In this episode, Siobhan talks with Philip Thai about his book, “The War on Smuggling: Law, Illicit Markets, and State Power on the China Coast” (Columbia University Press, 2018). Thai is Assistant Professor of History at Northeastern University. He is a historian of Modern China with research and teaching interests that include legal history, economic history, and diplomatic history.
Smuggling along the Chinese coast has been a thorn in the side of many regimes. From opium and weapons concealed aboard foreign steamships in the Qing dynasty to nylon stockings and 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 consolidate domestic authority and confront foreign challenges, states introduced tighter regulations, higher taxes, and harsher enforcement. These interventions sparked widespread defiance, triggering further coercive measures. Smuggling simultaneously threatened the state’s power while inviting repression that strengthened its authority.
Philip Thai chronicles the vicissitudes of smuggling in modern China—its practice, suppression, and significance—to demonstrate the intimate link between illicit coastal trade and the amplification of state power. China’s War on Smuggling shows that the fight against smuggling was not a simple law enforcement problem but rather an impetus to centralize authority and expand economic controls. The smuggling epidemic gave Chinese states pretext to define legal and illegal behavior, and the resulting constraints on consumption and movement remade everyday life for individuals, merchants, and communities. Drawing from varied sources such as legal cases, customs records, and popular press reports and including diverse perspectives from political leaders, frontline enforcers, organized traffickers, and petty runners, Thai uncovers how different regimes policed maritime trade and the unintended consequences their campaigns unleashed. China’s War on Smuggling traces how defiance and repression redefined state power, offering new insights into modern Chinese social, legal, and economic history.