Tremblingly obey and show no negligence!” the Qianlong Emperor once ordered England’s King George III. It was one of the last occasions a Chinese monarch would attempt to humiliate a European power intent on access to Chinese markets. So when one of the emperor’s imperial seals went under the hammer in Hong Kong last week, a king’s ransom was bid for a symbol of lost grandeur.
The white jade relic went to an anonymous collector for a record $12 million, a measure of the regard still felt for a ruler with an empire among the largest in China’s history. But though many Chinese take pride in Qianlong’s swagger, historians say he also sowed the seeds of imperial China’s eventual demise.
The fifth Qing emperor ruled for sixty years until his abdication in 1796. During his reign, China fancied itself not only as a military force, but also an economic superpower, producing an estimated one third of global GDP.
A series of wars pushed its borders well beyond the Great Wall to Tibet, Mongolia and – for the first time – to Xinjiang (then called Turkestan). The high cost of these campaigns is blamed for China’s failure to modernise its military – a lesson learned later, on the arrival of the European gunboats.
Then, as now, China ran a huge trade surplus with the West – albeit exporting tea rather than toys and t-shirts. But Qianlong didn’t have to worry about WTO rules or international pressure to revalue his currency. He simply dismissed calls to open the Chinese market. “I set no value on objects strange or ingenious, and have no use for your country’s manufactures,” he told the British envoy George Macartney.
That wasn’t the answer the former governor of Madras was looking for. Macartney was, after all, the man who coined the phrase that Britain controlled “a vast empire, on which the sun never sets”.
So, as superpower summits go, it wasn’t a great success. The trade dispute with Europe would eventually escalate into war, but not until several decades after Qianlong’s death. Just as well: the emperor had confidently warned King George “to display even greater devotion and loyalty in future, so that, by perpetual submission to our Throne, you may secure peace and prosperity for your country hereafter.”
Instead, the major threats to Qianlong’s rule were domestic. The emperor and most of his government were Manchus, a tiny racial minority in the country they ruled. That annoyed the majority Han Chinese. Macartney observed at the time that: “all the authority and address of the Tartar Government will [not] be able much longer to stifle the energies of their Chinese subjects.”
But it would not be for want of trying. Qianlong spoke Chinese and made a real effort to sinicise his administration. Like the first Qing emperor, he also suppressed opposition by burning any book critical of Qing rule. A dangerous side effect of Qianlong’s relatively stable reign was that the population doubled to nearly 300 million, putting a huge strain on resources. Rebellions were fuelled by a rising number of landless peasants and unemployed graduates. Most were quickly put down, but the White Lotus rebellion in central and western China – it started as a protest at tax hikes – inspired insurrection for eight years before it was finally defeated by Qianlong’s successor.
The rebels were aided in no small part by the increasing venality at Qianlong’s court. The ageing emperor looked the other way as his favourite ministers amassed fortunes. Another lesson – the dangers of corruption – not lost on China’s current leaders.
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