It’s diplomacy time in the Asia-Pacific region. While Secretary Clinton came to New Zealand and Australia and President Obama to India and Indonesia, Prime Minister Cameron has gone to Beijing with a large delegation hoping to drum up business for Britain. Cameron’s pre-visit publicity was all about how he was going to lecture the Chinese about human rights. It’s nearly 11 November, Armistice Day, so the British pollies were also set to wear Flanders poppies for the home cameras. The Chinese asked them politely not to wear the poppies at the official receptions, as they might prove an unfortunate reminder for Chinese people of the nineteenth century opium wars. Cameron and co were adamant – the poppies would stay on their chests.
The so-called Opium Wars have been described as one of the most sordid, base and vicious acts in European history. In the early part of the nineteenth century, The British East India Company was looking for a new product from and new markets for its tea plantations in India, as the profits from tea were dropping. The Chinese insisted on being paid in silver for their silks and ceramics, which were in high demand in Europe, and the British were running out of silver. The Company’s solution was to grow opium in India and sell it in China, and use opium instead of silver to pay for the silks. When the Chinese governor of Hong Kong objected and closed down the trade because of what addiction was doing to their people, the British government sent in warships at the behest of the company whose superior firepower bombarded China into submission. Seventy years of colonial subjugation were only briefly interrupted by the Boxer rebellion at the turn of the twentieth century.
The social degradation of the opium wars is writ large in Chinese cultural memory. They happened in the mid-nineteenth century, around the time the Treaty of Waitangi was signed. I remember a few years ago being kept up all night on the train from Xiamen to the Wu Yi mountains by a Chinese man who wanted to discuss their impact. We now know how important that the Waitangi treaty’s memory is among our half a million Maori; 1.3 billion Chinese also remember the humiliation of the unequal treaties that were forced upon them as a result of the opium wars as well as the colossal addiction problems that followed.
The British may have lost their naval power, but they haven’t lost their arrogance. However while Cameron, Osborne, Gove and the officials all wore poppies, none of the businessmen did. At least they seem to have recognised that the boot is now on the other foot, and hopefully some understanding may grow of how things look and feel from the Chinese side. They have been through a lot.