British Imperial Presence in China: Opium, Porcelain, & Manipulation

The British Empire claimed China for its sphere of influence in the 19th century. British imperialism in China resulted in unequal treaties and political supremacy.

Oct 26, 2023By Tsira Shvangiradze, MA Diplomacy and Int'l Politics, BA Int'l Relations

british imperialism china


Even though foreign powers had expressed interest in China as early as the 13th century, British imperialism in China began in the 19th century within the larger context of European imperialism in Asia. China attracted foreign powers with its exclusive goods and resources, such as tea, porcelain, and silk. Simultaneously, European society was undergoing an era of exploration, funding expeditions to explore new territories capable of generating wealth for expanding European empires. But most importantly, European states were seeking new trading routes to accommodate the products and technology produced during the 18th and 19th centuries of European industrialization. For these reasons, as one of the major world powers of the 19th century, the British Empire aimed to establish itself as the dominant force in China, shaping the country’s domestic sociopolitical and foreign policies as well as its future as a sovereign state.


The Qing Dynasty & The Start of British Imperialism in China

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Unloading tea ships in the East India docks, from the Illustrated London News, 1867, via Royal Museum Greenwich


The Qing Dynasty replaced the Ming Dynasty in the late 17th century when military generals of the Ming Dynasty recruited the Manchus, a semi-nomadic militarized community in Manchuria located northeast of China’s Great Wall. The Manchus acquired considerable influence over time and managed to take over the country in 1644, establishing the rule of the Qing Dynasty. The Qing Dynasty ruled for nearly 300 years, witnessing British imperialism and its consequences.


Before the British Empire’s dominance in China in the 19th century, the Qing Dynasty under Emperor Qian Long’s rule expanded the empire not only territorially but also economically. This period of Qian Long’s governance seemed promising, as the dynasty managed to successfully keep foreign powers at a distance by setting boundaries in the form of restrictive policies.


The Qing Dynasty’s preference for isolationism meant limiting external actors’ access to trade in China via the so-called Canton System. The only trading point was the port of Canton (on the city of Guangzhou’s territory today) in southern China. The system was designed to simplify overseeing foreign activity in China and collecting taxes.

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The demand for Chinese products like tea, silk, and porcelain was rising in European and especially British markets. By the 17th century, tea had become a preferred beverage for both the British aristocracy and the common people. When it came to the accelerated import of tea, the British East India Company sought ways to access Chinese tea directly, not through other importing companies, like The Dutch East India Company. Furthermore, high tariffs on Chinese tea contributed to smuggling and illegal activities. In 1784, the British Parliament passed the Commutation Act, which eliminated the high tariff system in response to the sharp rise in demand for the beverage. The British-Chinese trade for tea increased dramatically.


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Lord Macartney received by the Qing Emperor Ch’ien-Lung by William Alexander, via The British Library


It was primarily due to cultural differences that the Qing Dynasty resisted opening its ports to British trade. By the late 18th century, although the British presence in China increased, most British officials refused or failed to conduct diplomatic relations according to the Chinese system of tribute, a tradition that illustrated China’s cultural leadership in Asia. China’s neighbors sent envoys on tribute missions who were required to do the kowtow, a series of bows, as well as bring presents for the royal family.


Most British officials tried to impose Western-style diplomacy while demanding the expansion of trade relations and neglecting existing customs, as they believed that doing so would disgrace them and their own empire. The Chinese perceived it as disregarding the Chinese way of life.


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The anti-Chinese wall, by F. Graetz, published in 1882, via Library of Congress


One of the best-known examples is Lord Macartney’s mission to China in 1792. Aiming to make sure British economic interests were upheld by opening more trade ports, Lord Macartney refused to bow. Emperor Qian Long was furious. In a letter to British King George III, he made the Chinese position regarding expanding British commercial interests clear:


All European nations, including your own country’s barbarian merchants, have carried on their trade with Our Celestial Empire at Canton. Such has been the procedure for many years, although Our Celestial Empire possesses all things in prolific abundance and lacks no product within its borders. There was therefore no need to import the manufacturers of outside barbarians in exchange for our own produce.”


Tea became a major driver in the creation of British foreign policy, and the Commutation Act and its outcomes are the earliest examples of this matter. Eventually, the Qing Dynasty failed to confine British trade to one port. Thus, intensified trade could be seen as the first step of British imperialism in China. Later, the British Empire managed to successfully repurpose the initial economic component of relations with China as an instrument to gain political influence over the Qing Dynasty.


British Imperialism in China & the Opium Wars

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The 18th (Royal Irish) Regiment of Foot at the storming of the forts of Amoy by James Henry Lynch after Michael Angelo Hayes, 1841, via Graphic Arts Collection


Britain was paying for Chinese tea with silver. Given China’s comparatively low interest in British commodities and the enormous popularity of tea in Britain, the British Empire experienced a trade deficit, and suddenly, silver was insufficient. Britain sought to replace silver with another trading commodity. By the late 1780s, British traders had planned to fix their trade gap by offering opium, a highly addictive drug, to the Chinese in exchange for tea. The strategy proved effective. The opium trade thrived despite the Qing dynasty’s ban on its import in 1800, and by 1819, Britain had managed to reverse the trade deficit.


The opium trade was concerning for the Qing Dynasty for the following reasons: it damaged the health of the workforce; and secondly, the Chinese paid too much silver for imported opium; the domestic value of silver increased, and as the taxes had to be paid in silver, it caused the tax increase, resulting in social unrest and resentment towards the imperial government.


The Qing government sent Commissioner Lin Zexu to Guangzhou in 1839 to address the issue and put an end to the illicit opium trade. In total, the commissioner destroyed more than 20,000 opium chests weighing approximately 1,300 tons. Wanting to safeguard the lucrative tea-opium trade it established, the British Empire viewed the action as a violent takeover of its property, and in April 1840, Britain declared war.


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The Chinese Cake, 1898, via PBS Learning Media


This armed conflict is known as the First Opium War. It lasted for two years and resulted in the signing of the Treaty of Nanking in 1842. According to the treaty, Britain acquired the island of Hong Kong and demanded reparations in exchange for the destroyed opium. Most importantly, the Chinese ports, including Shanghai and Guangzhou, were now open for British trade. In addition, extraterritoriality rights were granted to British citizens, contributing to the formation of international settlements with their own legal system and jurisdiction in major Chinese cities. Hong Kong transformed into a clear illustration of British imperialism, mirroring Western-style governance, institutions, and jurisdiction.


In 1856, the Second Opium War occurred. If the focal point of the First Opium War was the extension of trade relations, in this instance, Britain demanded equal diplomatic relations and the legalization of the opium trade as well. The war also saw wider international interest. Driven by economic, political, and religious motives, France joined Britain and played a significant role in military operations. The Qing Dynasty was defeated again. The Treaty of Tientsin, signed in 1858, not only had an economic dimension but also cemented the British imperial presence in Chinese culture. Besides opening up new ports for trade, the treaty granted Christian missionaries the right to openly propagate Christianity. Soon British hospitals, schools, and churches emerged throughout the Chinese cities.


These treaties are also referred to as “unequal treaties,” as they limited the Chinese imperial government’s sovereignty and increased British dominance over the main pillars of statehood: economics, jurisdiction, religion, and culture.


The Boxer Rebellion 

chinese boxer rebellions cartoon
Chinese Boxers Destroying Railroad Tracks, between Peking (Beijing) and Hong Kong, via PBS Learning Media


Accelerated British imperialism following the “unequal treaties” contributed to increased public discontent with the Qing Dynasty and, consequently, the rise of nationalism in China. Coupled with natural disasters, famine, and the difficulties of managing an ethnically, religiously, and socio-economically diverse and massive population, many viewed the Qing Dynasty as weak and susceptible to resisting growing British imperialism.


The frustration with foreign influence and interference culminated in the violent uprising of 1899. Peasants in north China organized a mass revolt against foreigners, particularly British missionaries, and converted Chinese Christians. A Chinese secret community, the Yihetuan (Righteous and Harmonious Fists), initiated the revolt. They mastered a certain type of Chinese martial arts, resembling boxing in Western society, and became widely known as “boxers.” Soon the Boxers managed to galvanize the Imperial Chinese troops’ support and acquire better arms and equipment.


In June, foreign officials, diplomats, missionaries, and soldiers in a refugee camp in the Legation Quarter called for international help. Major European powers, referred to as the Eight-Nation Alliance (British Empire, Qing Dynasty of China, the United States, France, Germany, Russia, Japan, and Italy), promptly formed an international relief force. The months of June and July were violent, particularly in Beijing. The international relief force managed to suppress the uprising only by late August. The Boxer Protocol was signed on September 7, 1901, demanding payment of reparations to the foreign powers involved in the military campaign.


The Open Door Policy

pughe open door policy in china painting
Putting his foot down by J.S. Pughe, 1899, via Library of Congress


The Open Door Policy was introduced after the Boxer Uprising in China. Even though the concept was elaborated by the United States to secure its business opportunities, the British Empire played an important role in its formulation and implementation. The Open Door Policy was initiated in 1899–1900 and intended to grant equal opportunities to all nations to freely trade in China. It also aimed to prevent the exclusive supremacy of any power in China.


Following the “unequal treaties,” the major Western powers—Britain, France, Germany, and Russia—divided China into “spheres of influence.” These powers enjoyed exclusive economic, political, and juridical privileges in their spheres of influence. Having established a strong presence in China, the British Empire controlled much of China’s main ports. Even though the British government recognized the importance of equal access to Chinese markets to prevent the dominance of a single nation, it was still hesitant. For this reason, the practical implementation of the Open Door Policy faced significant challenges, leading to its failure after World War II.


The End of British Imperialism in China

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An episode in the revolutionary war in China, the battle at the Ta-ping gate at Nanking by T. Miyano, 1911, via Welcome Collection


Even though the Qing Dynasty maintained sovereignty and formal control over the national government, British imperialism and subsequent wars ending in unequal treaties put China under foreign control by the end of the 19th century. The Qing Dynasty was left weakened and humiliated. Eventually, in 1911, the Xinhai Revolution overthrew the Qing rule, and the Republic of China was established. This period coincided with the outbreak of World War I in Europe. Imperial forces had limited resources to manage distant colonies and spheres of interest and were mostly focused on self-preservation. This period marked the beginning of the end of British imperialism in China and paved the way for a new era of Chinese self-determination.


World War II changed an entire international political system and catalyzed worldwide decolonization and self-determination processes. By 1949, following Mao Tse-tung’s (Mao Zedong’s) rebellion, China, under the Chinese Communist Party’s rule, was promised to reverse the results of the humiliating Western colonization. Besides, drained by the war, Britain was suffering economically and found it hard to maintain its vast imperial territories. The last stage in ending British imperialism in China is the return of control of Hong Kong, the emblem of the British presence in China, to the Chinese. After more than 150 years of imperial rule, Britain gave Hong Kong back by signing a joint proclamation on July 1, 1997. In exchange for China’s pledge that the capitalist system would be retained, the concept of “one country, two systems” was adopted. To this day, Hong Kong remains a capitalist center in Asia.

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By Tsira ShvangiradzeMA Diplomacy and Int'l Politics, BA Int'l RelationsTsira is an international relations specialist based in Tbilisi, Georgia. She holds a MA in Diplomacy and International Politics and a BA in International Relations from Tbilisi State University. In her spare time, she contributes articles in the field of political sciences and international relations.