Our Economic Prowess is the Key
In the autumn of 1793, George Macartney, the leader of the first British diplomatic mission to China, met Chinese Qianlong Emperor. The envoy presented the objectives of the mission: opening of new ports for British trade, establishment of a permanent embassy, cession of a small unfortified island along China’s coast for British use, and the relaxation of the restrictions on trade between Britain and China. The Emperor flatly turned down all requests. It is important, and equally interesting, to explore the reasons that guided the Emperor to rejecting Macartney’s requests; especially, because it offers a significant insight into historical worldview that China has held for the past two millennia.
In his letter to British monarch, King George III, the Qianlong Emperor addressed at length the reasons for refusing to honour the requests.
“You, O King (…)” reads Emperor’s letter, “impelled by your humble desire to partake of the benefits of our civilisation, you have dispatched a mission respectfully bearing your memorial … Our Celestial Empire possesses all things in prolific abundance and lacks no product within its own borders. There was, therefore, no need to import the manufactures of outside barbarians in exchange for our own produce.”
In short, the letter condemned European nations as barbarians and clearly signified in its text a subservient stature of the rest of the world.
The international system as we know it is ‘anarchic’, with no superior authority to control and shape states’ behaviour. However, the worldview that China held was marked by anarchy’s structural opposite: hierarchy, with China constituting the centre of gravity. The China-centric worldview of the Chinese was enforced mainly by their material superabundance, China’s civilizational prominence, technological and military preeminence, tremendous demographic clout and its bureaucratic sophistication. Especially because of the dominant political philosophy, the Confucianism, of the Chinese, the Emperor was embraced by the people as Son of Heaven, sitting at the top of the world (tianxia, literally “all under heaven”). Therefore, there was no display of the notion of reciprocal equality towards the other nations among the Chinese.
Though failed to obtain its major objectives, the Macartney Mission demonstrates an opportunity missed by both sides. However, as supported by history, its drastic consequences were felt more by China than Britain. The inability of the Chinese leadership to recognize the changing dynamics of the outside world later heavily challenged the rule of Qing dynasty. In subsequent years, China braved increasing foreign pressures and interventions from Western powers and Japan, and was subjected to imperialism, ultimately plunging it deep into an era of darkness that came to be known as a ‘Century of Humiliation’ that lasted until 1949, the year Mao established the People’s Republic of China.
China is, therefore, aware of the fatal and grave consequences of serious mistakes and miscalculations and knows that, if repeated, they would completely disrupt the normal and decent functioning of the Chinese society.
It is obvious, therefore, that China, in the conduct of its relations, strictly honours the principle of sovereign equality of all states and strives at length to add strength and vitality to its relations with other countries.
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