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3.1  China's Century of Semi-colonization & Humiliations: (Why it is Important to Know & Remember)

1 February 2017

China: A Leading Maritime Power in the 15th Century


China was the leading maritime power in the early 15th century. From 1405 until 1433, for example, the Ming Dynasty imperial eunuch Zheng He (1371–c. 1433) led seven ocean expeditions for the Emperor Yongle to more than 30 countries in Southeast Asia, the Indian Ocean, the Red Sea, and the east coast of Africa, opening up a “Sea Silk Road.” The voyages were almost a century earlier than that of the era of “great geographical discovery” by the Europeans. Each of these expeditions involved hundreds of huge ships and tens of thousands of sailors and other passengers. Unfortunately, depletion of the state treasury eventually led to power struggle between the pro-expansionist eunuch faction and the conservative court officials. The policy of prohibiting all seafaring activities (海禁) was soon adopted. As China closed its door to the outside world, ocean going voyages were suspended by the late 15th century. In 1525, the government even ordered the destruction of all oceangoing ships.[1]


Because of the closed-door maritime policy, China’s maritime power went into decline in the following centuries, just as the imperialist Europeans were arriving at the China Seas, led first by the Portuguese and then followed by the Spaniards, the Dutch and only later also the British, French and various other European nations. They were driven by their quest for territories and trade.


During the 16th and 17th centuries, trade relations with Southeast and South Asia began to boom after the Qing government lifted its ban on maritime trade and opened Customs Houses between 1683 and 1685. Even though the Qing emperors concentrated primarily on China’s continental borders, they were interested in what was going on overseas and how China would be affected. Emperor Kangxi and Yongzheng, for example, openly raised their concerns over the potential threat posed by the expansionist European and Japanese. Kangxi, for example, ordered a Qing garrison of 8,000 soldiers to be left permanently on the island of Taiwan which became a fortified base to protect China against the ‘‘strong, huge, and invincible’’ warships of the Dutch. In 1703, he also imposed restrictions on Europeans entering the empire when he was alarmed by the great number of Westerners he saw while on a tour in southern China.


By this time, unknowing to the Qing emperors who took great pride in China’s long and rich culture, China was progressively losing its competitive advantage relative to the outside world. The inner-looking, perhaps even xenophobic, outlook prompted Emperor Qianlong to declare, just barely a century prior to the incursions of the foreign powers, that China needed nothing from the West.


The unified Chinese empire therefore bored the façade of a colossal bureaucratic establishment with institutions staffed with dogmatic officials and focused on preventing the falling apart of the empire. This is in great contrast to the pluralistic and multifocal institutional structure of the Western Europe whose struggle for existence fostered dynamic and individualistic innovation and adventure.


In addition to their obstinate adherence to dogmatic conservatism imbued in them by the teachings of the ancient sages, the Chinese ruling elites had a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. Over time, such vested interest became deeply entrenched as tightly-knitted groups formed. Changes to the system became increasingly arduous with resistance from such deep-rooted groups. Any proposal of reform would be met with overwhelming resistance from the reactionary ruling elites who, vested interested aside, would defend ardently the ancient ways of the sages. For them, technical efficiency and gains, which were aggressively sought after in western culture, were of lesser value in a Chinese culture that believed in maintaining harmony and stability.


In essence, evolution of China was held back by these inert endogenous forces while the rest of the world was undergoing metamorphic changes. The ruling elites were cut off from the external environment because of their ethnocentric mentality and isolationist policies. As a result, they had little information about the dramatic changes outside China and the inward looking Chinese system was deprived of external stimuli. Eventually, when exogenous changes were forced upon China, the antiquated Chinese system crumbled.

China’s Humiliating Century of Semi-colonialization by Foreign Powers (1842 – 1945)


By the second half of the 18th century, China, as had Korea and Japan, almost completely retreated from the China Seas which were by then dominated by the Europeans engaging in commercial competition.[2]


By the 19th century, even though trade was flourishing, the Qing government’s restriction that limited European traders’ activities to a few coastal ports as well as the insistence of getting only silver as payment for Chinese goods led to escalating conflicts leading eventually a series of wars between the Qing government and the foreign powers.


In the space of six decades, China was invaded four times by foreign powers which arrived from the sea in 1840, 1860, 1895, and 1901. The first naval war, for example, was the Opium War (鸦片战争) against the British in 1839 – 1842 over the issue of latter’s opium trade in China. It ended with China signing the Treaty of Nanking (南京条约) which resulted in, among other terms, the payment of a huge sum of silver dollars as reparation; the establishment of five treaty ports by the British at Shanghai, Canton (Guangzhou), Ningpo (Ningbo), Fuchow (Fuzhou), and Amoy (Xiamen); and the cessation of Hong Kong island to the British.


The First Opium War is seen by many as a turning point for the Qing Dynasty. The defeat revealed the gross inadequacies of the Qing government in standing up to foreign powers and in defending the sovereignty and territorial integrity of China. The huge compensation and the cession of land set a precedent for other foreign powers to seek economic gains by resorting to the use of military power. Indeed, imperialistic activities by foreign powers in China picked up pace in the second half of the 19th century. The Treaty of Nanjing marks the first of a series of unequal treaties and agreements.  They include two supplementary arrangements with the British in 1843; the Treaty of Wanghia (望夏条约) with the US and the Treaty of Whampoa (黄埔条约) with France in 1844; and the Treaty of Aigun with Russia and Treaty of Tianjin (天津条约) with Great Britain, France, Russia, and the US in 1858. They were signed each time the Chinese was defeated in an armed conflict with foreign imperialist powers. In total, more than twenty treaties and agreements were signed by China with foreign powers including the UK, the US, Russia, Germany, France, Spain, Portugal, Belgium, Netherlands, Italy, and Japan.[3]


In each of these treaties, China was forced to pay large amounts of reparations, open up ports for trade, cede or lease territories (such as Outer Manchuria and Outer Northwest China to Russian Empire, Hong Kong to Great Britain and Zhanjiang to France), and make various other concessions of sovereignty to foreign "spheres of influence". In addition, foreign residents in the port cities were afforded trials by their own consular authorities rather than the Chinese legal system, a concept termed extraterritoriality. As a result, the foreigners obtained an independent legal, judicial, police, and taxation system within the treaty ports. Last but not least, the treaty provision conferring most-favoured nation (MFN) status essentially made all of the tax and extraterritorial privileges applicable to all other foreign states as long as one foreign country gained rights and immunities from the Qing. In effect, foreign governments succeeded in forcing the Qing regime to conduct Sino-Western affairs according to the foreigners’ terms. By the early 20th century, China was forced to open almost all its seaports to its foreign aggressors each occupying and exercising influence over a littoral city.


The treaties were only gradually abrogated in the decades after the anaemic Qing Dynasty was overthrown by the Nationalists in a 1911 revolution. In 1917, for example, the Soviet government after the Russian Revolution terminated most of the privileges gained by tsarist Russia under the unequal treaties. Between 1928 and 1931 the Chinese Nationalists succeeded in persuading the Western powers to return tariff autonomy to China, but extraterritorial privileges were not relinquished by Britain, France, and the United States until 1946. The British restored sovereignty for Hong Kong to China in 1997, and the Portuguese did the same in Macau in 1999, after both countries had concluded agreements with China.[4] One unequal treaty that left an unresolved legacy lasting till even today is the Treaty of Shimonoseki (马关条约) signed after the first Sino-Japanese War (甲午战争) in 1895. In that treaty, China ceded to Japan “Taiwan and its surrounding islands,” which included Diaoyu Dao (钓鱼岛) and its affiliated islands. In 1900, Japan changed the name of Diaoyu Dao to Senkaku Islands (尖阁群岛). Today, the ownership of Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands is the cause of the East China Sea military standoff between China and Japan. (See Chapter XX)


More importantly, the humiliation arising from semi-colonialization by foreign powers remains a centrepiece of perceived Chinese grievances against the West in general. Today, it is this “national shame” (国耻) that spurs the growth of Chinese nationalism. Chinese wants a strong military, first and foremost to ensure that the history will not be repeated.


Sun Yat-sen (1866-1925), who led the Nationalists to overthrow the Qing Dynasty, pointed out soon after the 1911 revolution that “with the changing of the world situation, the rise and fall of a country was determined by the ocean instead of the continent. Those who possess sea power will be the powerful nations, and the control of the seas will lead us to survive, and loss of control of the seas will lead to our demise. China should have a plan for the North and South China Sea.”[5]


Similarly, after the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, Mao Zedong also echoed the importance of learning from China’s history of foreign aggression from the sea. Mindful of China’s lack of a strong navy capable of putting up an effective defence along its long coastal line, Mao sought to build a powerful navy to oppose imperialist aggression.


Modernization of China’s Navy under Mao and Deng


Despite Mao’s eagerness to modernize the Chinese navy, however, efforts were intermittent during his period of political leadership (1949–1976) because of budgetary constraints, political events, and restricted access to oceans. Hence, even though the Chinese navy had become one of the world’s largest by the 1970s with a surface fleet that grew from 20 to 200 missile-carrying ships and submarine force that expanded from 35 to 100 boats, China’s economic backwardness meant that it lacked the resources to develop critical capabilities in areas including naval aviation, anti-submarine warfare, quiet (survivable) open-ocean submarines, and electronic warfare.. Its mission was predominantly coastal defense. Resources were focused on dealing with border disputes with particularly Soviet Union and India. Moreover, its economic isolation also made a strong navy redundant.


It was only after the leadership ascension of Deng Xiaoping in 1978 that military modernization received new emphasis. By that time, new threats were emerging as disputes with neighbouring countries over the sovereignty of islands, the demarcation of sea areas, and exploitation of ocean-based natural resources became increasingly intensified. This is particularly so after geological surveys in 1968 by an UN agency reveals rich endowment of mineral resources in the ocean bed in Yellow Sea, South China Sea and East China Sea. Countries in the region began to tussle over the ownership of islands which were mostly uninhabited and had little economic value.


Despite the disputes, Chinese leaders focused on rebuilding and modernizing its economy guided by Deng’s exhortation of “lying low while building strength” (韬光养晦). In the three decades following Deng’s launch of economic reforms and opening up, China registered unprecedented double digit annual economic growth, providing China with the wherewithal to fund its military modernization. With more and more resources going into national defense in recent years, the PLA has become an increasingly professional and capable fighting force.

Importance of Understanding China's Century of Humiliation by Foreign Powers


To understand China's rise and the psyche of the Chinese today, it is important to know the history of semi-colonization of its coastal region by foreign powers starting during the late Qing Dynasty in the 19th century. Atrocities committed were justified by foreign powers using Westphalian system of international laws of states and sovereignty which the Old China neither understood nor had a part in drafting. Foreign powers got away simply because of the weaknesses of the declining Qing Dynasty. Because of that history, Chinese regard the period from the Opium War to the birth of New China in 1949 as the "century of humiliations". Hence, China sees many of its current actions, including those in the South China Seas and East China Sea as not only righting the wrongs committed by those foreign powers but also justified actions to protect its boundaries. 


It is hard to tell whether China will become a benign or vicious hegemonic regional power at this point. One thing is for sure: China will never allow the history of its semi-colonization be repeated.

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NEXT : 3.2  History of China-Japan Relations



[1] See “Ming Voyages.” Asia for Educators, Columbia University. 2009.

[2] Angela Schottenhammer. (2012). “The ‘China Seas’ in world history: A general outline of the role of Chinese and East Asian maritime space from its origins to c. 1800.” Journal of Marine and Island Cultures 1, 63–86.

[3] See Wikipedia “Unequal treaty” for a list of treaties and agreements China was forced to sign.

[4] See Britannica. “Unequal treaty.”

[5] Sun Zhongshan. (1981). “The Complete Works of Sun Zhongshan, Volume 2.” Beijing: Zhonghua Press, 1981. Quoted in Xiaoyan, Wu. (2014). Pg. 14.

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