Over the previous month, I have slowly made my way through the audiobook of Imperial Twilight: The Opium War and the End of China’s Last Golden Age, by Stephen R. Platt.
Prior to reading it, I knew next to nothing about the Opium Wars except that they were a series of conflicts between Great Britain and China over opium that led to the British acquisition of Hong Kong, and that they inspired much modern-day nationalism in China where they are seen as the start of China’s “Century of Humiliation.”
(Note – from now on I’ll just refer to a singular “Opium War.” There were a few of them, but the first one is the important one.)
Now that I’ve read it, I feel like I’ve only grasped the surface-level of a vast conflict containing multi-national corporate drug dealers, local mafia drug distributors, corrupt government agents, home-sick merchants, panicking diplomats, political lobbyists, a British merchant who nearly started an international war because he wanted to bang his wife, a Chinese merchant who almost defected to America, drug legalization advocates on both sides of the world, a Chinese advisor who wanted to execute anyone caught holding opium, and countless more individuals, organizations, and governments caught in a tangled international web.
And yet, despite building up at the start of the 18th century and coming to a climax in the mid-19th century, while reading this book about the Opium War, I couldn’t help but think:
This is all so familiar.
The Opium War is like a fictitious allegorical retelling of a whole bunch of very real political problems in the modern world. Namely:
- The ongoing, intractable, unwinnable WAR ON DRUGS
- The inherent difficulties of conducting a policy of FREE TRADE when the trading partner is a hostile, protectionist nation
- The limits of STATE SOVEREIGNTY and MULTICULTURALISM against pressing private concerns
In this post, first I’ll do my best to recount the basic outline of the conflict as well as its most interesting trends and moments. Nearly all of my information comes from the book, with gaps filled in by Wikipedia.
The Early Days
Before you can understand British-Chinese trade relations in the 17th-19th centuries, you need to grasp how China worked back then.
When the Qing Dynasty rose to power in China in 1680, they ruled over roughly 1/3 of earth’s population, and more than the GDP to match it. The economic output of China, especially in its specialty goods like tea, silk, and china (the kitchenware) made it the largest economy on earth by miles. Likewise, its domestic demand for goods, which combined an enormous population with huge wealth and a long-established internal infrastructure, had the potential to outpace everywhere else on earth combined. Naturally, the newly ascendant Europeans considered China to be the holy grail of trade prospects, and they were (literally at times) dying to get in.
But the Qing government didn’t want Europeans, at least not many of them. The very concept of foreign trade was somewhat fuzzy to the Chinese. Their domestic economy was so large and internally integrated by thousands of years of development that there was never any demand for foreign goods. There was a little trading at the borders with Korea and Southeast Asia, but those were morsels. And besides, China didn’t need to trade for foreign goods because they could just get them for free! Neighboring countries had known for millennia that China was the center of the universe, so they shipped their specialty goods to Beijing annually as a form of tribute. There was no need for greedy merchants to get in the way.
So when these strange pale people started landing on Chinese shores in the 16th century, the local government officials didn’t know what to think of them. Their ships were impressively built, but small, and never traveled in force. They came from far away lands that not even the Emperor had heard of. All they wanted to do was trade, but they didn’t have much to offer. So as with all foreigners, the central government told their local officials not to let these Europeans into China. When more and more kept showing up to hawk their wares and buy silk and tea, eventually the government relented and allowed the merchants into a handful of ports, but under strict regulations. Only government-mandated goods could be bought and sold, and silver must be the currency medium.
In 1680, the Qing dynasty rose to power and finally consolidated China’s dealings with foreign merchants. All the foreign trading ports are shut down except for one – Canton (modern-day Guangzhou). There, Europeans would typically sell cotton clothes for silver, and buy tea, silk, and china, leaving a massive trade imbalance in favor of the Chinese.
As trade continued to grow faster than the Chinese could have anticipated, this policy eventually evolved into the “Canton System,” wherein the European merchants were allowed to set up a year-round base of operations off-shore on Macau, which had been semi-Portuguese territory since the 16th century. There, Europeans would ship in goods and store them until the 6-month long trading season where they could sell them on the mainland in Canton. But not just anywhere in Canton… in one very tiny factory complex on the shore. All the merchants had to live there for six months out of the year, without their wives or any children, and they couldn’t leave the confines of the factory to go into the rest of the city. By all available accounts, it was not an enjoyable way of life, and most likely, the Chinese wanted it that way.
By the time late-18th century, the European merchants had consolidated too. The Portuguese got to China first, but aside from holding Macau real estate, they had little presence. Dutch and French merchants occasionally wandered in, but could never get much of a foothold. The Spanish had the Philippines but had long since lost the home-support to project commercial power abroad. Out of the competition rose the British merchants whose market power was amplified and steered under the direction of the British East India Company, which held a monopoly on East Asian trade granted by the British government. The only other country to take a significant share of the China trade would eventually be the United States, whose notoriously aggressive merchants carved out roughly 25% of the market.
The competition between the British East India Company (EIC) and the Americans could also be considered a clash between the ideologies of “orderly commerce” and “free trade.” Purely from a practical geo-commercial stance, both sides had their pros and cons. The EIC was better at projecting and maintaining power, as it had the legal authority to restrict its own merchants. Thus, the EIC took the lead in negotiating with the Chinese to keep the China market open. In contrast, the Americans were generally considered to be the better businessmen and able to push their margins harder, but without centralized leadership, they wouldn’t take a commanding lead in China until Sino-British relations broke down
Naturally, the Brits and Americans wondered why they couldn’t just trade with Chinese merchants at-will. Sure, European countries had tariffs and trade regulations, but generally a merchant from one country could sail to any port in another to buy and sell goods. So why were they restricted to one measly port in Southern China? These early merchants were making great money, but they knew they were only capturing a tiny sliver of the Chinese market. The Chinese merchants outside the gates of their compound explicitly wanted more goods and said they had way more to sell. There was so much money to be made, and all the Europeans wanted to do was peacefully exchange goods, so why couldn’t they?
Because the Qing government didn’t want them to. However, the Qing government wasn’t exactly transparent about this position.
The problem was that, as with international trade, the concept of international diplomacy was kind of fuzzy to China. With the exception of the freak-occurrence of the Mongols, China had never been invaded by a foreign power in its entire history. China was the one who did the invading. But only when it felt like it. The nation was so much more powerful than its neighbors that it didn’t understand diplomacy as a meeting of equal organizations, but as a patronage system. Countries didn’t send envoys to each other to negotiate deals. Rather, other countries sent envoys to China to profess their undying love and adulation for the emperor in the hopes of being bestowed with his excellency’s favor.
So when the British tried to readjust their commercial agreements with the Chinese government, they ran into a brick wall.
The first problem was how exactly to talk to the emperor. For the first few hundred years, the British government never actually made diplomatic contact with the central Chinese government. Europeans weren’t allowed to step foot in China beyond the confines of the Canton factory, and Beijing was supposedly off-limits to all foreigners unless they renounced their home country and volunteered to live there permanently. So all the dealings were between EIC agents and local government officials who acted on orders from Chinese ministers. A few ambitious EIC employees had attempted to make their way to Beijing on the pretense of reporting on corruption of local officials in Canton, but these ventures always ended in mysteriously vanishing crews or lifetime bans from China.
Finally, in 1793, the British government sent the Macartney Embassy from London to Beijing to make the first formal diplomatic connection between the two countries. Macartney had a nice year-long boat ride to prepare. He read everything that any British person had ever written about China. He brought along a bunch of cool science-y gifts from home to give to the emperor. He had a list of polite requests – loosen trade regulations, open more ports, replace corrupt officials in Canton, and maybe, pretty please, give Britain its own Macau. In return, Britain would guarantee China eternal friendship, assure them of compliance with Chinese regulations, and maybe even share some of this sweet naval tech.
The diplomatic mission was a disaster and would set a very specific tone for European-Chinese relations for the next century.
The problem was that Macartney treated his venture as a meeting between two great nations. But the aloof Chinese emperor didn’t see it that way. As a result, both sides ended up slinging diplomatic insults back and forth at each other until the Chinese got fed up and threw the Brits out in the middle of the night the day after they arrived.
The most notorious rift of the event was the “kowtow issue.” In Europe, it was customary for everyone to bow to royalty, so even diplomatic agents from hostile nations would courteously bow to a king and queen. But the Chinese emperor required everyone to kowtow, which consists of three kneels with three prostrations each time (nine total prostrations). This was a dramatically more elaborate and demeaning sign of respect than the simple bow or curtsy, and Macartney was understandably not eager to do it.
Unfortunately, Macartney was given contradictory guidance on how to deal with the kowtow. He was simultaneously told by his superiors to only do ceremonies “which may not commit the honour of your Sovereign or lessen your own dignity,” but also, to not let “trifling punctilio” fuck up an important meeting.
So when Macartney arrived at the royal palace, he first told the emperor’s courtier that he would only be willing to kowtow if a Chinese person kowtowed beside him to a picture of King George III. This way, the British king and Chinese emperor would be equals.
The proposal was rejected.
Then Macartney proceeded to get into a debate with the courtier on how few prostrations he could get away with. Macartney pressed for only one, but it wasn’t good enough. After much back-and-forth, they settled on Macartney doing the same bow as he would to his own king, but the emperor was secretly pissed off by the whole affair. He proceeded to get some petty revenge when his court announcer publicly declared Macartney’s gifts to be “tributes,” which Macartney tried to argue against, but he was rebuked.
The next day, Macartney was thrown out of Beijing, and all of his diplomatic proposals were categorically rejected.
Macartney and the British were stunned.
The Paper Tiger
Why didn’t the Chinese just let the European merchants in?
The answer to that question changed over time.
At first, the Chinese didn’t let the Europeans in because that’s just not how the Chinese did things. As stated, China had never needed foreign trade in the first place, and saw itself as politically/economically/diplomatically/racially/culturally superior to everywhere else on earth, so it felt no compunction to let a bunch of foreigners wander around its lands. Even after European traders were established in Canton, the emperor often heard arguments from his advisers that they should just throw them all out since European goods were a waste of money and naturally inferior in quality to Chinese goods. The Chinese mostly tolerated the trade in the beginning because it was a tiny component of the nation’s economy, and because it pulled silver into the country, which they saw as beneficial in a mercantilist-sense.
But eventually the motivation shifted from one of conservative traditionalism to defensive cautiousness.
From the early 18th century up through the mid-19th century, the Chinese central government knew that China was in decline. The Europeans speculated on this point too, and it fueled much of their push for a war with China, but until the Opium War broke out, they were perpetually overestimating China’s strength. From the inside, China’s emperors and their advisers became increasingly aware that China was rotting.
To me, this is one of the most fascinating parts about this point in history. It’s so strange to see a country that is at once incredibly wealthy in the aggregate, but also dying a slow death in the long run.
Even by the 18th century, China was still this quasi-mythical place to European merchants. It was from the tales of Marco Polo. It was a place of seemingly infinite power and wealth, a land larger than Europe, with five times its population, ruled by a single man with absolute power over legions of unquestioning subjects. While Europe saw Rome rise and fall, then the Dark Ages, then endless scuffles between scrappy kingdoms battling for dominance under the loose union of Christianity, China remained united. Sure, its dynasties fell, but they always rose again, bigger and better than ever.
And now finally, Europe and China were coming together, and… almost immediately the façade began to crumble. The population and wealth were there, but everything else around it was a joke – chronic rebellions, an incompetent army, a useless navy, rampant pirates, spiraling debt, etc. – but they all seemed to come back to a central problem. Qing China was hopelessly, endemically, debilitatingly corrupt at all levels of government.
The catalyst for the first Europeans to attempt to contact the Chinese emperor wasn’t the port restrictions or trade duties, but extortion from local officials in Canton. Groups of English merchants thought they could heroically expose the corruption to the benevolent emperor, but instead they were met with arrogant dismissals. Publicly, the emperor made it known that the foreign merchants were only allowed into Canton by the beneficence of his majesty, and they had no right to complain about their treatment. They were being choosy beggars. But privately, the central government knew the Europeans had only barely scratched the surface of China’s problems.
In 1794, millions of peasants across China took up arms and rampaged across the countryside in what would become known as the White Lotus Rebellion (est. death toll – 100K). According to an internal government report commissioned by the emperor, the cause of the rebellion was widespread extortion by tax collectors who set up their own local fiefdoms enforced by private armies to extract wealth from the peasants down to the bone.
Nevertheless, the emperor raised his armies to fight the rebels, but reports from early battles kept hitting the same note – his armies were phantoms. They only existed on paper. Manpower, weapon quantity and quality were exaggerated by corrupt commanders to requisition more funds from the government.
So the emperor raised new forces. They needed manpower fast, so they couldn’t go through normal training regiments, so instead he sent out agents to raise and arm local militias to patrol their regions for guerrilla rebels.
Of course, details and precise records are sketchy, but the consensus in the emperor’s court is that roughly every single militia soldier either immediately defected to the rebels or joined a roving gang of bandits to extort the peasants with their new fancy guns.
The rebellion was eventually quashed ten years later under the leadership of a then-ancient general from the good old days, but the cracks in China had grown to fissures. The government was hemorrhaging debt, its military was useless aside from a few core squadrons, it couldn’t trust any of its local officials, and a small but increasingly powerful group of weird foreigners kept knocking on its doors.
And then somehow China began to run out of silver. Not only was this wreaking havoc on their economy, but it was amplifying the government’s massive debt burden and threatening insolvency. If an advisor to the emperor had asked a London banker why this was happening, the banker would have explained that the Spanish-run mines in South and Central America which had been supplying most of the world’s silver for the last few centuries had run dry, and that whether China liked it or not, it was integrated into the global economy, so as supplies declined and prices rose, silver throughout the world was being hoarded.
But the emperor’s advisors didn’t know this. Instead, they blamed the Europeans, because by the late-18th century, the trade balance between Europe and China suddenly reversed. China stopped being a heavy net exporter and became a heavy net importer, thereby bleeding its precious silver out of the country.
And if that wasn’t bad enough, China wasn’t even getting anything good for all its silver. In fact, it was getting a scourge, a paralytic, a degenerative sludge, a destroyer of individuals and families alike that was hollowing China from the inside-out. China was getting opium.
The Drug War
There had always been opium in China, but it had never been a big deal. Prior to the arrival of Europeans, the only way the Chinese knew how to ingest it was by eating the drug, which, as you can imagine, is not particularly pleasant.
But then the Europeans introduced China to smoking opium by combining the drug with tobacco. This practice had existed in Europe for a few centuries in limited form, but likewise was a weird, minor vice existing only on the edges of society. For whatever reason, the Chinese fucking loved it.
The opium trade started in the late 1700s with a handful of British merchants who had a few spare cases of Indian opium on their ships. The drug was technically illegal, but the trade was so minor that nobody cared, so the merchants sold the cases along with their cotton. But soon these merchants noticed that opium was much lighter than cotton, and dramatically more profitable by the weight/volume. So they got a bit more opium. And then a bit more, and then a bit more, and soon enough, the opium trade eclipsed the cotton trade.
According to Platt’s analysis, the opium trade is a great case study for free market economic theory. Despite being an illicit, unregulated international trade between Brits, Indians, Turks, Americans, and Chinese, the opium supply chain was considered to be one of the most reliable and trustworthy in the world. The poppies were grown by Indians or Turks, shipped by Brits or Americans to China, then bribes were paid to local government officials, then Chinese merchants would purchase the opium, and distribute it inland. With trust came efficiency and competition, and prices plummeted to feed an ever-increasing demand.
Before the Chinese central government could react, opium was everywhere. Chinese people could buy it at any market, inn, tavern, or even many Buddhist temples. It was always technically illegal, but completely unenforced. Local government officials worked with local gangs who bought the drugs from the Chinese importers at wholesale prices. The Europeans made money, the Chinese merchants made money, the officials made money, the drug gangs made money, and Chinese people got their opium. The only people who weren’t happy were the emperor and his advisors. All they saw was their people poisoning themselves, rising crime, loss of tax revenue, economic drag, and silver drain. And those fucking foreigners causing it all.
I wish I could find hard numbers to put the drug epidemic in perspective, but they are understandably difficult to come by. The emperor’s advisors had vague estimates of the number of Chinese addicts climbing into the millions. According to one estimate (which sounds too high to me, but I don’t know), when the opium trade peaked in 1906, 27% of the male population of China was using.
Thus China launched a war on drugs.
This was my favorite part of the book. The similarities between the Chinese government’s approach to the opium crisis and the US’s approach to its own drug war over the past 50+ years are uncanny.
The mainline view on the drug crisis in Beijing was a sort of “drugs are bad, MKAY” simplistic outlook. Opium use in the provinces was seen as a self-destructive addiction which sapped motivation, destroyed families, and ruined lives. It made the once-industrious Chinese people lazy and indolent, and it destroyed the moral fabric of this once great nation.
But of course, opium use was no less common in Beijing than anywhere else. The emperor’s staff was full of open opium-smokers, as were regional administrations and the supposed law enforcement agencies. Students at China’s top universities would smoke opium to focus themselves before tests. The Daoguang Emperor himself, who led China through the Opium War, was an opium smoker in his youth who claimed to be so aggressively anti-opium because he had felt its terrible effects himself, and could imagine how it would destroy minds less enlightened than his own.
Like so many Americans in the last century, the Chinese leaders had no idea what they were up against. The early ideas thrown out by the emperor’s advisors were pipe dreams. They believed that with the right government policies and administrative gusto, they could stop and then reverse this whole opium thing in a few decades.
The government’s initial salvo in the drug war was exactly what you’d expect – crackdown. The emperor announced harsh penalties for opium dealers and users, and a renewed stringency at ports so vigorous customs officers could choke off the opium supply as it entered the country.
And as we know today, the effects of these sorts of crackdowns are somewhere between non-existent and negative.
In one of the closest parallels to the modern drug war, the only people who ever got in trouble for opium were the poor and disenfranchised. Occasionally a local official would get yelled at by his bosses for not getting enough opium arrests, so he’d send his gang of armed thugs to round up some peasants or vagrants with petty opium stashes and throw them in jail for the rest of their lives. The vast majority of users could smoke opium openly and no one cared because there were too many to arrest, and of course, none of the emperor’s advisers or their rich children at college would ever be arrested. Meanwhile, dealers were almost never caught since they worked with local officials. Without official taxes, the opium trade was so wildly profitable that European and Chinese merchants alike could bribe whoever they needed to with barely a dent in their margins. And besides, the Europeans were (arguably) diplomatically immune.
The greatest beneficiaries of the government crackdown were the opium gangs. By the early 19th century, the opium trade had not only far-eclipsed the cotton trade, but was a sizeable part of the Chinese economy. Yet the government got no money from it – nothing in sales or taxes. So drug gangs filled the vacuum. Working with local officials, they amassed armies and sometimes became de facto governments within their territories. Given the corruption of the Qing government, the drug gangs were generally considered fairer and more reliable than the real government.
Meanwhile, the Qing government’s endemic corruption problem intensified to unheard of levels. It got to the point where the central government basically couldn’t do anything. The emperor and his advisors knew that when they issued an order, it would either be ignored, or used for profit at a local level (ie. local customs officials would use the emperor’s edicts as an excuse to ask for higher bribes). Sometimes the emperor would send out some super special agent from Beijing to lead a local crackdown. And again, in one of those eerie parallels to the modern day, typically the agent would bust some small local gang, and make a big show of burning a dozen crates of opium in the center of town. Meanwhile, a few miles away, there would be thousands of crates of opium sitting in storage, a portion of which would probably be given to the super agent as a bribe so he would go away.
Platt tells the story of one supposedly loyal governor of a province who received the crackdown order. The governor’s province had a major river running through it which he was sure was being used to move opium. So he rounded up his entire fleet, and sent it on patrols of the river. After about a year, he got a report from some other agents of a massive opium gang compound on the river, so he ordered his fleet to attack with everything they had.
In the after-battle report, the governor learned that the opium compound was still standing, and his entire fleet was gone. Apparently, after a year of river patrols, the fleet had become so hopelessly addicted to opium that they went into battle high as kites and were quickly torn to shreds by the far more disciplined opium gang members.
After a few decades of abject failure, the Chinese leadership became more open to creative methods of fighting the drug war. Platt takes the reader through the major debates at the emperor’s court during this time, and again, the echoes to today are striking. The mainline stance was that the root of the opium problem was supply – Europeans were shipping opium in by the boatload, so we need to stand up to these merchants. On the other side, officials argued the problem was demand – Europeans wouldn’t bring opium into China if Chinese people didn’t want it. The emperor’s court soon split into two factions.
On one side was the hard-liners. They argued that the crackdown had been too soft – instead, the government should kill opium dealers and users alike, Duterte-style. The problem was too severe. There were no more nobs to turn or levers to pull. The only solution was drastic action. A popular proposal was for the emperor to declare that all Chinese people would have one year to get off opium. At the end of the year, Beijing would send its best military units to round-up opium users city-by-city and hang them. Plus they could chuck out the Europeans – completely ban any-and-all foreign trade in China until the opium epidemic was squashed and the country is re-stabilized.
The other faction was surprisingly modern in its outlook. One of the biggest “demand-side” advocates suggested setting up treatment facilities throughout China to educate and medically help addicts get off opium. Plenty of other advisors advocated out-right legalization. They argued that the drug war was unwinnable, so the Chinese government may as well tax opium and stem the internal corruption. Plus cutting off foreign trade was suicidal, not just because by the early 19th century, it constituted a major part of the Chinese economy, but because sober minds in the Chinese government were aware that the Europeans would resort to military action if provoked, and easily win.
(One very unmodern component of this drug war was how the government talked about its worst-off citizens. We are used to thinking about drug addicts as unfortunate victims driven to the pipe/needle by biological addiction and destitution. But with rare exceptions, the Chinese advisors wrote off addicts as not only unsavable, but not even worth saving. Even the “soft on drugs” faction believed the addicts were a lost cause who would die off under legalization, and good riddance.)
Rather than commit to one faction or the other, successive emperors vacillated between the two. This understandably left the Europeans on edge. Merchants simultaneously invested in warehouses and stocks for companies that would come into existence the instant drug-legalization was declared, while also wondering if/when the Chinese army would batter down the gates of the Canton compound and round them all up for execution.
The Virgin Chinese Emperor vs. the Chad Baynes and his Stacey Wife
Tensions steadily rose between the European merchants and China throughout the first half of the 19th century. It was a state of awkward passive-aggressiveness for both sides. China was mad that the Europeans were pumping poison into the country, taking all their silver, not treating the emperor with respect, and generally wearing out their welcome. The Europeans were mad that China was needlessly limiting trade, pretending to be a mighty nation when the whole place was clearly being held together by chewing gum, and confining the enlightened, noble, clearly philosophically and technologically superior Europeans to inhumane conditions in a gated/guarded compound.
Naturally, a series of diplomatic incidents broke out in Canton which pushed China and the West ever-closer to conflict. An emblematic example was the Baynes Affair.
Baynes was a young British East India Company merchant engaged in the China trade. He lived with his wife, who had traveled all the way from Britain to say with him, in Macau for six months of each year. Then during the other half of the year, he would leave her behind and live in the Canton factory compound.
After a few years, Mrs. Baynes got sick of the arrangement and asked her husband if she could come with him to Canton. He explained that Western women had always been banned from the mainland, but she didn’t care.
Baynes relented and smuggled his wife aboard one of his ships. At Canton, she was quickly discovered, but the Chinese soldiers guarding the compound didn’t mind. They had been stationed there for years and were on good terms with the Western merchants, plus they had never seen a white woman before and were fascinated by her blonde hair. Soon enough, local Chinese people were lining up at the gates to catch glimpses of Mrs. Baynes, and supposedly the guards even sold tickets for attendance.
The next year, Baynes brought Mrs. Baynes to Canton again, with the wives of two other merchants, and a single woman (the cousin of another wife). But Baynes didn’t even bother trying to hide them. Insulted by the flagrant violation of China’s laws, the local Chinese magistrate demanded that Baynes immediately pack up the women and bring them back to Macau. To which Baynes replied something like, “nope.”
This was the equivalent of a 19th century diplomatic “scissor statement.” Both sides were utterly convinced that they were right and that the other side was blind. The Chinese couldn’t understand why a foreign merchant was blatantly violating Chinese laws which had been upheld for hundreds of years, while the British couldn’t understand why the Chinese cared that some merchants got to live with their wives.
The Chinese magistrate reiterated his demands, and told Baynes there would be serious consequences if he refused this time. Baynes refused.
The Chinese magistrate commissioned the printing and hanging of hundreds of propaganda posters throughout Canton and especially around the factory complex, which decried the British as immoral savages who can’t follow the rules. Baynes and the rest of the Brits rolled their eyes.
However, the Americans (about 25% of the merchants) at the Canton factory saw an opportunity as the East India Company was their greatest competitor. The Americans jointly wrote and signed a letter to the head of the EIC in India, detailing Baynes’s behavior and expressing their concerns that he was causing a diplomatic incident which may very well tip the precarious balance between China and Britain, and start a war. The EIC Chairman was shocked by the news and wrote his own strongly worded letter to Baynes warning him that tensions were already at an all-time high and he thought it was a distinct possibility the Chinese would send in the army against the Canton merchant compound if provoked.
Baynes took the Chairman’s letter both seriously and literally. He proceeded to put out a call to arms amongst the Canton compound and Macau. He spread the news that the Chinese were threatening to send an army to separate he and his wife, and that no British man of dignity could allow such an offense. Within a few weeks, Baynes had raised 100 marines and dozens of assorted sailors from Macau and brought then to Canton’s shores to defend him and his wife from attack.
For a moment it really did look like China would declare war on Britain to separate Baynes and his wife… but a few months later the romantic merchant gave up. His boss and all his colleagues were yelling at him, and the women were understandably concerned, so they just went back to Macau.
With such events regularly breaking out in Canton, a sentiment for war against China grew in Britain. Some English merchants had been asking for a fight since all the way back in the mid-18th century when the Canton system was established, but by the early/mid-19th century, the war against China was a full-blown political movement.
The final straw was an incident in 1838. The Daoguang Emperor began to lean more towards his hard-liner advisors on the drug war, and so deployed an imperial agent named Lin Zexu to Canton to try to shut down opium imports. But Zexu quickly botched the operation. His first order was to round-up a bunch of small-time Chinese dealers and execute them in front of the Canton factory gates. He thought this would scare the Europeans into submission, but most just called him a barbarian and rolled their eyes. They knew the Chinese couldn’t touch them. So many threats had been made and bluffs called over the preceding decades that the Brits and Americans didn’t even flinch when Zexu arranged a blockade around the factory and demanded they hand over all their opium. Instead they offered to give about 1/100th of their stock so Zexu would fuck off, but the Chinese agent refused.
However, one particularly nervous Englishman did freak out – Charles Elliot, the head of EIC operations in Canton. Despite constant reassurances from other merchants that the Chinese wouldn’t touch them, Elliot believed that they would smash down the gates and execute them all at any moment. In a panic, Elliot offered to buy every ounce of opium held by the British merchants for EIC script written on the spot, but backed by the British crown. Meaning, Elliot made an enormous purchase of drugs on behalf of the British government. The merchants thought Elliot was a moron, but took the deal for the safe money. They then handed over their opium and left Canton, knowing that the government would have to pay them back or else crash the Asian commercial economy.
When everyone back in Britain heard what happened, there was a firestorm that would eventually trigger the Opium War.
The Case for War
It’s easy to look at something like the Opium War from today’s perspective as naked imperialism – a much stronger nation beating up a weaker nation for private profit and national prestige. But… I personally think the case for war was at least morally plausible.
In a fun twist on modern libertarianism, the supporters of the China war mostly consisted of merchants ideologically aligned with the free trade movement in Britain. The first half of the 19th century was a cool little moment in British history when the British masses rose up against tariffs and trade restrictions for both economic and moral reasons. At home, they railed against the infamous Grain Laws which placed high tariffs on grain imports to prop up British farmers at the expense of consumers. These free traders applied the same logic to Britain’s dealings with China and concluded that a war was the only way to open up markets.
Hence, the first and IMO best argument for war was a moral one. The British merchants had goods to sell. The Chinese consumers wanted these goods. Both sides wanted to engage in peaceful, voluntary, mutually-advantageous trade. Only the Chinese government stood in their way, and it used coercive force to prevent this voluntary activity. If one considers voluntary commerce to be a human right, then the Chinese government was violating the rights of British and Chinese citizens alike. And as with all rights violations, the only viable solution was retaliatory force. Thus, the British should have declared war on China and forced the government to sign a commercial treaty that opened the country up to free trade (or at least freer trade) with Britain.
As a bonus, one could argue that a war against China would not be against the Chinese people but the Chinese government. Even beyond the typical distinctions made between the two, the Qing dynasty wasn’t even Chinese; it was Manchu. But the merchants in Canton who wanted to buy British goods and their customers were almost all Han. Hence, forcing the Qing dynasty to open China to trade would alleviate the oppression of the true Chinese people.
Slightly more anachronistically, another big argument was that China had offended Britain’s national honor on many occasions, and the war was a way to get it back. Stories of Chinese officials forcing British merchants to kowtow were apocryphal but widespread. But the conditions forced upon the merchants at Canton (no women, can only be there six months per year, can’t leave the compound, etc.) were real, as was the stubborn aloofness of the Chinese emperors who categorically refused to meet British diplomats on even terms. Meanwhile, Britain had just defeated Napoleon! A swift kick in the tail would show these distant savages who’s on top of the world!
Of course, we can’t ignore private interests either. Opening up China to more trade with Britain would be immensely profitable. With more opium and cotton being shipped abroad, capital would be pulled into British India and Britain itself. This meant more wealth, more infrastructure, more employment, and generally a better-off British people.
Plus, the British government had just taken on an enormous financial obligation to pay for a whole bunch of drugs… so why not get the Chinese to pay for it instead? It was their fault anyway. They tried to confiscate the drugs and threatened the British merchants, so it’s only fair that they pay for their screw up.
And finally, the pro-war trump card – it would be so easy.
The British military laughably outmatched the Chinese one. By internal Chinese estimates, ten of the best Chinese ships were barely a match for an average British frigate. Britain wouldn’t need to invade China, navies alone would suffice to give them a bloody nose. And Britain wouldn’t even need to build ships or raise sailors, they could simply send the sizeable naval fleet in India to China’s shores. The vastly superior British navy could annihilate a couple of shit-tier Chinese fleets, wipe out some coastal forts, and then drive up the major rivers and threaten Chinese cities with bombardment. Monetary costs would be minimal. Lives lost would be minimal. Britain would defeat the largest and wealthiest country on earth without breaking a sweat.
The Case Against War
The opposition was led by conservative Britons and especially the East India Company. The EIC saw itself as the adults in the room when it came to trade. They recognized that the Chinese market was immensely profitable, but that trade could only be achieved through careful diplomacy with the emperor, which meant ordering Western mercantile forces under a single entity… namely, themselves. In contrast, the American free traders in China, and the British free traders back home chomping at the bit for looser trade regulations, were cowboys who could very well collapse the Asian markets with their callous disregard for the norms.
Meanwhile, free traders accused the EIC of being perpetual kowtowers on the diplomatic scene for always making concessions to the Chinese whenever a Baynes-type incident broke out. Furthermore, they accused the EIC of trying to steer Britain away from war so they could maintain the status quo, which included their monopoly on trade in East Asia (though they lost the monopoly anyway, I think in the 1830s or so).
Nevertheless, anti-war forces had good arguments too, many of which look even better with some historical perspective.
First, they had the standard anti-war arguments – wars are complicated. We can make all the predictions we want with maps and force projections, but we don’t know exactly what will happen when soldiers meet each other on the battlefield. China wasn’t in its heyday, but it’ was still an enormous country with hundreds of millions of people. What if being attacked by a foreign power triggered a new unity and the government managed to drag this war out for many years? What if we underestimated their home-field advantage? What if they get a few lucky shots and took out a chunk of the valuable and expensive British navy?
Second, the anti-war side worried that going to war could permanently mess up a good thing. Sure, the China trade was restricted, but they were still making tons of money. What if a war forever destroyed Anglo-Chinese relations and the trade never came back? Or worse yet, what if a war sent the Qing dynasty into free fall and the whole country fell into anarchy? Forget about trade restrictions, imagine the tea and silk plantations burning up under roving peasant bands. Imagine there being so much internal fighting that opium merchants couldn’t even move their products. Hundreds of years of plentiful, important trade could come to a halt for good if Britain screwed China up.
Third, they argued that an aggressive war against China violated the international standards of national sovereignty. Just as France and Spain set their internal trade regulations, so did China. China was a very different place with very different people and a very different culture. They had their way of doing things which was informed by thousands of years of very different history. What right did British merchants have to force a foreign government to abide by their standards? Would Britain ever let French merchants come to London and dictate national trade policy?
Fourth, the pro-war side wasn’t just underestimating the costs of a war, but Britain’s ability to pay for one. The Napoleonic wars had stretched Britain’s credit limits to heroic levels, but they were now exhausted. There simply wasn’t the cash-on-hand for another military venture.
And the anti-war side had its own trump card – why would Great Britain go to war for the sake of a bunch of drug dealers?
Of course, the pro-war side always tried to play-down the extent to which the opium merchants were pushing for the conflict, but according to Platt, everyone on the ground in Canton knew the truth. These guys wanted a war so they could get ever-richer selling poison to foreigners. All the stuff about individual rights and national pride was a façade. These people wanted the noble British government, which had just saved Europe from tyranny under Napoleon and outlawed slavery, to waste taxpayer dollars and send good British men to die on the other side of the world, so a bunch of drug dealers could make more money.
British views on the morality of opium use were mixed but steadily darkened over time. Keep in mind that the concept of widespread narcotic use was a very new thing at this point in history. Sure, there had always been drugs, but almost exclusively as a luxury for the nobility. But now, caffeine, nicotine, and opium were sweeping through entire populations. People were still trying to wrap their minds around these drugs and how to use them responsibly.
Just as in China, there was opium in Britain, but it was never widely-used. Some British guy got super rich writing a memoir about his time as an opium addict. In the early 19th century, a popular pamphlet placed the dangers of opium above tea (which a surprising amount of people thought to be mildly harmful) but below alcohol. But many of the merchants on the ground on China couldn’t ignore what they saw and heard. They knew what the trade was doing to China and wrote extensively to expose the epidemic to Britons back home.
As a result, by the 1820s/30s, the pro-war side was steadily losing the moral high ground, especially after the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833. Outlawing the opium trade became a political end in and of itself. The comparison between opium and slavery was drawn constantly by the opposition as they tried to shame Britain away from embarking on military adventurism for the sake of the very worst parts of the British Empire. Awkwardly, US Senator John Calhoun spoke out against the opium trade and used it as a pro-slavery talking point by contrasting the far worse British against the noble Americans.
The Opium War
Of course, the pro-war faction won. Lin Zexu’s attempted crackdown in Canton gave the pro-war MPs enough firepower to pass a motion for law in parliament.
I don’t actually know much about the war itself. Platt’s book spends 6 hours describing random British people trying to enter China in the early 18th century, but only about 40 minutes describing the titular conflict.
The short version was that the war wasn’t quite as easy as the pro-war side predicted, but it was still pretty easy. The Chinese government came up with some crazy military schemes, but they never came to fruition. One idea was to abandon literally the entire Chinese coastline and just turtle inland until the British tried a land invasion or gave up. Even more ambitiously, a general floated the idea of raising a 200,000 man army and marching to London (I wish Platt had given more details). But instead, the Chinese navies mostly retreated or were quickly destroyed. The war ended with the British armada parking outside Nanking and threatening to light it up unless the Chinese negotiated.
The conflict lasted three years, during which time the British sustained 350 dead (3/4 of which died as POWs) and 450 wounded, while the Chinese sustained about 20,000 casualties.
The result was the singing of the Treaty of Nanking, which included:
- Opening up four more commercial ports in China; the largest and wealthiest would soon emerge as Shanghai
- The British government had the right to constant diplomatic negotiation with the Chinese government
- The Chinese ports had fixed, low tariffs mutually agreed upon by the British and Chinese governments
- The Chinese government paid for the opium purchased by the British government as a result of Lin Zexu’s threats ($6 Million)
- The Chinese government paid for Britain’s entire war cost ($12 Million)
- The Chinese government paid for all private debts incurred by Chinese merchants to British citizens ($3 Million)
- China ceded Hong Kong to Great Britain
According to Platt, the greatest beneficiaries of the war were… the Americans. Lin Zexu’s opium crackdown targeted the British, as they controlled 75% of the market. So as soon as China stopped importing British opium with the crackdown and ensuing war, the Americans stepped in to fill the gap. While they got rich and permanently captured market share, President John Tyler launched America’s first official diplomatic envoy to the Chinese emperor. The Americans presented themselves as the nicer, friendlier, gentler alternative foreigners to the British. And so once the Opium War ended and Britain signed the Treaty of Nanking it had worked so hard for… China immediately turned to America and offered it the same exact trade terms.
According to Platt, the idea that the Opium War represents the start of China’s “Century of Humiliation,” where the once-mighty country was humiliated by Western dogs, was an invention of later Chinese nationalists. At the time, the Treaty of Nanking was undoubtedly a blow to Chinese dignity, but the Qing Dynasty knew China had been on the decline for centuries. Losing a war to a handful of British ships was just everybody admitting that the emperor had no clothes.
Meanwhile, the opium epidemic got worse. Brits and Americans continued to pump it in at ever-higher rates until the emperor threw up his hands and legalized usage in the middle of the 19th century. According to Platt, this just threw fuel on the fire. Instead of importing opium, the Chinese began to grow it themselves. Supply ballooned and prices plummeted. By the end of the century, the Chinese were growing 10X more opium than they ever imported from foreigners.