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Notes on Imperialism 

A large part of the decisions made in the context of international politics ignores past and recent history, with absolutely disastrous political consequences. In this regard, the lessons that can be learned from the history of modern imperialism are significant. Let’s start with China.

The period between 1839 and 1911 in China was marked by deep turmoil and upheaval due to Western colonial interference, with Great Britain standing out as a principal actor. The Opium Wars (1839-1842, 1856-1860) are emblematic of this invasion: conflicts that began under the pretext of opening Chinese markets but concealed the true objective of protecting the lucrative British opium trade. During the mid-19th century, opium became an important source of income for British India, accounting for about 22% of its gross revenue during the Second Opium War, also known as the Arrow War. British control transformed opium from a marginal crop into a pillar of the Indian economy. The profits were so substantial that the duties imposed on Chinese tea almost covered the entire annual budget of the British navy. The Treaty of Nanking in 1842 symbolizes Britain’s determination to secure these profits, imposing severe conditions on China.

The resentment generated by these imperialistic actions did not subside even after generations, as evidenced by the words of Liang Qichao in his post-Boxer Rebellion (1899-1901) essay, where he denounced Western tactics of economic and political dominance.

Although China was not a formal colony during the late Qing period, its economy was dominated by foreign powers. The Hong Kong Shanghai Banking Corporation (HSBC), founded in 1865, is an example of foreign control in the banking sector, enjoying extraterritoriality. In 1907, foreigners controlled 84% of maritime transport, and the largest companies in China were British. Even the railways were dominated by external powers, with 41% of the network under the control of four major foreign companies.

External domination extended after the nationalist revolution of 1911, intensifying in the mining and postal sectors. Additionally, Korea, previously a Chinese colony, came under Japanese control, which had already acquired Taiwan and was expanding its influence in Manchuria. Russia had established its own sphere of influence in northeast China, while Britain maintained control over significant areas such as Shanghai, Nanjing, the Yangtze Valley, Tibet, and the territories of Hong Kong and Kowloon in the south. Portugal continued to hold Macau, and French influence was strong in Kunming and along the border with Indochina, a French colony.

This historical period shows how imperialist ambitions have redefined economic and geopolitical dynamics in Asia, with consequences that have shaped development paths and international relations to this day.

Let’s now turn our attention to a territory that has recently represented a zone of permanent instability at a global level (especially for Russia and the United States). We are talking about Afghanistan.

Afghanistan is one of the actors in the complex geopolitical plot known as “The Great Game,” a prolonged rivalry between the British Empire and the Russian Empire that dominated much of the 19th century. At the center of this conflict were Afghanistan and Persia, two strategic nations for the control of Central Asia. Russia, with its expanding empire, and Britain, fearing for the security of India, its jewel colony, confronted each other in a series of proxy wars, especially in Afghanistan.

The climax of this long tension occurred in December 1903, when Britain launched an invasion into Tibet, then under the sovereignty of the Chinese Qing Empire. This aggressive act was stimulated by the fears of the Viceroy of India, Lord Curzon, who was convinced that the Dalai Lama was close to forming an alliance with Russia. The initial reluctance of the British government was overcome when Curzon manipulated information from a constructed incident to persuade Prime Minister Arthur Balfour and his cabinet to support the military intervention.

The British forces, mainly composed of Sikh sepoys and Nepalese Gurkhas under the command of British officers and led by General Francis Younghusband, encountered tenacious Tibetan resistance. Despite being outnumbered and less equipped, the Tibetans fought fiercely but were ultimately overwhelmed by British military power. The bloodiest battle occurred near the hot springs of Chumik Shenko, where the Tibetan forces suffered heavy losses: more than 500 dead compared to only twelve British casualties. This tragic event has gone down in history as the “Chumik Shenko Massacre.”

But the history of imperialism is full of surprises. Not always have Asian countries suffered domination by Europeans. Sometimes, Asian countries – like Japan – have sought to modernize themselves by emulating the most nefarious aspects of Western imperialism.

In the context of the colonial race of the 19th and 20th centuries, Japan emerged as a non-European industrial power that, thanks to its industrialization process, primarily for military purposes, avoided falling under Western influence. This transformation began with the Me iji Restoration in 1868, a turning point that marked the beginning of Japanese interest in Asia, considered its natural sphere of influence.

Japan, until then relatively isolated and internally focused, had previously conducted few overseas incursions, including the failed invasions of Korea (1592-1598) under the leadership of Toyotomi Hideyoshi and the informal annexation of the Ryukyu Islands in the 17th century. However, after 1868, Japan began to extend its influence in Asia. The war against China in 1895 was a crucial episode, culminating in the conquest of Port Arthur (Lüshunkou) and a massacre of over a thousand civilians by the Japanese army. This victory led to the de facto annexation of Korea, formalized in 1910, and the signing of the Treaty of Shimonoseki, extremely unfavorable to China, which was forced to cede Taiwan, pay heavy indemnities, and open its borders to Japanese trade.

In 1905, Japan waged a war against Russia, managing to defeat a major European power, an event that surprised the entire world. The victory was celebrated by the Japanese writer Yukichi Fukuzawa as the apex of the union between government and people. During this period, in the United States, the concept of the “yellow peril,” referring to Chinese immigrants, culminated in the approval of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Japan, with its emerging military power, began to be seen as a new “colored threat” by Westerners. In response, the Japanese poet Mori Ōgai coined the term “hakka” (white peril) in 1904.

Optimism in Japan was tangible. In 1890, diplomat Manjirō Inagaki predicted that, after the opening of the Panama Canal, Japan would become the center of the three major markets: Europe, Asia, and America, securing a prominent position in global trade. Foreign Minister Inoue Kaoru, in 1887, expressed the intention to transform Japan and its people in order to align them with European standards, founding a new European-style empire on the borders of Asia.

The occupation of Korea was seen as a Japanese reinterpretation of the European “civilizing mission,” with the aim of excluding other powers and controlling Korean trade. This narrative, promoted by figures like Hirobumi Itō, Prime Minister of Japan and then Governor of Korea, did not convince most Koreans, nor An Jung-geun, a nationalist and national hero, who assassinated Itō in 1909.

Japan’s justification for the conquest of Korea and Taiwan, ceded by China in 1895, echoed European colonial rhetorics. The colonization of Taiwan by Japan was a long and violent process, consuming 7% of the Japanese national product, and concluded with Japanese prevalence thanks to technological superiority, thus joining the methods and practices of Western colonial powers.

Let’s now turn our attention to the nation that has always presented itself to the world as the herald of freedom and democracy. We are talking about the United States.

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the United States of America, despite their anti-colonial rhetoric, turned towards imperialism, a direction also observed by external commentators. This transition was evident with the establishment of protectorates in Cuba and the Philippines, which effectively became American colonies.

In 1875, a treaty with the Kingdom of Hawaii transformed the archipelago into a de facto colony of the United States, which then formally annexed it in 1898. Hawaii became a state of the Union only in 1959, two years before the birth of Barack Obama. In 1899, the United States divided the Samoa Islands with Germany and participated in the suppression of the Boxer Rebellion in China in 1900, together with powers such as Britain, France, Japan, Russia, Germany, Italy, and Austria-Hungary.

The attitude of the United States towards territories like the Philippines and Hawaii was compared to the “civilizing mission” of European colonial states. President McKinley, after the defeat of the Filipino liberation army led by Emilio Aguinaldo in 1899, stated: “The Philippines are not ours to exploit, but to civilize, develop, educate, and train in the science of self-government.” Woodrow Wilson, then a professor at Princeton, in 1901 reiterated this notion, asserting that it was the duty of the United States to lead the Philippines towards Western models, in the process of opening and transforming the East.

Theodore Roosevelt, succeeding McKinley as president in 1904, observed in his State of the Union address that the Filipino people were “entirely incapable of existing independently or of building a civilization of their own,” but with American help, would “rise higher and higher in the scale of civilization” and be able to govern themselves. Roosevelt, described as “the most impulsive, compulsive, dramatic, scattered […] person to ever live in the White House,” won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1906 for his efforts in mediating the Russo-Japanese War.

The American conquest of the Philippines inspired Rudyard Kipling to write “The White Man’s Burden” in 1899, expressing the contemporary view on imperialism. However, there was internal resistance to American imperialism, with figures such as William Graham Sumner and philosopher William James opposing the occupation of Cuba and the Philippines, joining the American Anti-Imperialism League founded by George S. Boutwell, and which included supporters like Ambrose Bierce, Andrew Carnegie, Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain), former U.S. President Grover Cleveland, John Dewey, and labor leader Samuel Gompers. This opposition reflected a critical view of imperialism as a betrayal of fundamental American values.

The philosopher Hegel’s assertion that history is an “immense slaughterhouse” finds valid demonstration in what has been said. This metaphor, used to highlight the violence and destruction that characterize many historical epochs, fits the descriptions of conflicts, suppressions, and conquests mentioned in the article.

The Opium Wars in China, the conquest of the Philippines and other Pacific islands by the United States, the Japanese expansion in Asia, and the “civilizing mission” of European states in other parts of the world are all examples of how imperialist powers often acted with brute force and without regard for the sovereignty or well-being of colonized peoples. These historical events are characterized by power struggles, wars, subjugation of peoples and cultures, and often a high number of victims, both in terms of human lives and cultural heritage.

In this context, history can be seen as a succession of violent and destructive actions, where the interests and ambitions of dominant powers often led to devastating consequences for many societies. However, it is important to note that this view of history is not the only possible one. History is also a story of progress, innovation, and struggles for justice and equality. Therefore, while Hegel’s statement captures a significant aspect of human history, it represents only a part of a much larger and more complex picture. Indeed, history – like the human being who is its main actor – is a Janus-faced entity.

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