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Drug Czar During Opium War Revered

Lin Zexu, disgraced when China lost battle, is considered a national hero 150 years later.

May 24, 1997|RONE TEMPEST | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BEIJING — It was a time when British and American drug dealers invaded the land, amassing huge stocks of opium in the prosperous southern port of Canton. On orders of the Qing dynasty emperor, a brilliant, progressive Confucian administrator launched one of the world's first anti-drug campaigns. In perhaps the biggest drug bust ever, Canton Commissioner Lin Zexu destroyed 3 million pounds of raw opium confiscated from the foreign drug barons.

This sparked the first of the infamous Opium Wars, in which China was defeated and forced to hand Hong Kong over to Britain in 1842.

Lin, who is also known as Lin Tse-hsu, was disgraced because of his role in China's humiliation and banished to a remote, western part of this nation.

It has taken more than 150 years for his historic rehabilitation. Call it "The Revenge of Commissioner Lin." It is why, when Hong Kong reverts from Britain to China on July 1, one of the men with the most reason to celebrate will be retired diplomat Ling Qing, 74.

Ling was China's chief representative to the United Nations in 1985 when he proudly presented to the world the repatriation agreement, the Sino-British Joint Declaration on Hong Kong. He is also the great-great-grandson of Lin.

Ling said in an interview that he views the return of Hong Kong both as a vindication of his famous ancestor and as a chance to launch another crusade against drugs in China--this time targeting the mounting use of heroin by Chinese youth.

Chinese authorities say that drug use in China, particularly in areas bordering the poppy-growing territories of Southeast and Central Asia, has expanded rapidly in recent years.

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In honor of his ancestor, whom he describes as "a world pioneer in the anti-drug movement," Ling created the Lin Zexu Foundation in 1995. The first goal of the foundation, which has received more than $1.2 million in donations from overseas Chinese, is to restore the tiny house where Lin was born in Fuzhou, Fujian province.

But the main purpose is to conduct a national anti-drug campaign. "Drug trafficking and smuggling has become a serious problem in China," Ling said. "China used to be mainly a transit area for drugs. Now there are many young people who are also victims of drugs. I think the situation is perhaps as serious as those days when Lin Zexu was commissioner. We wanted to use the foundation to point out the seriousness of the problem."

Police and local authorities have also picked up on the theme. In March, authorities in Guangzhou--the modern name of Canton--marked the 156th anniversary of Lin's raid in the same city by burning 368 pounds of heroin, opium, morphine and other drugs confiscated since the beginning of the year.

Although he was once vilified by the Communist leaders of China as an "agent of feudalism," Lin's reputation has undergone a revival of sorts recently, particularly as the return of Hong Kong nears. Now he is portrayed as a progressive administrator, one of the first to advocate looking outside China for ideas. He is also seen as a pioneer in fighting rampant drug addiction in the late Qing dynasty.

He is one of the main heroes in an epic film on the Opium War that will be shown across China beginning July 1. Lin is also one of the good guys in a new video game titled "Opium War"--one of a number of strongly patriotic games approved for use in the country's proliferating video parlors.

But Ling--who changed his name from Lin to protect his family during his days as a Communist guerrilla in the anti-Japanese war--also remembers a time when his famous ancestor was a liability.

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Although he once served as translator for Communist Party leader Mao Tse-tung in the guerrilla base of Yanan in Shanxi province and as a liaison to U.S. forces fighting the Japanese in World War II, Ling and his family were persecuted during the 1966-76 Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution because of their "bad class background" dating to Lin.

"Now everyone claims he was a national hero," Ling recalled with a tinge of bitterness. "But during the Cultural Revolution, Lin was discredited because they considered him a feudal official loyal to the emperor."

Ling himself was harassed by Red Guards. An older brother was jailed as a class enemy. He died in prison.

The imminent return of Hong Kong has changed all that. Commissioner Lin has been elevated to national hero. His glory is reflected on his descendants.

"Now I've become a star," said a smiling Ling, who still speaks English in the American idiom he learned as liaison to U.S. officers--members of the wartime Dixie Mission--in Yanan.

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