shadow of the Opium Wars…

Britain is expressing outrage at the execution today of Akmal Shaikh, one of its citizens. Notwithstanding the human tragedy that this represents, this reaction seems to me to reflect a failure of historical memory. We none of us easily forget humiliations that we have suffered, and the Chinese have not forgotten the Opium Wars. In that shameful episode, Britain, shelled Chinese cities (the origin of the term ‘gunboat diplomacy’, I think – and, if not, certainly a good example of it) when the Chinese authorities attempted to fight against the opium addiction that was spreading like a plague through its people. This drug trade was deliberately foisted on the Chinese by the British as a way of balancing their balance of trade deficit with China (who, uninterested in European products, refused to take anything in exchange for her exports except silver – a constant drain of the metal that was ruining the British Empire). As a consequence of this bullying, China was forced to open herself up to European traders and, further, those traders were granted extraterritoriality – that is, they were immune to Chinese law – irrespective of what crimes they might commit in China…

Armed with this knowledge, it seems to me that the Akmal Shaikh tragedy takes on a different hue. Here we have a British drug smuggler convicted by Chinese law of bringing heroine into China. Heroine, a modern and more potent version of opium. And, Britain, is wanting China to suspend its laws in this case. I am saying nothing whatsoever about whether I consider the penalty under Chinese law for drug smuggling to be reasonable. What I am saying is that, in the historical context, the Chinese position is not uncomplicated…

Posted by Ricardo

writer and blogger

4 Replies to “shadow of the Opium Wars…”

  1. Lol, you threw me with “… position not uncomplicated”. I reduce that to ‘not simple’ then ‘complicated, so the Chinese position is complicated.

    But then it isn’t complicated, is it? The Brits are doing the same thing they’ve done in the past and we don’t have to take it this time around. Pretty simple.

    The above isn’t actually what caught my eye about the post, which was that you stepped back and looked at the situation from the Chinese side. Objective folks aren’t really appreciated, can’t be more than 20% of the population that can step back like that. That’ll make you an outsider in your own society.


    1. Ah, yes, but I expressed it the way I did to indicate the delicacy of the situation – the subtlety…

      I don’t understand your point about the Brits – since the very opposite seems true. During the Opium Wars, it was the Chinese who had ‘to take it’… this time it seems the it is we who have ‘to take it’…

      Don’t you think that many writer’s are outsiders in their own society? If they weren’t, how could they get far enough away from their society to write about it?


  2. I don’t think we can accept historical pretexts as justification for China’s deliberate and consistent human rights violations. China may well have had a bum deal at the hands of the British but they are not the only ones. Africa, the Indian sub-continent and indeed many members of the Commonwealth were exploited purely for financial gain by the British; not all kill thousands of people each year for committing crimes. Let’s not forget that drug smuggling/dealing is only one of a number of crimes for which China routinely executes people. When you say the issue is not uncomplicated, the subtext here is that you are implying that the historical context must be understood. If that is so, where is the historical context for the other crimes China executes people for? What about the Ethnic Uighurs executed for subversion? What about the hundreds of their citizens put to death for corruption? And let’s not forget those executed aiding Tibet border crossings, a statutory crime in China which is punishable by death. Your statement is inflammatory and naive Ricardo. The issue is about the country’s systematic abuse of human rights by a regime which believes it can act with impunity, not about one man being executed for drug dealing. Drug dealing is heinous but searching through a country’s history does not make me understand any better why they want to kill people for it.


    1. I wasn’t using history to justify anything – rather I was attempting to show that there are certain political realities here that the outrage against this seems to fail to take into account. If this issue were about China’s systematic abuse of human rights, then why is the outrage merely about this one victim of the death penalty? I would suggest that this has all to do with our own internal politics – not that of China. So my point was really that the West sees things from its point of view: the Chinese from their point of view. I was demonstrating historical parallels to this phenomenon and that this situation really has nothing whatsoever to do with morality or human rights, but politics… Whether China is justified in using the death penalty seems to me an entirely different issue…


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