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.