The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams, and the Making of Modern China (2011)

If you came of age in the 1970s or the 1980s, you grew up hearing about “the war on drugs.” It wasn’t really a war on drugs. Similar to the it war on terror, the war on drugs was an open-ended call to arms with no clear enemy, an elaborate justification for a counterinsurgency against black nationalism, against the counterculture of the 1960s, and for the system of mass incarceration that has put over 2 million Americans behind bars. In the 1990s, after Gary Webb published his seminal Dark Alliance, we learned that the same United States government promoting the “war on drugs” had actually sold drugs, had flooded South Central Los Angeles with enough crack cocaine to pay for its contra war in Nicaragua. The war on drugs, in other words, was a total fraud.

What would a real “war on drugs” look like?

Let’s take the First Opium War. In 1839, although trade been Great Britain and China had gone on for centuries, relations between the two countries had reached a boiling point. Not only did the Qing Emperor in Beijing tightly restrict the access of British merchants to Chinese markets, there wasn’t much that the British had to sell that the Chinese wanted to buy. The British public, on the other hand, had an almost insatiable demand for tea, porcelain, silks, and other luxury goods. The result was a trade deficit in favor of the Chinese, and a massive drain of precious metals like silver out of the British treasury, precious metals the Chinese government needed to fight a series of wars in the western part of the country against Muslim rebels.

Enter opium. The Chinese public wanted it. The British, who controlled vast poppy fields in India, had plenty of it to sell. The Chinese government, in turn, which had already outlawed the drug, and which had grown increasingly frustrated over the British government’s failure to crack down on smuggling, eventually sent an official named Lin Zexu to Canton – a city in the south of China where most European merchants were confined – to deal with the problem. Lin Zexu is still a hero in China and Charles Elliot, his British antagonist, still a villain. After Zexu had persuaded Elliot to surrender over 1000 tons of opium into his custody, and had it publicly destroyed on the beaches at Humen near the present day city of Dongguan, he realized that the wily British colonial administrator had pulled a fast one. While Elliot had appeared to agree to most of Zexu’s demands, he had actually transferred ownership of the opium to the British crown before confiscating it from British traders. This obligated the government of Lord Palmerston and Lord Melbourne to reimburse the merchants for the cost of the drug, an obligation that almost guaranteed war.

The British, as Julia Lovell relates in significant detail, made short work of the Qing dynasty’s army and navy. Not only did the British possess superior weapons, not the least of which was the ironclad gunboat Nemesis, the Qing Emperor’s generals were corrupt and incompetent. There was little, if any, communications between Beijing and Canton. The emperor’s commanders, fearful for their reputations and lives if they should fail, made up stories about victories over the “barbarians” that never happened. The result was the Treaty of Nanking, which ceded Hong Kong and four other treaty ports to the British government, abolished the Canton system, the tightly restricted access to the Chinese mainland which had been in effect since 1757, and opened up most of the country to “free trade” with the West. British merchants were now free to sell all the opium they wanted to a country of 400 million people.

Free trade, in other words, not only came at the point of a gun, it came with drugs.

Julia Lovell, who to my mind comes across like a tricky apologist for the British Empire – whenever a British historian goes through so much effort to prove that “things are complicated” look out for a subtle imperialist agenda – nevertheless tells an interesting story about the effects of the opium trade on both the Chinese and British people. After the Second Opium War — there was a Second from 1856 to 1860 during the height of the Taiping Rebellion — and Chinese citizens gained the freedom to emigrate to the west, the British public made an effort, sometimes noble, sometimes despicable and racist, to come to terms with what they had done. The Liberal Prime Minister Gladstone, quite an appalling figure in other respects, condemned in no uncertain terms the vast crime of getting 400 million people hooked on dope just to redress a trade deficit and to make a profit. The novelist Charles Dickens, on the other hand, in his unfinished novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood, wrote one of the first “Yellow Peril” narratives, depicting the Chinese people as inveterate drug addicts and degenerates.

The most disappointing thing about The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams, and the Making of Modern China is perhaps the way Lovell fails to significantly address the intentions of the British government. After dismissing the idea that “Britain came into its Empire by accident” as traditional imperial propaganda, she goes onto argue just that, that the British got the Chinese hooked on opium, almost by accident. She never comes clean about how there can really be only one of three possibilities.

1.) The British didn’t know that opium was addictive.

2.) The British knew that opium was addictive but they didn’t care.

3.) The British intentionally arranged to get the Chinese people addicted to opium.

Almost by accident, Lovell dismisses the first possibility. Her fascinating study of “yellow peril” novels and conspiracy theories makes it clear that the British knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that opium was addictive. After all, why else would the British public come to the racist belief that Chinese immigrants were plotting to get the white race addicted to opium unless they believed the drug was addictive?

The second possibility is a lot stronger. Of course the British merchants who sold their poppies in China knew opium was highly addictive. But there was something even more addictive, the “free trade” ideology of Adam Smith. For the British, Chinese sovereignty meant nothing. That the Qing Emperor had outlawed the sale of opium meant only that Chinese culture was inward looking and xenophobic, that it needed to be battered open by the British navy, and forced to trade with the rest of the world at the point of a gun. If British merchant houses like Jardine, Matheson & Co. made vast, vast fortunes selling poison to these backwards, xenophobic people, so be it. That’s capitalism, a way of life the Chinese were going to adopt whether they liked it or not, their 3000 year old culture be damned.

If I had to guess, I’d say the third option is the most plausible. It’s what most of the Chinese people believe themselves and – in spite of Lovell’s argument that it’s mostly communist propaganda – I’d have to give them the benefit of the doubt. Let’s look at the tobacco industry in the United States. They not only knew that nicotine was a highly addictive substance, they consciously tried to get as many Americans as possible hooked on cigarettes in order to insure a perpetual market and a never ending stream of revenue for their poison. Lin Zexu was simply ahead of his time. The real “war on drugs” was never the hysterical campaign of militarized policing and mass incarceration symbolized by Nancy Reagan’s slogan “just say no.” It was the campaign waged by lawyers and consumer advocates in the 1990s not only to tax cigarettes out of exist, but to win compensation for the tobacco industry’s victims.

Julia Lovell spends 360 pages arguing that the Opium War was complicated, but it’s really not. Drugs and gunboats are the story of capitalism. Wherever there’s a war on drugs, there’s probably also a war for drugs.

22 thoughts on “The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams, and the Making of Modern China (2011)”

  1. This is a very short and concise explanation of that awful time in Chinese history, it’s one people rather forget and I believe option 3 is correct, they knew and didn’t care, as long as trade deficit was balanced. And 400 million dope users, where else are you going to find that?

    1. Now that I’ve survived Lovell’s meandering tome, I need to look for a more direct narrative. She pissed me off in too many ways. I just remembered a remark she made about college students going to a museum about the Opium Wars, something along the lines of “oh they were only there to get a day at the ocean.” How could she have possibly known that?

  2. There’s almost damning but not statistically significant fact that during Wars on ____ the United States has almost exclusively increased ____. During both Wars on Terrorism, for example. The first one by the Reagan administration to elicit support for the contras and the second the support of Salafi terrorism today in Libya and Syria. The US War on Drugs as you note came to a similar end. J Edgar Hoover’s War on Crime took the country into a tailspin of self-suspicion and warrantless surveillance, though I only briefly searched for non-state crime stats and found none.

    Then again there’s been a War on Poverty (there was a decrease in poverty) and there is currently a War on Gangs (which one could argue is fuelling gang violence in Mexico, Honduras, and El Salvador). Nixon had a War on Cancer in 1970s but my understanding is there wasn’t much progress.

    1. Also, drug use in the United States tends to correlate to imperialist aggression abroad.

      1.) Vietnam: Heroin. Some of it through the French. Some of it through US troops.

      2.) Contra War in Central America: Crack. Directly through the CIA

      3.) Afghanistan: Once again, heroin. Guess where the poppies come from?

      The current epidemic of heroin is especially bad in Maine and Vermont, where large numbers of people serve in the military.

      But the important thing that always happens is that whenever you have a large supply of drugs coming into the US through some sort of war, the government always makes a virtue of necessity and wages a “war on drugs” to ramp up the system of mass incarceration and further militarize the police.

      And it’s by no means only conservatives who engage in the war on drugs. The current identitarian trashing of any politician (even an appalling one like Chris Christie) who recommends ramping down the war on drugs with “oh boo hoo now white people are hooked” is just the usual liberal side of the response we see from conservative racists like Paul LePage.

      I lived through it in the 1980s. Fortunately this time people seem to be slightly more aware of it. But I don’t see many people making the connection between the heroin epidemic in Vermont and the occupation of Afghanistan.

      Not even Sanders.

      1. We are told by the media and governments that drugs come from Mexico, from Central America and not Afghanistan. We may know they grow poppies there but we don’t think where it ends up. It can’t be in rich gulf states or moderate Middle East countries as the punishment for drugs and drug trafficking is very severe.
        About Heroin epidemic in Maine – it’s only now they pay attention to that, about 12 years ago, my relatives in Maine knew a lot of friends who were hooked on and was trafficking oxycodone and it was a problem, not an epidemic yet, but it was getting there yet no one paid any attention.

        1. 13 years ago would have been exactly the year heroin started coming in from Afghanistan. If there were an existing problem with prescription drugs, the heroin would have been a step up.

          I don’t think we should be naive about the US government and heroin. It’s a great way to get “black money” to circumvent Congress (although Congress these days would never limit the President on war powers the way they did in the 1980s).

  3. Thanks for the scoop on the Opium Wars. I’ve never believed in drug laws, and this is why. What gives any government the moral authority to dictate to people what they can and can’t ingest? The British could not have made a profit selling opium if it had been legal in China. Also, opium and hashish are used as “commodity money” by CIA as well as insurgents to finance their undercover activities. I often wonder how much of confiscated drugs end up back on the street. Mere suspicion of drug trafficking can get all your assets confiscated (where do they go?), and good luck getting them back.

    The Whiskey Tax, lest we forget, was a stab in the back to the farmers who won George Washington’s war for him. Those farmers were “freezing their asses off in Valley Forge,” instead of staying home preparing for the spring planting. Then when the Continental Dollar collapsed, and the farmers were in danger of foreclosure, they were using whiskey to pay debts. Comes along the sterile “father of our country” whose primary income was as a distiller, and slaps a tax on them. The Whiskey Tax set the precedent for the federal government’s authority to enter anyone’s home under the pretext of searching for illegal stills. Government intrusion has a long history.

    1. Actually opium was effectively legal after the First Opium War.

      The Chinese as a sovereign nation had the right to determine what was legal inside their borders.

      The reason takeaway from the First Opium War is how international capitalism in the form of the British Empire violated a sovereign nation’s borders just to make a buck.

        1. The thing is I don’t think opium got much cheaper when the British forced open the Chinese border. But don’t quote me on that since I haven’t really looked into the prices over the 100 or so years when it was widely available.

          ps I don’t think the solution is to allow rapacious drug dealing capitalists to violate borders.

          1. But who are the capitalists here? The British Empire was founded on military-backed capitalism, as you point out. So with the American empire.

            In “Wealth of Nations,” Adam Smith noted that tobacco could be grown in France, but it was illegal, because home-grown tobacco was difficult to tax. Imported tobacco was easier to tax; and the Brits could make huge profits buying and selling the tobacco that grew in Maryland and Virginia. The king also reaped boatloads of tax revenues on the transactions, as the royal court of Washington DC does now with tobacco and alcohol taxes.

            I don’t think the solution is to allow rapacious, drug-dealing and gun-wielding governments to restrict borders.

            1. I don’t think the solution is to allow rapacious, drug-dealing and gun-wielding governments to restrict borders.

              But that’s not what happened here.

              The British military opened up China to big time drug dealers like Jardine, Matheson & Co., which had recently broken the East India Company’s monopoly.

              The Qing dynasty, whatever their faults, made a since effort to prevent their people from getting hooked on opium. They weren’t trying to monopolize the opium trade. They burned 1000 tons of it. They were trying to stop it.

              The Qing were heavy handed and incompetent but they were on the side of the angels. The British government, on the other hand, was just one more dirty little minion in the service of the capitalist devils.

              Julia Lovell spends a lot of time proving that the Qing were idiots. But there’s an elephant in the room she doesn’t address.

              Lin Zexu was right.

              1. The Brits have a long history of thinking everyone who is not British is an idiot. That’s how they justified the British Empire.

                As far as the opium is concerned . . . what part is medicinal and what part addiction? Opiates are still the last resort treatment for pain. The line is blurry, even now. I do believe addiction would decrease naturally if governments didn’t make such a big issue of it–while expanding their powers mightily to control access. We have the DEA, CIA, ATF, FDA, FBI, and something like 14 other “intelligence” agencies, just to name a few, chasing the drugs and dealers around the world. Add to this the Justice Department, which loves to seize assets on suspicion of money laundering, and on and on.

            2. Another quick point: The Nemesis, the British ironclad that destroyed most of the Chinese fleet at the mouth of the Pearl River was not a British Navy Ship. It was an East India Company Ship. In other words, this was a corporate war against a sovereign government.

              Although commissioned by the Secret Committee of the East India Company (EIC) in 1839, the vessel did not appear in the EIC’s list of ships, leading The Times to comment:

              “…this vessel is provided with an Admiralty letter of license or letter of marque. If so, it can only be against the Chinese; and for the purpose of smuggling opium she is admirably adapted.”


              1. I’m out of my depth here, but I still contend that government-corporate partnership defines “capitalism” as we know it. The corporations could not have the power they have without significant government help. In the US today, federal regulatory agencies, with their selective enforcement of rules, create too much overhead for the little guy to compete.

                I’m reading “Diet for a Small Planet” about the food industry at the moment, and author Lappe goes into some detail about how taxpayers have paid for things like huge irrigation projects for large farmers in the American West.

  4. More on the Nemesis:

    Superior British military technology played an important role in the Chinese Opium Wars, enabling a mere commercial firm owned by stockholders to defeat the naval forces of a nation that described itself as the Middle Kingdom — a country, that is, of such superiority to all others that it served, or so its rulers proclaimed, as the mediator between heaven and earth…..Adding to the ability of this this ship to serve as a particularly apt symbol of the industrial north’s contribution to the British empire, the Nemesis was built in Liverpool shipyards and “launched on the Mersey late in 1839 by John Laird for the Secret Committee of the East India Company.”

  5. I’m a bit depressed by the historian’s view on the opium wars, but I can’t say I’m surprised. In the UK, we were never taught about this war (or others including the Boer war for instance) because it reflects the UK in such a bad light. I think that these wars are pretty much being written out of history, so few people are aware of it. My knowledge of the opium wars comes via post-colonial voices, both within my family and through literature; including Amitav Ghosh’s trilogy ( I think it’s pretty accepted knowledge amongst us post-colonial descendants that the British successfully exploited both India and China through the opium trade. Though the East India Company etc were corporate, they were backed up by the sovereign. I don’t think I’ll bother to read the book.

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