What are the key points in the article "Coffee, Tea, or Opium?" by Samuel M. Wilson?

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kjtracy eNotes educator| Certified Educator

This article discusses the ultimately unsuccessful efforts of China's former commissioner for trade, Lin Zexu, to stop the illegal importation of opium in China. In 1839, Lin found himself losing the battle to convince British merchants to stop bringing opium into his country. The substance was highly addictive and had created an epidemic across China that Lin and the Manchu emperor felt was undermining the social fabric of the nation. Despite the fact that opium was illegal in China as well as Britain, the British Crown turned a blind eye to the profitable exports.

Historically, China was in an advantageous position when it came to trade with European nations. Europe's only unique exports were cotton textiles, while European countries had a high level of demand for Chinese teas, silks and other goods. Lin and many others in China believed that the British would not be able to subsist without Chinese tea, and sought to use that leverage in their negotiations. The demand for opium that was, in part, created by the British traders, shifted the scales of balance in international trade.

Lin's efforts to stop the importation of opium from British traders were more diplomatic than those of his predecessors. While others in power took the approach of threatening the British with trade refusals, Lin chose to appeal to Queen Victoria's moral decency. Through the course of multiple letters, Lin attempted to reason with the British Queen that it was immoral to allow her ships to send illicit substances to a foreign land that she would not allow her own subjects to be exposed to. Nonetheless, the opium trade was too lucrative to pass up and the British government ignored Lin's request on the grounds that there was no official treaty set up between nations. After a military struggle in which the British emerged dominant, Lin ultimately failed in his attempt to quell the opium epidemic in his country. British trade continued and British merchants stayed in the country for longer periods as time went on. The article also touches on the irony of the fact that many Western nations have tried to convince the Chinese government to monitor the exportation of illicit substances more closely in recent years. Those efforts have largely been unsuccessful, marking a shift in the policy that was established during the Treaty of Nanking, which the British essentially forced the Chinese to sign in 1842.

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