The Opium Wars were beneficial to China

The 1st Opium War 1839-1842. A basic building block for the economic power China

Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2. Initial situation before 1839
2.1. The canton system
2.2. East India Trading Company (EITC)

3. The way into the conflict
3.1. Opium trade
3.2. Qing anti-opium campaign
3.3. Reasons for England's military intervention

4. Beginning and course of the war

5. The Treaty of Nanjing 1842 and its consequences

6. Conclusion

7. Bibliography


China has always seen itself as a dominant nation, a Middle Kingdom (zhongguo), that is superior to the rest of the world, especially the West. However, after the first Opium War, which took place between China and Great Britain in 1839 and 1842, China has to admit that this view did not match reality. According to the Chinese historian Hu Sheng, the “capitalist-imperialist (...) aggression” demonstrated in the armed conflict has transformed China into a “semi-colonial-semi-feudal society (Sheng, 1989). But was the war really a humiliating defeat for the Chinese or a necessary means that ushered in a new era and laid the foundation for the future economic power of China?

This work examines the hypothesis that, contrary to what the name of the war suggests, the narcotic drug opium was the origin, but in no way the cause of the military conflict. Elementary was the desire of the English for an open Chinese trade market, without the trade restrictions that existed at the time. With the help of historical sources, the reasons and causes and the resulting consequences are analyzed.

In order to make the circumstances at that time understandable, the work first deals with the initial situation before the conflict and focuses primarily on foreign trade at the time. Then the events that led directly to the outbreak of the war are dealt with: the measures taken to combat opium smuggling by the Qing government at the time and the change in British foreign policy. A brief summary of the main events of the war itself and its formal termination by the Nanjing Peace Treaty conclude the argument.

It will be shown that the hypothesis that has been put forward can be confirmed: The decisive factor was the desire of the British to be able to claim the great potential of the Chinese market. In addition, the work proves that although the defeat was initially a bitter humiliation for the Chinese, in the future it was a necessary means for the coming economic boom. Nonetheless, the military confrontation has significantly changed China's view of the West and is still having an impact on diplomatic relations to this day.

2. Initial situation before 1839

Before the opium crisis, China was in an extremely economically viable position. Since the country had no need for European goods, they “own everything” (Emperor Qianlong), but in return could export many luxury goods to the West, a one-sided trade arose from which China profited greatly. Although the trade turned out to be extremely profitable for the country, it was communicated to the outside world that the Chinese only exported their goods out of pure charity towards the western "barbarians" so that they could "also enjoy the fruits of Chinese culture" (Kurz , 2014).

The most popular Chinese product that was traded in was tea, which had been sold mainly to England since the 17th century and its consumption has steadily increased since then. In the years from 1719 to 1833 sales increased thirteenfold and so at the end of the 18th century Great Britain was the largest importer of Chinese teas. With tea exports of around 360,000 tons in 1830, China became a world monopoly on tea (Gernet, 1983). Other luxury goods such as silk, porcelain, rhubarb, exotic spices and mercury were also exported from China, but these only accounted for 30% of Chinese exports (compared to tea with 70%) (Kurz, 2014).

As mentioned in the section above, China's unilateral trade was extremely lucrative - tea was exported in extremely large quantities. Since the Chinese themselves did not need any imported goods in return, the West had to pay for the luxury goods in large quantities of silver. This became a growing problem for the Kingdom of Great Britain. Since the country itself did not have any silver mines, British traders first had to sell goods for silver in Spain in order to be able to pay for the tea. The West, especially Great Britain with its high number of tea imports, developed a trade deficit fairly quickly due to the lack of barter goods (Kurz, 2014).

The actual extent of this deficit is still controversial today: According to the so-called “silver sink thesis”, up to three quarters of the silver from the colonies of Latin America was transferred to China at the time. Peer Vries notes, however, that these figures do not correspond to reality and that he therefore does not support this thesis. In his opinion, the real beneficiaries were the British traders who, although tea was heavily taxed in Great Britain, were able to show very high profit margins (Vries, 2012). It can therefore also be argued that the tea trade brought economic advantages for both partners despite the high silver levies.

2.1 The canton system

Although China benefited greatly from this trade relationship, the government severely restricted trade with foreign merchants. Trade was only allowed to take place in coastal cities, but not inland. In addition, all ports, with the exception of Guangzhou, a city in southern China, were closed to foreign trade in the mid-18th century. Guangzhou was chosen for this purpose, largely because of the many advantages that the location brought with it, which ensured smooth, regular and punctual trade: Guangzhou was an enormous inland river port, making it easy to access domestic supplies of provisions, Marine stores and packing materials has been guaranteed. There was also a good source of wood for the manufacture of chests that were needed for packing the goods. In addition, the hinterland provided many raw materials that were useful for repairing ships and stowing cargo, and a large community of craftsmen lived on site, whose labor was essential (Dyke, 2005).

With the closure of the ports and the establishment of Guangzhou as a trade monopoly, the canton system came into being. This is defined as a trading system that existed between the Chinese and foreign merchants from the 17th to the 19th century, especially the British, in Guangzhou, also known as Canton. The essential nature of the system developed between 1760 and 1842, when all foreign trade in Guangzhou was curbed and foreign traders wishing to enter the city had to submit to a series of regulations from the Chinese government. This should serve to maintain peace, security and harmony in the region. In this way, the imperial court ensured that the foreign merchants were appropriately controlled. Furthermore, the trade had to be fair and orderly so that all taxes, duties and fees could be collected and passed on to the appropriate administrative institutions. Only under these conditions was the basis for trade created and foreign trade permitted (Dyke, 2005). This was supervised by customs officers, the so-called Hoppos, who were commissioned by the emperor to control the ships, collect taxes and maintain order among the traders (Benecke, 1922).

In addition to the hoppos, there were the so-called Hong merchants. They served as mediators between the foreign traders and the Hoppos. If taxes had to be paid to the relevant Chinese authorities, this exchange took place via the merchants, who in turn passed the corresponding amount on to the Hoppos. In addition, they provided the merchants with factories on the banks of the river for storage and living. During their stay, visitors were only allowed to leave their accommodation for necessary errands and on foot. The use of boats on the river was forbidden and access to Hoppos was strictly forbidden. The Hong merchants were liable for any violations and excesses by the strangers, as well as for the correct conduct of the trade and the receipt of all fees, for which they had to provide a guarantee of 200,000 Taels (Benecke, 1922).

As a result of this system, trading could only be carried out on a private level. China refused to enter into any form of formal diplomatic relations with the West and so the Cohong in their monopoly position are often referred to as the "milkers" of foreign trade (Benecke, 1922).

These drastic restrictions plagued the foreign merchants, as they could see the great potential in the Chinese market, but these restrictions made it virtually impossible for them to use it for themselves. The closed nature of the Chinese market was incompatible with the English view of free trade (Platt, 2018).

Still looking for a way to expand its own profit margin, Britain eventually discovered the opium supply deficit and used its own monopoly, the East India Trading Company, to sell the illicit drug in China.

2.2 East India Trading Company (EITC)

The East India Trading Company (EITC) came into being at the turn of the 17th century. It was one of the first companies to claim a trade monopoly and was considered one of the most powerful companies around the world, trading with countries such as India, China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Japan and Persia. The focus was on the trade in everyday goods that could only be found where they were originally made, such as tea, spices and also opium (Simpson, 2002).

The EITC was originally founded to break Spain's monopoly over the spice trade in India, which had been a booming market since the 17th century. At the beginning a few small and independent trading companies arose, which were established by British merchants. These companies acted independently of each other with the aim of breaking the Spanish monopoly. When this strategy turned out to be unsuccessful even after a few decades, the individual companies merged to form the EICT. This merger created a unified British trading group in India that was now competitive and could compete with other trading powers for monopoly (Barrett, 2017).

Around the 18th century, the EICT entered the tea trade and began to meet the demand for the luxury good on the English market. However, the demand increased so much that the British lost large sums of silver trading with China. “To purchase what would eventually be an annual 7,500 tons of tea, the British spent almost £ 30 million in silver and gold in the half century between 1710 and 1760; reciprocal purchases by the Chinese, however, totaled fewer than £ 19 million ”(Smith, 2006). The great loss of silver became a growing problem for Great Britain, which is why alternative barter goods were sought again and again. Finally, supply deficits for cotton and opium were discovered (Kurz, 2014).

However, the intoxicant was by no means a new discovery: Opium had been known since the 8th century. It was imported by the Arabs during the Tang Dynasty and was originally used in medicine. Its intoxicating effects were discovered later, and so opium has been smoked with or without tobacco and consumed as a drug since the 17th century. It was particularly popular because of its intoxicating effects and the accompanying loss of appetite, which was practical for many Chinese consumers from the lower social classes during the famine of the time. Usually out of curiosity and pleasure, the drug was smoked together and was considered "exotic and western" (Platt, 2018). Due to the high risk of addiction and the associated health and social problems, such as emaciation, complete exhaustion, lack of drive and also death consequences, opium was banned by the Chinese Emperor Yongzheng in 1729. In his anti-opium edict, the consumption and sale of the drug and the operation of so-called opium divans, a smoking parlor in which opium was sold and smoked, were made subject to severe penalties (Kurz, 2014). However, with the EICT, which provided a steady and never-ending source for the drug, more and more Chinese became addicted to the drug (Barrett, 2017).

3. The way into the conflict

3.1 Opium trade

Opium was important to the British mainly because of the large profit margin. Sales could be increased by 300% with this new commercial product (Fay, 2000). Due to the increasing demand, the deficits in the tea trade could be offset by opium, as the value of Chinese opium imports exceeded the value of British tea imports (Kurz, 2014). In addition, it was an opportunity for the English to defy excessive regulations in the Chinese market and to create a balance in trade (Platt, 2018).

The following prerequisites had to be created for continuous sales: the drug had to be available in large quantities, there had to be the possibility of consumption, there had to be sufficient demand for the product and the government’s control measures should not be effective (Spence, 1995).

The supply of the opium was not a great challenge. Opium poppy, which is used as the basis for the manufacture of the drug, thrives particularly well in India and with the conquest of large parts of India by the British, Great Britain controlled large parts of India between 1750 and 1800 . With this newly created monopoly position of the EICT, it was no problem for the trading company to produce the necessary quantities. In addition, the British company had enough manpower to collect the juice from the cut poppy seed capsules and boil it into a thick paste that was particularly suitable for smoking (Spence, 1995).


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