Thursday, October 14, 2021

A History of Smuggling and a History of Law

In my first post, I briefly sketched how my personal experiences and formal training led me to legal history. In this post, I will explain how both sets of experiences informed my own book. 

China’s War on Smuggling is a history of smuggling on the China coast. It traces how successive Chinese regimes—the Qing dynasty (1644-1912), the Republic of China (1912-1949), and the People’s Republic of China (1949-present)—sought to regulate and police foreign trade. From the nineteenth century through the twentieth century, these regimes relied heavily on revenues collected from tariffs to modernize their economies and institutions—all the while fending off foreign encroachments on domestic sovereignty. Fighting smuggling was therefore not merely a law enforcement problem but crucial to protecting important revenues and expanding state capacity. In the process of continually defining permissible modes of exchange, however, these regimes also steadily created new categories of "trade" and "smuggling." These new categories, in turn, transformed everyday life. How different states sought to assert controls over trade and how ordinary people responded to such controls are ultimately the core concerns of my book.

Source: Liangyou, no. 128 (1937).
As I argue in my book, a history of smuggling is fundamentally a history of law—its promulgation, enforcement, and reception. Legally speaking, what constituted "smuggling" in modern China? At first, I naively assumed this would be a straightforward question to answer: consult various legal publications and—voilà!—find the relevant statutes that unambiguously declared: "Smuggling is…" What I discovered instead, however, was that definitions of “smuggling” and enforcement of such definitions frequently shifted over time. For instance, a traveler to China in the nineteenth century who sought to smuggle a bag of sugar might have faced harassment from customs agents but would have unlikely faced any significant legal consequences at a time when tariffs on imported sugar was a nominal five percent. By contrast, a traveler in the 1930s who sought to smuggle sugar would have faced more severe legal consequences at a time when tariffs on imported sugar were in the double-digit or even triple-digit range. Moreover, I discovered that definitions of "legal" and "illegal" trade varied by nationality, commodity, and location. Before the abrogation of extraterritoriality in 1943, for example, a Chinese national accused of smuggling would be treated under domestic laws while a foreign national accused of smuggling would be treated under international treaties. This division of jurisdiction, however, might be further complicated by the site of the crime—did it occur in a foreign concession, on international waters, or on domestic soil? All of this complicated my original question, but it was also far more fascinating and far more revealing to see how modern statecraft and state power evolved during a critical moment in Chinese history. Changes in laws and changes in enforcement, ultimately, reflected changes in official imperatives.

My formal training in legal history taught me the importance of excavating legal definitions and reconstructing legal processes. Just as definitions of, say, "marriage," "immigration," or "prostitution" were always dynamic and contextual, so too were definitions "smuggling." But it was not enough to simply look at laws on the books or legal systems on paper. I wanted to see how these laws and systems translated into every life. In the archives, I uncovered everything from vivid episodes of violent interdiction to detailed descriptions of trafficking networks. My book is filled with numerous cases of ordinary peoples’ encounter with the law: a fisherman who discovered his long-time route now crisscrossed newly drawn borders; a businessman who peddled smuggled goods to avoid onerous taxes and survive cutthroat competition; and a consumer who simply wanted the most desirable goods at the lowest prices. While their protestations of innocence or ignorance may have been self-serving, I nonetheless instinctively sympathized with these individuals and their plight. My own experiences being on the other side of distant, arbitrary state power sensitized me to similar experiences of others and thereby avoid reproducing state-centered discourses of illegality. Again, as I argue, a history of smuggling is fundamentally a history of law. But I also came to learn as I looked beyond the state, a history of smuggling is also a history of everyday encounters with the law.

In future blog posts, I will take a broader perspective by reviewing recent Chinese legal historiography and offering some recommendations on the latest Chinese legal history research. I ultimately want to encourage non-specialists of Chinese legal history to read more Chinese history and thereby generate some productive and even overdue conversations across different fields.

Thank you again for reading!

—Philip Thai
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