Lord George McCartney left Great Britain in 1793 heading east aboard the gunship Jackal. Under his command was an illustrious assembly of 700 British scholars, diplomats, scientists and aristocrats carrying a treasure of imperial gifts and scientific innovations.
McCartney's mission: Open China to British trade. Leading the British team to negotiate concessions from the Chinese emperor, McCartney had reason for optimism. England was at its peak of power, boasting awesome naval strength and trading prowess. China, the final frontier of British mercantile expansion, was ready to be opened.
But shortly after reaching China in 1794, McCartney suffered a crushing defeat. Emperor Qianlong rejected all British requests, including one for a permanent British Embassy in Peking.
King George's precious gifts to the Chinese emperor also were refused. 'We Chinese have never valued ingenious articles, and we have no need for your country's manufactures,' thundered the defiant Qianlong.
In the end, McCartney and the British left China bitterly disappointed. 'We entered Peking like paupers, remained in Peking like prisoners and left Peking like vagrants,' Thomas Anderson, McCartney's aide-de-camp, recorded in a diary.
In 1999, 206 years later, some things in China have changed. Under the banner of Deng Xiaoping's 'open-door policy,' China now engages in important economic exchanges with the West. Exports from China topped $180 billion in 1998. Foreign direct investment peaked last year at $45 billion, second in the world only to the United States.
Foreigners are apparently welcome. And the country makes no secret of its hunger for foreign technology - at least until China learns how to develop its own.
But the smart money still recognizes that China, at its foundation, remains the same country McCartney collided with in 1794. Deng's reform era (1979-99) registers but a tiny blip on China's long history as a mostly closed nation.
For evidence, consider the auto industry. Nowhere in the world are global car manufacturers more systematically distanced from their customers.
Beijing grants production licenses only to a handful of car manufacturers, leaving the likes of Ford, Toyota and Fiat to watch from the sidelines.
Foreign carmakers can own no more than 50 percent of joint ventures.
Only majority Chinese-owned companies are permitted to import products and distribute them to Chinese customers.
Import duty rates of cars and trucks range from 80 percent to 100 percent.
Beijing limits imports through a strict quota system.
China's entry into the World Trade Organization, on paper, promises to tear down these walls. According to reports, tariffs will fall to 25 percent by 2006, foreign firms will be able to own their own distribution and sales networks, and foreign banks will be allowed to finance cars.
What's more, according to WTO rules, China will be forced to phase out local-content requirements and quota systems.
But wait a minute. If China sticks to its promises - a big 'if' - China's domestic auto companies would be crushed. Supplier companies are still ensconced in a highly protected state enterprise system. They deliver poor-quality products at high cost. The market-leading Shanghai Santana (a 25-year-old model from Brazil) costs between $15,000 and $20,000.
No other market in the world, even places such as Vietnam and Indonesia, accepts such low quality at such a high price. Chinese vehicle makers, for their part, are just starting to learn the concepts of marketing and distribution in a market economy.
With China now entering the WTO, can we really expect changes of culture-altering magnitude? Don't count on it.
Last month in Beijing, I chaired a forum on the WTO impact on China's auto industry. Our guest speaker, the chairman of the Chinese Association of Automotive Manufacturers, reminded us that China has 'never wavered from its commitment' to build its own auto industry. That means we can expect gradual liberalization - enough change to keep foreigners content while giving China time to nurture growth of its own companies.
In contrast to the Middle Kingdom of Emperor Qianlong, China today does value ingenious articles and has a need for other country's manufactures. But you can be sure that China, WTO membership or not, will accept changes only on its own terms.
Think of the WTO, therefore, as a wedge that will pry open the China market only partially. Companies fighting for a share of China's promising market will still have to get in line for the right to manufacture products and still have to build cars and trucks inside China to get market access. Then, at last, you can get on with the business of taking care of your customer.