The New Opium War

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There are episodes in British history that we’d all rather forget. The two great nineteenth century assaults on Chinese sovereignty are on that list. Dubbed the Opium Wars, their purpose was to open China up to foreign trade – especially with the British and especially for opium imports from British India.

The First Opium War (1839-42) went well for the British – they got Hong Kong for example – so, flushed with the success of the Crimean War, they went back for seconds in 1856.

Nowadays we are appalled at the idea of a powerful state forcing a weaker one to allow it free rein to lure people into lives of wretched addiction, but at that time it was just a matter of free trade. And foreigners didn’t count for much anyway.

I’m struck by (and stroppy about) a modern parallel. An Australian casino company called Crown has built big glittery casinos in Macau and Australia, and at the centre of its business model is the luring of rich Chinese to its tables. They are variously called ‘whales’ and ‘VIPs’. Gambling in mainland China is illegal, as is soliciting custom on behalf of gambling enterprises. So Crown operates behind a façade:

“Selling gambling?! Perish the thought! We’re just selling nice holidays at luxurious resorts whose many attractions happen to include a little casino or two.”

The leaders of the Chinese Communist Party are neither stupid nor infinitely patient. They know exactly what’s going on, including the use of offshore casinos by corrupt officials and businesspeople to launder dirty money. They fired warning shots which included the rounding up of some smaller fry from South Korea – a device known in China as ‘killing the chicken in front of the monkey’ – and then decided they’d had enough. A bunch of Crown employees, Chinese and Australian, were arrested.

Good on you, Xi Jinping, I say. I still disapprove of your lawless actions in the South China Sea and your suppression of freedom of expression in Hong Kong and on the mainland, but you can hammer Crown all you like.

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