Timothy Brood and Bob Tadashi Wakabayashi eds., Opium Regimes: China, Britain, and Japan 1839-1952

This collective work arises out of a conference held in Toronto
in May 1997 entitled “Opium in East Asian History”. The book’s
editors state in their preface that they have not been able to publish all the
papers, presenting here “only” 17 articles. This nonetheless means a
dense volume, faultlessly edited and with a remarkable bibliography—in short,
a reference work on the state of research in an area the scope of which is in
constant expansion. In Opium Regimes can be found both the results and,
conversely, the weaknesses of the history of opium in Asia—beginning, indeed,
with the choice of writers. Among these are several young PhDs offering monographs
based on first-hand documentation, mixed with old-hands in the field who are today
proposing ambitious recastings of the phenomenon of opium, however no author from
mainland China is included, nor are there any specialists tackling the problem
of contraband and trafficking in any real detail((1). The work’s editorial
team has given priority to setting up a “positive” problematic, one
centred on the political economy of the drug. But, while this does deal with the
paramount questions of interests, actors and the impact of opium, it underestimates
the notion of scale. This is directly linked to the problem of sources, discussed
neither by the editors nor practically by any of the writers, which is something
that constitutes the greatest weakness of the book and the trickiest problem in
this field of research. In this connection, it is vital to remember that there
exists virtually no coherent statistical series and that the bulk of the documentation
comes from official sources, with prohibition laws covering the greatest part
of this period, and that consequently we often see only the “flip side of
the coin”. In this context, we need to tread carefully in dealing with opium
policies, given that the available documents make for difficult use, and in any
case warrant an open discussion. Moreover, there is unfortunately no use made
of alternative sources such as the various Chinese chronicles and memoirs, despite
the fact that the works of the Chinese historian Dong Yiming suggest the great
richness they contain((2). This observation is tied in with the fact that Chinese
historians have only recently begun to explore the subject in any critical way,
but by the same token it underscores their massive absence in what one could define
as “the birth certificate” of the modern study of the phenomenon of
opium in Asia.

The book is comprised of four chapters that tackle in succession
the historical dimensions of the trade (Chapter One, two articles), the distribution
and consumption of the drug (Chapter Two, five articles), its control and the
consequent forms of resistance (Chapter Three, six articles), and the paradoxical
exit of the drug between the period of Japanese occupation and the Communist “liberation”
(Chapter Four, four articles). Although the works do not take China exclusively
as their reference (one article deals with opium in nineteenth century Japan and
another with the opium farms in South-East Asia), this book is essentially a history
of the drug in China. The period under consideration extends from the beginning
of the Opium Wars to their resolution, generally accepted as occurring in 1952,
that is characterised by the prohibition of opium once and for all and by what
was in effect the drug’s destruction, as well as the treatment of addicts.
Within this frame of a century, opium was a multi-facetted substance, with many
implications, the various effects of which were to play a decisive role in the
formation of the Chinese state. One of the writers sums this up clearly, “the
challenges of state-making in modern China would have been considerably simplified
had large-scale imports of opium not been introduced by the British. Whatever
alternative scenarios we may imagine, the historical connections between opium
and Chinese state-making remain empirically important. The dynamics of modern
Chinese state-making bore the burden of opium, an issue that Chinese officials
and elites perceived as a moral problem with social, economic, and political dimensions
unlike those any other country in the world has faced”((3). The work’s
editors have wanted to stress the intertwining of these various facets and what
was finally the intrinsically political impact of the control of opium. To this
extent, they designate its actors, who were almost always in competition with
each other, as opium “regimes”, which accounts for the fundamentally
polemical title of the work. Such a choice remains debatable, as it conflates
structures of unequal scale whose foundations are furthermore not based in any
equal way on the exploitation of the drug. In this respect, lumping together the
East India Company and the Chinese national organisation for the fight against
opium appears a very risky move indeed.

The presentation of these various dimensions corresponds in
fact to the key moments in the history of opium in Asia, that began for essentially
economic reasons((4), but ended up becoming of major political importance. Opium,
either through the integration of its production and consumption and the creation
of a captive market, or through the concentration of its distribution, enabled
considerable amounts of capital to be generated. C. Trocki shows how the opium
farms allowed Chinese capitalist accumulation in South-East Asia by means of colonial
economic policy. Taxes on opium-furnished budgets, and a monopoly on distribution
contributed to the setting up of competitive industries by ensuring virtually
free labour((5), while the buying up of farms brought about significant concentrations
of capital that went beyond the administrative and political limits of the colonies.
The importance of opium for the colonial budget in the case of Hong Kong is taken
up by Christopher Munn, who does set out, however, the difficulties experienced
by the British authorities working with local businessmen. In the end, the farm
system could not guarantee adequate control over the income from opium and appeared
antequated in the early twentieth century when the trade became morally indefensible.
It is this aspect that really determines the modern history of opium, and the
massive use made by the Japanese army of revenue from it to finance the war effort
in China offers a good example a contrario. The setting up of collaborationist
regimes depending largely on opium revenues indicates indeed Japan’s “lateness”
with respect to this general trend more than it does the implementation of any
supposed plot designed to subject a whole nation to dependency on the drug((6).
Gregory Blue’s article on the opium trade of the English points to a similar
development from 1913, when the British government agreed to stop exporting Indian
opium to China.

From the Chinese point of view, the problem was posed in a
different context, but otherwise in identical terms. The economic surplus value
generated by the production, distribution and taxation of opium ran up against
the increasing illegitimacy of dealing in narcotics. Indigenous opium policies
all operated in this context, from the imperial effort led in the last decade
of the Qing right up to the prohibitionist avatars of the nationalist regime.
Their implementation depended for one thing on the determination and efficiency
of the executive power, which it can be said was not without merit under the Qing,
as Judith Wyman shows in her article on opium production in Sichuan province,
which of all the provinces was the one most infiltrated by the drug culture in
the late nineteenth century. These policies also required the collaboration of
the local elite, which reacted in different ways in different areas, but contributed
nonetheless to the results achieved in the early twentieth century, as in the
case of Fujian province studied by Joy Mandancy. Finally, they varied according
to the reaction of producers, whose evolution is charted by Lucien Bianco. This
went from an initial reaction of non-comprehension in the face of an “unpredictable”
change of policy, to one of resistance to excessive taxes in a context of legal
and political incoherence. To this extent, it is to be regretted that the book
contains no article on the opium policies of the various warlords, especially
with respect to provinces that were as crucial for opium as those of the Chinese
south-west such as Yunnan, Guizhou and Guangxi. However, in his central article
on the origins of the plan to prohibit opium that was adopted by the Kuomintang
regime in 1936, Alan Baumler does propose a general analysis of the political
economy of opium during this period. He describes the way in which Chiang Kai-shek
used a powerful ideological lever—the fight against opium—to put in
place a monopoly of distribution and consumption of the drug, theoretically designed
to control and gradually reduce trafficking, but in practice to ensure his finances
and to drain those of rival political factions. Baumler appropriately concludes
by stating that “although it happened in a context of more general failure,
Chiang’s opium policies can only be considered a success, if a somewhat cynical
one”. Indeed, the prohibition on opium made no headway until the arrival
of the Communists, and those who denounced the drug situation in China were never
under any illusion. This was particularly the case with the Chinese Association
for the Fight against Opium, as Edward Slack shows in his piece recounting its
short-lived existence between 1924 and 1937, the year its leaders decided on its
dissolution in response to the 1936 plan and Chiang’s offer to finance the
movement in exchange for the latter’s political support for the KMT.

Although it is difficult to judge the situation on the ground,
we would be tempted to presume that the degree of tolerance of the Chinese people
with respect to opium waned over this half-century and that the advent of a regime
that was master of the political terrain and ready to solve the drug problem once
and for all corresponded to a certain extent to the general expectation. We can
observe some signs of this even before the end of the war at the time of the very
long student demonstrations of 1943, described by Mark S. Eykholt. The role of
the pro-Japanese regime of Wang Jingwei appears in this study as being clearly
an important one, painting a picture of manipulation designed to break the Japanese
monopoly on the drug’s distribution so as to take it over for itself and
thereby obtain a greater margin of autonomy. Although the treatment of sources
turns out to be particularly ambiguous here, the various movements launched during
the nationalist period—the New Life and New Youth Movements—all contributed,
despite their immediate political aims, to a new society that became cristallised
in an exemplary manner in an attitude to opium. In this context, the apparently
resounding success of the Communist ban, which operated between 1949 and 1952,
must be seen from the perspective of a previously unknown mobilisation that was
at once political and popular. Zhou Yongming gives us a partial representation
of this in the final article of Opium Regimes, emphasising that the resolution
of the century-old intoxication of China did not rest as much on executions as
Western observers have for so long believed, but rather on a propaganda campaign
based on denunciation. Zhou states that Communist social control was already capable
of wiping out individual freedoms and breaking up family and social solidarities
and that it consolidated its totalitarian sweep all the more after this victorious
campaign. In the case of opium, the hypothesis of a real fervour mobilising the
masses is not, however, to be discarded.

The study of opium in China seems to us today to reach this
“cultural” limit. Only Alexandrer V. Des Forges’s article on the
representation of opium in writings on Shanghai goes down this path in Opium
Regimes
. It gives us a mixed and internally diverse result, that links the
corruption and degeneration of the city to the trafficking and consumption of
opium, just as it links the city’s wealth and recreational culture to it.
The critical description of the representation of opium and its cultural and social
significance in China remains, however, to be written, in order to explain, beyond
the political economy of which this book offers a first successful exposé,
the singular phenomenon of the massive intoxication of China through the “black
fairy”((7).

Translated from the French original by Peter Brown

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