Barbarians in Beijing

A statement of moral admonition from Wu Yi to Henry Paulson

By Andrew Leonard
Published December 14, 2006 10:44PM (EST)

In Beijing, an über-high powered delegation of U.S. officials is pressing its Chinese counterparts for accelerated "reform" -- by which they mean, primarily, currency revaluation and a crackdown on intellectual piracy. As a preemptive response, the leader of the Chinese delegation, Vice Premier Wu Yi, released a long (and execrably translated) position statement making lots of promises and reiterating, again and again, China's commitment to "peaceful development." Most of her pledges to continue reform have been heard before and are unlikely to satisfy any of the Americans who could be bothered to sit through her speech. But there was one paragraph that deserves attention.

From the Opium War and the First Sino-Japanese War after the 1840s, China's War on Foreign Invaders in 1900 to the Japanese War of Aggression against China in the 1930s, China was subject to the butchering of the then strong powers in the West and East and their extremely barbarian economic depredation. This, coupled with feudal corruption and years of successive civil strife and chaos, led to the loss of China's sovereignty and the horrendous suffering of her people, her national strength failing and people barely surviving. The grave disasters and the harsh facts have ingrained deeply into the Chinese nation the value of peace and the importance of development. Such a historic experience has shaped the psychology of the Chinese people in our quest for peace and hope for stability, consolidating our belief in following a path to peaceful development.

Or in other words: "Cut us some slack, you guys! We've had a rough couple of centuries and are only now starting to pull out of it."

The First Opium War began in 1840. But for a country that claims 5,000 years of history, a mere 166 are but the blink of an eye. And it's not hard to hear echoes in Wu Yi's choice of words to the language employed in the famous "Letter of Moral Admonition to Queen Victoria" sent by Commisioner Lin Zexu to the queen in 1840, demanding that she put a stop to the opium trade.

We find your country is sixty or seventy thousand li [about 20,000 miles] from China. Yet there are barbarian ships that strive to come here for trade for the purpose of making a great profit. The wealth of China is used to profit the barbarians. That is to say, the great profit made by barbarians is all taken from the rightful share of China. By what right do they then in return use the poisonous drug to injure the Chinese people? Even though the barbarians may not necessarily intend to do us harm, yet in coveting profit to an extreme, they have no regard for injuring others. Let us ask, where is your conscience? I have heard that the smoking of opium is very strictly forbidden by your country; that is because the harm caused by opium is clearly understood. Since it is not permitted to do harm to your own country, then even less should you let it be passed on to the harm of other countries -- how much less to China!

Suppose there were people from another country who carried opium for sale to England and seduced your people into buying and smoking it; certainly your honorable ruler would deeply hate it and be bitterly aroused. We have heard heretofore that your honorable ruler is kind and benevolent. Naturally you would not wish to give unto others what you yourself do not want. We have also heard that the ships coming to Canton have all had regulations promulgated and given to them in which it is stated that it is not permitted to carry contraband goods. This indicates that the administrative orders of your honorable rule have been originally strict and clear. Only because the trading ships are numerous, heretofore perhaps they have not been examined with care. Now after this communication has been dispatched and you have clearly understood the strictness of the prohibitory laws of the Celestial Court, certainly you will not let your subjects dare again to violate the law.

Alas, there is no evidence that Queen Victoria ever read the letter. Lin Zexu acted on his own, seized 20,000 "chests" of opium and destroyed it all. In short order, the British declared war, leading to a one-sided rout that ended up in China being forced to sign the humiliating Treaty of Nanjing.

Some British politicians attempted to claim at the time that the war was about preserving "free trade," and not the right to illegally addict Chinese citizens to narcotics, but the flim-flam didn't fly, even in England, where William Gladstone declared "he knew of no war more unjust and warned that it would be a 'permanent disgrace.'"

And so it was. Now, you can argue that Wu Yi's reference to the Opium War and "extremely barbarian economic depredation" was a cheap rhetorical device that had little place in a negotiation over the pace of Chinese economic reform in the 21st century. You could even argue that China's facilitation of the exploitation of its own labor by Western capital is another form of economic depredation, visited against Western workers. But by placing that little summary of the recent miseries of Chinese history upfront and center in her opening volley, Wu Yi offered a useful reminder: The memories of Chinese humiliation at the hands of the West are still very much alive, and anyone who wishes to twist the Middle Kingdom's arms should bear that in mind.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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