Tag Archives: imperialism

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.

Burn ! (1969)

Burn, Gillo Pontecorvo’s followup to The Battle of Algiers, is more talked about than actually watched. Unlike Heaven’s Gate, Burn — also known as  Queimada — is a legitimately great film, but, like Heaven’s Gate, its distribution was botched. First of all there are two versions. There’s the truncated version, 102 minutes in English, the only one widely available in the United States. The full version is about 130 minutes. Just before he died, Pontecorvo restored all the missing scenes, but, since he had lost the original audio, he re-dubbed it in Italian, essentially destroying the performance of its star Marlon Brando.

The culprit in the whole fiasco was none other than Generalissimo Francisco Franco. A few years before, Pontecorvo’s distributor Columbia had released a movie about the Spanish Civil War called Behold A Pale Horse. It so enraged the Spanish dictator that he decided to block Columbia’s entire catalogue. Responding to pressure from Columbia, Pontecorvo rewrote the script to make the villains Portuguese not Spanish. Portugal is a much smaller market. He also chopped all of the potentially offending scenes out of the original theatrical release in 1969. If Charles De Gualle held up The Battle of Algiers for 5 years, Francisco Franco managed to butcher Queimada before it ever got made.

To get the full effect of Burn, you probably need to see both versions. That being said, while the unabridged, Italian release isn’t available on DVD, I still think it’s worth watching the English version, currently on Youtube. While it has gaps in the plot that may leave you scratching your head, you will also get the full effect of Marlon Brando’s performance in English. Not only is Burn an indispensable comment on The Battle of Algiers, no amount of incompetent editing can take away from its visual impact, or from its unabashedly revolutionary politics.

If The Battle of Algiers is a fully realized masterpiece, then its last five minutes can sometimes be confusing. Why does the film dramatize a tactical, military victory of French imperialism, and yet end on a triumphal note, the strategic victory of revolutionary Algerian nationalism? Burn tells us why. The victory of the Algerian National Liberation Front depended on the French people having a limit, on their being unwilling to cross the line over into genocide, on the idea that they could look at themselves, realize that, in embracing torture, they had become the Nazis, and feel shame. But what happens when the imperialists have no bottom, when they’re incapable of shame? What happens when they’re even not a nation at all, but a corporation? Burn gives us the answer.

Burn opens on board a ship coming into an island in the Lesser Antilles, Queimada, a composite of Guadeloupe and Haiti (with perhaps a bit of Vietnam thrown in for good measure). William Walker, a professional revolutionary, agent provocateur, and agent of the British admiralty, is standing on deck with the ship’s captain, who’s giving him a brief history lesson. 300 years before,  the Portuguese met with such stiff resistance from the indigenous population that they resorted to genocide and environmental destruction, burning down all the island’s vegetation, extermining the natives, and importing black slaves from Africa. The bare white rocks visible as they sail into the harbor glisten in the sun because they’re still made up of the scorched bones of the dead, giving the island its name, “Queimada,” or “Burn.” Eventually, Queimada recovered, becoming such a lucrative, slave-based exporter of sugar that the British government now wants a piece of it.

William Walker’s job is to foment a rebellion against the Portuguese among the slaves, and organize the whites and mulattos, the planters and latifundists, into a republic willing to give trade concessions to Great Britain and the Royal Sugar Company. He succeeds, teaching an ex-slave and luggage porter named Jose Delores, played by non-actor Evaristo Márquez, to be a revolutionary general and popular champion, a character very clearly meant to evoke Toussaint Louverture and the Haitian Revolution. He also convinces the island’s creoles, the white elite, that a wage labor economy is better than a slave economy. It’s better to pay for a prostitute by the hour than to support a wife. He picks out a nationalist leader, Teddy Sanchez, an elegant puppet who, like Barack Obama, spreaks in glittering generalities without substance,  and pushes him into assassinating the Portuguese colonial governor — literally holding the gun in his hand and aiming it for him — the signal for a general insurrection in the capitol, and sets him up as the first president of the independent Republic of Queimada.

Ten years later, after an unsuccessful mission to Indochina — “a place none of you have heard of” — Walker returns to Queimada, this time not as an agent of the British government but as an agent of the Royal Sugar Company, and this time not to stir up a rebellion, but to put one down. While Teddy Sanchez is still President and still a compliant puppet, Jose Delores has turned out to be a genuine revolutionary, an incorruptible tribune of the people who can neither be bought nor bullied into making the same mistake twice. Walker had previously convinced him to demobilize his army. But after the former slaves had realized that they liked being wage slaves no more than they liked being chattel slaves, prostitutes not wives, Delores organized a guerrilla army in the high sierra, living among impoverished villagers who, according to Walker, are natural revolutionaries because they have nothing to lose. He is, in short, a threat not only to the creole, puppet government, but to the Royal Sugar Company’s bottom line.

That Pontecorvo see Burn as at least partly an allegory for the United States occupation of Vietnam becomes clear when Walker swings into action. First he has Teddy Sanchez, Queimada’s Diem, lined up against the wall and shot. Sanchez not only turned out to be an incompetant strongman, but, for a brief moment, dared to suggest that the interests of Queimada weren’t the same as the interests of the Royal Sugar Company. I couldn’t but help think of Barack Obama. Perhaps that’s why he shows such baffling loyalty to Wall Street and the banks.

Teddy Sanchez dispatched, Walker then organizes a counterinsurgency campaign far more deadly than the one we saw in The Battle of Algiers. William Walker is no Lieutenant Colonel Mathieu. He doesn’t use a scalpel. He uses a flamethrower. Like the United States in Vietnam, he’s willing to burn down the whole island to prevent it from becoming a “bad example” to other colonial possessions of the British Empire. He’s willing to “destroy the village in order to save it.”

As Walker destroys more and more of the island, works himself up into a rage because he can neither capture nor kill Jose Delores, as the holocaust of Queimada unfolds, we see the ugly reality of imperialism unmasked. For William Walker and the British empire, the black proletarians of Queimada aren’t even prostitutes. They’re not even human. They’re product, raw material, an inferior race to be exterminated along with their natural habitat in order to teach the world a lesson. Thou shalt not rebel against your capitalist masters. Queimada visualizes like few other movies the nexus between racism, capitalism, imperialism, and the white man’s diseased urge to control not only his fellow human beings but nature itself. No wonder Franco wanted it killed.

I don’t think I’ve ever been happier to see someone get a knife in the gut than I was after watching William Walker get his just desserts. But is there hope at the end of Queimada, or is the film unremittingly dark? Jose Delores proves himself to be genuinely incorruptible, calmly going to his death rather than escape and denounce the revolution. “Fire doesn’t destroy everything,” he says to one of his guards. “A blade of grass, of hope, will always remain. Some day the white man will die in his own fire.” Perhaps he will. But will he take the rest of the world with him? Our response to global warming has not been encouraging.