History's Hatred: China’s War on Drugs and the Power of Past Violence

Once part and parcel of Asia’s political economy during the age of imperialism, the opium trade wreaked social havoc in China and provoked an international movement toward drug control that endures to the present day. 

Drawing of woman and child turning away from opium smoker

By Steffen Rimner

For more than one hundred years, China has been waging a War on Drugs. For most of that century, its commitment to fight drug distribution and consumption was ironclad. 

The same is true today; China’s most recent public diplomacy has left little doubt that its anti-drug zeal has not abated. In spring 2009, the National Narcotics Commission of China joined hands with the Ministry of Public Security and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to host seventeen member states of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB).1 Combining public fanfare with diplomatic finesse, the centennial highlighted the International Opium Commission (wanguo jinyan hui) of 1909 in Shanghai as the first-ever anti-drug summit in human history. The one-hundredth anniversary of the birth of global drug control, supported equally by Beijing and the international community, offered ready material for an intrinsically global politics of history, almost like a bait to fish.2
By 2019, only the centennial itself has been relegated to history. The screens announcing an “existing spirit of shared responsibilities and mutual trust”3 have disappeared. So has the carefully choreographed exhibit featuring global drug control as China’s brainchild. Likewise, the Shanghai Declaration, proclaiming Chinese and international cooperation in global drug control, is now gathering dust, devolved into a historical document.4 Most dramatically, even the luster of high office in Chinese drug control did not shield officials from sudden state scrutiny. At the commemoration of 2009, Meng Hongwei gave one of the major speeches as acting vice minister of public security. In 2018, he resigned as chief of Interpol after being arrested by his own government on charges of corruption.
Beyond the waxing and waning of political favor, Chinese anti-drug politics has retained its prominence, enduring for centuries, and showing how historical hatred of drugs can become a source of political mobilization in international affairs today. Asian modern history made drugs into forces of violence—forces that continue to shape national fears of societal collapse to the present day. 
China’s historical hatred of opium started growing roots during the First Opium War (1839–1842). The British victory in the Second Opium War (1856–1860) paved the way to the legalization of the Indian-Chinese opium trade, crushing Chinese hopes for any viable form of opium control. By the 1890s, British-sponsored opium trading from India to China had raised the numbers of Chinese opium addicts to an estimated fifteen million.5 It was only in the late phase of the Qing dynasty that this—the largest, government-sponsored drug trade up to the nineteenth century—provoked international outrage of an intensity equalled only by the abolitionist movements against the slave trade. 

Photo of women with the Polyglot Petition

The backlash against the opium trade as a trope for imperialism’s intent, force, and damage at once gripped public opinion far beyond the Great Qing.6 Anti-drug campaigns experienced a proliferation of their own, sprawling across diverse states and societies from East, Southeast, and South Asia to western Europe and North America. In the 1920s, the League of Nations, the predecessor of the United Nations, became the first guardian of national drug legislation around the world. The international community officially condemned the government-sponsored production, distribution, and consumption of “opium and other dangerous drugs,” now including morphine, cocaine, and heroin, as one of the most pernicious forces produced by the rise of global pharmaceutical empires. Through the League of Nations and its global governance, the unregulated or ill-regulated drugs business came to be envisioned for the first time as an act of violence—a perpetration of harm purposefully and perniciously designed to sabotage societies and human lives from within. 

None of this would need to concern practitioners and analysts of international affairs were it not for the resilience of China’s fight against drugs—and the scope of that fight beyond China itself. In a rare confluence of interests, Japan, Singapore, the Philippines, and the United States all came to embrace the notion that opium and other narcotic drugs were immediate causes of national emergencies. Ironically, it has become a constant of global history that drugs cause widespread political alarm again and again; as a poison corrupting mind and body, as a threat destroying the very sinews of society. Especially in Asia’s early twentieth century, opium undermined the national quest to seek strength at home and abroad. 

Far beyond the commemorations of 2009, Chinese diplomacy has drawn on the national hatred of drugs as part of a long Asian legacy of seeing drugs as an existential threat from outside, from beyond one’s own borders. Further south in the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte shows little signs to reverse political priorities: the war against drugs and those suspected in trafficking them ranks far higher than human rights. The same may be said of China, where in January 2019 a Canadian citizen was sentenced to death, unsurprisingly, for drug trafficking—and presumably for becoming a symbol of retaliation for Canada’s arrest of Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of telecom company Huawei, at the bidding of the US.7 

Meanwhile, Donald Trump has repeatedly couched the fight against drugs as a means to enhancing border security—a trope of thought familiar to Chinese anti-imperialists since the Qing dynasty that ended in 1911. Little coincidence, then, that in China, the “century of humiliation” (bainian guochi) opens with the First Opium War in 1839–1842 and closes shortly after the end of the Second World War with Mao Zedong’s proclamation of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. To this day, the Opium Wars are commemorated in China not unlike Ground Zero in New York City: as a monument to the nation’s “zero hour.”8 The Indian poet and Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore must have spoken the mind of many Chinese contemporaries when he called the British opium trade to China a “death traffic.” 

Quotation by Steffen Rimner on the dangers of opium trade

It would be impossible to trace the resilience of antidrug sentiment in Asia from the age of imperialism to the present day without a long-term perspective. Only then does the opium trade in Asia—from imperialist politics to national memory—show parallels to the slave trade in Africa. In each case, an imperialist practice came to embody the root cause of the most serious challenges of societies, from poverty to famine, from economic underdevelopment to a sovereignty restricted by others. Without a long-term perspective, the current outrage over pharmaceutical giants in the United States putting financial incentives far above consumer protection appears sudden and unprecedented, split off from the lessons of history. But it isn’t. Just as one hundred years ago, today it is public opinion that creates the urgency to rethink the principles of a political economy of drugs that has escaped effective regulation. All but forgotten are the earliest lessons of history, namely that supply repeatedly fuelled demand, that demand did not necessarily or even frequently preexist, and that financial benefit frequently clashed with concerns of public health.

The now-universal goal of protecting society against a drug threat emerged from the social laboratory of imperial China. International society today has inherited and appropriated what was initially and historically a Chinese cause: warding off drugs as an existential menace to the individual and to society writ large.9

While the age of empire brought societies closer together, economic connectivity contained its own perils, particularly the centrifugal forces of drug trafficking that divided the world into winners and losers of public health. Today, international society faces a shared history of drug fears that can feed both into recognition of common ground and a reinvestigation of missed opportunities. Around the globe, analogous perceptions of drug trafficking as a tacit form of violence provokes opposition to drugs, from China to the United States. The means to protect against this threat range from hardnosed repression to decriminalization. Drugs are perceived to pose a social threat more visceral than discrimination yet less immediate than a bullet. Just as in Chinese headlines virtually every month, drugs have reappeared as forces of violence that damage individuals, families, and entire societies, well illustrated by the public scandals surrounding the US opioid crisis and the attendant scrutinization of the pharmaceutical corporate sector. For better or worse, the odium of opium seems to rebound from its dark past. 

—Steffen Rimner, Assistant Professor of the History of International Relations, Utrecht University

Steffen Rimner, now an assistant professor of the history of international relations at Utrecht University, was a Weatherhead Center Graduate Student Affiliate from 2010 to 2013. His new book, Opium’s Long Shadow: From Asian Revolt to Global Drug Control (Harvard University Press, 2018), recalls the Chinese opium experience and its long-term consequences for international narcotics control, public health, and the global politics of memory.

Professor Rimner expresses his gratitude to the British Academy, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the American Philosophical Society for their invitation to and inspiration at the UK-US ECR workshop held in Cambridge, Massachusetts in February 2018. 


  1. Delegations from Austria, Cambodia, China, France, Germany, Iran, Italy, Japan, Lao PDR, Myanmar, the Netherlands, Portugal, Russian Federation, Thailand, United Kingdom, United States, and Viet Nam, and United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime and International Narcotics Control Board attended. Statement by Vice Minister of Public Security Mr. MENG Hongwei at the High-level Segment of the 52nd Session of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs (12 March 2009, Vienna International Centre), https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/ce/cgvienna/eng/xw/t542013.htm.
  2. Delegations from Austria, Cambodia, China, France, Germany, Iran, Italy, Japan, Lao PDR, Myanmar, the Netherlands, Portugal, Russian Federation, Thailand, United Kingdom, United States, and Viet Nam. Shanghai Declaration of 2009, http://www.incb.org/pdf/annual-report/2009/en/AR_09_E_Annex_IV.pdf (accessed 2011-09-26, link no longer accessible) and http://www.chinesemission-vienna.at/eng/xw/t553678.htm (accessed 2011-09-27). 
  3. Hongwei Meng, Vice Minister of Public Security, in the final Statement by the Chinese Delegation at the High-level Segment of the 52nd Session of Commission on Narcotic Drugs, United Nations in Vienna (12 March 2009), http://www.unodc.org/documents/commissions/CND-Uploads/CND-52-RelatedFil... (accessed 2011-09-27). Hongwei Meng’s Vienna speech expanded on themes in Meng Jianzhu’s opening speech at the Shanghai centennial. Jianzhu Meng is the Minister of Public Security and Commissioner of the China National Narcotics Control Commission. http://www.chinesemission-vienna.at/eng/xw/t543083.htm (accessed 2011-09-27). In Chinese: http://www.mps.gov.cn/n16/n894593/n895609/1857618.html (accessed 2011-09-27). 
  4. Tang Guoan’s (Tong Kaison) speech at the International Opium Commission of 1909 attained unprecedented prominence in the celebrations of 2009. “Tegao. Jindu – bainian guochi gongshi,” Jiancha fengyun 6 (2009), 16–19. The first major history of the International Opium Commission was also scheduled for simultaneous publication with the centennial: Su Zhiliang; Liu Xiaohong, Quanqiu jindu de kaiduan: 1909 nian Shanghai wanguo jinyan hui (Shanghai: Shanghai sanlian shudian, 2009), http://www.unodc.org/documents/commissions/CND-Session51/E200828CVn-AUE.pdf (accessed 2011-09-26). 
  5. Gotō Harumi, Ahen to igirisu teikoku – kokusai kisei no takamari, 1906–43 (Tokyo: Yamagawa shuppansha, 2005). 
  6. On the Chinese dimension: Zhang Shenghua; Shi Meiding, ed., Qingmo minchu de jinyan yundong he wanguo jinyan hui (Shanghai: Shanghai kexue jishu wenxian chubanshe, 1996).
  7. Michael Martina, Philip Wen, and David Ljunggren, “China Condemns Trudeau’s Remarks about Canadian’s Death Sentence,” Reuters, January 14, 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-china-canada/china-condemns-trudeaus-....
  8. For the website of the Opium War Museum in Dongguan, Guangdong, on the very site of Lin Zexu’s traumatic encounter with British opium, https://artsandculture.google.com/partner/opium-war-museum. 
  9. Steffen Rimner, Opium’s Long Shadow: From Asian Revolt to Global Drug Control (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2018).

Photo Captions

  1. Scores of Chinese anti-opium pamphlets described paternal opium addiction as the root cause of moral, financial, and social ruin in Chinese society. Credit: Detail of Image No. 8 (Wife and child turn away from an emaciated opium smoker) from The Chinese Opium-Smoker, by Anonymous, (London: S. W. Partridge & Co., ca 1880). Accessed from The Project Gutenberg EBook of The Chinese Opium-Smoker.
  2. The Polyglot Petition, stretching across 7,000 yards, was a manifest expression of the massive support that anti-opium opposition and temperance, now joint together, received from thousands of women in North America and in the Asia Pacific. Credit: The Polyglot Petition, page 32, Do Everything: a Handbook for the World's White Ribboners by Frances E. Willard (Chicago: Miss R.I. Gilbert, 1895). Image courtesy of Hathi Trust Digital Library, public domain, Google-digitized.