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Thursday, October 9, 2014

What Are Chinese Students Taught About The West? (Part II)

Link: The Opium Wars

 Part II

In 1836, most of China was cut off from trade with the Western world.  What trade that did occur left the Chinese with a healthy trade surplus.  Europe, the United States and Russia (heretofore referred to as "The West") wanted access to Chinese markets, and they wanted it bad.  At the time, the drug Opium (grown primarily in Turkey and in Her Majesty's Dominion of India) was being smuggled into China at a steadily increasing rate.  The import of Opium was threatening the balance of trade, not to mention the growing number of Chinese who were becoming addicts.  Ironically, the sale of Opium was illegal in England at the time.  The Chinese government decided that what was good for the goose was good for the gander, and not only made Opium illegal, but in 1839, raided a number of warehouses and ships in Canton and burned their cargo of Opium.  The Chinese may have felt that they were well within their rights to combat what was obviously a menace to Chinese society, but their actions could not have been more damaging to China's interests.  The war that followed was one-sided.  The British held every military advantage and occupied areas around Canton.  In  1842, the Chinese were obliged to agree to the Treaty of Nanking, which ceded Hong Kong to Great Britain and opened up various ports to trade.

The United States and France approached China after the Treaty of Nanking, and demanded the same concessions.  The idea of "most favored nation" took root in China, and to many Chinese, they became lower class citizens in their own country.  The British and the French again defeated China in the Second Opium War (1856).  In 1858, with the signing of the Treaty of Tientsin, foreigners (read missionaries) were allowed to travel unimpeded throughout China, and the Western nations were allowed to open embassies in Peking.  This last concession is more important than it may seem.  The Chinese revered their Emperor, and to allow "foreign devils" to live in the same city was a terrible insult.  More ports were opened to trade, the Opium poured into China, Christian missionaries seemed to be on every street corner, and the Chinese Civil Administration became prostrate with corruption.  In 1898, a movement of peasants calling themselves "Boxers", decided to remove the foreigners from China (initially the Boxers were protesting the insults inflicted on Chinese peasants by mostly American missionaries).  The movement swelled to hundreds of thousands, and forced its way past Chinese authorities and occupied Peking.  Cixi was powerless to stop the Boxers, and their intent to remove the foreign devils sounded promising, so she sided with the Movement as it laid siege to the foreign legation (the collection of Western embassies).  Eventually a rescue army of Austrians, French, Brits, Russians and even Japanese troops crushed the Boxer rebellion.  Cixi was allowed to stay on the throne, but another round of humiliating concessions were forced on China.

Imperial China died with Cixi (actually, Cixi was succeeded in 1908 by the child-emperor PuYi.  His story is also a fascinating read, as he lived long enough to experience Mao's Cultural Revolution).  Fast-forward to 2014, and one finds Chinese history books paint a less-than flattering portrayal of the West in the nineteenth century.  I've seen a few translated versions, and not surprisingly, a bit of Sino-license has been applied.  But just as the West had a monopoly on history in 1900, its China's turn to interpret history in a self-serving fashion.  The few Chinese that I have had the pleasure to know are very aware that current Western accounts of the Opium Wars and the Boxer rebellion are much more accurate.  But even in its accuracy, the greed and avarice with which the West conducted its China policy beggars shame.  Less than 180 years ago, British and French diplomacy was centered around creating a nation of Opium addicts.  I'm sure that many historians and armchair revisionists will disagree with my assessment, but there it is.  As someone who on occasion has had delicate dealings with a number of Chinese, let me say that my respectful acceptance of the shameful behavior on behalf of the Western governments in the mid 19th century, was well-received and greatly appreciated.

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