About the talk:
Smuggling along the Chinese coast has been a thorn in the side of many regimes. From opium and weapons concealed aboard 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, successive 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 history of smuggling in modern China to highlight the intimate link between illicit coastal trade and the amplification of state power. He argues that the fight against smuggling was not a simple law enforcement problem but rather an impetus to centralize authority and expand economic controls. The fight against smuggling empowered governments to define legal and illegal behavior, with the resulting constraints on consumption and movement remaking everyday life. His talk explores ways different Chinese regimes policed maritime trade and the unintended consequences their campaigns unleashed, revealing how states made smuggling but also how smuggling remade states.
About the speaker:
Philip Thai is Assistant Professor in the Department of History at Northeastern University. He received his Ph.D. from Stanford University, and he specializes in modern Chinese, East Asian, legal, economic, and Cold War history. His book China’s War on Smuggling: Law, Economic Life, and the Making of the Modern State, 1842–1965 was published by Columbia University Press in 2018, and his interdisciplinary research has been supported by many organizations including the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) and the Social Science Research Council (SSRC).