Abstract: Law, State-Building, and the War on Smuggling in Coastal China, 1927-1937

Philip Thai


This paper examines the relationship between state-building and the policing of trade in China during the Nanjing Decade (1927-1937) through the Nationalists' war on smuggling. Recovery of tariff autonomy and the introduction of protective duties during the 1930s provided the Nationalists critical financial resources to construct a modern state. It also, however, created a veritable smuggling epidemic that threatened both government revenue and public order. To combat smuggling, the Nationalists responded with an aggressive expansion of its administrative, technical, and legal infrastructure without precedence in Chinese history. Using legal cases and codes, customs archives, and popular press reports, I examine one important dimension of this war on smuggling: the legal context that defined the crime of "smuggling" and governed the treatment of merchants and other individuals. I show how the fight against smuggling was intimately tied to the Nationalists' project of state-building through the extension of central-level authority and assertion of sovereignty—despite the uneven progress, intense resistance, and unintended consequences it produced. Finally, I consider how smuggling could be viewed as another form of entrepreneurship with its own logic, organization, and calculus of profit.