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British cannons rout outdated Qing war junks from afar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.

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