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."

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