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Free Trade by Force: Civilization against Culture in the Great China Debate of 1857Erik Ringmar, NCTU, TaiwanEurope, Europeans like to believe, is not only a continent but also a civilization.1 We share norms and values which are more important than we are. Spreading our civilization has for this reason become an important goal. Unfortunately, not everyone agrees. It has been difficult to make some of the people who do not share in the blessings of European civilization understand the importance of this project. Although they may agree in general regarding the relevance of European norms and values, they see the attempt to spread them as a hostile act of civilizational imperialism. And of course they are right Europeans really do think they are better than others and that the world would be a better place if everyone was like them. This civilizational smugness is as much alive today as ever, and it continues to involve Europeans in conflicts with the rest of the world. This chapter retraces the history of the idea of a civilizing mission as it pertains to one country Great Britain. Britain is interesting not only because of its hegemonic economic power and its large empire, but also since the country initially was quite skeptical of civilizational goals. It was really only in the last decades of the nineteenth-century that Britain took on what Rudyard Kipling in 1899 described as the white mans burden.2 By critics of imperialism, this mission was always 1 This chapter draws on my current research on European imperialism in China in the nineteenth-century, to be published as Liberal Barbarism: The European Destruction of the Palace of the Emperor of China (Boulder: Paradigm Publishers, 2011). I am grateful to Jozef Btora, Yana Zuo, and to an audience at the City University, Hong Kong, for comments on a previous version. Originally written for Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee in 1897, the White Mans Burden was reworked and published in 1899, with the subtitle, The United States and the Philippine Islands. See "The White Man's Burden." 1


seen as a cynical cover for a self-serving policy of plunder. Surely it was supremely arrogant of British officials to speak for civilization as a whole? Surely other societies, especially those with a long and venerable history, deserved to be treated with more respect? And surely it landed the British government in a tragic contradiction when they concluded that civilization best could be spread by means of war? These were the precise points raised by critics from both Houses of Parliament when they met to discuss the governments handling of relations with China in late February and early March 1857. By this time, Britain had for over half a century sought to convince the Chinese to open up its markets to international trade. British diplomatic delegations, dispatched in 1793, 1816 and 1834, had all been rebuffed by the Chinese, and although a war the First Opium War had resulted in some Chinese concessions, British merchants wanted more. And more was exactly what John Bowring, the new governor of Hong Kong, was going to give them. In October, 1856, in blatant disregard for his instructions and without official authorization from home, he started a new war with the Chinese. What Bowring demanded was a China completely open to the world. Free trade was going to be forced on the Chinese. Such a policy, he was convinced, was not only to the advantage of British merchants but also to the advantage of China itself. Only by prying China open would the country come to enjoy the benefits of European civilization. It was Bowrings actions which parliament discussed in February and March, 1857. Bowrings war provided a reason for reviewing Britains relationship with China but also with the rest of the non-European world. In these debates, as never before or after, the options available to Britain were laid out at great length. And not everyone sided with Bowring. In the end he was censored by the House of

McClure's Magazine 12 (Feb. 1899). 2

Commons, and Lord Palmerston, the Prime Minister, was forced to resign. In the subsequent electoral campaign the same debate continued in the country at large. In the election the Chinese election of 1857 Palmerston was returned with a great majority and most of his critics were defeated. The people had spoken and their verdict was that free trade indeed could be forced and civilization spread by military means. Arguably, this is still a conclusions reached by many Europeans. Despite the loss of colonies, and a concomitant scaling back of far-reaching military commitments, Europeans have found it hard to let go of their civilizational goals. Indeed Britain still reserves the right to engage in unprovoked wars in order to defend them as evidenced by Tony Blairs active support of the American intervention in Iraq in 2003. If we ever are to liberate ourselves from this superiority complex, we need to rethink our relationship with non-European parts of the world. A first step in this process of self-liberation is to return to the arguments presented in the Great China Debate of 1857.

culture vs. civilizationAt its core the Great China Debate concerned the relationship between culture and civilization. Culture is necessarily local, it is embedded in a certain time and place; the boundaries of cultures are drawn around societies and nations. Civilizations, by contrast, spread across cultural boundaries and are shared between societies. Civilization, moreover, implies a hierarchy of values. While the alternative to one societys culture is the culture of another society, the alternative to civilization is an inferior and threatening state of barbarism. Thus, while cultures often can live side by side with each other, no peaceful coexistence is possible between civilization and its alternatives. Civilization is always under threat and must be protected, not only because it represents our way of life, but above all because it represents


superior human values. Identifying oneself as the carrier of civilization is thus to put oneself in an adversarial posture vis--vis the rest of the world. For civilization to survive, we must either kill the savages, control, or civilize them. In European history, France was always the great civilizing power.3 During the ancien rgime, French civilization spread in the form of fashion as European elites adopted the language, clothes and manners of the Parisian court. After 1789, French civilization libert, galit, fraternit inspired revolutionaries across Europe, and those who did not heed the call were usually shaken up by the civilizing mission of Napoleons armies. Throughout the nineteenth-century, French politicians, Alexis de Tocqueville prominently among them, continued to insist that the ideas which the French state represented had an obvious, universal, appeal.4 Germany, by contrast, was the country of Kultur.5 Lacking a common state, their common culture was instead what united all Germans, and once a German state was created, it invested heavily in maintaining and strengthening this shared heritage. When Germany belatedly adopted the language of civilization such as when fighting the Herero in South-West Africa or the Russians during World War II the rhetoric was unconvincing and the policy obviously self-serving.6 British politicians and thinkers, for their part, were traditionally highly skeptical of civilizational aims.7 Edmund Burke was famously scathing of the French revolution which he saw as an assault on French culture by the proponents of empty civilizational goals. True to this outlook, he was instrumental in putting 3 4 5 6 Brett Bowden, The Empire of Civilization: The Evolution of an Imperial Idea (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009), 26-30. Jennifer Pitts, A Turn to Empire: The Rise of Imperial Liberalism in Britain and France (Princeton University Press, 2006), 248. Bowden, Empire of Civilization, 34-40. On the Herero, see Philipp Prein, Guns and Top Hats: African Resistance in German South West Africa, 1907-1915, Journal of Southern African Studies, 20:1, 1994:99-122. Pitts, A Turn to Empire, 26-100; Uday Singh Mehta, Liberalism and Empire: A Study in Nineteenth-Century British Liberal Thought (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999), 153-189. 4


Warren Hastings on trial for crimes committed against the culture and people of India.8 Traditional British liberals were equally weary of civilizational crusades. As Jeremy Bentham explained, what makes the greatest number of people happy is unlikely to be the same in all societies, and colonies are a mercantilist mistake.9 Free exchange will eventually spread some values and ways of life further than others, but this is an unintended consequence of exchange and not its goal.10 All that classical British liberals wanted to do was to peacefully go about their business. It was only in the middle of the nineteenth-century, in a break with both conservative and liberal traditions, that Britain came to embrace the idea of a formal empire engaged in a civilizing mission.11 In the middle of the nineteenthcentury, a new breed of politicians and colonial administrators emerged for whom it was obvious not only that British society was superior to other societies, but that they represented a civilization, and that it was incumbent upon them to spread the blessings of this civilization to others less fortunate than themselves. By taking on the white mans burden Britain transformed both its relations to the world outside of Europe and its understanding of itself.

John Bowring and the walls of GuangzhouWe have received the following telegraph dispatches from Trieste, The Times reported on December 29, 1856: a serious collision has taken place between Britain and the Chinese authorities at Canton (Guangzhou).12 On October 8, the

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