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Britian china history

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Britain and China through history

The Beginnings, 1596-1839

Britain knew of China long before there were direct links, but not until 1596 did the British try to establish contact. That year, Benjamin Wood set out with a letter from Queen Elizabeth I to the Emperor of China. Neither Wood nor his letter arrived. More successful was the English East India Company. The company received a charter in 1600 granting it exclusive trading rights in the East. In 1637, its ships reached China, and by 1700 the Company had a trading house at Guangzhou. For the next hundred years, trade between Britain and China steadily increased, with the growing British possessions in India playing a major role.

The merchants did not have an easy time. The Chinese economy was largely self-contained and had little need of Western goods. There was intransigence on both sides, with much insistence on rights. Conflict seemed inevitable.

Meanwhile, Britain sent occasional missions to China, seeking formal relations. In 1778, Colonel Cathcart drowned on the way. In 1793, Lord Macartney reached Beijing and saw the Emperor. Yet his mission achieved little, apart from encouraging chinoiserie in Europe. Chinese porcelain, furniture and even architectural styles found a ready market, as did tea. Subsequent missions in 1816 and 1834 failed even to reach Beijing.

Opium and War 1839-1842

By the end of the 18th century, British command of the China trade was well established, but there was one commodity in this growing trade that would soon bring trouble. This was opium, introduced by the East India Company to balance Sino-Indian trade. Opium was already known and used in China by the late 18th century, but it was now marketed more aggressively, especially after the Company lost its monopoly in 1834, and was replaced by new and more active traders. The Chinese government, alarmed at the spreading use of the drug, banned its import and sale in 1839, confiscating stocks held by foreigners. The British merchants appealed to London, arguing that their right to trade was under threat.

So began the 'First Opium War' or the 'First Anglo-Chinese War'. The Chinese fought hard but were no match for the British. The Treaty of Nanjing, signed in 1842, secured most foreign demands. Shanghai, Guangzhou, Ningbo, Xiamen, and Tianjin were opened to foreigners for trade and residence; tariffs would be low and trade regulations minimal; diplomatic relations would be established on equal terms; and Hong Kong island was secured for Britain. Other treaties followed, and 'most favoured nation' clauses meant that benefits gained by one country were automatically extended to others, to China's disadvantage.

From the Opium War to Revolution, 1842-1910

The 1842 treaty had not mentioned opium, but the trade continued. Rebellions against the Chinese Government gave foreigners opportunities to shake free of Chinese controls; from these years emerged the Shanghai Municipal Council and the Chinese Maritime Customs, both controlled by the British. Yet merchants chafed at alleged restrictions on trade and diplomats at the lack of access to Beijing.

In 1856, the strains led to the 'Second Opium War' (1856-58); when the Chinese proved slow in accepting terms imposed in 1858, there was further fighting, by a Franco-British army. In 1860, additional treaties gave foreigners most of what they sought. Diplomatic missions opened in Beijing; new ports joined the original five; the British added Kowloon to Hong Kong; and China's control over trade and tariffs were further restricted. Further humiliation came with the Boxer incident of 1900, when the siege of the legations led to a huge indemnity; China was now semi-colonised. Sovereignty remained formally intact, but the western powers controlled trade, divided China into spheres of influence, and leased Chinese territory.

British traders dominated the treaty ports and the China trade. After 1895, British manufacturing companies moved into China. In 1898, the New Territories were added to Hong Kong on a 99-year lease, while Weihaiwei in Shandong province was leased as a naval station. British missionaries established schools and colleges. Chinese studies began in British universities, and Chinese art and literature were increasingly appreciated.

The Republic, 1910-1949

China's political structure could not stand the internal and external pressures. In 1910-11, Imperial rule came to an end. There was no easy transition to a new order and China descended into political chaos. The foreign powers continued to enjoy their privileges, although there were now voices in China demanding their end. In the British case, the great days were over even before the First World War, though many found it hard to believe. American and Japanese companies began to replace the British in the China trade. As China settled down after 1926, the pressure for a revision of the old treaties grew stronger. Concessions were made in the 1920s and 1930s, but only in 1943 did Britain (and the United States) formally surrender the privileges and immunities gained after 1842. With much of China occupied by Japan, this was a symbolic gesture of support for a wartime ally. When the British returned to China after 1945, China was soon in the throes of a civil war that would change everything.

New China, 1949-1966

Following the establishment of the People's Republic of China on 1 October 1949, Britain announced its recognition of the new government on 6 January 1950. The Chinese allowed British diplomats to move from Nanjing, the Nationalist capital, to Beijing, now once again the capital, but refused to accept that diplomatic relations had been established. Neither did they send a mission to London. In June 1950, the Korean War and Britain's support of United Nations' intervention, added to existing Chinese suspicions of Britain and made a move to full relations more difficult. British firms in China came under steady pressure to close down, while the British community, once so large, was reduced to a handful. All British consulates closed, except Shanghai.

The personal chemistry between the British Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, and China's Premier and Foreign Minister, Zhou Enlai, at the 1954 Geneva Conference on Korea and Indo-China provided a partial solution to the question of recognition. Although full relations had to wait, they now agreed to exchange missions at the charg®¶ d'affaires level. A Chinese charg®¶ d'affaires' office opened in London in 1955. Trade expanded once more. Much of it was in the hands of a small association, the 48 Group, whose members had maintained links with China during the Korean War. Other firms now joined them. A Labour Party delegation visited China in 1954, and in 1964, Douglas Jay, the President of the Board of Trade, became the first British minister to visit China. By then two-way trade was over °Í36 million. There were cultural exchanges too and some academic links were re-established.

The Cultural Revolution, 1966-1972

Relations were severely disrupted, however, during China's 'Cultural Revolution'. Tensions on the mainland affected Hong Kong, where the arrest and imprisonment of a number of journalists led to the house arrest of the Reuters Beijing correspondent, Anthony Grey, the sacking of the British mission in summer 1967, and the closure of the Consulate-General in Shanghai.

By 1969, the frenzy had abated. Grey was released, as were other detained Britons and the Hong Kong journalists, Premier Zhou apologised for the attack on the mission, and the Chinese government paid for repairs.

Relations Improve, 1972-1989

In June 1970, negotiations began and led to an agreement on the exchange of ambassadors from 13 March 1972. Soon afterwards, Sir Alec Douglas-Home became the first Foreign Secretary to visit China.

China was now more open, and Britain responded. In 1979, the Duke of Kent was the first official Royal visitor to China. In 1982, Prime Minister Thatcher visited China and began negotiations on the return of Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty. She returned in 1984 to sign the Hong Kong Joint Agreement. In 1986, Her Majesty the Queen and HRH the Duke of Edinburgh made a highly successful State Visit to China. Visitors from China included both the Communist Party Secretary General, Hu Yaobang, and Premier Zhao Ziyang.

As China opened up in ways unprecedented since 1949, there were contacts at all levels, with frequent ministerial visits. There was a high degree of co-operation on the Hong Kong Joint Declaration. China became a tourist destination for increasing numbers of Britons. Chinese students flocked to British universities, with a smaller but equally enthusiastic flow the other way. Organisations such as Save the Children and Voluntary Service Overseas began operating in China. British companies pursued the growing trade and investment opportunities and British manufacturers returned; trade was now counted in billions of pounds, rather than millions. British and Chinese airlines established direct services between the two countries. Soft loan agreements, each worth °Í300 million, were signed in 1986 and 1988. Despite the distances, from 1983 onwards British and Chinese towns set up twinning links. In 1985, Britain opened a consulate general in Shanghai, to be followed later by Guangzhou and, from 2000, Chongqing. The Chinese too opened consular posts in Britain.

Tensions and Improvements, 1989-2000

June 1989 inevitably marked a major downturn in relations. Together with its European Union (EU) partners, Britain introduced a series of sanctions against China. High-level visits stopped, and many other exchanges both public and private were temporarily halted. Criticism of China's human rights' record, hitherto muted, now became widespread in Britain.

In Hong Kong, June 1989 provoked much uncertainty about the future. Hong Kong's needs led Britain to an early resumption of official contacts with the Chinese government. A Foreign Office Minister, Francis Maude, reopened discussions in the summer of 1990; these were continued in April 1991 when Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd went to Beijing. Further problems developed over the new Hong Kong airport, one of a series of prestigious projects in the territory that the Chinese viewed with some concern. To allay these concerns, Prime Minister John Major visited China in September 1991 and signed a Memorandum of Understanding on the airport.

Chinese suspicions of Britain's intentions were fuelled by the appointment in 1992 of the former Conservative politician, Chris Patten, as the Governor of Hong Kong. Mr Patten decided that the demands in Hong Kong for more representative government could not be ignored. His reforms, however, received a hostile response from the Chinese government. The Joint Liaison Group, formally established to facilitate consultation between the two sides on Hong Kong continued to function, but the years before the formal handover of Hong Kong in July 1997 were marked by bickering and disagreement.

The handover itself, however, went smoothly, and two years on, the return was felt by all sides to be a success. By then, Britain had a new government, and each side saw opportunities for a fresh beginning. Prime Minister Blair visited China in October 1998, and announced the establishment of a UK-China Forum. President Jiang Zemin's visit to Britain in October 1999 helped set the seal on these improved relations.

Text by J E Hoare, Research Counsellor, Foreign & Commonwealth Office London.

Note: This is note is for information purposes only and does not necessarily represent the policies of Her Majesty's Government.

2002 British Embassy Beijing. All Rights Reserved. Site Credits

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