Thursday, May 23, 2024

M2 Money Supply vs CPI Inflation

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From the Cautious Optimism Correspondent for Economic Affairs: Declining M2 money supply (red) vs. rising CPI price index (blue) since January 2022.

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 14, 2024

Postwar "Greedflation" Chart

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Expanding on CO's "greedflation" post, the Cautious Optimism Economics Correspondent submits yet one more among dozens of reasons why "price gouging" is neither responsible for the Biden-era inflation nor any other inflation in history.

Wednesday, May 8, 2024

Photo: Hyperinflation in Weimar Germany

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h/t from the Cautious Optimism Correspondent for Economic Affairs to "Free Banking." (Facebook)

Photo caption: "1923. A woman uses banknotes to light her stove during hyperinflation in the Weimar Republic (Germany)."

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.