We are excited to announce a new title in the Studies of the Weatherhead East Asian Institute book series: China’s War on Smuggling: Law, Economic Life, and the Making of the Modern State, 1842–1965, published by Columbia University Press. The book’s author is Philip Thai, an Assistant Professor of History at Northeastern University.
Smuggling along the Chinese coast has been a thorn in the side of many regimes. From opium and weapons concealed aboard foreign steamships in the Qing dynasty to nylon stockings and wristwatches trafficked in the People’s Republic, contests between state and smuggler have exerted a surprising but crucial influence on the political economy of modern China. Seeking to consolidate domestic authority and confront foreign challenges, states introduced tighter regulations, higher taxes, and harsher enforcement. These interventions sparked widespread defiance, triggering further coercive measures. Smuggling simultaneously threatened the state’s power while inviting repression that strengthened its authority.
Philip Thai chronicles the vicissitudes of smuggling in modern China—its practice, suppression, and significance—to demonstrate the intimate link between illicit coastal trade and the amplification of state power. China’s War on Smuggling shows that the fight against smuggling was not a simple law enforcement problem but rather an impetus to centralize authority and expand economic controls. The smuggling epidemic gave Chinese states pretext to define legal and illegal behavior, and the resulting constraints on consumption and movement remade everyday life for individuals, merchants, and communities. Drawing from varied sources such as legal cases, customs records, and popular press reports and including diverse perspectives from political leaders, frontline enforcers, organized traffickers, and petty runners, Thai uncovers how different regimes policed maritime trade and the unintended consequences their campaigns unleashed. China’s War on Smuggling traces how defiance and repression redefined state power, offering new insights into modern Chinese social, legal, and economic history.
We thank Dr. Thai for taking the time to discuss his book with us. Please read the following Q&A to learn more about the research and questions that drove his project.
What drew you to the topic of smuggling during your graduate work in Chinese history?
I stumbled onto the topic of smuggling by pure serendipity. In the fall of 2009, fresh from passing my Ph.D. qualifications examination and arriving in China for fieldwork, I embarked on an inchoate research project on the history of trade in southeast China. I spent those early days in the archives pouring over records and perusing catalogs, frequently coming across materials related to “smuggling” or “smuggling suppression.” Initially, I was irritated at this surfeit of materials ostensibly unrelated to my research. “I don’t want to look at smuggling,” I groused in disgust at one point, “I want to look at trade!” It took me some time to realize that smuggling was trade, just not legal trade. And after falling through the proverbial looking glass, I suddenly saw smuggling in a different light. Far from a minor law enforcement nuisance, smuggling proved to be many critical things: a pervasive practice in everyday life, a worrisome issue of public concern, a constant menace to state finances, and a stubborn challenge to state authority. Most importantly, it intersected with many key issues in the study of modern Chinese history, including the expansion of state authority and the transformation of economic life. Smuggling, I came to realize, might have existed on the margins of legality, but it was far from marginal in driving important historical changes.
What does the history of China’s crackdown on smuggling help us understand about the development of the Chinese state?
The war on smuggling not only suppressed unsanctioned trade but also expanded central state capacity in multiple ways. It ensured that tariffs were collected, thereby providing the government with a reliable, critical fiscal resource. It supported mercantilist policies, thereby enabling technocrats to better calibrate imports and exports and realize their visions of state-led development. It brought state agents into more intimate contact with individuals, thereby projecting official reach more deeply in everyday life. However imperfectly, fighting smuggling helped satisfy aspirations successive modern Chinese regimes have long sought to realize—tighter control of borders, greater uniformity in regulations, and better protection of revenues.
Moreover, the fight against smuggling helped untangle the legacies of foreign imperialism in China. Since its defeat in the Opium Wars of the nineteenth century, China was constrained by successive “unequal treaties” that introduced legal privileges for foreign nationals on Chinese soil and ceded concessions to foreign powers. Not until 1943 were these treaties abrogated and the “century of humiliation” came to an end. In the meantime, fighting smuggling helped extend Chinese authority on the ground—slowly, fitfully, but inexorably. Indeed, every time Chinese officials attempted to fine a British businessman for duty evasion, confiscate a Japanese trawler for carrying contraband, or enter a foreign concession to arrest a Chinese smuggler, they confronted important questions of state sovereignty and legal authority. These seemingly inconsequential confrontations continuously chipped away at the fundamental constraints of semi-colonialism, dismantling the panoply of foreign privilege from the bottom up and beyond the diplomatic table.
Finally, in looking at official campaigns against smuggling in China, I have been repeatedly struck by the parallels they shared with campaigns against smuggling waged elsewhere. Whether it is Great Britain and France during the eighteenth century or the United States during the nineteenth century, many modern states relied on customs duties to fund their expansion and waged extensive and violent anti-smuggling campaigns of their own. Keeping such parallels in mind, my study demonstrates that what was true elsewhere was also true for modern China: states certainly made smuggling, but smuggling also remade states.
What kinds of social and economic backgrounds did smugglers often come from?
A key point in my book is that the category “smuggler” was very fluid. “Smuggling,” after all, is whatever the state says it is at any given time. It is simply trade by any other name, or a label affixed by state fiat on exchanges that were once unregulated, unrestricted, and untaxed. Individuals from all walks of life—whether they were attracted by new opportunities for profit or impelled by desperate imperatives for survival—engaged in what officials labeled as “smuggling” as they responded to changes in state policies or market conditions.
That said, certain types of smugglers have consistently appeared in the historical records. Overseas Chinese, coastal fishermen, and foreign nationals have frequently leveraged their mobility or exploited their privileged legal status to illicitly shuttle goods across porous borders. Impoverished women, itinerant peddlers, and other individuals on the fringes of society and the lowest rungs of the socioeconomic ladder tend to be overrepresented in customs records and legal cases. By contrast, gang leaders, venal officials, and other traffickers with wealth and influence beyond the immediate reach of the law tend to appear in confidential memos or popular news reports. But regardless of how they came to official or public attention, the historical record clearly shows that anyone and everyone was potentially a smuggler.
What were some of the most heavily smuggled items over the years that you cover, 1842‐1965? What made certain items appealing to smugglers during this period?
Just as the category of “smuggler” was very fluid, so too was the category of “smuggled goods.” Again, since smuggling is whatever the state says it is, no commodity is inherently illicit. Instead, official imperatives controlling trade—informed by a complicated mix of financial considerations, policy goals, or wartime exigencies—continually defined (and redefined) the crime of smuggling. What constitutes smuggling at a given moment is never static but always contextual. Certainly, some goods have long been the focus of official regulatory concern. Weapons and narcotics, in particular, were strictly controlled, heavily taxed, or outright banned from the late Qing through the People’s Republic today. They have always commanded high profits in black markets and have thus remained perennial favorites for smugglers throughout modern China.
But other innocuous commodities have also been profitably trafficked in tandem with fluctuations in supply and demand, as well as changes in laws, regulations, and taxation. In Nationalist China (1928–1949), the government levied heavy tariffs on consumer goods like sugar, kerosene, and rayon that were widely used and enjoyed strong, inelastic demand. And seemingly overnight, these new tariffs transformed everyday consumables into profitable contraband as an entire underground economy reoriented itself to cater to voracious demand. During World War II, the government placed strict controls on tungsten mined in China by assuming a monopoly on the sale of this valuable resource for wartime industries. Yet the metal remained actively traded in illicit markets as everyone from entrepreneurial merchants to desperate miners sought to profit from the exorbitant prices it commanded by selling it to foreign buyers from Europe and even Japan. And finally in the early years of the People’s Republic, wristwatches became popular articles of trafficking as small luxuries and status markers in an economy marked by widespread consumer austerity.
What were some of the methods used by the Chinese state to curtail smuggling and how did they change over time?
Chinese authorities have long fought smuggling. But what they consider as “smuggling” has constantly changed, and this fluidity in definition has informed how they combatted it. Prior to the early twentieth century, tariffs on most foreign goods were relatively light, and authorities were generally not incentivized to fight petty smuggling of ordinary commodities. Instead, they devoted their attention to fighting the smuggling of narcotics and weapons, articles either heavily taxed or outright prohibited whose trafficking proved more damaging to state finances and security. (And whose financial rewards for confiscation were more lucrative.)
Campaigns against smuggling, however, underwent successive changes throughout the twentieth century. The first major change occurred after 1928. Fresh from unifying much of the country and recovering China’s tariff autonomy, the Nationalist government introduced an ambitious program undergirded by higher taxes and stricter regulations on foreign trade that sparked a coastal-wide smuggling epidemic. In response to threats against its revenues and authority, the government expanded its anti-smuggling forces and militarized interdiction. More importantly, it passed draconian laws that criminalized smuggling and meted out harsher punishments for suspected violators. Such legal changes expanded the definition of “smuggling” and empowered state agents to violently crackdown on duty evasion, contraband running, and unauthorized border crossing in unprecedented ways.
Another major change occurred after 1949. Communist China inherited many policies from Nationalist China by maintaining high tariffs on foreign goods and continuing expansive campaigns against coastal smuggling. But it differed from its predecessor by consistently “combining punishment with education.” Again and again, Communist China embarked on many didactic efforts that Nationalist China never attempted. It invited citizens to do their part to fight smuggling by reporting on family and acquaintances or participating in public trials. It embarked on public outreach programs like holding anti-smuggling exhibitions and disseminating anti-smuggling messages in the popular press. Such efforts sought to teach the public to view smuggling not as an economic crime but as a political crime. At the same time, they accorded perfectly with the revolutionary state’s goals of cultivating an ethnic of volunteerism among the masses.
In sum, successive Chinese regimes have steadily expanded the definition of “smuggling” while enhancing their coercive capacities to enforce their imperatives, whether through law, enforcement, or education. The range of “legal” trade today—trade not restricted, prohibited, or taxed—is much narrower than the range of “legal” trade in the past.
What kinds of sources and archives did you consult while conducting research for this project?
For this project, I canvassed a diverse array of official and non-official materials drawn from archives in Asia, Europe, and the United States. Official sources show the assertion of state authority and how it intersected with economic life at its most basic level. They include customs records produced by agents on the frontlines of the war on smuggling that chart changes in the practice of trafficking and efforts to combat it under different regimes. They also include legal cases that show how official imperatives were implemented, translated, and challenged in the messy course of enforcement and adjudication. Non-official sources like newspapers, magazines, political cartoons, travel accounts, and even literary fiction capture prevailing public attitudes not always reflected in official sources. Their expansive geographical coverage offers additional snapshots of everyday life on the coast. The varied opinions and viewpoints they express highlight how public sentiment accorded—or did not accord—with state policies and state definitions of “legal” or “illegal” behavior. Employing such official and non-official sources helps paint a composite picture of coastal trafficking in modern China by incorporating as many incidents as possible and reconstructing the perspectives of the government and governed alike.
What findings surprised you during the course of your research and writing?
One finding from my research that surprised me was the durability of smuggling—its practices and patterns—across time. The types of commodities trafficked and the techniques employed by state and smuggler have, of course, constantly changed. Yet the vectors of trafficking, the strategies of evasion, and the degree of resistance against official strictures have proven remarkably similar. During my research in China, for instance, I came across many newspaper articles on smuggling from Hong Kong and was struck by how traffickers today rely on the same routes to move their goods that traffickers generations past did. In fact, one can take a press or a customs report of a smuggling incident from the present, cover up the date, change a few minor details, and find a remarkably similar incident from the past. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
How big a concern is smuggling in contemporary China? How is it now being addressed by the state?
Smuggling remains an important concern in contemporary China. Indeed, Chinese officials still decry its ostensible harm to state finances, foreign trade, and public security. Since the introduction of economic reforms in 1978, the government has launched numerous campaigns against illicit trade. According to the political scientist Dali Yang, such efforts were critical to China’s market transition and helped “revamp the relations between state and business, rationalize the state, and level the economic playing field.”
The kinds of commodities trafficked, however, have certainly changed as China’s relationship with the global economy has also changed. Indeed, now that Chinese factories churn out manufactures of all sorts, the commodities that could be most profitably trafficked are often those heavily taxed or strictly banned by domestic and international laws. Narcotics remain profitable articles of trafficking, but other items have joined the list of popular contraband, from industrial garbage, to endangered species, to luxury goods.
Yet even as China has (re-)emerged as a global industrial powerhouse, official policies still incentivize the trafficking of certain manufactures. iPhones, for instance, are frequently smuggled into China from Hong Kong today—even though they are actually made in China! As they are not slapped with Chinese taxes, iPhones from Hong Kong are comparatively cheaper and extremely profitable in Chinese black markets. This illicit traffic serves as a perfect example of how government policies can encourage the smuggling of anything—even things made domestically.
Can you tell us briefly about your current research project(s)?
As I conducted research for my first project, I amassed considerable materials on post-1949 commerce from China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and elsewhere that I never used. I also uncovered extensive cross-border ties that nominally fell outside the purview of my project but were nonetheless fascinating. My tentative second project builds on the first by writing an economic history of “Greater China”—Communist China, British Hong Kong, Portuguese Macao, and Nationalist Taiwan—during the Cold War. Centered on the forty years from 1949 to 1989, this project explores the connections that linked these disparate economies formally separated by political barriers. Unlike other studies that have approached this topic from the perspective of high-level politics or bilateral diplomatic relations, this project traces the ways assorted actors—front companies, foreign corporations, travelers, businessmen, and fishermen—frequently (and sometimes casually) breached the Cold War cordon. So while smuggling will certainly be examined, so too will “formal” and “informal” commercial activities like trade, tourism, and investment.