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.