In the second half of an essay on his father’s career in China, Perry Anderson writes about the closing phases of the Chinese Maritime Customs
In the third week of July this year a ‘national anti-smuggling work conference’ took place in Beijing. In sensational speeches, the rulers of the People’s Republic revealed that China is currently losing 12 billion dollars a year from a massive wave of contraband, involving public officials of every kind – not least the People’s Liberation Army itself. To staunch this disastrous flow, President Jiang Zemin announced the establishment of ‘a national special police force to crack down on rampant smuggling’, to be rewarded from the proceeds of confiscations, and ordered the Army to withdraw from all its – multifarious – commercial enterprises. The issue has certain historical echoes.
In the spring of 1930, 16 years into his service in the Chinese Maritime Customs, my father, James Anderson, was posted to Hong Kong. He remained there two years, technically posted to Kowloon, but living on the Peak. He disliked the place. The setting might be ‘carelessly beautiful’, but the society was dreary and the town repellent. ‘It is curious how out-of-date colonies are,’ he noted, ‘Hong Kong is just beginning to be Edwardian. Hanoi is almost entirely Jules Ferry. It is strange in Hong Kong to meet young girls being girlish in the manner of 1900, and in Hanoi to hear Frenchmen airing ideas about colonial development etc which are audacious in the manner of Rudyard Kipling.’ But Hanoi was at least pretty, with streets radiating from a lake surrounded with trees at the centre, cafés with pink and white awnings and flower baskets at every corner. He found Hong Kong ‘grotesquely ugly – the part which is intended to be dignified is simply terrible, a square with lawns all cluttered up with the most revolting statues of minor royalties’. His wife had other objections to the colony. In articles and letters, Stella Benson took her aim at government licensing of forcible prostitution, in which teenage girls from the mainland were sold as virtual slaves to local brothels. Cutting through missionary pieties and realist hypocrisies alike, she made it clear the issue was not sexual morality but exploitation. ‘To abolish brothels, and above all to withdraw even a semblance of government sanction from brothel-keepers, pimps, traffickers, “pocket-mothers” who exploit helpless girls is to establish the principle that a woman’s body is her own, not to dispute it.’ Against much official opposition, an effective campaign under League of Nations auspices forced a reluctant Governor to phase out the system.
This intervention naturally brought displeasure on her husband. But he was a servant of the Chinese rather than British Government, and the Maritime Customs was at loggerheads with the Hong Kong authorities anyway. The colony was traditionally a smuggler’s paradise, protected by British officials in collusion with local interests. Soon after my father arrived, the new Inspector-General of the Chinese Maritime Customs, Frederick Maze, descended in person for a showdown with the colonial authorities over the facilities the Customs needed to crack down on contraband into China. ‘We are busy quarrelling with the Hong Kong Govt and there is at the moment a prospect of our withdrawing from Hong Kong and putting a cordon of cruisers round the island to annoy shipping,’ my father wrote to his family in Ireland. ‘Last time negotiations were broken off and there was a good deal of ill-feeling. They don’t like or trust Maze very much. But he is an able man and will get his way, I think. He doesn’t care what people think of him as long as outward appearances are observed.’
Maze was already giving a new dynamism to the CMC. The recovery of tariff autonomy by the Central (Kuomintang) Government in Nanking had increased import duties from semi-colonial levels, below even a nominal 5 per cent, to 15 per cent by 1931, now on a gold unit basis. The result was a big jump in customs revenues, which within three years virtually trebled. By 1932 the Maritime Customs was generating 60 per cent of Central Government revenues – far more than ever before. Since tighter fiscal pressure at the frontier made contraband much more profitable, smuggling soared. To combat its spread, Maze created a new Preventive Department within the Inspectorate, secured its own powers of armed interception for the CMC and built up a modern fleet of fast cruisers, linked to a wireless network, for search-and-seize operations along the China coast. It was this kind of work to which my father was assigned, first as Deputy and then as Commissioner ad interim in Hong Kong, controlling the movement of small gunboats in the waters round the island. He was evidently good at the job (‘we are choked up with seizures’) and enjoyed it.
Contemptuous of the British authorities in Hong Kong (‘an out-of-the-way silly government’), he had also to finesse relations with the Chinese authorities he served. Canton was controlled by the Kwangtung warlord Chen Chi-t’ang, who had formed a regional bloc with his counterparts in Kwangsi against Chiang Kai-shek in Nanking. Each side naturally laid claim to the most valuable source of public funds available. My father’s work was thus, as he put it, ‘agreeably complicated by the fact that I serve two separate Governments’, one in principle legitimate but distant, the other insurgent but much closer to hand.
My chief card is force majeure. This word is very dear to all Chinese Govts, de jure or de facto (and in any case debilitated). An example. The Minister of Finance of the Central Govt instructs me in majestic terms to cease remitting certain revenues to the ‘rebellious dogs of the Canton faction’ and to let him have them. This means I get a friend among the rebellious dogs to send an old steam tug, with five or six indifferently armed soldiers on board, to make an armed demonstration at one of my revenue stations outside Hong Kong. We could perfectly easily blow up anything in the way of armed force the Cantonese could possibly send along, including their navy, which is very much less imposing than my own anti-smuggling flotilla. But instead of that I telegraph the Central Govt that I have been compelled to yield to force majeure. All is then well until the next crisis.
This note of insouciance, no doubt heightened for effect, did not last long. In the autumn of 1931 Japan overran Manchuria, and six months later set up the puppet state of Manchukuo. At a stroke, the CMC was excluded from all Manchurian ports, a major revenue blow. In January 1932, Japanese forces in Shanghai launched an assault on KMT positions, which after severe fighting led to a further weakening of Chinese control around the city where the Inspectorate was now located. ‘Though my personal position in the Customs is flourishing,’ my father told his family, ‘the position of the Customs is a little shaky in view of the warfare at Shanghai.’ In the short run, the CMC survived well enough. But Japan’s occupation of Manchuria, and gradual extension of its territorial control towards Peking, affected the system of mobility within the Customs sharply. From now on, there would be steadily fewer ports available for postings to the north of the country, where the climate was better and conditions healthier. Stella, who loathed Hong Kong, left for Europe just before the Shanghai Incident, buoyed en route by news that she had received a Prix Femina for her last novel. In April my father was transferred to Hainan.
A tropical island the size of Ireland, lying on a latitude with Luzon in the Philippines opposite northern Vietnam, Hainan is the southernmost extremity of China, a place of remotest banishment for Tang literati, comparable to Ovid’s Black Sea exile. In the Thirties it was still quite wild, with non-Han tribal groups at large. In the interior, a CCP guerrilla was active: ‘rank banditry cloaking itself in the garb of communism – a residue of the Borodin regime’, as the Danish Commissioner who preceded my father saw it. Its importance lay in its geographical position. All ocean-going junks from Bangkok, Singapore, Batavia or Saigon were required by an Inspectorate-General directive to report to Hoihow, on the island, before proceeding to any mainland harbour in China. Across the narrow straits to the Luichow peninsula, however, lay the dormant French enclave of Fort Bayard, some two hundred square miles of lease extorted from the Ch’ing Empire in 1898, and virtually forgotten thereafter. With the raising of Chinese tariffs in the early Thirties, however, this shadow-zone suddenly became a magnet for large-scale contraband, landed in Fort Bayard and then nimbly shipped across to Hainan, or over the land frontier. ‘Vast and powerful interests’, the Danish memorandum warned, had given rise to a ‘smuggler’s El Dorado’.
Maze had sent my father south after drawing attention in a circular to the vigorous example set by his seizures in Hong Kong. The CMC station in Fort Bayard was controlled from Hainan. My father’s first task as Commissioner was to attack the illegal traffic from the French territory. Creeks and bays on both sides of the straits were inspected, cruisers were mobilised, more speedboats and armoured shields were ordered from Shanghai. Three months after he arrived, Hainan was the scene of a major rebellion, when a third of the Chinese navy – virtually its entire southern fleet – declared against Canton. The revolt was put down only after a spectacular air attack on the warships in Hoihow, which sank the destroyer Feiying at the entrance to the harbour, amid ‘an enormous yellow flame and great columns of smoke’, requiring my father to telegraph warnings to mariners across South-East Asia. He soon decided that it would be better to tackle the smuggling problem from the other side of the straits, and got colleagues to lobby the Inspectorate for the transfer of control over Fort Bayard to Pakhoi, the nearest port on the mainland, currently administered by a somnolent Dutch Commissioner. Maze saw the sense of the proposal and appointed him to Pakhoi in the autumn of 1932.