Smuggling and State Power in Modern China

About Global China Humanities Series 全球中國人文講座

The Center launches its inaugural Global China Humanities Lecture Series in February 2021. We invite internationally renowned scholars and young, first-book authors to discuss their latest works on topics ranging from Cold War history, diaspora studies, global medicine to literature.




GLOBAL CHINA HUMANITIES SERIES: Smuggling and State Power in Modern China

Prof. Philip Thai 蔡駿治教授 (Northeastern University)

20th March 2021 (Sat) 9:00 (HK), 19th March 2021 (Fri) 21:00 (EDT)

Language: English

Please REGISTER HERE to secure your place



Smuggling along the Chinese coast has long been a thorn in the side of many regimes. From opium concealed aboard steamships in the Qing dynasty to 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 enforce trade regulations and protect critical revenues, successive governments from the late Qing through the early People’s Republic have violently cracked down on smuggling. Tighter regulations, higher taxes, and harsher enforcement all helped to consolidate domestic authority and confront foreign challenges. But these bold interventions did much more. They also sparked widespread defiance, triggering further coercive measures. Smuggling thus animated a paradoxical dynamic in China’s history: it simultaneously threatened state power while inviting repression that strengthened state authority. This lecture chronicles the history of smuggling in modern China by looking at its practice, suppression, and significance. It argues that the fight against smuggling was not simply a law enforcement problem but an impetus to expanding state capacity, broadcasting state authority, and transforming everyday life. Indeed, while smuggling might have operated on the margins of the law, it was far from marginal in remaking China.

About the Speaker:

Philip Thai is Associate Professor of History at Northeastern University and author of China's War on Smuggling: Law, Economic Life, and the Making of the Modern State, 1842–1965 (Columbia University Press, 2018). He is a historian of Modern China and East Asia with research and teaching interests in legal history, economic history, and diplomatic history. During the 2022–2023 academic year, he will be in residence at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study as an American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) Frederick Burkhardt Fellow working on his new project, “In the Shadows of the Bamboo Curtain: Underground Economies across Greater China during the Cold War.” He is currently the Modern China Book Review Editor for the Journal of Asian Studies and an Associate in Research at Harvard University Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies. His articles have been published in journals including Enterprise and Society, Modern Asian Studies, and Law and History Review, while his other writings have appeared in The Washington Post and Le Grand Continent.





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