In 1793 the Macartney Mission went to China to open up the country for the British. The overall evaluation is that it failed. The Chinese under the Qing dynasty were in the last throes of the Indian summer of a great demographic expansion dating back three hundred years, capped off by an era of peace which had lasted more than 100 years. The Qianlong Emperor was in the 57th year of his reign. And he firmly rejected all British entreaties. China was the Middle Kingdom. It did not have European wares. It did not need European wares. It could easily dismiss European concerns and sensitivities.
Or so Qianlong and his court believed. Within 50 years the British would defeat the Chinese on their home turf, and impose a humiliating peace upon them. Over the next few decades European powers would begin to dissect the rotting carcass of late Qing China, which was also being eaten alive from the inside by convulsions such as the Taiping rebellion.
Though it was difficult for people at the time to perceive, and in particular the Chinese, the signs were already present in 1793 that the British star would ascend, while that of the Chinese would dim in comparison. The Chinese economic system was at its Malthusian carrying capacity, and had squeezed all it could out of the margins of Adam Smith’s classical factors of production, land, labor, and capital. In contrast, the British were in the midst of a revolution in economic production driven by innovation would would explode the underlying parameter of growth, all the while restructuring their social conditions so as to undergo demographic transition.
The British were inventing the modern economy. The Chinese were nursing along the classical agricultural stationary state as best as they could.
Aspects of this were already evident to the British implicitly. McCartney refused to kowtow to the Chinese Emperor, maintaining dignity, whereas previous factors would likely have abased themselves. The period around 1800 in India also saw the shift away from the traditional accommodationism of the East India Company with native cultural forms and practices, toward exporting elite British folkways in toto to overseas administrative posts.
In general people living in an age of transition don’t perceive the transition themselves, and continue to fixate on earlier assumptions and truths. The period between the Berlin Conference in 1884 and the outbreak of World War I saw the high tide of European colonialism and hegemony, but the seeds of its relative decline were already there. The United States of America became the largest economy early in the 20th century. British, French, and German intellectuals may have had their disputes and contributions in those first decades, but the future was already going to be across the Atlantic.
Today I feel that many Americans are living in the past, and not admitting and acknowledging that the present is pointing to the future. The world is becoming genuinely multipolar. There is more than one sun in the sky. Though there are nearly 1 billion people speaking English on the internet (often second language speakers), there are 750 million Chinese speakers. As the year 2020 approaches we’re living in a genuinely multipolar and multicultural world, but a lot of the discussion I see on my part of the internet is about white colonialist males. As if those are the only bright white suns in the sky. Men like McCartney. But the fixation of cultural elites is often a reflection of the last war, and past priorities, just as science fiction futures reflect the present. Change is in the air, even if we don’t realize it….