The latest model of opium

23 May

I was reading last week a book called Red Dust by Ma Jian where the main protagonist, an artist with his day job as a journalist in the foreign propaganda office in Beijing of early 1990’s, is travelling across China, looking to understand his country and its people. At one point he is visiting an institute for drug addicts and afterwards reflects on his experience:


‘I always associated drugs with the Opium War, imperial decadence and foreign exploitation. What place do they have in today’s society? Perhaps when people have no ideals, money can only buy oblivion, not freedom.’ (p. 180)


Opium used to be a very important trade article between the British and Chinese in the early 19th century. Produced in India and sold to China by the East Indian Company and later on through a network of smugglers, the Chinese were embracing it to a point when the Emperor had to act to stop wide spread addictions. Court’s attempts to stop the trade lead to two Opium Wars fought between the British and Chinese, both of which the Chinese lost, starting therefore a so called Century of Humiliation. This period culminated in the early 20th century with defeats by the Japanese in both world wars and finished with a civil war and the establishment of People’s Republic of China.


A contemporary parallel immediately struck me with what my Chinese friend was telling me over dinner earlier that day. He was telling me that China has experienced a great progress in economic development over the past couple decades but little or no progress in political development. Lack of development in the latter has been tolerated because of progress in the former he continued. Busy playing Angry Birds on their iPhones and moving into new apartments, fighting for democracy is not on the agenda for many.


As with most drugs, their effects wear off after some time and larger and larger doses are required to achieve a desired level of satisfaction. Likewise, when addicted people get their drug taken away, they start to be stressed, rebel and use any means possible to get what they want again. My friend was wondering what will happen when the party will not be able to maintain the rapid economic development China has been experiencing lately. With their eyes currently hazed by consumption, more and more Chinese people might start voicing their discontent with the government in the future. Let’s see what will happen.


I can highly recommend reading the book Red Dust to get a vivid picture of what China used to be like in the early 1990′s, with poverty and widespread political persecution still looming. You can buy it here.



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