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Imperialism in China

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      Imperialism’s effects on China has always been controversial and debatable. Andrew Nathan’s article on Imperialism’s Effects on China explains imperialism’s positive contributions to modern day China and defends the theory that China’s difficulties are caused by internal factors rather than external[1]. On the other hand, Joseph Esherick’s Harvard on China: The Apologetics of Imperialism argues that China’s economic and social disruptions are caused by imperialism.[2] However, when one examines the evidence chosen and rhetoric of both sides, one may realize the faults in Nathan’s essay which are not shown in Esherick’s. Esherick, as opposed to Nathan, delivers his arguments and defends his stance in a well-rounded manner along with wise usage of his evidence–forming a more crystalized and convincing argument.

       The two sides disagree on the fundamental question of whether imperialism brought harm or benefits to China in three aspects: effects on the economy, effects on politics, and the results of imperialism. Nathan focuses on the economic benefits foreign trade has brought, while undermining the arguments that his opponents made (in this case, mainly James Peck and Issac’s arguments.) Nathan explains that “it is difficult to establish a negative relationship between the foreign presence and the success of Chinese enterprise.”[3] He attributes the failure of the Chinese industrialization process to the “failure of that sector as a whole to develop,”[4] and states that the problem can “hardly be explained by the depressing effect of foreign treaty port enterprise on Chinese treaty port enterprise.”[5] He responds that the net drain of wealth is inherently inevitable since “China’s national debt per capita and her foreign trade per capita must have been among the lowest in the world.”[6] He also points out that “the distorting impact of imperialism on China’s political evolution – is harder to evaluate.”[7] The revolution against feudalism in 1912 was fueled by imperialism, without which the Chinese social classes, weak as they were, would never have taken the initiative to revolt.[8] As a result, he believes that “as imperialism grew more extensive, it created in China a new concept of sovereignty and a new emotion of nationalism.”[9] 

        On the other hand, Esherick centers his essay on the “pitfalls of the Harvard approach and to advance some tentative suggestions for an alternative paradigm.”[10]  He explains that “imperialism was something more than the misunderstood, maligned scapegoat of Chinese nationalism.”[11] He goes on to argue that China’s problems weren’t caused by internal factors like “an incompetent Chinese government and an inefficient Chinese business establishment,”[12] and were instead caused by foreigners who “has created, controlled, and then closed a market for Chinese goods.”[13] He points out that China’s foreign trade did not bring benefits and instead caused it to conform to a “pattern so common to underdeveloped nations.” [14]He proves that industries like handicraft production became “subservient to foreign capitalism.”[15] Through examples on foreign investments and capitalism, he concludes that the statement “foreign capitalism never oppressed native Chinese enterprises,”[16] is still debatable. He stresses the need to “realize that imperialism was a total system – economic, political, social, and cultural – and that its component parts were intimately interrelated.”[17] He explains this point through the idea of extraterritoriality, and how this idea “created the conditions for an indirect attack on native Chinese industries by channeling elsewhere the developmental capital needed by those Chinese enterprises.”[18] In terms of the political aspect, he states that the “foreign powers limited China’s sovereignty, they inevitably weakened her politically,”[19] which ultimately leads to the Chinese government being powerless. In conclusion, he believes that “the West presented China with a problem……and even suggested a model solution….The only difficulty was that the solution was bound to fail precisely because of the very imperialism which presented the problem in the first place”[20] The result is the creation of a “false modernization,”[21] where improvement and change are superficial, and insufficient for China’s deep-rooted problems. However, he does agree with Nathan on one positive effect of imperialism: “the very struggle to eliminate the economic, political, social, and psychological vestiges of imperialism produced the basis of sustained, self-reliant economic and political growth.” [22] 

        A thorough analysis of the weaknesses and strengths of each essay is necessary to prove that one side is more convincing. Nathan has two main strengths, the first is laying out the historical background. He mentions the six institutions established by the foreign nations – the treaty ports, spheres of influence, other restrictions on Chinese sovereignty, the financial drain, the missionary invasion. Under each topic, he acknowledges the negative impacts they had on China; for instance, “the atmosphere of the treaty ports were strongly racist…”[23] “the treaties involved China in financial obligations to foreigners that were crippling to government finance.”[24] With this evidence, the readers gain a brief understanding of the historical background. His second strength is clarity. He responds to and outlines the propositions made by his opponents.[25] He begins by responding to economic arguments on mass pauperization, then to the assumption of stifling economic growth in the late Qing dynasty, and the statement that imperialism caused wealth drain.[26] He explains to the three propositions aforementioned by showing how there’s no direct causality, and how the effects of imperialism are relatively moderate.[27] He responds to the political argument of “imperialism helped to postpone revolution”[28] with “on a balanced view their effects would have to be judged inessential to the outcome or even to the timing of the revolution in China.”[29] 

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