18. From the Opium War
to the Self-Strengthening
Movement

Today, with the additional span of one and a half centuries behind us, we can review the events leading up to the Opium War in a perspective quite different from that of our predecessors, even though the basic facts remain unchanged. Lin Zexu, the imperial commissioner at Guangzhou, exercised sufficient initiative to compose a letter to Queen Victoria and had more than twenty copies of it made so that every European ship sailing home could be entrusted to convey the message, one that asked for the voluntary suspension of the opium trade by Britain. Yet Lin minimized the importance of the news that in England warships were gathered in preparation for an expedition to China as no more than "an intimidating gesture designed to scare us." On the one hand he inquired about Emeric de Vattel Law of Nations; on the other he enforced Chinese prohibitory laws, which were in the statute books but so far had been ignored by everybody, with a sudden severity and urgency characteristic of traditional Chinese legal practice. Above all, his principal method of enforcing the laws took the form of "group responsibility," that is, rounding up offenders by categories and

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