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Maintenir l'Ordre aux Confins de l'Empire: An Overly Narrow History Book

Updated on May 9, 2019

From the 1860s to 1954, the French exercised a control, initially expanding, in Indochina, moving from Southern Vietnam to Northern Vietnam and also taking control of Cambodia and Laos. This led them, after a sharp but short war with the Chinese, to have a border with China between Northern Vietnam and Southern China. Such a border, in the rugged mountainous and hill land of the region, had to be policed, and the French and Chinese established a common border system. However, it was still known as a rather lawless and violent region, which thus results in the need for an examination of it to understand just what sort of dynamics were present in this zone, leading to the work Maintenir l'ordre aux confins de l'Empire: Pirates, trafiquants, et rebelles entre Chine et Vîet Nam, 1895-1940, by Johann Grément, which devotes itself to a quantitative analysis of the French border security system and how it functioned.

The initial introduction to the book provides a limited historical introduction, followed by the object of research, the border security forces, and some of the limitations present in this research.

A second chapter (labeled the first in the book, following from the introduction), lays out the actual organization of the French frontier defense system, based upon a network of garrison posts along the frontier in military regions with military troop detachments in each one responsible for their defense and for conducting border guard. These were supposed to be engaged in liaison activity with the Chinese across the border, and the book mentions that formally relations were good, although in practice they were more variable.

The third chapter continues with a discussion of some of the weaknesses which afflicted the French border posts, such as the difficulties of medical standards, lack of interpreters and linguistic competences, high turnover of personnel (these positions were viewed as punishment posts), and problems of relations with the Chinese counterparts. The French were assisted in their efforts to keep security on the border by local auxiliaries, self-defense forces who defended their homes and hence happened to coincide with French efforts to guard the frontier.

Following this emerges a chapter about what sort of attacks took place as Chinese bandits crossed the frontier, upon which targets, for what reasons (principally monetary ones but also vengeance, financial disagreements, even romantic reasons, etc.), and some of the methods, such as ambushes.

Since the principal target of these cross-border raids were to steal goods, the nature of the targeted goods is then analyzed, such as livestock, material goods, money, or women. Ironically when it was Vietnamese forces who crossed to the other side of the border and kidnapped Chinese women, the French administration was reluctant to force their return, possibly a belief that they were better off in the island of civilization of French Indochina rather than in dangerous China itself.

Opium was big business in French Indochina, a valuable revenue for the state and in addition widely used by the population.
Opium was big business in French Indochina, a valuable revenue for the state and in addition widely used by the population.

Smuggling constitutes a chapter, relating to what sort of goods were smuggled (principally opium, although a broad range were shipped across the border, ranging from alcohol to fuel to money), and in what ways and by what agents. Here, suspicion fell above all else upon the Chinese, viewed as a dangerous criminal element by the administration. The French were willing to let smuggling exist, due to the difficulties in suppressing it and its importance to the border economy.

The sixth chapter covers the intelligence and prevention measures taken by the French. The French established a forward network of spies in China, as they did not put great trust in their Chinese counterparts. Unfortunately these spies tended to be low quality and sent back huge numbers of conflicting reports, and hence there were constant false alarms of invasion. The French also launched military patrols from their posts to further extend their positions.

As a final chapter, the seventh is devoted to what sort of responses were carried out against rebels and bandits. In most cases, the auxiliaries and village peoples responded to crimes on their own, and only in a small proportion of cases were French troops actually used. When used in response, they would carry out ambushes, and raids, although the presence of the border bound their hands somewhat. Resultantly, there were occasional proposals to cross the border after petitioning China, although this never really happened.

A final conclusion attempts to tie this study of the border into a broader idea, noting that it demonstrated the limits of French power and some of the problems linked to their conduct.

For a quantitative study of the Sino-Vietnamese frontier, this book is without doubt unrivaled. There is a tremendous amount of information which is available concerning the statistical development of the frontier and the various activities which took place upon it. The book provides an excellent overview of the structure of the French border security forces, as well as the challenges and difficulties which they faced. It must have taken a tremendous amount of time to gain sufficient information from the archives to be able to raise the very extensive amount of statistical data which is present. Furthermore, the book does touch upon some of the activities which took place across the frontier and to some extent upon the broader relevance which the frontier had, as a region which did not really represent a simple line in the sand, but rather a shared space between Vietnam and China and its own particular element in of itself, a zone.

At the same time there are a number of weaknesses which undermine this book. Above all else, I believe that the author put insufficient general overview and summary of this frontier zone: it is assumed that the reader is already broadly knowledgeable of it, and yet there is a need to be able to paint a broad picture of what it was like, what the conditions were, and how it was perceived. An expanded introduction, covering these elements, would have been useful. One can get a vague feeling for the dangerous nature of the frontier, of its lawless and anarchical nature, but its general importance and the opinion of it is little covered. Simple the addition of a chapter upon that, or an expanded introduction, would have done much to provide context for its broader relevance and influence.

Furthermore, there were missed opportunities. It is mentioned at several times that the French continued to use much of the border infrastructure which had been utilized by the previous Vietnamese imperial administration, but there is no overall identification of the changes and modifications produced between the Vietnamese rule and the French. Surely there could have been discussions of how the French had modified or continued to use the hinted at corporate bodies responsible for border security under the new regime? These are only mentioned sparingly and indirectly, and even the auxiliary village self defense forces, which were of vital importance in making the scheme work and actually provided for the majority of muscle and active units, receive sparing focus. Furthermore, the very narrow nature of the study means that there is little focus on things such as papers, the role of the sûreté, cooperation with police forces, and the other elements of the information state upon the Vietnamese side of the border - although it does at least, mention some of the intelligence gathering apparatus found on the Chinese side.

Indeed, there could have been more added onto this in regards to how the control of the border affected and impacted the local people: this might stretch too far beyond the stated ambitions of the author, who was using only French documentary sources and had a rather narrow objective, but at the same time, it is such a rich subject that it seems stunning that hardly any discussion was made of the actual relationship between the border and the lives of people in the region, beyond mentioning that opium played a significant role in the cross-border economy which caused the French to be reluctant to crack down on it for public opinion reasons. There were of course the inevitable discussions of what had happened in regards to attacks by bandits upon the Vietnamese side of the frontier, but there was no overall picture which would have done much to tie this together with the scattered other elements of information to produce a comprehensive outlook.

While this book is one which is very good in regards to providing for a narrow, quantitative look into the French border control forces, the limited focus of the study makes its broader utility somewhat doubtful. Unless if one has a desperate need to know about the specific nature of how many soldiers were positioned on the frontier, its organization, and the attacks which were carried out in minute detail, the book doesn't present a tome which is of great utility for almost anybody studying the subject.

2 stars for Maintenir l'ordre aux confins de l'empire

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