Monthly Archives: April 2022

Opium Culture in Qing China

From Imperial Twilight: The Opium War and the End of China’s Last Golden Age, by Stephen R. Platt (Knopf, 2018), Kindle pp. 225-229:

It is unclear how many Chinese smokers of opium in the early nineteenth century were what we might call addicts. Some certainly were, but given how much was being imported they could not have been many relative to the size of the empire. By the start of Daoguang’s reign in 1820, the nearly five thousand chests being imported from India each year were enough to support about forty thousand average habitual users empire-wide, or as many as one hundred thousand of the lightest daily smokers, so at most a few hundredths of a percent of the population. Furthermore, most users at this time seem not to have been terribly debilitated by opium—they led productive lives and were not outcasts from their families or professions. Indeed, opium smoking was a generally open, public act and there were many socially encouraged reasons to take part in it. Medicinal reasons aside—and there were dozens of those—businessmen smoked opium to focus their minds and help them make smarter deals (at least they imagined that was the effect). Students smoked it for the clarity it brought, thinking it would help them succeed on the civil service examinations. For the stylish it was a relaxant to be offered to guests after dinner. For the privileged with little to do, like the eunuchs of the Forbidden City or Manchu courtiers with few responsibilities, it was an escape from boredom.

Opium was, in other words, perfectly acceptable in respected circles. An aesthetic culture of gorgeously wrought pipes and other accessories grew up around its use by the wealthy, the very expense and extravagance of those tools elevating the act of smoking itself. The Chinese fashion for smoking, moreover, was quite profligate in comparison to the eating of the drug that went on in Britain; much was wasted in the process, and a smoker could easily go through an amount of opium in one day that would kill someone who ingested it directly. For those in more humble situations who couldn’t afford to smoke it themselves, employment in the opium trade still provided a chance for income as couriers and petty dealers.

From a purely economic standpoint opium had its advantages. Valuable and easy to carry (it was worth more than three hundred times its weight in rice), foreign opium was a very good business proposition for Chinese merchants in Canton. Being illegal, it could be turned around quickly for a profit in silver—within a few days in most cases, as compared to tea, which involved large cultivation and transportation networks, and generally took half a year or more to produce a return on each year’s investment. Since the Canton traders made more back from their customers inside China than they paid to the foreign suppliers, trading in opium also served as a convenient way for them to increase their own silver stocks, which they could then use to procure tea for sale to the foreigners. And though they had to pay bribes to officials, the illegal trade was otherwise, de facto, free from taxes.

There is no evidence that the moral exhortations of the Daoguang emperor caught on with the general public in any meaningful way. The widespread public opposition to opium on moral and public health grounds for which China would be known in the twentieth century was at this time entirely absent. Though perhaps the public’s resistance to imperial moralizing was only to be expected; in the early seventeenth century, the Ming dynasty had tried to suppress tobacco for reasons very similar to the Qing dynasty’s ban on opium—even to the point of ordering execution for anyone who cultivated or sold it—but they did not succeed. By the time of the Qing dynasty, those prohibitions were long forgotten and tobacco was an accepted staple of daily life in China. There was no reason the Jiaqing or Daoguang emperors’ edicts against opium should have been more likely to find success.

The Chinese of the early nineteenth century are often described as being uniformly insular and scornful of anything foreign, thanks mainly to an overly literal reading of the boilerplate language in Qianlong’s edict to George III where he claimed that he did not value foreign things. But this was not really the case. For wealthy urbanites in China, Western goods were all the rage by the 1820s—furs, glass, intricate clocks, cotton textiles, and other products of the Canton import trade, which were highly sought after by those with sufficient money to buy them. Far from encountering any kind of disdain for foreign objects, Chinese retailers in the early nineteenth century found that attaching the adjective “Western” to their merchandise was in fact the key to a higher selling price.

This consumer fashion for foreign products helps explain why the opium from British India became so popular in China. Against latter-day nationalist claims that the British came and forced opium down the throats of helpless Chinese consumers, there was in fact an existing system of domestic opium production in China already in place to compete with the import market at Canton (especially in the empire’s western and southwestern provinces). There were also separate avenues for importing the drug overland from Central Asia—and opium from all of those sources was much cheaper than the Indian opium the British brought to Canton. But opium was a luxury good, and its wealthy consumers weren’t looking for a bargain; they were looking for status. Fashionable users of the drug in urban China preferred the opium from British India (the Patna, with its East India Company seal of quality) largely because it was “Western” and therefore seen as far more sophisticated to buy and smoke.

By the late eighteenth century, when British traders began carrying Indian opium in meaningful quantities to Canton, they did so because they knew a market was already waiting for them there. They could not force the drug down anyone’s throat—indeed, they couldn’t even get themselves into the country; all they could do was to carry their opium to China’s southern coast and sell it to Chinese agents. Everything from there on into the Qing Empire was entirely in Chinese hands. Moving forward into the nineteenth century, the extensive smoking of opium emerged as an almost uniquely Chinese social custom, the Canton market for the drug growing to become, primarily for domestic reasons, the most demanding in the world. If opium was illegal in name, it was almost never so in practice, a fact as apparent to outsiders calling at Canton as to insiders within the Qing Empire. As one British dealer testified to a government committee in 1830, “Every now and then there is a very strong edict issued against the trade; but, like other Chinese edicts, it is nearly powerless. It imposes a little difficulty perhaps for the moment, and enables the Mandarins to extort from the dealers.”

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Early Chinese Opium Trade, 1700s

From Imperial Twilight: The Opium War and the End of China’s Last Golden Age, by Stephen R. Platt (Knopf, 2018), Kindle pp. 193-194:

Robert Bennet Forbes, John’s rosy-cheeked older brother, was a middleman in the drug trade. The Lintin he had just fitted out in Massachusetts was destined for use as a “receiving ship”—based off the southwest corner of Lintin Island, far from the reach of the authorities in Canton, he operated it as a floating warehouse for drug shipments. Foreign vessels coming in from India and elsewhere with cargoes of opium would stop first at Lintin, offload their chests of the drug onto Forbes’s ship or another in the harbor, then proceed up to the Whampoa anchorage outside Canton with their holds empty of contraband and clean for inspection. In certain “money-changing shops” in the foreign compound, their captains or supercargoes could meet with the English-speaking agents of Chinese opium wholesalers (some, but not all, of whom were Hong merchants—since the trade was illegal, the Hong merchants’ monopoly on foreign trade did not apply to opium as it did to tea). After agreeing on a price, the foreign merchants took payment for their opium, while the Chinese dealers sent their own men out to Lintin to retrieve the shipment from the holding vessel.

Robert Bennet Forbes’s job was a simple one. His cargo was not his own; he merely held it on consignment for other traders who had assumed the risk (storms, pirates, market fluctuations) of getting it to south China in the first place. Chinese smugglers took all of the responsibility for moving the drug inland and up the coast—and, eventually, for retailing it within China. They also took responsibility for bribing government officials to ensure that no inspections would be made at Lintin, or at least to make sure that such inspections would be announced well in advance. There were in fact Chinese warships stationed on the opposite side of Lintin Island from Forbes’s ship, off the island’s northeastern shore, but they were under a different county’s jurisdiction than the smuggling anchorage and generally only sailed around the island in order to collect bribes from the smugglers before returning to the northeast again. As captain of the Lintin receiving ship, Robert Bennet Forbes thus bore almost no risk at all. All he had to do was stay put and keep the opium safe, earning a commission for each chest he held. The hardest part of the job, for a young New Englander who loved to sail, was having to stay in one place all the time. For suffering that, he brought in an income that in today’s currency was worth more than $800,000 per year.

The basic fact was that the opium poppy grew very well in British India, which otherwise was a spectacularly unprofitable colonial venture (and which, without the rich profits from the Canton tea trade to offset its losses and debts, would likely have bankrupted the East India Company). European traders learned early on that there was a steady if small market for opium in China even though it was illegal there. As early as 1719 we can find the Chinese demand for the drug making an appearance in The Farther Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe’s lesser-known sequel to his novel Robinson Crusoe, where Crusoe, who was rescued from his castaway fate in the previous book, made a run from Siam to China to sell opium, “a Commodity which bears a great Price among the Chinese, and which at that Time, was very much wanted there.” Though Crusoe originally intended to sail north in China to sell it, he was advised to “put in at Macao, where we could not have fail’d of a Market for our Opium.”

There are more formal records of British traders carrying Indian opium to China by 1733, when the East India Company notified the captains of two of its ships of “the late severe laws enacted by the Emperour of China for the prohibition of Ophium,” admonishing them that “you are neither to carry, nor suffer any of it to be carry’d in your Ship to China, as you will answer the contrary to the Hon’ble Company at your peril.” Going forward, the “Honourable Company” refrained from carrying any opium on its own ships, judging that the potential loss of its aboveboard tea trade was not worth the smaller reward to be gained from drug trafficking. That did not end the matter, however, but simply made an opening for independent operators who were more willing to take on the dangers of the illegal trade.

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First Englishman in Lhasa

From Imperial Twilight: The Opium War and the End of China’s Last Golden Age, by Stephen R. Platt (Knopf, 2018), Kindle pp. 146-147:

Manning was the first Englishman ever to lay eyes on the city (and the last for the remainder of the nineteenth century). His only European predecessors were a pair of Catholic missionaries who had reached the city two hundred years earlier. From a distance, at least, it was the Shangri-La of fables. The grand Potala Palace where the Dalai Lama lived loomed high and white on a hill above the city, visible from miles off, more magnificent in appearance than he had even imagined it could be. But some of the magic was lost on approach. A ceremonial gate they passed through on the road to the city had gilt decorations that caught the sun from afar, but up close the ornaments seemed imbalanced and off-kilter to Manning, reminding him of “pastry work” or “gingerbread architecture.” The blindingly white palace itself was like a hive, swarming with monks in gorgeous robes of deep maroon, but the city below it was poor and rough. The houses were “begrimed with smut and dirt.” Wild dogs with mangy and ulcerated skin ran freely in the streets, growling and digging about for food. In spite of himself, Manning sensed a deep strangeness to the place, an unreality. “Even the mirth and laughter of the inhabitants I thought dreamy and ghostly,” he recalled. “The dreaminess no doubt was in my mind, but I never could get rid of the idea.”

On the advice of his munshi [secretary and translator], Manning pretended to be a Buddhist lama from India, one who happened to be versed in medicine. He hid the fact that he could speak or read Chinese, since it would make the presence of an interpreter suspicious. He also hid that he could speak English, so the two of them only communicated openly in Latin (in which both were fluent, it being the confluence of Manning’s Cambridge education and the munshi’s childhood training by a Roman Catholic missionary). This led to a long chain of interpretation when Manning spoke to Tibetans: someone would first have to translate from Tibetan into Chinese, then Manning’s munshi would translate the Chinese into Latin for him, and he would have to respond in Latin, back along the chain. To avoid standing out—and because he decided he liked it—he performed the kowtow before Chinese and Manchu officials whenever he was asked (a lesser version than that reserved for the emperor, touching the head to the ground three times rather than nine). In fact, he said, he found it so restful to kneel down to the ground after all the walking he had to do that he tried to kowtow as much as possible—including in front of high-ranking Tibetans (which offended his munshi, who said no Chinese would ever do that).

Manning was granted an audience with the Dalai Lama on December 17, 1811. To get to it, he had to climb up hundreds of steps carved into the side of the mountain on which the Potala Palace was built, steps that gave way in time to ladders on which he continued climbing up through the nine floors of the palace, its air rich with the smoke of incense and yak-butter lamps, to reach the high roof with its breathtaking view over the city and the broad, vast plain to the deep blue-white mountains in the distance. A monk escorted him into a smooth-floored reception hall built onto the roof, walls hung with tapestries and its ceiling held up by high, strong pillars. Sunshine streamed down through a skylight. In the middle of the hall, on a throne supported by carved lions, he found a young boy in maroon robes and a pointed saffron hood who appeared to be about seven years old (he had, in fact, just turned six). Manning knelt down before the Dalai Lama and performed the kowtow.

Manning still had his beard, but he had shaved the top of his head in preparation for the audience, so that the boy could lay hands on him. The normally impish Englishman was quieted in the lama’s presence. “His face was, I thought, poetically and effectingly beautiful,” wrote Manning. “He was of a gay and cheerful disposition; his beautiful mouth perpetually unbending into a graceful smile, which illuminated his whole countenance. Sometimes, particularly when he had looked at me, his smile almost approached to a gentle laugh.” They made polite small talk. The Dalai Lama asked about his journey. Manning asked for Tibetan Buddhist books, and asked if someone who spoke Chinese could teach him their contents, though he was gently rebuffed. It wasn’t the conversation that mattered, though, but simply the fact of being in the Dalai Lama’s presence. Unlike Macartney’s audience with Qianlong, there was no power relationship in play, no hidden challenge, no posturing. Just curiosity. And friendliness. All of Manning’s playful cynicism vanished. “I could have wept through strangeness of sensation,” he wrote afterward. “I was absorbed in reflections when I got home.”

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Evacuating Qing China’s Shoreline

From Imperial Twilight: The Opium War and the End of China’s Last Golden Age, by Stephen R. Platt (Knopf, 2018), Kindle pp. 112-114:

In the 1660s, the young Qing dynasty was just twenty years past its conquest of Beijing and still only partially in control of the empire. It faced a pirate navy of more than a thousand ships and 150,000 sailors that had declared open rebellion against the Manchus and called for the restoration of the Ming dynasty. Kangxi had just come to the throne, a mere boy at the time, and he and his advisers recognized that the dynasty’s Manchu forces, which were mounted on horseback, could not possibly hope to master such a large force of pirates on water. So rather than fighting them head-on, Kangxi instead ordered the evacuation of China’s entire southeastern coast.

Nearly a thousand miles of shoreline, from Zhejiang province in the east all the way down to Canton in the south and beyond, was emptied of its inhabitants so the Ming-loyalist pirate fleet would have nowhere to find supplies or conscripts. The evacuation began in 1661 with a zone three miles wide, increasing to ten miles the following year. Lines were drawn (soldiers stretched ropes to mark them), and the population living between the boundary lines and the shore were forced at spearpoint to abandon their homes and villages and move inland, carrying whatever of their possessions they could manage. Behind them, the farms were dug up and the fishing boats and villages burned, leaving nothing for the pirates to find on land except military camps.

The evacuation in the 1660s was horrific from a humanitarian standpoint: a forced relocation of millions of people, leading their farm animals on a slow exodus, carrying the elderly on their backs, into cities and inland regions where they had no land rights and no clear way to make a living. “There was wailing everywhere,” wrote an observer at the time. “The sight was too painful to watch.” But as a military strategy it succeeded. The pirate fleet, unable to obtain supplies on the Chinese coast, abandoned mainland China and sailed across the Taiwan Strait to conquer the Dutch colony that then existed on Formosa (modern-day Taiwan). The coastal evacuation order would be enforced in most areas for more than twenty years, which was how long it took for the Qing dynasty to build a navy sufficient to cross the strait and destroy the pirates on their new base. Once the pirate armada was defeated, the dynasty incorporated Taiwan into its empire and the millions of people who had been removed from the coast were finally allowed to return home.

That victory was so decisive and complete that China’s coast would enjoy a long era of peace afterward. Through the eighteenth century, the only real security issues China’s coastal communities faced were small-scale amateur pirates—poor fishermen, typically, who sailed up the coast to make trouble in the off-season when the winds wouldn’t allow them to go to sea. They hardly merited a centralized military response. In times of need, coastal communities raised their own funds to build watchtowers and guardhouses, and hired local police forces to protect their markets against the predations of bandits—local measures that, up to the early 1800s, were fully sufficient. By the time the new pirate confederation rebelled against the government, the dynasty had not needed an oceangoing navy for more than a hundred years and the ships it had built to conquer Taiwan had long ago rotted away.

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China Envy in Late 1700s

From Imperial Twilight: The Opium War and the End of China’s Last Golden Age, by Stephen R. Platt (Knopf, 2018), Kindle pp. 9-11:

There were good reasons why the East India Company did not do anything else that might put their little foothold in China at risk. In the eyes of Europeans in the late eighteenth century, the empire of the Qing dynasty was an unequaled vision of power, order, and prosperity. It had long been, as Adam Smith described it in 1776 in The Wealth of Nations, “one of the richest, that is, one of the most fertile, best cultivated, most industrious, and most populous countries in the world.” Smith believed China to have been at a stable climax of development for eons—at least as far back as Marco Polo’s visit in the thirteenth century—which meant that although it did not have the capacity to develop any further (an advantage he reserved largely for Europe), it nevertheless showed no signs of retreating from its pinnacle of prosperity. “Though it may perhaps stand still,” he insisted, “[China] does not seem to go backwards.”

Enlightenment champions of reason saw in China the model of a moral and well-governed state that needed no church—a secular empire, founded on rational texts and ruled by scholars. “Confucius,” wrote Voltaire with admiration in his Philosophical Dictionary of 1765, “had no interest in falsehood; he did not pretend to be a prophet; he claimed no inspiration; he taught no new religion; he used no delusions.” In reading extracts from Confucius’s works, Voltaire concluded, “I have found in them nothing but the purest morality, without the slightest tinge of charlatanism.” The state that had been founded on those works was, he believed, the oldest and most enduring in the world. “There is no house in Europe,” he observed, “the antiquity of which is so well proved as that of the Empire of China.”

China’s political unity in the later eighteenth century was dazzling not just to British economists and French philosophers but to Americans as well, once they began to emerge as a nation of their own. In 1794, a U.S. citizen of Dutch descent, who had served as interpreter for an embassy from the Netherlands to China, dedicated the published account of his voyage to George Washington, celebrating in particular “the virtues which in your Excellency afford so striking a resemblance between Asia and America.” China was for him the standard by which Western countries could be measured: Washington was virtuous because he exhibited some of the qualities of a Qing dynasty emperor. The highest hope that the writer could muster for the future of his new nation was that Washington, in his “principles and sentiments,” might procure for the United States “a duration equal to the Chinese Empire.”

These were not just Western fantasies. China in the eighteenth century was not only the most populous and politically unified empire on earth, but also the most prosperous. The standard of living in its wealthy eastern and southern cities was easily a match for the companion regions of western Europe, as was life expectancy. To measure by the consumption of luxury goods such as sugar and tea, the quality of life in eastern China in the 1700s appears to have left Europe behind. At the same time, however, due to the Qing government’s tight strictures on foreign trade and residence, China was also seen from outside as impossibly guarded and remote, “the only civilised nation in the world,” as one British writer put it, “whose jealous laws forbid the intrusion of any other people.” The immense riches of the empire were—to the eternal frustration of westerners—always just out of reach.

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Qianlong Emperor’s Achievements

From Imperial Twilight: The Opium War and the End of China’s Last Golden Age, by Stephen R. Platt (Knopf, 2018), Kindle pp. 49-50:

Qianlong was enthroned in 1735 at the age of twenty-four and would rule longer than any Chinese emperor ever had, or ever would again. He presided over massive frontier wars in Central Asia and sponsored cultural projects of a scale unimaginable in the West. (At a time when there were more book titles in China than in the rest of the world combined, he oversaw the compilation of a literary encyclopedia that ran to more than thirty-six thousand volumes in length and would fill a large room.) He was an accomplished and prolific classical poet and a renowned practitioner of calligraphy, and with a firm hand for government and a taste for over-the-top displays of power and beneficence he guided the empire to its apex of prosperity.

The first Qing rulers had begun the work of carving out their empire’s borders after the conquest of Beijing from the Ming dynasty in 1644. Over generations they expanded westward into Central Asia, beyond the original heartland of the fallen Ming, assimilating new territories in the southwest and the island of Taiwan to the east. But it was not until Qianlong’s reign in the eighteenth century that the Qing Empire reached its fullest flower, largely setting the boundaries for the Chinese state that exists today. At its peak under Qianlong, the empire reached all the way from Manchuria in the northeast to the provinces of Guangxi and Yunnan in the southwest, and from Taiwan off the eastern coast deep into Central Asia with the territories of Xinjiang and Tibet in the far west. It was an empire of four and a half million square miles, larger than all of Europe put together.

When Macartney came to pay his respects, Qianlong was just turning eighty-two. He was a sturdy man with drooping eyes, slight jowls, and a long mustache. His reign had been long enough that he was the same ruler who sat on the throne at the time of James Flint, the same who had originally ordered British trade confined to Canton. By the time of the Macartney embassy, Qianlong had ruled China for nearly fifty-eight years. He was not alone in his longevity either, for his grandfather Kangxi had reigned for sixty-one years, from 1661 to 1722, the two of them forming the backbone of one of the most powerful dynasties in China’s long history.

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Chinese Civil Service System in late 1700s

From Imperial Twilight: The Opium War and the End of China’s Last Golden Age, by Stephen R. Platt (Knopf, 2018), Kindle pp. 54-55:

For all the admiration of the Chinese examinations by outsiders, however, by the late eighteenth century the system was beginning to fail. It had always been extremely difficult to pass the exams, but as the population expanded in the Qianlong reign there were far more candidates than before who wanted to take part in the competition, and proportionally fewer government jobs with which to reward them. The competition became more and more fierce, and great numbers of talented candidates were left behind, creating a glut of highly educated men with few career prospects. They generally found unsatisfying work as tutors, secretaries, and bureaucratic underlings, unreliable jobs that required a high level of literacy and education but were transient and depended entirely on the patronage of their individual employers. These men were failures in the eyes of their parents, many of whom had spent lavish sums on their sons’ educations in hopes of their becoming officials and bringing power and prestige to the family.

Furthermore, even those scholars who did manage to pass the examinations might still have to wait ten or twenty years before a position in the imperial bureaucracy opened up to them through normal channels. By consequence, the system of civil appointments became fertile ground for bribery schemes. Those who controlled the appointments demanded huge fees from qualified candidates before they would give them a position—in essence, forcing them to purchase their jobs, and then often making them pay yearly sums to hold on to them. As the practice spread, great numbers of officials began their careers in heavy financial debt to their superiors—debts they were expected to make up for by squeezing bribes from their own inferiors or finding other ways (such as embezzlement) to supplement their meager salaries and pay for the fees and gifts that were required of them.

At the lowest levels, where the vast imperial governing apparatus reached the level of the common people, this pyramid of graft resulted in widespread petty oppression and outright cruelty by minor officials towards the populations they governed—especially the peasants and those on the margins of society, who were most vulnerable to their extortions. Such victims had little or no effective legal recourse if they were harassed or beaten or had their meager property taken by greedy officials. All they could really do, if they were desperate enough, was to revolt.

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Origins of the Opium War

From Imperial Twilight: The Opium War and the End of China’s Last Golden Age, by Stephen R. Platt (Knopf, 2018), Kindle pp. xxiv-xxvi:

This is a book about how the Opium War came to be—that is, how China declined from its eighteenth-century grandeur and how Britain became sufficiently emboldened to take advantage of that decline. The central question of the war, as I see it, is not how Britain won, for that was never in serious doubt—in military terms the Opium War pitted the most advanced naval power in the world against an empire with a long and vulnerable coastline that had not needed a seagoing navy in more than a hundred years and so did not have one. Rather, the central question is a moral one: how Britain could have come to fight such a war in China in the first place—against, it should be noted, savage criticism both at home and abroad.

A sense of inevitability has always been projected backwards onto this era in hindsight, as if the war were always meant to be, but when viewed in the light of its own time the Opium War could hardly have been more counterintuitive. Aside from the audacity of sending a small fleet and a few thousand troops to make war on the world’s largest empire, critics at the time pointed out that Britain was putting its entire future tea trade at risk for only the vaguest and least justifiable of goals. It seemed paradoxical in the 1830s that a liberal British government that had just abolished slavery could turn around and fight a war to support drug dealers, or that proponents of free trade would align their interests with smugglers. If we revisit these events as they actually unfolded, rather than as they have been reinterpreted afterward, we find far more opposition to this war in Britain and America on moral grounds, and far more respect for the sovereignty of China, than one would otherwise expect.

One reason a reader might not expect such opposition to this war is that we too easily forget how much admiration China used to command. Because of its great strength and prosperity in the late eighteenth century, Europeans viewed China in a dramatically different light than they did the other countries of the East. At a time when India was an object of British conquest, China was an object of respect, even awe. Occasional calls for the use of naval power to advance trade there were struck down as self-defeating, while British traders in Canton who made trouble were generally ordered home or at least reminded to behave themselves. In commerce, China held all the cards. In stark contrast to the British Orientalist vision of India in the late eighteenth century—lost in the past, childlike and divided, a prize to be captured and controlled—China represented instead a strong, unified empire and another living civilization.

For that reason, readers who are familiar with the East India Company as a force of imperial conquest in India will find a very different face of it in China. When young Britons went to work for the Company overseas, it was India that attracted the military adventurers, the administrators, those with dreams of empire. The bean counters, by contrast, went to Canton. (And remarkably, it should be noted that in the early nineteenth century those bean counters in their quiet factories served the Company’s bottom line in London far better than the conquerors of India did.) Even as goods—especially cotton and later opium—flowed steadily from India to China, there was almost no professional circulation between the two regions, where Company agents developed largely separate worldviews. When visitors acculturated to British India intruded into the separate world of Canton, they would often cause problems—not just with the Chinese, but with their more experienced countrymen as well.

The Opium War would force those two worlds together, tainting the old admiration and respect for China with a taste for blood. The war would never be universally popular in Britain, however, and fierce opposition to the use of force in China would linger for a long time afterward (another controversial China war in the 1850s would entail the dissolution of Parliament and new elections to disempower the British lawmakers who tried to stop it). Nevertheless, by the time the war finally began, an ongoing collision of two competing worldviews—between those British who respected China’s power and prosperity and those who said it was no more enviable than India—reached a crucial threshold.

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Latin America’s IMF Era

From The Penguin History Of Latin America, by Edwin Williamson (Penguin, 2010), Kindle pp. 576-577:

Essentially, Latin America faced an acute problem of governance after the debt crisis of the 1980s. The IMF had defined the main objectives of policy, which were to curb inflation, deregulate and privatize the economy, and service the foreign debt. But if the goals were clear, the means of achieving them were not. The crux of the problem was finding effective authority to see through the IMF reforms, but effective authority depends on legitimacy, which rests, in turn, on a consensus as to the founding principles of the state. And, as we have seen in this book, the inherent weakness of the state in Latin America lay precisely in a chronic inability since Independence to establish a lasting national consensus of this kind (see Chapter 9, pp. 374–7). All the same, the IMF required governments in these weakly based states to slash public spending and lay off huge numbers of workers in societies that were already the most unequal in the world. Even so, where one might have expected a return to the kind of revolutionary struggles or military dictatorships that marked the 1960s and 1970s, democratic politics endured in virtually all the republics throughout the 1990s and beyond.

The persistence of democracy was due more than anything to the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe in 1989–90, and then in the Soviet Union itself in 1991, bringing to an end the Cold War between the USSR and the USA. As a result of this collapse, Marxism lost its ideological force – Cuba was not regarded as a viable model in the 1980s and 1990s – but it also weakened the extreme right, which could no longer block social reform by inviting the US government to intervene in order to prevent Soviet infiltration into its ‘backyard’. Internal and external events thus drove Latin American politics towards a vaguely defined centre ground, but if the result was democracy, this was democracy that rested on a consensus of despair, for there was nowhere either for the left or the right to go but to the ballot box in order to try to fix the problems of the wrecked economies.

The question was how to induce electorates to swallow the medicine prescribed by the IMF. Governments had to consult the people to win some measure of consent, and electorates grown weary of inflation, violence and disorder did tend to consent to free-market reform in the 1990s. Voters were fed up with the empty promises and corrupt deals associated with traditional parties, so they tended to elect new or independent candidates to the presidency, as in Brazil, Peru, Colombia, Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, and even in Mexico after the ruling party had been forced to give up rigging elections. Many countries reformed their constitutions. In a few cases, such as Colombia or Chile, it was to strengthen democratic institutions by improving representation and accountability. In most others it was to maintain continuity of reform by allowing a president to serve additional consecutive terms. In others, notably in Peru (1993), it was to move towards authoritarianism, or even veiled dictatorship. ‘Democracy’ was still a fairly malleable concept in Latin America, too often permeated by more traditional practices such as patronage and clientship, caudillo-style personalism and electoral manipulation (see Chapter 9, pp. 346–9). Thus, in a few republics such as Peru, Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador, there emerged what has been termed ‘delegative democracy’, a new version of the old tradition of caudillo populism, whereby executive power was ‘delegated’ to a charismatic leader via the ballot box, giving him a mandate to override the institutional checks and balances represented by the legislature or judiciary.

The quest for effective authority was shaped by the complexion and recent history of individual republics, but problems of governance were critically affected also by the ebb and flow of the globalized economy, over which nation states had little control. During the years of international expansion – roughly from 1992 to 1998 – governments were able to carry out liberalizing reforms with considerable public backing, but the Thai devaluation crisis of 1997, followed by Russia’s default in 1998, created a backwash that spread unrest through Latin America until about 2002, cutting growth and overwhelming governments, some of which fell to furious protestors. (The period 1998–2002 became known as ‘the lost half-decade’.) However, when world trade expanded from 2002, most Latin American countries experienced an extraordinary boom in exports of oil, minerals and agricultural goods to the developed world, and especially to China, so problems of economic management tended to ease once again. Then in late 2008, the globalized economy lurched into recession once more after a massive banking crash in Wall Street and London, with consequences for political stability and liberal democracy that were hard to foresee.


Filed under democracy, Eastern Europe, economics, Latin America, military, nationalism, U.S., USSR

Cuban Revolution of 1933

From The Penguin History Of Latin America, by Edwin Williamson (Penguin, 2003), Kindle pp. 441-443:

The election to the presidency of the Liberal Gerardo Machado in 1924 at first promised an end to the graft of the previous administration. Enjoying widespread popularity, Machado embarked on a programme of public works and measures to diversify the economy. But the fall in sugar prices of the late 1920s led him to repress strikes and protests, and when he got a controlled congress to grant him a further six-year term in 1928, he faced an explosion of anger from the student movement. As Machado’s rule became increasingly repressive, students and middle-class intellectuals took to violence and terrorism. The students formed a Directorio Estudiantil, which was to play a continuing oppositional role in the island’s politics. In 1931 there appeared a secret organization calling itself the ABC, whose members were young middle- and upper-class nationalists inspired by the Peruvian Haya de la Torre’s APRA movement. ABC pistoleros resorted to assassinations and shoot-outs in the streets with Machado’s brutal police. The unrest spread as labour unions joined the opposition to the dictator.

Reluctant to send in troops as in the past because of the nationalist agitation, Washington used its ambassador, Sumner Welles, to negotiate an end to Machado’s rule. But the nationalists resented Welles’s intervention and called a general strike in August 1933 (the Communist Party, fearing a US invasion, withdrew its support for the strike and tried to do a deal with Machado, which discredited it in the eyes of students and nationalists). Machado finally bowed to the pressure and went into exile. There followed an upsurge of revolutionary activity – occupations of factories and sugar mills by workers, looting of wealthy districts, and mob attacks on collaborators with the dictatorship.

The moderate government of Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, installed by the army in concert with Sumner Welles, was unable to control the situation. In September 1933 a revolt of non-commissioned officers – among whose leaders was a Sergeant Fulgencio Batista – unseated Céspedes and handed over power to a five-man committee chosen by the Directorio Estudiantil. The Havana students had succeeded in creating a nationalist revolution and, after some confusion, they chose one of their professors, the patrician Dr Ramón Grau San Martín, as provisional president. Workers now occupied sugar mills, in some cases demanding wage rises at gunpoint; strikes, riots and gun battles broke out all over the island. Grau’s government passed a number of radical measures, such as the expropriation of a small number of US-owned sugar mills, some redistribution of land, the limitation of the working day to eight hours, restrictions on the employment of cheap non-Cuban labour from other Caribbean islands and the extension of the franchise to women.

Still, the revolution of 1933 was primarily the work of student agitation and, apart from the expected hostility of the USA and the Cuban business community, it was opposed by the Communists, the ABC nationalists and by ousted army officers, who staged a number of revolts. Four months later Grau’s government was overthrown by a coup led by Fulgencio Batista, who effectively became the strongman of Cuba for the next decade, ruling at first through presidential stooges and then, from 1940, in his own right.

Batista was a military populist, a mulatto from a very humble background who had risen from the ranks and whose core constituency remained the enlisted men of the armed forces. As befitted a Latin American leader of the 1930s, he presented himself as a benefactor of the people, using the resources of the state for nationalist and redistributive ends. In 1934 the Platt Amendment was at last annulled, and a larger US quota for sugar helped raise production from the doldrums of the 1920s and early 1930s. Although Batista had the backing of US and Cuban business interests, he took steps to cultivate the trade unions, passing social welfare legislation, building houses for workers and creating employment through large public works programmes. A new labour confederation, controlled by a Communist leadership, was incorporated into the strongman’s political machine. In the countryside, Batista redistributed some land and, following the example of the Mexican Revolution, initiated a programme of rural education, often staffed by army personnel.

Dismayed by the failure of the 1933 revolution, the students and radical nationalists formed a new party in memory of José Martí, the Partido Revolucionario Cubano-Auténtico, which became the principal opposition to Batista. Terrorism continued to be a habitual feature of political life, but by the late 1930s Batista felt secure enough to permit elections for a constituent assembly. In 1940 a new nationalist, social-democratic constitution was passed by a Batista-dominated assembly, which included universal suffrage, state rights over the subsoil, state ‘orientation’ of the economy and labour rights such as a minimum wage, pensions, social insurance and an eight-hour day.

The constitution of 1940 ushered in a period of legitimate democratic governments, though there was no weakening of the Cuban tradition of political gangsterism and corruption. Batista won a clean election in 1940 and continued to implement his populist programme in the improved economic climate fostered by the war and the consequent US aid. Yet radical nationalism reasserted itself in 1944; Batista lost the election – having forborne from rigging it – to Dr Grau of the Auténticos, and retired to the USA a wealthy man.

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Filed under Cuba, democracy, economics, education, labor, migration, military, U.S.