Monday, August 29, 2005

The Treaty of Nanking's Anniversary

Today is a day of reflection. It is the 163rd birthday of the Treaty of Nanking (pictured at left), the document that officially brought, among other things, the city of Hong Kong into existence. (It is also the 32nd birthday of Stephen Stephens, my childhood friend and best man at my wedding - he's currently trying to evacuate his home in New Orleans, currently playing host to Katrina, a Category 5 hurricane - typhoon, in our parlance.)

The treaty obviously wrought tremendous change in the course of East Asian history. Hong Kong was officially brought into existence (although the British had jumped the gun, with man-on-the-spot Charles Elliot having decided that it was appropriate for Captain Belcher to raise the Union Jack at Possession Point on January 26th, 1841, 19 months before). Five other ports were opened to free trade unrestricted by Imperial oligopolies like the old cohong in Canton. The Chinese government paid a huge indemnity, and paid restitution for opium chests seized and destroyed by Imperial Commissioner Li Zexu.

But the two most important things about the treaty were left out. The first was that opium was nowhere mentioned in the treaty, making it possible for traders like Jardines to continue to make colossal profits from the drug.

Even more important - this first step removed China from its self-created pedestal and its belief that it was the center of the world, and above all other nations. In short, Britain had forced China into the international system of state-to-state relations, and all of the legalities and international norms it signified. For over a century and a half, China, from a position of considerable disadvantage, laboured to improve its position within that arena. Reformers like Li Hongzhang (from the late Qing dynasty) had to work hard, at once appeasing grasping imperialist nations on the one hand, and an incredibly restive, hostile domestic audience on the other (by the way, it was Li Hongzhang's chef, while Li was Ambassador to the United States, that came up with 'chop suey' today, August 29th, 1895, while desperately trying to find something palatable for his master. Chinese chefs have been trying to undo the damage to the American palate ever since!)

It is only now at the beginning of the 21st century, has that journey China began in 1842 towards being a global player in the world of international relations, been completed. While Chinese demagogues have used the date of the Treaty of Nanking, the first of the 'unequal treaties', as an opportunity to rail against Western imperialism, let us hope it can also serve a more positive purpose - as a back marker to highlight the progress China has made in the intervening decades. A confident China no longer needs to constantly rue its luck, and to regret the past and today's anniversary in particular. Let us hope that shall be the course chosen by a benign China in the 21st century.

1 comment:

Stax said...

Hi. I was wondering if you happened to have a high resolution copy of the image of the Treaty of Nanking/Nanjing that you posted on your blog that you would be willing to share. I am currently working on a documentary project and would love to incorporate the image in the film.

Thank you!