China and the Lure of Global Capitalism

Macabe Keliher in Boston Review:

In September 1793, British envoy Lord Macartney was given a tour of the Qing summer palace north of Beijing. Earlier in his trip he presented the Qianlong emperor with gifts of two enameled watches of “very fine workmanship,” a telescope, Birmingham sword blades, and fine British clothes, among other items meant to awe the aging monarch with the superiority of British technology and manufacturing and convince him to sign a trade agreement.

When the emperor’s personal assistant and two of the Qing’s most decorated generals led him around buildings filled with treasures and mechanical devices, however, Macartney was aghast. “The pavilions are all furnished in the richest manner,” he wrote, “with spheres, orreries, clocks, and musical automatons of such exquisite workmanship, and in such profusion, that our presents must shrink from the comparison and ‘hide their diminished heads.’” Nor was the emperor impressed: he sent Macartney back with a stern reply to King George, “As your Ambassador can see for himself, we possess all things . . . and have no use for your country’s manufactures.”

At the time of the Macartney mission China was the center of the world economy. The population had already embarked on exponential growth to reach around 350 million in 1800, and the two largest southern port cities, Guangzhou and Foshan, had over 1.5 million people, roughly the urban population of all of Western Europe. Regional specialization had long since taken place, with extensive handicraft and cash crop production contributing to expanding national and international markets, while Chinese merchants had established themselves in the South China Sea creating vibrant trade networks throughout Asia. Europe was only able to access this lucrative market late with the discovery of silver from the Americas, which in turn provided them access to Chinese porcelain, silk, and tea: a diagram of trade flows in the early modern world would show consumer goods flowing out of China and all silver flowing in. Indeed, the best estimates have China accounting for a third of world GDP in 1820, more than all of Europe combined and by far the world’s largest economy. Adam Smith put it most succinctly in the Wealth of Nations (1776), “China is a much richer country than any part of Europe.”

China’s dominance in the global economy would not last.

More here.