For the British, China was a sphere of influence rather than a colony like India or Africa. Though many people of British nationality did live in China, there was never a move to settle the country as there was in North America. However, the British exercised a great deal of economic and political power in China during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, contributing to the downfall of the Qing dynasty.
Primarily economic interests, particularly for Chinese tea, silk, and porcelain, motivated British intervention in China. However, England had little that China wanted in return for these exotic goods, and so they encouraged the illegal trade of opium, leading to high rates of addiction and crime in China. Chinese attempts to shut down this illegal trade led to the Opium Wars. The First Opium War (1839-1842) was sparked by viceroy Lin Zexu's confiscation of 1,210 tons of opium from British traders. The First Opium War resulted in the Qing government’s defeat, and Britain’s acquisition of the island of Hong Kong. The Second Opium War (1857-1860) also resulted in an expansion of British trade privileges in China.
Ideologically, British colonization of China was supported by the idea of the “white man’s burden,” the idea that it was the duty of the English to spread “civilization” among the natives. In The Painted Veil, we can see evidence of this idea of “the white man’s burden” in Walter Fane’s trip to Mei-tan-fu, where he helps to battle a cholera outbreak. Though this may sound like a relatively benevolent motivation, it in fact caused enormous damage to native cultures by undermining traditional systems of law, agriculture, education, art, and social structure, and created a global white supremacist hierarchy.