Published Date

August 1, 1944

Resource Type

GI Roundtable Series, Primary Source

From GI Roundtable 42: Our Chinese Ally (1944)

Japan was not the first modern and mechanized power to menace the freedom of China. It was the rapid encroachment of the Western powers after the British defeated China in the Opium War in 1842 which caused China to fall suddenly from the proud position of the advanced and enlightened Cathay of earlier centuries to the weak and half-conquered China of the past hundred years.

As a result of the great voyages which had opened a way across the Atlantic, a way around the Cape of Good Hope, and a way around Cape Horn, Western traders and missionaries had begun to reach the coast of China by sea even before the end of the seventeenth century. Portuguese, Spanish, and Dutch merchants came in search of commodities that had a high value of rarity and luxury on the European market. Toward the end of the eighteenth century the English became the roost numerous and active among the foreigners along the coast of China, and their trade was practically monopolized by the British East India Company.


Superior China

East India ships carne to China primarily for cargoes of silk, tea, and porcelain. The first flowered wallpaper used in Europe also cane from China. In return the Chinese bought such luxury goods as clocks and watches. American clipper drips brought furs, silver dollars from Mexico, and ginseng root which the Chinese valued as medicine. But on the whole the Chinese, who considered their civilization infinitely superior to that of the West, had much more interest in selling to the Westerners than in buying from them, and therefore all trade was carried on according to terms dictated by China. When the Chinese emperor replied to George III’s request for more trade by refusing to open any more ports and making it plain that trade at Canton could be continued only at his pleasure, the reply was accepted only because there was nothing George III could do about it.

The force which reversed the relationship between China and the West was the Industrial Revolution in Europe. The Industrial Revolution had a double effect. First, the use of machinery and the development of modern science improved the weapons of war to such an extent that England had an overwhelming superiority in arms. Second, British merchants had far more manufactured goods up sell than could be sold in England and so they had no patience with any restrictions put on trade by either their own or the Chinese government. They first smashed the monopoly of the East India Company and then demanded of China that she open her ports to foreign trade and accept for all merchants the principle of free opportunity to trade in any commodities.

Britain chiefly wanted a market in China for her textiles, and all ships sailing from England had to carry a quota of cotton cloth, even though the market for it in China was as yet so undeveloped that much of it had to lie sold at a loss. However, the British commodity most unwelcome to the Chinese government was opium from India.

The Opium War and the Superior West

The new British drive for free trade came to a crisis when a zealous Chinese official seized and burned a large stock of British-owned opium. This started the Opium War which ended in the Treaty of Nanking in 1842. This treaty, and one which followed establishing the principle that any privilege won by any foreign country would be equally enjoyed by all other foreign countries, laid the foundation for a series of wars and diplomatic dealings which completely changed the international status of China.

Defeated in the Opium War, China was forced to recognize the Western nations as equals and to open her markets to Western merchants. From then on other nations more and more refused to treat the Chinese as equals, and China became shackled by what are known as the “unequal treaties.” Whenever the Chinese were defeated they not only suffered the normal consequences of defeat but had to pay all indemnity to cover the expenses of whatever country defeated them. Partly in order to insure the collection of these indemnities a customs service was created, supervised by representatives of foreign powers, to collect dues on foreign trade. Duties were collected at the low rate of 5 per cent, which opened the way to the penetration of China by foreign commodities and at the same time prevented the Chinese from developing industries of their own under the protection of a tariff framed in their national interest.

In a number of cities international settlements, or foreign concessions, were established over which foreign powers had complete control, and a Chinese having a civil suit against a foreigner had to have it judged under foreign law. These cities were known as “treaty ports,” and the system by which Americans and other foreigners were exempt from Chinese law was called “extraterritoriality.”

Thus China, instead of being conquered and made a colony by one nation, became virtually the colony of all nations which had merchant ships to send to China and gunboats to accompany them. More treaties were signed as the nineteenth century progressed, all increasing foreign control. Then in 1894 came the calamitous war with Japan. Its consequences were even worse than a defeat by Britain or France might have been, for it meant that Japan now claimed a place in the ring of despoilers closing in on China-and Japan was in closer striking distance of China than any other naval power. This intensified the competition for strategic bases and economic spheres of influence in China to the point where China was threatened with actual dismemberment.

The Open Door Held China Together

This crisis was deferred by the policy of the Open Door, proposed by American Secretary of State Hay in 1899 in a series of notes to the treaty powers. The Open Door did not propose to stop imperialistic demands on China. It simply registered a claim that, whatever any other country took in China, it must leave an Open Door for American trade and enterprise. Even though it was an expression of American self-interest, the practical effect of this arrangement was to halt the process of cutting China up into colonial possessions. There developed instead a uniform procedure of presenting joint international demands to the Chinese government. This also restrained Japan from acquiring exclusive rights, privileges, and territorial control.

Next section: The Chinese Revolution