Jun 17, 2013 07:05 PM

The New Opium Dream: A Country Isolated, Scared and Doomed

In post-modern narratives of global history, any two events, regardless of their temporal and spatial relevance to each other, can be gratuitously linked. The Opium War, cleverly dubbed the Canton Opium Party, when Chinese threw crates of the drug into a bonfire in 1839, was recently paired with the Boston Tea Party, when American dumped chests of tea were dumped into a harbor in 1773, to provide a backdrop for the Sino-U.S. summit in June.

The point Financial Times columnist David Pilling strained to make is that the Tea Party made America great, but the Opium Party sank China. Sulking to this day, China is hell bent on avenging that humiliation. Despite its "swagger," China, rotting from within, is in fact frightened and friendless, not unlike its imperial forbearers in the run up to the Opium War. 

Thus the G-2 was recast into a two "party" moral tale. The Opium War is an avatar for China's humiliation. The British writer Julia Lovell, in her book The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams and the Making of China calls it the "founding myth of Chinese nationalism" and coins the phrase "the Opium War button," which the Chinese government can press to keep alive 170 years of injury. Ironically, this time the button is being pushed by a pedigreed British newspaper.

Admittedly, China's rise provokes anxiety among foreigners. Going back to history to find a salve is a strange way of coping. The pompous effete empire, held together by its illusions, was brought to its knees by Britain. The rest is history. For many, the Opium Dream is, in some way, the answer to the China Dream vigorously promoted by the President Xi Jinping.

Foreigners living in China often profess to love the country on its own terms. The thriving economy supports one million expats. Most of them are not troubled by the Opium War and few Chinese would badger them to pay for the sins of their ancestors. But the self-referential pundits still find it irresistible to use the Opium War as a platform to preach from the high moral ground: See? The West was right all along about free trade and the Chinese have finally embraced the norm. 

I taught a Modern Chinese History course at The Beijing Center, a study-abroad program at the University of International Business and Economics. In a class discussion, an American student argued that the Opium War was over the principle of fair trade and the conflict would have happened with or without opium. This interpretation, she learned from another class in the same program, was sanctioned by the Chinese for the standard college entrance exam. Intrigued, I contacted the expat instructor and checked the reference he provided. It turned out to be an old Marxist chestnut: the European industrial revolution unleashed unstoppable colonial expansion by brute force; Britain underwent the industrial revolution and therefore aggression on China was bound to happen. In the eyes of diehard Marxists, the crime of colonialism outweighs dope-pushing. The irony is that Western observers enjoy bashing China for distorting history to serve the political purpose, but they are not the least troubled by the ideological premises of the argument if they like the conclusion.

Chinese historians have made large strides in breaking free from the straightjacket of Marxist historiography. Even the government-sponsored grand project of compiling the history of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) tolerates a wide range of interpretations. Taking no notice of this vibrant field of inquiry, the foreign armchair historian is content puffing the "incidental" opium in his reverie. 

In a recent conversation, a European diplomat astutely observed that there once was a "soothing theory" that China, with economic development and rising middle class aspirations, would become more like "us" (the West). When the Chinese indeed got rich, an economically strong China, however, was not interested in becoming more like the West. The pundits fumbled for a new soothing theory that China, preoccupied by social unrest and slowing economy, is vulnerable and doomed. For them, history of the Opium War is about to repeat itself, and China will get its comeuppance. This Opium Dream is remarkably in vogue.

The author is a visiting professor at the School of Communication and Design of Sun Yat-sen University. She holds a Ph.D. in History from University of Washington.

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