President Trump shakes hands Chinese President Xi Jinping during a business leaders event in Beijing on Nov. 9, 2017.(Nicolas Asfouri / AFP/Getty Images)
Milton Academy

Opinion: The one-sided US-China trade wars in the 1800s

News sources report daily on President Trump ordering American companies to return, putting tariffs on all sorts of Chinese goods, trying in vain to lower United States currency, and so on. The trade war, however, didn’t just suddenly appear out of nowhere–it is built upon centuries of trade between these two countries.

The United States has been directly trading with China ever since it declared its independence and even indirectly did so under British rule before that. Yet for the first time ever since the trade commenced, China has the ability to stand on more equal grounds as United States because, according to Eric Jay Dolin’s “When America First Met China,” Americans have, for the first two hundred years since their independence, taken advantage of China and the Chinese via trade.

In the past, individuals from China were treated like puppets, or even tools, under American companies who seek to increase their wealth. For example, in 1808 after Thomas Jefferson placed an embargo which was supposed to protect Americans from false British impressment and which many maritime merchants at the time opposed, according to “When America First Met China.”

John Jacob Astor, America’s first multimillionaire who took lead in the China trade, claimed that Chinese national Punqua Wingchong was a high-status mandarin who needed Astor’s ship to return to China to prepare for his dying father’s funeral according to “When America First Met China.”

Regardless of how Punqua Wingchong was only a trivial shopkeeper in Canton or how unlikely it was for him to learn of his father’s impending death so far away from home, he was a “very convenient foundation” for Astor “upon which to build a wily and duplicitous scheme,” according to “When America First Met China.”

Not only did Jefferson lift the embargo for this case and Wingchong boarded on Astor’s very lucrative China-trade ship Beaver with fifty thousand dollars’ worth of goods, but the Beaver also returned from China with more than two hundred thousand dollars of profit for Astor in 1809, according to “When America First Met China.” It was evident that Wingchong was an easy excuse, and worse, an unknowing accomplice in deceiving America’s president and its people, all for Astor to make up for his lost profits due to the embargo.

The Siamese Twins Chang and Eng and the Chinese Lady Ms. Moy were other examples of objectified Chinese individuals. Growing up in China, Chang and Eng were traded, much like tea and silk, to American captain Abel Coffin for five hundred dollars.

Their peculiarity of being conjoined in the abdomen and sharing actual flesh of five inches long (198) turned them into circus animals whom the Americans would actually pay fifty cents to look at. Coffin even brought them to tour in England, Scotland, and Ireland, not being satisfied with his profits from previously acquiring Chang and Eng through trade.

Five years later in 1834, the Carnes brothers purchased nineteen-year-old Ms. Moy to become an exhibit as an animal in a zoo, whom people, again, paid fifty cents to look at. Americans’ condemnation of her foot binding, the Chinese practice of breaking then wrapping women’s toes with bandages to fit into impossibly tight shoes, as an abuse to women’s rights was true, yet they were conveniently ignoring the fact that they were the ones justifying the abuse of her human rights by paying money to merchants who enslaved her and treated her like an animal.

In addition, as historian Krystyn R. Moon wrote, both instances “reemphasized what Americans saw as the differences between themselves and the Chinese, and by extension, the latter’s inferiority.” With trade and profit as the motivating force, they humiliated the Chinese individuals either because of their disabilities or their cultures, and it was unfair for Americans to feel superior to those they made inferior. 

Besides the buying and selling of those Chinese individuals, Americans were also implicated in the opium trade around 1840 which devastated countless Chinese. Americans sold, often smuggled, much like current drug traffickers at the United States borders, countless chests of opium to China, according to “When America First Met China.”

Despite opium being an addictive drug that significantly dilapidated and incapacitated people at work, the American government never said anything against the trade. There was no adequate reason to do so when Americans could boost their economy immediately after the Revolution, especially when, in merchant Stephen Girard’s words, “opium [would] supply a good price in China.”

In fact, congressman and ambassador Caleb Cushing also took advantage of China’s weakness after the Opium War. He pushed China to sign an unequal Treaty of Wangxia that included debt, extraterritoriality, as well as investments including churches, schools and hospitals. Most importantly, the Chinese right to sentence opium traders under their law, which the Americans, Russell & Company and Augustine Heard & Company, did not follow through.

The treaty was made more unequal by Americans’ impunities in breaching it. In addition, the high amount of debt eventually led to an economic spiral in China and thus internal unrest built upon the need for food and supplies. The opium crisis further led to the Second Opium War and the “semi-colonial status” of China by European countries including the United States, with impacts that ranged from poverty to lost lives, according to “When America First Met China.”

Following China’s poor conditions resulting from the war, America exploited Chinese laborers called coolies under inhumane conditions. Coolies were recruited to work in Latin America for a certain amount of years with a certain amount of reward money, according to “When America First Met China.”

Directly translated from Mandarin Chinese, the term “coolies” meant very hard work. Like the African slaves who were then banned from being traded leading to a labor shortage, the coolies were often coaxed or even kidnapped and forced into signing contracts. Then they were given putrid food and kept under the cramped spaces at the bottom of the ships on their way to a hard life of labor, according to “When America First Met China.”

Many died from mutinies, accidents, diseases, and suicide after being sent to Cuban sugar and tobacco plantations, Peru’s cotton plantations, and to the Chincha Islands’ guano mines, according to “When America First Met China.” Americans not only helped build the clipper ships that transported those mistreated coolies but also engaged in the actual trade of such slave labor.

From 1852 to 1862, sixty-two American ships carried forty thousand Chinese and earned the Americans millions of dollars even in the first six years transporting these forced laborers, according to “When America First Met China.” The Chinese were again a means of American commercial success at the cost of their own lives, with 50 percent sent to Cuba, more than two-thirds in Peru, and even higher numbers in Chincha Islands.

In addition, they were not just treated as objects or fed by opium; they were slaves that were ignored in history whose work was “much more severe than that of the Negroes on the Southern Plantations,” according to New York Times writer Geroge Washington Peck. The coolie trade was the cause of a myriad of Chinese suffering from physical and mental hardship.

Eric Jay Dolin’s When America First Met China narrates the story of how the United States took advantage of China and Chinese individuals, named or unnamed, in the past. Today, Chinese people are no longer traded as exotic animals, opium addiction has stopped in China, and the coolie trade has ended too. Furthermore, unlike a past of being exploited by the United States and other western powers, China and the Chinese are today a global force in trade, now using trade as leverage against other countries, especially the United States.

From labor to manufacturing and now technological development, China has played a central role in international commerce and continues to do so. Whereas trade has previously been used to weaken China in the last couple of centuries, it is now one of its primary sources of power and influence on a global scale.

With a world that is more interconnected and interdependent as it is today, that is a completely new playing field compared to the trade trends of the past, it remains to be seen how this new and growing power will be wielded and what sort of future will be forged in its wake.