Book Review: Smokeless Sugar

Emily M. Hill, Smokeless Sugar: The Death of a Provincial Bureaucrat and the Construction of China’s National Economy, Vancouver/Toronto: University of British Columbia Press, 2010. 336 pp. $85.00 (cloth).

By Elisabeth Köll

As Emily Hill’s monograph Smokeless Sugar promises in its subtitle, readers learn about the death of a provincial bureaucrat, Feng Rui, and the construction of China’s national economy before WWII through an analysis of his short but productive career. The story is anchored in the complex figure of Feng Rui and his execution in 1936 by the Guangdong provincial government, which serves as a lens on the development of economic policies in theory and practice under the Nationalist government. Feng had been a protégé of General Chen Jitang, who resigned in July 1936 after a failed attempt to independently gain support from other regional and national leaders to mobilize forces against the Japanese encroachment in the north, thus de facto challenging Chiang Kai-shek’s power. After Chen’s departure, Chiang replaced the top tier of the Guangdong provincial government, and Feng Rui as a former prominent member became a welcome target for the central government to reaffirm its political authority through capital punishment.

As Hill explains right at the beginning, the charges against Feng Rui were constructed in the context of a general anti-corruption campaign in 1936 and centered on issues related to China’s tariff policies and the deteriorating economic relationship with Japan. China had achieved full tariff autonomy in 1929, and the ability (or inability) to collect revenue became a crucial marker for the nationalist central state to gauge its relationship with provincial governments and Japan. The enforcement of tariffs, control of commodity smuggling and the collection of tariff-related revenue turned into considerable challenges for the central government and the Chinese Maritime Customs Administration as the institutional enforcer. As origin of the Republican movement under Sun Yat-sen and his successor Chiang Kai-shek, Guangdong province assumed a special status during the Nanjing decade (1927-1937), characterized as a semi-autonomous province with strong regional, military-backed authorities. Not surprisingly, under Chen Jitang the coastal province of Guangdong imported large quantities of duty-free goods, many from Japan, whose imperialist regime also increased smuggling activities in the Northeast by the mid-1930s. Bringing Guangdong leaders like Chen Jitang and their military and fiscal resources into the fold of the central government turned into a major mission of Chiang Kai-shek in the 1930s, and Feng Rui’s fate became part of it.

Hill develops her story in eight chapters, allowing readers to follow the career of Feng Rui from his early years in Guangzhou and academic training overseas to his position as director of the Guangdong Bureau of Forestry and Agriculture and official supervisor of the Guangdong Sugar Monopoly. Feng Rui had to deal with economic protectionism through taxation of imported commodities but also with a new form of import substitution under which Chinese manufacturers repackaged imported goods such as cement, medicines or white sugar as their own branded products. We follow Feng’s efforts to build and protect Guangdong’s sugar industry, in particular his role in the province-led construction of factories for processing sugarcane. As Hill shows in the last chapter, these sugar mills survived the war and civil war and became the backbone of industrial revival in Guangdong after 1949. Her excellent analysis of the sugar mills as business and administrative institutions support her conclusion that pre-war industrialization sponsored by the state not only laid the foundation for industrial progress under the new socialist government but also showed the capacity of regionalism in the form of provincial state sponsorship.

Guangdong’s proactive role in initiating industrialization during the 1930s reflected in many ways Feng Rui’s theoretical concept of integrating agriculture, industry, and commerce as a new model of economic planning for the Republican nation-state. With a strong academic background in agriculture and interest in economic reform, Feng did not shy away from proposing an alternative path to the capitalist model for China’s future development. While the implementation of the concept in the sugar industry was not without challenges, it places the protagonist firmly within China’s emerging industrial economy as a “bureaucratic broker who linked together social spaces, economic sectors, and geographic zones” (p. 10). Hill discusses his role as negotiator on behalf of the Guangdong provincial government and uses the competing trade interests of central and provincial governments as focus to demonstrate the personal advantages and disadvantages of brokerage as a function of economic activity.

Smokeless Sugar presents an impressive amount of original research based on a vast number of primary sources from archives in and outside China. The author clearly left no stone in Feng Rui’s life unturned and writes with passion about the protagonist. Advertised as “part political biography, part economic history, and part murder mystery”, Hill’s study, however, presents more of a posthumous exoneration than mystery solving by uncovering the various political interests and motives behind Feng Rui’s execution. While the author should be applauded for using a creative approach to framing her topic, anchoring the book so strongly in the circumstances of the protagonist’s death makes the organization of multiple strands of arguments difficult and at times puts the reader in danger of losing focus. In this context it would have been interesting to see a more comprehensive discussion of Feng Rui’s role as broker in the conclusion, especially in comparison with the fate other bureaucratic or entrepreneurial brokers who had to navigate the complicated political and economic landscape of the 1930s. Smokeless Sugar demonstrates the vital role of the central and provincial governments in the creation of China’s economic and administrative institutions and their interaction at the domestic and international level. As Feng Rui’s case shows, brokers negotiating conflicts of interest between center and region were agents and victims at the same time.

Elisabeth Köll is Associate Professor at the Harvard Business School. She is the author of From Cotton Mill to Business Empire: The Emergence of Regional Enterprises in Modern China (Vol. 229, Harvard East Asian Monographs Series. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2003).

© 2011 by Twentieth-Century China Editorial Board. All rights reserved.

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