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The Reverse Opium War

Beijing looks the other way, and the deadly medicine sails West just as its natural ancestor once sailed East.

· 13 min read
The Reverse Opium War
Used needles are seen on the street during a city sweep of a homeless encampment, September 22, 2022 in New York City, New York. (Photo by Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images)

An epidemic is stalking American cities. Every day, men and women die on sidewalks, in bus shelters, on park benches. Some die sprawled in crowded plazas at midday; others die slumped in the corners of lonely gas station bathrooms. Internally, however, the circumstances are the same. They all end their lives swimming in the warm amniotic dream of a lethally dangerous opioid. When it comes, the moment of death is imperceptible: coaxed by the drug further and further from shore, the user simply floats out too far, passing some unmarked point of no return. The heartbeat weakens, the breathing slows and shallows. As soft an end as anyone might wish for.

This is the fentanyl crisis. It may seem strange to connect a very modern and very American phenomenon to a brace of wars waged 200 years ago by the British Empire on the last of the Chinese dynasties. But so the rhetoric runs: we are witnessing a Reverse Opium War; a belated Sinic revenge.

The Communist Party teaches schoolchildren that China was once a glorious superpower, until it was brought low by that subtlest and most devious of British weapons: Lachryma papaveris (poppy tears). Opium sapped the nation’s strength, and when the Chinese authorities banned it, then Britain went to war—twice.

Destroying Chinese war junks, by E. Duncan (1843). Wikimedia Commons

Those wars crippled the Qing and heralded a “century of humiliation” for China—multiple military defeats and lopsided treaties, the Anglo-French looting and burning of the Emperor’s Summer Palace, the Japanese Rape of Nanking and lethal human experimentation by Unit 731—ending only with the liberating forces of Marxism-Leninism in 1949. Now some commentators are telling us that history has inverted, that karma has kicked in.

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