China's sad history of the opium trade

August 09, 1996|By Jonathan Power

ZHONGSHAN, China -- Looked at through the Chinese prism, opium is a singularly bad thing. On this issue mainstream public opinion is as black and white as a panda.

Only if you step out of China, into Hong Kong, for instance, is there a public debate, shades of gray, layers of complexity, both historically and currently. The study of opium then becomes as complicated as an addict's dreams and the solutions to abuse as tortuous as cold turkey.

The Chinese government's antipathy toward opium is so intense it colors its relationship to Hong Kong and adds an emotional charge to what, anyway, would have been a most complicated transition. Without opium, there'd be no Hong Kong. The British only acquired it because of the Opium Wars, and its early economic success was built on the opium trade; opium dealing for long enough was the colony's main business.

It was the British who fed the Chinese propensity for opium. Historians will point out that the Chinese would have found it elsewhere, even grown it themselves as they sometimes did. But the truth is the Indian-grown opium was the brand the Chinese smokers savored and the British East India Company, with its principal agent, the famous Hong Kong multinational, Jardine Matheson, marketed it with commercial elan.

At one time, by the 1930s, China's opium problem had grown to such proportions that it was estimated that 10 percent of the population were addicts.

Only the Communist revolution was a force sufficient enough to expunge it. Mao Zedong with his political apparatus that reached into every hamlet and home was able, as he repressed so many attributes of human nature, both good and bad, to lay the beast low.

It was a mixture of carrot and stick -- addicts were not condemned but offered medical help and rehabilitation. Those who were uncooperative were sent to labor camps or imprisoned; dealers were summarily executed, often without a trial.

China was clean for 40 years. But with the demise of vital Maoism, opium has returned -- this time without British connivance.

China, in fact, has become one of the world's major opium growers. There is now an addict population of at least 100,000. Although China regularly executes drug traffickers by the score, post-economic reform China no longer has its hands on every string of society. As a Chinese proverb goes: "If you open the window, sunlight comes in, but so do mosquitoes."

Government attitudes in China have not changed. What has changed is economic freedom and that, as elsewhere, runs stronger than the writ of government.

Most governments, if not as tough as China, also try to squash drug-taking, but with the same results almost everywhere -- driving drugs onto the black market, into the hands of the pushers and the "candymen" and, more and more, the big Mafia gangs.

Only in certain Middle Eastern countries is opium legal -- where it is sold as sticks about the size of a hot sausage. Many Muslims point out that although Mohammed banned alcohol he did not prohibit opium, although it was certainly around in his day. Indeed, Arab and Persian doctors of that era pioneered its use as a medicine, a painkiller and a specific cure for stomach ailments.

But to be fair to those countries that permit opium smoking -- or even to the Britain of yesteryear -- heroin is or was not part of the equation.

German discovery

Heroin was duly discovered by a German chemist working at the Bayer Company -- the same laboratories that gave us aspirin -- toward the end of the 19th century. It is heroin that can cut an addict to pieces faster than any other drug, although let it be said that many people who take heroin moderately live quite productive and acceptable lives.

It is, in fact, very important in any sane debate on drug abuse not to get so carried away with anti-drug zealotry that even medicinal uses become frowned upon. This is what has happened in America. This is why it is probably best to die of some painful cancer in Britain, one of the few countries to allow the use of heroin as a pain suppressive, the strongest pain-killer of them all.

Nevertheless, there can be no gainsaying heroin's destructive effect upon millions and millions of consumers, in China and all over the world. Wrestling with this monster has become far more demanding than the old forms of detoxification when an addict, attempting to withdraw, ended up befouled with his own vomit and feces, with contractions far worse and longer than the most laborious of child-births.

The estimated annual world turnover of the illicit drugs trade, of which heroin is probably the largest single part, is $750 billion a year, infinitely greater than the budgets of all the enforcement agencies rolled together. Drug barons have economic and political power that other captains of industry can only dream of. Neither China, with its millenniums of centralized government and authoritarian nature, nor the United States, with its technological prowess, is a match for them.

Yet to continue with the present widespread policy of imprisonment for convicted consumers and minor traffickers -- execution for the latter in China, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand-- is to leave the big barons virtually unscathed. We either do what Mao Zedong did -- a totalitarian government with a scorched-earth policy -- or we legalize opium and other drugs to break the back of the underworld trade.

It is the present and almost universal in between that is so unsatisfactory and so dangerous.

Jonathan Power writes a syndicated column on the Third World.

Pub Date: 8/09/96

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