Olympics and Opium Wars
By Richard L King
In a few days, the XXIX Summer Olympiad will be held in
Beijing. The opening ceremony will begin precisely at 8:08
am on August 8, 2008 or 808.8.8.08. The number 8 is an
auspicious number in China , equivalent to lucky 7 in the
West - July 7, 2007, saw a rash of weddings all around the
Hundreds of thousands of foreign visitors - not to mention
more than 20,000 journalists - will be descending on China.
They will marvel at the ultra-modern architectural wonders.
Most will arrive by air, landing in the new Terminal 3 of
Beijing International which was designed by British
architect Norman Forster.
In the city, visitors will be able to gaze at the "Bird's
Nest", the main stadium designed by the Swiss firm Herzog
and de Meuron. There are other outstanding buildings such
as the National Center for Performing Arts, nicked named
"The Egg". Its architect is Paul Andreu of France. There
are other outstanding buildings such as China Central TV (
CCTV)'s headquarters, designed by Dutch architect Rem
Koolhass, and the whimsical Beijing National Aquatics
Center nicked named "The Water Cube".
But there is another landmark sight that visitors should
see: the burned ruins of the former Summer Palace, or Yuan
Ming Yuan. It was a collection of palaces containing more
than 200 buildings that housed irreplaceable works of art
-paintings, sculptures, porcelains and manuscripts. It is
located only minutes away from the Olympic park.
But it's a world apart. In the 19th century, when Britain
forced opium on China, the Chinese government rightly
resisted and this precipitated two so-called "Opium Wars".
The Treaty of Nanking in 1842 gave Britain the right to
continue to sell opium to China, and China was forced to
open five treaty ports granting extraterritorial rights to
Britain, ceding Hong Kong to Britain in perpetuity. But
Britain still was not satisfied; it once again invaded
China, this time with France, in 1860.
On the order of Lord Thomas Elgin the Summer Palace was
burned down. The Hindi word "loot" entered the English
lexicon at that time when Anglo-French soldiers stripped
the palace of its treasures. China was forced to make
further concessions and to pay a huge indemnity to the
The clash between the two empires in the 19th Century was a
total mismatch. Britain was at the zenith of Pax Britannia,
and China was at the nadir of its long history. Britain had
advanced modern weapons, while China was still fighting
with bows and arrows. The resulting destruction and
slaughter of tens of thousands of Chinese will always be a
blot on Britain'’s history.
Some may say that these events took place more than a
century and half ago and that China should let bygones be
bygones. However, these injustices were righted only
recently, especially from the Chinese perspective of its
long history. When asked in 1972 what he thought about the
success of the French Revolution, the late Zhou En Lai's
response was: "Don't you think it's too soon to tell?" The
elimination of extra-territorial rights took place only in
1943, a century after being forced on China. And China did
not recover Hong Kong until 1997.
If anyone, especially those from the West, wishes to
criticize China about human rights, religious freedom and
corruption; they should be sensitive to China 's sense and
sensibility. Forcing opium on China enslaved a generation
of Chinese and caused corruption on a scale that dwarfs
anything in present-day China or even current chaos in
Quoting Travis Hanes and Frank Sanello's excellent book,
"Imagine this scenario: the Medellin cocaine cartel of
Columbia mounts a successful military offensive against the
United States, then forces the US to legalize cocaine and
allow the cartel to import the drug into five major
American cities ... plus the US has to pay war reparations
of $100 billion for the Columbians' cost of waging the war.
That scenario is of course preposterous. However, that was
exactly what Britain forced on China . Along with opium
came Christian missionaries whose zealous attempts to
convert "heathen" Chinese destroyed indigenous religions in
the process and served as a helping hand to the colonial
exploits of the West."
If the new buildings represent China 's renaissance, the
burned out Summer Palace remains a symbol reminding China
of its past weakness and humiliation. In the 1800s, China
paid Western imperialists' thirst with blood. Now in the
21st century, China is paying Western thirst for profits in
cash, and it can afford to. There is certain irony that two
of the main attractions are designed by Forster and Andreu
whose forbears were the ones who burned down the Summer
The West, with this stain on its past, lost its moral high
ground a long time ago. It will have to earn that trust
from China with acts of constructive engagement, not
lectures, if we are to see a world that is truly global,
and not a continuing clash of civilizations.
Richard L King, PhD, has been in the investment industry
for more than 30 years. He received his PhD in nuclear
physics from New York University in 1970 and also attended
Stern Graduate School of Business at NYU. He is currently a
venture partner at GRP Venture Partners, a large
partnership based in Los Angeles which manages more than
$600 million. He is also an adviser to Next, the Finnish
venture partnership firm specializing in wireless
technologies with offices in Helsinki and in Silicon
Valley. Originally from Shanghai, Dr King is a grandson, on
both sides of his family, of two of the founders of the
Bank of China.