A war against opium

A man rides past the Monument to the People's Heroes at Tiananmen Square in Beijing. Photo: Reuters   | Photo Credit: PETAR KUJUNDZIC

Hong Kong’s Special Administrative Region (SAR) government commemorated the 18th anniversary of its return to China from Britain on July 1.

- CCTV, America

In the 19th century, two major wars were fought between Britain and China over a rather unusual subject – Opium.

The Opium wars fought over nearly two decades provide a fascinating insight into how the British Empire fulfilled its colonial ambitions in Asia through its trading arm – the East India Company.

The Canton trade system

In the late 18th century, China was ruled by the Qing dynasty which had a very rigid trading system with the dominant Western powers of the time – the British and the Dutch. Countries such as Britain, badly in need of Chinese tea and porcelain, were restricted to trade only through the port of Canton (now Guangzhou) in Southeast China.

They had to carry out their business through Chinese merchants called Cohongs, could not interact with the emperor’s officials and were not even allowed to settle with family near the port where they were trading.

By the end of the 18th century the British, who paid for their imports in silver, began to feel the pinch as the rigid trade rules were draining their coffers. To offset their expenses, they began smuggling opium, a lucrative and easily available commodity, into China.

Where did opium come from?

By 1757, the East India Company had won its first and decisive victory in India at the Battle of Plassey. Expanding its trade in the sub-continent, the company cultivated huge plantations of opium in Bengal and Patna.

This opium was then shipped to Lintin island, off the coast of China and away from the Chinese’s jurisdiction, where it was distributed illegally in smaller boats to the ports. Opium’s entry into China began to have devastating impacts on the society. Right from the higher echelons such as senior officials like mandarins to the lowest sections in the country wanted to be a part of this lucrative business. Circulation of cheaper versions of opium too increased in China and so did the society’s addiction to it.

Quite soon, there was a visible denigration of the Chinese society under the drug’s influence. Around the 1830s, with military forces too falling prey to opium, the alarm was sounded among the ruling elite who sensed serious threats to the country’s defence. Finally, in 1839 Daoguang, the Qing-Manchu emperor, appointed a senior and upright official Lin Zexu to negotiate with the British and curb the drug’s penetration into the country. Zexu went on to impose punitive actions against dealers, declared a complete ban of opium into the country and confiscated and destroyed more than 20,000 chests of the drug smuggled into Canton.

His act, much to the ire of the British, turned into a grand spectacle for the Chinese public.

No soon had the stocks of opium been destroyed that the British started demanding reparations for the goods. Stray incidents of hostilities surfaced in the following years, with British soldiers killing a local in Kowloon and destroying Chinese war junks (ships equipped with weaponry).

This triggered the first opium war which ended in 1842 with the Chinese losing heavily and signing the Treaty of Nanking on August 29. The treaty forced the dynasty to open up more ports for trading with the British, cede Hong Kong to Britain and abolish the Cohongs’ monopoly in Canton.

The second war

The hostilities did not end there. In a span of a decade tensions continued to simmer between China and Britain, now with France and the US also seeking additional concessions for trade.

The second Opium war broke out in 1856 with the French forces joining the British.

The dynasty troubled with internal rebellion in the country against its rule and facing continued aggression from Western forces suffered a humiliating loss this time too. The treaty of Peking signed in 1860 sealed the final deal for Britain which resulted in further Chinese ports being opened up for foreign trade.

In addition British embassies were established in Peking, huge war reparations were paid and free proselytization of Christianity was allowed in China.

One country, two systems

Following the wars, Hong Kong continued to remain a British colony until it was handed over to China in 1997 under the ‘one country, two systems’ policy.

This meant that while Hong Kong would politically be a part of China, it could continue its economic and social policies which took root under the British rule.

The recent tensions and the wave of democratic protests in the SAR over more autonomy from mainland China are in a way a reflection of its mixed past.

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Printable version | Jan 19, 2022 3:49:47 AM |

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