January 26th, 2018

What We Sow: China and the Opium Wars

I recently read that the opioid epidemic in America has three main sources of supply: prescription opioids from pharma, Mexican heroin, and synthetic opioids from China.

In the official history of the People’s Republic of China, the Opium Wars started in 1840 were the beginning of a century of humiliation for China that ended with the founding of the republic in 1949. The Opium Wars were not glorious for anyone and many Westerners would prefer to forget them, but I doubt that many Chinese will forget those wars soon.

In classical Chinese literature and history, opium is barely mentioned and was generally thought of as an import from India and Arab countries. During the 18th Century, use became more prevalent, supplied by opium imported from India via the British East India Company. Britain and other Western powers had a trade imbalance problem with China in the 19th Century. Westerners wanted tea, silk, and other Chinese goods, but the Chinese were not interested in the West’s manufactured products. However, easily transported East Indian opium could be obtained in exchange for manufactured goods and then sold to China. This opium trade became a major source of wealth for Britain. This wealth was at the cost of huge numbers of Chinese addicts.

A share of the wealth in Britain today came from those Chinese addicts. In the U.S., the fortunes of the Astor family, the Forbes family, and the grandfather of Franklin D. Roosevelt all came from the opium trade.

The last traditional Chinese dynasty was the Qing, founded in the early 17th Century and ended in 1918. The Qing was a dynasty of conquest. The preceding Ming dynasty was conquered by the Manchus, an ethnic group from north of China and related to the Mongols.

The Manchus depended on the Chinese traditional bureaucracy for the skills to govern the vast Chinese empire. They were notorious for corrupt and frivolous spending. One example is a stationary barge that was built as a sumptuous pleasure palace with funds intended for the Chinese navy. The Qing government was both internally and externally ineffective. The Western powers, Britain, France, and, to a lesser extent, the U.S. took advantage of this weakness to force favorable trade agreements. One of these agreements was to protect the sale of Indian opium.

Opium addiction became an epidemic affecting a large segment of the Chinese population. Upright Chinese officials realized the crisis would not end until Western ships, mainly British, stopped delivering opium by the ton. These officials prevailed. Opium imports through Western merchants were banned, confiscated, burned, and dumped overboard.

The British would have none of that. In the name of free trade, the British, with the cooperation of the other Western powers, sent gun boats to ports and up rivers and canals. The Qing response was feeble and put up almost no opposition. Chinese dead and injured were many times the number of Western casualties. China was forced to accept humiliating trade deals and treaties, including ceding Hong Kong to Britain, and forced purchase of debilitating opium. The opium addiction scourge in China continued until it was wiped out in a popular, but brutal, campaign in the early years of the Peoples Republic under Mao Zedong.

Now the sides are reversed. China is selling, and we are buying. Perhaps I have a more tolerant view of China than many Americans after spending years studying classical Chinese. I am left in awe of the cultural, scientific, and economic achievements of the traditional Chinese empire. I see the current regime as both benevolent and draconian. There is much to like and much to deplore. The Chinese people appear to be healthier, more prosperous, and likely happier than they have been since the Manchu conquest in the 17th Century, but the Chinese government is repressive by my standards.

Will we be able to staunch the flow of Chinese synthetics like fentanyl that caused 20,000 of the 64,000 fatal opioid overdoses in 2016? Roughly the number of Chinese who died in the Opium Wars, not to mention China’s own untold numbers of opium deaths. The Chinese memory of the Opium War will color their response to our requests to regulate synthetic opioid exports more stringently.

If the Chinese are not enthusiastic, can we blame them?

We reap what we sow.

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