It is the Opium Wars that has affected China’s internal and external policies for a while and the current leadership still believes there are lessons to be learnt from it.
In July last year, when President Xi Jinping spoke at a ceremony in Tiananmen Square to celebrate 100 years of the Communist Party, one of the recurring themes of his speech was the “humiliation” and “subjugation” of the Chinese people in the aftermath of the Opium Wars (1839-42).
He has a reason to feel aggrieved. As do the 1.4 billion people of the Asian giant.
The 1842 Treaty of Nanjing and other agreements had paved the way for Western traders to enter several Chinese cities. More importantly, they forced China to accept western trade practises, giving the Western nations an unfair advantage over the natives.
“The West, especially Great Britain and France made a huge effort” to gain economic privileges in China, Helin Sari Ertem, Associate Professor of International Relations at Istanbul Medeniyet University, tells TRT World.
“It is possible to say that the Opium Wars gave them this opportunity and started Western exploitation in China; in other words, the “century of humiliation”, through which the Chinese people suffered from the great pain caused by the Westerners,” Sari Ertem says.
“Seeing Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s reference to this humiliation, one can understand how the Western domination and exploitation still hurts the souls of Chinese people and gives nationalist leaders like Xi Jinping the manipulation of the masses via this trauma.”
Opium of the West
After years of unsuccessful attempts to open trade with China, Britain finally decided to follow the example of Spain and started to sell opium, which they obtained from the Indian colonies. The British had discovered the value of opium trade and they were determined to benefit from this easily accessible product.
This was followed by the Chinese government’s concerted effort to suppress the opium trade in 1839, with the Imperial Commissioner Lin Zexu ordering the destruction of all opium stored by British merchants in Canton (present-day Guangzhou).
A year later, in response to China’s move, the British government sent its warships — following a request from its merchants — which arrived at Hong Kong and attacked Canton in May 1841.
The first Opium War which started in 1839 ended on August 29, 1842 following the Treaty of Nanjing. China paid $21 million as an indemnity, ceded the territory of Hong Kong and also agreed to establish what the British called ‘fair and reasonable’ tariff.
Fourteen years after the first war, the second conflict took place between 1856 to 1860 — also known as the Anglo-French war — following new demands made by the British. A British-French alliance, formed following the defeat of British forces in the first attempt, saw the defeat of the Chinese. The Western powers were able to obtain even more commercial privileges as well as legal and territorial concessions in China.
The wars opened the Chinese market to Western trade and influence but also weakened the Qing dynasty’s power, along with its prestige. Embassies of foreign countries were established in Beijing. The feudal structure of China started collapsing and finally the Chinese dynasty was overthrown in 1911.
The incident has remained a traumatic memory in the history of China and Xi Jinping calls what happened to his country as a result of the Opium Wars as “humiliation and shameful aberration caused by malicious foreigners and unforgivable Chinese weakness”.
Past tense, present imperfect
Commenting on the impact of the Opium Wars on China’s current stance against the West, Assistant Professor of International Relations at Istanbul Medeniyet University, Dr. Kadir Temiz, says: “Historical experiences of any state in the world generally shape their identity construction in the homeland. It also helps to make people more united under the umbrella of the current nation-state which has been trying to find legitimacy for the power.”
According to Temiz, for many years, “especially since the beginning of the opening reform”, China’s legitimacy for power “was economic development”.
“After forty years of reforms process, for the first time, China’s priority has turned away from economic development to more nationalist and ambitious legitimacy based on the ‘victim narrative’ of the Opium Wars, during Xi Jinping era,” Temiz tells TRT World. “Along with others, such as the May 4 Movement and Nanjing Massacre, the Opium Wars narrative has become the new discourse of anti-Western and Chinese nationalist sentiments in Xi’s China.”
On the other hand, Sari Ertem thinks that “national traumas have always been significant in nation-states’ domestic and foreign policy behaviour”.
“They are one of the building stones of national identities and it is hard for nations to overcome the negative emotions caused by foreign nations in the past. That is the case for today’s China as well. The Opium Wars of the 19th century have created one of the biggest traumas of Chinese history,” she says.
“As Kissinger points out, China has a claim for “cultural universalism” and this affects today’s global politics as well. Through its famous Belt and Road Initiative, China is everywhere with its own values, trade rules and insisting. In a way, it is taking the revenge of the ‘humiliation era’.”
Commenting on how far China can use the same narratives in its future moves which might trigger further crises, Sari Ertem believes that “the Easternisation of global finance and politics will continue in the near past.”
“This of course creates a tension in Western countries, namely the US, which is afraid of losing its hegemonic superiority,” Sari Ertem adds.
She further claims: “Keeping in mind how influential the Opium Wars and its aftermath were on Chinese national narratives”, it might not be wrong to claim that “the US actually pays for the bitter historical baggage caused by the UK and France in China”.
The Opium Wars and the humiliation era that came after them have definitely been influential on today’s Chinese nationalists and their foreign policy vision, according to Sari Ertem.
“As many Chinese officials underline, China will make utmost effort in order not to fall into such a situation once again. China is determined to play the global political game with its own rules despite all critiques. It is determined to be one of the leading powers of the world, possibly the strongest one, in the future.”
According to Temiz, the Opium Wars were not simple accidents but “historical realities which both Asian and Western countries should face.”
“Although it is part of European colonialism, it is also part of the modernisation process of Asia. I mean, there are different kinds of interpretation of these historical realities which provide legitimate bases for any Asian states’ political narrative,” he says.
“On the one hand, the Opium Wars were the beginning of establishing modern institutions like the open market economy, centralised government, constitutional movement, and ideological resistance against old regimes in all Asia. For example, it’s not a coincidence that Meiji reforms began in Japan after the First Opium War.”
“On the other hand, for China, it is the beginning of Western penetration to China’s political, economic, and social life. It was not possible to make a Marxist criticism of the past without this penetration which has also ignited revolutionary sentiments in China in the beginning of 20th century. It is also interesting to note that the Chinese Communist Party owes so much to these historical realities providing at least a legitimacy to overthrow the ancient regime in China,” Temiz adds.