Felix Boecking book launch

Last week, the CSMCH hosted the launch of Felix Boecking’s new book, ‘No Great Wall: Trade, Tariffs, and Nationalism in Republican China, 1927-1945’ (Harvard University Press), in the company of esteemed China specialist, Rana Mitter. Our intrepid reporter, Fraser Raeburn, joined the packed audience on a snowy spring day – you can read his report and listen to the full audio of the event below.

How does one make the history of tariffs interesting? This is clearly a question that Felix Boecking (Edinburgh) has been pondering for quite some time. He was the first to acknowledge that current events made this task considerably easier, as China and the United States fire the opening shots in an incipient trade war, but even had the present been less tumultuous, the large crowd that crammed into a small seminar room to hear about his new book would not have left disappointed.

No Great Wall is premised on the idea that tariffs offer insight into more than just trade and economics. Rather, China’s unique situation in the mid-twentieth century meant that tariffs assumed a great deal of importance – fiscally, with Nationalist China’s revenues disproportionately reliant on customs duties, but also intellectually and politically. The tariff system was a legacy of European informal imperialism and ‘unequal treaties’, which made regaining control over tariffs desirable. But Western involvement also guaranteed that tariffs could be applied across all of China, lending the Nationalist Government reach well beyond the boundaries of their actual territory. The question of tariffs therefore reflected wider tensions in the Nationalist project – what sort of state was it, and what kind of state did it aspire to become?

Felix introduces his new book

The finer detail of day-to-day practice also sheds fascinating light on the construction and maintenance of sovereignty – were regional smugglers, for example, evading import dues or choosing to recognise, and thereby legitimise, different authorities than the distant Nationalist Government? How could the Japanese attempts to undermine the custom system on the northern border destabilise and delegitimise the Nationalist state?

Felix tied these issues back to what he sees as the two central questions regarding Chinese history in this period: the decline of the Nationalist state and its eventual replacement by the current Communist regime; and the impact of the Second World War. By keeping the tariff system largely intact, the Nationalist regime opened itself to criticism that they were perpetuating the legacy of Western imperialism and interference in Chinese affairs, lending the Communists a powerful propaganda device. The advent of war, however, exposed the fragility of the Nationalist state. The Sino-Japanese War saw the loss of most Nationalist trading ports, and with them the ability to collect tariff revenues. The Nationalists were forced to rely on ever more brutal methods of tax extraction to fund the war effort, undermining its legitimacy and goodwill throughout much of China.

After this short introduction, Felix handed over to the day’s celebrity guest, Rana Mitter, whose job it was to respond to the book. The first thing Rana did was to place the text within a much wider context. He pointed to a key conclusion – that states which rely on a single revenue stream are more vulnerable and less resilient – which might usefully be applied well beyond China and East Asia.

He also pointed to the importance of the book for scholars of political science and international relations, for whom concepts of ‘partial sovereignty’ have gained traction, positing that rather than being absolute and indivisible, sovereignty might best be understood as a spectrum. Nationalist China thus offers a fascinating case study of how partial sovereignty worked in practice. In pointing to sovereignty – and contested understandings thereof – Mitter tied the contemporary relevance of Boecking’s book not just to trade wars, but to the tense debates over the nature of British sovereignty with relation to the European Union and Brexit.

Felix and Rana in conversation

Content for the moment with establishing the scope of the text’s relevance, Mitter also pointed out the important historiographical interventions made, notably with regards to Fairbank’s ‘logical but inaccurate’ account of Chinese customs. This was not, after all, traditional imperialism – raising the key question of who Chinese customs agents worked for, and were perceived to work for, as well as the complexities of the complicity of indigenous civil servants in empire. Boecking’s work raised further questions about longstanding assumptions about the Nationalist finances – has, for instance, their reliance on practices such as tax farming been overstated? Such questions are vital in considering the nature of the Nationalist state – a corrupt regime doomed to failure and replacement, or a flawed developing state that might have eventually been successful were it not for war?

The event ended with a rather chaotic distribution of sandwiches to the hungry audience and a fascinating question-and-answer session, which ranged across a number of topics in Chinese and global history. The whole launch was a fitting way to celebrate the work of one of our own historians – and, at the same time, showcase what economic history has to offer to scholars of political change in the twentieth century.

Fraser Raeburn is a PhD student in History. He works on interwar Europe and Britain, ideological confrontation and the history of foreign fighters. His thesis examines the involvement of Scots in the Spanish Civil War. He is a member of the CSMCH steering committee.