank himself to an early death in 1861.

In 1856 an incident broke involving Qing seizure of a Chinese merchant ship (the Arrow) which Britain claimed was sailing under its flag. Qing officials reportedly pulled down and trampled the Union Jack, providing a pretext for London to launch a second Opium War (1856-1860).

The Second Opium War was a smaller affair with fewer casualties than the first, and it quieted down in 1858 after a string of British victories motivated peace negotiations. As Britain gained additional trading ports and possession of Kowloon (across the harbor from Hong Kong) other ambitious powers joined in the talks. 

Most notably Russia, smelling blood and seeking Manchurian territory that the Kangxi emperor had denied it in 1689, won over 1 million square kilometers of outer Manchuria (see map) including nearly 1,000 miles of Pacific coastline from which Russia settled the strategic port city of Vladivostok. Russia also gained a large piece of northwest China which today is eastern Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

Russian territorial gains in Manchuria


The Xianfeng emperor, maintaining Chinese culture was still superior to all others, considered the treaty terms unacceptable, particularly the British legations. Regarding a permanent barbarian diplomatic presence in the capital as insulting, he refused to sign and the hostilities resumed.

Seeking to pressure the emperor into accepting the treaty terms, a British expeditionary force was sent to Beijing in 1860. Its leader, Lord Elgin, had several warships plus 10,000 British and 7,000 French soldiers at his disposal but his mission was to achieve a peaceful settlement without use of force if at all possible.

Upon reaching the mouth of the Hai River allied troops landed and began trekking up the river banks to Beijing. Having traversed only a few miles, they were received by two Qing commissioners sent by the Xianfeng emperor for talks.

The plan proposed by the Qing was as follows: the chief British negotiator, Harry Parkes, would travel ahead to Beijing along with a few journalists, a newspaper illustrator, and a handful of diplomatic personnel and Sikh guards. Meanwhile Lord Elgin’s larger, slower force would follow behind. By the time Elgin arrived in Beijing negotiations would be completed where he would attend the formal signing ceremony with the emperor.

The British agreed and their small party of negotiators, diplomats, journalists, etc… went ahead. Meanwhile Elgin’s force was thinning as he had to leave troops stationed behind to maintain supply lines back to his ships.

Once Elgin’s force had whittled down to 10,000 men they found themselves surprise ambushed on both sides by superior numbers of elite Manchu cavalry. It turns out the “negotiation settlement” had been a ruse from which the Qing plotted to destroy the British force. Elgin’s 10,000 British and French troops were charged by 50,000 Qing cavalry and infantry.

Fortunately for the allied expedition they brought along a few Armstrong cannons, a revolutionary lightweight artillery design not yet tested in battle. The Manchu charge offered ideal conditions for the cannon’s debut and it wiped out the superior Qing force with devastating accuracy and power. When the smoke cleared the Qing army was broken while the allies had suffered just five dead.

A British lieutenant reported news to his commander that “The Armstrong gun is a great success.”

Now clued in that Qing overtures of peace had been a deception, Elgin’s forces made haste to Beijing. Upon entering the city they found that Beijing’s elites and the emperor had fled, leaving his stepbrother Prince Gong with the unenviable job of making peace with the westerners.

The allies were also horrified to discover their diplomatic party had been tortured with fifteen of the twenty-six dying either in captivity or by execution including Times reporter Thomas Bowlby whose body had been thrown over a wall to be eaten by dogs and pigs. The bodies of other victims had been mutilated.

Lead negotiator Parkes had been spared, only having suffered severe beatings while others had been, according to Elgin’s secretary Henry Loch, “tied up by their wrists in cords so tight their hands turned black and swelled until, in some cases, they burst.” 

Upon hearing of the torture and deaths of their comrades, who had entered the Forbidden City under flag of truce, allied troops were enraged. Some commanders sought to exact retribution upon the entire capital city, urging Elgin to first loot and then burn down all of Beijing and hang every remaining Chinese resident.

Elgin insisted anger should not sway the allies’ decision and called for a calm, sober meeting to consider more suitable punishments. In the end he convinced British commanders that the average Chinese citizen should not bear the cost of the Qing court’s treachery which should instead fall upon the emperor himself. A decision was reached to raze the emperor’s second residence just a few miles northwest of Beijing: the Old Summer Palace.

Hence allied troops entered the largely abandoned palace of regal and ornate buildings and looted priceless art treasures, destroying those too heavy to carry back, before burning the 800-acre complex to the ground. A young Captain Charles Gordon, ironically later commander and hero of Qing forces fighting domestic Chinese rebels, recorded that:

”You can scarcely imagine the beauty and magnificence of the places we burnt. It made one's heart sore to burn them; in fact, these places were so large, and we were so pressed for time, that we could not plunder them carefully. Quantities of gold ornaments were burnt, considered as brass. It was wretchedly demoralising work for an army.”

Unbeknownst to the British and French, 300 palace eunuchs had hidden themselves within locked rooms and died in the fire.


It’s important to note that the Second Opium War was somewhat of a sideshow for the Qing dynasty, at least until British and French troops entered Beijing. For China was preoccupied with several domestic rebellions at the same time: the Nian, second Miao, Panthay, Red Turban, and Taiping Rebellions while simultaneously fighting the British and the French.

The Taiping Rebellion dwarfed all the other conflicts combined and killed 20-30 million Chinese making the Second Opium War, which cost perhaps 8,000 Qing lives at the most, a pinprick by comparison.

After the Summer Palace was burned down the Qing court was eager to make peace with the foreigners and get on with focusing on more existential conflicts within their own borders. They also went on to build the New Summer Palace only two miles further out from the ruins of the Old Summer Palace.

Today the Chinese government has designated the Old Summer Palace ruins a major historical and cultural site which is visited by over a million people, mostly Chinese, every year. The Communist Party has also poured a great deal of money into restoring not the palace itself, but the ruins.

If this sounds like a strange decision, it’s not.

The idea is to make the ruins as accessible and presentable as possible, with plenty of displays and plaques contrasting the beauty of the pre-1860 grounds to the meticulously well-preserved rubble that tourists see today. The Old Summer Palace therefore serves a very useful propaganda purpose, fanning further the flames of Chinese resentment towards foreigners, particularly British but also American—even though no Americans participated in the burning of the palace.

The Economics Correspondent has visited the Forbidden City and Great Wall as a tourist, but not the Old Summer Palace. However he’s willing to wager the full details surrounding the decision to burn the Summer Palace—namely the Qing’s ruse of peace talks, its torture and execution of diplomats and journalists, the surprise attack on allied forces who believed they were marching to a peace ceremony, and Lord Elgin’s restraint of British commanders who wished to raze all of Beijing—are not discussed in detail within the site's exhibits.

While British society has largely come to terms with past misdeeds in Qing China, the Chinese Communist Party makes no such concessions. Maintaining a reservoir of popular acrimony towards the West comes in useful when China, now stronger and more assertive, rouses more confrontation and standoffs with the outside world. In fact, Xi Jinping has preemptively cranked up references to the Opium Wars and "Century of Humiliation" in his public statements.

Chinese tourists: Animosity is strongly encouraged

Ultimately the Old Summer Palace story is still a tragic one and it’s not difficult to find fault with both China and Britain, the latter having started the war on a flimsy pretext. As Edward Behr again summarizes:

“It is difficult to say, in the almost constant series of conflicts that marked relations between China and the outside world… … which side behaved worse.”

Postscript: According to Chinese state-run CGTN:

"The National Cultural Heritage Administration said... ...rebuilding the Old Summer Palace is unnecessary and will change the status quo of the palace. And as a pile of ruins, the relic can serve as a warning to Chinese people and remind them that they should never forget the national humiliation. After the reply, netizens began to express their excitement or frustration, with some supporting reconstruction and others strongly disapproving it..."

"[Also state run media] China Central Television, Xinhua News, Guangming Daily as well as Red Star News all voiced opposition against the reconstruction, commenting on their websites that it's time for the debate to stop forever."

Thursday, May 2, 2024

Comparing Argentina's Inflation Story with the USA's

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Nicolas Cachanosky

An inflation comparison from the Cautious Optimism Correspondent for Economic Affairs and Other Egghead Stuff.

A recent Mercatus Center podcast with Argentinian economist Nicolas Cachanosky, research professor at University of Texas El Paso, unveiled some statistics that make for an interesting comparison.

1) Average annual U.S. inflation rate since 1945: 3.69%.

3.69% compounded over 79 years has generated a 17-fold increase in prices (compared to a 4% decline in prices in the 76 years between the Civil War and World War II).

2) Average annual Argentine inflation rate since 1960: 60%.

60% compounded over 79 years would generate a 13.3 quadrillion-fold increase in prices. Placed in percentage terms that’s an unbelievable 1.33 quintillion percent price hike.

At that rate of debasement, if you owned the equivalent of the entire planet’s GDP the central bank would whittle your earthly fortune down to 8/10ths of one cent.

Meanwhile during the mere 64 years since 1960 a 60% annualized inflation rate has actually generated "only" a 1.16 quadrillion percent price increase.

But “neo-fascist” Javier Milei, who was sworn in five months ago, is the problem and his proposal to dollarize the Argentine economy is no solution.

Tuesday, April 23, 2024

A Political and Economic History of China: Part 17: The First Opium War

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7 MIN READ - The Cautious Optimism Correspondent for Economic Affairs and Other Egghead Stuff discusses China’s first Opium War with Great Britain, an event that still evokes resentment in the collective Chinese mindset and which marks the start of China’s “century of humiliation.

British cannons rout outdated Qing war junks from afar
After one failed (1793) and one abortive (1816) British attempt at free trade with China, the Qing dynasty was happy to continue with the status quo: selling tea, silk, and porcelain by the shipload to Britain while severely limiting the import of western goods.

By the 1820’s the Jiaqing emperor had died and his son, the Daoguang emperor, was now dealing with the persistent problems of government corruption and a treasury beleaguered by embezzlement.

Despite correctly identifying internal problems and well-meaning attempts to end imperial graft, history records both Jiaqing and Daoguang were ineffective rulers who acted more by slogan and rhetoric than good policy. Thus, with the depleted treasury problem still unsolved, Daoguang sought to refill imperial coffers with openly protectionist trade policies, exporting Chinese goods to Britain while strictly controlling British imports.

Both Britain’s parliament and citizens, however, were not happy to maintain the status quo which meant running ever larger trade deficits—deficits they believed were being artificially generated by Chinese government intervention.

During Lord Macartney’s 1793 embassy Britain was still somewhat captivated by the exoticism of China’s kingdom and culture while awestruck by its sheer size. Although Britain was probably the preeminent military power in the world, there was still a degree of deference towards imperial China and the Qianlong emperor’s rejection of Macartney’s overtures was accepted as a disappointing but not earth shattering failure.

Besides, by the time Macartney returned Britain found herself at war with France again, so there were more pressing matters to attend to.

By the 1820’s British views on China had hardened.

Emerging victorious from an existential struggle with Napoleon, Britain had become a global hegemon. Since 1793 its already powerful navy had advanced by leaps and bounds both in size and technology. Britain had also witnessed the Qing navy’s struggles subduing simple Chinese pirates for nearly a decade, exposing major weaknesses in China’s military capabilities.

In other words Britain was no longer willing to accept no for an answer and sought to rebalance trade whether the Qing liked it or not.

Famously, the instrument of Britain’s balanced trade policy would be the export of Indian opium.

The Correspondent would like to point out that the Qing made far more missteps than Britain in the years leading up to and during the Opium War (1839-1842), but what the British mistakes lacked in quantity they made up in quality. The open policy of churning up opium shipments to China—dumping chests of the narcotic at Lintin Island (in the Pearl River delta) for Chinese distributors to then smuggle inland—was condemned by many British even in the 1830’s.

Granted, there were attempts to rationalize the opium policy, for Britain was addicted to its own Chinese import: tea. The numbers were staggering.

From 1725 to 1805 tea imports from China grew by 10,000 percent to 24 million pounds annually. Parliament had mandated the East India Company maintain a one-year tea reserve for national emergencies, and by 1839 tariffs on tea imports constituted 8% of Britain’s tax revenue.

Meanwhile, Chinese had been smoking opium for centuries before the British ever arrived, and while it was technically illegal to do so in China, the law in practice was unenforced.

Thus some British viewed the opium habit lying somewhere between that of tea and gin (Platt) and believed they were, after all, only fulfilling Chinese consumer demand while trading one country’s addiction for another.


Prior to the 1800’s opium smoking was a habit for the Chinese wealthy classes and idle rich. But as the British East India Company upped its shipments into China, effectively flooding the market, the price fell precipitously and soon everyday citizens were consuming the drug.

On a side note, it’s worth mentioning that American ships also got in on the opium trade. The U.S. government held no position on the subject of opium shipments halfway round the world, and American activity was small compared to that of the British (at its peak just shy of one-fifth the market), but enterprising American traders pursuing large profits did participate in the shipment of opium to China as well.

By the 1830’s the Daoguang emperor became alarmed at reports that his own officials were incapable of doing their jobs due to addiction and he cracked down hard on the drug trade, sending a hard nosed policeman by the name of Lin Zexu to Canton to clean up the problem.

Even as word of Lin’s arrival spread throughout Canton, Qing officials had already arrested some western traders and threatened to kill them if the British did not 1) surrender their opium already present in the region, and 2) refrain from exporting any more. 

In response Charles Elliott, the Chief superintendent for British trade in China and himself morally opposed to the opium trade, feared the possible execution of British subjects but could not convince traders to hand over such valuable stashes of the drug (for they would incur huge financial losses). So he made in hindsight a fatal mistake that would spark a war: guaranteeing all shippers would be reimbursed by the British government for the value of the opium surrendered. Once the traders happily handed over the opium it officially became property of her majesty’s government.

Only one more mistake was needed to consummate the bilateral sleepwalk into war: Lin Zexu ordered the opium seized and burned, sending a fortune up in smoke.

Once word got back that her majesty’s property had been destroyed, Parliamentary anger induced a declaration of war, not so much over the burned opium's monetary value but rather national honor. The Chinese had to be “taught a lesson” about the consequences of stealing and destroying British government property.

There was spirited debate about war both in Parliament and the press, with a loud minority of the public criticizing the entire policy of turning China into a nation of drug addicts as un-Christian and inexcusable, but in the end national honor won out and war was on.


The Correspondent is no expert on the individual battles that followed over the next three years. However it’s clear the end result was a rout. 

The British blocked Chinese harbors and maritime trade at will and Qing military forces, particularly the navy, were no match for British technology. The Royal Navy successfully confined the conflict to seaborne confrontations, sinking countless Qing junks with ease, and even the few land battles (usually seizing islands) were overwhelmingly British victories.

However even in war the Qing once again miscalculated and made a series of fatal, almost comedic mistakes. Against the advice of their own officials in Canton, the Beijing imperial court actually welcomed a war with the British that they thought they would win.

In the decades before the war (not years, decades), Royal Navy officers happily demonstrated British military technology to coastal Qing officials. This was not an attempt to intimidate China, but rather to convince them that free trade and the import of British manufactures would benefit the Qing. We know their attempts failed as successive emperors rejected free trade and attempted to keep Europeans out of China instead of embracing western technology as Japan would do starting in the 1850’s.

Qing officials in Canton accordingly relayed reports of British military capability to Beijing, advising that...

“Without any wind, or even a favorable tide, they [steam vessels] glide along against the current and are capable of fantastic speed... Their carriages are mounted on swivels, enabling the guns to be turned and aimed in any direction.”

In other words, Beijing was warned for years by their own people that the British could not be subdued militarily.

Yet when war started the Daoguang emperor’s orders to the field wreaked of delusional fantasy: “After prolonged negotiation has made the barbarians weary and exhausted, we can suddenly attack them and thereby subdue them.”

Of course all such attempts ended in failure with many Chinese lives lost, yet the Qing sent a magnanimous offer of British surrender to Queen Victoria:

“You savages of the further seas… defy and insult our mighty Empire… If you submit humbly to the Celestial dynasty and tender your allegiance, it may give you a chance to purge yourselves of your past sins.”

Local Qing officials who had warned Beijing for years of the futility of war with Britain were frustrated by their out of touch superiors who lived a thousand miles away in the bliss of alternate reality.

Even Henry Kissinger summates that “Centuries of predominance had warped the Celestial Court’s sense of reality. Pretension of superiority only accentuated the inevitable humiliation.”

By 1842 the Qing finally realized they had been outmatched from the start and sued for peace. The result was the Treaty of Nanjing, the first of what Chinese would refer to as nearly 70 years of “The Unequal Treaties.”

At Nanjing the British won the opening of four new trading ports up and down the Chinese coast (Shanghai, Ningbo, Fuzhou, Xiamen), a concession they had coveted since Lord Macartney’s first request was turned away half a century earlier.

Britain also won what would be the first of many rounds of monetary war reparations, the right to construct Christian churches and permanent residence in treaty ports (the so-called “foreign concessions”) and legal extraterritoriality for its citizens. Some of these terms irked local Chinese citizens who came to view them as symbols of imperial domination.

But most famously of all the British won the right to open a fifth trading port near Canton, but under full British control, free from the corruption of the Canton System. Naval surveyors had already identified a deep harbor near a rocky island inhabited by only a few fishing villagers. Locals called the island “Hong Kong” ("Xianggong" in Mandarin, both meaning “fragrant harbor”), and the British were awarded a lease into perpetuity where they established their first Chinese colony.

This barren island, devoid of natural resources, nearly uninhabited, and administered by Great Britain quickly grew into a modern shipping and commercial center in stark contrast to the backwardness of declining Qing cities on the mainland.

Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Pro-LGBT Apple Investing in Indonesia, Where Gays Are Publicly Caned

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Tim Cook in... Jakarta?
Cautious Rockers might remember Apple’s condemnation of North Carolina’s “bathroom bill” that mandated biological males can’t use women’s restrooms in government buildings. Apple slammed the “hate bill,” froze its plans for a giant business campus outside Raleigh, and signed with 67 other companies supporting a lawsuit urging the Justice Department to block the legislation.

This week the San Francisco Bay tech giant announced it’s investing more in Indonesia and eyeing the country for a new manufacturing factory. Read at:


Indonesia is a country that doesn’t recognize gay marriage, criminalizes public display of LGBT grooming or behavior, and whose courts sentence gays to public canings that draw large crowds. See court sentencing "offenders" and caning at:



ps. Another Bay Area tech giant, Google, went further by boycotting North Carolina altogether… all while having operated a major software development office in Djakarta for years. And Facebook also operates an office in Djakarta, citing its 115 million-strong Indonesian user base, whose "hate" they evidently have no problem with. See offices at:




Tuesday, April 16, 2024

A Political and Economic History of China, Part 16: British Diplomacy Tries and Fails Again in 1816

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7 MIN READ - After an overseas vacation in the former freest economy on earth and the current freest economy on earth (hint: both are dealing with very close and increasing Chinese assertiveness), the Cautious Optimism Correspondent for Economic Affairs and Other Egghead Stuff continues reporting on the decline of China's last dynasty—this time rejecting western free trade overtures for a second time.

Lord William Pitt Amherst's diplomatic mission also fails

After the Jiaqing emperor (r. 1799-1820) executed Heshen, the most corrupt official in Chinese history, he spent the next decade trying to repair the imperial neglect accumulated under his father. His treasury had been emptied by embezzlement, major rebellions were widespread, and his military was dilapidated.

After replacing his top military officials Jiaqing finally quelled the Miao and much larger White Lotus (1794-1804) rebellions at enormous cost, but the mobilization of Qing forces inland left a vacuum for a new maritime rebellion of Chinese pirates who unified in defiance of the dynasty.

The Qing hadn’t possessed a formidable navy since the Kangxi emperor subdued Taiwan in 1683, and its junks were routinely defeated by pirate forces. When the pirates added western merchant ships to their targets Britain became aware of the growing problem and offered assistance to the Qing government, proposing the Royal Navy lay its guns upon pirate ships as well.

The Jiaqing emperor considered the offer an insulting loss of face. Accepting help from the British would be tantamount to admitting Beijing was incapable of subduing its own pirates so the conflict dragged on. Ultimately the Qing “won,” but only by offering amnesty to any pirates who surrendered and making them naval officers who switched sides to fire upon remaining pirates.

The strategy worked. Distrust was sown between pirate factions, each suspicious that the other would betray them while calculating he who defected first stood a better chance of survival. Large numbers of rebels rushed to join the Qing side and the few remaining holdouts were handily defeated.

As the 1810’s began China finally seemed to be at peace within its own borders after sixteen years of rebellion. Jiaqing, seeing corruption divert so much money from military campaigns into graft, decided to downsize the armed forces. The Qing would still possess Asia’s largest army but the emperor, rightfully concerned about lingering embezzlement within his own government, chose to reduce opportunities for skimming by slowing the flow of funds for military purposes.


China might have been at relative peace in the 1810’s but trade conditions for westerners were still deteriorating in Canton.

The number of Canton guild-merchants (i.e. Hongs) was reduced, restricting competition even further and enhancing the power of corrupt local Qing officials to squeeze foreign traders for bribes.

Also, in a flat out embarrassment British and American ships were firing upon one another in Chinese waters and even near Canton Harbor, a spillover consequence of the ongoing War of 1812 that pitted U.S. guns against the Royal Navy and British East India Company—wherever they might meet in the world. While the two countries’ ships tried to stay out of each other’s way in Asia, both would intermittently show up in Canton at the same time and shooting would start, angering local Chinese officials.

British traders tried to explain they had no control over the Royal Navy, something the Chinese considered unbelievable. Unfamiliar with the difference between autonomous private traders and government warships, the Chinese considered British of both stripes part of the same barbarian clan and believed the “big-noses” were trying to trick them.

With Napoleon finally vanquished at Waterloo (1815) London wasted no time in sending a new embassy to smooth things over in Beijing, bringing with it a slightly more modest set of requests than Lord Macartney’s in 1793. The delegation leader (Lord) William Pitt Amherst would not seek an official British embassy in Beijing and his requests were reduced to two.

First, the British would inform the Jiaqing emperor of the corruption in Canton and ask for a new Canton System business contact who had direct access to the imperial court. The British believed the emperor was unaware of the trade barriers and graft that had become rampant and thought that upon learning of the rot in Canton Jiaqing would agree to resolve the impasse. In fact he was already aware of the situation in Canton.

Second, the British again sought freer trade, both expanding the number of Hongs its merchants could deal with and a loosening of restrictions on western goods, although the opening of additional trading ports would not be requested this time.

Since 1793 Britain had obtained new superpower status and a less deferential attitude towards the Qing dynasty, but Amherst was still conducting a diplomatic mission with considerably more modest requests for Beijing. It was hoped that the Qing court would be more receptive to the slimmed-down agenda upon which better relations could be built.


In practice the only success from the new embassy was British reconnaissance of the Chinese coast. Lord Amherst’s ships of line, after dropping the delegation onshore, took a more aggressive approach exploring and mapping the Chinese coastline and inlets, water depths, location of military installations, the economic conditions of coastal villages, and best estimates of the fighting capacities of Qing naval junks.

Other than that the Amherst embassy proved an unmitigated disaster.

First, no sooner had Amherst and his delegation come ashore than they were greeted by a reception party of Qing officials sent from Beijing to correctly prepare them for an audience with the emperor.

From the onset the Qing delegation stressed (again) the requirement to kowtow before the emperor, something that had clumsily held up the Qianlong emperor’s audience with Lord Macartney in 1793 but resolved itself with a compromise whereby the British would kneel on one knee.

This time Qing officials were more adamant, and the unpleasant negotiation dragged on for days instead of minutes. Amherst quipped that Macartney had not kowtowed so there was no need for him to either. Qing officials, clearly having prepared for this objection, claimed Macartney had indeed kowtowed.

Furthermore they said the Jiaqing emperor had witnessed it with his own eyes since he was present at the 1793 audience as crown prince. For Amherst to insist the emperor’s memory was faulty, while he himself was not there, would be a diplomatic insult.

In the end, after a very long back-and-forth tug of war that made the 1793 Macartney negotiation look like a nonevent, a compromise was reached whereby Amherst would kneel on one knee but then bow his head as many times as the emperor asked.

From there the Qing reception transported the British, their belongings and gifts upriver to Beijing by junk, deboarding in the afternoon. There was a 12-mile trek to Beijing and the party rested for dinner. But then, to Amherst’s surprise, his delegates were told they must keep trekking through the night as the emperor would receive them the next morning.

Believing this to be a ruse to keep them moving Amherst played along and his team reached Beijing’s city walls at sunrise only to find the main gates closed. So they had to walk around the city to the rear gates, the pace becoming frantically hurried. The lead Qing official, concerned about time, urged Amherst and three of his associates to walk ahead of the rest of the party who would catch up later.

Upon arrival Amherst was placed in a small waiting room, surrounded by Qing officials who he records stared and gaped at him and his assistants as if they were zoo animals on display for study. Amherst, exhausted from no sleep, dirty, and with his ambassador’s robe and uniform still trailing behind, asked for time to clean up and rest but was told the emperor was already on the throne waiting for him.

He refused to go into audience in such condition, but then a different Qing official—a duke—insisted he must. Eventually the duke seized Amherst’s arm, trying to force him up and the Englishman threw him off, alarming the surrounding officials. As tensions escalated in the tiny, claustrophobic room Amherst’s assistants leapt in front of him, hands on their swords, at which point he collected himself and ordered them to put away their weapons.

The audience with Jiaqing never took place.

Amherst headed back to his ship and Qing officials told a confused Jiaqing that the British embassy was not present due to illness. As it turns out Jiaqing had actually wished for a smooth meeting and, after several inquiries, began to suspect the Qing duke was lying to him to cover up real reasons for the British no-show.

As Amherst worked his way back he was chased down by an imperial courier with a letter from Jiaqing to Prince Regent George IV (George III was still king but now old, blind, and demented). In a face-saving move, the letter still blamed the British for the failed audience but relinquished the monarch of any responsibility, fingering the poor choice of Amherst instead. And in face-saving rejection the letter politely requested that, to avoid a repeat of such embarrassment in the future, the British monarch refrain from sending an ambassador to Beijing ever again.

Translation: don't bother us with any more barbarian diplomats.

One can only ponder how differently the history of Sino-British relations may have unfolded had the meeting gone forward as planned. At minimum future embassies may have been agreed upon, leading to intermittent communication that could have avoided later wars.

When Amherst returned home with news of his abject failure, reactions in Parliament and the British press were as hardened as ever. All of London’s requests had gone unfulfilled, its attempts to impress upon China the seriousness and power of the world’s greatest military and commercial nation having failed to even reach the emperor’s ears.

The one positive report in the papers was that Amherst had refused to kowtow (not surprising given he never met the emperor), thereby preventing a national humiliation and preserving British honor.

A few short years later Sino-British relations would fall even further. Such nationalistic themes and the issue of British honor would resurface, but under more weighty and combative circumstances.

Note: The Economics Correspondent credits much of the material in this article to Stephen Platt's book "Imperial Twilight: The Opium War and the End of China's Last Golden Age."

Wednesday, April 10, 2024

San Francisco Bay Role Reversal: Capitalism Works First, Socialism Destroys Later

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The Cautious Optimism Correspondent for Economic Affairs and Other Egghead Stuff recently witnessed a novel example of left progressivism canceling out capitalism even when the latter is allowed to work (at first).

Money down the drain: A Walmart self-checkout kiosk
Normally socialism destroys markets by seizing the means of production, draining individuals of incentive to work, invest, and innovate, and/or debasing the currency so that economic calculation becomes unreliable or even impossible.

In other words, the capitalist means of production doesn’t even function properly from the start.

Well last week I visited the Mountainview, CA Walmart, the closest any Bay Area government will “allow” Walmart to open a store near San Francisco (36 miles), and saw an example of capitalism working up front, just to be canceled out by socialism later.

I stood in a short line to use one of the self-checkout kiosks, and when one opened I walked over only to be welcomed by a Walmart employee manning the machine. She started picking items from my cart and checking them out with a handheld scanner.

I told her “Oh don’t worry, I can scan” and she replied “Customers aren’t allowed to scan their own items.”

This being the San Francisco Bay Area I instantly asked “Does this have something to do with theft? Or shrinkage?”

”Yes, that’s one way to describe it.”

”I get it, I live in San Francisco.”

“Oh, I hear it’s really bad over there. But yes, we’re supposed to scan all the items. The customers can’t do it anymore.”

I looked to my left and my right and all six self-checkout kiosks had a Walmart employee standing there scanning items by hand while the customers stood and watched them. It was a crowded scene.

Being Economics Correspondent and always thinking about how capital accumulation enables firms to achieve the same or greater output with fewer workers, I asked the cashier “Doesn’t it defeat the purpose to have a worker scan for customers at a self-scan register? The kiosks are supposed to save money.”

She said “I suppose so. But at least we’re all busy.”

So here we have a company doing what companies do in a capitalist economy: investing in technology… or “capital” (labor-saving tools and machines) only to about-face and pay the very workers the machines were meant to replace anyway—all because local Bay Area governments allow shoplifters to run wild in the name of social justice, wealth redistribution, and/or reparations.

Thursday, April 4, 2024

A Political and Economic History of China, Part 15: Lord Macartney and the British Arrive

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7 MIN READ - The Cautious Optimism Correspondent for Economic Affairs and Other Egghead Stuff chronicles the next step in the decline of China’s last dynasty: Rejecting trade overtures from Europe.

The Qianlong emperor receives the Macartney Embassy
So far we’ve discussed the peak of China’s last dynasty, the Qing, and the problems that signified the start of its decline in the late 1700’s: massive corruption within the government that literally bankrupted the treasury even as rebellions sparked throughout the country’s periphery.

As the Qing’s domestic problems surfaced a seemingly unimportant meeting occurred with a small delegation from Great Britain. The short diplomatic visit was considered insignificant by both the Qing court and the aging Qianlong emperor, but its conclusion would lead to large conflicts decades later, compounding China’s domestic challenges with new foreign ones.


During the late 17th century the great Qing emperor Kangxi opened four coastal ports for trading with foreign merchants: in Xiamen, Songjiang, Ningbo, and Guangzhou (known then to westerners as Canton).

By 1720 frictions between China and the Vatican over missionaries and Confucian rites frustrated Kangxi and he began limiting interaction with the west. In 1757 his grandson, the venerable Qianlong emperor, closed all the trading ports except one: Canton, ushering in the “Canton System” of protectionism.

The Canton System quickly proved a giant bottleneck for western trade. Business could only be conducted with a Qing-licensed guild of Chinese merchants who, wielding the power of the city’s trade monopoly, routinely squeezed Europeans for subsidies and bribes.

Western traders complained in turn to their governments about corruption in the Canton System and petitioned them to file diplomatic complaints, but the great European powers were distracted by more pressing matters. Great Britain and France were at war (1756-1763). Then Britain found herself at war with the breakaway American colonies (1775-1783). Shortly afterwards France overthrew its monarchy and plunged into the chaos of its own revolution (1789-1799).

When things settled down Great Britain dispatched a mission to China to not only address the Canton System but also to establish an embassy, formal diplomatic relations, and a free trade agreement. The Macartney Embassy (named after its leader George Macartney) departed for China in 1792 carrying gifts of friendship including telescopes, artillery pieces, air pumps, pottery, chandeliers, watches, clocks and other specimens of western technology including a planetarium.

After the long journey by sea, anchoring off the coastal city of Tianjin, taking leased boats upriver to Beijing and caravan trekking by land, Macartney’s mission arrived in September 1793 at Chengde, the Qianlong emperor’s summer resort in Manchuria.

The opening chapter of what would become decades of awkward interaction between east and west—full of miscommunication, misunderstanding, and clashes of culture—was about to begin.


Right from the outset the British reception hit a diplomatic snag. The Manchus insisted the delegation kowtow before the emperor (kneeling on all fours and touching their foreheads to the ground three times) which the British viewed as humiliating. After many restive back and forth negotiations—complicated by translators—Macartney agreed to kneel before Qianlong on one knee in the same manner he would kneel for his own king.

Sino-British relations were not off to a good start.

In fact historians view the much-discussed kowtow impasse a microcosm of differing worldviews that would frustrate both empires for decades to come. Britain believed itself now the most powerful nation on earth but, in the name of diplomatic courtesy, was offering to establish relations among equals with China. The Chinese believed they were the supreme power on earth—their emperor being the only “son of heaven”—and Britain just another second-rate state journeying to exhibit their deference to the emperor.

Worsening matters for the British was the presence of several other countries’ delegates at the same meeting, making the British seem (in Chinese eyes) like one vassal state among many coming to pay their respects. Granted, the westerners differentiated themselves by traveling a greater distance, but the Chinese also viewed them as tall, big-nosed, red-haired barbarians.

Despite the clumsy precession Macartney still had a mission to accomplish: to establish formal diplomatic relations, to open a British embassy in Beijing, to ink a free trade agreement, and in doing so address the Canton System’s corruption that had irked British traders.

Qianlong abruptly swept Macartney’s requests aside and sent him home packing. The British were told politely but firmly that China had no need for and no interest in diplomatic relations or trade. The Qing court considered the British visit a demonstration of tributary states prostrating themselves before the emperor, nothing more.

Even the complex mechanical devices and modern weapons the British brought were not enough to convince Qianlong he had anything to gain from intercourse with the west. While the Chinese were somewhat impressed by western devices, both the emperor and his court considered them also to be tribute and feigned complete disinterest. Besides, a few mechanical curiosities were hardly worth humiliating themselves by treating these primitive foreigners as equals. Qianlong, in what the Correspondent views as a shortsighted error (perhaps the result of his growing senility which Macartney noted in his journal), wrote to George III on western technology:

”I set no value on objects strange or ingenious, and have no use for your country’s manufactures.”

As the story of Qing relations with the West deteriorates the Correspondent will repeatedly point to Chinese attitudes of superiority with “nothing to be learned from the west” as a crucial mistake that would cost them, while benefiting a future arch-enemy—Japan, down the road.


Macartney would leave the meeting empty handed other than a diplomatic letter from Qianlong to King George III. A link to the full text of the letter is included at the end of this article, but some of the passages reveal two key Qing attitudes, both of which would prove strategic mistakes.

1) The emperor’s tone was that of a supreme heavenly figure addressing a hoard of inferior barbarians. For example, Qianlong wrote to George III that:

”Hitherto, all European nations, including your own country's barbarian merchants, have carried on their trade with our Celestial Empire at Canton… … But your Ambassador has now put forward new requests which completely fail to recognise the Throne's principle to ‘treat strangers from afar with indulgence,’ and to exercise a pacifying control over barbarian tribes, the world over.”


“England is not the only barbarian land which wishes to establish trade with our Empire: supposing that other nations were all to imitate your evil example and beseech me to present them each and all with a site for trading purposes, how could I possibly comply? This also is a flagrant infringement of the usage of my Empire and cannot possibly be entertained.”


”In that event your barbarian merchants will have had a long journey for nothing. Do not say that you were not warned in due time! Tremblingly obey and show no negligence!”

Fortunately the British did not overreact (this time) to Qianlong’s belligerent tone, something we’ll discuss more in another column.

Meanwhile western science and machinery were riding high on the wave of the First, and later Second, Industrial Revolution and the Correspondent considers it a blunder for the Qing to adopt so dismissive an attitude towards a technologically superior power requesting friendly relations.

2) The Qing clearly wished to keep trade largely closed off from the west. In the spirit of mercantilism, which by this point Britain had thrown off in favor of Smithian free trade, China insisted on a fundamentally protectionist policy: happy to sell its goods to the barbarians while closing off its own markets to western products.

Sound familiar?

In the Correspondent’s opinion this was also a major misstep as western technology was already advancing rapidly beyond Chinese capabilities. By refusing to import western goods and ideas the Qing condemned China to fall hopelessly behind Europe and America in the ensuing decades.

A famous passage from Qianlong’s letter to George III reveals his position:

”Our Celestial Empire possesses all things in prolific abundance and lacks no product within its own borders. There was therefore no need to import the manufactures of outside barbarians in exchange for our own produce. But as the tea, silk and porcelain which the Celestial Empire produces, are absolute necessities to European nations and to yourselves, we have permitted, as a signal mark of favour, that foreign hongs [merchant firms] should be established at Canton, so that your wants might be supplied and your country thus participate in our beneficence.”

Rejected and disappointed, Macartney began the long trip back to England. However he took the land route to Beijing, through the Grand Canal to the Yangtze river, and then again over land to Canton. During the long journey he recorded observations on the standing of the Qing dynasty which proved prescient:

“The Empire of China is an old, crazy, first-rate Man of War, which a fortunate succession of able and vigilant officers have contrived to keep afloat for these hundred and fifty years past, and to overawe their neighbours merely by her bulk and appearance. But whenever an insufficient man happens to have the command on deck, adieu to the discipline and safety of the ship. She may, perhaps, not sink outright; she may drift some time as a wreck, and will then be dashed to pieces on the shore; but she can never be rebuilt on the old bottom.”

Some historians speculate Macartney wrote his words out of bitterness, lashing out at an empire that had sent him home empty-handed. Others argue during his mission Macartney did not limit himself to diplomacy alone and also practiced shrewd firsthand scrutiny.

The Correspondent believes the latter story is more convincing. Even as a visitor Macartney detected early cracks in the Qing’s foundations—before even the Qianlong emperor himself did. Today we know Qing officials were already robbing the imperial treasury blind during Macartney’s visit, and the first of many domestic rebellions began just one year after he left.

Macartney reported back that the majestic and imposing Qing dynasty had already peaked and was embarked on a downward trajectory. His mission returned home a diplomatic failure, but Britain would try again several years later.
Full text of Qianlong's letter to George III available at: