Will the U.S. attack China? Part 2

Trade wars against China, past and present

Bodies and devastation on steep incline inside North Taku Fort in China during the Second Opium War, August 21, 1860
Bodies and devastation on steep incline inside North Taku Fort in China during the Second Opium War, August 21, 1860. PHOTO: FELICE BEATO/GETTY IMAGES

By Chris Fry

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence addressed the right-wing think tank Hudson Institute on October 4 with the Trump administration’s policy toward China in a vicious attack on the government of the PRC. The Trump administration plans to increase tariffs on Chinese goods from 10 percent to 25 percent on $250 billion in goods on January 1. Additionally, the U.S. Navy is conducting provocations in the South China Sea. This is the second part of a series exploring the threat of a new imperialist war against the People’s Republic of China.

Scientists, physicians, politicians and people from every strata of society know there is an opioid epidemic raging across the United States. The epidemic “has been responsible for hundreds of thousands of lives lost over the past two decades, and millions more individuals and their families have been negatively affected by the misuse or abuse of prescription opioids.”

This social catastrophe in the U.S., costing and damaging the lives of millions of workers and poor people, did not happen by accident. In 1996, the giant multibillion-dollar drug company Purdue Pharma released the powerful narcotic drug OxyContin, and marketed it aggressively to physicians as virtually non-addictive, despite the company’s research which indicated it was highly addictive.

A 2016 PBS Frontline report stated: “In 2006, federal prosecutors recommended the indictment of three individual Purdue Pharma executives on felony charges that included conspiracy to defraud the U.S…. But according to reports, officials at the Bush-era Justice Department did not support bringing those charges.

“Instead, Purdue Pharma would plead guilty to a felony charge of ‘misbranding’ in 2007, paying $600 million in fines for its marketing of OxyContin. As part of the settlement, three executives also pleaded guilty to lesser, misdemeanor ‘misbranding’ charges and paid $34.5 million in fines, though those charges ‘solely held them liable as Purdue Pharma’s ‘responsible’ executives and did not accuse them of wrongdoing.’”

When the drug was finally pulled from the market, desperate people were already addicted, including many workers afflicted with extreme pain from back-breaking labor, and many turned to illegal drugs like heroin for relief.

In addition to the enormous social costs of lives lost and deep suffering, the economic costs of this epidemic are staggering. The health research and consulting institute Altarum estimates the cost to be over $1 trillion from 2001 through 2017, and will cost $500 billion more by 2020.

Of course, this drug epidemic preceded and is along side of the infamous “war on drugs,” now 50 years old, directed particularly against the oppressed Black and Latinx communities. This war included the CIA deliberately importing drugs from Central America into those communities, costing the lives of thousands and the imprisonment of millions of youth.

A key advisor to former president Richard Nixon admitted in a story in Harper’s Magazine: “The Nixon campaign had two enemies, the antiwar left and Black people,” John Ehrlichman stated. “We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or Black [people] but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and the Blacks with heroin and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

Opium Wars and the ‘Century of Humiliation’

It is no wonder that the two Opium Wars waged by the British government against China in the 1840s and 1850s, assisted by the French and the U.S., is burned into the national memory of today’s China, with school children being taught that the period between 1839 and the 1949 Revolution is the “Century of Humiliation.”

In the early 1800s, the English demand for tea and silk from the Chinese Qing Empire exploded. Chinese merchants demanded payment in silver, which soon ran short for the English. To open up the Chinese market for their textile products and get back their silver, the British decided to grow vast amounts of opium in their Indian colony’s Bengal region and smuggle it into China. Millions became addicted to the drug, which caused social devastation and a huge spike in suicides.

The Chinese government cracked down on this and destroyed warehouses of opium in 1839, arresting 1,700 dealers and dumping 2.6 million pounds of the drug into the ocean. In response to this “infringement in free trade — in drugs,” the British Navy blockaded the Chinese port city of Guangzhou. They then sent in an armada of 44 heavily-armed warships.

“Antiquated Chinese warships were swiftly destroyed by the Royal Navy. British ships sailed up the Zhujiang and Yangtze rivers, occupying Shanghai along the way and seizing tax-collection barges, strangling the Qing government’s finances. Chinese armies suffered defeat after defeat.” (nationalinterest.org)

The Qing government was forced to sign the Treaty of Nanking, which gave the city of Hong Kong to the British, allowed the British “free trade” with China, including opium, and extracted a $21 million dollar indemnity. Similar treaties were signed with France and the U.S. shortly afterwards.

It was the Chinese peasants who bore the brunt of the cost of this war and its aftermath. Corrupt Qing officials levied much higher taxes to pay the indemnity. Farmers were forced to switch to growing tea to pay for the massive influx of opium, which sharply raised the price of food. This sparked the 14-year-long Taiping rebellion against the Qing government, which cost 20 million lives.

Karl Marx, already a famous revolutionary leader and author, at the time was also a foreign correspondent for the New York Tribune newspaper. He wrote several articles that detailed and, unlike his British press counterparts, condemned Great Britain’s actions against China. He pointed out that for the wealthy textile manufacturers in England, while they did manage to destroy the renowned Chinese craft industries and urbanization, the Chinese market failed to meet their sales expectations, for which they blamed resistance by the Qing government. (“Dispatches for the New York Tribune: Selected Journalism of Karl Marx,” 2007)

Marx scathingly describes the “respect for the flag” (sound familiar?) pretext that the British government used in 1856 to launch the Second Opium War by first bombarding Guangzhou, then destroying the Chinese fleet. France and the U.S. joined in with the British, who again sent heavily armed gunboats up Chinese rivers as well as landed thousands of troops. The Chinese military was no match. When the British forces reached Beijing in 1860, in order to “wound the Emperor’s pride as well as his feelings,” the British looted the eight-square-mile Summer Palace and then burned it to the ground. The new treaty that the Chinese were forced to sign made both Christianity and opium legal throughout China, while no Westerner could be tried in Chinese courts for crimes committed in that country.

Decades of Western domination and oppression followed, including the terrible invasion by the capitalist Japanese regime, until the successful 1949 Revolution that established the People’s Republic of China.

Trump’s trade war with China

This bitter experience at the hands of Western imperialism has exposed for the Chinese people and their socialist government the true nature of imperialism, now headed by Wall Street and the Pentagon. Beginning in the 1970s, the Chinese government has allowed U.S.-based and other Western corporations to establish factories in the country and employ Chinese workers. Many firms have vastly enriched their coffers from the surplus value extracted from these workers.

From the very beginning, it was the expressed intent by each U.S. administration that this eventually would undermine the socialist structure in China and place that country once again in the grip of imperialism.

That did not happen.

The Chinese socialist government has maintained control over its banking system and the overall planned economy. It has used the revenues gained from these industrial operations to vastly improve the living standard for the people, from small farmers to urban workers. With its “Silk Road” initiative, it has invested in infrastructure programs from central Asia to Africa. And the Chinese economy has grown to match in size of the U.S.

This, of course, has alarmed Wall Street and their minions in Washington. Under the Barack Obama administration, the Trans-Pacific Partnership was drawn up to pull the countries near China back into the orbit of U.S. imperialism. Not satisfied that this was aggressive enough against China, Trump decided to scuttle the TPP and instead impose increasing tariffs on Chinese products being imported into the U.S.

This and other Trump-heralded tariffs will hurt the incomes of U.S. workers and farmers, as they force prices up and create layoffs, but that does not concern Trump and his henchmen; they are only concerned that the U.S. maintains its hegemony over the world economic and social order, particularly when it is challenged by a workers’ state like China. Hurting the living standard of U.S. workers in order to wage economic war against China is perfectly acceptable to the Trump administration’s ultra-right clique.


Trump wants U.S. imperialism’s junior partners to go along with his xenophobic program. Recently the U.S. forced both Mexico and Canada to sign a new trade pact called the United States-Mexico-Canada-Agreement, to replace the infamous North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). The USMCA contains clause 32 “requiring Canada to keep the United States abreast of its intentions to enter free trade talks with ‘any non-market economies’ — which many took to mean China.”

The Pentagon has sent a fleet of warships and planes to menace Chinese islands and the country’s eastern coast, just as the Western capitalist countries did 160 years ago, but this time they are not facing a weak feudal empire; instead, they face a united socialist country ready to defend itself with modern weaponry, including nuclear missiles.

Zhang Qingli, a leading Chinese trade official, told a U.S. business delegation: “China never wants a trade war with anybody, not to mention the U.S., who has been a long term strategic partner, but we also do not fear such a war.

“The U.S. side has disregarded a consensus with China after multiple rounds of consultations, insisting on waging a trade war against China and continuing to escalate it. In response, China is left with no other option but to make necessary counter actions,” said Zhang.

To be concluded.

Will the U.S. attack China?  Part 1: The quest for new technology

Will the U.S. attack China? Part 3: The threat of war

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