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The Underground War for Shanghai

During the night of November 21–22, 1928 a steamer moored at the docks in the Chinese section of Shanghai, and a group of harbor coolies, flanked by a squad of thirty armed guards, began to unload chests onto the dock. Alerted by a tip some weeks before that the chests would contain a large consignment of opium, the civilian police agents of the Shanghai Public Security Bureau were already concealed among the warehouses nearby. At the blast of a whistle, the police agents ran forward, shouting out their identity as police officers and warning the opium smugglers to surrender.

To their astonishment, instead of surrendering, the thirty guards escorting the opium coolies produced papers proving that they themselves were the agents of the Shanghai region’s Military Garrison Command, and that the opium shipment had been consigned to their garrison commander. The military guards thereupon arrested the civilian police officers for interrupting them while they were performing their duties, and had them held at a nearby military station. The chests of opium were carried into the neighboring French Concession, where they were stored in safe houses until they could be sold.

The incident in which the lines between police and criminals blur and overlap is but one of many such discussed by Frederic Wakeman in his absorbing new study of Shanghai. Cumulatively, he writes, they point the way to a central crisis in the history of the Nationalist Party under Chiang Kai-shek’s leadership: the development of “stupendous government criminalization” that was a major factor in the “delegitimation” of Chiang’s regime, with all the fateful consequences that this entailed for the Chinese people.

By concentrating on the “policing” of Shanghai, Frederic Wakeman has added a major new element to the rich variety of books on Shanghai that in the last few years have included significant studies of the city’s universities and students, municipal institutions, foreign settlements, ethnic groups, labor movements, and wartime collaborationist intellectuals.1 Drawing on a vast range of printed and archival sources—perhaps most importantly on the files of the Shanghai foreign settlements’ municipal police, which were fortunately saved and preserved in the National Archives in Washington—Wakeman gives a convincing picture of the nightmarish problem of controlling Shanghai in the Twenties and Thirties, when it was in its heyday as an international city of sin.

The fundamental problem for law enforcement officers and politicians alike was that the city of Shanghai was a jurisdictional tangle of the utmost complexity. The two main foreign “concession” or “settlement” areas, one dominated by the British but known as the “International Settlement,” the other as the “French Concession,” both bordered on the original Chinese city of Shanghai, which they almost completely surrounded. For close to a millennium, Shanghai had been a prosperous walled trading emporium that had made good money for its residents by its proximity to the active trade life of the Yangzi delta region and the inland trade along the river.2 But in the treaties forced on China by the British at Nanjing in 1842 at the conclusion of the first Opium War, and later extended to and ratified by other foreign powers, including the French and the Americans, Shanghai was named one of the new “Treaty Ports.”

In such specially designated ports, foreign merchants and missionaries could live and work in zones controlled by their own armies, navies, and security forces, and subject to control of their own indigenous legal systems rather than by Chinese law. Under the threat of two separate attacks by the massed forces of the Taiping rebels—one in the early 1850s and one in the 1860s—the foreign powers had greatly strengthened the defenses of their own concession areas, and clarified what they considered to be their legal and fiscal rights.

After the defeat of the Taiping rebels in 1864, the foreign concession zones grew rapidly in prosperity, extent, and population. As land was drained, the famous riverside district called the “Bund” was developed as a major financial and harbor district, and new systems of roads were built far out into the suburban countryside, along with large new houses and estates. Joining in the general prosperity and expansion, Chinese traders and settlers also flocked to the greater Shanghai area, forming dense settlements and businesses in the region of Pudong, across the river from the Bund, and in the formerly open farm land to the north of the British concession, and to the south of the French. The addition of a railway system with two stations, one north and one south, the construction of tramways, and the coming of the automobile, all contributed further to the city’s expansion in the early decades of the twentieth century.

The population of the city tripled between 1910 and 1930, Wakeman tells us; by the later date, the registered inhabitants of the city—Chinese and foreign—numbered just under three million. Of these, 1.5 million Chinese and close to 10,000 foreigners lived in the parts of the city under Chinese jurisdiction; almost half a million Chinese and 12,000 foreigners lived in the French Concession; and just under a million Chinese and 36,000 foreigners lived in the International Settlement. Since the foreigners were in charge of policing and administering their own districts, this meant that approximately 1.5 million Chinese living in the foreign zones were subject to foreign rather than to Chinese jurisdiction.

By the 1920s, this strange situation had made Shanghai a paradise for Chinese criminal organizations and protection rackets. As a few others have done before him, but now in far greater detail, Frederic Wakeman traces many of these criminal groups, especially the notorious “Green Gang,” back to the secret organizations that had emerged among the barge-pullers and coolie laborers along the Grand Canal and other waterways in the closing years of the Qing dynasty (which fell in 1912). He shows clearly how these groups coalesced into an organized system of racketeers, and how their leaders solidified their hold over opium distribution and sales, over prostitution, and over a vast system of gambling enterprises that included horse racing, greyhound tracks, and local lotteries. He shows further how it was that in their efforts to limit crime to manageable proportions within their own concession, the French police and consular authorities made successive deals during the 1920s, first with the racketeer Huang Jinrong, whom they named as chief of the Chinese detectives in the French Concession, and with Huang’s immensely powerful fellow racketeer and Green Gang leader Du Yuesheng.3

Between them, Huang and Du made it their job, through extortion, terror, and murder, to keep all criminals not affiliated with their own organizations out of the French Concession. Though not so dramatically obvious, similar arrangements prevailed in the British-dominated International Settlement, where the Special Municipal Police relied heavily on Chinese informants and enforcers to keep crime within acceptable limits. The scale of criminal operations in the two international concessions and the Chinese city was colossal. Wakeman estimates that in the mid-1920s the narcotics trade in opium, morphine, and heroin was already worth $6 million per month in payoffs to the authorities who ran the city, regardless of whatever much greater sums went to the syndicates. Gambling brought in at least $1 million a week. And though there are no figures on the revenues from controlling prostitution, the number of prostitutes in the city—Chinese in the main, but also Americans, White Russians, and other foreigners in considerable numbers—was estimated at 70,000 in 1920, and 100,000 by the 1930s, suggesting at least the scale of income available.

The arrival in Shanghai in 1927 of the Nationalist Chinese Kuomintang armies—which had set out on their “northern expedition” from Canton under Chiang Kai-shek’s leadership—brought a new element into this already tangled situation. Chiang Kaishek’s decision to abandon the United Front policy of his political mentor Sun Yat-sen meant that the Nationalists now swung decisively against the Communists and became determined to smash the extensive Communist organization that dominated many of the Shanghai labor unions.

In this venture, the racketeers in the foreign concessions—like Green Gang leader Du Yuesheng—were vital potential allies. They knew the city intimately, including its elite, working class, and criminals. Green Gang members often acted as labor bosses, recruiters, and plant managers in Shanghai, and their webs of members and informants could instantly pinpoint labor leaders and Communist agents, their bases, and their safe houses. Through their social contacts in the concessions—Du Yuesheng for instance had a mansion on the rue Wagner in the French Concession—they also moved on terms of easy familiarity with the foreigners who officially governed the settlements. Thus it was logical for Chiang Kai-shek to use the Green Gang to help him break the workers’ power in 1927. To do so he first got permission from the leaders in the foreign enclaves to move Green Gang armed paramilitary groups unimpeded through the settlements so they could attack the Communist and labor bases at will.

Chiang’s army encountered no serious military opposition after it entered the city and carried out what amounted to a coup. Chiang then determined to maintain strong control over the Chinese sections of the city, and to work methodically to whittle away at legal and financial privileges for the foreign dominated districts and ultimately to end their special status. To help him achieve these goals, he formed a new Special Municipal Government to manage the Chinese districts of the city, and recruited many new police to the force there, assembling them into a newly organized Public Security Bureau. As Wakeman skillfully shows, this was in many ways a worthy attempt but it foundered for a number of reasons. The Public Security Bureau police had what turned out to be somewhat contradictory goals: on the one hand, “law enforcement” in the precise sense of controlling crime and, on the other, “maintenance of order” in a broader sense of carrying out the Nationalist Party’s conservative and moralistic program of social reform.

The bureau attempted to incorporate the best of both the Japanese system, in which police were installed in shelters or “boxes” at regular intervals on the streets, and the American system of the “cop on the beat.” (August Vollmer, the Berkeley town marshal who rose to become head of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, and the first Professor of Criminology at the University of California, was taken as a model by Chinese police at this time.) Police procedures were standardized, as were weapons and salaries, and uniforms became smarter; finger-printing techniques were refined, and effective phone and radio communications set up. This heightened professionalism was tied to the enormous demands placed on the individual officers. As Wakeman explains their duties in late 1927 and 1928:

Although certain aspects of the administrative organization of the PSB [Public Security Bureau] resembled traditional Chinese bureaucracy, the chain of command was theoretically modeled on modern rational procedures and rules. The inclusiveness of the PSB, however, mitigated against a strictly functional division of labor. In addition to supervising the police department’s internal affairs, the new PSB Inspectorate was also supposed to collect patriotic contributions, maintain connections with “mass movements,” lead anti-smoking campaigns, regulate price controls over goods like kerosene, oversee the distribution of rations, provide postal inspectors, recruit new policemen, and supervise public health work….

Military forms of command called for army-like discipline. Policemen not only were supposed to look and act like well-trained soldiers; they were also expected to relinquish their personal liberty to brigades that controlled their physical presence during duty hours. Police regulations stipulated that patrolmen were not allowed to abandon their official posts for more than two nights a week, when they could sleep out of their regular police dormitories and take furlough to attend to their personal affairs at home. And policemen who slipped away from the canteen, where they were supposed to consume official rations prepared by PSB cooks, to eat at home with their families and friends, were also strictly reprimanded and punished.

  1. 1

    See Wen-hsin Yeh, The Alienated Academy: Culture and Politics in Republican China, 1919–1937 (Harvard Council on East Asian Studies, 1990); Ming K. Chan and Arif Dirlik, Schools into Fields and Factories: Anarchists, the Guomindang, and the National Labor University in Shanghai, 1927–1932 (Duke University Press, 1991); Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom, Student Protest in Twentieth-Century China, The View from Shanghai (Stanford University Press, 1991); Christian Henriot, Shanghai, 1927–1937: Municipal Power, Locality, and Modernization (University of California Press, 1993); Nicholas R. Clifford, Spoilt Children of Empire: Westerners in Shanghai and the Chinese Revolution of the 1920s (Middlebury College Press, 1991); Emily Honig, Creating Chinese Ethnicity: Subei People in Shanghai, 1850–1980 (Yale University Press, 1992); Elizabeth J. Perry, Shanghai on Strike: The Politics of Chinese Labor (Stanford University Press, 1993); Fu Poshek, Passivity, Resistance, and Collaboration: Intellectual Choices in Occupied Shanghai, 1937–1945 (Stanford University Press, 1993). The volume Shanghai Sojourners, edited by Frederic Wakeman, Jr., and Wen-hsin Yeh, (University of California, Berkeley, Institute of Chinese Studies, 1992) also includes essays on Shanghai prostitution, opium traffic, and progressive journalism in the city.

  2. 2

    See especially Linda Cooke Johnson, “Shanghai: An Emerging Jiangnan Port, 1683–1840,” in the the same author’s edited volume Cities of Jiangnan in Late Imperial China (State University of New York Press, 1993).

  3. 3

    A pioneer article in English on this topic was that by Y.C. Wang, “Tu Yueh-sheng (1888–1951): A Tentative Political Biography,” Journal of Asian Studies, Volume 6 (1967), pp. 433–455. Other important studies include Jonathan Marshall, “Opium and the Politics of Gangsterism in Nationalist China, 1927–1945,” Bulletin of Concerned Asian Scholars, Volume 8 (1976), pp. 19–48; Parks M. Coble, Jr., The Shanghai Capitalists and the Nationalist Government, 1927–1937 (Harvard Council on East Asian Studies, 1980); and several essays by Bryan C. Martin, including his recent “‘The Pact with the Devil’: The Relationship between the Green Gang and the French Concession Authorities, 1925–1935,” included in Wakeman and Yeh, editors, Shanghai Sojourners.

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