Lasting Effects of the Opium Wars  

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The economic, social, and political effects of the Opium Wars can still be seen today. The treaties of Nanking and Tientsin opened numerous ports in China, opening the country to foreign trade. The opening of ports and subsequent increase in trade allowed the tea and silk industries to flourish. Tea export increased by over 500% and silk export rose to 28 times the previous amount of bales being shipped. Also, with the Hong abolished foreigners could now trade freely in China. Because all duties had to be negotiated with foreign countries, they were cut from 65% to 5%, wrecking many industries within China.

The rapid increase in trade caused a shortage of the Spanish silver dollar. The currency eventually appreciated in value so much that Canton outlawed it as a form of currency and introduced the Mexican dollar. The Chinese copper currency depreciated in value due to poor administration and a shortage of copper. China’s financial system was nearly devastated and in 1853 paper money was introduced to China.

While the tea and silk industries flourished, other industries became much less profitable. Farmers that had been producing food switched to tea or silk. This caused the price of food to skyrocket. Now that Canton was not the only city open for trade, the boatmen that worked transporting good to Canton from other areas lost their jobs. Textile workers also lost their jobs because the handmade textiles produced in China could not compete price-wise with the machine made textiles from the west. The textile industries that stayed in business lowered prices so they could compete with western goods, but the cost of production stayed the same because they had not changed the method in which the textiles were produced. This caused the textile industry to lose quite a bit of money. The quality of life for textile workers was drastically lowered. Because of the rising food prices and the rising unemployment level, poverty spread throughout China.

The cost of the wars and the reparations paid to foreign countries fell on the farmers. The Manchu government could no longer protect and provide for its people. Also, the fact that they had signed the Treaty of Nanking before exhausting all options of resistance discredited the government. These issues combined with growing levels of poverty inspired uprisings against the government.

The treaties also exempted foreigners from Chinese law. Furthermore, any Chinese citizens that lived with or were employed by a British citizen were also exempt. This made China a haven for criminals and illegal activity. It also allowed foreigners to set up extensive spy networks within China.

Before the Opium wars China had started to develop an urban market economy, but once the wars began, China was exposed prematurely to western industries. China could not compete and became dependent on foreign goods and trade. While the wars did give China an urban market economy, they also nearly destroyed the economy already in place.

After the wars China realized that the country could not continue to be so isolationist. Intellectuals realized that they must try to understand western culture, especially if they were to beat the West. Lin Zexu, Xu Ji-yu, and Wei Yuan read translated material from the West and published books on western countries and culture. They learned about western political ideas, social structures, and economies.

For the first time, China set up a foreign ministry. They tried to modernize China’s army as well as set up factories. However, most of the commercial enterprises were run by feudal bureaucrats, who did not fully understand capitalism and the market economy. They tried to monopolize the market, which choked private sector industries. Most of these enterprises went bankrupt, but even if the company failed the bureaucrats became wealthy.

Intellectuals in China began to think that China not only had to modernize its army and open factories, but that the entire political system needed to be changed. They felt that the government needed to help the growth of capitalism. Private enterprises should be formed without government interference and many different companies needed to be created so that there would be competition within the market place. They also called for a parliamentary system, which marked the first time the idea of private citizens participating in government appeared in China.


 

Shandra Goldfinger © 2006.  Created for World Politics 116, Mount Holyoke College.  Contact: goldf20s at mtholyoke dot edu.

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