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China and Its Historical Attitude to Foreign Trade.

Updated on November 6, 2017

China is an ancient land that has seen its share of misery and war. It has been fought over and humiliated on numerous occasions throughout its existence. But, China has also lead the world in the innovation of world changing technologies such as black powder. China has also produced progressive and great thinkers such as Confucius and Sun Tzu.

In this modern age, China represents the most populous nation on the planet, it is also the country with a vibrant economy in the face of a global economic recession. As China continues to assert its power and authority, many of it's previously isolationist policies and attitudes are starting to fade. China is now beginning to take an active interest in the world outside its domestic borders and sees itself as an international power to rival the more established names in Industry, Finance and Technology.

The Great Wall of China, designed to protect China from attack.
The Great Wall of China, designed to protect China from attack. | Source

China is now beginning to forge strong alliances and business links with the outside world, acutely aware that raw materials will be needed to continue with it's modernization and industrial output. Of course this has lead to an increase in tension's over territorial claims with it's South Asian neigbour's such as Cambodia, Korea and Vietnam.

These states have previously been quite close to China, as the Chinese aided their rulers in the battle against Western influence during the 1960's and 1970's. China has also renewed its ancient rivalry with Japan, on this occasion the Chinese are a much stronger opponent in the world of business than in previous years.

The storming of Taku Fort in the Second Opium War.
The storming of Taku Fort in the Second Opium War. | Source

Early contact with the Western world.

The continent of Africa was ruthlessly carved up by the great powers of Europe of a period of Two hundred years between 1700-1900. China is the Far East was the next target for the greedy Imperial nations of the Old World. Portugal and Great Britain were in the prime location to exploit the ancient land of the Chinese people. Great Britain was firmly entrenched in the Indian sub-continent and Portugal had extensive trading ports dotted across the area.

The ancient Europeans first came into contact with the Chinese people around 100 AD, the Romans had scouted out as far as the old borders of China by 160 AD. Trade between the Chinese Han Empire and Rome's Eastern provinces was conducted along the Silk Road. Trade between the two Empires was never fully developed and diplomatic relations between these two great Empires appear to have been very limited. The decline in Roman influence and rise of the Muslim world made the Europeans withdraw from deeper association during the Dark Ages.

At the time of the Crusades there was greater European exploration of Asia. The Flemish, Bohemian, French and Italian Kingdoms sent representatives and explorers as far east as they could. By the mid Thirteenth Century Europeans had sent ambassadors to Mongolia and China. The Italian explorers Maffeo and Niccolo Polo met the Chinese Emperor in 1264 AD, and by 1271 AD Niccolo was joined by his son Marco Polo. After the visit of Marco Polo China is repeatedly visited overland by European missionaries in an attempt to promote Christianity among the Chinese people.

It was not until the great explorers of the Oceans such as Vasco de Gama and Ferdinand Magellan, that China and India were desired as trading partners or as oversea possessions. The Portuguese explorer Jorge Álvares is the first European to make landfall from the Sea in China. Eventually the Portuguese in 1557 AD, set up a trading hub on the Chinese Island of Macau. This move has been seen as the starting point in the European colonial powers interference and exploitation of China, it started a chain of events that would continue for the next 442 years.

European Imperialism

The ordinary Chinese people of the Imperial age were very fragmented and there was constant rebellion in many of Imperial China's provinces. Although the Imperial cities were often in good order, the lands outside the Emperor's control were often in a state bordering anarchy. The Chinese Imperial hierarchy was corrupt and backward, it had changed very little in a thousand years. The ruling authority did not deal with the influx of colonial powers very well, in fact their handling of the situation could be called naive or shambolic.

The Chinese Emperor at the time of the Portugal's growing interest in China believed giving Portugal a trading base would stop the Portuguese from causing unwelcome trouble in his lands. His decision to give Portugal a foothold opened the floodgates for foreign interference and lead to other colonial powers petitioning the Chinese for a similar agreement.

An Opium den in China circa 1902.
An Opium den in China circa 1902. | Source

The Opium trade with foreign powers

The Opium War with the British Empire in part stemmed from the Chinese reluctance to import the goods of the British and other colonial powers. The higher levels of the Emperor's royal council saw little value in the foreign trade with people they believed uncivilised and wild, the Chinese Emperor at the time went so far as to say his people were uninterested with the trinkets of their barbarous nations.

The British began to mount up a serious trade deficit with the Imperial nation of China, Britain was addicted to the Tea which was exported from China in huge quantities and other goods were quickly consumed back in the heart of the Empire. Britain was in danger of losing out on a great amount of wealth and prestige, in it's Asia colonies it's manufactured goods sat worthless on ships or in warehouses. The merchants in the Chinese trading ports soon saw opportunity to increase their wealth in spite of the Imperial decree of limited trade with the foreigners.

In Opium the greedy colonial powers had a product which the regular Chinese people wanted, and the ruling class were almost powerless to halt. Soon the British Empire through it's East India Company was flooding all available ports with shipments of the Opium product. The Opium was grown in British Bengal and transported by sea to the waiting Chinese, soon the British were able to reverse the trading deficit with Imperial China.

By the middle of the Nineteenth century Great Britain was transporting close to a quarter of a million pounds of Opium a year. Even the United States of America became involved in the Opium trade, and much of the American wealth generated from the trade was spent on prestigious American Universities, Hospitals, Museums and railroads. For the Chinese who dare not tell the Emperor the truth of their countries calamity and shame, the problems mounted upon one and other. Although the country was not annexed and partitioned like Africa, it did suffer with addiction, near bankruptcy, conflict, rebellion and humiliating treaties that allowed the colonial powers to legally occupy Chinese territory for over two hundred years.

When the Communist party came to power in China the scars of previous humiliations were keenly felt in the psyche of all the Chinese people. The Communist regime was happy to keep isolated from the chaos resulting from the end of the Second World War and the Cold War allowed the Chinese to consolidate their rule. With the Cold War raging and Asia the hotbed of coup and police actions the Chinese people were perhaps wary of the foreign influence returning to their lands after they had finally removed the Japanese presence from Manchuria at the end of the Second World War.

The Marxist regime of China is not a style of rule that encourages Capitalist free trade and until the colonies of Hong Kong and Macau were returned to the mainland, China had minimal involvement with foreign trade. It was not until the end of Communism in the old Soviet Union, that China began to see benefits in closer relationships with developing nations and the more established economies of the world. It is possible that the ingrained distrust of foreign trade, Socialist doctrine and a large population, that allows China to whether the global recession better than the likes of the USA, Japan, Germany, UK and France.

© 2013 Andrew Stewart


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