Tomorrow is the 20th anniversary of the forcible suppression of the Tiān ānmén riot. Western media will feast on this anniversary, as it fits perfectly the preconceptions and prejudices in the West that the communist government (which is communist only in name today) is evil and oppressive, and the Chinese people long for democracy. Furthermore, the West is not to blame in this incident, it has a clean conscience. But the West likes to forget that the Chinese government has the responsibility of leading 1.3 billion people from extreme poverty to at least some level of prosperity. Students’ riots are not necessarily conducive to this goal.
But I would like to call attention to another anniversary, which happened 170 years ago on this day, and in which the West (especially the United Kingdom, which likes to tout its commitment to Human Rights) plays a dark role.
On June 3, 1839, Imperial Commissioner Lín Zéxú (林则徐), destroyed over 1000 tons of opium at Hǔmen; hundreds of workers labored for 23 days to destroy it all, by mixing it with lime and seawater, and then draining it into the ocean.
He was appointed Imperial Commissioner and tasked with stopping the opium trade in late 1838 by the Dàoguāng Emperor. This was urgently necessary for the survival of China; the opium trade, which was begun by the British in the late 18th century (in order to offset the trade deficit of Western countries with China – doesn’t this look familiar?), had robbed the country of most of its silver reserves and poisoned millions of Chinese. Opium addiction was so widespread that the economy was about to collapse, to say nothing of the human misery brought by the drug.
Lín Zéxú arrived in Guǎngdōng in March 1839 and started fighting the opium trade (Guǎngdōng was the gateway for entry to China, and therefore hit hardest by the opium). After securing support by those local officials who were not corrupt, and some intelligence work, he identified the Chinese traders who conspired with the British traders for the import of opium. He exerted pressure on the British traders in order to gain their opium stores. When he had gathered all opium, he destroyed it on June 3, 1839. He was so successful that the opium trade came to a standstill.
However, the British were not content with losing the extremely lucrative opium trade. They started the first opium war. After British successes in 1840, Lín Zéxú became a scapegoat and was no longer protected by the Dàoguāng Emperor; he was discharged from his post as Imperial Commissioner and was banished to Xīnjiāng. Nonetheless, he remained loyal to the Qing dynasty.
The British finally won the first opium war in August 1842, with the first Unequal Treaty, a harbinger of more humiliation to come. The Treaty of Nanking (Nánjīng) ceded Hong Kong to the British, made the Chinese government pay huge reparations, and resumed the drug trafficking.
China was brought to its knees and could not regain its full sovereignity and pride for over a hundred years. All for the profit of the West.
Perhaps Western press should not lecture contemporary China on Human Rights, but instead reflect on the dirty history of the opium trade.
Lín Zéxú lived from August 30, 1785, to November 22, 1850.