European Imperialism and China’s Response in the 19th Century
- Stephen Halsey
During the 19th century, the great powers imposed a series of unequal treaties on China that violated the country’s sovereignty. These agreements guaranteed Europeans, Americans, and later the Japanese rights of extraterritoriality, opened an increasing number of treaty ports to international commerce, and fixed import tariffs at 5 percent to facilitate foreign penetration of Chinese markets. Qing officials launched an important reform movement called “Self-Strengthening” in the 1860s to enhance state power and combat foreign influence, and these efforts continued until China’s defeat in the First Sino-Japanese War of 1894–1895. Although the imperial court in Beijing placed its imprimatur on this political program, the principal impetus for these changes came from high-ranking provincial authorities of Han Chinese ethnic extraction such as Li Hongzhang, Zhang Zhidong, and Ding Richang.
Despite the partial political decentralization of the period, these reforms had a lasting impact. Over the course of a half century, the Self-Strengthening Movement and the subsequent New Policies (1901–1911) laid the foundation of a powerful military-fiscal state in China, a polity organized around the imperative of war-making. This form of political organization combined money, guns, and bureaucracy in new ways and replicated certain institutional features of European states without, however, transforming China into a poor imitation of “the West.” Officials augmented these core reforms with a series of state-sponsored enterprises in shipping, telegraphy, mining, and banking to develop a small modern sector within the economy. At an intellectual level, authorities such as Li Hongzhang formulated a new conception of statecraft focused on the pursuit of wealth and power to protect the empire’s sovereignty. Meanings of this term remained fluid prior to 1895, but together with ideas such as rights, independence, and commercial warfare it served as part of the basic vocabulary for this new philosophy of governance. In sum, the late Qing state amassed the sinews of power with considerable success, particularly in urban areas, and strengthened itself beyond the minimal threshold necessary to retain its independence during the height of European imperialism.