Opium Wars Britain China Essay

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Miscommunications between Britain and China abounded in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, culminating eventually in the Opium Wars. In the 1840 document from Lord Palmerston to the Emperor of China, and the 1792 letter sent directly from King George III to the Emperor of China both reveal British desperation to trade with China. Initially motivated by access to China’s tea markets, the British East India Company soon recognized the lucrative potential of diversifying into the global opium trade as well. Even prior to the newfound hunger for opium, the British sought free trade with China, evidenced in these letters. Yet as the tone and content of these two documents show, China had little to gain from doing business with Britain. China’s concept of international diplomacy also seems qualitatively different from that of the British, although these two British documents naturally offer only a one-sided view of the situation. The conciliatory tone in these two documents shows that Britain was indeed in a subordinate position with regard to establishing bilateral trade agreements. Trade imbalances, as well as stark cultural differences and divergent political philosophies, led to a persistent foreign relations discontinuity between Britain and China. Based on a textual analysis of the Lord Palmerston letter and that of King George III, three specific indications of foreign relations discontinuities include a shift from King George’s blatantly conciliatory and seemingly insincere tone to Lord Palmerston’s paternalistic one, an obvious shift in assertion that the mission was educational in nature even while underscoring the desire for trade, and ultimately a tacit acknowledgement that Britain needs China more than China needs Britain.

The differences between King George’s letter and that of Lord Palmerston are striking, particularly with regards to tone, style, and theme. King George’s sycophantic tone belies Britain’s core objective: to overcome the asymmetrical trade relations that exist between Britain and China. Britain wants to endear itself to the Chinese, and thus a personal letter from the King serves just that purpose. The King’s language is flowery and excessively laudatory, referring to the “bounds of friendship and benevolence” that exist between the two realms (King George, p. 245). On the contrary, Lord Palmerston’s tone is derogatory and self-righteous, revealing the underlying hypocrisy of the Crown’s original intent. Whereas George had claimed to seek diplomatic relations for the purpose of intellectual intercourse, the exchange of ideas, and education, Palmerston has by 1840 done away with any such false pretenses. Palmerston claims to have the moral high ground on the Chinese, as when telling Beijing: “If it enforces that Law on Foreigners, it is bound to enforce it also upon its own Subjects; and it has no right to permit its own Subjects to violate the Law with impunity, and then to punish Foreigners for doing the very same thing,” (Palmerston 1). In the five decades between King George’s original appointment of Viscount Macartney as the ambassador and the onset of the Opium Wars, Britain had shown its true colors.
Palmerston refers repeatedly to the “demands” Britain is placing on China: a country that has hosted British merchants for decades.

In fact, King George had promised the Chinese crown to conduct any business in accordance with Chinese law and custom. George had stated outright about establishing political and economic diplomacy that “such intercourse requires to be properly conducted,” (p. 245). Similarly, King George tells the Chinese Emperor that the newly appointed ambassador has been instructed to punish anyone who transgresses Chinese law or disturbs the peace. It is likely King George had been sincere when he wrote those words, as conflict would have been anathema to trade: the ultimate goal of the diplomatic mission of Macartney.

Even more ironically, Palmerston claims to respect Chinese law even while standing up for British subjects who had overtly disobeyed such laws—most importantly the clandestine importation of opium through known trade channels. Palmerston claims, “Her Majesty does not wish to protect [those who disobey laws] from the just consequences of any offences which they may commit in foreign parts,” and in the very next sentence claims that persecution of British opium smugglers was a type of “injustice,” (Palmerston, p. 1). Granted, Palmerston may be correct in his assertions that Chinese law was being inconsistently applied to British versus Chinese subjects, and also that Chinese punitive measures were violent and unnecessarily harsh.

Nevertheless, the Chinese had made an agreement with the British and the British broke that agreement. The British, instead of apologizing or assuming the conciliatory tone that King George III might have done, instead react like a petulant child. Sending a full naval fleet to the Chinese coast is a more global act of aggression than the individual singling out of opium smugglers who were….....

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Henry, Temple John (1840). Lord Palmerston to the Minister of the Emperor of China. From: Morse. International Relations of the Chinese Empire, Vol. 1, Appendix A. https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Lord_Palmerston_to_the_Minister_of_the_Emperor_of_China
Letter from King George III to the Emperor of China (1792)

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