Opium City – the story of Hong Kong

Hong Kong shanghaied

Human rights considered in the context of the Opium Wars, by Gwydion M. Williams

Hong Kong began life as a British base to bust open China. In its last days, there has been a brief attempt to relive that role. But because the local Chinese are smart fellows, the collapse of these silly schemes will merely mark the end of British Hong Kong and not Hong Kong in general. One hopes.Britain’s rulers are happy to fight Beijing to the last Hong Kong Chinese. They have carefully redefined Hong Kong ‘British’ citizenship so that all but a favoured few have no hope of getting into Britain, or anywhere else either. Hong Kong Chinese are not wanted as anything except a bludgeon against their own country. They are then sneered at when they take sensible steps to conciliate their new bosses!Beijing took advantage of the Tory decision to break the original agreement. They had accepted a limited but gradually increasing democracy for Hong Kong. Coming from a different legal tradition from Britain and America, Beijing tends to see an agreement as meaning what it says rather than what some smart lawyer can twist it into. The original agreement was as good as Hong Kong could hope for, given that it got its food and even its drinking water from the mainland.

(A simple closure of the border, as happened between Spain and Gibraltar, would at any time have put Hong Kong out of business. Why this did not happen even in the Cultural Revolution is something I will come back to later.)

The agreement as made in the early 1980s would have been a useful shield. But since Britain did not stick to it, Beijing too does not feel bound by it. They can rule in a much more direct and authoritarian way that was otherwise likely.

The government that abolished the Greater London Council is ill placed to preach to Beijing. It is also hard to work up a moral fervour at a simple return by Beijing to the methods by which London had always controlled its colony. To a certain group of politicians and journalists, exactly identical actions can be either wise pragmatism or a gross unprecedented breach of human rights. Lawyers and politicians find at least two ways of describing exactly the same behaviour, depending on who they want to boost.

British colonial authorities forbidding its subjects to live by British standards of democracy and political rights was not a breach of human rights. Thatcher whittling down existing British standards of democracy and political rights was not a breach of human rights. But Beijing deciding that it will govern Hong Kong in just the same way as London did is a breach of human rights, and merits cries of woe, horror, terror, tongue nor heart cannot describe or name it.

While ‘human rights’ are defended on such an obviously partisan basis, the moral authority of such principles remains low. So that real issues of human freedom and human welfare get overlooked. Third World governments can easily shrug it off as a cover for racism and imperialism. Which at times it is; it is only quite recently that most Westerners would accept that human rights do apply to Chinese and other non-Whites. There may never have been anything quite as crude as the alleged sign in pre-Communist Shanghai saying ‘Dogs and Chinese not admitted’. But that was surely the general view. It was even later, not until the 1960s, that the USA was forced to accept that Afro-Americans had to be officially accepted as equal. Unofficial rejection continues strongly, sanctified by Reagan in his successful bid to capture ex-Democrat racists without losing right-wing non-racists. And The Economist showed another aspect of the real New World Order when it described the Gulf war as having had a mercifully low cost in human lives. Only Westerners as seen as real people, the rest are quasi-human objects.

In my Newsnotes, I repeatedly forecast that the White European and Christian Serbs would not be subject to US terror bombing for the sake of the White European but Muslim Bosnians. And so it was, despite repeated media forecasts to the contrary. Racism rules, unfortunately. And as Moscow became less and less of a plausible alternative, the West saw less and less need to conciliate Third World opinion.

[This last proved wrong – in the end they did persuade the public that Serbs should be bombed, though on the issue of Kosovo.]

Nothing that one group of Chinese do to another group of Chinese will really rouse strong passions in the West. One must hope that Beijing does indeed have a fairly benevolent attitude to its richer and less disciplined subjects in Hong Kong. The rest of the world is certainly not going to do anything serious. Like the Jews in Europe in the 1930s, they are not wanted anywhere. It is lucky for them that Chinese governments are almost always content with external obedience. It is only the European tradition that will kill people for being what they were born as. In China you may be born low and stay low, but your basic right to life is not in question.

To understand why the scheme to use Hong Kong against Beijing was utterly half-assed, one has to look at the true and commonly evaded history of Anglo-Chinese relationships. Imperial China had allowed a limited trade with the outside world for centuries, making use of Canton and with Westerners not allowed to live anywhere except in Macao. (Canton is properly the city of Guangzhou in the province of Guangdong. But for simplicity I will use familiar Western names.)

The merchants of Canton were both restricted and protected. They were not allowed to bring their wives with them, and were variously hemmed into a small space. They were also well protected and looked after. They did not need to bother to learn the language of the country they were trading in. Very few of them bothered to do so, unlike the missionaries who had a sincere if narrow-minded desire to treat the Chinese as fellow human beings. Nor did they ever feel the need for protection in Canton itself: it was a well-policed city, much safer than London in the same era.

Opium was an Indian habit that was spread to the rest of the world by the ‘Honourable’ East India Company. Opium was made an official monopoly by this most established and respectable of British institutions. Since the Chinese government quickly noticed the danger and banned trade in opium, the East India Company itself stopped bringing it to Canton. But it could still quite legally sell opium in India to traders who were obviously going to smuggle it into China.

It was by selling the hard drugs grown by the East India Company that traders like Jardine and Matteson made their fortunes. The ‘princely’ house was only princely in the Machiavellian sense. The famous founders of Hong Kong were drugs barons whose success was little different from that of the modern Colombian drugs barons. Except that they had a superpower looking after them. British governments knew that without the opium trade to China, a huge chunk of British-Indian revenues would be lost and governing India would be much more expensive.

The actual causes of the Opium Wars are not much in dispute. China cracked down on the illegal smuggling operation. It arrested and executed its own corrupt officials. Westerners were treated much more lightly, being merely required to surrender 20,000 chests of opium, which were then destroyed. (Not burnt, since the smoke might have unfortunate effects and the ashes would still be of interest to addicts. It was actually dissolved and decomposed with salt and lime.)

Under the norms of international law, any government is entitled to enforce its own laws on its own territory. It has a free hand to seize or destroy smuggled goods. Britain in fact has often taken this principle much further when its own interests were at stake, stopping and searching ships on the high seas in case they were trading contrary to British interests. Yet in this case, the British parliament decided to fight a war to force China to pay smugglers compensation for dangerous banned narcotics. And also to stop it ever being suppressed again, though no one dared say this openly. For all of these noisily Christian Victorian gentlemen, the price of their souls was rather less than eleven million dollars a year.

The Opium Wars were the worst wars Britain ever fought, and strained even the crude jingoism of the Victorian middle class. Gladstone, then a back bencher, took a lone honourable stand. He called the proposed war ‘unjust in its origins’ and ‘calculated to cover this country with permanent disgrace’. A depressingly accurate forecast, and the reason why the recent attempt to use Hong Kong as a shining example of Western freedom was dangerous folly.

This is history as it was, and history as the Chinese see it. It must not be confused with the rubbish put out by smart deceivers like the late James Clavell, which helped created the general world view in which the Tories crapped up the handover of Hong Kong. Thatcherism has the mentality of thriller writers, and Douglas Hurd as well as Jeffrey Archer were even thriller writers. Thatcherism tried to reshape the world without ever properly understanding what it was about. (Which is why they are so enraged at the predictable results of their own decision to accept the European Single Market and other obvious steps to a future that now appals them.)

Clavell in his novels Taipan and Noble House idealised 19th century drugs barons like Jardine and Matteson. Men who, in as far as they were not just greedy, were determined to break a three-thousand-year-old civilisation on the assumption that their own way was infinitely better. Men who only really came into their own in the 1830s. Representatives of a class who had turned the once-peaceful Augustan order that initiated the Industrial Revolution into a bloody shambles by the 1930s.

Clavell is a cunning deceiver. Since he sets his stories in a not-quite-real world, you cannot exactly call him a liar. And like any good con-man, he mixes in some slightly surprising truths. He does take you some way towards understanding East Asian realities. I myself was ready to suppose he was a broadly honest right-winger when I first came to read his works. It was only when I checked his version of history against facts generally agreed by Western historians that I saw what a trickster he was.

Merging Jardine and Matteson into a single individual is fair enough, dramatic licence. But when Clavell changed the bullying bigoted ‘Iron-Headed Old Rat’ into an improbable ‘Green-Eyed Devil’ full of 1980s racial liberalism, this was gross deception. As is the amendment of the amiable tea-trading Dent into the vicious Tyler Brock.

On actual Chinese trade policies, Clavell’s version is simply a lie. His potted history declares that in exchange for silk and tea, ‘the emperor would take only silver bullion’ and that ‘the unbalanced tea-bullion trade was a national catastrophe’. In reality Britain had a fair surplus of silver bullion, some of it earned selling Chinese silks on to Japan. China was probably useful to the early world economy, as a sink for the silver and gold produced in the New World and dumped onto the world market by Spain. As for imports to China, I do not think that anything except opium was actually banned. Not much was wanted, manufactured goods being not much suited to Chinese taste, but that is another matter.

Maurice Collis in his history of the Anglo-Chinese Opium War mentions that ‘Western products were merchandise imported form Europe and America… woollens, cotton goods and furs’ to a value of some five million dollars a year. Also cotton and spices from India, to a total of six million dollars. Plus another eleven million dollars worth of opium, about half the trade and very far from the necessity that Clavell presents it as.

It is a typical British-establishment trick to invent a quite imaginary necessity to justify their more greedy and shabby actions. When the spread of machinery began to lower the living standards of workers even while total wealth was increasing, it was ‘discovered’ by Malthus that only starvation could stop ruinous overpopulation. The tendency of populations to grow geometrically had already been noted by Petty in the previous century, and 19th century experience showed that it was actually the moderately prosperous who would limit their families, while the desperately poor bred because they had very little to lose.

By the same logic, Ireland was allowed to starve while Britain was the richest nation in the world, because it was ‘discovered’ that any interference with perfect free trade would only make matters worse. (America meantime was vigorously industrialising behind strong trade barriers, following a policy very similar to the intense protectionism of Britain during the crucial years when the industrial revolution got started.)

The alleged necessity of the opium trade is nothing of the sort. It was simply a matter of drug barons making a fabulous living out of other people’s misery. But only in the Opium Wars did drug barons receive official military protection against the lawful drug-busting activities of the nation they were corrupting.Some recent writers have been justifying the Opium Wars as really about free trade. Al Capone could have used the same arguments, and in fact did so. America has always been highly flexible in its definitions of the precise variety of ‘freedom’ that it is 100 per cent committed to. America alone among Western Christian nations tried to root out drinking. Yet alcohol was a wholly familiar customary drug, and far less dangerous and addictive than opium. Also Capone for all his ruthless greed can not be said to have corrupted Chicago very much, he left it much as he found it. Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle neatly describes how corrupt and cruel it was a at time when Capone would have been a seven-year old child living in New York.

Under the policies started in the Opium Wars, China was not allowed to govern itself. But unlike India, there was no question of Britain putting some thing else in place of what they undermined. Dr Sun Yat Sen was later to complain that China had all of the disadvantages of a colony with none of the corresponding benefits. Neither sovereign rights nor an overseas master with some sense of social responsibility.Clavell turns history into fiction, because anything like the truth would have made his readers utterly ashamed of what Britain did to China in the Opium Wars.

Recent commentators object to the Opium Wars being called Opium Wars, even though Britain has never known them by any other name. China had allowed a limited and controlled trade for centuries. They were not mindless isolationists. They were keen find a market for tea and other useful goods if this could be done without lethal damage to the Confucian order that had made China the most peaceful, populous and prosperous nation for much of human history.China had been ahead of Europe for most of human history. It was not just mediaeval merchants like Marco Polo who were impressed, so were Europeans as late as the 18th century. Adam Smith was part of a grand tradition when he praised China as richer than any part of Europe in The Wealth of Nations, a comment that modern AdamSmithites constantly manage to overlook.

Europeans trading with China faced a problem, there was not all that much that China wanted from them. Inventions like printing, paper making, gunpowder and the magnetic compass had started in China, as had ‘china-ware’, which Europe initially imported and then learned to make itself. Watches and scientific instruments made some impression, but not much. Besides, there was a very reasonable suspicion that the new European learning could not be safely combined with China’s traditional Confucian / Taoist / Buddhist culture.Time was to show that the forces of unleased commerce were every bit as destructive as had been feared. Even the crude lower-middle-class culture of the original Jardine and Matteson was not resistant enough and was eventually chewed up by the very forces they were promoting. So that popular writers like Clavell could not possibly have won any sympathy by presenting them as they were. To manufacture heroes, he had to write fiction in which they were passed off as what they were not and what they would utterly have hated and despised had they encountered it.

When forced to notice how different the modern mainstream is from that of the 1950s, people will mostly notice the undoubted facts and say something like ‘we’ve changed’. This is the wrong way to say it. The truth is that they have been changed, in line with the intended policies of radical leftism. Since history as now written insists that radical leftism has failed, it has to be pretended that changes demanded by radical leftism and fought for by decades by radical leftism are not a success for radical leftism. Rather, they are passed off as an almost natural and inevitable process in which ‘we’ve changed’.

Passing off British bigots in the 1830s as if they were part of the 1980s mainstream is part of a widespread process whereby the society can feel smug about a past that it ought to feel thoroughly ashamed of. It may not even be a conscious deception. Just a process of gradually oozing into a version of the past they feel happy with.Clavell has his points. Modern right-wingers have accepted many of the multicultural points that the Left had fought for decades to establish. He is also quite good on the differences between Scottish and English world views – unlike the film of the book, which has a character who is supposed to be Scottish proudly declaring that Hong Kong island will shortly belong to England! It otherwise has the gist of the work, including a gratuitous scene in which the hero whips his Chinese slave-girl for entirely proper and moral reasons. Clavell had a gift for knowing what would appeal to the great British public, but it did not lead him to much of an understanding of the ancient civilisations he took an interest in.

I deal at length with Clavell because his book Nobel House is most likely the source of Tory ideas on how to deal with China. It glamorises the dull respectable and middlingly successful descendants of the bold bad founders. It takes as its starting-point a hostile take-over bid for Jardine Matteson by a Chinese millionaire. But Clavell, like T.S. Elliot, cannot bear too much reality. He reworks it as a purely European struggle, albeit one instigated by sinister communist agents who have infiltrated into the most unexpected placed (though not under or even into the bed of the hero). In Clavell’s revised version of reality, Beijing shows an unexpected fondness for the descendants of foreign drugs-barons and promoters of imperial wars. And it ends with a forecast that perhaps Hong Kong take China.

If there was ever a possibility of Hong Kong becoming a centre of Westernisation, then ‘General’ Chris Patten and his encouragement of public confrontation in defiance of a clear agreement have thoroughly blown it. Had the Tories started democratisation earlier, or had they shown a little racial sensitivity and appointed some substantial ethnic Chinese to be the last governor, they might have got somewhere. What they did would be comical, were there not a danger it may end badly and in bloodshed.People who cite Hong Kong as an example of ideal free enterprise are on dodgy ground. For one thing, it has never lost its role as the key trading centre for opium and for its derivative heroine. Most Hong Kong citizens have nothing to do with this, obviously, just as most Londoners have nothing to do with the very extensive money laundering that goes on in the City, with hefty fees for the cleaning of dirty and often drug-related cash spilling over into the most unexpected places. Hong Kong’s survival after the Communist restoration of China’s general sovereignty was not due to any great merit or virtue. It was quite simply a gift of Mao Tse Tung. His victorious armies could easily have overrun tiny Hong Kong, which had become a mere backwater compared to thriving centres like Shanghai. Even a simple closure of the border would have finished Hong Kong quite quickly. So why did this not happen?

Mao was a very subtle politician. He was inclined to push the limits of the possible, and sometimes go beyond it. But he also achieve changes in China far beyond what anyone thought possible. China remains much more socialist than is normally admitted by commentators who like to credit its growth in the 1980s to ‘capitalism’. Land remains state property, though often now worked by individual families. And large scale business remains state controlled.

If a man removes half of a mountain, you would not normally call him a failure because half of the mountain is still there. Mao made China a nuclear-armed superpower, which is why no one is very keen to interfere with their present policies of relatively open trade and nonbelligerence.

Mao in 1949 was determined to close China off from Western capitalism. He did utterly change Shanghai, which had been the centre of Western power and incursion, and also the core of what native capitalist enterprise there was. But Mao always liked to have some back-up. Britain’s opium colony was not a very plausible threat. It was pulled out of its backwater status and turned into China’s main link with the non-communist world. A conduit for all sorts of smuggled goods, it is likely that much ‘Hong Kong’ manufacture has simply been a label places where Red Chinese products would not be acceptable. Shanghaied was a word that arose from the vast metropolis where the Chinese had no power and the Westerners would accept no responsibility. In the same spirit, Hong Kong was snatched from its agreed path of peaceful handover and drafted into half-assed anti-communist schemes. They thought that China needed only a little push to go the way of Eastern Europe. They did not see that the rapid fall in living standards in liberated Eastern Europe would not be a good advertisement. They did not see that China is not Europe and does not wish to be. Nationalist feeling lined up against Leninism in Eastern Europe. With Beijing against London in the matter of Hong Kong.

Though ‘shanghaied’ remains a dirty word, Shanghai has become a nice safe city and is flourishing very nicely. With luck the same will be true of Hong Kong, as it takes its place within the framework of its own ancient civilisation.

First published in Labour & Trade Union Review, November 2000

Similar items can be found at the Ideas and Ideal Menu.

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