Sunday, December 18, 2011

The War For Drugs (And Tea)

Today's post is a little different from my usual ones. It's not about my travels as such (and there are no photos), but instead is about a piece of history that I have learnt whilst travelling that I didn't know and thought it important to share.

Although the most important factor making Hong Kong such a stress-free destination is the fact that most people speak English to some degree, and many often well, thanks to Hong Kong's past as a British colony. Many people like to pin all the world's ills on colonialism and its legacy, whereas I believe that is too easy a cop-out. Colonialism was often racist, mercenary and exploitative, but it also helped less developed societies to leap forward. Hong Kong would probably be the poster child for positive colonialism: a rich, dynamic and open society that is now ploughing its own furrow. Of course, what is often forgotten, is just how Britain came to possess Hong Kong and how China opened itself up to the outside world. That little episode in history is known as the Opium Wars, and is one of the darkest passages in Britain's history, and one that gets very little air-time.

When the European powers "rediscovered" China with their trading ships in the 16th century they found a country full of wondrous treasures that they dearly coveted: porcelain, silk and above all, tea. They, however, had nothing that the sophisticated Chinese needed or wanted, except silver. Luckily they had just conquered the Americas with its rich silver mines, but even so, the balance of trade for well over a century was stacked well in the Chinese favour as Europe (and Britain in particular) paid heavily to service their craving for tea. Around the time that Britain was losing its American colonies it gained a foothold in India through Bengal and in so doing acquired a new commodity: opium. Where it had failed to find a Chinese market for its guns and manufactured products, Britain succeeded with drugs. Soon thousands upon thousands of cases of opium were being smuggled into China with the tacit backing of the British government and the trade balance shifted in Britain's favour as it got huge swathes of the Chinese population hooked and craving more. Soon productivity fell, fields were left untended, people resorted to to crime to service their addictions and the whole fabric of society was being ripped apart. The Chinese tried to stop the plague, firstly by appealing to our sense of morality and justice, which fell on deaf ears as the West invented ridiculous justifications for the righteousness of drug dealing (please find below some of my favourite quotes from the time; and when that didn't work then they seized contraband shipment and destroyed it. When Lin Zexu intercepted and liquidated a shipment of 20,000 chests, or about 1000 tonnes of opium in Guangzhou (to put this in perspective that single shipment was equal to about 15% of Afghanistan's entire opium crop for 2009 - and Afghanistan produces over 90% of the world's non-medical opium) the British were incensed that someone would deny them their lucrative drug dealing operations that was destroying the country's soul and sent a fleet of gunboats to exact revenge. The Chinese were no match for the British canons when they sailed up the Yangtze to the walls of Nanjing and were forced to sue for peace, allowing the Brits to continue trading in opium, opening up the country further still and ceding Hong Kong. And so ended the First Opium War.

The Treaty of Nanking opened the floodgates and soon all the major Western powers were knocking on China's door and setting up concessions along the coast. This made Britain feel as if they were no longer special and so they decided another war was the answer. A fabricated excuse was concocted to declare war again less than 15 years later. Funnily, the majority of Parliament was against the war, so after it was rejected in a vote in the House of Commons the PM, Lord Palmerston accused the dissenting MPs of being unpatriotic and dissolved Parliament, handily circumventing due political process (not that one could imagine such a scenario occurring today...). The Brits (this time allied with the French), though heavily outnumbered, once again crushed the Qing armies and marched on Beijing, torching the Summer Palace along the way, and gaining yet further concessions (such as fully legalising the sale of opium and allowing the transportation of indentured Chinese labourers).

Following its successive defeats and the ensuing "Unequal Treaties" China was laid open to increasing foreign intervention. The opium trade not only continued but increased dramatically, and was the source of the majority of Britain's profits in all its Asian trading. Hong Kong, initially little more than a few barren islands, grew and prospered on the back of this trade to become the main entrepot in all of East Asia for both licit and illicit goods. And it wasn't until World War II that Britain finally had the decency to be embarrassed by its role as drug dealer and ended exporting opium to China. The scale of the human devastation caused, and profits accrued, by opium trafficking puts today's Latin American drug cartels and heroin-funded Taliban in the shade by its vast scale and the fact that it was fully supported by a national government, one that prided itself on its moral character. I don't know how many people suffered as a consequence of trade, but I do know that growing up in the UK I never once heard, read or saw a documentary about our history in the Far East. I wonder how much we are aware, as a society, of these skeletons in our closet.

When you boil it down to the root causes it is amazing to think that the Opium Wars were, essentially, about tea, and the British obsession with it. It may be a cliche to say that British life revolves around tea but in fact many of Britain's colonial (mis)adventures can be traced to the humble cuppa. The shameful slave trade that shipped millions of west Africans to the Americas was due at least in part to the insatiable demand for sugar to sweeten the hot beverage. In Britain's colonies in India, Sri Lanka and Malaysia, traditional farming was uprooted to make way for the noble bush; and whole populations of workers were shuffled around to provide the manpower required to harvest the precious leaves. A rather sobering thought the next time you make yourself a brew.

Nevertheless, and for the sake of trying to be objective, Britain's involvement in China cannot solely be seen as negative. China would have had to enter into the modern, globalised era at some point, and given  its notoriously inward-looking stance that process was always going to be violent and painful, no matter how it was to happen. Britain's ambitions were also never ones of subjugation, instead they were after trade profits and had little interest in interfering in China's internal affairs, as long as they didn't hinder their ability to make money. And today much of the foundations for China's economic prosperity were laid by the foreign powers: the cities of Shanghai and Qingdao were little more than fishing villages before they were turned into the trading and industrial centres that they are today. Shenzhen and Guangzhou owe their prosperity to their proximity to Hong Kong. China's first trains were built by Europeans, and they also helped modernise the country's education system. And Hong Kong itself was turned from a barren island to one of the most important cities in Asia in only 150 years.

And so once again I end up realising that the overall picture is far more complex than at first it seems, there are no goodies and baddies, things just happen. But I firmly believe we do ourselves a disservice by being unaware of such history and how it shaped the world, because it continues to affect people and politics (particularly in China where the Unequal Treaties are still used as a focus for nationalistic feelings of persecution). Furthermore I believe that some of the mistakes and negative attitudes of those days are being repeated, and will continue to be, unless we learn from them.

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