Few people around the world today are likely to recognize the name of Lin Weixi, a Chinese villager whose death helped launch the First Opium War, the conflict that came to define China’s relationship with the West in the modern era. In early July of 1839, as tensions between Britain and China were heightening over a trade imbalance, a couple of British merchant sailors in Kowloon got drunk on rice liqueur and beat Lin, who subsequently died. The British superintendent of trade, Charles Elliot, arrested the sailors, but refused to turn them over to the Chinese authorities, an act that China regarded as a violation of its sovereignty and an offense to justice.
.. Huawei is the largest telecom-equipment manufacturer in the world, and it recently overtook Apple as the second largest manufacturer of smartphones, after Samsung. Huawei has also emerged an increasingly powerful player in the tech industry. This year, it announced that it would increase its annual expenditure on research and development to as much as twenty billion dollars, which would place it among the world’s top R. & D. spenders, with Amazon and Alphabet.
.. Huawei’s investment in innovation has been persistent and purposeful. According to the head of geotechnology at Eurasia Group, Huawei is the only company that can currently produce “at scale and cost” all the elements of a 5G network, heralded as the next frontier of wireless communications. As such, it is positioned to take the lead in what’s been called the fourth industrial revolution.
.. Washington has long been worried that Chinese telecommunications equipment can be used for intelligence purposes. Huawei was founded, in 1987, by Ren, who was formerly an engineer in the People’s Liberation Army. Last week, the Times reportedthat “Counterintelligence agents and federal prosecutors began exploring possible cases against Huawei’s leadership in 2010” and that “as they investigated Huawei, F.B.I. agents grew concerned that company officers were working on behalf of the Chinese government.” In 2012, a U.S. House Intelligence Committee report concluded that Huawei “was unwilling to explain its relationship with the Chinese government or Chinese Communist Party,” and that the United States “should view with suspicion the continued penetration of the U.S. telecommunications market by Chinese telecommunications companies.” The Times also reported that “the top United States intelligence agencies told senators this year that Americans should not buy Huawei products.”
.. All this is viewed very differently in China, partly for reasons that date back to the nation’s devastating defeat in the First Opium War. In the eighteenth century, the British wanted tea much more than the Chinese wanted anything from the West, resulting in a chronic trade imbalance and a huge outflow of silver and gold from West to East. To staunch that flow, British traders decided to flood the Chinese market with opium from India, violating Chinese laws that forbade trafficking of the narcotic. As efforts to enforce the ban broke down, the British handily captured the city of Canton, before marching up the Chinese coastline. Within two years, Great Britain had made significant headway into the Chinese market, pried open a series of ports, and extracted concessions that the Qing dynasty was helpless to deny.
.. The war taught China two lessons it has never forgot.
- The first was that it had failed to recognize the threat of Western technological prowess. While Britain was energetically cultivating the use of steam in the first industrial revolution—and the steam-powered ships that propelled its victory in the war—China had sequestered itself, falling behind in mastering the technology that became the modern world’s instrument of power. President Xi Jinping’s push for technological supremacy in the twenty-first century can be seen as a continued revision of Chinese tactics.
- The second was that principle matters little in an international war of wills. In 1840, a Chinese official named Lin Zexu was tasked with stamping out the opium trade. He sent a letter to Queen Victoria, signed by the Emperor, in which he made an appeal to her conscience. “The purpose of your ships in coming to China is to realize a large profit,” Lin wrote. “You do not wish opium to harm your own country, but you choose to bring that harm to other countries such as China. Why?”
Lin’s letter, however, reportedly never reached the Queen, and, in Parliament, the political and economic justification given for war elided ethical concerns. Aggression against the Chinese, it was argued, was entirely about defending Britain’s honor. Many agreed with the sentiments of Samuel Warren, a novelist and later a Member of Parliament who, in a widely distributed pamphlet titled “The Opium Question,” wrote, “In the name of the dear glory and honour of old England, where are the councils which will hesitate for a moment in cleansing them, even if it be in blood, from the stains which barbarian insolence has so deeply tarnished them? . . . Why are not there seen and heard there, by those incredulous and vaunting barbarians, the glare and thunder of our artillery?”.. Ultimately, a war of rivals is also a war of perceptions. During the lead-up to the First Opium War, the British public was most aroused not by accounts of opium’s destructive effects in China but by the indignity suffered by their fellow countrymen at the hands of the “incredulous and vaunting barbarians.” Today, the Chinese public is outraged by the arrest of Meng. National pride has been stoked by what the Global Times has termed a “despicable hooliganism” and an “unconscionable” attempt to contain Chinese growth. “Some Western countries are resorting to political means to resist Huawei’s attempts to enter into their markets,” the newspaper claimed, and its editor tweeted that “Arresting Meng Wanzhou is bringing terrorism to state and business competition.” Little sympathy seems to be expressed for what the state news agency Xinhua called “coercive measures” in detaining two Canadian citizens—a former diplomat and a businessman—in China in the days following Meng’s arrest, on the grounds of unspecified “activities jeopardizing Chinese national security.” It is difficult not to see those arrests as related to Meng’s detention... Even if people in the West have heard of Lin Weixi, it’s doubtful that they would see any connection between the case of a villager killed by a couple of drunken British sailors and that of Meng Wanzhou, a top executive accused of fraud who is able to post a multimillion-dollar bail and live under a sort of house arrest in one of two opulent homes that she and her husband own in Canada. They would certainly see a sharp distinction between China’s Party-managed judiciary and Canada’s independent courts. But a Western court’s attitude toward a Chinese citizen will be understood in China as an echo of a time when Western politicians exploited an asymmetric international order. How the nations involved choose to proceed at this juncture, two hundred years later, may come to define the terms of Sino-American engagement for many years to come.
As a Chinese official once explained to me, the strategy is to open the window but place a screen on it. They get the fresh air (foreign investment and technology) while keeping out the harmful elements (volatile capital flows and disruptive imports).
In fact, China’s practices are not much different from what all advanced countries have done historically when they were catching up with others.
.. One of the main US complaints against China is that the Chinese systematically violate intellectual property rights in order to steal technological secrets. But in the nineteenth century, the US was in the same position in relation to the technological leader of the time, Britain, as China is today vis-à-vis the US. And the US had as much regard for British industrialists’ trade secrets as China has today for American intellectual property rights.
.. The fledgling textile mills of New England were desperate for technology and did their best to steal British designs and smuggle in skilled British craftsmen. The US did have patent laws, but they protected only US citizens. As one historian of US business has put it, the Americans “were pirates, too.”
.. Any sensible international trade regime must start from the recognition that it is neither feasible nor desirable to restrict the policy space countries have to design their own economic and social models. Levels of development, values, and historical trajectories differ too much for countries to be shoehorned into a specific model of capitalism.
.. Governments that worry about the transfer of critical technological know-how to foreigners are, in turn, free to enact rules prohibiting their firms from investing abroad or restricting foreign takeovers at home.
.. Many liberal commentators in the US think Trump is right to go after China. Their objection is to his aggressive, unilateralist methods. Yet the fact is that Trump’s trade agenda is driven by a narrow mercantilism that privileges the interests of US corporations over other stakeholders. It shows little interest in policies that would improve global trade for all. Such policies should start from the trade regime’s Golden Rule: do not impose on other countries constraints that you would not accept if faced with their circumstances.