Stephen R. Halsey. Quest for Power: European Imperialism and the Making of Chinese Statecraft. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015. xi + 346 pp. $49.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-674-42565-1.
Reviewed by David Buck (University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee)
Published on H-Asia (December, 2015)
Commissioned by Sumit Guha (The University of Texas at Austin)
China’s Late Nineteenth-Century Success in Modern State Making and Its Present-day Consequences
Typically Chinese and non-Chinese historians cast the period from the First Opium War to 1950 as a litany of defeats, humiliation, and political failure. Stephen R. Halsey rejects this conclusion in this impressive, closely reasoned, and well-documented volume. He argues that in spite of the constraints Western and Japanese imperialism imposed on Chinese sovereignty, the combination of reinvigorated Chinese statecraft and the strength of China’s commercial economy enabled the Qing dynasty to adapt and survive. He states that China never succumbed to imperialism. Instead, foreign military and economic imperialism imposed only “constrained sovereignty” on China (p. 20).
Halsey details how a combination of resourceful political leadership and China’s adaptive commercial and bureaucratic practices protected the Qing state and its successors from the European conquests that toppled the Mughal, Ottoman, and Persian empires of Eurasia. He concludes that those other polities were typified by weak leadership that could not hold off the power of new European “fiscal-military states” that arose after the mid-seventeenth century (p. 15).
In addition, the economies of those early modern empires, as well as the states of Southeast Asia and Africa, proved easily penetrated by the combination of European steam-driven transportation, commercial practices, and banking technology. Once native commercial practices were weakened, the foreigners imposed extractive imperialist economic practices on most of the world. In contrast, Chinese consumers continued to prefer Chinese manufacturers except in specialized items, such as kerosene and matches. Even when foreign products became widely used, Chinese merchants distributed and sold those goods.
To counter the established narrative of a century of humiliation, Halsey emphasizes how the late nineteenth century saw the expansion of the Qing state’s wealth and power. This chapter is critical to his revisionist thesis. According to Halsey, the shift from agricultural to commercial taxes in the second half of the nineteenth century forms the principal proof that China participated in the nineteenth-century trend of creating fiscally and militarily strong states. He emphasizes the importance of the establishment of the Imperial Maritime Customs Service; it strengthened the central government while the imposition of internal transit taxes (lijin) bolstered provincial coffers. He also shows by careful review of existing studies how real government revenues grew modestly in the late nineteenth century, but expanded markedly during the late Qing reforms of 1902-11. He concludes, “when faced with the prospect of dynastic collapse, Qing officials turned to an underutilized commercial base for new tax revenues” (p. 90). Initially this revenue was used to defeat domestic rebels, including the Taiping, Nian, and Moslems, but then was shifted to creating strengthened coastal defense against foreign threats. Eighteenth-century Qing military policy focused on Central Asian threats, but following the Opium wars, the dynasty shifted its attention to the threats along the coastal littoral. Financing for defense relied on the continuing and growing vitality of the Chinese commercial economy.
In another strong chapter, Halsey describes how in the 1860s Western political concepts, particularly through the terms sovereignty, rights, independence, and international law, came into use. He argues that the Chinese understanding of these concepts developed slowly. In the late Qing period, sovereignty meant “a form of totalizing control rather than the final authority of the state” (p. 212). This understanding led to officials, such as Li Hongzhang, adopting what Halsey calls a “mercantilist” interpretation or a zero-sum game understanding in which any advantages claimed by foreign governments weakened China (p. 76). He believes these Western terms became better understood only after 1911.
Li Hongzhang comes in for a great deal of attention in this study. Halsey praises Li’s own accomplishments and those of Li’s protégés both in official service and in the management of private enterprises. Overall, Halsey has little to say about the setbacks that marred Li’s historical reputation in the wake of the disasters that befell China from 1894 to 1901. He provides no description of those seven years in which China suffered major military defeats at the hands of the Japanese navy and army, the Empress Dowager Cixi intervened to halt the Guangxu Emperor’s reform program, foreign encroachments on Chinese sovereignty multiplied, and a popular antiforeign uprising brought foreign military occupation of Beijing and almost severed Qing control over their Manchurian homeland. To most contemporary observers and later historians, the Qing Empire appeared tottering on the edge of collapse. The events of those years form a major element in the narrative of China’s humiliation and deserve somewhat greater attention from Halsey.
Historians generally have explained the Qing survival for a decade after 1901 to a combination of disagreements among the foreign imperialist powers, the absorption of the United States and Great Britain in their own colonialist wars in the Philippines and South Africa, or the growing shift away from direct colonial rule to indirect control through diplomacy and commerce. Another factor was the limited support for Boxers’ extreme antiforeignism among most of Chinese officialdom. Unfortunately, Halsey passes over all of this debate and then, correctly, cites the dynamic New Policies reforms from 1902 to 1911 as further proof of the strength of Chinese statecraft and economic resiliency.
Nevertheless, this is an impressive recasting of late Qing history. One of Halsey’s most interesting chapters deals with the establishment and expansion of the Chinese telegraph network which served both state policymakers and commercial interests. As in other parts of this work, Halsey continues his analysis of the Chinese telegraph system to show how its profits were transferred to assist the growth of other modern industries and to reveal how the telegraph developed into an avenue for wider discussion of state policies.
Throughout the book, Halsey mentions that in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries the Chinese state inherited and built on the legacy of its late nineteenth-century success. He expands this theme in an epilogue. Thus China’s current growing role as an international power with its newly generated great wealth is cast as a major heritage of late Qing adaptations. Halsey concludes, “historians have underestimated the resilience and creativity of political institutions in the late imperial era” (p. 242). He links the industrial policy of the Maoist era with that of the late Qing period when he writes, “In each case, authorities saw industrial policy as a means to enhancing military power rather than promoting economic development or higher standards of living for the Chinese people” (p. 352). Halsey’s careful research, his insightful understanding of nineteenth-century history, and his fresh interpretations mean his book will be widely read and discussed. It is an important study.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-asia.
David Buck. Review of Halsey, Stephen R., Quest for Power: European Imperialism and the Making of Chinese Statecraft.
H-Asia, H-Net Reviews.
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