Chinese, Imperial Maritime Customs

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Chinese, Imperial Maritime Customs

This foreign-managed customs collection agency evolved from the Shanghai Foreign Inspectorate of Customs, an improvisation by Rutherford Alcock, British consul at Shanghai, for collecting customs duties on behalf of the Chinese government, after it temporarily lost control of the city to rebels in 1853. It began operation in mid-1854 under inspectors nominated by British, American, and French consuls. Its success, coupled with China's weakness, led to its continuation and, after the second Opium War (1856–1860), its extension to all treaty ports. Its name was duly changed to the Chinese Imperial Maritime Customs Service (the prefix Imperial was dropped after the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1912). Having lost control of tariff autonomy in 1842, the Chinese now suffered another erosion of their sovereignty.

The early development of this institution owed much to Robert Hart, an Ulsterman, who served as inspector-general for forty-five years (1863–1908). His insistence on honesty and efficiency turned the Customs Service into an important revenue collector for the Qing government. Customs duties, which increased with trade, rose from 7 million taels (US$11,200,000) in the 1860s, to 22 million (US$17,600,000) in the early 1890s, and 35 million (US$22,800,000) in the early 1900s. Though the revenue financed modernizing projects for China, such as government shipyards and arsenals, it was increasingly pledged to paying China's war indemnities and foreign loans. Foreign management also made it impossible for the Chinese to shield the revenue from disbursements that favored foreign interests. After the Sino-Japanese War (1894–1895) and the Boxer uprising (1900) practically all its revenues were pledged to meeting China's loans and indemnities.

The Customs Service's activities went beyond customs collection, however. It completed the charting of the China coast and the Yangzi River, a task begun by the British Navy, erected lighthouses as well as other navigational aids and harbor facilities. It also founded the Imperial Post Office in 1896, which became independent in 1911. These facilities were first instituted to benefit the foreigners and their penetration into China. Nevertheless, the Customs Service also represented China in twenty-eight international trade exhibitions. Its commercial reports remained the only accurate account of China's foreign trade.

Foreign personnel dominated the Customs Service. In 1875 it employed 400 Westerners and 1,400 Chinese. The numbers increased to 700 and 3,500 respectively in 1895. Higher-level offices were reserved for foreigners; the Chinese held lower-level jobs, often with outdoor duties. More than half of the westerners were British. Control of the Customs Service reverted to the Chinese in 1933.

see also China, after 1945; China, First Opium War to 1945; Extraterritoriality; Opium; Shanghai.


Wright, Stanley F. Hart and the Chinese Customs. Belfast: William Mullan and Son Publishers, 1950.