More idle speculation.
As part of the theme of drugs, which we’ve been finishing off as we try to get through the remaining topics (not to mention everything else), we thought we’d look at drugs in history, and in particular at the Opium Wars.
They were the result of a trade imbalance with China in that the country was interested in nothing but silver for its goods. Opium from India flooded into China to such an extent that 90% of the male population of the eastern seaboard was addicted. (I assume that like today, smoking was a social habit in 19th-century China, which meant that it must have been nearly impossible to avoid addiction.) The Chinese enacted laws to outlaw the import of opium, and Lin Zexu, who was sent to deal with the matter, was resolute in his disposal of the drug.
This led to the First Opium War for which China was ill-prepared, having nothing which was able to counter a ship such as the Nemesis or the more modern technology which the British had at their disposal.
But what if there had been no Opium Wars? It is hard to imagine that there would not have been some conflict since other countries could not have sustained an endless flow of silver into China, but if there had been no conflict there would probably have been no Taiping Rebellion, no 1911 Revolution, and perhaps no civil war, thus sparing China the horrors of the first thirty years after 1949.
It is possible that someone in China might have seen the writing on the wall and have done something about trying to modernise the Empire, accepting that a head-in-the-sand attitude was going to damage it. Probably China would have remained a large, fragile, and backward entity in which the centre persisted in seeing unity where none really existed. Even without the Opium Wars there may still have been at least one revolution and the end of imperial China.
This is a complex what-if because I would not be surprised if the Japanese had invaded China anyway so that sooner or later, history would have happened as we know it. And even if that had not happened either, I would not be remotely surprised if China had still emerged much as it is today with its authoritarian government merely following from its predecessors.