diplomacy between britain and china -- 8/28/18

Today's selection -- from Destined For War by Graham Allison. The first effort at diplomacy between Britain and China was a monumental failure. This failure helped set the stage for the opium wars just a few short decades later:

"When Lord George Macartney arrived in Beijing from London in 1793, he might as well have come from Mars. As the envoy of King George III, he was on a mission to establish diplomatic relations between Great Britain and Qing China. But the Chinese officials with  whom he met had no idea who he was, where he came from, or what he was talking about. They had no conception of his proposal for 'dip­lomatic relations.' China had never established such a connection with any other country -- never, indeed, allowed any country to open an embassy on its soil. Nor had it ever posted an ambassador abroad. The Chinese government did not even have a foreign ministry. Moreover, indignity of indignities, the 'red haired barbarians' who had ventured into their midst could not even speak their language. Macartney's 'in­terpreter' was a Chinese priest from Naples who spoke no English. Thus, to converse, he translated the words of his mandarin hosts into Latin, so that Macartney, who had studied the language decades earlier at Trinity College, could nominally understand.

"London had instructed Macartney to establish a permanent diplo­matic mission in Beijing but also to open new ports and markets for British goods, and negotiate a more flexible system for conducting trade in the coastal province of Canton. Macartney was also to rent a compound where British merchants could operate year-round, and to gather intelligence on 'the present strength, policy, and government' of China. To impress his hosts and generate interest in British exports, Macartney brought as gifts for the emperor an array of exemplary Brit­ish products, including artillery pieces, a chariot, telescopes, porcelain, textiles, and a diamond-studded wristwatch.

Lord Macartney's embassy, 1793

"After a journey of nine months from Britain, Macartney and his en­tourage arrived at the Chengde Mountain Resort in Rehe, where they were to await an audience with the Qianlong emperor. But from his initial encounter with his counterparts to his last, Macartney proved unable to connect. According to millennia-long Chinese custom, when beholding the divine emperor, mere mortals were required to perform nine kowtows, prostrating themselves flat on the ground. Macartney proposed instead that he would follow British protocol, bowing on one knee as he would before his own sovereign. He proposed further that a Chinese official of his rank should do likewise before a portrait of King George III that he had brought as a gift. His Chinese handlers scoffed. 'Such an equivalence was out of the question,' writes the French scholar-politician Alain Peyrefitte, summarizing the episode. 'There was only one Emperor, and that was the Son of Heaven. Other mon­archies were mere "kinglets."' As Macartney saw it, he had come from the most powerful nation on earth to a poor, backward country that he was doing a favor by treating as Britain's equal. Through his hosts' eyes, however, this British representative had come as a vassal to pay tribute to the Son of Heaven.

"His hosts made Macartney wait in Chengde for six days. Then on September 14, 1793, at three a.m., they awakened the British entou­rage, marched them three miles in the darkness to the emperor's court, and then had them wait another four hours until the emperor ap­peared. (Not coincidentally, Henry Kissinger's first meeting with Mao repeated this same script.) When he finally had his audience, Macartney followed English practice with one knee bowed. The official Chinese dispatch of the event, however, reported a different story, claiming: 'When the ambassador entered His Majesty's presence, he was so over­come with awe and nervousness that his legs gave way under him, so that he groveled abjectly on the ground, thus to all intents and purposes performing an involuntary kowtow.'

"Macartney delivered the letter from King George outlining his pro­posals, anticipating that over the next week or so he would negotiate details with his Chinese counterparts. For his hosts, however, the meet­ing signified the end of Britain's successful expression of tribute, and they suggested that Macartney head home before the weather turned cold. Days later -- and only after panicked importuning on his part­ -- Macartney received a written response from the emperor. It noted King George's 'humble desire to partake of the benefits of Chinese civiliza­tion' and recognized that his envoy 'had crossed the seas and paid his respects at my court.' But the emperor flatly rejected all of Macartney's proposals. Specifically, the request to establish a foreign embassy in Bei­jing 'could not possibly be entertained.' Acknowledging that 'the tea, silk, and porcelain which the Celestial Empire produces are absolutely necessary to European nations and to yourselves,' China would allow foreign merchants to continue current arrangements that permitted them to exchange goods at the port of Canton. But additional trading sites and a compound where the British could reside year-round were out of the question.

"Summarizing his view of the encounter, the emperor's letter con­cluded: 'If you assert that your reverence for Our Celestial dynasty fills you with a desire to acquire our civilization, our ceremonies and code of law differ so completely from your own that, even if your en­voy were able to acquire the rudiments of our civilization, you could not possibly transplant our manners and customs to your alien soil.' With that, Macartney sailed back to London.

"It would not be fair to call an encounter that had no chance to suc­ceed an epic failure. Rather than build a bridge, Macartney's diplomatic mission exposed the gulf between China and the West. Though today Beijing and capitals around the world engage in trade and diplomatic relations, fundamental differences between these two ancient systems remain. Globalization has smoothed transactions but not erased primal fault lines.

"Exactly two hundred years after the Macartney mission, the Ameri­can political scientist Samuel Huntington published a landmark essay in Foreign Affairs titled 'The Clash of Civilizations?' It asserted that the fundamental source of conflict in the post-Cold War world would not be ideological, economic, or political, but instead cultural. 'The clash of civilizations,' Huntington predicted, 'will dominate global politics.' Huntington's thesis provoked a firestorm of criticism. He was writing in an increasingly politically correct culture, one in which most academics were minimizing distinctions among civilizations or cultures from their analyses. Respondents challenged Huntington's concept of civilization and questioned his account of the boundaries between them.

"Nevertheless, in the years since the article was published, the pol­icy community has incorporated this still-difficult-to-define concept."

 | www.delanceyplace.com


Graham Allison


Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides's Trap?


Houghton Mifflin Harcourt


Copyright 2017 by Graham Allison


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