Sir Robert Hart

THE most famous man in China today is Sir Robert Hart, K. C. B., the Inspector General of Customs. Throughout the Chinese Empire an import and export duty is levied on foreign and native goods arriving at or leaving the treaty ports, and the revenue from these duties forms one of China’s principal sources of income. The organization which is responsible for the collection of the revenue is the Imperial Maritime Customs. Its management is entirely in the hands of foreigners, and has been since 1859 ; that is, for more than forty years foreigners representing the leading Western nationalities have served as employees of the Chinese government in collecting its maritime revenue at the treaty ports, and during that period the Customs Service, which began in a small way, has steadily developed, and become a great and complex organization. Its successful growth and uniform record for so many years are mainly due to the uncommon abilities and remarkable qualities of Sir Robert.

He has had a most singular career. It began in 1854 when he went out to China as a student interpreter in the British Consular Service. In a little more than five years later he was formally appointed by the Chinese government to the position of Inspector General. The service was in such a state of confusion that the outlook was disheartening, but Sir Robert, then only twenty-eight years old, applied himself vigorously to the work of permanent reform. He could speak the language fluently, and from the beginning understood how to deal successfully with the Chinese ; he carefully observed the details of official etiquette, respected native prejudices, and, instead of bullying, used the graces of tact and persuasion. The organization of an efficient national service in China, of all countries, the home of conservatism and suspicion, and where the treaty rights of foreigners are jealously guarded, involved many intricate and serious problems. The young Inspector General, however, felt his way step by step; he was patient, for he had learned the art of waiting from the Chinese, and by perseverance, untiring industry, and a genius for perfecting arrangements in detail, he succeeded where success seemed impossible. He has not only organized and developed the Customs Service, but has brought about the establishment of the Imperial Postal Service, the reform of the Customs in Corea, the founding of a European university in Peking, the maintenance of lighthouses, lightships, and buoys on coasts and rivers, the policing of harbors, and prevention of smuggling by a fleet of revenue cruisers. All these achievements have been made possible by the master mind whose works are a marvel throughout the Far East.

In bearing such heavy responsibilities, and standing between the Chinese and foreigners, Sir Robert’s position has been both difficult and delicate. It was his first duty to be truly loyal to his imperial employers, and yet as a Westerner he has been expected to promote modern ideas of progress. On the one hand, therefore, he has had to overcome prejudice and lead toward reform without exciting suspicion or impairing confidence in himself, and on the other, he has had to satisfy the pressure of foreigners by introducing the thin wedge of reform as fast as conditions would permit. His duties have brought him into close and confidential relations with the highest Chinese officials. When important questions arose, especially those of an international character, the officials of the Tsungli-Yamen would invite him to consult with them ; that meant that they would ask for his opinion, and what he advised they would accept, but to the world at large it would be announced in the usual form that in regard to the point at issue the Yamen had ruled so and so. His words and acts inspired such confidence that the Chinese have trusted him as they have trusted no other foreigner, and with good reason, for he has never deceived them. With characteristic tact, he has never presumed upon his rank and importance. When asked to sit down he might have seated himself at his ease before the officials, and felt that he was within his rights in doing so. Instead, however, his habit was to sit only on the edge of the chair, — a position implying deference and submission, — the very thing to win favor in Chinese eyes. This quiet, dignified man, so simple and retiring in manner, has by sheer strength of character exercised an important influence in all the leading questions, and guided China’s officials with a steadying force through every crisis that the country has faced for the past quarter of a century until the Boxer rebellion of 1900. In appreciation of his services the Chinese government has conferred high rank upon him, and as a special distinction ennobled his ancestors as far back as three generations. In 1885 his home government offered him the position of British ambassador to China, — a flattering tribute to his successful record as administrator, and for three months he hesitated. He finally decided, however, to stand by the service, and declined the office.

So absorbed is he in his work that he seldom allows himself a holiday, and in fact takes most of his exercise within the limits of his own compound. In 1878 he returned to England for a short visit in connection with the Paris Exposition of that year ; with the exception of a hurried trip to Shanghai and Hong-Kong in 1886, and a week at the seashore in 1898 and 1899, he has since then remained uninterruptedly in Peking. Lady Hart returned to England in 1881, and for the past twenty years Sir Robert has lived practically alone. There were reports as far back as 1890, when he began to pack some of his books, that he would really retire and enjoy the rest of an easychair at home, but each recurring year finds him still in his accustomed place. It is not in accordance with Chinese practice to withdraw from office on account of increasing age; an official is expected to remain at his post so long as he is able to work. Wearing the same old leathern apron that he has used for years, he habitually stands at a high desk during office hours, and in the quiet of his inner retreat works fast and thoroughly at the questions in hand.

Sir Robert is of medium size, not striking in appearance, and, like many other great men, is modest and unassuming, and of an amiable disposition. But he is a man of firm poise and iron force of will. The keystone of the extraordinary organization which he has created is discipline: no laxity is permitted. A copy of the rules and regulations governing the service is given to each new member, so that he knows what is required of him, and what the result will be if he should prove delinquent. The duties are not severe, but they must be done thoroughly and well. Precisely at ten o’clock a line is drawn, and the attendance book at every office in the service is closed. The late comers, if there be any, sign underneath the line, and thus make themselves liable to notice and reproof. At four o’clock the book is opened again so as to note the time of departure. Dispatches for Peking must be free from erasures and errors. A dispatch sent unsigned, or inclosed in the wrong envelope, would indicate a degree of carelessness such as to be counted against the offender. The quarterly and annual accounts and returns, containing long columns of statistics and accompanied by versions in Chinese, must be correct in every detail. If mistakes are discovered, the documents are returned for correction with a note of censure. The hard and fast doctrine of the service is, that if a man does his duty faithfully and well, he need not expect any notice to be taken of it, but only if he errs; for Sir Robert has caused it to be distinctly understood that the men under his control are not paid to make mistakes. The Inspector General’s handwriting can hardly be read by one who is not used to it, and his signature is undecipherable, but the dispatches which are sent to him must be written in a special round hand, free from flourishes, and almost as easy to read as if printed. He rarely visits the ports, and many men have served for years and not seen him. His commissioners, however, act as a well-equipped intelligence bureau. They report to him regularly in both official and confidential dispatches, and so keep him minutely informed in regard to the qualifications of the staff and all local questions of importance.

The Inspectorate General is at Peking, where the resident staff consists of Sir Robert, or the I. G., as he is always called, his secretaries and their assistants, both foreign and native. His official residence is in the centre of a spacious inclosure, and is well arranged for the dinners, luncheons, and garden parties which he enjoys giving as a welcome relief from business cares. He is particularly fond of music, and has his own band of native musicians, who wear the I. G.’s uniform, and, under the leadership of a foreign director, play classical and popular pieces remarkably well. Sir Robert’s personal and official influence is so dominant that the Customs employees wherever stationed may be regarded as standing in an expectant attitude with their faces and thoughts turned toward the I. G., a just and strict employer. The principal dispatches and reports are sent to him, and the various orders and instructions which he issues in regard to salaries, transfers, promotions, and settlement of pending questions, must be accepted and obeyed without delay. The field over which Sir Robert holds sway is extensive. From New-Chwang in the north to Canton in the south there is a foreign custom house at each treaty port on the seacoast, as well as at the ports on the river Yangtze, on British territory near Hong-Kong, in Corea, and at several stations on the Tonkin frontier, thirty-two in all. The staff at each point is proportioned to the local requirements. It consists of a commissioner and a corps of foreign assistants and native clerks who have charge of the indoor clerical duties ; and a force of examiners, tidewaiters, watchers, and weighers who are stationed at the wharves and on board ship to prevent smuggling, and to examine and appraise goods. The office hours for the indoor department are from ten to four o’clock. Vessels are entered and cleared in the usual way, and the various processes of levying and collecting the tariff duty and clearing goods through the Customs are, in general, the same as are practiced in other countries.

The entire Customs staff is now 1000 foreigners and 4700 natives. It is a large body to be under the autocratic control of one man for civil purposes, but fortunately Sir Robert has used his authority wisely and well; he is often referred to as the benevolent despot of China. Notwithstanding the amazing growth of the service and his increasing years (he is now sixty-three), he has retained complete mastery of the inner working of each department. He still directs the movements of the whole staff, and sends from Peking precise instructions for the guidance of his commissioners, and decisions on local questions at the most distant ports.

The foreigners under him are a cosmopolitan body, as many as eighteen different nationalities being represented. The best positions are held by the commissioners and indoor assistants. They are gentlemen of education and culture, and are in the service because the work and surroundings are congenial, and the rate of pay extremely liberal. Men of this class are seldom engaged in China. There is a branch office of the Inspectorate General in London under the charge of a permanent secretary, and the rule is that an applicant for an appointment must first present his credentials and apply through the London secretary for a nomination from the I. G. If successful, he must next pass a civil service and medical examination at the London office ; he then receives his official appointment, and a liberal allowance to provide for his outfit and traveling expenses to China. This rule, however, does not apply to Americans, of whom, by the way, there are only a few in the service all told. As college graduates they are picked men, and have owed their appointments to demonstrated fitness, and to special recommendations from college presidents and professors. Of the American commissioners now on duty, the majority, namely, Messrs. Drew, Merrill, Morse, Spinney, and Clarke, are Massachusetts men and Harvard graduates. It is a pleasure to record that they have all filled their positions with distinguished success. Each incoming member is expected to apply himself diligently to the study of the Chinese language, — not one of the local dialects, but the official language as spoken at Peking. For this purpose he employs a native teacher for, say, one hour a day, and has also the aid of textbooks specially designed for beginners. A working knowledge of the language is positively necessary in order to be able to read Chinese dispatches and converse with the officials, very few of whom know a word of English. The commissioner examines his staff annually to discover what progress has been made, and the degree of proficiency as shown in his report to the I. G. influences successive promotions.

The conditions of living are comfortable. The commissioner and married members are provided with houses rent free. Comfortable apartments, also rent free, are assigned to the unmarried men, who form a Customs mess of their own, and enjoy the freedom and unconventionality of bachelor quarters. Medical attendance is also furnished without charge. Both the senior and junior members fare well, and, in common with other foreigners in the East, take life easily, in true accord with the traditions of an ancient country which has no place for modern hurry and its resulting nervous tension. The houses are built and furnished in foreign style, the food supply is sufficiently varied and abundant, and it is within bounds to say that all of the usual material comforts are present in ample variety. Another feature which relieves the stress of living so far from home is the pronounced satisfaction which the Chinese give as domestic servants. They are well trained, obedient, and faithful, and the rate of pay, too, is so comparatively small that a foreigner commonly has from three to ten in his employ. With a staff of such servants at command the cares of housekeeping practically disappear.

The Customs Service ranks socially with the consular and diplomatic services, and secures for its members a ready admittance to the society of the port which includes in every case welleducated and refined people of several nationalities. In comparison with the overwhelming majority of natives, the foreigners number only a few in all, and as they are living temporarily in a strange land, they are naturally drawn together by a common bond. They live in the foreign concession, and the tendency is to keep largely by themselves, and to maintain in China the same family customs that they had observed at home. The social side of life is particularly prominent. There is seldom any political or national movement to excite special interest, and the residents find recreation and pleasure in frequent dinner parties, picnics, and luncheons, and other society functions of an informal or elaborate kind. At four o’clock business closes for the day, and it is a part of the established order to turn to some form of diversion or healthful exercise. The ladies serve tea and toast, and make duty visits between the hours of four and seven, while the men, disregarding the heat of the climate, practice their favorite athletic sports of riding, boating, cricket, football, and tennis. The indoor members of the Customs enter fully into the life of the port. Even the latest arrivals soon adapt themselves to local conditions, and if they chance to be happily accomplished in respect to social and athletic qualifications, they are regarded as an acquisition to the community, and are heartily welcomed to its membership.

There is no fixed limit to the length of time which a Customs assistant may spend at a port. It depends entirely upon Sir Robert, who takes no one into his confidence, gives no explanation of his purposes, and will not tell his plans in advance. The average period is about three years. The chances are that then a man in a southern port will be ordered to the north, or that one on the Yangtze will be sent south. Such transfers involve separation from friends and the discomfort of moving and settling in new quarters, but they have also some agreeable compensations. Promotion to the next higher grade often accompanies a transfer, and there is also the change of climate and the opportunity to see and learn more of the land, its customs and people. In the north the foreigner has an excellent chance to collect a variety of curios consisting of old coins, pieces of porcelain, antique bronzes, and choice bits of embroidery, while on the Yangtze and in the south he can suit a critical taste in selecting silk piece goods, silver and gold articles of native workmanship, and wood and ivory carvings. At the end of seven years a member of the indoor staff completes his first period, as it is called, and is entitled to go home for a two years’ holiday, and also to receive one year’s full pay as a gratuity. Upon his going back to China for further service the Customs pay one half of the cost of his return fare. He then serves for five years more, when he completes his second period, and can again go home on two years’ leave and receive a second gratuity, — and so on for as long as health and inclination may permit. Mr. Drew, for instance, has served since 1865, and is still on active duty. The conditions of an engagement in the Customs, as they become known and are compared with those of other services, are considered unusually attractive on account of the generous salary, security of position, and prospect of sure advancement. Resignations rarely occur, and there are always more applicants than there are vacancies. The position, while not difficult to fill acceptably, is one of trust and responsibility, and is held in general esteem by the foreign communities.

Under Sir Robert’s administration the customs revenue has risen from $6,000,000 in 1860 to over $20,000,000 in 1899. Of late years it has been China’s financial mainstay, for with this income as an international guarantee it has been easy for the central government to make large loans in the foreign market, and to meet its maturing obligations promptly and in full. In addition to the collection of revenue, an important work is done through the medium of the statistical department, — a valuable arm of the service which is maintained at Shanghai. It circulates in printed form the I. G.’s instructions to his staff, and compiles and issues various series of publications containing statistics in regard to the trade of the country as a whole, and to such specialties as tea, silk, opium, and rugs. Bound in covers of the national color, these publications are the yellow books of China, and provide an accurate account of the country’s resources. In his capacity as Inspector General, and holding a commission from the Chinese government to act as its special agent in the department of customs, Sir Robert has been in reality the chief ruler, dictator, and autocrat of the service. Certain questions he would at times refer to the Yamen for decision, but to all practical intents and purposes he has had a free hand in his work, and managed it with careful provision for integrity and harmony. For example, in each day’s doings at a port there are sure to be large financial transactions, and yet throughout the Customs history the foreign staff has been secure against any possible suspicion or charge of dishonesty. It is so arranged that foreigners have no part in the actual handling of Customs money. Every assessment of duty is first computed and checked by Chinese as well as foreigners, but the money which is tendered in payment is not received at the custom house. No foreigner touches it. It is paid into the Haikuan Bank, a Chinese institution with a branch at each port. An exact record, however, is kept of all the duty so levied, and at the end of the quarter each commissioner provides a check upon both the bank and the Customs by sending to Peking for the I. G. and the Yamen a detailed return in both English and Chinese of all the receipts and payments during that period. Again, between the Customs and Chinese merchants, questions in values of goods and meaning of regulations would be likely to cause friction were it not for coöperation with the local Chinese officials. The commissioner has entire charge of his staff and the operation of the customs at his port, but the resident native official, or taotai, is given an equal rank with him in the service. The commissioner and taotai, therefore, are colleagues, and consult together as occasion may require. While the taotai takes no active part in the conduct of the daily routine, his association in rank with the commissioner is the means of insuring his interest and support.

In the empire of China where the ruling classes have so steadfastly resisted the introduction of foreign ideas, and where the government has the reputation of being too often served by corrupt and reactionary officials, it is a striking fact that so important a department of state has been so successfully controlled and operated by foreigners according to foreign practice, and that its record has been marked by conspicuous and unassailable integrity. Through all the troublous times which the empire has passed in recent years in connection with local uprisings and foreign complications, this department has not changed in character, and has stood throughout as a shining example of the best kind of foreign administration.

In the construction of a new China, which may be reasonably hoped for as an outcome of the present situation, there will be an exceptional chance to introduce another permanent reform by establishing a native civil service, using the Customs as a model.

H. C. Whittlesey.