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COURTS IN CHINA.
SOME surprise, and a little mirth, was excited by Lord Palmerston's application, in the last session, for leave to bring in a bill for the establishment of Courts in China. The Minister for Foreign Affairs is, of course, suspected of diplomacy in all that he does; and the first impression with some persons was, that Lord Palmerston only wished to make a demonstration to Count Pozzo di Borgo, that if the hands of Russian Consuls were to be inconveniently strengthened in Turkey, England might augment the power of her machinery on the coasts of China. Lord Palmerston's bill, however, is now before parliament, and the object of it appears to be simply, that the Crown should have the power of constituting a Court for the trial of offences committed by any British subjects in the ports or on the coasts of China, and for hearing civil suits brought against British subjects, for any causes of action arising in China, or in the course of the British trade with that country. The introduction of some sort of law and order amongst the British residents on the coasts of China, who at present do not there acknowledge any law at all, would seem to be not unreasonably contemplated, as a necessary preliminary, to the Crown's answering the call for protection which is made by these residents; and it might, perhaps, have obviated a good deal of cavil, if the title of the bill had expressed distinctly, not that the Court was to have jurisdiction in China, but over the acts of British subjects in China. Two difficulties are very obvious, and, of course, they are dwelt upon, and amplified, by those who would like better to have the assistance of the Crown afforded to their enterprises, without any accompanying restraint. Where can such a court be held, and how shall its process be enforced? These difficulties appear to be greater than they really are. Three principal functionaries would, perhaps, be required — a consul, or superintendent-general of the trade, a judge, and a naval officer. The consul, or superintendent, ought to have an absolute control of the whole executive power, which it may be intended to call into action, including the execution of the judgments, and the service, or the enforcing of the process of the court: he ought to be charged, also, with the duty of negotiating and arranging all matters, in which the concert or assent of the Chinese government, or of any foreign powers, might be required; and of suggesting, to her Majesty in Council, any new regulations of trade, or enactments of the British parliament. The judge and the court ought to be rigidly restricted to the trial of offences, and the hearing of civil suits, and the declaration of the law applicable to each case; the execution of the judgment or decree being left entirely to the directions of the consul or superintendent. Punishments might, perhaps, be limited to fine, and exclusion from personal interference in the trade upon the coasts of China, with such imprisonment only, and forfeiture of goods, as might be necessary to enforce the latter penalty. A captain or lieutenant of the royal navy might either have a ship with him, or might be authorised to organise such a force in the country, as might be necessary for carrying into execution the orders of the consul or superintendent. But he ought to be in complete subordination to the civil power, and to understand that the duty required of him is not to make war, but to assist the consul or superintendent in maintaining order. The court might sit in the British factory at Canton, by arrangement with the Hong merchants; or at Macao, by arrangement with the Portuguese government; or on board a British manof-war, in the bay of Canton; or at Manilla, by agreement with the Spanish government; or at Singapore. It might require consideration, whether it would be necessary or desirable that all or any of the three principal functionaries should be constantly resident in China, or should only be there at particular seasons, or as occasion might arise. The naval officer might have a surveying vessel under his orders; the judge would perhaps have more authority, if he came into the bay of Canton periodically, from the straits of Molacca ; and a consul-general might be usefully employed within a wider sphere than the bay of Canton, if a vice-consul, or any other subordinate agent, was permanently resident in China. All would depend upon the character and powers of the chief consul, or superintendent. If he were equal to his difficult portion of the task, Lord Palmerston's bill might be made as good an instrument, perhaps, as any ingenuity could devise, for continuing the extraordinary, disjointed, and tottering system, upon which the valuable and important trade of India and the United Kingdom with the empire of China is now, and has been long, carried on; and for which system we probably could not immediately substitute a better, without an expensive, and a wide, and bloody warfare.
A well-regulated joint-stock company, upon a great scale, might indeed comprehend all that is contemplated in the bill, and much more; but it is very doubtful, whether any proposal for such an establishment would be favourably received in England, either by the public at large, or even by the mercantile interest, and time would, at all events, be required, and something must be done in the interval.
The state of affairs in China is, at present, full of increasing difficulty and hazard. It is a fearful subject to enter upon, because the dangers of it are multiplied by discussion; and, for this reason, it may not be expedient to have any committee of inquiry upon Lord Palmerston's bill. If such a committee was to be appointed, it would have to report upon the best mode of continuing and preserving a trade, from which this country derives more than three millions of its revenue ; which, until 1833, was supported almost entirely by the power, wealth, establishment, and practised arrangement of the East India Com- , pany; which, in 1833, had all of these supports removed ; and which, at present, rests upon some edicts of the Chinese Viceroy of Canton : upon the Chinese establishment of Hong merchants and their factories : upon the tenure by the Portuguese of the town and peninsula of Macao : upon the unregulated, uncombined, and rival efforts of the British merchants and traders assembled in Macao, and in the bay of Canton: upon the directions of a British superintendent, who has no powers : and, in the last resort, upon a call which may be made, at any time, upon the British Crown, for its interference.
An instrument, of which such are the strings, may produce harsh discords, if it be played upon without science, or without skill; but these complicated and intractable affairs might, perhaps, be conducted in a better strain, if the British government could provide the means for keeping its own people in order, and was prepared to insist, as a basis of intercourse with the Chinese, upon two propositions: First, that China, after having permitted the trade to grow to its present importance, would not be justified in wantonly cutting it up by the roots ; secondly, that if the continuance of it is to be permitted, all that has been permitted for its growth, and that has been necessary for it, and that is not unjust, ought to be permitted for its continuance, if it be necessary for that also. The main hold which the British government has on that of China
is, that the Chinese have begun to perceive, pretty clearly, that if the British government, including the East India Company, was to abandon all interference with the trade, it would not now be long before the coasts and maritime towns and provinces of China would become the theatre of piratical exploits, in which adventurers from all the seafaring nations of the world would be rivals. The point which ought next to be laboured, is by gentle means to induce the Chinese government to open their eyes to the fact, that the power of the United Kingdom is the only power on earth which can wholly prevent this without a struggle.