Between Bayonets and Paper Money: The Failure to Police Rice Shortages

In “Policing Modern Shanghai” Frederic Wakeman argues that murky relationships between different police forces, criminal organisations, and corrupt political relationships were vital for “police work.”1 Even as a top-down effort for police professionalisation, the Chinese Special Municipality’s Public Safety Bureau (PSB) nonetheless needed to negotiate these treacherous, pre-existing networks of political relationships, for as long as the opium trade was central to Chiang Kai-shek’s as a source of revenue. Set in this historiography, scholars have used rice and food supplies to effectively historicise the spatial politics of empire-making in Occupied Shanghai. Along these lines, I use contemporary press reports of a late 1939 rice shortage to argue that the refraction of political blame was dominated by reactions to a depleting social order and questions of Chinese loyalist affiliations.

Late 1939 Shanghai was characterised by a city grappling with acute commodity shortages,2 homelessness and refugee movement.3 In the immediate aftermath of full-scale war, Henriot has argued, even basic statistical data failed to record information such as “sex” or “age” – they counted “only as ‘mouths’.”4 Shanghai as 孤岛 gudao (lonely island) exemplified the way in which Japanese control of commodities had brought the Chinese to their knees. In fact, the imperial hierarchy meant that immediate sources of rice went to Japanese citizens in the imperial metropole and the Japanese army in China.5

For the case of Shanghai, rice became a commodity with several levels of obstacles. Beyond the wider Japanese naval blockade manifested in a second level of political control: via “certifications.” Rice, on the physical verges of the seaports of Shanghai, was often held up, as it was at Soochow Creek because the Japanese had “withheld all permits for the entry of rice from the hinterland via the important shipping centres of Quinsan, Wuhu and Sungkiang.” Even by land, rice “arriving here by trains were prohibited from being transported into the Foreign Settlements.” To that effect, a second level of bureaucratic control meant that rice supplies were merely sitting in boats, obstructed from redistribution. To combat this, the Shanghai Municipal Council, Rice Guilds and the French Municipal Administration instituted a price ceiling and declared prices above $20 per zah to be illegal.6 Under this system of control, the press excoriated high rice prices as the result of “unscrupulous” rice merchants, hoarding supplies and raising prices opportunistically. Each criticism, however, was directed at different culprits. On the other hand, a Chinese evening paper reported Chiang Kai-shek’s reaction to focus on traitor elimination: he had ordered “Chungking forces in Zhejiang to investigate the price increase “racket” in Shanghai” and to “shoot those merchants who co-operate with the Japanese in manipulating markets.”7

The different truths of different newspapers was also reflected in reports that much of the rice shortage owed to “the Nipponese army” descending upon “the huge rice producing area from Wuhu to the Tai Hu lake” with “bayonets and paper “money”.”8 For Chiang Kai-shek’s imagination of the police “as an instrument of vertical integration,” moreover, his attack on opportunists ironically appears to encapsulate the opportunism of his modernisation project as a guise to implement “instruments of autocracy.”9 Thus, even within these different types of supplies blockades amidst the Japanese Occupation, the apportioning of culpability and collaboration became ever closely examined under the lens of the press in relation to the politics of retribution and loyalism.

  1. Frederic Wakeman, “Policing Modern Shanghai”, The China Quarterly no. 115 (1988): 409. []
  2. See footnote 50 in: Christian Henriot, “Shanghai Industries in the Civil War (1945-1947)”, Journal of Urban History 43, no. 5 (2017), 744-766. []
  3. Christian Henriot, ‘Shanghai Industries Under Japanese Occupation’ in In the Shadow of the Rising Sun: Shanghai Under Japanese Occupation, edited by Christian Henriot and Wen-Hsin Yeh (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004): 20-25. []
  4. Christian Henriot, “Shanghai And The Experience Of War: The Fate Of Refugees” European Journal of East Asian Studies 5, no. 2 (2006): 231. []
  5. Frederick Wakeman, The Shanghai Badlands (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), 55. []
  6. “New Record Price Quoted for Rice”, North China Daily News, 9 Dec 1939 []
  7. Ibid.  []
  8. “Japan Buying Causes Rice Price Increase”, Shanghai Evening Post & Mercury, 30 Nov 1939 []
  9. Wakeman, “Policing”, 439. []