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Schoolchildren visit old defensive ramparts on the Pearl River near Guangzhou. Britain's attack here features prominently in the school curriculum in China. (Photo by Humphrey Hawksley)

Lessons of the opium wars

History provides a guide to regional maritime disputes


A long, elegant expressway bridge now spans a stretch of the Pearl River near Guangzhou, where in 1839 British warships blasted their way into an international trade agreement with China.

The battlefields where British Redcoats and Chinese soldiers fought hand-to-hand has been turned into a parking lot lined with buses delivering schoolchildren to learn about their history. Huge Chinese cannon still stand in their original positions behind thick stone walls, which were breached by the British attack.

In China's eyes, the battle marks the beginning of its "Century of Humiliation," which has become the driving force for much of its current foreign policy. The amply funded Opium War museum and a nearby Sea Battle museum in Humen, just outside Guangzhou, recount how the First Opium War lasted until 1842, ending with the Treaty of Nanking, in which the opium trade was legitimized as a "mercantile transaction," along with less controversial trade.

The emphasis was on China allowing access to foreign trade and recognizing international law, even though the war was fought largely on behalf of Britain's privately owned East India Company, which needed to sell opium to China to balance its books.

Under the treaty, the Qing dynasty government opened five coastal cities for foreign trade, ceded the sovereignty of Hong Kong island to Britain and paid for opium it had seized from British traders.

That turned out to be not enough for Britain, which went to war 14 years later, supported by France, the U.S. and Russia, in what is known as the Second Opium War. British troops sacked the Summer Palace near Beijing. In the 1860 Convention of Beijing, China surrendered long swathes of coastal areas to colonizing Western powers.

Unlike Chinese children, my history lessons in school skated over this patch of British history. My classroom walls displayed maps showing much of the world in colonial pink, against a narrative of British imperialism as a civilizing force for good. I was never taught that Britain had won Hong Kong as a result of trafficking hard drugs.

Differing perspectives

In Britain's National Maritime Museum, in London, the opium wars take up a small, uncrowded corner, with the story told in the wider context of Britain's colonization of India. The account is not inaccurate. But it fails to portray the impact these wars have had on Chinese thinking today.

"It is not only at primary school we are taught this," student Lu Chuhao told me as we walked around the Chinese museum in Humen. "At middle school, at university, at home, at work, it is drummed into us."

"And what is the message?" I asked.

"That we must never be so weak again," he said.

The nearby ramparts were once part of a long sea wall built to stop foreign warships. The viceroy in charge was the legendary Lin Zexu, who was uncompromising in his opposition to opium. Lin's operations to arrest traffickers and burn drug hauls are reminiscent of drug wars today against Latin American cartels. It was because of Lin's heroic doggedness that Britain felt compelled to use force.

The museum plots the parallels of Chinese and European history. On one side are images of a feudal, agricultural society, on the other, exhibits of telescopes, maps, clocks and books, all of which gave the West the technology and power to win.

While "science, democracy and the industrial revolution" were in full swing in the West, China's development was at a standstill, we are told.

I came away with a sense of a country blaming itself for falling behind as Europe raced ahead. Rather than playing up an injustice it is now playing catch up, with a determination that history should never be allowed to repeat itself. Chinese President Xi Jinping calls it the "great rejuvenation."

This narrative flows directly to China's island-building and military activities in the South China Sea, a cause of the West's new, antagonistic relationship with China.

"You cannot overestimate the impact of the Opium Wars," said Milton Nong Ye, professor of history at Jinan University in Guangzhou. "We learned then that the international world order is unfair."

He drew a comparison between the two opium wars and China's accession to the World Trade Organisation in 2001. Only 15 years later, thinking it had made all necessary concessions, it found itself excluded from the U.S.-sponsored Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, from which the U.S. has now withdrawn.

"China is not safe and has been invaded many times," he said. "The way to protect ourselves is to build a great wall of the sea, and you do that with big ships and strong islands."

Humphrey Hawksley is a former BBC Beijing bureau chief. His next book, "Asian Waters," will be published later this year.

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