25 October 2011

The real defenders of human rights (not who you’d think!)

Lin Zexu 林則徐

The Qing Dynasty – the last of China’s Imperial states – was founded by a Tungusic tribe descended from the Jurchens 女真 calling themselves ‘Manju’ 滿族. Their first king, Aisin Gioro hala-i Nurhaci 努爾哈赤, broke away from the ailing Ming Dynasty and proclaimed himself the king of the Later Jin 後金, claiming continuation with the mediaeval Jurchen Jin Dynasty headed by the Wanggiyan 完顏 family (and made infamous by the Condor trilogy by Jin Yong). It was not long, however, before the nobility of this kingdom, which came to rule all of China under Kangxi 康熙, adopted Chinese culture almost wholesale, as many foreigners who came to rule China had before them. A number of their leaders, nobles, intellectuals and civil servants carried on even more drastic reforms than those of the early Ming rulers: although they could be very the Yongzheng 雍正 and Qianlong 乾隆 Emperors were both highly talented administrators and implacable enemies of corruption, and even put into place a number of prohibitions on the sale and ownership of slaves, far more effective and wide-reaching than even the Ming-era reforms had been.

Particularly during their peak, the Qing emperors were masterful politicians who ruled over a cosmopolitan state rivalling that of the Xianbei Tang Dynasty, and used many different means to legitimate themselves. To the Tibetan government and to the Mongols, the Qing Emperors were devout Buddhists who derived their ruling legitimacy from their adherence to that religion. However, to the Chinese people, the Aisin Gioro kings showed a distinctly more Confucian face… though in the case of Yongzheng and Qianlong, this was more than just a façade. They depended on and rigorously upheld a Confucian standard of integrity for their civil servants. This rigour outlasted their reigns, however, among these officials. One particularly (and justly) famous civil servant, Commissioner Lin Zexu 林則徐, would become famous for upholding his nation’s honour and for advocating the same human dignity in China that people in the West enjoyed: particularly life, health, self-determination and freedom from the degradations of opiate addiction at the hands of the drug-pedlars of the British East India Company.

In his famous 1839 letter to Queen Victoria (which the much-esteemed monarch never herself read), the good Confucian Commissioner Lin expressed himself with outrage and eloquence at his people’s ill-treatment at the hands of British traders:

The kings of your honourable country by a tradition handed down from generation to generation have always been noted for their politeness and submissiveness. We have read your successive tributary memorials saying, ‘In general our countrymen who go to trade in China have always received His Majesty the Emperor's gracious treatment and equal justice’, and so on. Privately we are delighted with the way in which the honorable rulers of your country deeply understand the grand principles and are grateful for this Heavenly grace. For this reason the Heavenly Court in soothing those from afar has redoubled its polite and kind treatment. The profit from trade has been enjoyed by them continuously for two hundred years. This is the source from which your country has become known for its wealth.

But after a long period of commercial intercourse, there appear among the crowd of barbarians both good persons and bad, unevenly. Consequently there are those who smuggle opium to seduce the Chinese people and so cause the spread of the poison to all provinces. Such persons who only care to profit themselves, and disregard their harm to others, are not tolerated by the laws of Heaven and are unanimously hated by human beings. His Majesty the Emperor, upon hearing of this, is in a towering rage. He has especially sent me, his commissioner, to come to Guangdong, and together with the governor-general and governor jointly to investigate and settle this matter.


Let us ask, where is your conscience? I have heard that the smoking of opium is very strictly forbidden by your country; that is because the harm caused by opium is clearly understood. Since it is not permitted to do harm to your own country, then even less should you let it be passed on to the harm of other countries -- how much less to China! Of all that China exports to foreign countries, there is not a single thing which is not beneficial to people: they are of benefit when eaten, or of benefit when used, or of benefit when resold: all are beneficial. Is there a single article from China which has done any harm to foreign countries?


As for the barbarian merchants who come to China, their food and drink and habitation, are all received by the gracious favor of our Heavenly Court. Their accumulated wealth is all benefit given with pleasure by our Heavenly Court. They spend rather few days in their own country but more time in Guangzhou. To digest clearly the legal penalties as an aid to instruction has been a valid principle in all ages. Suppose a man of another country comes to England to trade, he still has to obey the English laws; how much more should he obey in China the laws of the Heavenly Dynasty?

This communication, and the destruction of Indian opium with which the courageous Commissioner Lin followed it up, was met with gunships, which opened fire on civilian ports and looted all livestock from townspeople and villagers who could not pay for ‘protection’. China was subjected, ultimately, to a humiliating defeat and the cession of Xianggang to placate the British East India Company’s desire for ‘free trade’ (meaning, naturally, ‘free trade’ in a dangerous and often-deadly drug).

It is an oft-repeated Big Lie on the part of liberals and neoliberals that human rights and free trade go hand-in-hand; but this Big Lie requires, in China’s case, not only the acceptance of a blatant insult to their experience and cultural history, but also the acceptance on the part of everyone else an incredibly gruesome fiction. The defenders of human rights, in China, were neither the ‘free trade’-supporting Western nations who greeted the British victory against China with their own gunship delegations demanding extraterritoriality and other concessions from China, nor the nations which made blatant use of low-skilled, low-paid labour when the Qing Dynasty was in such a weakened state. Rather, in China’s case, the defenders of a transcendental ideal of human dignity were the very same Confucian officials and ideology that all later Western and Western-influenced thinkers would make the focus of their sustained attacks.


  1. Great post. If you have not read it already, I would recommend Ha-Joon Chang’s book “Bad Samaritans: The Myth of Free Trade and the Secret History of Capitalism.” Prof. Chang essentially destroys the myth that today’s wealthy nations became rich through free trade. Indeed, most of them were quite protectionist and used many different state-oriented strategies to develop, including state-owned enterprises.

    Chang mentions the Opium War and the unequal treaties as an example of how Great Britain other powers forced other countries to open up to free trade, but only after the Great Powers themselves had already industrialized!

    Prof. Chang also discusses Confucianism and how nineteenth-century Westerners argued that Confucianism held China back because it promoted insularity and literary pursuits over science and engineering but then in the twentieth century, Westerners switched the argument around when Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, etc. developed and made Confucianism a “good culture” for development.

    Chang’s main point, though, is that policies were more important than culture, and that neoliberals avoid discussing policy because very few countries have actually developed via free-market liberalism. In fact, the more “libertarian” countries tend to do worse when it comes to development and some are turned into semi-colonial states by the already-developed statist powers.

  2. I think I may have read Dr Chang's Globalisation, Economic Development, and the Role of the State, but I haven't read Bad Samaritans yet. I was impressed with his work; I've found that quite a few amongst the 'old' institutional economists do an infinitely better job than the neoclassicals of representing the grim realities of the unequal distributions of power within legal and informal regimes.

    But yeah, I'll definitely check out Bad Samaritans. Sounds like it's worth a read!

    It is really interesting, though, that the economic success of Taiwan and Japan and South Korea, absent the neoliberal policy prescriptions of the IMF, led to a reevaluation of Confucianism along Western liberal lines, and how it was now supposedly compatible with capitalism. As you've probably guessed, this is one of the developments in popular Western interpretations of Confucius that really bugs the heck out of me...

    Always good to hear from you, John; sorry I don't get around to answering your comments sooner.

    All the best,