Opium Wars: From China to India

I have always maintained that History can give many valuable lessons for future civilizations. Those lessons can espouse what course of action to take and what not to to take in development of any civilization. Today, I would like you to walk with me through the ups and downs of Chinese people during the mid 18th century. In the second half of this article you will realize why I bothered to tell you a lengthy story in the first place.

Before I begin, I would like to say that I don’t believe in the concept of China being an inward society. While rest of Asia was opening up to west, China also had decided to take the same course. The proof of this can be seen when you read about many jesuits being admitted in the courts of last Ming emperors and The great Manchu emperors due to their eagerness to translate western scientific and technical works into Chinese. This stopped only after the famous Rites controversy where the Catholic church decided that Chinese customs were not to be tolerated. Also, by this time they were aware of developments in long-time trade partner India and how foreign traders now were actively governing the politics of that land. Even after that there was a Russian Mission maintained into China throughout and vice-versa.

Western imperial forces, British and American specifically, had become very keen on doing business with China by now. Chinese had very rigid outlook about these foreign traders and they were only allowed to trade from one port- Canton. A special district of the city, “Thirteen factories” was reserved for American and English traders who came to buy products like Silk, nankeens,  and Tea, which had already become the national drink of many European countries. On the other hand China was not very interested in trading with them. Lazarist Evariste Huc noted in 1844 after a long inlad journey of China:

“One excellent reason why China is only moderately fond of trading with foreigners is that her home trade is immense…it is such a vast, rich and varied country country that internal trade is more than enough to occupy the part of nation which can perform commercial actions… everywhere there is movement and feverish activity which is not to be found even in the largest towns of Europe.”

Now, what happens when products of China are sought out by others but the chinese don’t care about the products made in Europe? Trade was uneven and they were bleeding through their noses paying for all the purchases in Mexican silver. During this time the British came up with an ingenius idea. Dent & Comapany and Jardine & Matheson were two of the companies who had got permission to operate out of Canton. They started buying Opium in Bengal, where it was cheaply produced by the subjects of East India Company, and smuggling it into China. Similarly, the American Hong (business houses) started to buy their opium from Turkey and smuggled it into China. Between 1820 and 1835, Opium smuggling developed all across the East China coast.

Opium was known to chinese since a long time and was strictly used for medicinal purposes. It was the first time when it started to be used as a vice. The first to use it were rich young men, then started the small shopkeepers, peddlers, low-rank officials, servants of the mandarins and then the entire army. Around 1835, senior officials and generals assumed that approximately 90% of their staff were addicts. Lin Ze-Xu, a high ranking chinese official, estimated around 4 Million opium addicts whereas a British doctor from Canton estimated the number of opium smokers to be 12 million. Lin Ze-Xu wrote:

“If we continue this trade to flourish, in a few dozen years we will find ourselves not only with no soldiers to resist the enemy but also with no money to equip the army…”

Period Crates Smuggled
1820-1825 9708 Crates per year
1825-1830 18,712 Crates per year
1830-1935 35,445 Crates per year


The demand of Opium grew in China exponentially. Now the normal sale of goods from China to west could not balance the requirement of Opium. This difference was made up by sale of Chinese silver which was prized by the westerners due to its fine quality. In 1837 Opium represented 57% of Chinese imports. Between 1828 and 1836 China exported 38 Million Spanish dollars in silver to out of which 4.5 Million was in 1835-36 alone. These developments lead to 2 opium wars and Chinese submission to western imperialistic forces. It could not recover from for more than a century.

Now forget that boring history lesson. Cut and zoom to present day India. Punjab.

Our Pakistani friends, after many lost wars and the failed Khalistan movement, have finally found their jackpot. Strategy is to supply drugs into India which serves two purposes- destroying youth and gathering money for their future operations. And this fact is not new or something which I am saying out of thin air. A report of Intelligence bureau from 1975 says, Pakistan, newly defeated in the 1971 war, would hit back at India through many clandestine means, one of which would be to convert the youth of Punjab into drug addicts who could then be “trampled down like a weed”.

Today 75% of Punjab’s youth is addicted to drugs. This figure was furnished by the Punjab authorities themselves to High court in 2009. Every third college student is hooked. You will find one member in every third family you visit, who is an addict. Smack, Heroine, LSD, speed, you name it and it is available. 30% of the inmates in jails are caught under Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act. You will find 11-15 year old children begging for money with arms covered in needle marks, sometimes dripping with pus. Doaba or Majha districts were always known for poppy production but this large-scale influx of drugs and expertise to process synthetic drugs is shocking.

But why blame ISI alone. What have the opportunists from this side of border done? Our politicians have not only sheltered drug traffickers, but have started dishing out drugs to people for votes. The Election Commission’s seizure of drugs worth Rs. 40 crore during the Punjab election season has drawn attention to the widespread use of drugs — ranging from intoxicating tablets and syrups to Poppy seeds and heroine- to woo voters to their side. (Hindustan Times) A week before the polling date, EC officials had impounded close to 3 lakh capsules along with 2,000 injection vials of Avil and 3,000 cases of Recodex cough syrup.

“We believe that the drugs were for electoral purposes,” deputy election commissioner Alok Shukla has said.

Question is, how do these drugs enter India? After all, we have 553 kms long border covered with electric fencing which covers almost all of Punjab. Well, it is activated only after 6 Pm in summers and 4 Pm in winters. Strangely, the smugglers don’t have to think of anything smart, they just need to take advantage of the false sense of security that we have. BSF officials have many other disturbing and chilling stories to tell. One friend from CRPF who was recently posted there tells me that he could find peddlers openly selling and storing drugs in Amritsar. A BSF officer has other chilling story to tell (Tehalka)-

“We conducted a recruitment drive in Tarn Taran district in May 2009. There were 376 vacancies. More than 8,000 young men turned up. But most of these men were so unfit and weak we had to come back with 85 vacancies. The drug abuse here will soon have serious security implications. These boys’ forefathers were strong and healthy so their bodies could bear the brunt of the intoxicants they abused. But these boys are different. Constant abuse has eroded their bodies. Put all four generations together and you will notice the difference. It doesn’t take much to imagine what the current lot of 5-10 year olds will look like if they fall into the drug trap.”

Young people are injecting drugs like coaxil and AVL (Phenara mine maleate) injection fluid, a drug meant to treat respiratory failure in cattle and horses. You can easily make out the increased use of drugs amongst youngsters in entire country and surprisingly we don’t have any effective fighting mechanism or even awareness about it. If this menace is not curbed right now, within a few decades the entire nation will have to kneel down.

The question to ask is, are we ready for an entire generation to be raised as addicts who cannot think of a future beyond their next hit?


[P.S- All the statistics about China are the courtesy of the book “China” by Jean Chesneaux.]