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Drug Wars to Star Wars: A Tangled Trip Through the Opium Trade

July 15, 2000

In the tricky world of international relations and politics, you'll be surprised at some of the things a country and its leaders can get away with. Let's flip through annals of history and highlight a few examples.

The construction of the Narmada Dam in India caused the inundation of villages and took the lives of villagers fighting to protect their homes. This is a prime example of the injustices people face at the hands of world leaders. Let's not forget about the founding fathers of the United States, who captured, enslaved, and murdered Africans to build America.

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The beautiful shores of one of the many small islands that make up Hong Kong
History is full of instances similar to these. As a matter of fact, when Christopher Columbus "discovered" America, he was actually looking to exploit trade opportunities in the East! Another good example has only recently has been reconciled. During the 1500s, when the European powers were searching for trade opportunities, they began to establish trade relations with China. The Portuguese were the first to land on the shores of China in 1516 and had successfully set up trade missions by 1557. The Spanish, the Dutch and the British were unsuccessful at first, but by 1760, they eventually broke through. Still, neither Portugal nor any of the European powers were able to gain much from Chinese trade. Strict Chinese sanctions kept foreigners at arm's length from China's political center in Beijing. All transactions had to go through the Cohong, a monopolistic trade group run by the Chinese government. The Chinese actually benefited from foreign trade-especially from the British, who purchased Chinese tea, silk, and porcelain in abundance.

After almost 20 years of buying, with little selling in return, the British decided to balance the books. China was not purchasing British wool or spices so Britain decided to supply the Chinese with something they would buy: opium. They were successful. The Chinese imperial courts quickly became alarmed as the number of opium addicts in the country skyrocketed. Declarations of a war on drugs were posted around the country, but to no avail. The British had found a lucrative way to equalize trade with China - drug dealing.

Opium was destroying the Chinese people by breaking up families and recruiting more and more addicts. After much legislation, the Chinese took action. In March of 1839, Lin Zexiu was sent to Guangzhou to break up the drug trafficking once and for all. He seized over 20,000 chests of British opium and proceeded to clamp down on the flow of any more drugs through China's important port city. Unfortunately this was just the provocation Britain needed to take military action against China and the war was on.

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The Hong Kong flag now bears the same five stars as the Chinese flag
The Opium War began in 1840 and the British forcefully led an attack that took Guangzhou. They threatened to head up the coast toward Beijing if the Chinese did not comply. The Qing dynasty ruled China at the time. They were so furious with the takeover that they refused to recognize the treaty Britain offered. In response, Britain continued to move up the coast, taking Fujian and Zhejiang by 1842. Nanjing, the country's Southern capital was next in line. The Chinese had no choice but to sign the treaty. The British were victorious.

The drug war had ceased, but not without a severe price. The humiliating loss cost the Chinese six million yuan (Chinese dollars). The Chinese had to fully resume trade. Most importantly, the British received control of Hong Kong. Hong Kong, known for its great wealth, provided entrepreneurs with a get-rich-quick environment.

Related Links

Opium War: Britain Stole Hong Kong From China
Hong Kong - City of Life - Travel

The British thrived from Hong Kong's convenient locale-they remained in command until 1997. Just three years ago, in a ceremony marked by British pageantry and formality, the British relinquished the last of its Asian colonies. With one last playing of "God Save the Queen" and a final lowering of the Union Jack, British rule of Hong Kong ended. Prince Charles and former Gov. Chris Patten literally sailed off into the night aboard the royal yacht.

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The inscription on this British style court building in Central Hong Kong reads: 'We shall not forget you'
Three hours later, a new Chinese-sponsored administration was sworn in, beginning a new era for Hong Kong. Many were concerned: was there a threat to Hong Kong's strong business and trade standing, which has only increased since the Opium War? Business owners feared that China would impose sanctions to make international trade costly and difficult. Instead, as the Chinese economy expands, Hong Kong has reaped the benefits from the growing trade. Hong Kong's right to keep its capitalist economy and local autonomy is protected until 2047 by several treaties. China's powers in Hong Kong are very limited for the next 50 years.

monopolistic: - exclusive control by one group of the means of producing or selling a commodity or service
lucrative: - producing wealth; profitable
entrepreneurs: - people who organize, operate, and assume the risk for a business venture
pageantry: - grand display, pomp
haven: - a harbor or an anchorage, a port

Hong Kong now ranks as the sixth best place to do business in the world. The bustling haven of capitalism known as the "the Pearl of the Orient" is making money hand over fist. The British were sad to leave, but now the Chinese stand to gain a great deal as its ultra-modern metropolis seeks to lead the Chinese Motherland into the future. From holographic billboards and ads to its status as the international hot spot to purchase laptops, Hong Kong is diving into technology and business from every angle.

We'll continue to hear more about Hong Kong's progress, but for now it's back to the mainland! We'll visit the Three Gorges Dam Project, take a trip on China's famous Yangzi River and check out the Southern capital of Nanjing. See you there!


p.s. - Please e-mail me at

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