Rebellions and Revolutions: China from the 1800s to the 1980s

By Jack Gray | Go to book overview

4
CONFLICT WITH THE WESTERN POWERS, 1843-1861

Anglo-Chinese Relations, 1843-1857

In our concern with the events of the Taiping Rebellion, we have passed over the events of China's relations with the foreign powers from 1843 to 1860. We now return to these.

Before 1843 the community of foreign merchants at Canton had argued that expansion of trade with China was prevented only by certain political obstacles. These had now been removed. Traders had access, although only indirectly, to the most populous parts of China, and so to a market which, in the number of potential consumers, was as large as British India. It was not unnaturally assumed that in China the products of the power-looms of Lancashire would compete successfully with the products of China's handlooms.

British traders plunged into this new market with high hopes and a total lack of market research. Before the new ports were even officially opened they were swamped with Indian cotton yarn and British cotton piece-goods. The merchants combined to try to maintain prices, but as more ships hove up over the horizon they were forced to sell at heavy loss. After an initial expansion in 1843, trade contracted. It was not until 1856 that the legal trade once more achieved the level of 1843. The Select Committee of the House of Commons on Commercial Relations with China, 1847, accepted that trade had languished and that losses of 30-40 per cent were normal. The Lancashire branch of Jardine & Matheson, Matheson & Scott -- who should have made a profit if anyone could -- wrote to their parent firm in Hong Kong in 1847 that 'all our transactions in your quarter have so far been attended by heavy loss'.

The general opinion was that China's balance of trade severely limited her capacity to buy British goods. The markets for her tea and silk were not unlimited. Attempts to introduce Chinese sugar and grass-cloth fibre to the international market failed.

In 1852 Rutherford Alcock, the conscientious consul at Shanghai, wrote a report which explained with despairing candour the nature of British trade with China. He explained how Britain's commerce with China and India, then worth a total of £23 million, depended entirely on the illegal opium trade as the source of funds with which Chinese produce was bought and with which India settled her trading account with Britain:

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