China’s role in the West’s opioid crisis parallels the West’s role in the Opium Wars of almost 200 years ago. And that is no coincidence.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, Britain and America sought to break into the Chinese market. The West had an insatiable appetite for tea, silk, and spices. But the Chinese, then the largest economy in the world, had little interest in British or American goods.
Western countries needed to address their rapidly growing trade deficits. This called for a product that could create insatiable demand among a population convinced their needs and wants were entirely met by domestic production. And this product should be hugely profitable with recurring revenues and immune from business cycles.
The British, taking a clue from their experience in India, discovered just such a product: opium.
And indeed the narcotic originating from the poppy plant proved a breakthrough and found a fertile Chinese market. This in turn led to addiction so widespread that at its peak in the late 1800s, over 12 million Chinese were hooked. And that included members of the Chinese ruling classes.
Though Great Britain played the dominant role in the opium trade, Americans did their part too. The trading firm Russell & Company, for example, set up shop in Canton and was among the largest opium dealers in China.
Opium eventually compromised China’s sovereignty. Fed up with the drug’s devastating impact, the Chinese tried to restrict the importation of opium by engaging in trade wars. These escalated into two separate military conflicts known as the Opium Wars. The costs of losing these conflicts with Great Britain included the annexation of Hong Kong, trade policies that unilaterally benefitted the British, and a Chinese economy that shriveled to half its size.
More importantly, this was China’s first global engagement. And it was a disaster of epic proportions.
Nearly 200 years have passed, but some memories die hard. China has never forgotten how the West humiliated and exploited it on the world stage.
Now the tables are turning.
And here the ghosts of the Opium Wars hover. For China, how sweet the irony of unseating the world’s largest and most vibrant economy with the aid of an addictive drug, just as America and Britain did two centuries ago.
The Red Dragon is flooding America with fentanyl, the synthetic opioid 50 times stronger than heroin. It is the drug most commonly associated with opioid-related deaths in the U.S. According the National Institutes of Drug Abuse, 47,000 Americans died in 2017 from opioid overdoses, mostly fentanyl-related. In the same year, 1.7 million Americans had some sort of opioid addiction or disorder.
True, America has a pain epidemic. Something deeper is at play here though. As improbable as it may seem, our current painkiller crisis has roots in an international conflict long in the past and a nation’s wounded pride.
And if the United States wants to avoid the same fate China faced two hundred years ago, we must recognize the opioid crisis for what it truly is: One front in an all-out war for global dominance.
Doing this will force America to properly fight this scourge.
That means increasing pressuring on China to stop encouraging the exportation of opioids – admittedly a tall task given that its government, in a bit of evidence of the role it is playing here, actually offers tax incentives and subsidies for companies exporting fentanyl.
There are other important steps though, such as tightening our borders to interdict illegal importation of opioids, continuing to provide addicted Americans with proper treatment, and a society-wide focus on prevention for future generations.
Opioids are the cause of the worst drug epidemic in American history. Ending it is, of course, up to America. But it is important to acknowledge that here China, in seeking a centuries old retribution, is a foe not a friend.
Ed Moy served as the 38th Director of the United States Mint from 2006-2011.
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