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Moving Beyond the “Unequal Treaties”

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image of Frontiers of History in China

The bilateral treaties between the Qing, the United States and other European countries, suggested a new order for commerce and diplomacy in China, often referred to as the “treaty system.” This paper reevaluates the treaty system using a critical theory of capital influenced by the work of Moishe Postone. While most histories of Qing-British relations have understood capitalism as a motivating force for British commercial expansion into China, they have only attempted to instrumentally connect capitalist interests to the ways in which that expansion took place. This analysis, by contrast, approaches capitalism as a historically specific social formation with determining social forms. These forms—commodity, labor, and value produce specific structures of social organization with an immanent historical dynamic. By relating these forms and their dynamic to treaty relations and the creative destruction they enacted over time, this paper grounds Qing-British relations in capitalism, understood not at the level of profit-seeking, but at the level of its essential social forms, their forms of appearance and self-grounded and self-reflexive evolution.


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