Modern China’s Customs Services: A Brief Introduction

The Imperial Period
The Early Republic
The Nationalist Period
The Wartime Period
The Post-War Period
The Post-1949 Period

by Dr Chihyun Chang, Academia Sinica

The Imperial Period

The initiation of the foreign Inspectorate General of Customs was, to some extent, an accident. In 1853 the Xiaodiaohui (小刀會Short Sword Society) revolted in Shanghai. The French, British and American Consuls found it necessary to transfer the responsibility of Customs administration to foreigners. After discussing it with the Acting Susongtai Taotai (蘇淞太道台, better known as Shanghai Taotai) Wu Chien-chang (吳健彰, better known as Samqua 爽官 in the nineteen century), Horatio Nelson Lay (李泰國1832-1898, 1st IG 1858-1863) was appointed British Inspector to supervise foreign trade and set up the Inspectorate General of Customs at the Shanghai Bund. In 1858 Lay successfully convinced the Qing Court to extend the system of the foreign Inspectorate to other treaty ports. Hence, he was given a more formal and powerful title – the Inspector General (IG).

After the almost-suppression of Taiping Heavenly Kingdom, Lay was dismissed by the Qing Court in 1863 and Sir Robert Hart was appointed the second IG and moved the Inspectorate to Peking in 1864. Although the relationship between Lay and the Qing Court was never smooth, Hart became the most trusted foreign national in the Imperial state and he was probably also one of the most trusted Qing officials. He served the Court for over five decades. He left China in 1908 and never returned, but the Qing Court preserved his title and salary as the IG until he death in 1911.

During the period of 1863-1911, Hart expanded the IMCS all over China. When Hart was appointed IG In 1863 there were only 13 Customs stations in China, but when he left China, there were over 50 stations (four in Korea and two stations succeeded from the IMCS because of the Fist Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895).

As the IG, he helped the Qing Court to establish the Tongwenguan (同文館the interpreter school), the postal service and the Northern Navy. He established China’s central statistical office in the IMCS in Shanghai (Return’s Department 1867-1873; Statistical Secretariat 1873-1950), and set up the Customs College for the IMCS. As a foreign national, he became the Qing Court’s unofficial consultant general in foreign affairs. In every national crisis Hart helped China negotiate with the foreign powers and the Customs revenues became the most stable security for indemnities.

Hart’s IMCS staff consisted of nationals from over 20 countries, although most of them were British. Some of these foreign nationals were college graduates from ivy league universities, such as Harvard, Oxford and Cambridge. However, in his reign, the Chinese staff’s salary and status were significantly lower than that of their foreign colleagues. Most of the Chinese staff were assigned to low-end posts, such as typist, shupan (書辦), interpreter or copyist.

Generally speaking, Hart and his IMCS endeavoured to help the old Middle Kingdom build up a modern Imperial state in the 48 years of his reign, although after 1900 Hart became too old and ill to this job. Contemporary Chinese officials were very grateful for his contributions. His policies became the IMCS’s doctrines and the word ‘Hartian’ was coined to describe his mentality.

The Early Republic

After the collapse of the Qing Empire in 1912, the IMCS was renamed the Chinese Maritime Customs Service (CMCS) and Sir Francis Aglen (安格聯1869-1932, 3rd IG 1911-1927) became the most powerful man in the Chinese government. Although he was not a top-ranking official, the IG was usually more powerful than the Minister of Finance, or even the Prime Minister. The reason was that the deterioration of all governments’ financial conditions in the Early Republican period were unprecedentedly serious so the surplus of the CMCS’s Customs became the only financial pillar. The stewardship of China’s vault made Aglen ‘China’s Supreme Minister of Finance’. However, this did not mean that Aglen could easily manipulate China’s finance because the Customs revenues were the security for the Boxer Indemnities. He had to take precautions when arranging the Customs revenues the CMCS collected and then he could deliver the Customs surplus to the government. Sometimes, the revenues were not enough to cover the indemnity installments. In Aglen’s reign, the CMCS’s responsibilities became less comprehensive and more focused on revenue collection and on indemnity installments. But this focus made the IG and the CMCS so powerful that the Nationalist and Communist Parties considered them as national humiliation.

In 1927, the Nationalist Party occupied the southern part of China and the military deadlock between the Nationalist Party and the Northern Government would compromise the integrity of the CMCS. Hence, Aglen went to the South to convince the Nationalists not to seize the local Customs stations’ revenues in order for China to pay the indemnities. However, this irritated the North and resulted in his dismissal. Arthur Edwardes was then appointed Officiating IG by the Northern Government, but the Nationalist Government appointed Sir Frederick Maze (梅樂和1871-1959, 4th IG 1929-1941/1943) IG in 1929.

The Nationalist Period

From 1929-1937 China was rather peaceful and the financial condition of the Nationalist Government recovered rapidly. The foreignness and privileges of the CMCS was then regulated by the Government but some part of its special status still partially remained. Maze was still T. V. Soong’s or H. H. Kung’s private delegate to western countries or sometimes local warlords. The CMCS was also entrusted more power to regulate local warlords.

However, the most serious threat to the CMCS was Japan. Because of the secession of Manchuria in 1931, the CMCS lost all Customs stations in Manchuria. The outbreak of the Second Sino-Japanese in 1937 isolated the Inspectorate General in the Shanghai settlement. Although Maze managed to put all Customs stations under the CMCS’s domain, the outbreak of the Pacific War made Maze dismissed and captured in 1941. Hence, the CMCS was separated into two parts.

In Maze’s reign, the Chinese staff’s status and salary were significantly improved because the Chinese staff supported Maze for IG-ship. Maze promoted a number of Chinese staff members graduated from the Customs College to the rank of Commissioner, such as Ting Kwei-tang (丁貴堂 1891-1962, Deputy IG 1943-1949). This group of Chinese staff became the leading generation of the Mainland Chinese Customs Service and the Taiwanese Customs Service.

The Wartime Period

After 1941, the Wang Jingwei government’s Customs Service was headed by Kishimoto Hirokichi (岸本廣吉) and the Chongqing government’s was headed by C. H. B. Joly (周驪), Maze (he went back to Chongqing in 1943 for his pension and then left for the UK immediately), Ting Kwei-tang, and Lester Knox Little (李度1892-1981, 5th IG 1943-1950). Kishimoto joined the CMCS in 1905 and held the post of Chief Secretary (the number two post) for over ten years before 1941. From 1941-1945 Kishimoto endeavoured to help his Japanese and Chinese colleagues to survive through the war but the Japanese Military forced him to appoint some army and naval officers CMCS Commissioners. During Kishimoto’s reign, Kishimoto found it very difficult to balance the Wang Government and the Japanese Military, but he managed to keep the Wang Customs Service intact and protect his Chinese staff from the moral investigations carried out by the Nationalist Government after the War.

In Chongqing, the Inspectorate was in a very difficult situation because Maze was not prepared to establish a shadow Inspectorate in Chongqing before the Pacific War. Chongqing Customs Commissioner C. H. B. Joly was appointed Officiating IG but his staff, facilities or budget was too little to run the Customs Service. Fortunately, more and more Chinese staff members fled from Shanghai to Chongqing so the Chongqing Customs Service became competent in mid-1943. The last foreign IG, L. K. Little, arrived in Chongqing in May 1943 and started to establish this wartime Customs Service. Ting Kwei-tang was appointed Deputy IG and this alliance between the American IG and Chinese DIG maintained until the 1949.

The Post-War Period

After the War, Ting was assigned to rehabilitate the Shanghai Inspectorate but Little stayed in the Chongqing Inspectorate to prepare to move back to Shanghai. Ting properly assigned the Chinese staff who served the Kishimoto Customs Service to new posts and successfully recovered the Shanghai Inspectorate’s full function in 3 months. But his success made the DIG more powerful than the IG. Factionalism between the IG and the DIG was not the most devastating factor in this period. The Civil War between the KMT and the CCP from Manchuria to southern China dragged the post-war economy into the quagmire of hyper-inflation. The CMCS could not maintain its traditionally high salary and pension. The staff’s morale was low and the integrity deteriorated. Before the CCP took over Shanghai, Little decided to evacuate to Guangzhou with the Li Zongren Nationalist Government, but Ting decided, or was instructed, rather to stay in Shanghai to protect the Inspectorate. Hereafter, the CMCS was, once again, separated into two parts.

In late 1949, the CCP renamed the CMCS to the People’s Maritime Customs Service (PMCS). Ting Kwei-tang’s cooperation with the CCP made his career very successful in the PMCS. He was appointed Deputy Director General of the Directorate General of Customs and the Director General (DG) was a CCP intelligent master, Kong Yuan (孔原). This kind of pattern also applied to other local Customs station – a CCP cadre and a deputy chosen from the old Chinese staff.

Little only stayed in Guangzhou for about half year and moved the Inspectorate to Taipei. The Guangzhou Inspectorate’s condition was merely slightly better than the Chongqing Inspectorate of 1941-1945. He only had less than several Chinese and foreign staff members but he still managed to look after them. Before he retired from the CMCS, he paid off all foreign staff members and the Chinese staff he had brought to Taipei. Unlike his predecessor, Little was the last foreign employee leaving Taiwan with a Gold Medal of the Order of the Brilliant Star (景星勳章). Little left his Chinese colleagues a functional Inspectorate in Taipei. The 96-year history of the foreign Inspectorate officially ended here.

The Post-1949 Period

The cooperation between the old Chinese staff and the CCP cadres was generally peaceful from 1949-1957, but the Hundred Flowers Campaign of 1957 caused a serious collision between the staff and the cadres. As they was dissatisfied with the CCP’s partisan policies and with the fact that they were led by less-experienced partisan cadres, the old Chinese staff found the Hundred Flowers Campaign a great opportunity to explain how they perceived the current issues. However, the following Anti-Rightist Movement labeled the old Chinese staff who criticised the CCP during the Hundred Flowers Campaign ‘bovine devil and snake demon (牛鬼蛇神)’. While the CCP drove the state to the extreme leftist course, the old Chinese staff gradually lost their unique status in modern Chinese history.

However, the CMCS in Taiwan still maintained its traditional characteristics until 1991. Everything remained the same although the jurisdiction of the CMCS in Taiwan became much smaller. The leadership of the CMCS in Taiwan was instable in the beginning. Lo Ching-hsiang (羅慶祥) and Fang Tu (方度) were both appointed Officiating IGs ‘co-signing’ for the IG from 1950-1955. After Lo retired in 1955, Fang was still not appointed IG but stayed on the post of Officiating IG until 1960. In 1960, Fang was finally appointed IG – he was the first Chinese IG since 1854, but three week after this appointment he also retired from the CMCS.

Before 1991, the nineteen century names were kept – the head of the CMCS was still the Inspector General, the headquarter of the CMCS was still the Inspectorate General of Customs, and the local head of each Customs station was still Commissioner. In 1991, the CMCS in Taiwan went into a new era and some Anglicised characteristics were abolished. The new head of Taiwan’s Customs service is Director General and the headquarter is the Directorate General of Customs. However, some nineteen century tradition still remained the same to this day– Taiwan’s lighthouses are still supervised by the Directorate General of Customs. The personnel system of the CMCS is still semi-independent from the Taiwanese civil servant system And last but certainly not least, Sir Robert Hart is still the most remarkable IG in every staff’s heart in the Taiwanese Customs Service.

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