Tuesday, 22 September 2015

choose your poison or balance of trade

Not terribly keen on Western goods and for the most part self-sufficient, for European naval powers—especially the British with their particular weakness for Asian luxuries and tea—Imperial China from the early nineteenth century became known as the Silver Bone Yard. This comparison to a gilded grave was employed as the only enticement for the Chinese—the only reserve-currency that they’d accept, not wanting truck with pelts, flagons of beer, bales of wool, missionaries or whatever else was a typical European export at the time which was not derivative of what the Chinese culture had already perfected, like gunpowder and the printed word—was silver dollars minted from bouillon from the colonies in North and South America.
The discovery of New World silver had initially glutted the market and the commodity temporarily lost some of its shine. The Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch and British were willing to part with huge sums of specie in exchange for keeping up the trade in tea, silk and porcelain. As more and more silver went into China and none came out, however, a market-correction was due and again prices rose and the demand for precious metal grew, especially with wars to finance at home. In order to reverse the outflows of hard currency, merchants (with support of Parliament) plied the Chinese market with opium culled from poppy fields in Turkey and British-held India—which was an acceptable swap for a spot of tea, in lieu of coinage. Although used recreationally and for medicinal purposes—reintroduced to Western medicine as laudanum—use of opium as a war with drugs does strike me as rather unique, to flood one market to secure cheaper access to another, ostensibly equally habit-forming and ritualised item. Faced with a growing drug problem and traders flagrantly overstepping the bounds that had been proscribed for them, China capitulated (and the degree to which China was compromised is a matter of debate) by expanding access to British merchants that extended beyond a few select entrepôts and granting leases in perpetuity to foreign traders. Though of strategic importance and to modern eyes a serious territorial incursion, China had a standing practise of ceding land in the name of peace-keeping and appeasement, and in addition to the special administrative areas of Hong Kong (UK) and Macau (Portugal)—there was also Tsingtau (Prussia), Tianjin (Italy), Shanghai (Japan) and Shantou (jointly controlled by the English, French and Americans).