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China – The Legacy of the Foreign Devils

September 7, 2012

Anybody mystified by the furious hoo-ha between China and Japan over ownership of a few scrubby, uninhabited islands between Okinawa and Taiwan could do worse than to immerse themselves in Robert Bickers’ book, The Scramble for China – Foreign Devils in the Qing Empire, 1832-1914.

Most of us learn very little about China at school. Perhaps now more than when I was a boy. A peek at the UK National Curriculum suggests that today’s pupils are potentially exposed to three subjects on China. One in British history (the Opium Wars) and two in world history (the Qin Dynasty in China; Imperial China from the First Emperor to Kublai Khan; the Manchu invasion and the fall of the Ming dynasty).  Only one of these subjects, the Opium Wars, would appear to address critical events and conditions in the 19th Century that enable us to understand at least some aspects of today’s China.

When I was at school, China was primarily a subject for current affairs, and seen mainly in the context of the struggle between communism and capitalism.

We learned about Mao Tse-tung, as his name was spelt then, the communist revolution, and about Chaing Kai-shek, still at that time doddering on in his nationalist enclave of Taiwan. We looked at the scary pictures of thousands of cheering workers thronging Tiananmen Square, all wearing their Mao suits and waving their Little Red Books at the great leader as he appeared beaming from the balcony. Alien and threatening, even though China was not at that time the economic and political powerhouse it is today. But they did have nukes, and there were 750 million Chinese. David Willey graphically evokes that time – 50 years ago – in a recent report for the BBC.

These days the Chinese wear “ordinary clothes”. They make things that we buy in huge quantities. They have economically colonised half of Africa. America is in hock to them. They control 90% of the rare metals without which we would not be blogging, messaging on our I-Phones and wiring the world.

China is a tourist destination, with a modern infrastructure and a growing middle class. Its athletes have won more medals than any other nation in the past two Olympics. Although nominally still a communist state, it is in reality a capitalist oligarchy. Ambitious, sometimes corrupt, by no means stable. Impossible to ignore. Proud of their culture, the Chinese send terracotta soldiers around the world to remind us of their ancient civilisation. They still have nukes, and the population is now over two billion.

My knowledge of Chinese history remains patchy. Through various books over several decades, I have dipped in and out of different eras. I’m a frequent traveller to countries within the Chinese orbit – Hong Kong (now part of the People’s Republic), Singapore and Malaysia.

Though I’m reasonably au fait with the recent history – the war with Japan, Mao’s takeover, the Cultural Revolution and events thereafter, my knowledge of 19th century China was limited to episodes in the life of Harry Flashman, George McDonald Fraser’s fictional anti-hero who bluffs his way through key events in the Victorian era. In Flashman and the Dragon, Fraser’s caddish voluptuary witnesses the Taiping rebellion – a massive uprising of believers in an idiosyncratic form of Christianity led by the charismatic Hong Xiuqan, who claimed that he was the younger brother of Jesus Christ. Flashman is also present at the destruction of the imperial Summer Palace in Beijing in a punitive raid led by Lord Elgin – he of the Marbles fame. And, being the mighty-loined Flashman, he manages in the process to spend some prime time in the bed of an imperial concubine.

But what were the British doing in Beijing? And where did the unorthodox Christian beliefs of the Taiping spring from? And why do modern Chinese regard the experience of China in the 19th century as a humiliation that can never be repeated?

Robert Bickers’ history provides many of the answers.

The Scramble for China starts its narrative in 1832, when the Western presence was limited to a small trading enclave in Canton. By 1914, the last imperial dynasty – the Qing – had collapsed under the weight of competing foreign incursions, not only by the dominant Western powers – Britain, Germany, France, Russia and America – but also by Japan, which had emerged from centuries of isolation as a newly industrialised and militaristic force in the region.

Bickers portrays a China convulsed by the influence and ultimately by the imperial ambitions of the Great Powers. As in India in the previous century, trade was the bridgehead. Chief among the commodities traded was opium. Grown and refined in north India, the early Canton traders exported the drug to China in huge quantities despite the best efforts of the Qing to curtail its use because of its debilitating effect on the population, not to mention its military forces.

Frustrated by the restrictions placed on trade by the Qing, who saw the foreigners in Canton as lesser peoples, the Canton merchants started using provocative tactics – such as forcibly entering the offices of the local administrators – to impose the respect they believed was their due. An attempt by the Qing to prohibit the opium trade led to war with Britain, and the subsequent imposition of treaties that extended the trading outlets to a number of cities on the South China coast, the most significant of which was Shanghai.

As Western influence spread through the activities of the traders in the treaty ports, the missionaries inevitably followed, often with tragic consequences for both missionaries and converts. Christianity was a faith that challenged traditional Chinese values, destabilised families and societal structures and provoked frequent outbreaks of xenophobic violence. The resulting massacres in turn led to military action by the European powers, egged on by the traders who saw the opportunity for further concessions from the weakened Qing authorities.

Bickers’ narrative is not just about rapacious foreign traders. The inability of the Qing to control its empire led to it outsourcing the business of collecting revenue from foreign trade to a handful of Western officials who formed the Imperial Maritime Customs Service. The towering figure among the Customs officials was Sir Robert Hart, its long-serving Inspector-General. Hart was a colonial official who went native. He remained in post for 50 years, and devoted his life to bringing Western technology and institutions to the sclerotic empire.

Under Hart’s leadership, the Customs Service became a kind of development agency, importing Western know-how for the benefit not only of the trade from which the imperial government derived much of its revenue, but for ordinary Chinese also. Among his achievements was to establish an effective postal and telegraph service and the construction of a string of lighthouses across the south coast that served both to guide shipping safely to port and as outposts of the Qing administration.

For the first 50 years of the treaty ports, the western traders practiced a form of privatised imperialism mainly designed to increase opportunities for the enrichment of the leading merchant families. The British Crown established its presence in Hong Kong – ceded to Britain on a long lease as part of the original package of concessions granted at gunpoint in 1843.

There followed a succession of rebellions, increasing missionary activity, and a steady increase in the aggressive involvement in Chinese domestic politics by the Great Powers. The typical pattern was pushback against the merchants and missionaries, armed intervention, reparations and further concessions.

In 1894 everything changed. Until then, the Qing had maintained an illusion of control over their vast territories. Then China suffered a disastrous defeat in its war with Japan, losing hegemony over Korea. In 1900, a secret society of disenfranchised youth known to the West as the Boxers launched a rebellion against Western influence. They particularly targeted the missionaries. Many were slaughtered. Christian communities and centres of worship were destroyed. The Qing, long resentful of the foreign role in their increasing debilitation, opportunistically decided to ally themselves with the Boxers.

Under the pretext of defending the missionaries and foreign legations, the great powers pounced on China like hungry wolves. Russia, Japan, Britain and France all carved out spheres of influence. Of these, only Russia actually annexed territory – much of Manchuria including the ports of Dalian and Port Arthur. The others were content with “influence”, which effectively meant control.

Bickers’ book is full of larger than life characters. Pugnacious merchants and consular officials like Hugh Hamilton Lindsay and Sir Harry Parkes. The voices of the Chinese actors tend to be reflected in Western accounts – consular and company records and the archives of the Customs Service. He goes beyond the broad sweep of events to look at smaller players.

For example, George Taylor, the semi-educated British lighthouse keeper in Taiwan, protected against the indigenous tribes by a stockade ringed with Gatling guns, yet inquisitive enough to contribute papers to the journal of the Royal Geographical Society. And Zhang Zhixi, who came to the British Legation in Beijing looking for his missing brother. He had heard the widespread rumours that the foreigners kidnapped locals, and gouged their eyes out for use as medicine, before killing them and using their hearts for the same purpose. The same accusation was levelled at the missionary nuns who paid families for orphans whom they could bring up as good Catholics. Their graveyards, it was said, were full of children.

Lest we believe that the 20th Century was the first that saw killing on an industrial scale, China in the previous century saw repeated pogroms and massacres, not to mention famine and epidemics, some as a consequence of the repeated upheavals, some through natural disaster. Many of the rebellions had their origins in the influence of the West. Some were the result of the steady weakening of the Qing’s authority – death by a thousand cuts. The Taiping rebellion alone may have taken 20 million lives – more than the total deaths in World War 1.

The continual instability also triggered mass economic migration. An estimated 30 million Chinese left the mainland over the period, populating nearby settlements in South East Asia, as well as providing cheap labour for massive infrastructure projects – such as the railroads in the USA – further afield. The Chinatowns in modern American cities are among their visible legacies.

The story ends in 1914, three years after the abdication of the Qing Dowager Empress, as the country slides into yet more disorder. The Western powers become preoccupied with conflict closer to home, and China’s new-born Republic  falls into the hands of regional warlords. The stage is set for the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1937, and yet more millions of deaths as the country becomes a vicious sideshow in the better known conflict between Japan, Germany, the US, Britain and Russia.

And then came Mao.

Today you can visit the stately buildings of Shanghai’s Bund where the foreign traders made their homes, though the monuments to the foreign devils that adorned the elegant boulevards a hundred years ago are nowhere to be seen . And the legacy of the opium traders and robber barons remains in the form of companies that still exist today. The Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation, better known as HSBC. Cathay Pacific, 40% owned by the Swire Group, founded in 1866 by John Samuel Swire. Jardine Matheson, founded in Canton in 1832, and still with many fingers in the Asian pie – property, banking, shipping and major brand franchising.

For those who want to do business with modern China, or who watch with concern as the country grows in power and influence, Bickers’ book will surely make the inexplicable less so. The Scramble for China is a dispassionate account of a period that means little to the watching world but much to the new superpower. It is not a rant against imperialist tactics practices used by empire builders before and since. Nor does it characterise the Qing as inncocent victims – their savage treatment of their own people contributed as much to to the suffering of the population as the actions of the foreigners.

It’s a story that deserves a wider audience. Well worth reading.

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