Monday, October 22, 2007

The face of globalization, c. 1820

So we all know that Qing China was simply overwhelmed by a rapidly-modernizing Europe, particularly Britain, whose new weapons and control of global trade caused the collapse of the last Chinese empire, right?

Er, no. What happened to China in the 19th century would, in the 20th century, have been ruled a gross war crime. via HTWW, a useful corrective to the all-too-common western triumphalist narrative:
At the time, in fact until the 1820s, China was doing quite well in foreign trade. Without a market for British goods, the British had to pay in silver resulting in a huge trade imbalance and net inflows of silver into China. Britain didn't change this pattern by "controlling shipping and financial flows," they changed it by turning Victoria into a heroin-peddling drug 'queen-pin'. By 1838, foreign traders were smuggling nearly 40,000 chests of opium into South China every year (up from 4500 two decades earlier). Because smuggling is a cash business, silver began to pour out of South China causing enormous economic dislocations and hardships. This was not the triumph of Western liberalism, this was a crack economy run by a state-sponsored cartel....

But the larger point is that this narrative of Qing obstinacy in the face of Western dynamism is an old wives tale that makes westerners feel better about what happened next: Namely, the imperialist dismantling of Qing sovereignty for the purposes of profit and filthy lucre. It's the classic date rape defense: The Chinese didn't know what they really wanted, so we gave it to 'em anyway.
It's so hard to get white, wealthy, developed countries to accept that they're only wealth and developed because they did horrible, horrible things to the rest of the planet. Not surprising, but it would be great if we could get closer...

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