We’re Still Fighting the Opium Wars

The 19th century Opium Wars between England and China had lasting ramifications for both countries—so much so that in some ways the wars never ended.

The politics of victimization are a potent force in the world today. In the U.S., the dredge of cable news seems to be a daily battle between conservatives and liberals over who has been most victimized by the cruelty of the opposing side. On the global stage, debates about climate change or humanitarian intervention often devolve into debates about designs of Western powers versus the victims of Western imperialism.

Few play the victim—at home or abroad—better than China. And almost no event plays a larger role in that identity as a victim than the Opium Wars.

Julia Lovell’s The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams, and the Making of Modern China tackles this relatively small war that has had such an outsized historical impact.

For those seeking a blow-by-blow account of the conflict, this book will more than satisfy. However, the most intriguing aspect of Lovell’s work is the deftness with which she maps the gulf between how China saw opium and the conflict in the mid-19th century and how it would be portrayed 150 years later in the aftermath of Tiananmen Square.

The Opium Wars—two conflicts fought primarily between the British and the Qing dynasty first in 1839 and then again nearly two decades later—were at their simplest about the British desire to trade in a lucrative, restricted drug and have extraterritorial powers, and a Chinese empire’s refusal to allow them to do so.

At the time, the British cast themselves as the defenders of free trade at odds with the world’s last monolithic vassal system that had wantonly persecuted its citizens. Britain likened its aims in the region to those of a missionary, arguing that it was merely serving the will of the Chinese people, who were kept underfoot by the ruling Manchu minority.

As anybody who has read histories of the British in India or Africa, an imperial grab couched in such rhetoric is hardly news. What is far more fascinating is how the Chinese government perceived it.

In the run-up to the conflict, Lovell argues, the British were a mere nuisance in an empire that stretched from the steppes of Mongolia to Tibet. A problem far more pressing for the dynasty was the Taiping revolt, which ran from 1850 to 1864 and left tens of millions dead.

While opium became a salient issue for Chinese officials in the 19th century, the potential conflict with Western powers as a consequence of banning it was not. Chinese officials were much more concerned about internal issues in an exceptionally diverse empire. As Lovell writes, the emperor’s manner of dealing with the man in charge of crushing the opium traders, Lin Zexu, was “finish it up quickly and get on with the real business of the empire.”

Lin, an exceptional administrator and bureaucrat who was absolute in his opposition to opium, spent little time fretting over how the British would respond to losing a significant source of income. “Neither the emperor nor his commissioner,” claims Lovell, “seems to have felt that Sin-British relations merited serious, long-term concentration.”

To the Chinese, terrifying imperialists the British were not.

In the 19th century, both sides saw England as the underdog. But Chinese revisionists have reversed that story. According to Lovell, the version China tells now has it that “unscrupulous British traders began forcing enormous quantities of Indian opium on Chinese consumers.” When the Chinese sought to beat back this drug that wreaked such deleterious effects on its people, “British warships bullied China out of tens of millions of dollars, and its economic and political independence.” The consequence was China’s “Century of Humiliation,” which saw the country pillaged by Europe, the U.S., and Japan before the the Chinese Communist Party took control midway through the 20th century.

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Lovell does an excellent job deconstructing this self-serving myth. Beyond its ahistorical bent, it also misses two other issues. First, the Chinese (including certain emperors) bought and sold and used opium long before the British traders arrived—and well after they departed: Opium trafficking was a lucrative source of employment into the 1940s, when it provided an unlikely revenue stream for Mao’s Communists.

The second issue is that the real reasons behind China’s downfall were a lot less sexy—they were economic, ecological, and a result of overextension, according to Lovell. One of the major economic issues, she argues, was not a trade imbalance due to opium, but rather that silver was the bullion used for government currency, and Mexico’s war for independence disrupted international silver supplies.

Lovell is no apologist for the English, or their eagerness for war and their supercilious attitude implying that all China really needed was, in essence, a good spanking. She accuses British policymakers and European intellectuals of both deluding themselves and with spreading ignorance about the Qing Empire, and she argues persuasively that the Chinese had good reason to distrust British traders. The empire’s first interaction with a British trader was with Captain John Weddell, who, Lovell notes, wanted to “do all the spoils … [he] could unto the Chinois.” The Chinese, like any reasonable government would do, needed to only look at India to see what happened when the British got a foot in the door.

Lovell’s bias is a particularly modern one—a skepticism as to the efficacy of banning a drug whose use is widespread, even by the emperor himself. (Those arguing that U.S. drug wars have failed because of a lack of enforcement and a paucity of incentives need only look to China’s crackdown attempts, which included mass executions and still failed.) On top of that, while the British attempt to defend an illegal drug trade is hardly justifiable, Lovell also points out the devastation wrought when governments fail to consider what those affected by sweeping laws will do.

Those looking for historical lessons will find them aplenty. Lovell ends her tome with a stern warning for both sides. “From the age of opium-traders to the Internet,” she declares, “China and the West have been infuriating and misunderstanding each other … Ten years into the twenty-first century, the nineteenth is still with us.”

Except in the twenty-first, the consequences may be more dire.