Mervyn Claxton’s latest essay (Opium as Trade Imperialism, http://1804caribvoices.org/articles/2013/10/opium-imperialism/) is is extremely revealing on a number of counts. Mervyn documents the humiliation imposed on China by the West through the Unequal Treaties of the 19th century, which forced China to open its markets to Western goods and permit the spread of opium addiction in China. The sequel to these squalid events was, ultimately, the downfall of the last Chinese Imperial Dynasty and the rise of Mao’s Chinese Communist Party and the establishment of the People’s Republic in 1949, known officially as the ” Liberation”. It is just one example of Western Imperialism’s sowing the wind and reaping the world wind, because the present Chinese leadership is very clear about their ultimate destiny being to regain the place they had as the world’s largest economy prior to 1800. The latest commentary by Xin Hua which heaps scorn on the irresponsibility of US management of its economic affairs while being the source of the world’s principal reserve currency, and the call for the ” De-Americanisation of the world”, is the latest manifestation of the Chinese determination to exercise a leading role in the management of the world’s affairs. Here is what is reported:
” Chinese News Agency: Instead of honoring its duties as a responsible leading power, a self-serving Washington has abused its superpower status and introduced even more chaos into the world by shifting financial risks overseas, instigating regional tensions amid territorial disputes, and fighting unwarranted wars under the cover of outright lies.
Time to start considering building a de-Americanized world.”
The Chinese have a very long memory and take a very long view of things.
A second point of interest from Mervyn’s essay relates to the use of international treaty law by the West as a means of institutionalising international relations of inequality and egregious injustice. This of course has a long history in the West’s relations with Africa since the onset of the Atlantic slave trade in the 1400s and its relations with the indigenous peoples of the Americas since the 1500s. This use of the law was also widely employed in the internal relations of the European settlers in the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and other white settler colonies. The use of Law for this purpose has a three-fold effect: (i) providing an elaborate cultural apparatus of norms, values etc. of what constitutes “civilised”, “‘acceptable” and “peaceful” behaviour for the contestation of existing relations of power (contestation is legitimate but must be ” lawful”, that is, within established parameters of property, etc.) (ii) establishing an elaborate system of procedures and mechanisms for the resolution of disputes and the contestation of power, and (iii) providing a justification for the use of state violence for repressive ends, asserted as means of ” enforcing the law”.
Mervyn starts his by pointing out that “the history of the East India Company presents a textbook case study of the North’s entrenched practice of establishing unequal trade agreements and commercial relationships with the South” . The example that immediately springs to mind, of course, is the Economic Partnership Agreement imposed on the Caribbean by the EU in 2008. It is no ordinary coincidence that a similar comparison to the made by Mervyn was made in relation to the Treaties imposed by the United States on Japan in the second half of the 19th century, by a colleague economist, of European extraction, who worked for many years as a research economist on trade at the Commonwealth Secretariat in London. Here is what he wrote to me:
” The EPA negotiations have been extremely depressing for those of us who had, perhaps naively , believed that EPAs might actually lead to some development. I was given a book by Ed Vrkic on ” Breaking Open of Japan? about US commodore Perry mission to Japan in
1853 . President Filmore sent a letter with Perry asking for a treaty opening up Japan to trade. He sent Perry with 4 huge battleships to Tokyo (clearly the Americans postal service was even then very poor). The following year Perry came back for a reply with 10 gunships. (this was a quarter if the US navy – the Japanese clearly got the message!). He signed the Treaty of Kanagawa which ” opened Japan? to what they politely called ” commercial intercourse? in the 19th century. (The obvious comments about men with big guns looking for ” commercial intercourse? seems inappropriate !)
Four years later Commissioner Harris was dispatched by Washington and he signed what was called the „Treaty of Amity and Commerce? or the Harris Treaty. Below is summary of some provisions as described in the book by Feife (Breaking Open japan, page 321
„ They (Japan) relinquished the right to establish tariffs on incoming or outgoing goods, which the treaty set …. [ In other words no EXPORT TAXES (EPA)
2) „Another tenet carried over from Perry?s Kanagawa Treaty was a MFN clause that automatically gave the US any privilege Japan might grant. That feature of so – called „hitch – hiking imperialism? delivered further profit by sharing advantages secured by other countries – advantages that put a straightjacket on Edo?s(Tokyo) foreign policy by depriving it of the ability to manoeuvre among nations [EPA–MFN clause]
3 ) Placing many goods on a tariff free list and setting a maximum of 5% …it prevented Japan from protecting its infant industries…. To raise the capital required for continued industrialization the government turned to oppressive domestic taxes. [removal of infant industry].
All of this is painfully familiar to anyone who has been through the EPAs in the last six months.
The humiliation of Japan in this treaty by US and European powers is, in part, what fed the militaristic backlash in Japan and lead inexorably to WWII.”
Finally, a fourth count on which Mervyn’s essay is revealing is in tearing away the claims of the English to being paragons of justice and fair play of which the British ruling class is so proud and into which we colonials were so profoundly conditioned, which is still exercised as a major instrument of British “soft power” in international affairs. As a child growing up in colonial Jamaica, the statue to Queen Victoria in the centre of Kingston was imprinted on my consciousness and the one thing I remember is that it was Victoria who “freed the slaves”. Now I learn from Mervyn’s essay of Victoria’ s complicity and material benefit from turning a foreign nation into a community of drug addicts so that one of the largest companies in her realm could make millions from selling tea produced by exploiting thousands of poor defenceless workers in the largest British Colony. Of course, these facts were conveniently hidden in history taught in colonial schools, just as we were taught that Elizabeth I was one of England’s most brilliant and successful Monarchs, while her role in licensing and benefiting from the infamous English slave trade is either omitted or relegated to a footnote.
Thanks a lot to Mervyn for this and his other essays in teh serries on Culture and Development.