The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What a previous trade war with China might teach us

John Pomfret, a former Washington Post bureau chief in Beijing, is the author of “The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom: America and China, 1776 to the Present.”

The history of the United States and China is marked by bizarre coincidences, some serendipitous, others tragic. In the mid-19th century, both nations were convulsed by bloody rebellions. In the 1950s, political campaigns on both sides of the Pacific — McCarthyism in America and an anti-America campaign in China — sought to demonize each other. Twenty years later, mutual fascination and realpolitik brought the two nations together, triggering an economic boom in China that raised more people out of poverty than ever before in history. As Chairman Mao Zedong once observed, “Out of bad things can come good things.”

Today, as the United States and China lurch toward a trade war and America confronts an opioid epidemic stoked by imports of Chinese-made fentanyl, eerie parallels have emerged from 150 years ago, when the superpower at the time, Britain, launched a war over trade with China to defend the rights of British drug smugglers to sell narcotics to the Chinese. Are there lessons from the Opium War that could inform our challenges today, or are both sides fated to repeat the errors of their ancestors?

The main takeaway from Stephen R. Platt’s wonderful new book on the conflict, “Imperial Twilight: The Opium War and the End of China’s Last Golden Age,” is that little, if anything, is fated. In the end, people, not impersonal forces or economic classes, make history, Platt argues. If there’s a lesson from that period for today, it is that leaders matter, as does a deep understanding of the interests and the history of the other side.

The Opium War is seen in China as the original sin of Western imperialism. The story told in the People’s Republic of China is of Britain preying with its warships on an innocent, tottering China with the aim of facilitating Britain’s opium trade. It is a story of black and white, in which the Chinese people are the blameless victims of the West. In China’s catechism, the Opium War signifies the beginning of “a century of humiliation” during which China was bullied by the West, ending only with Mao’s glorious revolution.

The Opium War has also been simplified in the West. For many years, the conflict was explained not as a war waged by a nation on behalf of its druglords but as a necessary evil designed to open up a country that had cussedly closed itself off to the benefits of interaction with the “civilized” world. Britain was justified in battling the Qing dynasty because the Chinese thought they were better than the British. “The cause of the war is the kowtow,” John Quincy Adams wrote in 1840, the former president and secretary of state referencing demands from the imperial Chinese court that British envoys to the throne knock their heads on the earth nine times to signal their reverence for the emperor. The war was justified, Adams argued, to battle China’s “boasted superiority above every nation on earth.”

Platt’s book upends these stereotypes, showing first that the drug trade to China constituted an efficient partnership between Westerners and Chinese. The vast majority of opium that arrived on Western ships off China’s coast before 1839 was moved into China by Chinese with the support of bribed Chinese officials. Platt also shows that China was anything but closed to Western influences. Yes, starting in 1740, the Qing court restricted trade with the West to Canton, then the third-biggest city in the world behind London and Beijing. But Western goods were the rage among China’s elite. Western furs, glass, clocks and clothes connoted status — much as they do today. The trade was also enormously profitable. Tariffs from the trade bankrolled both the imperial court in Beijing and the British government, becoming especially critical to Westminster during the Napoleonic Wars of the early 1800s. Profits, too, enriched not only British and Chinese businessmen, but Americans and traders from the Indian subcontinent as well. Platt notes that some of the first American fortunes were made in the China trade at a time when the world’s richest man was a brilliant Chinese merchant named Houqua, who became a household name in the West, a figure at Madame Tussauds wax museum, and an early investor in U.S. real estate and railroads.

Platt also explodes the chestnut that the war was fought to open China to the benefits of Western civilization. He recounts the years-long efforts of British drug smugglers William Jardine and James Matheson to lobby the British government to use the Royal Navy to force China to open more ports of trade to facilitate more drug dealing.

Platt accomplishes all this while telling a fast-paced story that focuses on the individuals who made the history. Platt’s cast of characters includes Americans, Britons, Parsee Indians and Chinese, and he makes them come alive. Even minor figures are unforgettable. One is James Flint, apparently the only Englishman who knew Chinese in the mid-18th century. Flint went on a voyage to map China’s coast, was arrested for sailing into a closed Chinese port and was incarcerated for three years. His Chinese teacher fared even worse: He was decapitated for teaching Flint the language. Flint later resurfaced in London, instructing Ben Franklin in how to make tofu. There’s also Karl Gutzlaff, a polyglot Prussian missionary, who explored China’s coast hawking opium and Bibles, forever planting the belief in Chinese minds that Jesus was an accessory to a drug crime.

Platt does especially well depicting the Chinese, portraying them not as one-dimensionally arrogant xenophobes but as profoundly human. From successive emperors Qianlong, Jiaqing and Daoguang, down to officials and advisers, we see them debating how to respond to the challenge presented by opium. Should China, like the scholar Bao Shichen argued, shut off foreign trade completely? Or should it, as a high official named Cheng Hanzhang countered, better enforce the emperor’s edicts against the drug? Should opium be legalized, like a governor-general named Lu Kun wanted? Should the crackdown target opium addicts or, as Lin Zexu, another governor-general, contended, the foreigners who brought the drug to China’s coast?

Platt details how the British, too, were torn about opium. Even as Britain’s drug smugglers agitated for war against China, a campaign back home to abolish the drug trade gained supporters among abolitionists who had just succeeded in outlawing slavery. British industrialists also railed against the drug trade, seeing it as an impediment to selling British textiles and other goods to the Chinese.

But in the end, war erupted — not because it was preordained, Platt argues, but because of factors that could have been avoided. Charles Elliot, who had been sent to Canton to supervise British trade and was an opponent of opium smuggling, overreacted to Chinese threats to stop the drug trade. And Lin Zexu, the Chinese official making those threats, didn’t realize that he could have worked with Elliot instead of against him. Even then, back in London, the debate raged. In the early morning of April 10, 1840, in Parliament, the vote for war won by only five votes. If any of those factors had gone the other way, Platt notes, “we might be looking back on very different lessons from this era.”

By Stephen R. Platt

Knopf. 553 pp. $35