Hong Kong and the Maritime Customs of the Great Qing Empire

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In an interview with the Chinese media some days ago, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive-elect Carrie Lam talked about the necessity to put an end to the encroaching advance of Hong Kong Independence among kids and teenagers and to include Chinese history as a mandatory subject for students in primary and secondary school.

Some days ago I read an article in the Chinese news media NetEase entitled “The only department of the Great Qing Empire without corruption, and also the only one in 2,000 years of Chinese Imperial history.” In this article it was said that, as many people know, the Great Qing Empire was rotten to the core, with neither officials nor departments exempt from corruption. But there was a department with no corruption at all, transparent, impartial, efficient, and honest. This department was the Maritime Customs of the Great Qing Empire.

This miracle has its origins in 1863, when in Late Qing the Westernized Prince Gong of the First Rank, Yixin, made a very bold decision: to appoint Englishman Robert Hart as Inspector-General of the Maritime Customs of the Great Qing Empire. Hart, who was 28 at the time, was proficient in Chinese. After assuming his office, he introduced British Maritime Customs regulations into China, which included but where not limited to its administrative, supervision, and payment systems. The administration of the Maritime Customs was constantly intervened by local governments, but with Hart in office all departments within the Maritime Customs responded to the General Tax Division, thus suppressing intervention by local governments. Previously, tax collection by the Maritime Customs was not legally regulated and the customs officers would collect whatever they wish to collect based on the most remote reasons. Dirty money, therefore, made its way through customs without being declared. With Hart, however, all taxation was strictly regulated by law. It was open and transparent. The previous Maritime Customs had cumbersome procedures, arrogant and lazy bureaucrats who were not willing to deal with anything beyond corruption. Once Hart assumed office, he educated the Maritime Customs bureaucrats, stressing the values of  public service, telling them that the citizens were like God and they should have a good attitude towards them. Streamlined procedures allowed businessmen to resolve their issues promptly. He selected talented people through public examinations, fair and just, and resolutely resisting those who wished to employ social or personal connections to go through the back door. Under such strict regulatory system, even a fish sent by a correspondent to an official was to be rejected. As a result, he managed to raise the wage of the Maritime Customs’ officers higher than any other department in the Empire, with a retirement remuneration equivalent to 10 years of salary and benefits such as medical insurance and paid visits from relatives.

Why would the corrupted Great Qing Empire allow Hart to make an independent kingdom out of the Maritime Customs? Because under Hart, the Maritime Customs became Qing’s goose of the golden eggs. Although during Hart’s first two years as appointee the Qing Dynasty only got less than five million taels (189,000 kg of silver), after many years it achieved 20 million taels (756,000 kg of silver), achieving a total revenue of 24,5%. Because Prince Gong truly trusted and relied on Hart, he allowed the Englishman to be in office up until 1908, totaling 45 years.

In 1908 a 73-years-old Hart retired from his position in the Maritime Customs. He returned to Britain and passed away three years later.

The Maritime Customs’ system established by Hart was inherited by the previous government of the Republic of China and it lasted until 1949, when the Englishman’s system was discarded.

The article ends with some words that contradict the contents of the article: “What Hart is telling us is that Chinese cannot get rid of corruption.” Maybe he wrote this to avoid Chinese censorship, or maybe it is the Ah Q spirit of the Chinese people.

In 1949, when China took over the whole Maritime Customs, the Maritime Customs became just like any other government department, recovering the original Chinese governmental culture.

Hong Kong is just like Hart’s Maritime Customs. Before, when the Chinese allowed British colonization, reasons were not so different from those of the Great Qing Empire when Hart was appointed for the Maritime Customs office: because the both were China’s goose of golden eggs. And after the resumption of Hong Kong’s sovereignty, its governance flied away, just like the Chinese Maritime Customs after 1949.

An internet user from Beijing commented on the article: “History textbooks say this was an humiliation to the Great Qing Empire, with its Maritime Customs being controlled by the British.” Chinese history textbooks’ partisanism on history would also be continued by Carrie Lam’s self-announced strengthening of Chinese history education.

All history is contemporary history, and it exists for the sake of the current government.

 

This article was originally published by Lee Yee here.

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