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|Subject: The Opium Wars and Moral Absolutes|
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Date Posted: 10:59:52 01/12/05 Wed
In reply to: Ed Harris (London) 's message, "Well said." on 23:59:14 01/11/05 Tue
And if you are into moral absolutes, you could also ask how well the Chinese acquitted themselves in the opium wars relative to Britain.
Brtiain fought the wars merely to avoid continued humiliation and unbearable corruption and discrimination in trade with China (I would have to concede this is a dubious reason for fighting a war, but it was a more legitimate reasoning in the C19th, and the US and France weren't far behind Britain in making the same demands and profiting from the Opium wars themselves).
The Chinese, on the other hand, viewed anyone not from the Celestial Empire as barbarian ghosts with no rights or honour, and indeed, they seem to have viewed their own people in much the same light. The Chinese authorities regularly gave out orders for Chinese people to poison westerners or destroy their property - indiscriminately and en masse - as well as seizing produce and closing ports to trade or imposing arbitrary fines and taxes when it suited them. This was the background to the wars.
Once the wars started British troops generally behaved with honour and fairness, although lootings and rapes did occur. The British smashed through Chinese defences time and again with hardly any casualties despite massively superior numbers and relatively sophisticated weaponry being pitted against them. Yet Chinese officials were so scared of failure and dismissive of foreigners they behaved as if each defeat were a victory. British delegations to make peace with the Chinese were regularly murdered and tortured, their treaties invariably ripped up before they could even be signed, yet in every city the British took they praised the bravery of its defenders and released the prisoners to return to their homes. The Chinese on the other hand murdered the civilian populations of each city (and committed suicide) rather than suffer the indignity of barbarian conquest.
In contrast to Chinese atrocities against both their own people and British soldiers, officials, merchants and other civilians, the worst British 'atrocity' of the wars, often cited as one of the prime evils of British Imperialism, was the burning of the Summer Palace.
Now while I admit that this was an act of cultural barbarism, I would make the following observations for others to ponder and take as they will;
1) the palace had already been trashed and looted by French troops and Chinese civilians days before the decision was taken to burn its remains,
2) the chinese had routinely failed to end the second war or respect treaties and persisted in dismissing and covering up British military successes
3) the burning of an empty and looted palace which was itself a symbol of a corrupt imperial elite is not a war crime. It does not constitute mass murder, or indeed the murder of one civilian or enemy combatant. Compare this to the carnage the British encountered in each city they entered, with women and children slaughtered by their own men and thrown into wells to poison the water.
The British may have been the aggressors, but they were by far the more 'moral' combatants in a dirty war.
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