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The fearful legacy of China’s autonomy from Western influence.

By Bernie Matthews - posted Friday, 28 November 2003

China is the third-argest country in the world. It occupies one quarter of Asia and is a superpower that evolved from the expansionist and interventionist policies of Britain. Those policies had a serious backlash that Western society is still suffering today. The devastating effect of those policies is a drug called heroin.

Heroin is a derivative of raw opium. It is produced from poppy plant (papaver somniferum - the sleep-bearing poppy) which is euphemistically called the “moon flower” and grows three-to-four feet tall with egg-shaped pods that contain the opium resin. Ten days after the poppy blooms the resin is extracted by lancing the pods. The milky fluid is scraped off the pods and hardens into a brown gum that is raw opium. The amount of opium produced from a poppy crop will increase if the process is repeated but the potentency of the opium will be reduced with each lancing.

Australia’s current heroin problems contrast strongly with the historic tolerance towards opium smoking that is prevalent at the Asian source of the narcotic. Tolerance to opium smoking or "chasing the dragon" dates back to the eighth century, when Arab and Turkish merchants first introduced opium to China. The drug gained popularity in China where the huge demand resulted in domestic cultivation of opium poppies in Sichuan, Yunnan, Fujien, Zhejiang and Guangdong provinces.


In 1779 the British East India Company acquired a monopoly on the opium trade and flooded the Chinese market with large-scale importation until the trade was banned in 1839 by the Qing government. The destruction of 20,000 boxes of British-imported opium resulted in the Opium Wars, 1839-1842 and 1856-1860. The defeat of China during the Opium Wars divided the country into spheres of influence governed by the major Western powers and resulted in the Treaty of Tianjin (1858), which made it compulsory for China to accept opium imports.

It was not until The Boxer Rebellion (1899-1900) that China regained its autonomy and in 1949 further expansion of the opium trade occurred when members of The Chinese Nationalist Party were defeated by the Communist Party and fled to Indochina. Chinese from Yunnan province settled in the Shan State of Burma and began opium cultivation primarily for domestic consumption.

Asian-grown opium is a basic ingredient of the heroin export trade and the evolution from smoking recreational opium smoking to processing refined heroin was established by marketing entrepreneurs in Marseille and Hong Kong between 1950 and 1960.

The socio-economic consequence of that evolution has been a progressive worldwide increase of intravenous drug use, the spread of communicable diseases and spiralling costs caused by increased domestic crime rates.

Political implications have also emerged with the creation of military juntas and paramilitary insurgents that retain their power bases in Asia by siphoning off financial aid from the enormous narcodollar profits.

Clear definition of criminality remains nebulous - while intravenous drug users or minor heroin traffickers are targeted by law-enforcement agencies and the entrepreneurial kingpins remain untouched. The complexities of the Asian heroin export trade also make it difficult to eradicate heroin at its opium source and will require an empathetic reappraisal of Western attitudes towards Asian politics, culture, and economic assistance before any success can be accomplished.


The expansion of opium cultivation in Burma coincided with the political instability created by General Ne Win’s takeover in 1962. Opposition to Ne Win flared into open revolt by Shan, Kachin and other ethnic groups who formed revolutionary armies that taxed and controlled the opium convoys to finance paramilitary insurgents and micro-armies that fought Ne Win’s government. The conflict and frequent shifts in political alliance also allowed ex-revolutionaries to work as militia for the Burmese government that guarded the convoys to their destinations in Thailand.

In The Politics of Heroin in South-East Asia Dr Hal McCoy defined the main protagonists as Nationalist Chinese (KMT) paramilitary units under the command of General Ly Wen-huan. Rival opium warlords Lo Hsing Han and Chan Shee-fu or Khun Sa commanded their own militia but the most political of the rebel Shan micro-armies was the Shan State Army (SSA) who wanted to secede from the Union of Burma.

The KMT had established opium monopolies in North Burma since 1950 but were driven into Thailand by Burmese forces in 1961 and in 1967. When the Khun Sa’s militia challenged the KMT’s dominance of the narcotics trade he was defeated with major losses of opium, men and arms and in 1969 he was arrested and imprisoned by the Burmese army.

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About the Author

Bernie Matthews is a convicted bank robber and prison escapee who has served time for armed robbery and prison escapes in NSW (1969-1980) and Queensland (1996-2000). He is now a journalist. He is the author of Intractable published by Pan Macmillan in November 2006.

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