Category Archives: China

U.K. vs. U.S. Views of Alliance with China, 1941

From Japan Runs Wild, 1942–1943, by Peter Harmsen (War in the Far East, Book 2; Casemate, 2020), Kindle pp. 33-35:

China’s willingness to hurl millions of its own people into a long, bloody war was a major asset to its new American and British allies. “The stubborn resistance of the Chinese,” a US State Department memorandum declared, “destroys Japan’s claim that she comes to emancipate either China or Asia!”19 At the same time, a track record of having stood up to Japan for more than four years prior to Pearl Harbor gave China new confidence. This was in evidence shortly after the outbreak of the Pacific war when Archibald Wavell, the commander-in-chief of British forces in India, visited Chiang Kai-shek in Chongqing, carrying only news of endless defeats and setbacks. “You and your people have no idea how to fight the Japanese,” Chiang told his British guest in language that was only slightly mitigated by the nervous translator. “Resisting the Japanese is not like suppressing colonial rebellions… For this kind of job, you British are incompetent, and you should learn from the Chinese how to fight against the Japanese.”

China was a prominent issue dividing the United States and Britain from the outset. Churchill and Roosevelt did not see eye to eye. On his trip across the Atlantic for the Arcadia Conference, the first summit on British-American strategy after the US entry into the war, the British prime minister later said, “If I can epitomize in one word the lesson I learned in the United States, it was ‘China’.” Britain’s lukewarm attitude towards the Chinese friend was a mirror image of its denigration of the Japanese foe, partly borne out of more than a century as a colonial power in Asia, which had led to an ingrained feeling of cultural and even racial superiority. In conversations with Roosevelt in Washington DC, Churchill stretched as far as he thought he could on the issue, which was not much: “I said I would of course always be helpful and polite to the Chinese, whom I admired and liked as a race and pitied for their endless misgovernment, but that he must not expect me to adopt what I felt was a wholly unreal standard of values.”

The two leaders and their governments had entirely different views on the value of China as an alliance partner. United States envisaged a major role for China in the war in East Asia and expected it to become one of the predominant Allies setting the tone for the entire effort to defeat Japan. Britain, on the other hand, expected little from China and often treated it as something in between an annoyance and a strategic competitor. When China offered to send two armies to the British colony of Burma, which had up to then largely escaped Japanese aggression, Britain initially turned down the offer. This was based on the belief that Japan was too tied up elsewhere to attempt a major offensive onto Burmese territory. In this perspective, a Chinese presence on British-controlled soil was a price not worth paying considering expectation of only meager payoff.

In spite of the British reservations, Sino-American cooperation was beginning to materialize in a small way, even as Roosevelt, Churchill, and their aides were talking in the US capital. For Claire Chennault, the former Army aviator who had been hired to head a group of American volunteer pilots in China, the time had now come to put his men into action. One morning a few weeks after Pearl Harbor, staff at his airbase near the city of Kunming in southwest China received reports from a network of Chinese observers on the ground that ten unescorted Japanese bombers were heading in his direction. He ordered one squadron of P-40 planes in the air to intercept the approaching aircraft. “This was the decisive moment I had been awaiting for more than four years,” Chennault wrote in his memoirs. “American pilots in American fighting planes aided by Chinese ground warning net about to tackle a formation of the Imperial Japanese Air Force, which was then sweeping the Pacific skies victorious everywhere.”

Leave a comment

Filed under Britain, China, Japan, military, nationalism, U.S.

Flying from New York to Calcutta, 1942

From Japan Runs Wild, 1942–1943, by Peter Harmsen (War in the Far East, Book 2; Casemate, 2020), Kindle pp. 104-105:

The United States retained high hopes for China’s potential, and for the overall importance of what was known as the China-Burma-India Theater. From early 1942, large numbers of American personnel were sent to the region, primarily India. Given the conditions, a world at war, moving from one theater to another was a drawn-out affair. The China specialist John Paton Davies Jr, who was assigned as political attaché to Joseph Stilwell, described the 13-day trip from New York to Calcutta: “We flew by one of Pan American’s original clippers, a flying boat, to Belém at the mouth of the Amazon—moist, mossed, suffocating, hyper-tropical—then Natal, and across the Atlantic to somnolent Fisherman’s Lake in Liberia. The remainder of the trip was by two-engine C-47 transport planes to Kano and then Maidugiri, both in Nigeria, across the scrubby wilderness of Chad to Khartoum dominated by the Nile, up to Cairo, swarming with handsome British staff officers whom the troops called the gabardine swine, over to Tel Aviv, down to Shatt-al-Arab, carrying the mingled waters of the Tigris and the Euphrates, out above the azure-emerald Persian Gulf to Sharjah’s desert airstrip manned by an RAF ground crew of a forlorn half dozen and a gazelle, along the desolate, jagged coast of Iran and Baluchistan to Karachi, and finally trans-subcontinentally to teeming, beholy-cowed Calcutta.”

The main priority for the United States was to keep China and its vast manpower resources in the war. Since the late 1930s, one of the main routes for keeping China supplied from the outside world had been the Burma Road, linking Burma to Chiang Kai-shek’s landlocked government in southwest China. “Though maladministration and corruption had reduced its inherently low capacity,” according to the official US history of the China-Burma-India theater, the road had for years “had great symbolic value as China’s last tie with freedom.” It had been built by hand for more than 700 miles through inhospitable terrain by tens of thousands of workers and had proved an invaluable asset, even though it had been closed briefly in 1940 by the British government, bowing to Japanese pressure.

By the time of the US entry into the war, the Burma Road was again in operation, and it had to be constantly maintained, again with the help of China’s most abundant economic resource: manual labor.

Leave a comment

Filed under China, Japan, South Asia, travel, U.S., war

British vs. Japanese Tactics in Malaya, 1941

From Japan Runs Wild, 1942–1943, by Peter Harmsen (War in the Far East, Book 2; Casemate, 2020), Kindle pp. 22-24, 40:

The first troops which the Japanese encountered when disembarking on the Malay coastline were Indians, and Indian units remained their main opponent throughout the campaign. Britain used one part of its empire to defend another. Out of 31 Commonwealth battalions deployed on the Malay Peninsula, 18 were Indian, six were British, six were Australian, and one was Malay. A large number of Indian troops had originally been earmarked for the Middle East and had undergone training in Australia, specializing in tactics suitable for desert warfare. Now they were in the jungle. “One could argue that the Commonwealth troops in Malaya failed to unlearn the lessons of desert warfare in tropical conditions,” Indian military historian Kaushik Roy writes, “and failed to adopt the required tactical techniques for fighting effectively in the different ecological landscape.”

The poor preparation of the Commonwealth troops made the preparations carried out by the Japanese seem all the more impressive. As a matter of fact, the Japanese campaign in Malaya was a rush job, planned in less than a year by a small group of dedicated officers operating on a minimal budget, seeking information from whoever in the Japanese Empire might be a good source. An old sea captain who had spent many years plying routes in the areas Japan planned to invade provided details about weather patterns and coastal conditions. The Ishihara Mining Company had useful information about the geography of the Malay Peninsula. Professors at Taiwan University filled the group in on hygiene in the tropics and measures against malaria.

The Japanese, whose main experience with war had been on the Mongolian steppe and the rice fields of China, were no more used to jungle warfare than their Western counterparts, but they went into battle better prepared because of the questions that the planners asked, and found answers to. “What alterations had to be made in the organization of troops and the type of weapons and equipment used on the Siberian and Manchurian battlefields at twenty degrees below zero to meet requirements for fighting in the dense jungles of the tropics?” asked the planners, led by the capable but brutal officer Tsuji Masanobu. “How should tactics and strategy used against the Soviet Union be revised for action against British and American armies, and what comparisons could be made between the tactics, equipment and organization of Soviet, British, and American troops?”

The preparations paid off. The Japanese soldiers landing in Malaya were equipped for quick, decisive movements through terrain where modern roads were only sparse. They had light tanks, light trucks, and first and foremost bicycles. An Australian staff officer, C. B. Dawkins, concluded that the Japanese had, in fact, understood what the Westerners had not: “Jungle, forest and rubber areas are par excellence infantry country—every move is screened from air and ground observations, the value of fire of weapons of all natures is very limited, and troops on the offensive can close to within assaulting distance unmolested.”

By Christmas, Lieutenant General Arthur Ernest Percival, the overall commander of Commonwealth forces in Malaya, had to revise many previously held views of the Japanese foes, as he explained later: “It was now clear that we were faced by an enemy who had made a special study of bush warfare on a grand scale and whose troops had been specially trained in those tactics. He relied in the main on outflanking movements and infiltration by small parties into and behind our lines… his infantry had displayed an ability to cross obstacles—rivers, swamps, jungles, etc.—more rapidly than had previously been thought possible.”

Faced with a terrifying foe, the Commonwealth defenders went from underestimating the Japanese foes’ quality to overestimating their quantity. “A British soldier is equal to ten Japanese, but unfortunately there are eleven Japanese,” an injured Tommy told American correspondent Cecil Brown. The British Army in Malaya could not believe it was being beaten by the Japanese, and its members had to conjure up superior numbers to explain what happened to them. In fact, there were about twice as many British-led soldiers as there were Japanese. In Malaya as in all other major land campaigns that the Japanese waged early in the war, they invariably fielded numerically inferior troops, which nevertheless excelled in all other parameters.

National differences came out more clearly in the harsh jungle. The stiff pecking orders of the British military were maintained even in the primitive conditions, whereas the flat hierarchies of the Australians appeared to some observers more suited for the new strange environment. “The Australian Army is undoubtedly the world’s most democratic, and the troops in Malaya prove it,” wrote American correspondent F. Tillman Durdin, reporting how the salute resembled a “Hi, there” gesture. “An Australian officer can command his men only if he proves himself as good a man as any of his unit.”

Leave a comment

Filed under Australia, Britain, China, Japan, malaria, Malaysia, military, nationalism, South Asia, war

Few Troops in the Philippines, 1941

From Japan Runs Wild, 1942–1943, by Peter Harmsen (War in the Far East, Book 2; Casemate, 2020), Kindle p. 15:

The Japanese pilots flying over the Philippines in the days after Pearl Harbor were experiencing an entirely new form of war. Many of them were veterans from the long conflict in China, where they had been facing Chinese and sometimes Soviet aviators in Russian-built planes. Now, in the midst of the crucial battle for control of the Philippines skies as a prelude to the planned invasion of the islands, they were up against Americans in US-built aircraft. They found to their relief that their own Mitsubishi A6M “Zero” fighter was a more than adequate match for the American P-40, as the Japanese plane outshone its US counterpart in everything except diving acceleration. “The confidence of our fighter pilots continued to grow, nurtured by the absence of effective opposition,” wrote Shimada Kōichi, on the staff of the Eleventh Air Fleet, which had the responsibility for air operations over the Philippines.

The Philippines, under the overall command of General Douglas MacArthur, was not Wake. And yet, despite its much larger size and more awe-inspiring defensive potential, it was essentially just another piece of US-held territory that the military planners in Washington had to effectively abandon beforehand. In the tense years prior to the outbreak of war in the Pacific, the US government, faced with the likelihood of being sucked into the ongoing war in Europe, had been forced to allocate desperately scarce military resources elsewhere. “Adequate reinforcements for the Philippines at this time,” according to General George C. Marshall, the US Army’s chief of staff, “would have left the United States in a position of great peril should there be a break in the defense of Great Britain.” What was not clear at the time was the fact that the Japanese were similarly constrained, and that the Japanese high command intended to take the Philippines with the smallest feasible number of troops.

Leave a comment

Filed under Britain, China, Japan, military, Philippines, U.S., war

Origins of the Santa Fe Railroad

From From the River to the Sea: The Untold Story of the Railroad War That Made the West, by John Sedgwick (Avid Reader / Simon & Schuster, 2021), Kindle pp. 83-85:

It no longer needed a visionary. It needed moneymen from the great capital centers of Philadelphia, New York, and Boston.

Of the three, Boston was the most railroad minded. It had been the nation’s first major hub, with any number of lines running in and out of the city. For a small city on a stub of a peninsula, Boston was surprisingly worldly. The first great Boston fortunes were made in the China trade, then amplified by investments in the textile mills of early industrialization, only to be compounded by provident marriages to the daughters of other wealthy Bostonians. The investors were referred to as the Boston Crowd because of this interbreeding. They were mostly drawn from that class of Bostonians—Brahmins was the derisive term—whose members were, in the main, Harvard-educated Episcopalians, with the occasional Unitarian thrown in, who lived for their clubs and thought of themselves as existing on a social plane only slightly down from God. They were like honeybees in a hive—industrious but interchangeable.

From this esteemed collective about the only one to emerge with a distinctive personality was Thomas Jefferson Coolidge—and he on the strength of a surprisingly frolicsome memoir he had privately printed, the copies limited to just forty-eight—who served as the Santa Fe president for a year starting in 1880. Coolidge took his middle name from the American president, his great-grandfather on his mother’s side, but his lineage could be traced back to a Coolidge who settled in Watertown, just downriver from Boston proper, in 1630.

Coolidge grew up in Canton, China, where his father was a partner in a Boston trading firm that dealt tea and opium in the China Trade. After Harvard, he married the daughter of William Appleton, clipper ship owner, European trader, president of Boston’s Second National Bank, congressman, president of the Massachusetts Hospital, and one of the richest men in the city.

Coolidge served as the ambassador to France, and on any number of important national commissions, but he prized above all else his membership in The Friday Club, which, he noted, had once blackballed the eminent Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, father of the Supreme Court Justice, for fear he would dominate the conversation. His memoir is rich in frivolity—meeting the actress Fanny Kemble at a monastery in the Alps, touring the Caribbean aboard his eighty-foot yacht, riding a donkey to the temple of Ramses in Egypt.

In recounting his life, Coolidge mentioned his yearlong presidency of the Santa Fe railroad only in passing. In October of 1878, he wrote, he took his son and namesake for an extensive tour of the West that covered almost ten thousand miles, particularly enjoying the Colorado portion aboard the Santa Fe Railroad with one William Barstow Strong. Coolidge did not mention that he was a director of the company at the time. When he returned to the West two years later, he noted that he again boarded a Santa Fe train, but this time stepped off at Topeka, where “I was elected president of the Atchison Railroad at the annual meeting.”

Six sentences later, he was done with it. “I resigned as soon as I could,” he wrote. “I think in about a year and a half.” He failed to mention that on assuming the presidency, he had purchased $700,000 worth of the company. The point being, he presided over the Santa Fe only as an investor. The moment the investment seemed unpromising, he sold it and got out.

None of the Boston Crowd served as presidents for more than a few years. But this was the way of the modern corporation as they came to define it. They were not managers, but investors, and that inclined them toward caution in a business that demanded daring.

Leave a comment

Filed under China, democracy, economics, migration, opium, religion, travel, U.S.

Nationalizing the Opium Trade

From Imperial Twilight: The Opium War and the End of China’s Last Golden Age, by Stephen R. Platt (Knopf, 2018), Kindle pp. 446-447:

With the advent of a free, legal, and open Asian commerce in opium, the native merchants of India and China moved to dominate the trade, squeezing out the Europeans who had acted as go-betweens in the past. By the 1870s, the India-China opium trade was so firmly locked up in the hands of native traders on both sides that there was no longer much money to be made by the Western firms that had pioneered the “country” trade in the early part of the century. In the face of declining profits, Jardine, Matheson & Co. (now run by a slew of nephews and other descendants of the founders and their partners) pulled almost entirely out of the opium trade in 1873, joined by other large Western firms. Domestic production in China, meanwhile, kept rising—ultimately to such stupendous heights that it would dwarf the continued imports of the drug from India. The dawn of the twentieth century would find China producing ten times as much opium internally as it imported from abroad, an explosive abundance of cheap domestic narcotics that would create a public health emergency worlds beyond even the most exaggerated estimates of what had existed in the 1830s prior to the Opium War. So much for the virtues of legalization.

In spite of the best efforts of moral activists at home, the British government would ultimately do nothing to scale back the dependence of British India on opium revenues or otherwise try to help prevent the growth of the drug’s use in China. Meanwhile, the Qing dynasty would continue in its failure to suppress or even regulate the use of opium by the general public in China, wallowing in a quagmire of official corruption it could not escape. Up to the twentieth century, though, Britain’s role in that process would be dwelled upon more by westerners than by the Chinese. It was the English-speaking world that condemned it as “the Opium War” from the beginning, while Chinese writers through the nineteenth century, including Wei Yuan, simply referred to it as a border dispute or foreign incident. To them, opium was a domestic problem and the war was a minor affair in the grand scheme of China’s military history. Only after the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1912 did historians in China begin to call this war “the Opium War” in Chinese, and only in the 1920s would republican propagandists finally transform it into its current incarnation as the bedrock of Chinese nationalism—the war in which the British forced opium down China’s throat, the shattering start to China’s century of victimhood, the fuel of vengeance for building a new Chinese future in the face of Western imperialism, Year Zero of the modern age.

Leave a comment

Filed under Britain, China, economics, India, nationalism, opium, war

Opium-funded Philanthropy in India

From Imperial Twilight: The Opium War and the End of China’s Last Golden Age, by Stephen R. Platt (Knopf, 2018), Kindle pp. 432-433:

Funneling the vast fortune from his China trade back into real estate in Scotland, Matheson would die the second-largest landowner in the entire United Kingdom.

Neither James Matheson nor William Jardine went in for significant philanthropy as John Murray Forbes’s uncle Thomas Handasyd Perkins had done in Boston, but a loftier place in public memory was reserved for Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy, Jardine’s longtime associate in Bombay. With a fortune made by dominating the opium and cotton export trade of western India, Jeejeebhoy poured his own money locally into Parsi charities, famine relief, schools, hospitals, and public works, establishing himself as one of the leading figures (the leading figure, by some fawning accounts) who turned Bombay from a colonial backwater into a modern global metropolis. A director of banks and newspapers along with managing his business empire and funding many charitable works, Jeejeebhoy was a steadfast supporter of British rule, and on February 14, 1842, just as the war in China was nearing its end, Queen Victoria knighted him. “I feel a high, I hope a justifiable pride,” he said at the time, “in the distinction of being enrolled in the knighthood of England, marked as that order has ever been by the brightest traits of loyalty and honor.”

Jeejeebhoy was the first Indian to become a British knight, and in 1857, Victoria would make him a baronet as well. The name of “Sir J. J.,” as he is known colloquially, adorns schools and hospitals in Bombay to this day, the great philanthropist of the city’s Victorian past. As one Gujarati newspaper rhapsodized at the time of his death in 1859, “His hospitals, rest houses, water works, causeways, bridges, the numerous religious and educational institutions and endowments will point to posterity the man whom Providence selected for the dispensation of substantial good to a large portion of the human race.” Of the fact that so much of that “substantial good,” dispensed to such a “large portion of the human race,” was made possible by Jeejeebhoy’s sale, through Jardine and Matheson, of Indian opium to Chinese smugglers, little is said.

Leave a comment

Filed under Britain, China, economics, India, NGOs, opium

Parliament Debates 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. 405-407:

The motion finally came to a vote at four o’clock in the morning of April 10 [1840] after three grueling nights of debate. Five hundred and thirty-three weary parliamentarians filed out into the division lobbies, and when their votes were tallied, it turned out that Palmerston had prevailed by the slimmest of margins. A majority of just nine votes—271 to 262—allowed Melbourne’s government to escape censure and effectively gave Palmerston’s war in China a sanction to proceed as planned. The outcome was so close that if the very cabinet ministers whose conduct was on trial had not been permitted to vote in their own favor, the motion to condemn them would have passed. For that reason it had been said that if the majority were fewer than ten votes, Palmerston and the other ministers would still agree to resign. It was, but they did not.

It is impossible to measure exactly how much influence George Staunton had on that outcome, but at least seven or eight of the Whig lawmakers had openly expressed their willingness to defy their party and oppose the China war if the debate should convince them it was morally unjust. If Staunton had declined to support Palmerston, or even had spoken against him, it would have taken just five of those waverers to change their votes and the entire outcome would have been reversed. James Graham’s resolution of censure would have passed, Melbourne’s government would have been brought down, and the Opium War might have been prevented.

An angry opposition press hunted for parties to blame. Some faulted Graham for couching his resolution in such political language of “negligence” rather than targeting the war head-on: if the Conservatives had “proposed to stop the war at all events, and to prevent every infraction of the laws of China with respect to opium—so surely would Parliament have gone along with them, in censuring the conduct of the Ministers,” said the Spectator. Another paper observed that though the ministry survived the vote of censure (barely), nevertheless “they are condemned by two hundred and sixty-two of the people’s representatives, and by the nation at large the principle of the war is all but universally condemned.” A majority of just nine votes out of more than five hundred “would have been fatal to the existence of any preceding Administration,” said one critic, “and it argues a contempt of the opinion of Parliament, and a degree of assurance never equalled, to persevere in plunging the country into war on the strength of such a vote.”

Any lingering hopes that the closeness of the vote in the House of Commons might still derail the war were destroyed a month later with the failure in the House of Lords of a much more explicit motion to blame the crisis on British opium traders. Palmerston’s Conservative antagonists had a clear majority in the upper house, and the motion was expected to pass until the elderly Duke of Wellington—the general who had defeated Napoleon at Waterloo, Britain’s greatest living military hero, a former prime minister, and a Conservative—broke with his party to deliver an adamantly pro-Palmerston speech that silenced the motion’s supporters and sent it to a quick death.

Wellington said he had looked into the cause of the war and was positive that “it could not be opium.” The lanky, seventy-one-year-old “Iron Duke” argued that it was entirely about the protection of British lives in the far corners of the world, an unquestionably fair use of military power. The dispatch of a naval fleet was the only fitting and just response, he believed, to the rash and violent actions of Lin Zexu against Elliot and the British merchants.

Leave a comment

Filed under Britain, China, democracy, economics, military, nationalism, opium, war

China’s Silver Shortage, 1830s

From Imperial Twilight: The Opium War and the End of China’s Last Golden Age, by Stephen R. Platt (Knopf, 2018), Kindle pp. 304-307:

There was nothing the government could do about the weather, but the root cause of the economic turmoil in the 1830s, and the problem from which many of the others grew, was a human one: China’s monetary system had gone haywire. It was mainly a problem of currency, of which the Qing dynasty had two primary forms: copper for small transactions and silver for large ones. Copper came in minted coins (with holes through the middle so they could be strung on a loop for convenience), while domestic silver—nearly pure and known in English as “sycee”—was unminted, traded by weight in units of measurement called taels that were just under an ounce. In normal times, a tael of silver was worth a thousand copper coins, and, value for value, the excessive difficulty of moving large amounts of copper between provinces meant that silver was the medium through which all long-distance trade was conducted within the empire. Silver was also, significantly, the basis on which tax quotas were assessed. By contrast, copper was the medium of the rural marketplace and menial wages. Nearly all of the income and savings of the lower classes of China—farmers, hired laborers, craftspeople—were in copper coins.

The crisis was that the value of silver had begun to rise sharply, and as it rose the exchange rate between silver and copper skewed out of control. From the ideal rate of 1,000 copper coins per tael of silver in the eighteenth century (even less at times, which was a boon for peasants since it meant their copper money was worth more), it had risen to 1,200 by the time Daoguang came to the throne. By 1830 it reached 1,365 copper coins per tael of silver and showed no signs of stopping. Since taxes were assessed in a fixed amount of silver, which had to be purchased with copper currency, this meant that by the early 1830s the peasants of China had suffered a nearly 40 percent increase in their effective tax burdens for reasons none fully understood. And as with nearly every problem in the empire, the corruption of officials made a bad situation even worse, as tax collectors commonly charged even higher rates of exchange so they could pocket the proceeds. By the late 1830s, some regions were reporting copper–silver exchange rates as high as 1,600 to 1, with tax collectors independently demanding as much as 2,000 copper coins per tael of silver owed. This dramatic decline in the worth of copper currency was disastrous for the general population, piling economic hardship on the poor who could scarcely bear it and sparking widespread tax protests that layered on top of all the other sources of dissent against the government. But although the emperor could occasionally grant tax amnesties to regions afflicted by floods or drought, the government quite desperately needed every tael of revenue it could get and so the exactions continued.

Even with that outflow of sycee silver, however, the inflow of Spanish dollars to purchase tea and silk at Canton should have been able to maintain a relatively steady overall silver supply in China (and in fact, since the late eighteenth century Spanish dollars had been preferred even over native sycee in some of China’s most important domestic markets). But on that count, a range of forces far beyond China’s borders came into play. First, it had been American merchants who brought most of the silver to China in the early nineteenth century (fully one-third of Mexico’s entire silver output between 1805 and 1834 was carried to China by Americans). But a shift in U.S. government monetary policy in 1834 made silver more expensive for American merchants, so they switched abruptly to using bills of exchange—which were acceptable to the Hong merchants but resulted in a decline in the amount of tangible silver entering the country from abroad. With the drop in American imports, China, which for centuries had been the world’s largest net importer of silver, unexpectedly turned into an exporter of the metal.

In the even bigger picture, though, what the Chinese scholars who blamed foreign trade and opium for the scarcity of silver in China did not realize was that it wasn’t just a Chinese problem: by the 1820s, silver was becoming scarce everywhere. Most of the world’s supply at this time had come from mines in Spanish Mexico and Peru (thus the importance of the Spanish dollar), but national revolutions in Latin America that began in the 1810s shut down those mines and choked off the world’s largest fonts of the precious metal. Global production of silver declined by nearly half during the 1810s—the same time its value began to creep upward in China—and it continued to decline during the decade that followed. The ramping up of the opium trade in 1820s China thus coincided fatefully with the onset of a global slump in silver output that would last for the next thirty years.

Regardless of where the specific blame lay, it was a devastating confluence of economic forces for China: the loss of sycee through the opium smuggling trade, the global scarcity of silver after the Latin American revolutions, and the drying up of American silver imports into China together helped cause a catastrophic decline in the empire’s supply of the metal. And it was a vicious cycle, for as silver became more valuable in China, wealthy families and businessmen would hoard it, removing even more from circulation and making the problem worse.

Leave a comment

Filed under China, democracy, economics, labor, Mexico, nationalism, opium, Peru, U.S., war

China’s Decline Under Daoguang

From Imperial Twilight: The Opium War and the End of China’s Last Golden Age, by Stephen R. Platt (Knopf, 2018), Kindle pp. 302-304:

Conditions in China were getting worse under Daoguang’s reign. By the time he took the throne, and to some degree beginning even with his father, Jiaqing, it becomes easier to speak of the empire each sovereign inherited rather than what he created or built. They, and the emperors and regents to follow, would have their successes—the dynasty would, after all, survive into the early twentieth century—but rarely did they leave China in a more solid position than they had found it. By the early nineteenth century, an inexorable process of decline was setting in, the slow setting of a sun that had reached its zenith under Qianlong in the late 1700s. Jiaqing had done his best, making strong efforts to rein in the corruption of the military and suppress the White Lotus and other rebellions. But under the rule of his son Daoguang, new problems would plague the empire even as old ones kept coming back in different forms.

Patronage, bribery, and embezzlement were the accepted norm among civil officials, especially in the lower orders. Population pressures on the land continued unabated, and Han Chinese settlers seeking an escape from the crowding continued to move into mountainous regions of the empire that had long been home to indigenous peoples, sparking incidents of ethnic violence. A breakdown of trust between the government and peasants worsened. The military was weakened by Jiaqing’s cost-cutting measures after the White Lotus campaigns. Through the 1830s, internal rebellions erupted in different parts of the empire with regularity, every year or two—some led by religious sects similar to the White Lotus, others by rebel factions bonded together by regional or ethnic ties. The many divisions that ran naturally through a vast and diverse multiethnic empire were turning more frequently and more visibly into fractures.

Opium wove its way right through the tattering fabric of this restive society, the single most visible symbol of the Chinese government’s inability to control its people. In spite of Daoguang’s strong desire to control the drug, coastal enforcements on smuggling had failed so completely that by the later 1830s when a foreign ship materialized near the coast it would find not naval patrols but thousands of buyers standing along the shore and whistling to it in hopes that it would drop anchor and sell to them. A major north–south land transport route for opium through Hunan province formed the locus of a series of uprisings that took place in central China in 1836, and imperial troops transferred inland to pacify them turned out to be such heavy users of opium themselves that they could barely fight. Ironically, they had acquired their drug habits in the course of their previous mission, which was to police the smugglers on the coast near Canton.

China’s rising domestic unrest caught the attention of foreigners in Canton, who worried about damage to tea and silk production from the disturbances in the interior. However, some of them also sensed opportunity in the ones that took place on China’s periphery. In 1833, an explosive revolt of aborigines on Taiwan threatened Qing imperial control of the island for several months, in the midst of which it was announced in Britain’s parliament that Taiwan had “declared its independence of the Chinese.” Some foreigners had already begun touting Taiwan as a potential British colony, a base from which they could conduct their trade with China free from the restrictions of Canton. They argued that, morally speaking, to take control of Taiwan would be nothing like trying to seize territory on the Chinese mainland, because Taiwan had been a Dutch possession prior to its conquest by Qianlong’s grandfather Kangxi, so they judged it to be merely a colony of the Qing Empire rather than essential Chinese territory. According to one Canton English-language newspaper, the Taiwanese were a conquered people, “vassals of China; not willingly, but in consequence of bloody wars,” and so even foreigners who opposed aggression toward China shouldn’t object to the British taking control of the island, which the paper judged would be praiseworthy even if only for the sake of “ridding its people of the tyranny of the Chinese.”

Leave a comment

Filed under Britain, China, economics, labor, migration, military, nationalism, opium, Taiwan