Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Philip Thai's "China's War on Smuggling"

Philip Thai is assistant professor of history at Northeastern University. His research explores the interplay between law, economy, and society in modern China, East Asia, and the world.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, China's War on Smuggling: Law, Economic Life, and the Making of the Modern State, 1842–1965, and reported the following:
China’s War on Smuggling is a legal and economic history of illicit trade on the Chinese coast from the late imperial period through the early People’s Republic. It traces how official efforts to regulate, tax, and police the flow of goods steadily widened definitions of criminality. Smuggling, the book argues, was a product of iterative encounters between states eager to assert their prerogative and control the economy on the one side, and individuals reluctant to adhere to official strictures on trade on the other.

I was amused by, but skeptical of, the Page 99 Test. Can the essence of any book be revealed by single page—and an arbitrarily selected one at that? Imagine my surprise, then, when I flipped to the page in question. Page 99 comes from chapter three, “State Interventions and Legal Transformations.” It begins with a discussion of efforts by the Nationalist government of China during the 1930s to enforce a newly-promulgated anti-smuggling law as well as widespread resistance state agents encountered on the ground. It recounts a particularly vivid episode of customs agents engaged in door-to-door search for contraband before a village mob attacked the search party “with poles and pelted [them] with tins of pineapple.” It continues with an elaboration of how anti-smuggling campaigns redefined “legal” and “illegal” modes of commerce and patterns of movement, provoking the ire of individuals and communities forced to bear more fetters on their freedom to truck, barter, and trade. Its final sentences highlight the ways militarized interdiction helped broadcast the power of the Nationalist government—especially at the expense of recalcitrant warlords who “feared that the war on smuggling was a Trojan horse that would strengthen and extend central authority into their own localities.” Good stuff all.

Ford Madox Ford’s dictum may not apply to every book, but it certainly applies to mine. In the case of China’s War on Smuggling, page 99 is situated after introductory overviews and right as the book is building momentum in making its argument. The varied descriptions of illicit operations, spectacular violence, and political intrigue—all choked with “you-can’t-make-this-stuff-up” human drama—are right here on a single page. Apparently, page 99 serves as a perfect showcase for the book’s main themes.
Learn more about China's War on Smuggling at the Columbia University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue