Monday, July 11, 2005

Hong Kong, The Opium War, and Iraq

Last week I read the account of Captain William Hutcheon Hall of his voyage to China and participation in the First Opium War. He captained the Nemesis, the first iron paddlewheel steamship fitted with guns. As the ship had a fully-loaded displacement of 6 feet compared to comparable wooden ships of 13 feet, it was ideal for operations in the Yangtze River. It proved itself as such, with the war junks of the Imperial Chinese Navy proving no match for it or its two 32-pounders.

Captain Hall's perspective of his role in the war was very much black-and-white, typical of military commanders. He said of Commissioner Lin Zexu:

"Lin himself was the Robespierre, the terrorist, the reckless despot...who conscientiously believed that he could terrify not only their own countrymen [he had solved an opium addiction problem in a previous province by executing addicts - Ed.] but foreign nations into submission to their will."

It is understandable, I suppose, that military commanders must have an unshakeable belief in the correctness of their actions, and leave their debate to the politicians. This particularly so in an age when a spade was called a spade, and colonization was very much accepted as part of the nature of the British Empire. He was very clear though, on the reasons for taking Hong Kong, and its advantages and disadvantages. On the subject he had this to say:

"The roads of Hong Kong and the bay of Victoria form an excellent anchorage, haing deep water very near the shore, and only one small shoal having 16 feet of water upon it."

Its cons of course, were the typhoons and the breezes disrupted by the mountains on the island. He attributed the latter in particular to the insalubrious nature of Hong Kong, with fresh air not dispersng the evil humors rising out of the ground. The typhoons were mitigated though by the mountains, so in Captain Hall's mind they were in equal parts blessing and curse. He states:

"To this [rainy June] succeeds the burning, tropical sun of July [I can related to that!-Ed.], with a sort of death-like stillness in the atmosphere, which, little weathered as it is on that [north] side of the island by the southwest monsoon, cannot fail, if it last long without any change, to promote fever and sickness."

His ambivalence about Hong Kong in general comes out in the following paragraph:

"At the time we took possession of the island, there was little to tempt us to make a settlement there, except the excellent anchorage on its northern side, having a passage in and out at either end, its proximity to the mouth of the Canton River, and the difficulty of finding any more suitable place for our purpose."

He even alludes to his own belief that the northern shore was an inauspicious place to begin the city of Victoria, pointing out that the Chinese also believe that facing north is unlucky and facing south, as the main town of Singapore does, is better. He also harbours the belief, so to speak, that most Europeans would move south to the more healthy environs of Repulse Bay. A man ahead of its time:

"Doubtless, in a very short time many of the Europeans will reside on the southern side of the island, and cross over the mountains daily to transact their business."

He was not averse to amusing his readers with entertaining observations. This one about the comparative methods of colonization by different European nations:

"It has been said, in respect to colonization, that the first thing the French undertake is to build a fort, the Spaniards a church, and the English a factory or warehouse." [Hong Kong was no different, the first building going up being the Matheson Opium Store - Ed.]."

His comments though, about the British mission to 'civilize' China gives pause for thought. It struck me how similar it sounded, even 160 years later, to the missionary zeal with which America brings its promotion of democracy to the Middle East. Read this passage of Captain Hall, substitute Christianity with democracy, and China with the Middle East:

"Providence has at length ordained that a vast empire, which comprises nearly a third of the human race, shall no longer remain totally excluded from the great family society of nations; and we cannot but believe that the period has at length arrived when that wonderful nation is, by a slow but steady progress, to be brought under the influence of Christianity. But while we are impressed with this feeling, let us not be too hasty in precipitating a crisis which may convulse a mighty empire from one end to another. This, then, leads us to the momentuous question of the ultimate disorganization or breaking up of the Chinese Empire. This is the great event which we have to dread; [Italics are original - Ed.] for who can contemplate the feaful results of such a crisis without alarm, and without a desire to prevent a catastrophe of so vast a nature?"

It is the hallmark and classic failing of any 'civilizing' mission, how does one know when to get out, and how to ensure that the long-term impact of your intervention is positive. It is difficult to see how that can be the case, when the intervention starts with an overwhelming victory in a one-sided war. Captain Hall expresses cautious optimism for the future:

"Our intercourse with that remarkable nation [its nationals would probably agree with the use of that term in a different manner - Ed.] ought to be recorded in the pages of history as a blessing, and not, what it might readily become, without great caution and prudence - a curse."

That China has never regarded the Opium War as a blessing should give the Americans in Iraq today some pause for thought.


Dan tdaxp said...

Sounds similars to the wars for connectivity envisioned by Dr. Thomas P.M. Barnett, former professor of the U.S. Navy's college of war, former employee of Rumsfeld's Office of the Secretary of Defense, and informal national security advisor to John Kerry.

The failure of English intervention in China is that it did not go enough. If it would have been deep, China could have been as free and democratic as India and avoided the grinding of the Warlords and Mao.

All of China could have been rich as Hong Kong.

Instead, we are left only with a clear example of what happened with international community intervention (Hong Kong, the prosperous trade ports) with what happened without (the poverty and fervor that led to the People's War).

In regards to your comment

It is the hallmark and classic failing of any 'civilizing' mission, how does one know when to get out,

Once again, England managed this well.

London "got out" when the local culture was advanced enough to continue on by itself. English also had a system for dealing with insurrections, which typically (United States, India) led to happy outcomes.

There is nothing just about "getting out" too early -- or deluding yourself into believing such interventions will be over in years, not generations.

-Dan tdaxp

Dave and Stefan said...

Hi Dan,

Some interesting perspectives - but I truly doubt that Britain could ever have managed the wholesale colonization of China the way they had with India. Not that they could not have done it militarily, but every previous foreign invader of China had had to adopt most of the trappings of Chinese culture and civilization in order to project its influence on a national scale. That the British were unwilling to compromise on this front would have made it difficult. The many other competing European (and American) interests would also have made such a conquest difficult in the extreme.

One could argue that foreign influence in China was already as pervasive as was possible by the 1930s, and that foreign and local events conspired to roll back that tide.

It is interesting to speculate what China would have been like with a foreign-influenced Nationalist Chinese government instead of the CCP, but the truth is by the 1940s the Nationalists too had had enough of quasi-colonization and were all ready to turf the British out of Hong Kong (with FDR's support). Given the apocalpytic events of the two World Wars, it is quite impossible to imagine a British colonization of China that would have lasted as long as the Hong Kong experiment.

Hong Kong is undoubtedly an unqualified success - but the regard China has for Britain is thin and brittle at best. I was noting Captain Hall's desire for Britain to be well-regarded by the Chinese after their departure, and appending my view that it would be a near impossible task to expect gratitude to one's conquerors.

Love to get your feedback on those views!

Free Agent said...

Stefan and Dave,

Good first rebuttal to Dan's comment.

I'm getting increasingly getting aware of this school of thought (maybe it's just a trend) that assumes that:

a) Colonisation could have gone further for the ruled peoples' benefit, leading to -
b) freedom, democracy and material prosperity that would eventually result from the fall/withdrawal of a colonial power, and -
c) and that any one, two or all three of the above conditions would be sustainable in the long run.

The fallacies behind this kind of thinking never fails to astound me.

Dave and Stefan said...

Hi Free Agent,

I totally agree with you that colonial rule cannot and has not by itself lead to freedom, democracy and prosperity. The demand for self-rule must come from within, ultimately, for it to be successful. A pluralistic prosperity that has created a vocal middle class has always been a necessary (but insufficient) condition for a stable post-colonial government that both creates prosperity and is governed as a democracy.

Incredibly few examples exist of all these conditions being met. It's also why most colonies have become basket-cases when thhe colonizer departs. Thhe trappings of first-world government are left behind without accompanying social or political institutions that makke them work in their countries of origin.

Generally, it must also be recognized that colonial powers usually have a good reason foor getting in, and an equally good reason for getting out. The calculus for both decisions is based in simplest terms on whether the cost of colonization is made worthwhile by other considerations, usually economic benefits. The decisions are also undertaken from the perspective of the colonizing power, and not from when would be most suitable for the colonized people to have the colonizers either enter or depart from the scene.

I sympathize with your point of view that many people believe most ex-colonies are a mess because the colonists didn't stay long enough to fiinish the job. I think it's because we live in an age of outsourcing, and the belief that if local management teams are up to the job, just bring in someone else. It's important to remember that the previous foreign management (the colonists) were usually asked to leave, usually under threat and without any decorum or gratitude.

Dave and Stefan said...

Apologies by the way for the typos in the last comment, I'm on someone else's keyboard in Singapore and evidently not comfortable with its function!