Western Pressures on Chinese Foreign Trade

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  • 0:02 Western Pressure on China
  • 2:33 The Opium Wars
  • 4:23 'Open Door' Policy
  • 5:44 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will look at Western pressure on Chinese foreign trade. We will see how the European powers, most notably Great Britain, bullied China into trade. We will highlight the key themes associated with this topic, specifically the Opium Wars and the Open Door Policy.

Western Pressure on China

Okay, go back in your mind to when you were a child. Like most young kids, I'm guessing you engaged in trading with peers from time to time. You know, 'If you give me your Matchbox car, I'll give you my Legos,' that sort of thing. Imagine for a minute a kid who has all kinds of cool toys and wants to keep it for himself. All the other kids want to trade with him, but he's content with his own toys and refuses all their offers.

That is somewhat like the situation China was in throughout the 17th to 19th centuries. During this time, China had developed a relatively advanced civilization and did not really need to import a whole lot of items. In fact, the items the Chinese had, like tea, silk, spices, and porcelain, were in high demand by European powers. But there was a problem: the Chinese wanted silver for these items, and the European powers did not have enough silver to pay for everything they wanted.

Irritated by high customs duties and a perceived trade imbalance, the European powers, especially the British, began searching for an item they could trade the Chinese in large quantities. The answer was opium, a highly addictive drug extracted from the poppy plant. Grown in the British colony of India, and exported to China by the East India Company, opium quickly became a much-desired product. Once addicted, the Chinese willingly traded silks, tea, and other items for the powerful substance.

The Chinese Qing government recognized the harm opium was causing and made numerous attempts to ban opium trade. Naturally, the British were not about to let this happen and to maintain the opium trade, they resorted to a form of intimidation called gunboat diplomacy. Gunboat diplomacy refers to accomplishing foreign policy aims through an impressive show of naval power backed up by the threat of war. Basically, it's pure intimidation. It's like saying, 'Hey, you see all those battleships docked in your harbor? Yeah, you better trade with us and meet our demands, or else!' That is gunboat diplomacy in a nutshell. Gunboat diplomacy was characteristic of British imperialism in China.

The Opium Wars

Deciding to take drastic steps to curb opium use, in 1838, the Qing government confiscated 20,000 cases of British opium and destroyed it. This act triggered the First Opium War, which was fought between China and Great Britain between 1839 and 1842. With superior military technology, the British easily defeated the Chinese and forced a humiliating treaty upon them. It was officially called the Treaty of Peace, Friendship, and Commerce between Her Majesty the Queen of Great Britain and Ireland and the Emperor of China, but is commonly known as the Treaty of Nanking.

The Treaty of Nanking forced the Chinese to cede Hong Kong to British control, opened up five treaty ports for trade, and required the payment of reparations. Because China received nothing in return, it was considered an unequal treaty. For a while, this satisfied the British, but it did not last. They grew greedy and increasingly demanded more and more in terms of concessions. The British demanded that all of China be open to trade and that opium be fully legalized.

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