‘Imperial Twilight’

Stephen R Platt’s non-fiction book, Imperial Twilight, chronicles the arrival of British traders on the Chinese coast. It also presents an account of Imperial China’s decline and the Opium War (1839-1842).

It took a long time for British traders to win unfettered access to the Chinese market. The Chinese managed to control trade with foreigners, who were forbidden from learning the Chinese language and were only permitted to live in small trading posts called ‘factories’, where women were not allowed. And they were only permitted to trade with a select and pre-approved group of merchants.

Platt paints a detailed picture of Imperial China, which was wealthy and highly civilised, but constantly struggling with peasant rebellions. The Communist Revolution should not have been a surprise, it was a hundred years in the making. These sporadic uprisings became a financial burden on the state, forcing it to raise armies in order to maintain control.

Imperial China was also burdened with massive corruption that made it almost impossible to govern effectively. One of the ongoing problems facing the Emperor was how to reform a corrupt system with duplicitous officials who sent back bogus reports about success and reform when none was taking place, and where officials at every level were on-the-take.

During this time the British and other foreign nations were desperately trying to gain free access to the Chinese market, but they did not realise that the Chinese had historically used its economy to impose its own will. It was viewed as a weapon.

Also fascinating is the whole Opium War saga. While most people deplore the notion of pushing drugs today, Opium was legal in Britain at that time and it was not considered socially harmful, in the way it is now. Having said this, the British were divided about the Opium trade and the political fights in parliament make the Brexit debate look like nothing. It’s sobering to think that the British have always had a pugnacious public debate about political matters.

It’s slightly weird how notions about ‘free trade’ were so visceral and ideological. And it was free trade in the most literal sense. There was also the issue of dealing with the East India Company which was almost a nation state in itself — it had its own army.

Platt highlights the British government’s inability to reign in the traders who were operating out of India, either through fear, incompetence, inability, or lack of will. There was also a bizarre situation where the British government was dependent on tea taxation, and the Chinese state was dependent on the money it received from selling tea to Britain. The whole situation seems ridiculous now.

Along the way, the Chinese made some huge miscalculations. They had a patronising view about Europeans and their technology, and they completely failed to understand how powerful the Royal Navy had become. So, when things started to go wrong in the relationship between the Chinese and the British traders, and by consequence Britain, they had no answer to gunboat diplomacy.

The truth about Imperial China’s decline is that, like all empires, although they may face numerous external threats, they all tend to fall apart from within. At some point there’s no longer a willingness to maintain an empire, complacency sets in, and they implode — the upkeep doesn’t seem worth it. This happened to the Roman Empire, the British Empire, and to the Soviet Union.

In China’s case, no one was able to reform its chronic corruption. This led to organisational ossification, which exacerbated its ability to change. This was followed a series of bad deals made with foreign powers. The colonial era Hong Kong was all about the British finally being able to dictate what they had wanted all along, free market access. They also gained a naval port for the Royal Navy in the Far East.

The culmination of China’s internal collapse ended with foreign powers taking advantage of its weakness, the Japanese invasion of Manchuria and China, and the Chinese civil war. While, it’s not covered by the book, in contrast, you only have to look at how deftly the Japanese were able to handle foreign trade and to adapt as a nation, while also retaining their culture and identity.

Once again, China’s more recent success has been through the partial liberalisation of business and trade with the West. And, once again China, as it has always done, it’s begining to leverage its industrial and trade capacity as a political weapon, the same tactic used by the Imperial Chinese state. This is a trick that every empire employs, from the ancient world, to the British Empire and to post WW2 US hegemony.

In the future, we can only wonder how China’s economic success will play out. Will it continue to be a runaway success? Will it stall, or implode? Will it take on the same self-important, arrogance and imperialism that took hold of the European nations and Japan after they became industrially dominant?

In this fascinating account Imperial Twilight illustrates the dangers inherent in any system that’s unable to change. There’s nothing like too much success to breed complacency, and eventually, failure.

Verdict: Interesting.