Quest for Power: European imperialism and the making of Chinese statecraft by Stephen R. Halsey (review)
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Quest for Power: European imperialism and the making of Chinese statecraft
By Stephen R. Halsey. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2015.

Stephen Halsey poses a provocative question to scholars of Chinese, imperial and global history: Why did China not succumb to Western imperialism? By 1914, Europeans had conquered 84.4 percent of the world, and much of what remained unconquered was Chinese. China was one of only six non-Western countries to retain its independence (along with Japan, Thailand, Ethiopia, Persia, and what became modern Turkey). Given the "developmental gap" produced by Europe's industrial revolution and its global dominance (40), Halsey asserts, "[a] cursory glance at the historical record suggests that China should have collapsed in the 1800s and become a formal colony of one or more of the great powers" (27). That it did not, and was subjected only to informal empire, Halsey attributes to the strength and adaptability of the Chinese state.

Halsey's narrative is essentially the classic one charting "China's response to the West," but in revised form.1 Where John King Fairbank, who formulated this narrative, identified the Qing rulers of China (1644–1911) as ill-equipped to deal with the foreign onslaught, Halsey finds rather that they were quick and competent in reforming their approach to governance. Halsey criticises what he claims is the standard Western narrative for adopting the dynastic cycle theory from traditional imperial Chinese history and seeing the nineteenth-century Qing as in inevitable decline. The literature has in fact moved on significantly from such a representation, as Halsey acknowledges briefly with reference to Kenneth Pomeranz.2 Halsey's contribution is more to integrate the development of Chinese statecraft with that in early modern Europe by identifying the creation of a new "military-fiscal state" based on European norms "through both conscious imitation and independent trial and error" (8–9). This rendered the state sufficiently strong to repulse European imperial encroachment. Halsey does not consider Robinson and Gallagher's argument that Britain sought imperial influence "[b]y informal means if possible, or by formal annexations when necessary," pursuing a free trading empire on the cheap.3 Nor does he acknowledge how distracted Britain, for example, was in South Africa when the Qing was at its weakest. He makes a persuasive case for the comparative strength of China vis-à-vis South Asia or Africa, but it is possible that European empires did not need to fully colonise China to trade as they wanted or that China was simply not worth colonising given the vast costs and limited returns at a time of great tests of imperial power elsewhere.

Chapter One outlines the growth of European empires, providing an excellent synthesis of the secondary literature and integrating China into the global narrative. Halsey acknowledges that South Asian states like Mysore did seek to modernise in response to the Western threat, but were less successful than China. Contrasting China with the annexation of Malaya and Burma is telling, but comparison to Latin America, which threw off earlier imperial control and then succumbed to informal imperialism, is absent. A Latin American comparison would support Halsey's argument about the importance of a strong state but lessen China's apparent uniqueness. He also summarises the historiography on the colonisation of China, stressing the aspects that indicate Chinese strength. Usually the post-1895 era, following Japan's defeat of China, is seen as the peak of the "scramble for China,"4 but Halsey points out that land given over to foreign control after this point was for set lease-periods, not in perpetuity. Chapter Two, on foreign trade, shows how Chinese merchants avoided the disruption to trade experienced by their Bengali counterparts by integrating foreigners into existing trade patterns through the use of compradors (middlemen). Halsey argues that both Chinese traders and the Qing state profited more than suffered from foreign trade, generating additional funds for state-building projects. This was true fiscally, but the reputational damage to the Qing of depending largely on the British-managed Imperial Maritime Customs Service was a high price to pay.

The remaining five chapters offer the meat of Halsey's argument, showing how the...