tirsdag 9. april 2024

From China's Past: Robert Hart and the Chinese Maritime Customs Service

For almost a century, the Chinese Maritime Customs Service played a central role in the relationship between China and the global economy. The Customs Service was part of the Chinese Government, but it was led by foreigners. Technically, its role was limited to ensuring the accurate assessment of Customs duties (taxes on imports and exports). However, over time, it became involved in many activities including the maintenance of harbors and lighthouses, the payment of foreign loans, the preparation of a very wide range of published reports, and the provision of technical assistance to the Chinese Government. Customs officials were often involved in diplomatic discussions and served as informal intermediaries between Chinese officials and foreign representatives.

Sir Robert Hart was perfect for the role as Inspector General when he took the job in 1863. He had been in Beijing for extended periods the preceding three years, and had developed good relationships with the officials in the Zongli Yamen. Within two years of his appointment, the Yamen ministers asked him to establish his headquarters in the capital permanently, one of the privileges that Lay demanded. Hart built an efficient organization that was respected by both Chinese and foreigners. However, he understood, first and foremost, that he was an employee of the government of China.