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…

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