Western Enterprise in Far Eastern Economic Development: China and Japan

By G. C. Allen; Audrey G. Donnithorne | Go to book overview

CHAPTER II THE WESTERN MERCHANT IN CHINA

WESTERN enterprise penetrated into many different sectors of the Chinese economy. In the course of time it concerned itself with internal and external trade, banking, insurance, shipping and its ancillary services, land transport, manufacturing, mining and public utilities. These various branches of economic activity will be considered in turn. At the outset, however, it is well to note that most of them grew directly and inevitably out of the original interest of the Westerners in fostering a profitable Chinese foreign trade. The merchant firm thus became, and remained, the typical representative of Western enterprise in China. At the same time, the leading merchants did not normally confine themselves to strictly mercantile business. Although foreign trade remained their chief preoccupation, the scope of their activities was usually very wide, and throughout the modern era (i.e. from 1842) a large proportion of the dealings between Chinese and Westerners was in the hands of firms with an extensive range of interests, commercial, financial and industrial.

The reasons for this diversity in the interests of the typical, large merchant firms are not far to seek. Foreign merchants who established themselves in the Treaty Ports after 1842 were obliged, in the absence of a Chinese financial and commercial system of a modern type, to provide many of the auxiliary services which in the great trading centres were usually left to specialists. They therefore undertook various kinds of banking and foreign exchange business; they entered the shipping trade; and they promoted insurance companies. They were drawn into these activities mainly because it was only by broadening the basis of their businesses that they could foster or preserve their mercantile interests. The functions which a Western trading firm had to assume were determined primarily by the backwardness of the Chinese in everything that appertained to a modern commercial society. Once these subsidiary enterprises had been set up, they began a career of their own, and in time they had effects on the Chinese economy and on the business practices of the Chinese that were not contemplated when they were first established.

Important as these other activities ultimately became, it was mercantile enterprise which from the earliest period of Sino-European relationships until the present has predominated. To this enterprise China owed the

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