Monday, October 24, 2005

Opium Wars

As I watched the awful, inexorable "progress" of our nation being led into an unjust war by manipulation and lies, as I saw the dreadful, predictable consequences - 2,000 dead American soldiers, tens of thousands wounded, 30,000 plus dead Iraqi civilians, a country disintegrating into civil war - I half-remembered a quote from a British politician during the Opium Wars. I finally decided to look it up.

The Opium Wars, if you are not familiar, happened in the mid-19th century. They came about as a result of Britain's need for Chinese tea, and their unwillingness to pay for said tea with silver.

China was then the only source for tea, and the tax paid on tea by British consumers was a major revenue source for the British Empire. The problem was, China was not terribly interested in trading tea for Western goods. It was the view of the ruling Qing Dynasty that China produced what it needed for its own consumption, even if distribution was not entirely equitable.

By the time of the Opium Wars, economic polarization in Chinese society had, in fact, reached a crisis state. At the beginning of the dynasty, the Qings had governed competently, and as a result of fairly consistent good times, China's population boomed, doubling in the eighteenth century and reaching 400 million by the mid-nineteenth. Now there were far too many landless peasants, not enough cultivatable land in any case, little industry to absorb this excess labor. Various things happened to the armies of the displaced. They became tenants, subsistence farmers who worked for food and little else, they starved to death; they joined provincial armies or bandit gangs, professions with at times little difference between them. Many emigrated, the Chinese Diaspora that spread throughout southeast Asia and across the Pacific to the Americas. They formed secret societies, mutual protection groups frequently invested with the ostensible goal of restoring the fallen Ming Dynasty, the ruling Qings' predecessor. At times they participated in full-scale rebellions, peasant uprisings that presaged dynastic decline.

But what did this have to do with selling tea to the British? The Chinese government preferred silver, the currency of the Empire, to goods in trade. Moreover, they could not see any particular advantage to increased intercourse with foreigners. They didn't understand who or what they were dealing with.

From the British perspective, the Tea Trade must continue, but England could not simply bleed silver to obtain Chinese tea. It was unfair for protectionist China to refuse to accept foreign goods and create this massive trade imbalance, the real White Man's Burden that was getting in the way of Great Britain's global destiny.

Finally a product was found for which there was Chinese demand: Bengali opium. The Empire objected; drug addiction tended to undermine Confucian family values, since the user, generally the patriarch, expended resources on the drug that the family could frequently ill-afford. After many diplomatic skirmishes, the British government proceeded to wage war upon China in the name of free trade. "Justice, in my opinion," said William Gladstone, then a member of the Tory opposition, " is with them; and whilst they, the Pagans, the semi-civilized barbarians, have it on their side, we, the enlightened and civilized Christians, are pursuing objects at variance both with justice and with religion...a war more unjust in its origin, a war calculated in its progress to cover this country with a permanent disgrace, I do not know and I have not read of."

I've thought of this quote a lot in the past three years.

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