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Britain’s opium era strategy to deal with China

THE DAOGUANG EMPEROR tasked Commissioner Lin Zexu (image above) with suppressing the opium trade bedeviling China in 1839.

Lin initially tried diplomacy. 

As British traders were growing the drug in India and then smuggling it into China, he hoped an appeal to their country’s sense of honor might be salutary.

Before the outbreak of the First Opium War, he wrote to Queen Victoria, explaining the harm that was being caused by the “barbarian merchants”, and inquiring “where is your conscience?”  

As no reply was forthcoming, Lin destroyed 20,000 chests containing 1,150,000 kg of opium in Humen, Guangdong, whereupon Britain invaded China in support of its drug traffickers.


Britain, as the world’s greatest military power, had little difficulty in overcoming a country that was weak, introverted, and technologically handicapped. The peace terms it subsequently imposed on China in the Treaty of Nanking (1842) were humiliating in the extreme, although they were only the start, and other foreign powers also muscled in on its territory. It is little wonder, therefore, that, after 1949, it became common for schools throughout China to display posters proclaiming, “Wu Wang Guo Chi” (Never forget national humiliation).

The British easily blew up the Chinese boats, killing and maiming large numbers of sailors. Painting by E Duncan, 1843

Those days, however, are gone forever, although this has not pleased everyone. As China spreads its wings and assumes its rightful role in world affairs, its former oppressors are panicking, with some reverting to type.

As the “Chinese century” unfolds, Western powers are again adopting hostile stances, and, like their forebears, trying to demean China. They have sought, for example, to use Hong Kong as a Trojan horse for national destabilization, Taiwan as a means of provoking Beijing, and Tibet as a tool for dividing China, and this is by no means all.


In Britain, as elsewhere, unscrupulous politicians have sought to whip up anti-China sentiments among the general public, and to harm the trading and other links between the two countries. Theirs has been a sustained campaign, mounted at the cultural, educational and political levels, and it is now bearing fruit. Following a small circle election among paid-up members of the governing Conservative Party, Liz Truss has triumphed in the contest to succeed Boris Johnson as prime minister, and her incoming administration is expected to prioritize confrontation over cooperation in its dealings with China.

This should surprise nobody, as Truss and her ilk, eager to buttress US hegemony, see Britain’s role in the post-Brexit era as one of subservience to Washington, facilitating its agenda and promoting the illusion that one size fits all. They resent China’s successes, and obsess about its resurgence. In consequence, they belittle its achievements, try to contain its progress, and decry the revival of a country their predecessors ruthlessly exploited, although China is not without redress.    


On Sept 1, for example, Poland announced that it is suing Germany for US$1.3 trillion of war reparations for the Nazis’ invasion and occupation of the country in World War II, and this might give Truss pause for thought. After all, during the First Opium War, British troops, according to The Sage Encyclopedia of War, killed or wounded between 18,000 and 20,000 Chinese, rising to approximately 30,000 Chinese in the Second Opium War.

In both wars, the invaders indulged in shameful destruction, and, in 1860, the Summer Palace (Yuanmingyuan), described by the French writer Victor Hugo as “one of the wonders of the world”, was torched, on the express orders of the British High Commissioner, the Earl of Elgin.

This, of course, was no ordinary palace, and it comprised over 80 square miles filled with pagodas, libraries, fountains and palaces, some designed by Jesuits and built in the European baroque style. Before the palace was razed, invaluable artifacts were looted, with French assistance, and many ended up in foreign museums, as also did those stolen by the Eight-Nation Alliance in 1900. Some are housed in the British Museum, and this was why, when the former prime minister, David Cameron, visited Beijing in 2013, he faced demands for the return of the artifacts, said to number 23,000. 

The Summer Palace was destroyed. Image by Rheins, CC BY 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

His dirty work complete, Elgin, as the BBC’s Chris Bowlby explained in 2015, “made a triumphant entry to the center of Beijing, his procession symbolizing British and Western domination – and Chinese humiliation”. 


Theft and violence apart, it is estimated that British actions resulted in one out of every 10 Chinese becoming addicted to opium. This inevitably ruined many families, and nobody could complain if China sought redress for the wrongs inflicted upon it in the nineteenth century, just as others have done. 

Indeed, two Kenyan tribes, the Talai and the Kipsigis, are currently suing the UK for over US$200 billion in the European Court of Human Rights for alleged colonial era abuses, including torture, while being forcibly removed from their lands to make way for plantations, and they are also demanding an apology.

In 2013, moreover, a group of Kenyan civilians, brutalized by the British during the Mau Mau uprising of the 1950s, successfully sued Britain for compensation, and the then-foreign secretary, William Hague, magnanimously apologized for the “torture and other forms of ill-treatment at the hands of the colonial administration”. 


Even in the absence of reparations, it is always open to the British government, knowing the pain still felt by many Chinese people, to acknowledge the errors of its predecessors, and this would not only demonstrate good faith but might also help to bring about closure. It could, most obviously, issue a formal apology, for which there is ample precedent.

On Feb 17, 2022, for example, the Dutch government apologized to Indonesia for its role in “systemic and extreme violence” during the country’s struggle for independence from Dutch colonial rule between 1945 and 1949, and this was reportedly well received in Jakarta.

Of course, it takes real statesmanship for political leaders to acknowledge their country’s past injustices, and this could be a problem for somebody like Truss, but it is by no means insuperable. On June 8, 2022, for example, when Belgium’s King Philippe expressed his regrets for the exploitation, racism and acts of violence committed by his country’s colonization of the Democratic Republic of Congo in earlier times, he stopped short of a formal apology, and this halfway house is an alternative means by which Britain can seek to atone for its actions. 

“If properly governed, Britain still has much to offer the world, and its revival cannot forever be stifled by mediocrities.”

Grenville Cross on the rise to power of Liz Truss

Nobody, however, should hold their breath, and, throughout her election campaign, Truss, whose earlier comments on Hong Kong revealed a woeful ignorance of Chinese history, took every opportunity to demonize China.

She even announced plans to classify Beijing as a “threat” to national security, bracketing it with Russia. Quite clearly, Truss hopes such brazen hostility will gratify the US, not least because its secretary of state, Antony Blinken, described China in May as the biggest threat to the international rules-based order.

Liz Truss is sticking to Anthony Blinken’s hostile anti-China stance. Image: US Department of State


Throughout her short, if inglorious, tenure as foreign secretary, Truss blindly followed the US line at every turn. Even though, for example, it meant stabbing neighboring France in the back in 2021, she eagerly signed the AUKUS defense pact to supply Australia with the technology it needs to build nuclear submarines. Although, in a typical sound bite, she claimed the pact showed Britain’s readiness to be “hard-headed”, it simply demonstrated her readiness to do whatever Washington wants, and she learned nothing from its shabby treatment of France, whose own submarine deal with Australia was suddenly scrapped. If the US is prepared to treat its oldest ally so shabbily in order to facilitate its military expansionism in the Asia-Pacific region, there is no reason to suppose it will not also betray Britain whenever it wants, just as it did during the Suez Crisis (1956), and this should have been a wake-up call for Truss.      


Although Truss’ anti-China rhetoric certainly delighted Conservative Party hawks, it grated with Treasury realists, who appreciate the importance of strengthening economic cooperation with Beijing. After all, China is Britain’s third largest trading partner, accounting for 7.3 percent of its total trade, and it provides huge opportunities for British entrepreneurs. Whereas Britain imports about twice as much from China as it exports, its supply chains for vital products, including antibiotics and antivirals, are highly integrated with the Chinese economy. Britain is also heavily reliant on China for such things as clothes, consumer goods, office machinery and telecoms, and business services account for 45 percent of imports in the services sector.

However much, therefore, she wants to please the US, it is suicidal for Truss to compound Britain’s economic meltdown by poisoning yet further its relationship with China. Quite clearly, Britain will be the big loser if Truss insists on cutting off its nose to spite its face, something of which her predecessors, David Cameron and Theresa May, were always acutely aware.

Even Boris Johnson, whose valedictory advice to his successor on July 20 was to “stay close to the Americans”, favored enhanced trading links with China, and he only revoked Huawei’s role in Britain’s 5G mobile network in 2020 after the US applied the thumbscrews.

There are, however, now ideologues within the Conservative Party who speak openly about decoupling the UK from China, and their hand has been strengthened with Truss’ election. Although once dismissed as crazies, Truss cannot be trusted to resist them, and some may even enter her government. She has a long record of pandering to party fanatics, most notably over Hong Kong, and this strongly suggests they will now expect to dictate her China agenda. 


Expectations of Truss’s cabinet are, moreover, very low. The Observer’s former editor-in-chief, Will Hutton, said last week that “we watch on hopelessly as Truss prepares to form a cabinet populated by misfits, failures, ideologues, third-raters and opportunists to manage one of the greatest economic and social emergencies since 1945”. He even prophesied that her cabinet would be “a titanic constitutional and democratic failure”.    

Expectations are low.

As the UK faces an extraordinary crisis, its friends will wish it well, but it is hugely worrying that the British people find themselves in the hands of a political lightweight. Truss lacks not only vision but also competence, and this is a classic case of lions being led by donkeys. Although, if her record is anything to go by, she will be an entirely negative factor in world affairs, events will hopefully bring her to her senses. She needs to understand that, if Britain is to survive its economic woes, she must place the interests of its people above her grandstanding, however much it upsets Washington.


It will, of course, be difficult for somebody whose career has been fashioned by bigotry, blunders and bluster to provide any true leadership, but Truss can at least try. In the meantime, everybody who admires the UK and wants it to prosper will hopefully cut it some slack, and not be wholly alienated by her manic posturing. If properly governed, Britain still has much to offer the world, and its revival cannot forever be stifled by mediocrities.

The sad truth, however, is that, as things stand, there is little to suggest that Truss is made of the right stuff or can rise to the challenges her country faces. Unless, therefore, she gets real, the biggest beneficiary of her succession, apart from the Sinophobes, is likely to be the opposition Labor Party, whose leader, Sir Keir Starmer, is, say the pollsters, set fair to win the forthcoming general election, due by 2024.

Grenville Cross, a top legal expert and professor of law, has become a popular commentator on geopolitical issues relating to China

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