That lion-hearted Liberal William Ewart Gladstone, who died while he was trying to solve the Irish Question, said of the First Opium War, which ended with Hong Kong under British rule: ‘a war more unjust in its origin, a war more calculated in its progress to cover this country with permanent disgrace, I do not know and have not read of.’ A comic classic, Foreign Mud by Maurice Collis, tells the story, but in China the Opium War is not funny. The veteran director Xie Jin’s new $12 million blockbuster (the budget was raised in Shanghai) modelled, he says, on Schindler’s List, eulogises Beijing’s heroic commissioner, Lin Zexu, who provoked the British to war by burning 1250 tons of Indian opium smuggled into Canton, mostly by the Scottish firm Jardine Matheson (still, rather more respectably, active in Hong Kong). Commissioner Lin asked, in a personal letter to Queen Victoria bristling with Chinese officialdom’s abiding suspicion of British good faith: ‘We have heard that in your honourable barbarian country the people are not permitted to inhale the drug. If it is so harmful, how can seeking profit by exposing others to its evil power be reconciled with the decrees of heaven?’ Her Majesty had no reply; but holding the high moral ground did not protect Qing China from the Royal Navy, which sank the Emperor’s fleet of war junks with only one British sailor being grazed by a stray Chinese cannonball, and followed up by blockading Beijing. Adopting the ancient Confucian policy of soothing and pacifying, the reigning emperor, Dao Guang, quickly ceded a barren offshore island which happened to enclose one of the world’s finest deep-water anchorages, now ambiguously called Hong Kong (‘Fragrant Harbour’), and opened five other ‘treaty ports’ to the British, who were soon followed by other foreigners demanding similar concessions. British Hong Kong’s first business was warehousing illicit opium. Ever since, Hong Kong has been a centre for activities of which Beijing has, one way or another, disapproved, but which have had strong local support – including the revolution of 10 October 1911.

That lion-hearted Liberal William Ewart Gladstone, who died while he was trying to solve the Irish Question, said of the First Opium War, which ended with Hong ...