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  • Lin Zexu

Lin Zexu

Nickname "Blue Sky" for his incorruptibility, he lead the effect to stamp out the opium trade through interdiction, punishment and rehabilitation. Underestimating the British military strengths, he was blamed for British successes and exiled. Later he was elevated into the status of a national hero.

Lin Zexu was a Chinese scholar and official of the Qing Dynasty. He is most recognized for his conduct and his constant position on the "moral high ground" in his fight, as a "shepherd" of his people, against the opium trade in Guangzhou. Although the non-medicinal consumption of opium was banned by the Yongzheng Emperor in 1729, by the 1830s, China’s economy and society were being seriously affected by huge imports of opium from British and other foreign traders based in the city. Lin’s forceful opposition to the trade on moral and social grounds is considered to be the primary catalyst for the First Opium War of 1839–42. Because of this firm stance, he has subsequently been considered as a role model for moral governance, particularly by the Chinese.

In 1811, he received a jinshi degree in the imperial examination, and in the same year, he was appointed to the Hanlin Academy. He rose rapidly through various grades of provincial service and became Governor-General of Hunan and Hubei in 1837, where he launched a suppression campaign against the trading of opium.

An ever-growing demand for tea and low demand for British products, combined with the acceptance by China of only silver (and not gold) in payment, resulted in large continuous trade deficits. Attempts by the British (Macartney in 1792), the Dutch (Van Braam in 1794), Russia (Golovkin in 1805) and the British yet again (Amherst in 1816) to negotiate access to the China market were resounding failures. By 1817, the British hit upon counter-trading in a narcotic, Indian opium, as a way to both reduce the trade deficit and finally gain profit from the formerly money-losing Indian colony. The Qing government originally tolerated the importation of opium because it imposed an indirect tax on Chinese subjects, while allowing the British to double tea exports from China to England, which profited the monopoly for tea exports of the Qing imperial treasury and its agents. However, by 1820, the planting of tea in the Indian and African colonies, along with accelerated opium consumption, reversed the flow of silver, just when the Qing imperial treasury needed to finance the suppression of rebellions within China.

The Viceroy of Guangdong began efforts to constrain the trade, but due to large increases in the supply of opium, the large coast line of South China, and corruption (the Qing coastal navy was one of the largest smugglers of opium), these efforts failed. Meanwhile, memorials received from officials such as Huang Juezi urged the Daoguang Emperor to take measures that would eliminate the opium trade.

A formidable bureaucrat known for his competence and high moral standards, Lin was sent to Guangdong as imperial commissioner by the emperor in late 1838 to halt the illegal importation of opium by the British. He arrived in March 1839 and made a huge impact on the opium trade within a matter of months. He arrested more than 1,700 Chinese opium dealers and confiscated over 70,000 opium pipes. He initially attempted to get foreign companies to forfeit their opium stores in exchange for tea, but this ultimately failed and Lin resorted to using force in the western merchant’s enclave. It took Lin a month and a half before the merchants gave up nearly 1.2 million kilograms (2.6 million pounds) of opium. Beginning 3 June 1839, 500 workers labored for 23 days in order to destroy all of it, mixing the opium with lime and salt and throwing it into the sea outside of Humen Town. 26 June is now the International Day against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking in honor of Lin Zexu’s work.

In 1839, Lin also wrote an extraordinary memorial to Queen Victoria in the form of an open letter published in Canton, urging her to end the opium trade. The letter is filled with Confucian concepts of morality and spirituality. His primary line of argument is that China is providing Britain with valuable commodities such as tea, porcelain, spices and silk, while Britain sends only "poison" in return. He accuses the "barbarians" (a reference to the private merchants) of coveting profit and lacking morality. His memorial expressed a desire that the Queen would act "in accordance with decent feeling" and support his efforts.

The Royal Open Letter was prevented from reaching the Queen by shipping merchants, who attacked the Emperor’s forces before the Letter could have been acted on by Her Majesty. Belatedly, after the merchants had drawn Her Majesty`s forces into war, it was delivered and published in The London Times.

Open hostilities between China and Britain started in 1839. A naval skirmish in the autumn of 1839, following the of the opium hand-over, was in fact the very first act of war, in what later would be recalled as "The First Opium War". The immediate effect was that both sides, by the words of Superintendent Captain Charles Elliot, and the Chinese High-Commissioner Lin Zexu made a ban to all trade. Before this, Lin had pressured the Portuguese government of Macau, so the British found themselves without refuge, except for the bare and rocky harbors of Hong Kong.

Lin made significant preparation for war against the possible British invasion. The British sailed north to attack Jiangsu and Zhejiang. The governors of these two provinces failed to heed a warning from Lin, however, and were unprepared when the British easily landed and occupied Dinghai.

Because of this defeat, and also because of the intrinsic behavior of Chinese imperial political structure of the Qing Dynasty, Lin was popularized as a scapegoat for these losses. His position was then given to Qishan in September 1840. As punishment for his failures, Lin was exiled to the remote Ili region in Xinjiang.

Lin Zexu is popularly viewed as a hero of superlative conduct and national service, whose likeness has been immortalized at various locations around the world. Although not seen as such until well into the 20th century, Lin is now viewed as a national hero in Chinese culture.