They’re smiling in your face / the backstabbers…

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So the Chi­nese have exe­cut­ed a Briton for per­haps smug­gling opi­ates into Chi­na. I think it’s thor­ough­ly appalling, but with­out want­i­ng to get into the pros and cons of the death penal­ty (which, as I’m sure any read­er of this blog would like­ly be aware of, I’m, with­out reser­va­tion, opposed to), one can’t but wince at the British hypocrisy.

It’s hard not to recall that much of the wealth of The British Empire in the 19th and first half of the 20th Cen­tu­ry came from step­ping over the bod­ies of count­less Chi­nese with who they fought sev­er­al wars to ensure were addict­ed to opi­um sup­plied and con­trolled by Great Britain. The armies, the great banks of the empire, the homes and fin­ery of upper-class Britain and much more, were fund­ed in a large part by the impe­r­i­al impor­ta­tion of nox­ious drugs into Chi­na:

The first Opi­um War was fol­lowed by a sec­ond in 1856–60. The British were joined by the French as junior part­ners, the French hav­ing appoint­ed them­selves the “pro­tec­tors” of China’s Catholics. The com­bined British and French forces loot­ed and destroyed the Emperor’s Sum­mer Palace.

In the treaty end­ing the sec­ond Opi­um War, the Chi­nese were forced to accept the legal­iza­tion of opi­um. With Chi­nese resis­tance bro­ken, large scale opi­um pro­duc­tion in Chi­na was begun, sup­pos­ed­ly to stop the drain on sil­ver caused by opi­um imports. Both imports and domes­tic pro­duc­tion soared, with imports reach­ing 105,508 chests by 1880. It is con­ser­v­a­tive­ly esti­mat­ed, that China’s opi­um-addicts num­bered between 30 and 40 mil­lion, at that time.

Par­al­lel to this, the British gained a stran­gle­hold on the Chi­nese econ­o­my and gov­ern­ment finances. In 1853, the British were able to grab con­trol of Chi­nese Cus­toms in Shang­hai, because of the Taip­ing revolt. Twen­ty years lat­er, all Chi­nese cus­toms were man­aged by the British, with all Cus­toms Hous­es of Chi­na with­in reach of British shells. For 40 years after 1860, Britain dom­i­nat­ed China’s com­merce. By 1895, China’s trade with Britain’s rep­re­sent­ed two-thirds of all Chi­na trade, which then totalled 53.2 mil­lion pounds ster­ling.

Opi­um remained at the head of the list, aver­ag­ing 10 mil­lion pounds ster­ling a year dur­ing the 1880’s. By 1900, a great part of gov­ern­ment rev­enues went to pay indem­ni­ties, imposed on Chi­na by var­i­ous “peace” treaties.

Opi­um went hand-in-hand with for­eign con­quest and rev­o­lu­tion. Chi­na was rapid­ly bro­ken apart by the cen­trifu­gal forces intro­duced by the effects of British loot­ing.

And, yes, ancient his­to­ry and all, but the roots of the scourge that still afflicts Chi­na (and much of the world) lies in the trade.

Indeed, when the Com­mu­nists came to pow­er in Chi­na, 10% of the pop­u­la­tion were said to be opi­um addicts, and sim­i­lar fig­ures exist­ed in Hong Kong, Sin­ga­pore and much of the glob­al Chi­nese com­mu­ni­ty much, much lat­er.

I’m old enough to remem­ber the opi­um dens infa­mous in Auckland’s Grey’s Ave and Hob­son Street which lived into the ‘70s, and sat and lis­tened to the noto­ri­ous old Herne Bay madam, Flo­ra, telling us hor­rif­ic sto­ries of death and pain in the immi­grant Chi­nese com­mu­ni­ty in the lat­er part of that decade.

None of which excus­es the Chi­nese, or jus­ti­fies what they’ve just done, but it per­haps needs to be said.

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