Discuss the Major Consequences for China of the Second Opium War

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Julian Coy (African / Asian History MA) 13 December 2001

-Discuss the Major Consequences for China of the

Second Opium War

The Convention of Beijing, drafted on 24 October 1860, and the subsequent Supplementary Treaty, signed with Russia on 14 November, brought the Second Opium War to an end. It had been yet another embarrassing episode for the Qing dynasty, which had resulted in the humiliation of its armies, the capture of its cities, and finally the burning of the Emperor’s summer palace in a symbolic act of destruction. These disasters revealed that China’s assumption of inevitable superiority over its neighbours was no longer valid. “Beyond a doubt,” wrote Immanuel C.Y.Hsu, “by 1860, the ancient civilisation that was China had been thoroughly defeated and humiliated by the West.”1 Twice within twenty years it had been defeated and had been forced to open itself up to foreign merchants, missionaries and diplomats. It had lost territory, been obliged to pay humiliating indemnities and had been prevented from halting the opium trade that harmed its people and drained its economy.

Clearly, action needed to be taken to prevent further humiliations in the future, but it should be remembered that, whilst the war against Great Britain and her allies took place, China was in grip of another serious crisis – the chaos caused by the Taiping Rebellion and other uprisings. Millions of people were killed and much of the country was devastated in a sequence of violence and disorder that lasted for over two decades. The Qing regime lost its authority in cities and provinces across the country as the rebellions took hold and faced the possibility of being replaced by the Taiping “Heavenly Kingdom”. This internal crisis significantly affected China’s society, economy and political system, as did the measures the Qing were forced to take to suppress it. An analysis of the consequences of the Second Opium War on China must therefore take care to unravel these from the impact of the rebellions, if this is indeed possible.
On August 22 1861, less than a year after the Convention of Beijing, the Xian Feng Emperor died, providing an opportunity for a new regime to take command in Beijing. The removal of some of the most conservative elements in the court allowed the more reform-minded councillors, such as Yixin (Prince Gong) and Wen Xiang to consider a new policy direction. Having succeeded with their coup, and received the backing of the Empress Dowagers, they established a new government in November. They proclaimed the reign as “Tong Zhi” (Union for Order), aiming to restore peace, stability and strong government to the kingdom by uniting the leading groups within Chinese society.
The “Tong Zhi Restoration” was the first evidence of China’s reaction to the Second Opium War and the lessons it intended to learn from it. “Defeat by modern weapons,” wrote Jack Gray, “had forced some degree of realism on Beijing.” Until they were armed with similar equipment and possessed armies with more modern organisation and training, the Chinese acknowledged that they had no choice but to co-operate with the powers in order to prevent further conflict. The first sign of this had been the establishment of the Zongli Yamen (Office for General Management) in March 1861, before Xian Feng had died. This was the response to the clause in the Convention of Beijing that forced China to accept foreign representatives at ambassador level in the capital. Beforehand, it had only recognised countries on a tributary basis. Now, it was forced to consider them equally. “After Elgin’s triumphal entry into Peking,” wrote Edgar Holt, “it could not be seriously expected that Western envoys would ever kowtow to a Chinese Emperor.”2 The Zongli Yamen co-ordinated the direction of foreign affairs, acting as China’s unofficial foreign office. It negotiated with the new arrivals in Beijing, dealt with matters regarding treaty obligations, and promoted the study of Western languages and methods. However, the Zongli Yamen was not quite the radical step forward that it might appear. It was only intended to be a temporary body, functioning as a committee of the Grand Council. It could not dictate policy, although its recommendations were usually followed through. It also depended on the patronage of Prince Gong. As his influence waned, the office’s efforts were overshadowed by those of individuals such as Li Hongzhang.
One policy in particular demonstrated the cautious and realistic attitude of the Qing towards the foreign threat, that of strict interpretation of the treaties. The swift departure of the occupying armies from Beijing after the Convention demonstrated to Prince Gong and the other reformers that the Western powers were concerned only with treaty revision and represented no territorial threat to the Qing. Therefore they could be trusted to act reasonably and, if China kept to her obligations, further unnecessary (and unaffordable) conflict could be avoided. A policy of absolute clarity would encourage clear recognisable boundaries, and prevent the powers from misusing ambiguities to make further encroachments on China’s sovereignty. “Foreign demands based on the law of the treaties were granted regardless of the immediate consequences for China,” wrote Jean Chesneaux and his colleagues, “because the Zongli Yamen felt that in the long run the national interest depended on the inviolability of the treaties. On the other hand, the ministry consistently opposed foreign activities which were not specified in the treaties.”3
The western powers were happy to comply with this policy and as a consequence their relations with the Qing rapidly improved. “The years from 1862 to 1869…” Frederic Wakeman commented, “were a time of conscious co-operation between China and the Great Powers, with foreign sympathisers zealously trying to convince the Qing authorities of the need for institutional and educational reforms to modernise the country.”4 Thomas Wade, the British ambassador in Beijing, and Robert Hart, inspector general of customs, used their positions to gain the trust of the Qing and to persuade them to consider more modern methods. Indeed Hart, who served as inspector general until 1908, became over time an unofficial counsellor for the Qing. During his career he acted as a negotiator on their behalf, proposed candidates for official positions, and produced a memorandum in 1866 for the Zongli Yamen that encouraged China to modernise its infrastructure and recommended that they send foreign representatives abroad to improve their diplomatic standing.
However, although the Western powers ultimately wished to see economic and political reform in China, for the time being they would be satisfied if the country remained stable and safe for trade to resume and prosper. It was therefore in the Western interest to support the Qing regime, conservative as it might seem, if it continued to honour the Treaty of Tianjin and the Convention of Beijing. This also led to a change in Western policy towards the Taiping Rebellion. Previously the powers had taken a neutral view towards the conflict, only acting when their interests were directly threatened. However, following the signature of the treaties, foreign rights, such as access to Wuhan and the Yangzi River, were impeded by the rebels. It was therefore to the West’s advantage to ally with the imperial regime and attempt to restore its authority. The Western-backed “Ever-Victorious army”, a collection of mercenaries and Chinese supplied troops commanded by European officers, demonstrated the superiority of western weaponry and organisation when it defended Shanghai against a Taiping attack in 1862. This episode convinced the British and French governments to commit further troops, but they were used only for limited campaigns. The Chinese authorities did not wish it to appear that the rebellion could only be defeated with foreign aid, and were concerned that it might be used as a pretext for further encroachment. However, the presence of the Western powers on the side of the Qing must have been a sharp blow for the morale of the rebels. As Chesneaux, Bastid and Bergère commented, “The superiority conferred on the imperial cause by foreign help lay not so much in the number of men involved as in the fact that reinforcements were available if needed.”5
It cannot be said that a consequence of the Second Opium War was the defeat of the Taiping Rebellion. This was due rather more to the internal disintegration of the Taipings and the granting of greater authority by the Qing to its provincial commanders such as Zeng Guofan and Li Hongzhang. However, both of these men realised that modern weaponry would put them at a great advantage in dealing with the rebels. The first priority of the Qing reformers’ modernisation plan known as the “Foreign Matters Movement” (yangwu yundong) was therefore the creation of a modern armaments industry. This policy would be known as “self-strengthening” (ziqiang), building arsenals and shipyards with foreign assistance to create a military force that could quell the rebellions and be a match for any external threat. Feng Gui-fen, a well-known advocate of modernisation and administrative reform, explained the importance of such a costly project. “Only thus will be able to pacify the empire;” he said, “only thus can we play a leading role on the globe, and only thus shall we restore our original strength and redeem ourselves from former humiliations.”6
The first fruits of the “self-strengthening” policy were directly influenced by the provincial commanders’ experiences in the war. Zeng Guofan and Li Hongzhang had been impressed by the performance of the British artillery, and established three small arsenals in 1863 where the Taiping threat had been greatest. Zuo Zongtang, governor-general of Zheijiang, admired the ability of the foreign warships and lobbied for a naval dockyard in Fuzhou. In 1865 work began on more extensive projects, including new arsenals at Nanjing and Jiangnan which performed a variety of roles. The Jiangnan arsenal manufactured arms and ammunition, imported weapons from abroad, built and repaired ships and was home to a cartography office and a language school. The attempts to create a shipbuilding industry seemed odd when the greatest threat remained the rebellions from within, and the finished ships usually cost more to build and were less reliable than similar imported vessels. However, these efforts were largely for the benefit of foreign observers, reflecting China’s determination to restore its international reputation, as Zeng Guofan reflected in 1865. “Obviously rifles are important and there is an urgent need for them,” he wrote, “but steamships are just as important and must be built as quickly as possible. This achievement will show the foreigners that we are strengthening ourselves and will bolster the morale of our compatriots.”7
The projects had their drawbacks. They were extremely expensive and inefficient, saddled with the usual ineffective and corrupt bureaucracy of a government project. Many projects were poorly thought out. Some of the Westerners hired had little experience of the job required – the director of the Nanjing Arsenal, Halliday Macartney, was a doctor of medicine, and the Fuzhou Dockyard was managed by two Frenchmen with no previous experience in shipbuilding.8 The quality of the finished product was often poor – completed ships were from Fuzhou were equipped with second-hand imported engines.
The most serious drawback to the projects was that they were poorly co-ordinated. The government failed to give clear direction or integrate them into a larger industrial plan, particularly because the mood of the Qing court was becoming increasingly conservative. Military projects were easy to present because of the perceived threats to China from within and without, but further modernisation was considered unacceptable by many. “Instead of taking a strong leadership in modernisation,” wrote John King Fairbank, “the Qing regime cautiously husbanded its power within a general position of Chinese weakness.”9 The projects suffered from limited scope and poor public support, both amongst the general population and from the “men of talent” who had been persuaded that such work went against their Confucian teaching. Even Zeng Guofan viewed projects such as railway and telegraph construction as a threat to China’s integrity. For this reason, China’s military projects failed to realise their potential as cornerstones of the more general industrialisation of the economy, the “wealth and power” (ziqiang) stage.
The most noticeable consequence of the war for many Chinese was that foreigners became more visible. Ten new treaty ports were established after the Treaty of Tianjin, with an eleventh, Tianjin itself, was added after the Convention of Beijing. This created sixteen enclaves across the country where foreigners could live and trade free from Chinese jurisdiction. Furthermore, foreigners could now travel wherever they wished in the country, and missionaries could establish themselves and preach wherever they pleased. “For many Chinese…” wrote Paul Cohen, “the missionary stood as a uniquely visible symbol against which opposition to foreign intrusion could be directed.”10 The Christian message dismissed the understanding that China was the foundation of civilisation, and appeared to stand opposed to traditional customs and Confucian teaching. The behaviour of Christian converts could also be a source of irritation, exempting themselves from specific rituals and obligations and increasing the burden for the rest of the community. The gentry took offence at the missionaries’ privileged status, particularly when the foreigners intervened in local legal proceedings, undermining their own authority. There were many incidents of hostility towards both Catholic and Protestant missionaries, and at least a hundred of these between 1860 and 1900 were serious enough to involve foreign diplomats.11 Often they were fuelled by wild rumours and sensational claims in pamphlets. Claims of the mistreatment and murder of children in a local Catholic orphanage, for example, culminated in the massacre of Tianjin in 1870. Such actions may not have been instigated by the local authorities, but often received their tacit approval.
Although the Treaty of Tianjin granted foreigners the right to travel on China’s inland waterways and access to a much greater proportion of the country, there was not the dramatic increase in trade that the traders had hoped for. This was because foreign merchants, entranced by the size of China’s population, failed to understand the needs and capacity of the market. Few could afford expensive luxury goods and high quality garments, and those that could often considered such items to be socially unacceptable. Eventually many traders abandoned their efforts to sell directly to the interior and concentrated their efforts in the treaty ports. For sales inland they relied on Chinese agents, more familiar with the local customs and conditions, and with lower distribution costs. These agents could go on to handle all aspects of the foreigners’ business in China and profit greatly from them, becoming powerful and influential compradors. “With their foreign contacts and protection,” wrote Fairbank, “compradors became China’s first modern entrepreneurs, investing in all sorts of new ventures in treaty ports and sometimes becoming far richer than their employers.”12 The compradors were the interface between local and foreign capital, encouraging limited Chinese investment into financial concerns and industries. The Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank was founded in 1864 and attracted plenty of interest from local depositors, who were more concerned about the security of their investment than the higher rates of return that they might receive from the local banks. This rising bourgeois class was one of the greatest beneficiaries of the increased western trade, but their growing wealth did not assist the general Chinese economy, as it was usually reinvested in foreign banks and business ventures. “The function of the intermediate elites,” wrote Elizabeth Lasek, “whose wealth and power stemmed from their ties to imperialist forces and their ability to manoeuvre within the sphere of Chinese politics, was to organise production and commerce so as to facilitate particular patterns of foreign trade.”13
One trade that benefited from the conclusion of the war was that of opium. For thirty years after its legalisation in 1860 it was the foreigners’ most valuable import. It could now penetrate deep into the Chinese hinterland, and its common usage was transformed from an occasional medicine or palliative into a “mass drug food” , sold from smoke shops to all members of society in even the remotest parts of the countryside. Shipments rose from 60,000 chests a year before the war to a peak of 80,000 in 1880, 39% of the total amount of goods imported that year.14 The increase was more moderate than might be expected as legalisation merely legitimised much of the opium smuggling that had been taking place beforehand. The importers were also obliged to pay higher tariffs than they had previously been used to. The opium trade continued to hamper China’s balance of payments as more of its silver reserves were used to pay for the drug, but this was offset by another consequence of legalisation, the development of local opium cultivation, providing opportunities for peasants barely subsisting in the fragile agricultural economy. “Expanded domestic cultivation,” wrote T.Brook and B.T. Wakabayashi, “can be seen as a domestic form of import substitution undertaken by Chinese peasants, landlords and merchants.”15
The producers of tea and silk, China’s chief exports at the time, clearly benefited from increased Western activity after the war. As the rest of the agricultural economy suffered, despite the reformer’s best efforts to revive it, the specialist producers were able to supply the demands of foreign markets. However, by abandoning their self-sufficiency, they became increasingly dependent upon the unpredictability of the markets and faced threats from international competitors, such as the Indian tea growers and the Japanese silk industry. The handicrafts industry, a traditional standby for the peasantry, also suffered from competition from the garments factories established in the treaty ports where economies of scale and cheap local labour produced products at a price more traditional methods could not match.
There is much debate about the extent to which increased foreign activity after the war was responsible for stifling China’s economic development. “The development of underdevelopment in China,” wrote Victor Lippit, “is more properly attributable to the domestic class structure and relations of production than to external influence.”16 The establishment of the Imperial Maritime Customs, managed for many years by Robert Hart, provided the government with a sizeable and stable source of revenue from foreign trade. This revenue paid off China’s indemnities within six years and could then be used to fund modernisation projects. However, the concentration on military development meant that only a few areas benefited from new investment, and much of this was lost to corruption and waste. Few efforts were made, for example, to fund the repair of infrastructure destroyed in the Taiping. The chief desire appeared to be to restore the status quo in the agricultural economy, and thus retain the support of the gentry for the regime. Land tax was reduced in some areas, but this was rarely accompanied by a reduction in rents, so the tenant farmers saw little benefit. More exam degrees were issued, and greater attention was made to encourage “men of talent” to work in provincial administration, but there was little attempt to overhaul the system any more radically than that, and conservative elements continued to resist any attempts at more substantial economic and administrative reform. Chinese society remained in a state of neglect, unable to meet the increasing demands and challenges of the Western powers. For this reason, the feelings of many Chinese people towards foreigners were a mixture of anger, shame and jealousy.
The consequences of the Second Opium War were not felt uniformly across China, and intermingled with the instability from the rebellions and the changing politics of the Qing court. The trivial nature of the Arrow Incident appears to suggest that this war might have been avoidable, but the policy of obstruction towards the West of officials such as Ye Mingshen, governor of Canton, and the demands of foreign traders that their rights be recognised suggests that conflict would eventually have been inevitable. The Treaty of Tianjin and the Convention of Beijing provided a clear framework around which Sino-foreign relations could be based and the new government policy of strict interpretation removed ambiguities that had contributed to the previous conflict. The war provided a foundation on which greater co-operation and trade could develop, sustained by a recognised need from the West that the Qing regime should be preserved to protect their interests. This provided much-needed stability, but also prevented any opportunity for the sort of radical change that Japan experienced after the Meiji Restoration. Reforms in China were conducted by a few individuals who were either, like Prince Gong, constantly battling against more conservative elements or, like Li Hongzhang, encouraging development to expand their own power and influence. There was no attempt to make little more than minor reforms to China’s government and administration, or encourage economic development through trade with the West. “No Chinese of any consequence,” wrote Paul Cohen, “shared the foreign view that an expansion of Sino-Western trade offered China her best hope of prosperity and growth. The very concept of economic growth eluded the understanding of the Restoration leaders.”17
The war was clearly of great significance to those who lived in the Maritime and Amur provinces, who became Russian subjects after the signature of the Supplementary Treaty of Beijing. The citizens of Kowloon, signed over to the British, and the new treaty ports also found that their circumstances would quickly change. Investment flowed into the concessions to fund commerce, financial services and manufacturing. It was the source of the compradors’ power and influence and the foundation for the development of China’s emerging proletariat and bourgeoisie and the source of power for the compradors. Away from the ports, the impact of the war was less noticeable. Occasional foreign missionaries and merchants might be noticed, but China was still so vast that the growth of foreign trade was scarcely felt in much of the country, where the impact of the rebellions and the stagnation of the rural economy was much more keenly felt.
The Second Opium War was not the “beginning of the end” for China, but it marked a missed opportunity. China’s defeat had been a warning that it was now outclassed by its foreign rivals, but it now had a chance to learn the West in a period of reasonable stability and co-operation. Its failure to embrace reform and exhort to its people the benefits of modernisation, as Japan would do after its own “restoration” would cost it dearly. The consequences of the Second Opium War had been relatively mild, but the results of the Sino-Japanese War would be disastrous.

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