Your RDA of Irony


August 29th  On this day in 1842:  the Treaty of Nanking

At midnight, July 1, 1997, in an elaborate pageant that marked the end of a historical epic, the sovereignty of Hong Kong was transferred from Great Britain to China. Concluding their 156-year rule of the colony, the British departed with pomp and ceremony: splendid uniforms, regimental bands, and formal banquets. It is a British art. However, the Chinese were in business suits, and showed no nostalgia for the Victorian relics. Britain’s Prince Charles and China’s President Jiang Zemin stood on the same dais, the personifications of their countries in this historical act: the old empire was giving ground to the new world power.

Ironically, that was how the history of Hong Kong began. In the early 19th century, however, China was the old empire and Britain the new world power. China had become the relic of a great nation. When Europe was stirring from the Middle Ages, China’s might, culture and wealth were unmatched. In the 15th century an emperor had disbanded the Chinese navy. The outside world could not threaten his empire and had nothing to offer it. His arrogance would become China’s policy for the next four centuries. The Chinese civilization acclaimed by Marco Polo, the culture that invented gunpowder, the printing press and eyeglasses became complacent and stagnant. The Chinese had the first cannons but they had not improved them since the 16th century. Against the encroaching powers of Europe, China could not even defend herself. Foremost of these new powers was Great Britain.

In the 18th century, British ships were plying China’s shores, eager to trade for silk, porcelain and especially tea. This trade, however, was one way. China was selling but not buying. The imperial government regulated commerce, restricting European imports into the empire. Furthermore, China would only accept silver bullion as legal payment. (The Chinese had invented paper money but evidently did not trust anyone else’s.) This trade deficit with China–and the drain on bullion–was undermining Britain’s economy. British merchants, however, eventually found a way to reverse the trade imbalance: selling opium.

Smoking opium was a vice long known to China, and the opium poppy was easily cultivated in British-controlled India. (The local rajahs did not care, so long as the opium was only for export.) A ready supply of the drug increased the Chinese demand for it. In the 1770s, the British were importing 75 tons of opium a year into China; the imperial officials initially overlooked it. By the1830s, the opium traffic had grown to 1400 tons a year. Now, China was running a trade imbalance with Britain; worse, an estimated 4 million Chinese men were opium addicts. Confronted with this crisis, China sought to stop the opium trade.

In 1839 an imperial viceroy confiscated 1200 tons of opium from British merchants. He further threatened prosecution of traders and sailors involved in the drug traffic. The viceroy even wrote an open letter to Queen Victoria, criticizing her for permitting her barbarians to poison the Chinese people with opium. Her Majesty may never have seen the letter, but the British press certainly did. You can imagine the headlines: “Heathen Chinee Insults Our Queen”; “Opium Fiends Call Us Barbarians.” (Rupert Murdoch had his role models.) While the British government could hardly condone the specific opium trade, it could champion the general principles of the Free Market. Furthermore, it would never allow British subjects to be tried by a foreign power, especially one that insulted the Queen. So, for such impeccable causes as free trade, sovereignty and royal dignity, Britain went to war with China.

Britain had a population of 26 million; China had over 400 million people. Yet, it was China that proved hopelessly outmatched. Britain had the best navy in the world and her army was equipped with modern weapons. This conflict, known as the First Opium War lasted from 1839 until 1842 but only because the British were in no hurry. “I say, shall we take Canton this afternoon or would you rather play cricket?” With their unchallenged mobility and superior firepower, the British were free to blockade, raid and conquer at their leisure. In 1841, the British seized a large island a mile off the Southern coast of China. With its deep-sea anchorage this island–Hong Kong–made an excellent base. The war ended with the Treaty of Nanking, signed August 29, 1842; the humiliated Chinese basically turned over their ports and customs enforcement to the British, they paid for the confiscated opium, and ceded Hong Kong to its conquerors.

So, you can understand if, 156 years later, China’s President did not seem nostalgic for the departing British. Indeed, if he had a sense of whimsy, he was imagining a different history; with the fleet of Imperial China anchored in the Thames as Chinese merchants exploited the British addiction to tea.

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