As China moves toward what it sees as an imperial dawn, in this episode of the Stratfor Podcast we take a look back at the last time China wielded great power on the global stage with professor and author Stephen R. Platt.
Platt sits down with Stratfor Senior Vice President of Strategic Analysis Rodger Baker and Asia Pacific Analyst Evan Rees to discuss his latest book, Imperial Twilight: The Opium War and the End of China’s Last Golden Age.
Imperial Twilight: The Opium War and the End of China’s Last Golden Age by Stephen R. Platt
China in Transition, collected analysis on Stratfor Worldview
Framing China’s Future, an eight-part series
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Evan Rees [00:00:00] Hello, I'm Asia-Pacific Analyst, Evan Rees, and this podcast is brought to you by Stratfor, the world's leading geo-political intelligence platform. To learn more about Strafor Worldview, Threat Lens, or Stratfor's custom advisory services, visit us at stratfor.com.
Stephen R. Platt [00:00:25] In the view of President Xi, China is just now rising to a point where it can reclaim the mantle of the old empire that was so central to Asia. They're finally putting an end to this era that began with the Opium War and the weakening and the humiliation of China.
Ben Sheen [00:00:51] Welcome to the Stratfor Podcast, focused on geo-politics and world affairs from strafor.com. I'm your host Ben Sheen. As the world witnesses what some refer to as a new imperial dawn for China today, we look back to the last time China wielded great power on the global stage with professor and author, Stephen R. Platt. Stratfor Senior Vice President of Strategic Analysis, Rodger Baker, and Asia-Pacific Analyst, Evan Rees, sit down with Platt to discuss his latest book, Imperial Twilight: The Opium War and the End of China's Last Golden Age. Thanks for joining us.
Rodger Baker [00:01:33] Hi, I'm Rodger Baker. I'm here with Evan Rees, another one of our analysts here at Stratfor, and we have the opportunity today to talk with Professor Platt, the author of Imperial Twilight. Welcome, Professor Platt.
Stephen R. Platt [00:01:46] Nice to be here, thanks for having me.
Rodger Baker [00:01:49] In choosing this book I noticed that in Imperial Twilight you spend a lot of time talking about individuals, almost more than you do about the broader concepts of history or the major aspects of what's going on in the countries around. In many ways it's a building up to the Opium War more than it is a story about the Opium War in and of itself. How do you pick and choose which characters you're going to explore in this grand sweep of history?
Stephen R. Platt [00:02:18] That's a great question. I'm definitely drawn to these stories of individuals as a historian. It's part of my philosophy of history, but also it's how I like to work and how I like to write. Getting drawn to individuals, you wind up rejecting a lot of them because somebody has to be interesting in their own right, and you have to have good sources on them. In every case, they have to represent something larger than themselves. They can't just be a person wandering through events but somebody who either represents something very important about their time or represents something about the situation or somebody who is actually instrumental in the outcome of events.
Evan Rees [00:02:57] It's very interesting from a historian's perspective hearing about that. What I find particularly interesting about this book is the title is Imperial Twilight. It covers the late-18th and up to the mid-19th century, this period of decline for the Qing Empire and the beginning of that period of decline. We're now in a period where a lot of people are talking about an imperial dawn for China, a stepping out on the world stage once again for China. Why did you think that this period was important to cover? I know your previous work was on the Taiping, which is a little bit later, and can you tell us a little bit about the factors that caused the decline of the Qing Empire around this time?
Stephen R. Platt [00:03:30] Sure, there's actually a few questions to answer in there. The causes of the decline and why this particular, why this event after working on the Taiping. As far as moving back from the Taiping, one of the most interesting things about the Taiping Rebellion to me, and this is the largest civil war in human history in the middle of the 19th century. And in the end the British intervened on the side of the Qing Dynasty. And part of that rationale turned out to be guilt about the Opium War. The prominent British argued that because the British had fought the Opium War in 1840, they had destabilized China's government, and therefore, they had created the conditions where it was possible to have such a massive uprising like the Taiping. Therefore, it was Britain's humanitarian duty to help China put down this rebellion. Going back from that I wanted to see how much that actually was the case at the time of the Opium War. We Chinese historians tend to think of the British rampaging around in the 19th century without a care in the world, toppling governments, and taking over countries. What I found is that there was much more debate at the time. The war was far more controversial than it's generally made out to be, and there were, again, very prominent moral voices at the time of the Opium War in Britain, saying that this was entirely wrong and unjustified and would be a blight on Britain's national honor. That's really what brought me back to that era. It works well with the present in the sense that, yes, as you said, people talk about
Stephen R. Platt [00:05:02] a new Imperial dawn for China, and China certainly tries to cultivate that, and certainly Xi Jinping tries to cultivate that. That in the view of the government and especially in the view of President Xi, China is just now rising to a point where it can reclaim the mantle of the past of the old Empire that was so central to Asia. It's described in terms of the Opium War, that they're finally putting an end to this era that began with the Opium War and the weakening and the humiliation of China. In that sense, looking back at this era before the Opium War, if we today are possibly living through an era where China is regaining that stature that it had in the past and we have to figure out how to get along with it. The most recent example we have of a China that had that kind of power was prior to the Opium War. Looking at the pre-Opium War era and how the British and the Americans muddled their way through with a strong China can give a certain sense of how you get along or what worked then. Who knows if it'll work today, but it's really the only model we have of Western relations with a China that was not humiliated.
Rodger Baker [00:06:08] There's an interesting aspect that I found in the book. Obviously, there's the simplified history of the Opium War that most people know and read about in a paragraph and a half in their textbooks and all. But in some ways a lot of what seems to come from this book is the idea that there was less initially a battle between the British and the Chinese over how to conduct trade and what to trade, that it really was a battle within the British camp over what foreign trade policies should be like that ended up interacting with other domestic issues that were going on in China at the time.
Stephen R. Platt [00:06:42] Absolutely. It almost by accident gets turned into a national war of Britain versus China. But for generations the British government had been very clear and consistent in telling its merchants who went to trade in China that they had to follow China's rules. They were guests in the country, they had to follow the laws. The British government would not back them up if they broke the laws there. The incredible irony of how this era ends with the British government actually going to war over opium dealers, who were breaking every law in the books and smuggling drugs into China. It's extremely counter-intuitive, and it breaks a very long-standing pattern of the British government essentially remaining hands-off as regards the China trade. Also, in terms of the relationship between Britain and China through this whole era the relations worked best when they were in the hands of merchants at the City of Canton, which was the one city where the British were allowed to trade. Those merchants who had close experience of each other generally worked quite well together, and the problems tended to arise when diplomats came in or government officials, people who represented the national honor of Britain. They were the ones who generally got themselves into trouble, and then after the trouble passed, then the merchants would take over again, and it would go on that way. China tries to promote this kind of view of international relations today as well, that they present themselves as a trading power
Stephen R. Platt [00:08:14] and that you can trade with China, and we will not try to change your government like America will. We won't make human rights demands. Obviously, they've crossed a lot of lines in recent years of things like the Dalton Road Initiative, but in the past the way China tried to present it was: let trade take care of itself, and state affairs can step back from that. As far as the divisions within the British camp, really it was a division between different kinds of merchants who were doing business in China. There were always merchants who were frustrated about being confined to Canton, who wanted access to other ports for trade. The question was: how could they possibly get it? The general British view was that it would be completely immoral to try to get those sorts of things by force, that they would have to be granted willingly by the Chinese government. This war, which really begins as a means of protecting these opium traders, who suffer a crackdown, really transforms into a war to open ports and to open China to free trade. The remarkable thing about that, though, is that even the people in parliament who supported this war, and none of them talked about opening ports. Nobody could justify a war on the grounds of forcing open trade. It was a contradiction of terms to talk about a war for the sake of free trade. You can't force somebody to trade with you. But, ironically, that's what it turned into by the end.
Rodger Baker [00:09:42] It seems to set a bit of a precedent for what the US would follow in Japan a few years later, but also, at the time, it creates an interesting dynamic that the origins of the US-China relationship are much more cooperative and seen as friendly, particularly on the international stage, and particularly coming out of the end of the war where the US goes in and piggy-backs off the back of what the British did but expresses itself as being, of course, a non-aggressive power and sets that tone for quite a while in its relation with Asia. Where today we see a very different relationship between the United States and the Chinese that has emerged as the United States has, in some ways, taken on that British role of the global hegemon.
Stephen R. Platt [00:10:23] Absolutely. In terms of looking for analogies, certainly the Americans are playing the role today that the British played then as the dominant Western power engaged with China. Looking back to the 19th century though, you're absolutely right of the origins of the US-China relationship were much more cooperative and positive in many ways than the relationship between China and Great Britain. The Americans generally behaved themselves better. They were still involved in the opium trade, but they did not go to war over it, and they wouldn't have been able to. Really, all through the 19th century the Americans tend toward neutrality. They tend towards remaining hands-off. It's partly because they don't have the power to project in Asia to make demands like that, but it's the Boxer Rebellion at the opening of the 20th century, which is the first time you have the appearance of US Marines in China after a long legacy of French and British military actions there. In terms of talking about the long history of the United States and China, one thing that gets, if not ignored, it doesn't get emphasized nearly as much as it should, which is that in the 19th century the United States was not the same as Great Britain. They were not the same as France. And the longer history of the United States and China has a large number of very positive examples of relationships between individuals, more positive policies that could be talked about in diplomatic negotiations today.
Ben Sheen [00:11:54] We'll get back to our conversation with Author, Stephen Platt, in just a moment, but if you want to gain greater insight into the parallels with China on the global stage today and the latest developments, be sure to visit us at Stratfor Worldview. Our analyses on the economic growth of China and its evolving role internationally were all collected under the theme, China in transition. We also have a special eight-part series on framing China's future. We'll include links to both of those in the show notes, and if you're not already a Stratfor Worldview member, you can register for free limited access or subscribe for unlimited access to our ongoing assessments, guidance, and forecasting on the key geopolitical trends shaping tomorrow. You can learn more about individual, team, or enterprise access at worldview.stratfor.com/subscribe. Now, back to our conversation with author, Stephen Platt, about Imperial Twilight: The Opium War and the End of China's Last Golden Age.
Evan Rees [00:12:52] Throughout this period you have Britain emerging on the world stage, becoming the pre-eminent sea power. You detail how the Napoleonic wars leave Britain as a pre-eminent power in Europe as well and then you have Chinese decline at the same time. You also have the two economies pretty deeply intertwined in terms of the trade relationship. With those two dynamics interacting, was the collision that happened during the Opium War, was it inevitable? Can you talk a little bit about the off-ramps that you detail throughout the book that could have pushed it in a totally different direction?
Stephen R. Platt [00:13:25] The war as it happened, easily could have been avoided, and it barely squeaked past parliament as it was. Out of 522 votes it got through by a margin of nine, so if five lawmakers had voted otherwise, the war would have been terminated. The question of whether the two countries were destined for a collision. Nothing had necessarily set them on that road. Again, you would have these British merchants howling for blood in China for generations, trying to drum up some kind of an excuse for war. Lin Zexu, unknown to himself, gave them that excuse when he led the crackdown at Canton against trade. That crackdown wasn't necessarily meant to happen in the way that it did either. When Lin Zexu cracked down on the British opium traders, he went against the advice of his contemporaries. He was not told to do that by the emperor. He was very much a Northerner. Well, he was originally from Fujian, but he had been serving in central China. He didn't have experience with foreigners, and those officials who did have experience with the British had warned him in generally, don't bring the British into this problem of cracking down on opium. Make it a domestic crackdown; if the Chinese don't buy opium, the British won't be able to sell it. It was very much his own impetuousness and his own pride that led him to target the British opium traders directly and ultimately provoked this war. In terms of how this era might have come out, if you look at the broader span of the 19th century, obviously, there is the Opium War,
Stephen R. Platt [00:14:58] and then there is the Arrow War or the second Opium War, which is basically a continuation of the first when the trade concessions don't go as well as Britain thought. Following that you start seeing glimpses of a more cooperative relationship. When Britain helped the Qing Dynasty to put down the Taiping rebellion, that was active support for the dynasty that they had fought the Opium War against. Later on they would gladly provide advisors, teachers, military equipment. The Americans did too, and China's decline was happening whether or not the British were around selling opium. Opium became really the most visible sign of the country's decline, but the issues of bureaucratic corruption, of over-population, of a declining economy. These were very much internally driven. If the opium war had not happened, something like the Taiping Rebellion still very much could have happened just due to China's internal problems. If that had happened, perhaps the next step in Chinese-British relations is they would have gotten
Evan Rees [00:16:00] to that cooperative stage more quickly. China may have recognized the value of having more open trade with the British. Chinese historians these days looking back on this era, they have every reason to. There's nothing to excuse the behavior of the British in the Opium War, but Chinese historians looking back can also observe that if the dynasty had finally just broken down and opened more ports or expanded the trade that it would have been to the country's benefit.
Stephen R. Platt [00:16:32] And it would have been to the benefit of the economy. At least in my sense, I don't see this as being, in any way, tending inevitably towards war. It could have opened up in very different ways depending on different people and different events.
Rodger Baker [00:16:46] As a historian what do you see is the role of history in the present? For example, as you go through this book and the discussion in this book you have issues of the drug trade and whether that's something to be controlled by the consumers or the producers. You have cross-boarder issues. You have questions of proper trade models. You have questions of whether countries should be allowed to set their own internal rules or not, or if there is an international standard that they should follow. All issues that we still deal with today and that were dealt with in the years before this issue. How significant is history to understanding the present and to making proper choices?
Stephen R. Platt [00:17:24] I would say that I'm certainly not the kind of historian who believes that history holds lessons that teach us how to act in the present. That's a very, very idealized vision of history. The present is extremely different from the past. The United States now is not Britain in the 19th century. China now is not China of the Qing Dynasty. The place where history becomes so important is in how it's remembered. People will take lessons from it. They will interpret events in a certain way, and those lessons and those interpretations will, in many cases, guide their actions in the present. In the case of the Opium War there's nothing more important to my mind than how this war is remembered in China today, how it's used in textbooks, how it's used by the government as really the foundation of modern Chinese nationalism. That it's become the war where the British came and forced drugs down the throats of the helpless Chinese and everything since then has been a matter of China building itself up in order to avenge that humiliation. Xi Jinping constantly refers to the Opium War, and it used to be the 170-year struggle, now the 175-year struggle of the Chinese people to regain the power they used to have. That is his vision of the Chinese dream. In that sense, the history of the Opium War is very much alive today in China. It's in the media; it's in the minds of the educated public. It's in the minds of politicians, and the way that we understand this war can, therefore, help to shape how relations turn out today,
Stephen R. Platt [00:19:01] and I happen to have, while a very critical view of this war, the fact is I don't think that the British of the era should be seen in quite such black and white terms. There were great villains on the British side; there were also strong moral voices talking about China's, there were British voices talking about China's sovereignty, talking about respect for them. Those who tried to prevent the war from happening. It's just as important today for those kinds of people to be remembered when we talk about China's relations with the West, that it's not just a strict positive/negative thing where you have the evil Westerners; China was knocked down. Now they have to come back with a huge chip on their shoulder. It didn't exactly play out that way. Similarly, the decline of China in the 19th century, really the British get scapegoated for that a lot. As if the British came along and weakened China, that China was fine and well, and then along came the British with their opium, and then suddenly China was weak and poor and being bullied around. Opium played a role, but the British really just took advantage of the weakening of China. They didn't cause it; they helped to hasten it; they took full advantage of it, but the problems that China then faced are in someways similar to problems that China is still facing today in terms of bureaucratic corruption, in terms of trying to maintain control over an enormous population. History echoes through the present. It doesn't determine anything, but the discussion of it is very important
Stephen R. Platt [00:20:33] for those people who do take lessons from the past even though I, myself, think that all such lessons need to be taken with a big grain of salt.
Rodger Baker [00:20:42] Well, Steve, I'd really like to thank you for your time today. This was a very interesting discussion and a very different take than we normally see on the Opium War, particularly that it spends a lot of time in giving us the context that leads up to the conflict rather than just focusing on the conflict.
Stephen R. Platt [00:20:58] Well, thanks for having me here. This was a lot of fun.
Evan Rees [00:21:00] Thank you so much.
Ben Sheen [00:21:14] That wraps up this episode of the Stratfor podcast. If you're interested in picking up a copy of Imperial Twilight by Stephen Platt, you'll find a link in the show notes. If you'd like more insight into what's happening in China today, or more importantly, what's to come, be sure to read our collected assessments series, an ongoing analysis at Stratfor Worldview. If you're not already a Stratfor Worldview member, you can sign up for our free newsletter or learn more about complete access to our analysis through individual, team, and enterprise memberships at worldview.stratfor.com/subscribe. For more geo political intelligence analysis and forecasting; we'll reveal the underlying significance and future implications from emerging world events. Follow us on Twitter @Stratfor.