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Imperialism in China

Updated on August 14, 2014

Imperialist domination of China began with what are known as the Opium Wars. Before these wars, only two ports were open to foreign traders. British merchants bought Chinese tea, silk and other goods, but there was no market for British goods in China. Then British merchants started smuggling opium into China on a large scale.

The illegal opium trade was profitable to the British traders but did immense physical and moral damage to the Chinese. In 1839, when a Chinese government official seized an opium cargo and destroyed it, Britain declared war and easily defeated the Chinese. The Chinese were then forced to pay heavy damages to the British and tfl open five port cities to British traders. The Chinese government also agreed that in future British subjects in these ports would be tried for any crimes in English rather than in Chinese courts. This provision, which other western countries copied, came to be known as extraterritorial rights. The Chinese government was no longer free to impose tariff on foreign goods. The island of Hong Kong was turned over to Britain.

Soon France entered into similar unequal treaties with China. On the pretext that a French missionary had been murdered, England and France fought another war with China. China was defeated and was forced to grant more privileges to her conquerors.

The next important stage in the growth of imperialism in China came after the war with Japan. This came about when Japan tried to increase her influence over Korea which was under Chinese over-lordship. China resented this and the two countries went to war, which ended in victory for Japan. China gave Korea her independence and ceded Formosa and other islands to Japan. She was also forced to pay Japan heavy war damages amounting to about 150 million dollars.

France, Russia, Britain and Germany gave loans to China to help her to meet this payment But not for nothing, These western countries then divided China into spheres of influence, which meant that each country had certain regions of China reserved exclusively for its purposes. For example, in its sphere of influence, a country might have the right to build railways or work mines. Germany got Kiaochow Bay and exclusive rights in Shantung and in the Hwang-Ho valley; Russia took Liaotung Peninsula, along with the right to build railroads in Manchuria. France received Kwangchow Bay and extensive rights in three southern provinces of China. Britain got Wei-hi-Wei in addition to her sphere of influence in the Yangtze valley.

The United States feared that China would be completely parcelled out in exclusive spheres of influence and that its trade with China would be shut off. The United States, therefore, suggested the policy known as the 'Open Door'. This policy is also described as 'Me too' policy. According to this policy, all countries would have equal rights to trade anywhere in China. Britain supported the United States thinking that this policy would discourage the annexation of China by Japan and Russia, the two countries that could most easily send their armies to the mainland.

The scramble for privileges stopped in China after an uprising against the foreign powers known as the Boxer Rebellion. But the foreign powers were victorious and levied heavy damages on China as punishment. Imperialism continued, with the cooperation of Chinese warlords. These military commanders were supported by the loans which they got from foreign powers in exchange for more privileges. Though China was not conquered and occupied by any imperialist country, the effects of these developments on China were the same as in areas which and been colonized. In a period of a few decades, China had been reduced to the status of an international colony. The division of China into spheres of influence has often been described as the 'cutting of the Chinese melon'.


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    • Unifiniti profile image


      7 years ago

      No matter what, there is no reason to continue to sell opium AFTER you've opened trade.

    • profile image

      Geostar Alpha 

      7 years ago

      A very intriguing and well written essay on an equally interesting subject of imperial China. Bravo to the marvelous author!


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