Policing, News and Government: Public law and order from the outside.

A pertinent chapter in the public order and policing of Shanghai was the 1930s when simultaneously, the looming threat of Japan led to a spike in public demonstrations in China, and Shanghai’s Public Safety Bureau came under strict anti-communist leadership who were extremely determined to eliminate radicalism from the city. This ‘red hysteria’ was so intense that the Bureau put aside its nationalist-fuelled disdain for Shanghai Municipal Police (SMP) and co-operated with them to root out radical individuals and police the mass assemblies, whether student demonstrations or public celebrations (1). SMP’s increased anxiety and involvement in intense policing may have been seen as conducive to those in the cities, but to the foreign governments who backed the council, this shift in approach likely led to some reflection on the nature and perception of public order abroad, particularly at a time when imperial powers were struggling to mitigate unrest and loss of control in colonies

A useful source in considering the official British reaction to the public order in Shanghai is an exchange in the House of Lords between Lord Marley, Chief labour Whip, and the Earl of Stanhope, Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs during a Sitting on 5th of February 1936 (2). During this Sitting Marley had called for papers from Stanhope in regards to the allegations surrounding police violence during a student demonstration on the 24th of December the previous year. Drawing from witness accounts Marley outlines accusations of unprovoked police brutality and calls for further inquiry into police conflict. Stanhope contends these allegations. There are three primary areas the two figures clash over: sources, justification and nature of police violence, and finally consequences of inappropriate policing. It’s clear that both sides see business as a prime motivator to keep law and order amicable, but they differ in terms of authority, in which evidence holds it and how best to instil it in overseas settlements.

In terms of sources, Marley is largely drawing from witness accounts, although they contextualise this evidence with newspaper coverage and complaint letters to newspapers describing other demonstrations in China such as Peking. They substantiate their claims by describing their witnesses as an American who is ‘entirely trustworthy’ and a Chinese lady who is ‘well known throughout the world’ and thus ‘whose evidence cannot be but reliable’. (3) In opposition, Stanhope bases all of his opinions on newspaper reporting and questions the journalistic research of Marley ‘I am bound to add that the report which I have read in the Press on this matter differs very materially from the one he has given to you Lordships’. (4) This prioritisation of the newspaper over first-hand accounts results in an echo chamber in opinions surrounding law and order, as the SMP were closely monitoring reports on their policing. Records from their archive show them disciplining several newspapers for breaking the Chinese Press laws which relate to disparagement of public services (5). SMP made sure they were represented in line with official attitudes to policing, and foreign officials used said newspapers to justify that their policing was appropriate. The weight Stanhope puts on these pro-police accounts in English newspapers indicates not only how important the press played in overseas policy, but also why the Shanghai Municipal Council’s control over journalistic reporting was important in asserting control and confidence in overseas government.

An important element of Marley’s case is that the procession was ‘entirely peaceful’ before the police came to break it up, He highlights the age of the participants as mostly ‘children of middle school age’, who were met by a fully armed band of foreign amel British officers (6). He noted that one officer started beating protesters over the head, leaving them bloody and unconscious. He implicitly praised the patriotism of these protests in the face of Japanese aggression and argued that such protests taking place here would be praised by intellectuals. He, then, deliberately parallels the British subject to the Chinese subject, with equality in rights.

In opposition to this, Stanhope highlights that, far from being fully innocent, these protesters were disrupting the traffic and business in the railway station for at least 30 hours (7). While discussing Japan, Jordan Sand highlights why demonstrations in urban railway stations represented both an effective site of public lobbying and a source of great annoyance and disorderliness for authorities (8). According to Stanhope, if you’re causing such a disruption to travel, ‘it is quite obvious’ any government must do what they need to ‘to secure control again’ (9). He also argued that a report in the paper counters the claim that the students were armless and peaceful. While he doesn’t explicitly agree undue force was used, his argument mostly suggests that he, and suggestively the government, believe state violence is necessary.

Interestingly, where Marley and Stanhope align is their framing of why appropriate enforcement of public law and order is important. While Marley highlights the unjust harm the police have potentially caused, he doesn’t present his case as a humanitarian plea, but as a business move. He highlights that excessive force could cause tensions to escalate between the British and Chinese populations, and increase anti-British sentiment (10). He argues that this would waste the opportunity British businesses have to snatch trade that used to be Japanese. Stanhope points out that the municipal council
are largely made up of businessmen so they’d be highly aware of the optics of their police on trade and keep it in check (11). Notably, however, he doesn’t counter Marley’s claim that public order isn’t just about a moral code or power hierarchy, but also a matter of good business. This is perhaps hardly surprising given, as Frederic Wakeman highlights, disorder itself was also often about trade, in this case, Shanghai’s notorious international narcotics trade (12).

(1) Frederic Wakeman Jr., “Policing Modern Shanghai,” The China Quarterly, no. 115 (September 1, 1988), pp.408–40, pp.433-436

(2) United Kingdom, Debate, House of Lords, v.99, (05 February 1936), pp.439-446, https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/lords/1936/feb/05/the-international-settlement-in-shanghai

(3) UK, Debate, House of Lords, 1936, p. 441

(4) Ibid, p.443

(5) See file D-7518 in the SMP Archive, ‘Allegations Against The Police By The Shanghai Public Daily News 1569’


(6) UK, Debate, House of Lords, 1936, p. 441

(7) Ibid, p. 443

(8) Jordan Sand, Tokyo Vernacular: Common Spaces, Local Histories, Found Objects (University of California Press, 2013), pp.42-70.

(9) UK, Debate, House of Lords, 1936, p. 443

(10) Ibid, p.442

(11) Ibid, p.444

(12) Wakeman Jr, ‘Policing Modern Shanghai’, p 409