A Lighter Brew
Sarah Rose’s For All the Tea in China: How England Stole the World’s Favorite Drink and Changed History is a breezy account of an enterprising Scottish botanist’s daring act of industrial espionage in 19th-century China. The story begins with the opium trade. For some 200 years, the “Honourable” East India Company had sold Indian opium to China and bought Chinese tea for England with the proceeds, making a handsome profit in the process. According to journalist Rose, the opium trade turned nearly a third of all Chinese adults into addicts. The Chinese authorities understandably wanted to get that monkey off their back. They also wanted to reverse an increasingly unfavorable balance of trade that was transferring much of China’s wealth to Britain. So they tried to free themselves from this undesirable arrangement by removing Western traders from their country by force in the First Opium War (1839–42). When they failed, the victorious Brits claimed even more territory and rights in China.
In the wake of those disastrous consequences for China, the East India Company’s directors in London began to fear that the humiliated Chinese would start to grow their own opium poppies and thus imperil their income. And since something like 10 percent of British tax revenues were derived from the sale and import of tea, what was good for the East India Company was seen as good for Her Majesty’s government as well. Hence, caution was thrown to the wind and an all-out defensive effort was launched to beat the Chinese to the punch by growing tea in British India.
The problem was that China had a virtual monopoly on the technology of tea making, and the only way to transplant that knowledge to India was to steal it. The East India Company’s managers thus devised the clever scheme of recruiting Robert Fortune, an impoverished and, as they correctly assumed, foolhardily desperate horticulturist, to travel to China — undercover and alone — to make off with tea seeds, plants, and the intellectual capital required to grow and process them, and deliver all of the above to the Indian hills of Darjeeling (which were reckoned to be ripe for tea plantations).
As one can imagine, Fortune’s task was not easy to accomplish in a China closed to foreigners, with thousands of muddy miles to cross, high mountains to climb, nasty brigands to battle, and scheming servants hell-bent on exploiting a master who was dependent on them for his very survival. It’s an old-fashioned adventure-story-cum-travelogue: the incredible journey of a Victorian Marco Polo. But that isn’t why s+b readers will want to pick up this book.
The book’s value lies in its parallels to today’s contentious trade relations between China and the West. History is almost repeating itself, although today the shoe is on the other foot. In the 19th century, China ran up a tremendous trade deficit to Britain, much as the United States’ balance of payments with China is becoming insupportable now. Britain used the gold it earned in China to expand its naval fleet and enhance its role as the world’s superpower, and now China is doing much the same with its export earnings. Today, of course, it is the Chinese who engage in the occasional act of industrial espionage. But they still have a habit of dangerously adulterating products meant for export to the West; then it was a poisonous chemical to enhance the color of green tea, now it is lead in toys. And all of the above was, and still is, complicated by cultural misunderstandings, nationalism, and an unwillingness to compromise on both sides for fear of losing face. History may not repeat itself, but it often gets close enough to warrant that prudent managers sit up and take notice.