Memories of the Opium Wars

Junk imperialism

Imagine that the conflict between the USA and General Noriega had ended with a decisive victory for General Noriega. And supposing that he had then demanded a cession of US territory as compensation, a port that would facilitate free trade in all of the goods he was hoping to market. Imagine such a thing, and you will understand what Hong Kong looks like to Chinese eyes.

China in the 19th century was quite content to carry on with its traditional way of life. Neither the rulers nor the people had any Large desire for what the West could offer. And the West itself had a large desire for Chinese goods, so that free trading in ordinary goods ended up very much in China’s favour.

Opium was one commodity that could be sold in great quantities to the Chinese. Addictive drugs have a way of spreading themselves into new markets. And contrary to what some people say, it was already well known that opium was dangerous. It was just that Western governments under middle class influence were gripped by extreme laisse faire doctrines and were reluctant to pass laws against bad habits or even lethal narcotics. Whereas China was still governed by traditional Confucian notions of benevolence and responsibility, and tried to stamp out illegal opium smuggling on its own sovereign territory.

The Opium Wars were just what the name implies – wars to prevent a sovereign government carrying out a wise and far-sighted policy to preserve its social values and the health of its own people. But it was Britain that had the military power, won the war and grabbed Hong Kong as a gateway into China.

History has a way of taking revenge on the smugly self-righteous. The Victorian middle classes unleashed forces that destroyed their own social values along with everyone else’s. And the attempts by the tail-end of that class to give Hong Kong a democratic tradition that it never had before are unlikely to end well.


This first appeared in Newsnotes for  May 1994, in Issue 41 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs.  You can find more from the era at and