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10-08-2015, 16:21

Chinese Society in Transition

The growing Western presence in China during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries provided the imperial government with an opportunity to benefit from the situation. The results, however, were meager. Although foreign concession areas in the coastal cities provided a conduit for the importation of Western technology and modern manufacturing methods, the Chinese borrowed less than they might have. Foreign manufacturing enterprises could not legally operate in China until the last decade of the nineteenth century, and their methods had little influence beyond the concession areas. Chinese efforts to imitateWestern methods, notably in shipbuilding and weapons manufacture, were dominated by the government and often suffered from mismanagement. Equally serious problems persisted in the countryside. The rapid increase in population had led to smaller plots and growing numbers of tenant farmers. Whether per capita consumption of food was on the decline is not clear from the available evidence, but apparently, rice as a staple of the diet was increasingly being replaced by less nutritious foods. Some farmers benefited from switching to commercial agriculture to supply the markets of the growing coastal cities. The shift entailed a sizable investment, however, and many farmers went so deeply into debt that they eventually lost their land. At the same time, the traditional patron-client relationship was frayed as landlords moved to the cities to take advantage of the glittering urban lifestyle. Most important, perhaps, the Qing dynasty was still locked into a traditional mind-set that discouraged commercial activities and prized the time-honored virtues of preindustrial agrarian society. China also lacked the European tradition of a vigorous and self-confident merchant class based in cities that were autonomous or even independent of the feudal political leadership of the surrounding areas. In any event, the advent of the imperialist era in the second half of the nineteenth century made such questions academic; imperialism created serious distortions in the local economy that resulted in massive changes in Chinese society during the twentieth century. Whether the Western intrusion was beneficial or harmful is debated to this day. The Western presence undoubtedly accelerated the development of the Chinese economy in some ways: the introduction of modern means of production, transport, and communications; the appearance of an export market; and the steady integration of the Chinese market into the nineteenth-century global economy. To many Westerners at the time, it was self-evident that such changes would ultimately benefit the Chinese people. Critics retorted that Western imperialism actually hindered the process of structural change in preindustrial societies because it thwarted the rise of a local industrial and commercial sector so as to maintain colonies and semicolonies as a market for Western manufactured goods and a source of cheap labor and materials. If the West had not intervened, some argued, China would have found its own road to becoming an advanced industrial society. Many historians today would say that the encounters with the West did both harm and good. By shaking China out of its traditional mind-set, Western imperialism accelerated the process of change that had begun in the late Ming and early Qing periods and forced the Chinese to adopt new ways of thinking and acting. At the same time, China paid a heavy price in the destruction of its local industry, while many of the profits flowed abroad. Although industrial revolution is a painful process whenever and wherever it occurs, the Chinese found the experience doubly painful because it was foisted on China from the outside.