Michael Finch is the president of the David Horowitz Freedom Center. His new book of poetry is Wanderings in Place.
Let me begin by painting a picture. Drugs flow across a lengthy and wide-open border, flooding into the nation, affecting millions, causing incredible misery, addiction, early death, and an epidemic of raging proportions. Aided by a government that is either unwilling or too incompetent to address the problem and stop this scourge.
It gets worse. Drug cartels and criminal elements on both sides of the border make astronomical amounts of money, while foreign business interests reap great profits off the illicit and illegal drug trade. On one side of this equation, fortunes are made, while on the other millions suffer the degradation and misery of this endless supply of drugs.
I could, of course, be speaking of modern America and the current fentanyl and opioid crisis that is ravaging our nation and the cause of over 70,000 deaths a year. The opioid epidemic has had devastating effects on American families and the lives and health of our communities. It is a tragedy of epic proportions, and we are losing this war.
But my words also describe another great nation, an Empire that suffered from the same scourge and also fought a losing battle against a flood of illegal drugs that was to contribute to the failure of that Empire and aid in the collapse of a 2,000-year-old great Civilization. This is China in the mid-19th Century.
First, some historical background. The British, as the world knows, love their tea. They are the fourth largest per capita consumers of tea in the world. The English of the 18th Century, in a fashion, became addicted to tea. And most of the tea came from China. The British, along with other rising Western European powers, were anxious and eager to break into the Chinese market. The most populous country in the world, then as it is now, was an alluring temptation to any trader. Some things haven’t changed.
The English attempted to trade many items in China to prevent a growing trade imbalance, but it was tough sledding. Chinese trading rules were stringent and trade could only pass through one single port open to foreigners, that of Quangzhou. Tariffs were high and, frankly, the Chinese were not in great need or want of most of what the English and others were trying to trade. As the Chinese Emperor Qianlong explained in a letter to King George, “we possess all things. I set no value on objects strange or ingenious, and have no use for your country’s manufactures.” Ouch.
The British trade was conducted almost exclusively through the East India Company, a quasi-governmental merchant trading consortium that did the Empire’s bidding and had Royal blessing. Like the semi-pirate Sir Francis Drake a few centuries before, they acted with Royal sanction, but only sort of, acting as independent agents in most endeavors. So long as the English treasury and purses were filling up, it was best to look the other when it came to the details of just how those coffers were being filled.
Which is where opium enters our story. Opium, coming from poppy plants, grew very well in India, particularly in the Bengal region. Opium was not unknown; it had been used in China for centuries as a pain reliever, relaxant, and to help cure diseases like dysentery and cholera. It was used in China before, but up to this point its uses were limited.
The English worked with Chinese traders and middleman to flood the China market with opium. The trade was not legal, the transactions would take place in boats outside of the main harbor in Quangzhou. Payment was made in “cash”, silver. Everyone was getting rich. The Chinese authorities were aghast and furious, and they attempted to shut down the trade in opium, but all efforts would prove to be futile. Opium, of course, is very addictive and like any drug, once introduced and if the price is right, the demand inevitably increases exponentially. The British had found the one item that the Chinese people wanted, desperately so. When massive profits are combined with incredibly high demand, any efforts to shut down trade becomes near impossible.
Finally, the Emperor sent his top people down to Quangzhou; ships were seized, people were jailed, the Chinese were going to do everything in their power to stop the trade of opium. However, the English response was not to acquiesce, or in the end, to continue fruitless negotiations, as the Chinese refused to open their markets or ports anyway. So, the British sent war ships to enforce what they felt were their free trade rights over the Chinese Empire.
Two “Opium Wars” were fought, one in 1839 and the other in 1856. Both were abject disasters and totally humiliating loses for the Chinese. The Chinese navy and army were no match against the far superior military technology of the West, in this case, primarily England and France. It was a complete loss of face, and the shame it brought to the Chinese was something they would never recover from. The Empire, already in decay and decline, would only last another 52 years.
The Chinese defeat in the Opium Wars ushered in an era in which Chinese cities had to give large concessions to the Western Powers, creating zones where Chinese law would not apply, and Western laws prevailed. Only Westerners were allowed to live in many of these sections of cities; the Chinese were not even allowed in many parks in the Western quadrants of cities. The Chinese were never colonized in the fashion of India, since vast parts of China laid outside of direct Western control or influence. But to say that China was not colonized misses the point. A proud and great civilization was now forced to kowtow to a foreign power, rendered powerless in its ability to enforce its own sovereignty over its very land and people.
Americans are blessed to be a forward-looking people with an optimistic outlook on life and the future. We glorify and celebrate our past and still, for the most part, believe that we are that City on the Hill that is a beacon to the world. We are eager for the future and are not held back by resentments, historical grudges, revenge, and the like.
Other nations and peoples are not so blessed. Just ask a Serb about the Field of Blackbirds and the battle against the Turks in 1389. Yes, that is 1389, over 630 years ago, but for a Serb, it might as well have been yesterday. It shaped all the rest of Serbian history, followed by over 300 years of oppressive Ottoman Turkish rule.
We don’t even have to go as far as Serbia to find an example. Here in our own backyard, we get a sense of this in the celebration of Independence Day. In the Civil War, Vicksburg, Mississippi fell to Union forces on July 4th, 1863. It would be a full 80 years before the city would have any celebration of the nation’s birthday. As one Vicksburg resident explains it, “People often ask why and it’s because you don’t celebrate pillage and plunder and terrorism and that’s what happened.” That quote gives one a sense of the power of historical grudges among the vanquished, defeated and humiliated.
For the Chinese, the Opium Wars were the Field of Blackbirds and Vicksburg, a hundred times over. China was the Middle Kingdom, the center of the globe and a proud civilization and empire that had existed for well over 2,000 years. Chinese cultural, economic, and military dominance was supreme. Through the tribute system the Chinese emperors would rule over all of Eastern Asia for centuries.
However, by the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the Empire was fading, weak, and failing. Over two millenniums of greatness were about to collapse. Due to internal weakness, corruption, and decay, compounded by external pressure from a faraway but rapidly rising Western Europe and threats from neighboring Japan and Russia, the house of cards was set to crumble. But one doesn’t always see it that way from the inside. The Chinese are a proud people and they still, even into the mid-19th Century, saw themselves as the Middle Kingdom and not in need or want of anything from anywhere outside of their domain. The Emperor and his Court did not see the writing on the wall.
The Chinese view the time period from the first Opium War in 1839 to the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949 as the Century of Humiliation. We can debate the details, but there is absolutely no question that this is how China views these 100 years. A once great Empire, through one humiliation after another, was to completely collapse. Millions would die, endure countless wars, famines, and endless tragedy would befall this once great Empire and its people.
One can easily argue that the Empire was corrupt, that it had not seen the future and the need to modernize; it was insular, isolated, and allowed its pride to blind itself to the necessary reforms that were desperately needed to enter the modern world and deal with the threats that surrounded it. One can also point to the country of Japan as an example of a nation that did read the signs and make the course corrections that enabled it to join the community of modern great powers. But China didn’t make the right moves; it made almost all the wrong moves. But to debate the specifics of China’s missteps misses the point.
China was humiliated and lost face. It lost everything; it was shamed. It went from a tributary system where all were to kowtow to the Empire and subjugated themselves and paid tribute to the Middle Kingdom to a humiliated and embarrassed power that lost the sovereignty and rights over its own land and people.
The purpose of this essay is not to condemn the Western Empires and trading interests or to make apologies or excuses for the Chinese Empire. History happens. But to think that modern Chinese leaders, Xi Jingping, in particular, are not aware of those 100 years would be foolish. The Chinese, of course, are fully aware of their history. While they whitewash or ignore Mao Zedong’s reign, despite the atrocities and tens of millions that perished, they won’t hesitate to remind their citizenry of the 100 years of humiliation and use its historical grudges to propagandize to their advantage. They will remember those 100 years and seek their revenge.
We wonder why the Chinese so flagrantly flaunt international copyright law? Or, why they abuse the free trade system for their own mercantilist means, after we so naively welcomed them into the group of favored nations? Do we really have to wonder why they would, not only allow, but produce and profit from the flooding of opioids, and especially fentanyl, into the towns and lives of millions of Americans? Or why they openly work with the murderous drug cartels to facilitate this trade? Everyone is getting rich, the Chinese especially, while Americans suffer from an opioid epidemic that continues to erode our nation, our heath, our confidence, and our power. We are now in a position where we plead with the Chinese to stop the flow of these drugs, but to no avail.
Perhaps the one great difference is that while the Qing Chinese Emperor in the mid-19th Century was aware of the plague upon their people and did everything in his power to stop it, the current Biden Administration is either oblivious, or even worse, complicit in this tragedy. This essay is not about Donald Trump, but let’s be honest. When he campaigned and spoke out about the opioid crisis, it opened the eyes of millions of Americans to this epidemic and what is happening to our nation. This is our path towards hope. If someone, whether it be Trump or whomever, has the will, they can arrest this crisis and help save our people and our country.
History will tell.