Drugs: The Influence of Mind-altering Substances on Society, Part 2

Opium Wars: How Britain turned China Into a Land of Drug Fiends


by Andrew Arnett

Recently, there has been a series of high profile busts in China as the Chinese government cracks down on drug use. Celebs collared by the police include Jaycee Chan, son of movie star Jackie Chan, singer Li Daimo, writer Ning Caishen, and Taiwanese movie star Kai Ko.

Foreigners have also been targeted in the sweep.

In August, the police surrounded a music venue in Beijing, forcing patrons to urinate in a cup. The result netted several arrests and subsequent deportation of foreigners found holding. Drugs rounded up in the raids include marijuana and methamphetamine.

Chinese President Xi Jinping called for “forceful measures to wipe out drugs,” and Premier Li Keqiang called drugs a “common enemy to humanity.” An editorial running on CCTV, China’s state-run television station, bolsters the government directive by harkening back to the Opium Wars of the 19th century.

The editorial states: “At the beginning of the 19th century, westerners tricked us by saying you could smoke opium. The result was that they not only made off with our silver, but they also hollowed out the Chinese people’s spirit.”

The Opium Wars consist of two military conflicts spanning 1839–1860, between Great Britain and China. The dispute was, ultimately, over Britain’s ambition to force the import of opium upon the Chinese, and the resistance of this mandate by the Chinese empire.

This conflict marks a pivotal juncture in Chinese history, ostensibly determining the start of modern day China. As a result of their defeat, the Chinese were obliged to sign the Treaty of Nanking, which granted the ceding of Hong Kong to the Queen of England, the opening of China to British residence, and the right of Britain to import opium into China.

Opium is derived from the sap of the seedpods of the opium poppy (Papaver somniferum). It contains 12% analgesic alkaloid morphine, which is also used to make heroin, codeine, and other narcotics. The first known written reference to poppy appears in Sumerian texts from about 4000 BC.

The effects of opium usage include euphoria, reduced pain, relaxation, sleepiness, impaired alertness and reduced sex drive. Overdose can cause coma and death. Prolonged use causes addiction with concomitant painful withdrawal symptoms.

Production of opium was controlled by British owned East India Company, who had a virtual monopoly on the trade since 1793. Because the Emperor had banned the sale of opium in China in 1800, the Brits were forced to smuggle the product into the country.

In addition, the Chinese demanded silver for their export of tea to England. To redress this deficit in trade, the Brits pushed the opium. By 1838, there were an estimated two million Chinese opium addicts.

To be fair, the Chinese had been hitting the opium pipe long before the British came along. Its use, however, was prohibitive and restricted to the elites. Once the British started flooding the market with the illicit drug, costs went down, and addiction rates sky rocketed. As a result, the government was forced to act.

Opium imports into China by tons (1650–1880)

To counter-act the growing epidemic of Chinese dope addicts, the Emperor, in 1838, assigned Lin Zexu to the formidable task of eradicating the scourge of opium infesting the land.

Lin began his career as China’s new drug czar with a series of high profile arrests and subsequent execution by hanging of known opium dealers in Canton. “Let no one think,” Lin stated, “that this is only a temporary effort on behalf of the Emperor. We will persist until the job is finished.”

Lin then turned his attention to the British clipper ships moored in Canton Bay, demanding them to hand over their cargo of opium and to sign guarantees promising to never return with the contraband, under penalty of execution.

Lin’s request met with success and over 20,000 chests (55 kilograms each) of opium were handed over for destruction. However, there were concerns that the British were not willing to comply with the guarantees when, opting to sail into the port at Macao, it was presumed they would resume their drug trade.

Lin again threatened the British but on September 4, 1839, British merchant ships armed with superior fire power attacked Chinese junk ships at Kowloon, causing severe damage and a Chinese retreat. Thus began the First Opium War.

Over the course of the next twenty years, and through two conflicts known as the First and Second Opium Wars, the Brits delivered China a brutal beat down. England had seized Hong Kong, controlled the coastline and, for a time, even occupied China’s capitol Peking.

In 1858, the Chinese government surrendered to British demands and legalized the import of opium.

German cartoon illustrating hypocrisy of Britain forcing China to buy opium (1842)

The widespread use of opium in China continued well into the 20th century, with taxes from its production filling the coffers of the Nationalist Government, the Communist Party of China, and the British colonial government of Hong Kong.

This status quo was maintained until 1949, when the Peoples Republic of China finally managed to clamp down on the widespread use and production of opium.

Opium use did not stay within the borders of China but spread to other nations as well, including America. Chinese laborers began arriving in the U.S. in 1849 to work on the rail road system, and they brought with them their own system for smoking opium.

Because of the elaborate nature of the opium smoking ritual, which requires a special pipe and lamp, as well as an attendant to assist, opium dens, with all their accoutrements, began springing up throughout the U.S.

Starting in San Francisco, where they were confined to the Chinatown district, opium dens spread to the east coast and by the 1880's could be found in most American cities. At that point, opium was being smoked not only by Chinese immigrants but by regular Americans as well.

Indeed, opium was legal in the U.S. at the time, and wasn’t banned until the Harrison Narcotics Act of 1914.

Though the Opium Wars are now a matter of history, it is still a revelation to consider that, at one point, Great Britain was the most powerful drug cartel on the planet.