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

Another Civilisation War

Written: October 1859;
Transcribed by: Harold Newson;
HTML Mark-up: Andy Blunden;

October 1859

THAT THERE is to be another civilization war against the Celestials seems a matter now pretty generally settled with the English press. Still, since the meeting of the Cabinet Council on Saturday last, a remarkable change has come over those very papers that were foremost in the howl for blood. At first, the London Times, in an apparent trance of patriotic fury, thundered at the double treachery committed — by cowardly Mongols who lured on the bonhomme of the British Admiral by studiously falsifying appearances and screening their artillery — by the Court of Peking, which, with deeper Machiavelianism, had set those Mongol ogres to their damnable practical jokes. Curious to say, although tossed on a sea of passion, The Times had, in its reprints, contrived to carefully expunge from the original reports all points favourable to the doomed Chinaman. To confound things may be the work of passion, but to garble them seems rather the operation of a cool head. However that be, on Sept. 16, just one day before the meeting of the Ministers, The Times veered round, and, without much ado, cut one head off its Janus-headed impeachment. "We hear," it said, "that we cannot accuse the Mongols who resisted our attack on the forts of the Peiho of treachery"; but then, to make up for that awkward concession, it clung the more desperately to the deliberate and perfidious violation of a "solemn treaty" by "the Court of Peking." Three days later, after the Cabinet Council had been held, The Times, on further consideration, even found "no room for doubt that if Mr. Bruce and M. de Bourboulon had ... solicited the Mandarins to conduct them to Peking, they would have been permitted to effect the ratification" of the treaty. What, then, remains there of the treachery of the Court of Peking? Not a shadow even, but in its place there remain two doubts on the mind of The Times. "It is," it says, "perhaps doubtful whether, as a military measure, it was wise to try with such a squadron, our way to Peking. It is still more doubtful whether, as a diplomatic measure, it was desirable to use force at all." Such is the lame conclusion of all the indignation bluster indulged in by the "leading organ," but, with a logic of its own, it drops the reasons for war without dropping the war itself. Another semi-Governmental paper, The Economist, which had distinguished itself by its fervent apology for the Canton bombardment, seems to take a more economical and less rhetorical view of things now that Mr. J. Wilson has got his appointment of Chancellor of the Exchequer for India The Economist brings two articles on the subject, the one political, the other economical; the first one winding up with the following sentences:

"Now, all these things considered, it is obvious that the article of the treaty which gave our Ambassador a right of visiting or residing at Peking, was one literally forced upon the Chinese Government; and if it were thought absolutely essential to our interests that it should be observed, we think there was much room for the display of consideration and patience in exacting its fulfillment. No doubt it may be said that with such a Government as the Chinese, delay and patience are interpreted as a sign of fatal weakness, and is therefore the most unsound policy we could pursue. But how jar are we entitled, on this plea, to vary the principles on which we should assuredly act toward any civilized nation in our treatment of these Oriental Governments? When we have wrung out an unwelcome concession from their fears, it may be perhaps the most consistent policy to wring out, also from their fears, the immediate execution of the bargain in the way most convenient to ourselves. But if we fail in so doing — if, in the meantime, the Chinese overcome their fears, and insist, with a suitable display of force, on our consulting them as to the mode to be taken for giving our treaty effect — can we justly accuse them of treachery? Are they not rather practising upon us our own methods of persuasion? The Chinese Government may — and it is very likely that it is so — have intended to entrap us into this murderous snare, and never have purposed to execute the treaty at all. If this should prove to be so, we must and ought to exact reparation. But it may also prove that the intention to defend the mouth of the Peiho against the recurrence of such a violent entry as was made good by Lord Elgin in the previous year, was not accompanied by any desire to break faith on the general articles of the treaty. As the hostile initiative came entirely from our side, and it was, of course, at any moment competent to our commanders to retire from the murderous fire, opened only for the defence of the forts, we cannot certainly prove any intention of breaking faith on the part of China. And, till proof of a deliberate intention to break the treaty reaches us — we think we have some reason to suspend our judgment, and ponder whether we may not have been applying to our treatment of barbarians, a code of principles not very widely different from that which they have practised towards ourselves."

In a second article on the same subject, The Economist dwells on the importance, direct and indirect, of the English trade to China. In the year 1858, the British exports to China had risen to 2,876,000, while the value of the British imports from China had averaged upward of cg,000,000 for each of the last three years, so that the aggregate direct trade of England with China may be put down at about ci2,000,000. But beside these direct transactions there are three other important trades with which, less or more, England is intimately connected in the circle of exchanges, the trade between India and China, the trade between China and Australia, and the trade between China and the United States. "Australia," says The Economist, "takes from China large quantities of tea annually, and has nothing to give in exchange which finds a market in China. America also takes large quantities of tea and some silk of a value far exceeding that of their direct exports to China." Both these balances in favour of China have to be made good by England, who is paid for this equalization of exchanges by the gold of Australia and the cotton of the United States. England, therefore, independently of the balance due by herself to China, has also to pay to that country large sums in respect to gold imported from Australia and cotton from America. Now this balance due to China by England, Australia, and the United States and from China to India, as asked by China to India, on account of, en passant, that the imports never yet reached the amount of l,000,000 sterling while the exports to China from India realize the sum of nearly 10,000,000. The inference The Economist draws from these economical observations is, that any serious interruption of the British trade with China would "be a calamity of greater magnitude than the mere figures of our own exports and imports might at first sight suggest," and that the embarrassment consequent upon such a disturbance would not be felt in the direct British tea and silk trade only, but must also "affect" the British transactions with Australia and the United States. The Economist is, of course, aware of the fact that during the last Chinese war, the trade was not so much interfered with by the war as had been apprehended; and that, at the port of Shanghai, it was even not affected at all.

But then, The Economist calls attention to "two novel features in the present dispute" which might essentially modify the effects of a new Chinese war upon trade — these two novel features being the "imperial" not "local character of the present conflict, and the" signal success which, for the first time, the Chinese have effected against European forces. How very different sounds this language from the war cry The Economist so lustily shouted at the time of the Lorcha affair.

The Ministerial Council, as I anticipated in my last letter, witnessed Mr. Milner Gibson's protest against the war, and his menace of seceding from the Cabinet, should Palmerston act up to the foregone conclusions betrayed in the columns of the French Moniteur. For the moment Palmerston prevented any rupture of the Cabinet, and the Liberal Coalition, by the statement that the force indispensable for the protection of British trade should be gathered in the Chinese waters, while before the arrival of more explicit reports on the part of the British Envoy, no resolution should be taken as to the war question. Thus the burning question was put off. Palmerston's real intention however transpires through the columns of his mob-organ The Daily Telegraph, which in one of its recent numbers says:

"Should any event lead to a vote unfavourable to the Government in the course of next year, an appeal will certainly be made to the constituencies.... The House of Commons will test the result of their activity by a verdict on the Chinese question, seeing that to the professional malignants; headed by Mr. Disraeli must be added the Cosmopolitans who declare that the Mongols were thoroughly in the right."

The fix in which the Tories are hemmed up, by having allowed themselves to become inveigled into the responsible editorship of events planned by Palmerston and enacted by two of his agents, Lord Elgin and Mr. Bruce, (Lord Elgin's brother) I shall, perhaps, find another occasion for remarking upon.