By Vejas Gabriel Liulevicius, Ph.D., University of Tennessee, Knoxville
There was total inequality between China and the world in the nineteenth century. The Chinese emperor was forced to give special benefits to the western powers. All this led to a crisis within China. What happened? Were the Chinese leaders able to think of the ways to fix this crisis? Let us try to answer these questions.
China in the Nineteenth Century
The Chinese emperors had understood China as the Middle Kingdom, occupying the central place of importance in the world. They had seen their realm as self-sufficient, not needing anything from the peripheries. The voyages of Zheng He from 1405–1433 had been all about manifesting that authority far and wide.
This self-understanding, and this concept of authority, was shattered in the Opium Wars of 1839–1842 and of 1856–1860. The onslaught of the British East India Company and its drug trade, coupled with the Industrial Revolution revealed the full power of Western imperialism. The Chinese emperor was forced to sign unequal treaties that gave special trade privileges to foreigners and set up special treaty ports. Moreover, these foreigners in China were not subject to Chinese legal authority, but instead had so-called extraterritoriality.
This was nothing less than a civilization crisis for China. This was completely in contrast to what they believed earlier. They suddenly appeared not central to the world but weaker than foreigners whom they had belittled earlier.
In fact, China was shown not even equal, not even ruling itself, and not even sovereign. Out of the 1648 Peace of Westphalia had evolved a system where sovereign states interacted with each other in a dynamic balance of power. The meaning of sovereignty was the rule by self without any outside authority. But due to unequal treaties between China and the world and extraterritoriality, it didn’t have that in the late 19th century.
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The Influence of Western Thought on China
The Chinese political leaders and thinkers struggled with the implications of the crisis for the next century. What was the way for China to find its way in the new world? What would be the kind of modernity that it should create for itself so that there would be an equal relationship between China and the world? Would it be better to renew old values like Confucianism or should it emulate western models? Many of these ways were tried by several generations in succession.
The message of nationalism had a great influence on the younger generation of China in the latter part of the 19th century. Nationalism had evolved from American and French revolutions and had spread to the non-western world also. The Westphalian international system of sovereign states meant that the most effective and desirable way of organizing the people for sovereignty and the exercise of self-rule was the nation-state.
Social Darwinism was another idea that was appealing. It meant that like natural species if nations and societies were real entities that prospered or became extinct, then societies like China which were threatened had to either struggle and revitalize themselves or simply vanish. The Self-Strengthening Movement of China launched by the younger generation was the result of the realization of a serious need to modernize their country if they had to survive.
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The Beginning of the Change in China
Japan was an obvious model in this pursuit because it had selectively adopted western technology and organization while keeping its cultural values intact at the same time. But for China, it was difficult to accept Japan as a role model. The reason was that Japan was always seen as a recipient of the Chinese culture in the earlier centuries. But in the changed scenario, Japan was actually the imperialist power threatening to carve up China. Taiwan had already been taken over as a colony by Japan. So, China both admired and resented Japan at the same time.
After China adopted communism and declared itself as the People’s Republic of China under Mao Zedong in 1949, it started working toward a new culture completely dismantling the old culture. But during this period there was very less and less interaction between China and the world. It seemed to have shut itself off. However, the visit of the US president Richard Nixon to China in 1972 changed all this. This visit was a turning point that changed a lot for China and the world.
This new relationship between the US and China was only a part of a larger opening between China and the world in which China entered the rest of the world as a sovereign state and as a part of the Westphalian international system. No longer was China a subject to what can be called a century of humiliation. This new relationship between China and the world began a process that grew China into a great economic and exporting power that it is today.
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Deng’s China and the World
When Mao died in 1976, there was an aggressive struggle for power and in the end, Deng Xiaoping became the leader. Deng set a new course leading to the introduction of the so-called reform era from 1978. Deng changed the principals of Mao radically without abandoning him in an obvious way. He made a policy that emphasized on the so-called four Modernizations: modernization in agriculture, military, industry, and science. He intensely reversed the earlier Marxist ideology and supported the slogan, “It is glorious to get rich”. A new slogan, “create wealth for people” was declared in place of the old Marxist slogan, “serve the people”, that meant a market economy.
Deng wanted to let loose China’s economic potential by promoting private enterprise and at the same time retaining the political control with the Communist Party. He allowed farmers to sell their produce to the market more than ever. Deng created four economic zones on the Chinese coast and opened China for foreign investment so that there could be more economic interaction between China and the world. The irony here was that these were the same ports where during the unequal treaties treaty ports were located. But this time, this trade was desired. Deng wanted to pursue trade opportunities wherever they were available and as a part of this, he even visited the United States.
This way China’s economic development kept moving ahead and has boomed for the last three decades. So much so that the Chinese growth rate was around 10% during the first decade of the 21st century. China went ahead of Japan and became the second-largest economy in the world in 2011. By 2025 it could very well become the world’s largest economy overtaking the United States.
Meanwhile, there started a flow of Chinese students studying overseas. A large number of them studied and are still studying in the United States and Europe, getting new ideas and experiences. All these changes came from the turning point of 1972, without which there would not have been such a reversal of relations between China and the world.
Common Questions about China and the World: How the Equation Changed After 1972
Deng created four economic zones on the Chinese coast and opened China for foreign investment so that there could be more economic interaction between China and the world.
The new relationship between the US and China was only a part of a larger opening between China and the world in which China entered the rest of the world as a sovereign state and as a part of the Westphalian international system.
China did not have very good relations with the western world in the nineteenth century. The Opium Wars coupled with the Industrial Revolution revealed the full power of Western imperialism. The Chinese emperor was forced to sign unequal treaties that gave special trade privileges to foreigners and set up special treaty ports.