The Scramble for China

The Scramble for China: Foreign Devils in the Qing Empire 1832-1914, by Robert Bickers, Allen Lane, RRP£30, 512 pages

At every airport bookshop, the business traveller is offered shelves of volumes that purport to tell us how an emerging, powerful China will deal with the world, and how the rest of us should make the most of the commercial opportunities opened up by its rise. Those who wish to understand these issues more closely might be better advised to read this fair and fascinating account of a century that filled the pages of the Chinese Dictionary of National Humiliation.

Robert Bickers, of Bristol University’s Centre for East Asian Studies, begins The Scramble for China about 40 years after the failed trade mission to China of Lord Macartney in 1793, which was brilliantly documented by Alain Peyrefitte in The Immobile Empire. Macartney’s journey took place at a time when the Qing emperor and court could not imagine that there was anything to be gained by responding positively to the entreaties of a nation that was in their opinion not remotely their equal and had nothing to offer their uniquely self-contained civilisation. But, as Macartney opined, the Manchu empire was by then like “a drifting wreck” that sooner or later would be dashed to pieces on the shore.

It was Britain that pushed the hulk towards the rocks, demolishing the barriers to trade in opium from Calcutta in order to pay for its growing appetite for tea from China. The early years of this trade form the backdrop to Amitav Ghosh’s thrilling novel, Sea of Poppies. This was hardly the most glorious chapter in British history but before Chinese critics become too censorious they should remember that Mao’s Communist party traded opium to fund its struggle for power.

Over the next hundred years, there were two Anglo-Chinese opium wars; China’s wars with France, Russia and Japan; the Taiping rebellion and the Boxer uprising; the Russian occupation of Manchuria; and at the turn of the century the invasion of north China by troops from eight countries. Worse was to come with the Japanese invasions of the 1930s.

The treaty ports that fell into the hands of the imperial powers acted as jumping-off points for depredations deep into China; the Manchu empire that was pillaged and dismantled was already rotting away when the opium wars began. There were regional and religious rebellions that drained the treasury; a major logistical calamity caused by the silting up of the Grand Canal between Beijing and Hangzhou; and a series of floods and droughts. China was no match for what Bickers calls “the white face of free-trade violence”. Where Britain led the way, with a crime sheet that included Lord Elgin’s vengeful destruction of the Emperor’s Summer Palace, others enthusiastically followed. It was a particularly nasty example of the sort of social Darwinism described by the British prime minister, the Marquess of Salisbury, in a speech in 1898 when he noted that you “could roughly divide the nations of the world as the living and the dying”. Kaiser Wilhelm spoke for the purported higher civilisation of the living when he told German troops departing for China: “Wield your weapons so that for a thousand years hereafter no Chinese will dare look askance at a German.” Japanese atrocities, in Port Arthur and Nanjing, lay in the future.

It was not of course all bad. Even Chinese historians will sometimes pay modest tribute today to the infrastructure of commercial cosmopolitanism that was created in China. Hong Kong – a rock, a harbour and a peninsula – became one of the greatest cities in the world, Shanghai another. Lighthouses were built; maritime routes planned; customs services started; great firms established – Jardine’s, Swire’s, HSBC and other once-British firms now the vehicles for skilled Chinese entrepreneurialism. Bickers is very good at describing the world of the China traders and their families. There were the amahs and the compradors; the prostitutes and the missionaries; the fortunes made in Asia and spent on estates back home; the cholera that filled the crematoriums with soldiers; and the smaller graves besides them where the infants and children were laid to rest, killed off by the diseases of the tropics.

It is a striking story but only a part of China’s history. The Communist party, like the Guomingdang before, used it to summon nationalist outrage, a sense of Chinese victimhood. This is not a uniquely Chinese approach to its history. Most nations want to tell a story about themselves that feeds a sense of their unique national worth; it is invariably given an edge by a rich memory bank of grievance. All this is understandable. But what is surely a sign of moral and political weakness in China is how selective it is about the ransacking of its long history. Most tellingly, we apparently need to know so much about what went immediately before the ascent to power of the Communist party, both in order to legitimise Communist rule and because the leadership worries that much of the story from Mao to Tiananmen cannot be told without risking its hold on the state. Any honest historian of the past 50 years would be a subversive dissident. Hence the fact that Yang Jisheng’s most recent book Tombstone, on the Great Famine of 1959-1962, was banned in mainland China.

China should make a huge contribution to the century ahead. That will be even greater if the nation can look honestly at its recent history as well as that of the decades when it was pulled to pieces by foreigners. Bickers pays tribute in his acknowledgements to the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) for its grants, which made it possible for him to write this book. I hope that the UK Treasury will leave the AHRC with enough money to support scholarship as good as this in the future.

Lord Patten is chancellor of the University of Oxford and a former governor of Hong Kong

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