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Why British Officials Were Wrong to Wear Poppies During Their Recent China Visit

16 Nov 2010

In what appeared either a patriotic assertion of national honor or an act of conscious disrespect, Prime Minister David Cameron and fellow officials refused to remove poppies adorned to their clothes during a recent trade mission to China. The visiting party had been wearing the flowers to mark Remembrance Day, observed by Commonwealth countries to honor the sacrifices made in times of war.

Unfortunately, poppies are also symbols which recall the Opium Wars, the series of military conflicts between China and Britain during the mid-nineteenth century borne out of disputes over British India’s illegal trafficking of opium. The eventual British victory led to the opening of several ports to foreign trade, the fixing of tariffs, new extraterritorial rights for Britain, and Hong Kong’s cession as a colony, setting the stage for the wild change — and violent uprising — that would ultimately take place in China.

According to The Telegraph, when British representatives were asked to remove their poppies, they were reportedly “startled” and “shocked” (the two words redundantly employed in the same sentence). As guests of a nation whose collective memory is long and recent history has been tumultuous, Cameron and company perhaps would have done well to acknowledge their own country’s questionable role in it.

To be fair, it is a complicated history: in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the English were major buyers of Chinese tea, silk, and porcelain, but few purchases of British goods were made on China’s part. To make matters worse, China would only accept silver as the currency of exchange, threatening to create a trade deficit; moreover, as the mandated “Son of Heaven,” the emperor would demand a tribute from foreign merchants before allowing a small window for trade. Certainly, China was historically not without its own arrogance.

Yet, what happened next is arguably a primary reason for China’s aggravated distrust of Western influences: As a result of various smuggling operations by British merchants, China would be importing an estimated 900 tons of opium by 1820. Opium trade commissioner Lin Zexu would write these words to Queen Victoria herself in 1839:

Let us ask, where is your conscience? I have heard that the smoking of opium is very strictly forbidden by your country; that is because the harm caused by opium is clearly understood. Since it is not permitted to do harm to your own country, then even less should you let it be passed on to the harm of other countries — how much less to China!

In response to Lin’s aggressive blockade of opium trafficking, Britain sent a large British Indian army to attack coastal towns in south China and storm tax barges. By the end of the wars, China’s prosperity would be slashed from 30 per cent of the world’s GDP to a paltry 3 per cent, and with a neutered Qing government, the country was effectively left to Western imperial powers and Japan to control.

Britain failed to ever apologize for the serious moral lapse, perhaps because they could point to the good that would come out of it: the success of Hong Kong’s political and economic model, for one.

So: it’s a symbol of illegal financial and military exploitation. Fine. But commenters have pointed out that the remembrance florets on pectoral display are of the “red corn poppy” species, different to the opium poppy, which is usually white or pink.

Still, the symbolism of any poppy, whether of the corn or opiate persuasion, is readily visible to any educated Chinese viewer — certainly apparent to the crowd of Peking University students Cameron addressed — even if the Prime Minister hadn’t intended as much. Cameron’s “cautious” speech about the importance of political and expressive freedoms, as well as the rule of law, helped little to insist on the contrary. There is a double standard at play here, whether the British party knew it or not.

NEXT PAGE: Why they shouldn’t have worn poppies isn’t just a moral argument, but a pragmatic argument as well.

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