The office Book Club has required me to read Julia Lovell’s book The Opium War, about what can only be described as one of Britain’s more disgraceful episodes. I’m only a couple of chapters in, so I won’t be going into detail, but it must be said that fighting a war in order to protect the trade in narcotics has to be morally dubious, no matter how you look at it.
That said, there are some interesting snippets already coming out – mainly from what I’m learning about the Chinese. I’d forgotten, of course, that the Chinese aren’t just one nationality (although post-Communism, they may argue to the contrary); the majority of Chinese are Han, but pre-Revolution, the ruling minority were Manchu Chinese from the north, who manipulated a whopping double-standard to ensure that the civil service exams would be passed by Manchu candidates over Han candidates. There is a report in the book of two centenarian Han candidates who repeatedly failed the exams, only to be given the degrees out of sympathy – not that they would be of any use at that age!
You would think, wouldn’t you, that this barely hidden discrimination would be the cause of significant political ferment – yet repeatedly, the Chinese Imperial government blamed opium and repeatedly took steps to stamp out the illicit trade in the drug, which was being actively encouraged and supported by the British, who were shipping opium in from Raj-controlled Bengal. Why? Because there was money in it. So much, in fact, that the Chinese Treasury reached a point where so much silver was leaving the country, they couldn’t pay their military, who – unsurprisingly – started to wonder why they were working when they weren’t being paid. Well, you would, wouldn’t you?
I couldn’t help but be reminded of the political rhetoric modern governments still use when referring to the “war on drugs”. It’s almost as if nobody has learned anything*. Although I could never condone drug use I do find myself wondering if it is not being used as a means to hide wider political issues and spend money on a problem that cannot be solved overnight with simplistic means. It’s exactly the tactics the Qing Emperor used in the 1840s and by the Blair Government of the 1990s. Let’s have a war on opium to hide the fact that, actually, the civil service is horribly corrupt but since they make the laws, that’s not going to change.
This is a thoroughly enlightening book. You won’t learn anything about drugs, but you will learn an awful lot about politics.
* I’ll gloss over the glaring hypocrisy of the British in this case, for obvious reasons.