The Fall of the Chinese Empire: Semicolonialism and Huagong Migration

European colonists arrived in Southeast Asia’s continental and island states in the early sixteenth century.4 The Spanish occupied the central Philippine archipelago, captured Manila, and extended their control to Cebu and other islands (Brown 1999). The Dutch East Indies Company turned the archipelago into a colonial empire (Cribb 1999). However, Western colonization and expansion did not peak until the nineteenth century. The Dutch took over Indonesia in 1799. The British occupied and ruled territories on the Malay Peninsula, and they founded a trading post in Singapore in 1819. In 1842 and 1860, the British defeated China in two opium wars, forcing China to open its ports and turn Hong Kong over to British control, and thus become a semicolonial state (Li 2002; Zeng 1998).

The French annexed Cochinchina in 1864 and the whole of Vietnam in 1885, and it formed the Union Indochinoise, which included Cambodia and Laos (Smith 1999). Colonial expansion allowed Western private enterprises to develop plantation agriculture and mining, extract petroleum and other natural resources, and expand the market in the new colonies. European colonists began importing Huagong (Chinese contract labor), often referred to as coolies, from China and neighboring states (Wang 1991). The new geopolitics transformed the nature and course of migration. Two distinct streams of Chinese contract labor emigration formed: one to European colonies in Southeast Asia and another to the Americas.

The Chinese Century was followed by a century of humiliation for the Chinese, who were forced to sign unequal treaties, pay a large indemnity, open ports to foreign trade and residence, cede Hong Kong and grant rights conferred by China on one foreign power to other foreign powers. The Taiping Rebellion and a series of peasant uprisings further weakened the power of the state and accelerated its decline.

In the nineteenth century, Japan rose from centuries ofnational seclusion and began to pursue industrialization and modernization. In 1894 it won the Sino-Japanese War, forcing China to cede the island of Taiwan and the Liaodong Peninsula in South Manchuria (Storry 1999). The UK, France, Germany and Russia then forced China to grant more trading rights and territory. China would probably have been divided up into colonies by Japan and the Western powers but for a growing nationalism among the Chinese and rivalry among foreign powers (Pan 1999). The Qing government promoted Japanese-type reforms, but they came too late and the dynasty fell in 1911.

The republic that then formed, initially under the Nationalist Party (Kuomintang, KMT), was too weak to unify the nation and lead it out of distress. In 1921 the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was established to challenge the new regime. Warlord rivalries and civil wars became widespread. In 1931, Japan occupied China’s northeast, leading in 1937 to the Sino-Japanese War, which lasted until 1945. This split the short-lived coalition between the Nationalists and the Communists. After 1945, civil war broke out in China and was later won by the Communists, who established the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949.

China’s lapse into semicolonial status and the colonization of the Asian Pacific region by the West and Japan profoundly influenced Chinese emigration. Western economic power broke the Chinese dominance over intraAsian trade and made Asia’s export economy part of an East-West trade in manufactured goods, food products and industrial raw materials. Huashang became agents or partners of the European traders and colonists, and they later played a major role in recruiting contract labor (Zhuang 2001). On the other hand, agricultural and industrial developments in the new colonies opened up new opportunities for Chinese diasporic communities to expand into the plantation economy and mining, hence creating a tremendous demand for labor (Pan 1999). This demand was fed by China’s vast population and its centuries-old migration networks.

In China, foreign aggression and internal rebellions disrupted normal life and routine sources of livelihood. The country had a strong tradition of out-migration as a household strategy to combat poverty and turmoil. When war broke out or a dynasty fell, people fled, either from the villages to the cities or, in a small minority of cases, to the port-cities of Southeast Asia, where the Chinese had traded (Pan 1999).

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