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Chinese capitalism and the British Empire

By Carl A. Trocki


The historical moment of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in Southeast Asia can be characterized as the meeting of two great waves of global expansion. On the one hand, coming from the east were the Chinese junk traders in search of cargoes of pepper, spices and the products of the forests and seas of Southeast Asia. On the other, from the west, were the British: the East Indiamen coming to buy tea in China and the “country traders‿, based in India coming with increasingly large cargoes of opium. We should understand this as a clash of empires, despite the differences in the manner in which we have typically interpreted imperialism and colonialism.\ud We all, I think, know the story of how the opium trade came to finance the tea trade, since it was an import for which the Chinese would pay silver. By the early nineteenth century, opium purchases by the Chinese had come to equal the cost of tea purchases by the East India Company. Most historians have seen this trade as the frontier of British expansion in Asia and the first thrust of imperial expansion, but most have concentrated on the role of opium in China and have tended to ignore its role in Southeast Asia.\ud Fewer still have seen the Chinese movement as a kind of colonial expansion. Because Chinese traders and migrants came without the support of their government, and in most cases were not seen to be organizing political domain over the region, they have not been portrayed as the frontiersmen of empire. There is likewise, little evidence that the Chinese involved, at least at the beginning, had the intention of forming an empire. Nevertheless, if we look at what had come to be in Southeast Asia at the end of the nineteenth century, it is clear that a Chinese empire of sorts had been created. It may have lacked navies and governments and may not have seemed unified, but it was one of traders, colonies of population, an economic system and a set of cultural characteristics that gave it a sort of cohesion. If we strip away the soldiers and administrators, the Chinese “empire‿ in Southeast Asia was not so different from the British Empire. What really drove it were groups of traders who were bound together by family connections, voluntary organizations and place-of-origin links.\ud What I would like to do with this paper is to examine the manner in which this “clash‿ occurred and to trace its permutations over the course of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth. In most cases it did not seem to be a conflict. Many have treated it as partnership, or have even tended to argue that the Europeans themselves created the Chinese presence. I would take issue with those propositions and argue that there were two quite distinct movements in progress. Over time, both changed their character and objectives over time, and both shifted their strategies as conditions changed. There were gains and losses on both sides and there were periods of truce and cooperation as well as of conflict. It is also important to understand that neither “side‿ represented a fully unified front, and that subgroups could, from time to time, switch sides and ally with the “enemy‿.\ud In the final analysis, the empire itself was a joint enterprise, but the purposes of all actors were not the same. Chinese relied on the European umbrella of security and found it possible to exploit the global reach of the European infrastructure. Europeans found they needed the Chinese to produce wealth for them and to manage the mundane tasks of retail and second-level wholesale trade. Neither could have prospered without the other but each was guided by their own aims. Each was capable of taking measures to frustrate or divert the projects of the other. We could say that Chinese and Europeans were sleeping in the same bed, but were dreaming different dreams

Topics: 210302 Asian History, China, capitalism, British Empire, history, Carl Trocki
Year: 2004
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