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Opium Wars

For most of its 4,000-year history, China allowed very few Westerners into the "Dragon Empire" except to do limited business at trading posts along The Silk Road and at a few seaports. The empire was vast, over 4 million square miles. It included Manchuria, Turkestan, Burma, Tibet and Nepal. And other neighboring countries paid tribute to China's power.

China had been trading with the West to some extent over a thousand years. Portugal established a foothold in Macao in 1557 and other nations were allowed to trade with China only through the port of Macao by which ran the Pearl River; up this river was the city of Canton which was the only city through which foreign trade was allowed by the Imperial Dynasty.

Other nations opened trade with China including Denmark, Great Britain, Sweden, France, and eventually the United States after it became independent from the British. The Chinese saw trade with the outside world as less than necessary; China had the attitude that they were the Middle Kingdom and the world revolved around them. They even stated they had the best drink, the best textile, and the best food (tea, silk and rice.) The outside world might have something they desired but not much. The Chinese did need items such as lead, ginseng, fur and silver for a cash economy.

The country had difficulty keeping pace with industrialized countries. New farming techniques, including the introduction of potatoes and maize from America, proved too little to keep pace with its population growth. Strained resources, pressure by European powers, and severe flooding wracked China's strength. China's port cities were increasingly dominated by merchant fleets of the West. By the 1800s, Western powers were building their colonial empires and wanted a piece of the Qing Dynasty (formerly Ch'ing Dynasty, 1644-1911) for themselves.

The British Government at last roused itself, and endeavored to ameliorate and, if possible, to remove the causes of these continued troubles, and to place trade and the relations between Great Britain and China on a well rdered and secure footing. In 1793 Lord Macartney, escorted by ships of war, and with a retinue and complimentary offerings to the Emperor, well calculated to inspire consideration and courteous welcome. But China would not be weaned from the idea that this was the most splendid testimonial of respect ever paid by a tributary nation to their court, neither could she yet be diverted from her vexatious and uncertain policy as to treaties of commerce. Once again, in 1816, Lord Amherst, who, like Lord Macartney, had been Governor-General of India, reached Pekin at the head of an embassy, with every accompaniment of friendly intention and courteous offerings ; but he failed more signally than Lord Macartney, being refused an audience, as he would not appear as an envoy of a tributary power.

The West found a Chinese weakness - an addiction to opium. The history of the poppy in China has been treated in an official pamphlet prepared and published by order of the English Inspector-General of Foreign Customs in China, and we present the following brief summary of its statements and conclusions. The poppy seems to have been unknown in China previous to the T'ang dynasty (a.d . 618-907). It was then introduced by Arab traders as a soporific drug, and the plant, either as a handsome garden flower or as a useful medicine, is repeatedly mentioned down to the seventeenth century. At that time tobacco-smoking and tobacco cultivation were introduced from the Philippine Islands (a.d. 1621). In the tune of the last Ming Emperor (a.d. 1627-1644), tobacco-smoking was as vigorously denounced and prohibited as opium-smoking was a hundred years later. Various ingredients were mixed with tobacco, such as arsenic with the tobacco used in water-pipes, and opium. The first Imperial decree against opium-smoking was issued about a hundred years after the Chinese counterblast to tobacco, namely, in 1729.

Because the British had an unfavorable balance of trade with China, the British began shipping Indian opium to China to obtain silk, spices, porcelain and tea that the British public demanded. The opium trade caused major health, social, and economic problems in China. China forbade the sale of opium, and attempted to turn back English merchant vessels that carried opium. Opium smuggling into China created huge profits for foreign merchants, including prominent Americans, but it nearly destroyed the Chinese economy. By the 1840s, many Chinese were addicted to opium produced in India (ruled by Britain), and the drug trade reaped huge profits for Western drug smugglers, including Americans.

Two separate wars were fought between China and Britain over this issue. When the imperial throne tried to stop the opium trade, British ships bombarded the port cities of the Chinese empire. After years of intermittent Opium Wars (1839-1842 and 1856-1860), the Qing Dynasty accepted defeat. Chinese military technology could not repel the British, and as a result, they forced to accept a humiliating, unfavorable treaty. The Opium Wars began the "unequal relationship" between China and the West. The Opium Wars of the 1840s to 1850s ended in a humiliating defeat for the Qing Dynasty and foretold the end of the empire.

After the Opium Wars reduced the Qing empire to near bankruptcy, Western imperialists cracked open China's "closed door" policy. China was forced to open more ports to trade and also cede adjacent territories to the West. Great Britain, France, Russia, Japan, and others expanded their "spheres of influence" along the China coast and into neighboring countries. But until the Spanish American War of 1898, the American presence in China was limited to missionary work or trade (legal and illegal). After annexing the Philippine Islands, however, the United States also joined the ranks of "foreign devils."

The humiliation of Western imperialism suffered by a proud Chinese people erupted into violence in 1900. And this imperialism was never forgotten. Suspicion of the West strongly influenced China's history in the 20th century, even to the present day.

The tobacco industry has lobbied successfully to obtain the support of the United States government for opening Asian Markets to American tobacco products. Two issues arise from these efforts: the development of an atmosphere of invasion and resistance to invasion in Asia; and the change in the image of the United States in Asian nations from that of a leader in health to that of an exporter of death. The threat of sanctions and the effects of the open market and United States tobacco company advertising in Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea raise parallels between the opium wars a century and a half ago in China and the current threat of trade sanctions. Reacting to American policy, an Asia-Pacific Association for Control of Tobacco was formed and linked with the US Coalition Against Smoking.

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 03:29:07 ZULU