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Philip Thai Releases “The War on Smuggling: Law, State Power, and Illicit Markets in Coastal China”

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Philip Thai

July 13, 2015

Philip Thai, an assistant professor of history, received a postdoctoral fellowship from the Henry Luce Foundation/ACLS Program in China Studies. This program, with additional funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities, seeks to maintain the vitality of China studies in North America through fellowships and grants designed primarily for scholars early in their careers. It supports the study of Chinese culture and society in all periods.

Professor Thai is an historian of Modern China and an Associate in Research at the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard University. During the one-year fellowship period that began on June 1, he will focus on his book project, “The War on Smuggling: Law, State Power, and Illicit Markets in Coastal China.”

“The War on Smuggling” draws on diverse sources including customs records, legal cases, government correspondences, and popular press reports to chart the enduring tug-of-war over definitions of “legal” and “illegal” trade and addresses critical issues of interest to historians of China, East Asia, law, and economy. The fellowship will support the completion of the book and several of Professor Thai’s short research trips to archives in Asia.

The study of smuggling offers important insights into the interplay between law, economy, and society. In China during the early twentieth century, official efforts under Nationalist rule (1927-49) to strengthen economic controls transformed smuggling from a chronic nuisance to a virulent epidemic. Up and down the coast, state agents raided stores and villages, intercepted vessels on land and seas, ballted armed gangs, and subjected travelers to invasive searches—all in the name of suppressing illicit trade. This intractable conflict survived war and revolution: under Communist rule (1949-present), commercial regulations and tariffs promulgated and enforced from above were continually negotiated or even resisted from below. Far from simply a fight against a marginal criminal nuisance, the long war on smuggling actually helped extend state control horizontally across the Chinese littoral and vertically into everyday life.

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