The Tragicomedy of Errors: China, British Imperialism, and the Opium Wars

Great Britain has many reasons to feel great about itself. Its empire was the largest in history and covered over a fifth of the world’s population. It had more Asian and African colonies than any other European power. It came, it saw, it divided, and it conquered. It raped and it reaped, it gleefully slaughtered millions of people, joyfully massacred entire populations, regularly caused civil wars, flattened countless cities and towns, and destroyed whole civilizations and dynasties with pleasure.

It sucked the life out of its colonies and reduced them to what we now call third-world nations. It drew and redrew boundaries and created whole new countries randomly on a whim. Most of the conflicts in the world today can be traced back to British Imperialism – the Kashmir issue and India-Pakistan rivalry, the Sino-Indian border dispute and India-China rivalry, the Tibet issue, the Israel-Palestine conflict, Northern Ireland, Cyprus, Sudan – the list goes on.

Yes – Great Britain had reason to feel greatly proud about itself. It had the largest empire in the world. It had managed to keep it’s European competitors in check. There was no known threat to its global dominion. It seemed that Great Britain was destined to rule the world.

And then it all came tumbling down. Sometime in the past century, the great Island Story crumbled to pieces, and the empire followed. Slowly but surely, the empire on which “the sun never sets” went out like a cigar puff. Today it finds itself with as much geopolitical influence as an American missile base. Once great, Great Britain is now America’s top bitch. The relationship between the two countries is much like that between a dog and its master, or as it is referred to in public, a “special relationship”.

Your guilt is worse than my guilt

Britain is a sunny place, but acceptance of its imperialist crimes is rather chilled. For example, to this day, Britain refuses to return many of the treasures that it stole from its colonies, such as the Kohinoor diamond, which adorns the British Crown jewels. British government officials today fondly think about the good old days of imperialism. Somewhere deep inside the British consciousness, there still lurks a forced feeling of trying to justify or deflect criticism from its imperialist crimes.

One of the best techniques ever devised to do so is to imply that the colonies that the British terrorized and destroyed were somehow deserving of their fate, that they brought it upon themselves.

In order to make British imperialism appear less criminal and barbarous than it really was – this white-man’s-burden-esque trick has proven to be remarkably effective, and has served to a very large extent to shift attention and criticism away from British bigotry.

Hence, Julia Lovell, author of a new book on the first Opium war, quotes the typical anecdotal Indian novelist as saying Indians have “generally been aware that (they’ve) been responsible for (their) own problems” , thus trying to create the impression that this is the general prevalent opinion among Indians, when in reality it is no such thing. However, since India is decidedly pro-western (in terms of both its history textbooks and its foreign policy) and presents no real threat, such arguments against India are less common.

China, on the other hand, is a country that, regardless of whether it is a threat or not, has been decided to be perceived as one by the western establishment and media. The phrase “(Chinese) self-loathing” can be found throughout the book. In the typical Thomas Friedman style of judging an entire country’s opinion on the first person one meets outside the airport, she quotes a Beijing taxi driver as saying that China “had it coming”.

The basic premise of this western strategy has been to say that while the west humiliated China for a hundred years, China was already rotting from within. So what if Britain forced an illegal drug down its throat? The Economist simply calls it “free trade”.

Defending the indefensible

Officially of course, British crimes cannot be denied or justified. Hence, any discussion about such issues appears with a disclaimer quietly tucked away in a corner. For example, The Economist’s review of Lovell’s book– an article that remains one of the most imperialistic, chauvinistic, and sadistic pieces ever written about the Opium war in modern times – contains a sentence, added almost as an afterthought as if doing a favor to China in acknowledging British crimes:

“Westerners have good reason to be ashamed of their treatment of China in the 19th century” which is quickly followed by a counter-statement lest the reader read too much into it: “Yet Ms Lovell contends that they administered only the final blows to an empire that was already on the brink.”

This concept should come as no surprise to regular readers of The Economist, a newspaper that quite enjoys reporting Chinese deaths in incidents that prove the government’s incompetence and “wasteful spending”, such as its satirical reaction (“Whoops”) to the deaths of 40 Chinese in the Wenzhou Train crash. This disclaimer is issued in letter and in spirit by Lovell herself in her book as well as on promotional platforms:

“The British national character is portrayed very negatively in Chinese textbooks, which is right and proper. The British are ashamed of our imperial past: the racism, massacres and involvement in the slave trade.” Presumably that’s why they are still repeating it.

In her book she argues that the Opium war is the “founding episode of modern Chinese nationalism” (which is the standard term specifically reserved to describe Chinese people’s love for their country i.e. patriotism). Lovell calls the Opium war a “useful episode” in Chinese history – and repeats the much ballyhooed assertion that it is used by the CCP to justify its rule.

This “Opium war button” as she calls it, can apparently be pressed by the CCP at any time to “remind the Chinese people that the West has always been full of schemes to undermine China”.

Many in the west often interpret the relationship between the Chinese people and their government to suit their own purposes – they fluctuate between one of these two interpretations, depending on their current argument:

1. The CCP doesn’t really care about people that it rules over and will take policy decisions regardless of what the average Chinese actually feels or desires (such as in the case of the Three Gorges Dam).

2. The CCP deliberately stirs up nationalist passions and panders to them (such as in the case of the South China Sea disputes).

Western newspapers and academics often change their colors according to the argument in question. The real justification for CCP rule that it has envisioned – and a justification that is starkly different from India’s – is hardly ever discussed. For fanatics of democracy, winning an election is all the justification a government ever needs to rule a country.

Two tragedies don’t make a right

Most Britishers have never heard of the Opium war. Those that have are largely limited to historians and academics. Among them, the simple reality of the Opium wars – that they were a blatant act of aggression by a European power on a defenseless Asian empire – are sidelined, and the only major aspect of the legacy of the war and the following century is just reduced to blind criticism of the CCP and its “patriotic education”.

The usage of the century of humiliation by the CCP to “justify it’s own rule” is used as a smokescreen to deflect a balanced discussion about British atrocities and two-facedness. Julia Lovell, in this well-researched work that has been universally praised in the media, tries desperately to present this much-needed balanced view, and as those numerous praises would have us believe, largely succeeds.

Lovell accuses the Chinese government of imbalance: “The problem with these Chinese textbooks is not one of accuracy, per se, but of balance”, she says. “China’s education system spends far more time remembering the Opium Wars than the traumas of Communism, such as the man-made famine that killed tens of millions, and the crackdown of 1989. It offers a skewed sense of history.” (She then goes on to contradict herself, saying that China “has tampered with the historical record”.)

This is again a standard tactic among analysts, who precipitately jump to take refuge in false comparisions. To explain this phenomenon, I propose a Goodwin’s law of Chinese historical analogies, which states that, “As a discussion about Chinese history grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Mao’s policies or Tiananmenapproaches one”.

Any discussion about Chinese history must necessarily mention about how Chinese textbooks ignore the Cultural Revolution, the Great Leap Forward, and anything else one can think of. This tendency has now become ubiquitous, whether one is discussing the Nanjing massacre or the Opium wars, even when the two issues being compared have no relation with one another. The Opium wars have nothing to do with the “traumas of communism”, but they are still mentioned in one breath.

This tactic represents a useful tool in shifting blame towards China in international disputes. Regardless of whatever the other party does and regardless of whatever sufferings China has endured, it is inevitably and unquestionably doomed to criticism and is always in the wrong because it doesn’t tell its people about the Great Leap Forward.

Any suggestion of western hegemony and genuine attempts to weaken China are sidelined by simply making the one simple statement that China and the Chinese are overly suspicious of the west since the CCP has kept the “humiliations alive” through its “patriotic education”.

It is also often said that the CCP uses the “century of humiliation” to “justify its rule”. However, how exactly this curious phenomenon occurs is not very clear. Perhaps proponents of this theory assume that a farmer whose land has been forcibly taken away is going to forgive the government because Britain forced China to import Opium 150 years ago.


The Tragicomedy in the Opium War

Here’s part of the description of the book from the back cover:

(The Opium War’s) brutality notwithstanding, the conflict was also threaded with tragicomedy: with Victorian hypocrisy, bureaucratic fumblings, military missteps, political opportunism and collaboration. Yet over the past 170 years, this strange tale of misunderstanding, incompetence and compromise has become the founding myth of modern Chinese nationalism: the start of China’s heroic struggle against a Western conspiracy to destroy the country with opium and gunboat diplomacy.

Yes – believe it or not, Lovell finds something funny in the tragedy. She actually calls the war a “tragicomedy”, something that was aptly described by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing as a mixture of emotions in which “seriousness stimulates laughter, and pain pleasure”.

In other words, Schadenfreude in its purest form. Of course it may be argued that atragicomedy is simply a literary device, or even a pathway to finally accepting that “laughter is the only response left to man when he is faced with the tragic emptiness and meaninglessness of existence”.

Very true, humour is indeed something that is the ultimate form of cynicism and anger towards the injustices of this world. But why stop there? Why not call every war a “tragicomedy”? After all, doesn’t every war have its share of “bureaucratic fumblings” and “military missteps”?

The usage of the term reflects the callous attitude towards the war, and British imperial crimes in general, by westerners (who never had to really face them) and by the British themselves. This indifferent attitude pervades the entire book.

It would be unthinkable for a British or western historian to use the epithet to describe, say, World War II or the Holocaust. In fact, just as a mental exercise in parallelism, the entire blurb above can be modified to produce an exact parallel describing the Holocaust, another tragic incident that Israel derives its (and its nuclear weapons’) legitimacy and justification from:

(The Holocaust’s) brutality notwithstanding, the conflict was also threaded with tragicomedy: with Nazi hypocrisy, bureaucratic fumblings, military missteps, political opportunism and collaboration. Yet over the past 7o years, this strange tale of misunderstanding, incompetence and compromise has become the founding myth of modernIsraeli nationalism: the start of Israel’s heroic struggle against an anti-Semitic conspiracy to destroy the Jews.

China and the West today

But Ms. Lovell doesn’t stop there. Towards the end of the book, she ventures into territory clearly outside her milieu – foreign policy and diplomacy. She desperately tries to relate recent events to China’s patriotic eduction and suspicion. She argues that “delusion and prejudice have bedevilled (China’s) relationship with the modern West.”

In other words, whenever China refuses to bow down to American hegemony and obey its commands, it is not because America is indeed inherently hegemonic in nature, but because China is unduly suspicious of the west.

Hence it transpires that when America and the west try to push through a skewed climate deal at Copenhagen that requires major developing nations to be treated on the same level as developed ones (as though the greenhouse gases that the west has been emitting since 1900 haven’t contributed to global warming at all):

or when it hypocritically lectures China on human rights, or when it arrogantly pokes its nose in the South China Sea disputes;

or when it continues to break promises and sell weapons to Taiwan in the name of a pretend promise to defend it;

or when it goes about selling weapons all along China’s periphery and increases its military presence in the region to surround China from all sides –

China is wrong to feel victimized and targeted – it is simply its paranoia and oversensitivity talking!

How can the west do anything wrong when China treats everything the west does as suspicious? Perhaps it doesn’t know that the west has always had China’s best interests at heart.

She even finds parallels between the Copenhagen Climate Change conference and the Opium Wars. Lovell talks about that fateful day in December 2009 (an incident about which climate journalist Mark Lynas famously and publicly flipped his lid) when Wen Jiabao allegedly snubbed world leaders and “insulted Obama”. She finds Wen Jiabao’s absence from a meeting of World leaders

“…an omnibus return to the style of pompous, sino-centric diplomacy that had so enraged men like William Napier and Harry Parkes in the run-up to the first and second Opium Wars, as the emperor’s officials refused to meet him in person, delegating instead the hopeless Hong merchants.”

Lovell, instead of presenting the balanced view that she claims to present, fails to tell her readers that Wen Jiabao was in fact not even informed by the conference organizers of the meeting. Moreover, the fact that India, South Africa, and Brazil also vehemently opposed America is completely omitted. Perhaps those countries too wanted to seek revenge for their respective “humiliations” at the hands of the west.

She also mentions the curious case of Akmal Shaikh, the British drug mule sentenced to death in China for carrying 800 times the permissible amount of drugs to China, and, like The Economist, speculates on whether the (irrelevant but useful) fact that he was caught in Xinjiang (which had recently witnessed bloody ethnic riots) might have had an effect on Chinese citizens’ reactions to the issue.

She extensively quotes media reports saying that Shaikh’s family insisted that he was mentally ill, perhaps assuming that a death convict’s family would simply come out in the open and  say that he deserved to die.

A simple open and shut case (even his own lawyers admitted that the evidence against Akmal Shaikh was overwhelming) was converted into something political by the media, and this was excellent fodder for Lovell in her interpretation of justice – that Akmal Shaikh was not given an independent medical examination and subsequently sentenced to death because of the “Opium War button”.

To do justice though, Julia Lovell’s book is indeed more balanced than other views about the Opium Wars in the west. The book represents an evolution in the study of the “useful episode” and the century that followed it – from blatant lopsidedness to a more nuanced approach.

However, what could have been a unique book about a historical event is bastardized largely by recourse to two specious tactics: selectively quoting extremist Chinese netizens’ reactions on various events to prove a point (this is readily explained by the fact that she has written for newspapers such as The Guardian and The Economist), and by relating the Opium Wars and subsequent events to every aspect of China’s current foreign policy.

The second transgression in particular represents an acute lack of understanding of modern geopolitics. The origin and centralization of the entire gamut of Chinese nationalism and geopolitical decisions to a single point in Chinese history is something that particularly suits the west, since it can be a useful tool for deflecting criticism from one’s own devious policies.

Whenever China takes a decision that suits its own national interest, as any country would, western governments and the media can simply press their own “Opium War buttons” and claim that China is being uncooperative because it doesn’t want to appear weak because of its historical suspicions that the west “has always been full of schemes to undermine China”. In the very last page of the book, Lovell asserts,

“In 1839, the Qing court was too distracted by fears of social unrest to come up voluntarily with a pragmatic response to Western trade demands; Britain interpreted this political paralysis as inveterate xenophobia. In 2010, the situation did not look so very different…”.

Portraying China as a pressure cooker on the brink of collapse and current Chinese foreign policy as being driven by ancient history is extremely attractive since it portrays the west as an angel – China’s benefactor that can do no harm. Any Chinese foreign policy decision can be attacked, and any western decision can be defended – all one has to do is simply hint that China is unduly suspicious of the west due to its own historical bias. Perhaps the Opium War was a useful episode after all.


Maitreya Bhakal,


India’s China Blog

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