Assess the Aftermath and Impact That the First Opium War Had on China

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Question: Assess the aftermath and impact that the first Opium War had on China


The First Opium War fought between Britain and China from 1839-1842 was a clash between two vastly different cultures, one struggling to control trade rights, and the other desperate to limit the impact of foreign trade upon the local population. The war changed the way China acted towards its foreign counterparts, exposed the weaknesses of the Chinese feudal system and forcefully opened-up China to the rest of the world. There were severe economic, social and political consequences that the war had on China.

Prior to the war China had believed that the Chinese empire was the ‘Heavenly Middle Kingdom’ and superior to all other civilisations. China had very little contact with the West and foreigners were continually looked down upon. Despite strict government regulations, foreign trade with the West in China grew during the late 18th & early 19th century. The West became desperate in trying to balance their thirst of coveted Chinese goods for their own goods but China showed little interest in Western products until 1817 when Britain sold 240 tons of opium into China and when the West found a product which China did not have, opium. Opium smuggling developed rapidly and the trade literally produced a country filled with opium dens and drug addicts. Thus the government decided to do something about this problem and sent Commissioner Lin Zexu to sort things out. However it was Zexu’s actions that eventually started a war in which brought China into a humiliating defeat.

The Treaty of Nanking is an official document that marks the conclusion of the First Opium war; it is also considered an unequal treaty by the Chinese. China was ordered to handover Hong Kong, open up five more ports for trade and pay 21 million ounces of silver to Britain. Britain also received fixed tariffs, the ‘most favoured nation’ status and imprisoned British nationals were not to be tried under Chinese law. This treaty caused many problems for China as no restrictions were placed on British merchants who were free trade in China, the opium trade more than doubled in the three decades. As Hong Kong was to be ceded to Britain, it gave the British a base for further military, political and economical penetrations of China. Import duties were lowered from 65% to 5%, effectively traumatizing China's home industries. The treaty also exempted British nationals and any Chinese person who had either dealt with the British, lived with them or were employed by them, from Chinese law. This provided a refuge for Chinese criminals. No sooner had the Chinese emperor made concessions to Britain, he was faced with similar demands from US, French, Belgium, Sweden, Norway and Russian governments. Greatly weakened by war he had no choice but to grant their requests. Seeing China’s weakness, the foreign powers sailed up to impose treaties similar to that of Nanking. By 1860, a massive amount of 6400 tons of opium was being annually imported into China. Western merchants mainly bought silk and tea from China and the export of tea from China increased to 42,000,000 kg in 1855 from only 7,500,000 kg in 1843. The export of silk rose to 56,000 bales in 1855 from a relatively small sum of 2000 bales in 1843. The tea and silk producing regions around the treaty ports expanded and benefited from the foreign trade and resulted in more and more farmers who abandoned the production of food stuffs to produce silk and tea. When Shanghai opened up to foreign trade, the occupation shift for the coolies and boatmen who would transport tea and silk throughout the regions in Canton were now unemployed since the majority of trade moved from Canton to Shanghai. This caused a food price hike and the unemployment rise. As Canton wasn’t the only port open for trade, the inland boatmen who transported goods to Canton from other areas before the war, lost their business. The amount of European goods...
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