Karl Marx in New York Daily Tribune
Articles On China, 1853-1860

Russia and China

Written: April 7, 1857;
Transcribed by: Harold Newson;
HTML Mark-up: Andy Blunden;

April 7, 1857

In the matter of trade and intercourse with China, of which Lord Palmerston and Louis Napoleon have undertaken the extension by force, no little jealousy is evidently felt of the position occupied by Russia. Indeed, it is quite possible that without any expenditure of money or exertion of military force Russia may gain more in the end, as a consequence of the pending quarrel with the Chinese, than either of the belligerent nations.

The relations of Russia to the Chinese Empire are altogether peculiar. While the English and ourselves — for in the matter of the pending hostilities the French are but little more than amateurs, as they really have no trade with China — are not allowed the privilege of a direct communication even with the Viceroy of Canton, the Russians enjoy the advantage of maintaining an Embassy at Peking. It is said, indeed, that this advantage is purchased only by submitting to allow Russia to be reckoned at the Celestial Court as one of the tributary dependencies of the Chinese Empire. Nevertheless it enables Russian diplomacy, as in Europe, to establish an influence for itself in China which is by no means limited to purely diplomatic operations. Being excluded from the maritime trade with China, the Russians are free from any interest or involvement in past or pending disputes on that subject; and they also escape that antipathy with which from time immemorial the Chinese have regarded all foreigners approaching their country by sea, confounding them, and not entirely without reason, with the piratical adventurers by whom the Chinese coasts seem ever to have been infested. But as an indemnity for this exclusion from the maritime trade, the Russians enjoy an inland and overland trade peculiar to themselves, and in which it seems impossible for them to have any rival. This traffic, regulated by a treaty made in 1787, during the reign of Catharine H., has for its principal, if not indeed its sole seat of operations, Kiachta, situate on the frontiers of southern Siberia and of Chinese Tartary, on a tributary of the Lake Baikal, and about a hundred miles south of the city of Irkutsk. This trade, conducted at a sort of annual fair, is managed by twelve factors, of whom six are Russians and six Chinese, who meet at Kiachta, and fix the rates — since the trade is entirely by barter — at which the merchandise supplied by either party shall be exchanged. The principal articles of trade are, on the part of the Chinese, tea, and on the part of the Russians, cotton and woollen cloths. This trade, of late years, seems to have attained a considerable increase. The quantity f tea sold to the Russians at Kiachta, did not, ten or twelve years ago, exceed an average of forty thousand chests; but in 1852 it amounted to a hundred and seventy-five thousand chests, of which the larger part was of that superior quality well known to continental consumers as caravan tea, in contradistinction from the inferior article imported by sea. The other articles sold by the Chinese were some small quantities of sugar, cotton, raw silk and silk goods, but all to very limited amounts. The Russians paid about equally in cotton and woollen goods, with the addition of small quantities of Russian leather, wrought metals, furs and even opium. The whole amount of goods bought and sold — which seem in the published accounts to be stated at very moderate prices-reached the large sum of upward of fifteen millions of dollars. In 1857 owing to the internal troubles of China and the occupation of the road from the tea provinces by bands of marauding rebels, the quantity of tea sent to Kiachta fell off to fifty thousand chests, and the whole value of the trade of that year was but about six millions of dollars. In the two following years, however, this commerce revived, and the tea sent to Kiachta for the fair Of 1855 did not fall short of a hundred and twelve thousand chests.

In consequence of the increase of this trade, Kiachta, which is situated within the Russian frontier, from a mere fort and fair-ground, has grown up into a considerable city. It has been selected as the capital of that part of the frontier region, and is to be dignified by having a military commandant and a civil governor. At the same time a direct and regular postal communication for the transmission of official dispatches has lately been established between Kiachta and Peking, which is distant from it about nine hundred miles.

It is evident that, should the pending hostilities result in suppression of the maritime trade, Europe might receive it entire supply of tea by this route. Indeed, it is suggested that even with the maritime trade open, Russia, may, upon the completion of her system of railroads, become a powerful competitor with the maritime nations for supplying the European markets with tea. These railroads will supply direct communication between the ports of Cronstadt and Libau and the ancient city of Nijni Novgorod in the interior of Russia, the residence of the merchants by whom the trade at Kiachta is carried on. The supply of Europe with tea by this overland route is certainly more probable than the employment of our projected Pacific Railroad for that purpose Silk, too, the other chief export of China, is an article of such small bulk in comparison to its cost, as to make its transportation by land by no means impossible; while this Chines traffic opens an outlet for Russian manufactures, such as it cannot elsewhere attain.

We may observe, however, that the efforts of Russia are by no means limited to the development of this inland trade. It is several years since she took possession of the banks of the River Amur, the native country of the present ruling race in China. Her efforts in this direction received some check an interruption during the late war, but will doubtless be revive and pushed with energy. She has possession of the Kuril Islands and the neighbouring coasts of Kamchatka. Already she maintains a fleet in those seas, and will doubtless improve any opportunity that may offer to obtain a participation in the maritime trade with China. This, however, is of little consequence to her compared with the extension of that overland trade of which she possesses the monopoly.