Skip to main content
opinion

Mike Theilmann is a retired federal public servant. He was Canada’s first liaison officer to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, 2005-08, and was later counsellor, public safety, at the Canadian high commission in London, 2008-12. He has a history degree from Queen’s University and a journalism degree from Ryerson University.

Ask most Canadians what they know of the Opium Wars of the 19th century and you will probably be rewarded with a blank look. But since the 1920s, the two conflicts – the first spanning from 1839 to 1842, and the second lasting from 1856 to 1860 – have formed a cornerstone of the Chinese nationalist narrative that is now being evoked with reverence and resonance amid China’s reaction to Canada’s arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou.

It is, indeed, a brutal part of Chinese history, particularly the First Opium War. This conflict was largely brought about by James Matheson and William Jardine, two ruthless Scottish merchants who created the company of Jardine, Matheson & Co., which is still in existence today. Both legitimate traders and smugglers of opium, the pair resented Chinese restrictions on trade and spent years working to pressure the British government. Ultimately, they were successful, and in a bloody campaign (which was far bloodier for the Chinese, who lacked the most modern weapons technology of that time), China was brought to its knees and forced to open more ports to trade, pay millions of dollars in indemnities, cede the island of Hong Kong to Britain and accept other infringements on its sovereignty.

For me, the First Opium War was something of a family affair. Three of my direct ancestors participated, and my family had close personal ties with Jardine and Matheson, including one great-great-uncle who worked for the company in Hong Kong in the 1840s. Of the greatest interest was my great-great-grandfather, Duncan Macpherson, who served as an assistant surgeon with the Madras Army of the East India Company. At the war’s end, while returning by ship to India, he wrote a history of the campaign called The War in China, published in London in 1843.

“Our moderate demands will for ever redound to the credit of Great Britain," he wrote in the book’s final passage. "We have paved the way to the utter extinction of that exclusiveness and idea of supremacy hitherto insisted on by the Celestial Empire, and we have laid open a most valuable mart of commerce to the world at large; and, with the help of Providence, we yet may be instrumental in sowing the seeds of Christianity amongst a skillful and intelligent people.”

My great-great-grandfather’s imperialist words speak to the ghost at the table in the continuing diplomatic row between China and Canada, following the arrest of Ms. Meng in Vancouver as part of an extradition treaty with the United States. In response to questions on the recent death sentence handed to Canadian Robert Schellenberg, Hua Chunying, a spokeswoman for China’s Foreign Ministry, recalled China’s treatment at the hands of Western powers during the Opium Wars, saying that the memories of deadly warfare and toxic imports of opiates "remain fresh to the Chinese people. We won’t allow drug dealers from any other country to harm the lives of Chinese people.”

And in a telling anecdote recounted in The Economist, one of President Xi Jinping’s first acts upon taking office in 2012 was to visit a permanent exhibit at the National Museum in Beijing called The Road to Revival. The exhibition starts with the First Opium War and culminates with the rise and dominance of the Communist Party. As the article pointed out, Mr. Xi was delivering a clear message: “Don’t mess with us again.”

On the face of it, this rhetoric appears justified. The First Opium War was, indeed, shameful. It marked the start of what the Chinese call their “century of humiliation” – the start of the modern era where China was abused, bullied and humiliated by Japan and Western powers. But the Opium Wars have also become a useful cudgel for Mr. Xi and the Communist Party, playing as it does to the idea that China is being unfairly treated.

Meanwhile, modern Western historians and some Chinese intellectuals have begun taking a more nuanced view of the wars. “Beneath the angry, hate-filled narrative of the Opium War, then, lies a more intriguing story," British historian Julia Lovell writes in her 2011 book, The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams and the Making of China – "that of a painfully self-critical and uncertain, but open-minded quest to make sense of the country’s crisis-ridden last two centuries.”

But heaven help the Chinese intellectual who tries to present a reappraisal of the wars. In her book, Ms. Lovell recounts how, in 2006, the government closed down the leading Chinese liberal weekly, Bingdian. Its crime: publishing an article by a Chinese professor challenging the party line on the history of the Second Opium War.

By rigidly adhering to the party’s version of history and refusing to take a more critical assessment of its own past, the Chinese government is doing a disservice to both itself and the Chinese people – while also damaging its relations with the global community, including Canada.

In taking a strident nationalist stance, in making a mockery of the rule of law, in detaining Canadian citizens illegally and in the inflammatory remarks made by China’s ambassador to Canada, I hear an echo of my great-great-grandfather’s arrogant and hypocritical justification for the First Opium War and the misery it wreaked on China. How ironic, then, that a country so bullied in the past has now become the bully. Time for China to learn from history – not repeat it.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe