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136 Working Paper

China as "Victim"? The Opium War That Wasn't

Feb 22, 2024 – Harry G. Gelber


The 1840-42 Anglo-Chinese war (the so-called “Opium War”) is almost universally believed to have been triggered by British imperial rapacity and determination to sell more and more opium into China. That belief is mistaken. The British went to war because of Chinese military threats to defenseless British civilians, including women and children; because China refused to negotiate on terms of diplomatic equality and because China refused to open more ports than Canton to trade, not just with Britain but with everybody. The belief about British “guilt” came later, as part of China’s long catalogue of alleged Western “exploitation and aggression.”