Opium War

Dear Sir: Your article in The Economist "China remembers the opium war" (June 14th) damages the reputation of your magazine as source of learned opinion. You apparently did not care to watch the Chinese movie "Opium War" before you branded it as another piece of Chinese propaganda. I happened to see the movie after I read your article, and was shocked when I found that your claims about the movie are blatantly false. You implied that the movie "does not present a very subtle---or indeed accurate---version of history", because the initial reaction of the British government representative Charles Elliot was to order British merchants to surrender their stocks of opium, and because the main British demand of the expeditionary force dispatched by the British was not the continuance of opium exports, or the ceding of territory, but for China  to open up further to British trade.  Well, in the movie Captain Elliot did initially order the British merchants to surrender their stocks, and the Queen was shown to state flatly that the war with China was not about opium trade, or protection of British goods, or the dignities of the British flag and the Queen, but opening up China to British goods.  It seems that in this case you are more interested in scoring some points with the rogue Chinese communist government than interesting the reader with insightful analysis. In case that you couldn't come up with an interesting economic question about the opium war, here is one: why did the opium trade decline in importance in Sino-British trade after the British won the war and the right to sell opium to China? It was certainly not because the defeat woke up the Chinese addicts, or the Chinese government, although it fought a second war on opium trade, only to lose again. Nor was it because the British government restricted opium trade in China for the same reason it banned it in Britain itself. Mostly likely, once China was opened to trade by gunships, British merchants found that their industrial products were much more profitable than opium. In economics jargon, opium trade eventually declined because its opportunity cost rose with the fall of Chinese barrier to trade.