Something has to give

got into an exchange recently with a friend of a friend, and he made the claim that Britain’s
Opium Wars with China were between the Chinese and “British colonizers.”

I’m not sure what he meant by “colonizers,” but to me colonizing means packing up your bags and moving, lock, stock and barrel, to a new location.

Kerry Knudsen
Kerry Knudsen

Technically, the Opium Wars, the way history records them, were over trade, not territory. The Chinese did not want British influence, but they wanted to sell to Great Britain. Therefore, they allowed the British ships to enter the Pearl River at Canton (now Guangzhou), but they could not enter China further. Also, the Chinese required payment for tea, ceramics, jade and other items in great demand in the West to be in silver. This gets complex, but it ends up with the Brits shipping in tons of opium in trade.

So in the 1800s, China was plagued by colonizers, monopolistic merchants and dope. The purported goal of the Brits was to degrade the political infrastructure of China, which it did, and the Second Opium War was settled with what the Chinese call the Unequal Treaties, which led to foreign access to travel in China.

The Chinese still see themselves at a disadvantage in international trade. I have mentioned before that I attended a world summit in Shanghai on wood flooring. Canada and the U.S. seemed to be in the middle on the topic of certified lumber. There was huge disagreement, however, between Western Europe and China. It was Europe’s position that all lumber should be certified.

China’s representatives were totally opposed. Their position was that China purchases “legal” lumber, and as long as the governments of Guiana, Brazil, Honduras, Malaysia or any other sovereign country had legal lumber for sale, China would be free to buy that lumber for whatever price they could negotiate. Anything short of that, China said, was a challenge to Chinese sovereignty.

Of course, we in the West believe that government actions should be transparent, largely for the reason that secrecy in financial dealings seems to lead to corruption. Coincidentally, in the West, we see Chinese economy and corruption as essentially the same.

In deference to China, we in the West have our own problems with corruption, as China has noted. I do not, however, think rampant corruption is an excuse for more.

China seems as inscrutable and as implacable as ever. We have reported on the standards violations in Lumber Liquidators’ Chinese products, but Wall Street is predicting growth in that company’s stocks. Or was. You have the advantage of reading this column in the future compared to its writing in mid-January. In any event, Lumber
Liquidators seems to be moving forward.

I saw an article that called to attention China’s empty infrastructure. I have seen that, myself …. Huge factories with high-speed production machines, everything clean and new, and no-or-low visible inventory or production.

Western impressions of Chinese goods seem to wax and wane. One day they are all garbage. The next, people seem to think the Chinese have fixed their image problems and are manufacturing high-quality goods. Either way, as with Lumber Liquidators, China seems to be moving forward in industry.

Then China irritates Vietnam by drilling for oil in Viet­namese-claimed waters, build islands to claim where there were none, rankle neighbours over disputed territory, confront the American military in the South China Sea, support North Korea in its psychotic delusions and openly steal registered brand names and dump pirated product. These may be short-term gratifications for a minority of Chinese officials, but they don’t add up to a long-term public relations program of rehabilitation.

It seems that most Chinese do not know who saved them from the grasp of the Japanese in WWII. In what was one of the most infamous and inhuman occupations in history, the Japanese had dominated and despoiled China’s people and its treasures. It took intervention by the Brits and Americans to free China and let it grow. Maybe the Chinese don’t “owe” the Allies for their salvation, but it seems to me it could be a talking point toward better relations. Something has to give.


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