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Lewis Lapham: Opium Obsession Led to Dishonor for China

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Sept. 22 (Bloomberg) -- Despite an earlier ban by the emperor, opium was the drug of choice for the 19th-century Chinese elite.

(To listen to the podcast, click here.)

Some said the best plan was to declare victory in the war on drugs, legalize opium and then tax importers and consumers. But the authorities regarded users as “lazy and effeminate” and decided to crack down.

When Lin Zexu was sent to Guangzhou in March 1839, he arrested 1,700 smugglers and destroyed 1,200 tons of opium by mixing it with lime and salt and throwing it into the Pearl River.

Drug smuggling was central to the British East India Company’s bottom line, so London was soon called upon to protect the firm’s interests. Fighting began and the superior British fleet won control of China’s economic lifelines.

The emperor was forced to sign the Treaty of Nanjing in August 1842. For the first time in 200 years a Chinese ruler had lost a war, and so began the “Century of Humiliation.”

I spoke with Odd Arne Westad, author of “Restless Empire: China and the World Since 1750,” on the following topics:

1. Expansionist Military Power

2. Open Empire

3. Opium War

4. Succession of Crises

5. China and the U.S.

To buy this book in North America, click here.

(Lewis Lapham is the founder of Lapham’s Quarterly and the former editor of Harper’s magazine. He hosts “The World in Time” interview series for Bloomberg News.)

To contact the writer on the story: Lewis Lapham in New York at lhl@laphamsquarterly.org.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.

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