China’s Opium Wars: A Bit More Complicated Than I Thought

I just listened to a really good episode of BBC Radio 4’s In Our Time. It focused on China’s Opium Wars that lead to the British seizing Hong Kong and treaty ports in Shanghai, Tianjin, Guangzhou and other coastal cities The theory of the three historians on the program was that the Chinese really didn’t view the treaty ports as a bad thing at first because it made trade with foreign countries easier and at the same time it helped to modernize China. Only in the 20th century when nationalism started to appear as part of the Republican movement did China really start to consider the British takeover of Hong Kong and the treaty ports as a “humiliation”. This view was used by the Communists as well and is really ingrained in Chinese culture at the moment. So much so that when foreign governments come to talk to the Chinese about human rights, the Chinese ask “What right do you have to tell me about human rights? You didn’t respect our human rights during the Opium Wars and the century of unequal treaties (the treaty ports).”

I tend to agree with the first view that there was some positive things to come out of the Opium Wars and the treaty ports. I know it’s controversial, but I can see the effects of the treaty ports all around me in Shanghai. The way people do business, the fact that they are open to new foreign goods and ideas (a trend that really took off during the Opium wars) not to mention the architecture. Shanghai is in fact a city that most foreigners who live here say is not a part of China, because it is so modern and different compared to the interior of China.

The biggest effect of the treaty ports though can be seen in their location. All the ports were in Eastern and Southern China. Today those areas are where China’s economic boom started and were it is currently booming the biggest.


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