Frederic Wakeman, _Policing Shanghai_/ A Review


When I first created this website, it was meant to be a record, both visual and textual, of my experiences in China, especially (as you can guess by the title) Shanghai.  Since I am not always in China, however, it has developed into a blogsite focusing on my academic and sometimes not-so-academic musings on same.  Blogging is new to me, and I don't have a strong idea of who my audience is and what you're getting out of my site, so I really appreciate your feedback!

 Here's my next installment:  a review I wrote back in grad school (with slight revisions for this site) on what I consider to be one of the best studies of pre-Liberation Shanghai done by any scholar.  Fred Wakeman sadly passed away not long ago.  An homage, long overdue, to this outstanding historian and person is in the works.

Frederic Wakeman, Policing Shanghai

University of California Press, 1995

book review by Andrew Field for

    In this study of the Shanghai police in the 1920s and '30s, historian Frederic Wakeman shows convincingly how the Guomindang under Chiang Kai-shek set itself up for a fall by taking on the hopeless task of ridding Shanghai of all vestiges of crime and vice.  To do so would, in Chiang's thinking, legitimize the GMD in the eyes of the people and just as importantly in the eyes of the foreign powers who continued to dominate Shanghai.  The key institution in Chiang's plan to clean up the city was the police. 

In Policing Shanghai, Wakeman describes the establishment of a police force by the Nationalist government in 1928 to police the area known as Greater Shanghai.  This organization was known as the Public Security Bureau (PSB) (gongan ju).  He concludes that a number of factors, including the city's location and its political economy, its high levels of vice and crime, as well as the complexity of its governance, conspired to frustrate and ultimately corrupt the goals of Chiang's government, leading it to assume in large part the criminal powers that it was trying to destroy.

In Part I, Wakeman traces the rise of the Shanghai police back to late Qing codes established to bring order to the city.  He argues that the PSB, which the GMD instituted in Shanghai following the revolution of 1927, arose through a mix of top-down government institutions and bottom-up gentry-led reforms.  In a chapter on criminals and vice, he traces the rise of the Green Gang to Qing boatman organizations, and shows how even as early as the 1920s criminals worked closely with the police, e.g. Huang Jinrong, the Green Gang leader who was made chief of inspectors by the French police.  These gangs made their money mainly through the illicit trade of opium.

 In Part II, Wakeman argues that the GMD equated civic culture with the maintenance of order, the primary requisite to the reclamation of the foreign concessions.  In order to meet this goal, the GMD reorganized Shanghai's institutions.  They consolidated the police force, reorganized local militia units and incorporated them into the national government in an attempt to monopolize local power and take it out of the hands of gentry. 

At first, the PSB worked at odds with the International Settlement's police force, the Shanghai Municipal Police (SMP).  The two forces clashed over the issues of jurisdiction and tax collection along the "extra-settlement" roads, roads that extended out of settlement boundaries and were often used by Westerners. 

Eventually the issue of the Communist threat brought both forces into an alliance in 1931 to ferret out the "Reds."  According to Wakeman, the PSB's drive to weed out Communism in the city not only prevented it from fully engaging in other anti-crime tasks, but moreover reflected a contradiction within the agenda of the police.  The PSB had to manage the competing tasks of upholding the social order and encouraging local municipal autonomy.  In general, the rights of citizens were severely curtailed as the GMD used its police force to suppress any activities that threatened the ideological dominance of the Nationalist party.

Part III concentrates on the PSB's influence on crime in Shanghai, the most visible forms of which were gambling, prostitution, and opium.  Wakeman shows how the GMD's efforts to suppress crime in all its forms mostly served to push it underground and make more widespread, less easy to detect and control.  The alliance that Chiang had forged with Du Yuesheng's Green Gang was exploited, but at the cost of allowing the GG to maintain its monopoly over the opium trade.

In Part IV, Wakeman illuminates the politics of the period by arguing that the PSB became involved in a dual mission, to eradicate crime and to eliminate Chiang's enemies.  Early on it was faced with a choice: whether to concentrate on the elimination of the Communist threat, or on the Japanese.  In 1932 the Japanese took over Zhabei by military force, and installed a puppet police in most of Chinese Shanghai.  The Chinese were eventually able to regain control, but at the expense of civil society as administrative authority was further consolidated and placed under the control of Chiang. 

Meanwhile, the mayor Wu Tiecheng became committed to the building of a new municipal order following the mass destruction caused by the war with Japan.  He worked closely with the financial elite and established the Jiangwan Civic Center to house most city government bureaus.  However, administering Shanghai proved prohibitively expensive, and the police exacted a great burden on municipal finances.

Part V discusses the limitations of the GMD's civic order.  In a chapter on the New Life movement of 1934-7 and National Salvation associations (jiuguo hui), Wakeman concludes that the municipal government through extreme censorship and civic movements sought to mold loyal subjects, not independent citizens.  He then shows how the reforms of 1935-7 reflected the attempts of the GMD to further nationalize the police, while at the same time criminals sought increasing respectability. 

These two trends led the GMD to adopt policies and take actions that were considered by many Chinese to be themselves criminal.  For example, the secret police under Dai Li flourished, and used terrorist tactics--kidnapping, extortion, assassination--to deal with Chiang's political enemies. 

One of the most controversial acts was the assassination in 1934 of Shi Liangcai, chief editor of China's most influential newspaper, the Shen Bao, who openly opposed Chiang's policy of appeasement with the Japanese.  Meanwhile, the crime world attempted to gain respectibility by riding the wave of nationalism and patriotism, creating save-the-nation societies as fronts for gang activities.  Chiang's government reached the apex of corruption when it monopolized the opium trade as a means of gaining revenue (it was extremely profitable, valued at around $100 million per year) under the guise of an "opium suppression campaign."  Many GMD members took the campaign seriously, though; users were licensed, and detoxification clinics were set up all over the city.  Still, Sun Yat-sen would never have approved, and Chinese newspapermen let the Generalissimo know. Evidence suggests that while the Green Gang carried out the deed, Dai Li made the order to assassinate Shi, thereby creating a climate of fear among the city's Chinese newspaper houses (some of which fell under the control of Du himself).

For all its seemingly good intentions, the GMD's anti-opium campaign masked the cynical, self-serving use of opium addiction for the purposes of strengthening the central government at the expense of its citizens.  Wakeman concludes with a short discussion of the war of '37 and an excellent account of Japan's attack on Greater Shanghai and the valiant yet futile attempt by the Nationalists and Green Gang to defend that city, and then reiterates the reasons for the Nationalists' general failure to clean up Shanghai, and its corruption instead in the bowels of a city run by desperate men.

For the academic reader, this book offers a cornucopia of information and analyses focusing on the issues of state and society, civil and military rule, nationalism and legitimacy, colonialism, and revolutionary politics.  Lay readers may get bogged down in the details however, and I should make it clear that this book is not meant for general consumption.  Yet for those who are brave enough to try, it offers plenty of juicy stories and terrible tales of assassinations, intrigue, and backstabbing.  Perhaps the most chilling tale in the book (aside from the story of how the Nationalists allied with the Green Gang wiped out thousands of CCP members and their associates on April 12 1927) is the story of Gu Shunzhang, a member of the CCP underground who in 1931, after being arrested by the GMD secret service, defected to the Nationalist camp.  With his extensive knowledge of CCP membership, Gu's defection led to the heaviest anti-CCP campaign that Shanghai had experienced since 1927.  As a way of getting revenge on the defector, the CCP's Red Brigage carried out a brutal massacre of his entire family.

In classic Wakeman style, the author narrates Gu's discovery that his family had been killed, and describes their exhumation in chilling detail:

"The excavation began at ten in the morning.  A large crowd quickly gathered, some climbing nearby trees to get a better view.  After half an hour, when the workmen had dug three to four feet (chi) deep, they unearthed a tooth.  The journalists crowded around excitedly, but the incisor turned out to be a dog's tooth.  Some of the workers wanted to give up digging at this point, but Wang Shide quietly said that they would have to go down at least seven or eight feet more.  After another half-hour of digging, the soil abruptly changed texture and took on an ochre color.  The workmen's shovel's struck concrete.  When they broke through the cement cover a terrible stench made some of the bystanders vomit.  One of the workers groped into the cavity beneath the cement and felt a human leg.  Four decapitated corpses were brought out of the ground naked.  They were bound together two-by-two, the one folded into the other with neck tied to leg and vice-versa.  As they matched the heads with the necks and arms, Gu Shunzhang stood by, tears running down his face, saying, "That's my wife.  That's my mother-in-law.  That's my father-in-law.  That's my brother-in-law."  Only his son, Asheng, had been spared.  Wang Shide explained later that he could not bring himself to execute the boy, who had secretly been sent back to Gu Shunzhang's natal home in Songjiang." (pp. 158-9)

As gruesome as this story is, it pales in comparison to some of the tales told in Wakeman's next great masterwork, his biography of "China's Himmler," Dai Li.  I've taken it home for some light bedtime reading and hope to have a review of it posted here in the near future.