Opium War Redux

(a few weeks ago I mentioned I'd be writing another post about the Chairman's wife...I will need time to write it up.  Probably around 2 weeks...let's see)

The cause of the Opium Wars between China and Britain is simple enough:  China didn’t buy anything.     This in turn caused a crisis within Britain because when the British did buy something the Chinese wanted to wisely be paid in Silver.   

The British lusted after China’s tea and porcelain.   As such, Britain’s supply of silver was inexorably being drained.  Meanwhile  the Chinese had no demand for British wool.  Though they very much liked Britain’s clocks.   China’s lack of curiosity and centuries old custom of receiving tribute from neighboring nations, Vietnam, Korea, etc naturally bred a hard to break and well calcified sense of superiority towards other nations.

While Britain itself banned the importation of opium, it simply had no qualms selling it to non Christian “inferior yellow people”, if money was to be had.   One wonders if the British would have used this tactic with their fellow Europeans? 

Thus each nation very much looked down upon the other. 

China, miserably ignorant about the outside world, truly had no inkling who it was messing with.   For if it did, it surely would have spent much energy reaching an instant accommodation with the British.   Let this be perhaps the biggest failure of Chinese Foreign Policy over the last two centuries.

Thus began the slide of China into obscurity for the next 175 years. 

In sum, China had a massive trade surplus with Britain, and was slowly driving Britain to desperate measures.   Of course the Chinese didn’t realize they were simply hurting their own economy.   Much less pissing off the Super Power of the Time.  After all, it’s never wise to leave your biggest customer broke.   China’s export engine depended greatly on Britain’s ability to buy its goods.  It was in China’s interests simply not to have Britain go wanting. And once Britain lost that ability to pay for China’s goods, China itself would no longer be able to earn as much silver for its own economy.
China simply didn’t understand that wrong or right, it’s vastly favorable balance of trade with the world’s strongest navy was very, very much bad for business.

Enter opium.

Opium was not an invention of the British.  It is not as if somehow Britain suddenly found an elixir to bring the Chinese under their spell.

By the time of Lord Macartney’s trip to China in 1793, the Chinese had already been buying opium for over 1000 years.  Albeit from the Turks and Arabs.   And of course in infinitesimal quantities.   The main problem being distribution.  But as the British slowly began to dominate trade in Asia, was it not inevitable for them to attempt this trade for themselves?

What if the Great Qianlong had the foresight when meeting with Macartney to dictate the ban of selling Opium to China from Britain in exchange for ….something else? 

“Wish to trade with us?  No problem!  Wish for us to grant you a rock of your own as a base for your shipping?  Done!!!  Just train my Navy and keep opium from my people….and I will give you free trading privileges.”

China first actually banned a version of opium(mixed with tobacco) in 1729, courtesy of the emperor Yongzheng.

The first direct ban however wasn’t until 1796.

The problem with this ban is the leading sellers of opium to the Chinese were those “barbarians” the British themselves.   Even if Qianlong himself had actually attempted an accommodation  it would’ve been too late.    The major drug dealer of the time, the East India Company, had by then been deeply in cahoots with the British government for quite some time, since its inception in 1600.  Indeed its original charter had been granted by Queen Elizabeth herself!

And now we fast forward two centuries.   Who says history doesn’t continuously repeat itself?
For every 5 dollars China sells to America, it buys one dollar in return.  How China expects America to forever accept this imbalance defies common sense.   Or in layman’s terms, how do people expect America to not react the same way Britain did?

Though while America has no opium to sell China, it has something just as deadly;  a ban on Chinese companies  ability to buy American made components for one’s product.   While no one dies from this, it does tend to shut companies down while laying off workers.

Indeed, in the deepest sanctums of China’s governmental chambers, one can surely believe China has long since prepared for this moment.  Because China, nor any other reasonable country,  would never  accept such an imbalance itself.

I will not once again go off on a rampage as to how this wound of America’s is self-inflicted.   America itself, more than any other nation, is to “blame” for the rise of China.  We tend to forget how many American companies have fled to China, building factories and employing Chinese workers.  Then taking the products they build in China and exporting those back to America.   A large part of America’s trade imbalance with China is really with American corporations. 

And those same American corporations got a tax cut in America.  (To lure them back, I guess.)
The sad thing, the very sad thing, is how it has taken perhaps the least talented American President of all time to actually rise up and do anything about this.  Never mind his lack of intellectual dexterity(why didn’t he form a coalition with the European Union on this matter? They would’ve refused?  Really?)

As I’ve said before, the great tradition of American Liberalism(Obama and Clinton, Jimmy Carter, Hubert Humphrey, LBJ) is that all of them believed China would eventually become more “like us”.  In the interim, as China grew in power at America’s expense, Obama and Clinton, both lawyers, and neither a damn businessman, simply were ignorant as to how willing America’s own capitalists were to toss America by the wayside in search of a cheaper buck.

If America had, (say twenty years ago) an American President  that was an actual bonafide businessman, maybe our problems with China would’ve been nipped in the bud.

Actually, America had just that opportunity. 

I give you Ross Perot 1992.  His words were not simply prophetic, but uncannily accurate for today as well.   Our failure as a nation to heed them is on us.    (What a surprise, the American People dropping the ball yet again.)

Instead we had liberal Ivy league educated lawyers as Presidents that knew nothing about China.  But who firmly believed over time, China would become just like South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan.  Full throated democracies.  Of course it is easy to become a full-fledged democracy when you have American military bases stationed on your territory.    For the longest time we Americans have had leaders woefully ignorant of the Chinese “condition”, ie a nation with a billion people cannot simply be ruled like a smaller Asian nation. 

And we’ve paid the price.

China’s rise at the expense of the West and in particular America’s has time and time again been favored with luck.

Luck that America granted it MFN status just before Tiananmen Square.

Luck that during this very tumultuous time in US-Sino relations a self proclaimed China Expert was America’s President.

Just think about the very unique rise of George Bush.  America may never see another Person, let alone a President so unconditionally blessed with fortune.   (And who like Robert E. Lee paid it all back by NOT writing his memoirs.)

It wasn’t good enough to simply be an Ivy League graduate.  Or to have met Babe Ruth.  To have survived being shot down in WW2, or to be the son of a Senator.  Let’s examine the timeline:

In 1966 George Bush was a “simple” oilman in Republican Texas.

1966. Texas representative in the US House.

1971.  Ambassador to the UN.  How Nixon thought him qualified for this role, he undoubtedly bypassed hundreds of more qualified candidates, is for anyone to guess.  It’s probably in a book somewhere though.

1973.  Chairman of the GOP.

1974.  America’s Man in China.  Our first defacto “Representative” in China in 25 years.  He only served 14 months.  Hardly enough time to do anything more than just stroll the Great Wall and have your picture taken.   And again, how the hell he went from being a Republican Party stalwart to suddenly America’s Man in China is fucking beyond me.

1976.  Director of the CIA.

1980.  Vice President Elect.

1988 President Elect

George Bush was played by the Chinese.  Let’s be honest.  He loved the flattery.   Who doesn’t love to be admired and complimented by so exotic and foreign a culture?    (Keep in mind though, it’s when the flattery doesn’t just roll off people’s tongues that you only know you’ve gotten somewhere.)  

Khrushchev himself once said in his memoirs that when visiting London for the first time he was taken to the House of Commons and given a tour by a young man who spoke excellent Russian.  Khrushchev responded by going out of his way not to compliment him.

Bush honest to goodness thought himself a pre-eminent, if not the pre-eminent China Expert, in America. 

My teenage daughter knows more about China than George Bush did.

But this was the guy the Chinese were oh so blessed to have on their “side” when US-Sino trade relations were in crisis.   The Chinese in effect won the lottery.    What if Jimmy Carter had been President rather than Bush in 1989?  Bush in turn truly felt it was his destiny to support China.   To look the other way.  To take the long view,(seems to be a habit with America’s Ivy Leaguers).   You know the view everybody else with half a brain was taking at the time, drugged with illusions of China becoming peaceful and democratic. 

A partner in trade and prosperity.

“Just like us.”

Ross Perot’s words are as prophetic as George Washington’s in 1796, regarding America’s need to avoid “entangling alliances”, which we heeded for 150 years.  (That’s right folks.  America was basically an inbred, isolationist nation with no permanent alliances up until 1945. Hard to believe, huh?)   

And of Eisenhower’s regarding the “industrial military complex”.    

As only Nixon could have went to China, only a Full General could have said such a thing and gotten away with it in the cold war environment of 1961.   (LBJ regarding Vietnam obviously missed the memo.  Or possibly just didn’t like Eisenhower?)

And now twenty six years later, in 2018, we’ve truly come full circle.  We do actually  have an American businessman as President.   And after this “experience” maybe never again.   Today’s Trade War with China is nothing if not an Opium War Redux.


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