China Views: The War on Drugs, with Chinese Characteristics

A small amount of drug use (beyond alcohol) has long been a part of human culture. That is, it has been present, often largely unseen, and therefore unremarkable.

However, that changed when the drug trade went “big time”, and outsiders mounted concerted efforts to expand -- and profit from -- drug use in the culture. All too quickly it became apparent that drug use was becoming a clear and present danger to the well-being of the citizens and to the social fabric that held the country together. The “drug problem” became more obvious, with more people -- old and young -- living their lives alternating between a) being driven to acquire drugs to feed their addiction and b) being in a pathetic, non-productive stupor that threatened to debilitate the community, as well as the individual. 

As a result, a War on Drugs was declared which made the use, possession, and sale of certain drugs a criminal offense. This stern approach on the supply side was moderated by a program of treatment and rehabilitation for those who had already fallen captive to chemical forces that they were unable to understand or withstand.

As a counter-attack to this determined national resistance to their trade, the drug dealers did whatever they could to augment and open their market. Their efforts included cajoling and bribing officials, seeking new customers, and even presenting fervent economic arguments based on the benefits of “free trade” and “open markets” in an increasingly globalized world.  When these more civilized means of persuasion failed to convince the authorities to change their anti-drug programs, the drug dealers resorted to force. In the ensuing clashes, many people were killed. 

In the end, the drug lords won.

***Hey, wait a minute!  That’s not the way this story is supposed to turn out!  What’s going on here?***

Well, what’s going on here is not a description of the current War on Drugs that the US has been waging for more than four decades now. Rather, it is a description of the drug situation in China in the mid-19th century when the Chinese took steps to limit/eliminate drug use in their country. The “drug dealer” in that day was none other than the British government which was seeking creative ways to correct the “balance of payments” issue of the times. Specifically, the British were concerned that they were buying massive amounts of cheap, but highly desirable, goods from China (silk, porcelain, and tea), with the result that the Chinese were building up large stashes of silver, much of which was coming from the vaults of merry ol’ England.  Therefore, to correct this imbalance the British were keen on finding something that a) the Chinese would want/need and b) Britain could readily supply in exchange for some of that silver that was piling up in coffers in China.

The British found such a “product of choice” in opium, a powerful opiate drug derived from the opium poppy plant. Opium was a commodity that many Chinese could easily come to enjoy and to which they could just as easily become addicted, resulting in a growing demand for which Britain had a lucrative supply. Specifically, in the mid-19th century, a powerful variety of opium was being grown in modest amounts in British-administered India. Soon, large tracts of agricultural land in India that had previously been used to produce foodstuffs were re-directed to the cultivation and harvesting of poppies.

In response to this increased supply, the Chinese Empire moved more aggressively to enforce its laws and regulations regarding distribution and use of drugs in China. This enforcement took the form of levying fines, plus the seizure and destruction of opium stores found in warehouses in Chinese coastal cities. In response, the British, citing the importance of free trade and open markets that were basic to their mercantilism policies, effectively sent military forces into China to set conditions more to their liking.

The result of that conflict was a humiliating defeat for the Chinese. The opium trade was legitimized, Chinese markets were forced open in more regions of the country, and China had to pay reparations and penalties for the action they had taken against British interests. The opium trade continued for another 50 years, resulting in considerable damage to the trust and truth relationship between China and Britain, especially. . .and between China and the West, more generally.

Therefore, today, when we hear about the hesitancy of the Chinese to open their country to certain Western imports (e.g., cigarettes, movies, TV shows, and various industrial wastes), we would do well to consider whether we are hearing echoes of the Opium Wars of more than a century ago. It could be that, to some degree, the Chinese are remembering bitter lessons taught to them in a bitter past.

As for our current balance of payments situation vis a vis China, we should be thinking about what quality products we have that the Chinese would want/need to purchase. Hint: The answer is not “opium”. :)


-Donald and Karen Barnes