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The British in China


China photo
China photo

In the late 18th century the Manchus had grudgingly accepted commercial relations with Britain and other Western countries. Trade was confined to the port of Guangzhou, and foreign merchants were required to conduct trade through a limited number of Chinese merchants. Initially, the balance of trade was in China’s favor, as Britain and other countries paid for huge quantities of tea not with British goods but with money in the form of silver.

The British were intent on expanding trade beyond the restrictive limits imposed at Guangzhou. They also wanted to establish diplomatic relations with the Qing court similar to those that existed between sovereign states in the West. In the 1790s the British sent an ambassadorial mission to China headed by Sir George Macartney, who brought the emperor samples of British goods. The Qianlong Emperor was not impressed with the goods and made no major concessions. The British, for their part, saw that China’s soldiers still used traditional weaponry and thus gained a better sense of China’s military vulnerability.

In order to reverse the balance of trade, British merchants during the 1780s introduced Indian opium, an addictive narcotic drug, to China. Addiction spread, and by 1800 the opium market had mushroomed, shifting the balance of trade in favor of Britain. Trade in opium was illegal in China, but British and other merchants unloaded their cargo offshore, selling it to Chinese smugglers.By the 1830s the threat to China posed by opium had become acute. Opium addiction destroyed peoples’ lives, and the drain of silver was causing fiscal problems for the Qing.

Furthermore, many Qing officials, tempted by the profits they could make in the opium trade, became corrupt. The Qing appointed Lin Zexu in late 1838 and sent him to the city of Guangzhou the following year to put an end to the illegal trade. Lin dealt harshly with Chinese who purchased opium and applied severe pressure to the British trading community in Guangzhou, seizing opium stores and demanding assurances that the British would not bring opium into Chinese waters.

In response the British sent an expeditionary force from India with 42 warships and shut down the ports of Ningbo and Tianjin (see Opium Wars). The Qing negotiated with Britain, but the first settlement reached was unsatisfactory to both sides, and the British sent a second, larger expeditionary force. The Treaty of Nanjing (Nanking), concluded at gunpoint in 1842, ceded the Chinese island of Hong Kong, near Guangzhou, to Britain and opened five ports—Guangzhou, Xiamen, Fuzhou, Ningbo, and Shanghai—to foreign trade and residence. Known as treaty ports, these cities contained large areas called concessions that were leased in perpetuity to foreign powers. Through its clause on extraterritoriality, the treaty stipulated that British subjects in China were answerable only to British law, even in disputes with Chinese. The treaty also had a most-favored-nation clause, which meant that whenever a nation extracted a new privilege from China, that privilege was extended automatically to Britain. "China" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia.

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