Dating back to the Qing Dynasty, the popular assumption among the Chinese was “that China was the “central” kingdom and that other countries were, by definition, peripheral, removed from the cultural center of the universe. The Chinese, therefore, showed little interest in precise information or detailed study of foreign countries” (Spence, 119). The Qing seemed uninterested in any foreign gains to be made due to this superior view of themselves. The Emperor Qianlong’s approach as mentioned in The First Edict of September 1793 seemed to be, “We possess all things. I set no value on objects strange or ingenious, and have no use for [other] countries manufacturers” (Cheng, 104-106). Emperor Qianlong believed that both China and foreign governments had little to gain though trade. China has long had a policy of isolation from western powers, to the extent that a force of anti-foreign nationalism arose to the forefront for the majority of Chinese modern history. Ethnocentric views of superiority and autarky led their leaders to believe isolation was in their country’s best interest. However, today China has entered a period of modernization and westernization, by no longer excluding the Western influence through political and economic isolation. As a result, China has begun to reap the benefits of Western trade, technology and capitalist ideas now that the force of “anti-foreign nationalism” has diminished from Chinese thought.
Although Qianlong had pursued an economic policy of isolation in the latter half of the 18th century some ports were open to foreign trade during certain periods of the year. During these time periods the Chinese experienced equal trade rights with the West. As a result of the growing demand for Chinese teas, porcelain, silks, and decorative goods in the West, trade began to soar. Accordingly, since the idea of anti-foreign nationalism and ethnocentrism proposed the West had nothing of manufactured value to China, the trade conducted was in exchange for silver.
By the 1780’s China was prospering, gaining incredible amounts of wealth from exporting goods such as tea and silk, while importing large amounts of silver. In effect, China had a surplus balance of trade. The west, namely Britain, knew that in order to stop silver from leaving their country they had to find a trading good that China would accept in exchange for the teas, and silks. Britain’s interests in the large areas of India gave way to the production and sale of opium, a cash crop that would, in turn, balance the trade with China as the drug became extremely popular among Chinese citizens.
However, in 1813 the Chinese government prohibited the sale and use of opium as they came to realize the harsh effects the drug had on the population, and the hindering effect it posed on trade. The onset of the Opium War sparked years later as British merchants refused to stop selling the opium to the Chinese. With a British victory in China concluding the Opium War, Chinese trade rights with the West fell apart. Unequal treaties were forced upon the Chinese, opening more ports in China, ultimately favoring British trade, while making China merely a trade tool of the West. Nonetheless, prior to the Opium War we saw that with equal trade rights China had vast amounts of economic prosperity when partnered with the West. This suggests that China did have much to gain through trade with the West, and if today in the modern world China were to poses equal trade rights with the West they again would prosper.
Westerners have continually attempted to infiltrate East Asian countries strict foreign policies and conservative views. Both Korea and China saw the West as a threat to their sovereignty, culture, and way of life, and decided to play out a policy of isolation. Refusing and fearing modernization, which, inevitably would lead to “westernization.” On the other hand, the example of Japanese history provides hindsight that would suggest trade and open arms to Western ideas would greatly benefit the developing nations of East Asia. Ever since Commodore Perry arrived on the coast of Japan their culture, economic strength, way of life and standard of living has flourishing. Japanese dominance in East Asia arose immediately, as not only an economic and cultural heart, but also a military power that would now lay threat to Korea, China and Russia. From Japan’s modernization, we see that the technology, and innovation received through trade with the West was essential to their success as a superpower. Indeed, we must infer that if nations such as China and Korea had the open arms policy that Japan adopted they too would have emerged as economic and military powers prior to the WWII, allowing for them to resist the imperialistic expansionism that Japan posed threat to in the first half of the 20th century.
Indeed, it seems as though Chinese scholars recognized this as Social Darwinism became popular in the 20th century. While China sat back and witnessed the growth and dominance of Japan through their plentiful steps in modernization during the late 19th and early 20th century, Chinese scholars began to question Confucianism, and their culture as a whole. Confucianism had forced the people to hold on to the “old” Chinese way of life, allowing for little change, and opposing westernization. However, while Japan expressed its imperialism by colonizing Korea, Social Darwinism suggested to the Chinese scholars that they may too, like Korea, be inferior to the modernized Japan. China, fearing that they would face extinction unless they adopted major government reforms and attempted to step into the modern world, finally began to shift away from the fear of modernization and westernization.
In hindsight, we see that China initially tried to seclude itself by trading internally only during the 18th century since leaders felt foreign goods were unuseful. However, after years of European infringement upon East Asia, in which Westerners struggled to transform China into a nation with open arms for Western goods, it ironically was the fear of Japanese expansion that would force Chinese modernization.
Yet, now that the Chinese had decided to step into the modern world to protect itself from Japan, they would fall into the hands of Communism. China adopting Communism would further frustrate the West as Communism shut the large markets, and excluded trade to other communist nations such as the Soviet Union. The West saw its failure to open the markets of China as Communism rose under the leadership of Mao Zedong.
Communism was greatly influenced by two main factors in China. Firstly, the discontent toward French (West) society by Chinese students and government officials living there. Chinese students during the early 20th century had been studying in France, and working in factories to pay their tuition. They saw daily life as a struggle since money was short and tuition was high. These students would later form the Communist government in China. Similarly, the hatred grew for the French and its allies as the Treaty of Versailles divided Chinese land that was previously controlled by Germany among the Allied nations instead of returning it to China. Secondly, the support the Soviet Union provided in aid and soldiers to protect China from Japan allowed for a strong relationship between the leaders of the emerging communist party in China and the leaders of the Soviet Union. Indeed the aid provided by the Soviet Union was essential in gathering support for the Communist Party in China. Also, the Chinese citizenry now had a growing respect for the Soviets after they protected China from Japan.
Nonetheless, with the fall of the Soviet Union as a superpower after the Cold War, the influence of Communism diminished in China. The Russian government grew a reputation of corruption and instability. Would China inevitably follow? Certainly the fall of the Soviet Economy under the communist regime must have worried Chinese businessmen hoping for trade with their northern ally. It seems as though China recognized its economy could not stabilize without the former Soviet Union whom had been critical in supporting not only the Chinese economy but communist political spectrum as well. Such support was most evident during the civil war years as The Soviet Union sent missionaries to shanghai to support the communist regime. Indeed, China has therefore began to step into a more open market economy, which is extremely ironic since this is what the West has wanted all along, and now finally that they had seemed to give up on opening China, they accomplished it indirectly by coming out of the Cold War on top, forcing China to seek new means of economic prosperity.
It was President Nixon who took advantage of China’s economic and political instability as he visited Mao Zedong in 1972, sparking a revolutionary movement leading China reluctantly towards an open market economy. Just like the Europeans had done centuries before, he too was participating in the grand attempt by Western nations to further open the Chinese markets. As a result, China began to peer forward into the process of “westernization” while still holding on to its dear Marxist-Leninism / Confucianism ideals that had been so prominent in the past. Consequently, by 1986 students and intellectuals had become infuriated with their government and conducted “a series of demonstrations demanding that democratic right be granted to the Chinese people so that the economic modernization could take place in a more open atmosphere” (Spence, 590)
As a result, by the 1970’s “rural families were allowed to increase vastly the amount of land they could till as private plots and sell the produce on the open market at unpegged prices. On a smaller scale, urban entrepreneurs were encouraged to experiment with non-exploitative business” (Spence, 590)
Such vast changes in the Chinese government ideals, and economy led to problems of corruption and structure. China was in a predicament; as a result of the new economic reforms a new class of Chinese businessmen had been formed, and they were able to greatly benefit from the new economic reforms. Consequently, this new class of Chinese businessmen had large amounts of money with which they “were thirsting for consumer goods” (Spence, 590). Ultimately they began to import illegally from outside nations. Herein lies the main conflict for the Chinese government; they were and are caught between their new economic reforms and there old governmental ideals.
Indeed, the new economic reforms which show signs of capitalism, have led to huge economic prosperity, similar to that of what China saw in the 18th century when it traded their silks for British silver. Showing further signs China plans to continue its economic reforms leading toward an open market economy China has entered the World Trade Organization (WTO), and since has “expanded its exports and improved absorption of foreign investment through using opportunities provided by its WTO membership. In the first 10 months this year , China’s foreign trade went up 19.7 percent…trade surplus amounted to 24.737bn US dollars, up 43.3 per cent on an annual basis”(Xinhua News Agency). Accordingly, China’s GDP has been on the rise, and is predicted to further rise in 2003 by as much as 8 percent.
Evidently, we see that with the fall of economic superiority in Russia (the former Soviet Union) after the Cold War, China had been forced to look else where for trade, if it were to prosper. In turn, this has encouraged more of an open market economy in China as it was forced to turn to the West for the trade lost with the Soviet Union. This has been seen by such economic reforms as privatization of some industries, and some business throughout China. The Peoples Bank of China has pledged to begin a new open market operation every Tuesday and Thursday allowing for more and more privatization of businesses.
Ironically, in the past, the West has struggled vigorously to open China’s vastly populated markets to Western business and failed, only to let China to fall into the hands of a communist regime. However, now that China has escaped its old ideals and fear of westernization it has begun to accept and prosper from Western trade and technology. In the last few years China has taken enormous steps that signify its willingness to trade world wide, and conform to suit capitalist systems. Interestingly, because China is currently in a transition period due to its economic reforms it is the only nation in which you can visit the 19th and 21st century in the same country! Small hinterland communities still take to the old ways of agriculture and old ways of life while huge cities like Beijing flourish in the 21st century with sky scraping buildings that resemble that of the United States.
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