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U: Unequal Treaties

A painting by E Duncan depicting the First Opium War

A humiliating period

For the Chinese the term “Unequal Treaties” characterises the terms of surrender imposed by the gunboat diplomacy of the European powers and Japan between 1840 and 1949.

Under these treaties, China was forced to change its laws, pay huge indemnities and grant concessions (i.e. control of some of its cities, ports and waterways to foreign governments).

The concessions, which began with the trading and residential privileges granted by the 1842 Treaty of Nanking, have more recently become associated with the ‘Century of Humiliation’ – an era when China’s standing in the world was at one of its lowest ebbs.

In this analysis, it was only when Mao Zedong stood atop Beijing’s Gate of Heavenly Peace on October 1, 1949 and proclaimed the founding of the People’s Republic of China that this “century” – which actually lasted 109 years – came to an end.

Even today, China’s leaders are inclined to invoke the memory of these “Unequal Treaties”, especially in international disputes. The current leader, Xi Jinping, also alludes to them when he calls for a “China Dream” of national rejuvenation.

The world’s first drug war

In 1839, a trade war between the British Empire and China’s Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) had seismic geopolitical consequences. The British had been buying large quantities of Chinese tea, but the Chinese were buying little from Britain in return, creating an uncomfortably large trade deficit (and a drain on British silver). The British response was to sell the Chinese more Indian opium, a product that was proving hard to resist. However, as the number of addicts grew the Qing sought to ban opium imports, stoking tensions with British merchants. The merchants persuaded their government that the new restrictions ran counter to the principles of free trade and in June 1840, following the breakdown in negotiations with the Qing court, the British government sent a large military force to capture the city of Canton (now Guangzhou). Later, British troops travelled north, entering the Yangtze River Delta.

The First Opium War ended with the defeat of the Qing, not only unmasking how far behind the country had fallen technologically but also consigning the tributary system to history: for the first time the Middle Kingdom felt unable able to respond to a foreign nation from a position of superior status.

At the subsequent Treaty of Nanking, the first of the “Unequal Treaties” imposed on China, the British extracted significant concessions from the Qing, including the ceding of Hong Kong island, the expansion of trading rights to additional ports beyond Canton (today’s Guangzhou) and extraterritorial rights for British subjects in China (in effect, that they would be under British law, even on Chinese soil).

By the 1850s, Russia and France had concluded a series of similar treaties with China, taking control of treaty ports that they would run in a quasi-colonial way. Japan would sign its own treaty in the 1890s after a crushing military victory over the Qing empire, taking control of the island of Taiwan, as well as a dominant position in much of China’s Northeast (see J for Japan). The humiliation weakened and ultimately toppled the Qing in favour of a new republic, which was declared in 1912.

Abolition of the treaty system

After the Second World War the foreign powers largely left China. However, the British retained Hong Kong until 1997, when the city was handed back to China (two years later Macau was also returned, marking in Chinese eyes the end of the “Unequal Treaties” era).

Yet the term still resonates in China’s relationship with the wider world, dating back to warnings from Mao that “every day and every minute the imperialists will try to stage a comeback. This is inevitable and beyond all doubt”. Memories of the period loom large in more contemporary debate too, including negotiations in early 2019 on a deal with Washington over trade tariffs, when Xi Jinping compared some of the American demands to those made by foreign powers over 150 years ago.

A request in those negotiations that China change some of its laws clearly impinged on national sovereignty and resembled the nineteenth century push for extraterritorial legal rights, the government argued. An editorial in Xinhua, the state media outlet, made the point more robustly: “Obviously, these arrogant demands are beyond the scope of trade negotiations and touch on China’s fundamental economic system. This shows that behind the United States’ trade war against China, the US is trying to invade China’s economic sovereignty and force China to damage its core interests.”

Another lesson not lost on the Chinese from their defeat in the Opium Wars was the importance of maritime power. The Qing were vulnerable because of the shortcomings of their navy and today the Chinese military is pouring resources into expanding its fleets. Some of that effort is the legacy of the ‘Century of Humiliation’ and subsequent analysis by Beijing’s strategists of how ruling the waves had earlier helped the British secure trade routes and protect their dominant position.


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