When President Donald Trump talks about China, he tends to focus on two things: trade imbalances and his high regard for China’s leader, Xi Jinping. “President Xi and I will always be friends, no matter what happens with our dispute on trade,” Mr. Trump tweeted in April 2018. It’s an unusual sight, to say the least: the leader of the world’s dominant economic power flattering China’s powerful ruler while attacking the foundations of an enormously valuable economic relationship.
Yet this combination of enchantment and punishment is not as unprecedented as it might seem. As Stephen R. Platt describes in his masterly “Imperial Twilight: The Opium War and the End of China’s Last Golden Age,” Chinese commerce with Western countries has been consistently defined by the dynamics of flattery and scorn, wonder and chastisement, fairness and greed. Mr. Platt, a historian at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, is careful not to project the concerns of the present back onto the past. But the resonances are inescapable, and his book is important reading not only for those interested in China’s history but also for anyone seeking to understand the explosive intersection between trade and politics today.
By Stephen R. Platt
Knopf, 556 pages, $35
The first Opium War (1839-42) is perhaps the best-known event in China’s imperial history: a violent confrontation between the British Empire, which foisted the addictive drug on the Chinese people, and a supposedly hidebound, insular China. Mr. Platt devotes little attention to the fighting itself or to its subsequent symbolic meaning in China, where it is cast as the start of a “Century of Humiliation” that the Chinese Communist Party brought to an end. These topics have been examined in standout recent books by Julia Lovell and Robert Bickers, among others. Instead, Mr. Platt’s goal is to pick apart the complex and fascinating historical strands that led to the war. He tells his story through both Chinese and Western eyes, portraying a torturous history of misunderstandings and miscalculations that careered toward a violent conflict that was “arbitrary and unexpected,” and eminently avoidable.
China around 1800 was a sprawling empire that commanded the respect and illuminated the imaginations of countless Europeans and Americans. Although burdened by corruption and domestic instability, and militarily weak as compared with Britain and its Royal Navy, the ruling Qing dynasty was still a major power. The world’s three largest cities were London, Beijing and Canton (now Guangzhou), the southern port where the Qing decreed that all foreign commerce must take place. Adam Smith was not wrong when he wrote in “The Wealth of Nations” that China was “one of the richest, that is, one of the most fertile, best cultivated, most industrious, and most populous countries in the world.”
About the foreigners who traveled to China, Mr. Platt tells an intergenerational story of “two competing worldviews”: a clash between those “who respected China’s power and prosperity” and those who…