When you want to understand a relationship between two countries, you have to look at their history together. And in the spirit of the China and Europe relationships, nothing shows it better than the Opium Wars. They were a pivotal and humiliating juncture in China’s history. The two armed conflicts delivered a catastrophic result for China.
But thanks to those wars, the Communist Party of China rose from the ashes. The conflicts were waged over sovereignty, trade, and opium almost 180 years ago. It put the richest empire at the time against Britain.
But China lost its standing as the most powerful force in Asia, its economic wealth, and opened the country to Western influence.
In 2017, Chinese president Xi Jinping said, “That page of Chinese history was one of humiliation and sorrow”. The legacy of the wars continue to influence China’s foreign policies. This is also why China is trying to reunite all former Chinese territories, including Taiwan.
So, to understand modern China, you have to know the history and legacy of the Opium Wars.
What is opium?
Nowadays, we know opium is a highly-addictive drug extracted from poppies. At one point, it was also used as medicine and popular recreational substance.
By the 1830s, millions of Chinese were hooked on opium, which caused damage to the health and productivity of the nation. And much of the opium they smoked had been imported by the British.
Why was Britain exporting the drug to China?
At the time, there was a huge demand in Britain for Chinese products like tea and porcelain. The Chinese, however, did not want to trade British goods in return. Instead, they demanded to be paid in silver.
On its part, Britain didn’t want to have its silver reserves drained. So, some enterprising British merchants came up with a different solution.
They took opium grown in India, which at the time, was under British control, and imported it into China. They insisted on being paid for the drug in silver, which could be then used to purchase Chinese products.
Importing opium was illegal, but corrupt Chinese officials allowed it to take place.
How opium led to war?
In 1839, the Chinese government finally decided to crack down on the smuggling of opium. They ordered the seizure of large quantities of the drug from British merchants in the Chinese port of Canton. At the time, it was the only part of the country where Europeans were allowed to trade.
The outraged merchants lobbied the British government for assistance and found a ready audience. Britain wanted to increase its influence in China for years, and the opium was a perfect opportunity to achieve that goal.
So, in June 1840, a British naval fleet arrived, attacking the Chinese coast. Because of their inferior military technology, the Chinese were no match for the British, so they had to agree to humiliating peace terms.
Among them, China had to pay a large fine to Britain, open five more ports to foreign trade, and give British citizens special legal rights in China.
Nowadays, in modern China, they refer to that settlement as the Unequal Treaty.
First Opium War
The first Opium war began in 1839 and it was fought over trading rights, open trade, and diplomatic status. To understand the magnitude of the trade, we have to mention that by 1797, British East India Company was sending up to 4,000 chests of opium per year. Each of those chests weighed up to 170lbs.
There was a time when opium was taken as a relatively harmless medicine. But the practice of smoking opium recreationally increased demand and led to addiction.
The Chinese Emperor issued edicts making opium illegal in 1729, 1799, 1814, and 1831. Yet, imports grew as smugglers and corrupt officials sought profit. Even some Americans entered the trade by smuggling opium from Turkey to China.
In 1839, the Emperor charged High Commissioner Lin Tse-hsu with ending the opium trade. He published in Canton an open letter to the English ruler, pleading for a halt to the opium contraband. The letter never reached the queen.
But it was later printed in the London Times as a direct appeal to the British public. Lin ordered the seizure of all opium in Canton, including that of foreign governments and trading companies.
Chief Superintendent of British Trade in China, Charles Elliot, arrived three days later. But Chinese soldiers enforced a shutdown and blockade of the factories. Elliot paid for the opium on credit from the British Government.
He then wrote to London advising the use of military force against the Chinese. After one year, on May 1840, the British decided to send troops to impose reparations for the financial loses and guarantee future security for trade.
On June 21, 1840, the British naval forces arrived off Macao and moved to bombard the port of Dinghai. The fleet and the Royal Navy used its superior ships and guns to inflict defeats on the Chinese Empire.
The war concluded by the Treaty of Nanking, the first of the Unequal Treaties between China and Western power.
This treaty forced China to cede the Hong Kong Island and surrounding smaller islands to Britain, and it established five treaty ports at Shanghai, Canton, Ningpo, Foochow, and Amoy.
It also imposed a $21 million payment to the Britain, six of which were paid immediately.
Second Opium War
In 1853, northern China was convulsed by the Taiping Rebellion. The rebellion established its capital at Nanking.
New Imperial Commissioner Ye Mingchen was appointed at Canton, determined to stamp out the opium trade. Technically, the trade was still illegal.
In October 1856, Ye seized the Arrow, a ship claiming British registration and threw the crew into chains. Sir John Bowring, who served as Governor of British Hong Kong, called up Rear Admiral Sir Michael Seymour’s East Indies and China station fleet.
That fleet, bombard and captured the Pearl River forts on October 23, and proceed to bombard Canton itself. Yet, they had insufficient forces to take and hold the city.
On December 15, a riot occurred in Canton, during which European commercial properties were set on fire. The execution of a French missionary inspired support from France to the British forces.
Together, Britain and France sought greater concessions from China, including legalization of the opium trade and expansion of the transport of cheap labor. They also wanted opening all of China to British merchants.
The result of the war was the Treaty of Tientsin, signed on June 26, 1858. This treaty forced the Chinese to pay reparations for the expenses of the recent war, open a second group of ten ports to European commerce, legalize the opium trade, and grand missionaries rights to travel within China.
How it changed China?
Following the defeat, China had to sign new treaties, open more ports, but the pain didn’t stop there. All the powers in the world wanted to have a share.
For example, because of Hong Kong, British claimed the Pearl River Basin is their sphere of influence. France controlled Vietnam, and they said the Red River Basin of south China is their sphere of influence.
The British also considered Shanghai an important center, so they claimed the whole of the Yangtze River Basin as their influence.
Germany got on it as well, getting the Shandong province and then trying to extend it along the Yellow River. Russia claimed Manchuria, and what we now call Chinese Turkestan.
Effect on Modern Day China
Britain retained control of Hong Kong until 1997. For China, the impact of the Opium Wars was dramatic. The military defeats weakened the Qing dynasty that was ruling the country at the time.
And because of the new treaties, China was opened up to more foreign influence.
Some historians say that the opium wars were the start of a century of national humiliation by foreigners.
The defeat was a key factor in the downfall of the Qing Empire, and the rise of the Communist Party. The Chinese regime has used the period of humiliation and defeat as some kind of legitimacy.
Today, China uses that defeat as ammunition for the government. China’s actions today speak to that legacy, but they are motivated by their own savvy understanding of geostrategic shifts and geopolitical shifts in the global economy.
The Communist Party now says that China will never be weak again. Many years after, they still do not fully control Hong Kong. Hong Kong is a special administrative region of China that has largely been free to manage its own affairs. Taiwan is another problem that China still tries to resolve.
History is important in China, and the government does not want another Opium War where they are defeated.