Imperialism in China

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The Age of New Imperialism, from around 1870 to 1914, was a time when European powers sought to take control and claim territories throughout Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. In order to do this, industrialization was required to produce the equipment and factories necessary to make these products. An example of new imperialism was British imperialism in China, where Britain, and other countries, fought to gain power in China’s economy through trade. British imperialism in China additionally led to many conflicts, such as the Opium Wars, and had many lasting effects on the Chinese society in economical, social, and cultural aspects, with some long-term ramifications including struggles with language barriers, economic system differences, and changes to the structure of government.

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The History of China’s Imperialism

Throughout the early 1700s, China was prospering economically, establishing itself as a world economic leader and attracting many European and American customers. However, over the years, governmental complications began to arise, causing rebellions, trade imbalances, and an overall weakening of China’s government. In attempt to resolve trading imbalances, Western nations began to bring opium into China as a commodity. Many people in China, especially the people of Canton or Guangzhou, where thousands of chests of opium were being stored, were angered by this, as opium was dangerously addictive. The people of Canton wrote an argument stating that, “linking themselves with traitorous Chinese traders, they [the English] have carried on a large trade and poisoned our brave people with opium” (The People of Canton: Against the English, 1842). As opium trade continued to increase, so did opium addiction among the Chinese. Over the years, opium addiction grew so out of control that the Yongzheng emperor made it illegal to sell or smoke opium, and then years later the Jiaqing emperor made it illegal to cultivate or import opium. Still, opium trade and addiction continued to thrive.

In 1899, the United States initiated a statement called the Open Door Policy on China. The purpose of the Open Door Policy was protection of equal privileges and access to China’s ports between countries trading with China. The policy was distributed by the U.S Secretary of State, John Hay, to the countries Britain, Germany, France, Russia, Italy, and Japan. The policy states that “the various powers claiming “spheres of interest” [in China]… shall enjoy perfect equality of treatment for their commerce and navigation within such “spheres” (Hay, 1899). The Open Door Policy had an overall negative effect on the Chinese, increasing their resent toward the many foreign countries competing for power and influence and inspiring nationalist feelings among Chinese rebels. Both of these effects combined to form a negative Chinese mindset that would prove to be dangerous for foreigners. The policy would not last much longer without some sort of backlash or uprising.

China’s Attempt at Resistance

With both the opium crisis and Open Door Policy, China was in a state of chaos, losing power and control of their country quickly. Going back to the 1830’s, tensions between China and Great Britain were building rapidly as the British continued to smuggle opium into China, after their many attempts to ban it. In 1839, the first Opium War began. Taking the first shot, Britain invaded China and occupied the island of Hong Kong, using it to house their army during the war. After three years of fighting, the British defeated the Chinese, and as a result the Treaty of Nanjing was written. This treaty, written by the Chinese, not only ended the war, but also ceded the island of Hong Kong to the British. The treaty states that the “Emperor of China cedes to Her Majesty the Queen of Great Britain… the island of Hong Kong… and [is] to be governed by such laws and regulations as Her Majesty the Queen of Great Britain shall see fit to direct” (Treaty of Nanjing, 1842). This meant that Britain had control over another crucial port city, giving them more trading power in China. However, the Treaty of Nanjing did not sort out the opium trade disputation. This ultimately led to the continuation of the original cause of the first Opium War and spiraled into what was called the Arrow War, or Second Opium War from 1850-1864. This time, France joined forces with Britain to defeat China once again, ending with the Convention of Peking where China was forced to cede the southern part of Ngong Shuen Chau to Britain.

Moving forward to 1900, a year after the Open Door Policy was instituted, the Boxer Rebellion began. In attempt to combat spreading Western and Japanese influence and power, Chinese rebels killed foreigners, destroyed their lands, and tore down Christian Missionaries. The rebellion spread quickly, and soon rebels sieged the city of Beijing, where many foreign officials were located, and declared war on all of their nations. Finally, after many weeks, an international force of troops from the involved nations arrived to rescue the foreigners and put an end to the rebellion. In 1901, the Boxer Protocol was written, and stated that:

“Chinese government officials involved in the uprising were to be punished, foreign legations were permitted to station troops in Beijing for their defense, [and] China was prohibited from importing arms for two years and agreed to pay more than $330 million in reparations to the foreign nations involved” (The Boxer Protocol, 2009).

All of these conditions had detrimental effects on China’s economy, because of the significant amount of money lost, and military, because of the prohibition of importing arms. The significant weakening of China’s army and government ultimately allowed for foreign powers to more easily grasp power and influence over China, and expect little resistance while doing so.

Long Term Effects on China

Both the Opium Wars and Open Door Policy had major effects on China’s economy, government, and overall population. To begin with, the Opium Wars took a toll on the people of China through not only the fighting, but the growing amount of opium addicts in the country. The health of China’s population was severely damaged, and would take an extended amount of time to recover. Additionally, “the Opium Wars marked the start of the era of unequal treaties between China and foreign imperialist powers (primarily Great Britain, France, Germany, the United States, Russia, and Japan) in which China was forced to concede many of its territorial and sovereignty rights” (Pletcher, 2018). China’s many losses forced them to give away large amounts of land and money, weakening their central government and damaging their economy. Eventually, in 1911, the government had been weakened to the point when nationalist democrats revolted and started the Chinese Revolution. The revolution overthrew the Qing Dynasty and created the Republic of China, which still stands as the official government in China today.

Out of the many territories ceded to foreign countries by China, Hong Kong is one example of how difficult the transition in language, culture, and government was whenever it was eventually returned back to China. For example, a language barrier was unavoidable since the people of Hong Kong had been speaking and writing in both Cantonese and English, while the official language of China was Mandarin. The people of Hong Kong had also been heavily influenced by Western culture and religion for many years, giving them a distinctly different style of life than those in China. Furthermore, “Hong Kong had adopted the Western system of trial by jury, but the Communist government tries criminals without a jury” (He, 2018) which poses the problem of what to do when a crime is committed. Along with many other problems, these few created the largest dispute, so, as a resolution the Sino-British Joint Declaration was made in 1985. This declaration released Hong Kong from British control and back to China, and stated that Hong Kong would maintain their independent executive, legislative, and judicial power, and continue their capitalist economic and trade systems.


Overall, China’s imperialization led to many significant changes to the country as a whole, that can still be seen today. These changes include a dramatic shift in the style of government from imperial rule to a republic, and differences in political, social, and economic systems among China and some of its territories. Not only this, but China’s reputation of a powerful world leader had been damaged through a string of humiliating losses of wars, land, and power in their own country. In the end, after China’s imperialism led China to develop as a more modernized and powerful country over time.

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Imperialism in China. (2019, Aug 01). Retrieved from