How China got rid of opium

Chinese history

This is a historical article from an early issue of China Now magazine 1977.
The Opium Wars between Britain and China were a key incident in the fall of the ancient imperial order in China.

See also Opium Wars

Opium has had a long history in China. It was first introduced to the country by Arab traders as a medicine in the seventh or eighth century. By 1620 however, Portuguese traders off the coast of China had introduced its use as a luxury habit. But because opium was relatively rare and therefore expensive, it affected only the well-to-do, primarily young men of wealthy families, among whom it was regarded as a status symbol.

This all changed in the 1770s, when England conquered India and Burma. Britain needed large sums of money to colonise these two vast tracts of land, and opium was the answer. Taxes levied on the product brought in the much needed revenue while Britain's merchant ships carried it to the most convenient market: China.

As more and more addicts were created, Emperor Dao guang (1821-1850) of the Qing Dynasty became alarmed. He ordered that Guangdong (Canton), the only port then open to foreigners, be closed to all opium traffic. But British captains evaded the edict by smuggling opium into China with the help of local pirates. Opium presently became so widespread that by 1838, officials in Guangdong and Fujian were notifying the Imperial government that nine people out of ten in these provinces were addicts. The Emperor responded by naming as High Commissioner to Canton, a most extraordinary man, Lin Zexu. Lin was given strict orders to rid the country of opium; he took this mission seriously, and the British found his obstinate rectitude most exasperating. In a letter to Queen Victoria which was never sent, Commissioner Lin chided:

... so long as you do not take it (opium) yourselves, but continue to make it and tempt the people of China to buy it, you will be showing yourselves careful of your own lives, but careless of the lives of other people, indifferent in your greed for gain to the harm you do to others: such conduct is repugnant to human feelings ...

After confiscating and destroying the opium stocks and pipes being sold by Chinese merchants, Lin put pressure on all merchant ships in the harbour carrying the drug to deliver their opium stores to him. Although these stores were publicly disposed of, it did not restrain the British as he had hoped. One tension led to another, finally erupting in the war of 1839 to 1842, called the Opium War by the Chinese. It was an epithet bitterly resented by the British, who piously maintained that the war's purpose was to teach the Chinese a lesson in free trade.

Just what kind of trade was meant was obvious from the swarm of opium boats which followed the Royal Navy upstream to Nanjing, where the Qing Dynasty was forced to sign a treaty opening China to trade. Peace had barely been concluded when the opium boats began to hawk their wares: 'Opium is on sale very cheap at Sui Shan - an opportunity not to be missed.'

A second Opium War (fought from 1856 to 1858) removed the final restraint on drug traffic, and by 1880, China was importing more than 6,500 tons of opium a year. Cultivation of the poppy had also begun in China. By the early 1900s, the national crop had increased to more than 22,000 tons a year, making China the world's foremost opium producer.

With the fall of the Qing Dynasty in 1911 and the growth of drug addiction in China, criminal elements began moving into Shanghai's foreign concessions in great numbers. Since extraterritorial rights granted the Western powers were still in operation, Chinese living in these concessions were subject only to that particular concession's laws.

Among the many groups to exploit this situation was the 'Green Gang', which occupied the French concession and conducted its vice operations undisturbed by the French government. A Green Gang member named Du Yuesheng eventually unified all the gangs into a syndicate trafficking in drugs. Tu came to be known as the Opium King, and was one of three bosses who were referred to as the Big Three.

The Green Gang syndicate was a thriving organisation in 1927, when Guomindang troops and Communist contingents marched north on an expedition to rid the country of warlords. On his approach to Shanghai Chiang Kai-shek, who was anxious to rid himself of the Communists, contacted Du Yuesheng for help. Du responded by recruiting thousands from Shanghai's underworld. When the workers' unions closed down the city in a massive strike to honour Chiang's victory, the thugs swarmed out of the French concession and fell on Communists, labour union members and innocent bystanders alike. Thousands were slaughtered in this bloody massacre.

After gaining control of China, Chiang continued his association with the Green Gang. He enlisted the Big Three as honorary advisers to his government and named Du Yuesheng a major general in the army. The drug traffic went on unabated not only in China, but as far away as the United States, where Shanghai heroine was being distributed by the Mafia.

In 1937, when Japan launched her invasion of China, the Guomindang retreated to Chongqing in Sichuan province. Although to all appearances Chiang and the Japanese militarists were at war, a great deal of trade took place between the invaders and the Nationalist Government; much of this traffic involved opium.

Japan had made opium a basic source of her revenue in the occupied territories. Chiang (with the help of Du Yuesheng) supplied the drug to Japan. Vast fields of red, pink and white poppies covered the foothill districts of Sichuan and Yunnan provinces, and great opium shipments travelled down the Yangzi to Shanghai, or over the Burma road to Southeast Asia.

After the Japanese defeat, civil war between the Guomindang and the Communists resumed. As the Communists swept south to Shanghai, the Green Gang and other criminal syndicates fled to Hong Kong; the Guomindang escaped to Taiwan. The People's Republic of China was founded.

By this time, there were literally millions of addicts in the country. The new government immediately set about coping with the monumental problem. Peasants were persuaded to plough in their opium crops and sow wheat or rice instead. Neighbourhoods were mobilised in a massive educational programme. The street committees which governed the neighbourhoods held study groups in which the evils of opium and heroin were discussed. Families of known addicts were educated not to blame their addict members, but to encourage them to seek help. Addicts themselves were impressed by the fact that they were not blamed for their addiction, since they were considered victims of foreign governments and other enemies of the people. After their cure, they were given training and then placed in paying jobs. Many of them were hired by the government to work with other addicts.

At the same time, pressure was placed on the dealers. Those who surrendered were accepted by the community, re-educated, trained for meaningful work and given jobs. The rest were packed off to prison, and the worst offenders were executed. By 1956, the People's Republic of China had virtually eliminated its drug problem.

From time to time, the Taiwan press has accused the People's Republic of smuggling opium across the border of Yunnan province into Southeast Asia. Such accusations are particularly curious in the light of the well-publicised fact that most of the opium traffic in these countries is carried on by remnants of the Guomindang forces. Fleeing across the border at the time of the Civil War, these forces expanded the cultivation of opium and monopolised the traffic until now they are known as the opium barons of the region.

As for any smuggling from Yunnan, the Shan tribesmen of the Burma hill countries - who know all the mountain trails - deny this vigorously. Some of the Shans are anti-Communists who have been employed as spies by the CIA. Between 1962 and 1967, these people penetrated deep into China's Yunnan province on espionage missions. They reported that legitimate agricultural crops were being grown in places where formerly there had been extensive poppy fields. But of poppy cultivation, they saw not a trace.

© Copyright Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding (SACU) 2006 reprinted from SACU's magazine China Now 70, Page 17, March 1977