China’s loss of sovereignty in the early modern era was evidenced by its loss of territorial integrity. A string of defeats compelled it to cede land and pay indemnities, resulting in the loss of large swathes of land to Britain, Russia, and Japan. It also had to tolerate a growing number of concessions in the treaty ports, which were virtually foreign-ruled domains on the Chinese soil.
Secondly, China was increasingly stripped of its autonomy in exercising various sovereign rights in the economic, legal, and diplomatic domains. Its tariff autonomy was lost when it was forced to seek foreign powers’ agreement in setting its tariff rates, which resulted in the tariff being too low to deter the influx of foreign goods. Later, it even allowed foreigners to manage its customs service.
China’s legal autonomy was lost upon the forced imposition of consular jurisdiction and granting of extraterritoriality to foreigners. This meant that foreigners who committed crimes in China could not be tried by a Chinese court under Chinese law. Instead, they were handed over to their own nation’s consulate and tried under the laws of their countries.
The most-favoured-nation clause in international treaties signed with various foreign powers stipulated that whenever China granted to a third country any benefits, privileges or exemptions with respect to common regulations on navigation, trade, tariffs, and civil liberties that pertained to the international community, the same advantages would also have to be bestowed on all countries that had been granted the most-favoured-nation treatment by China in previous treaties. The unilateral principles in these treaties favoured the foreign powers as they had no reciprocal obligation to bestow the same privileges on China.
On the military front, China was forced to give foreign vessels the freedom to navigate the country’s inland waterways. In the Boxer Protocol (《辛丑條約》) between China and the Eight-Nation Alliance, China pledged to dismantle the capital’s defences, leaving China with barely any national defence capacity.
In 1845, Qiying (耆英, the seated figure in the centre) visited the British Hong Kong. He served as Qing China’s representative to conclude the Treaty of Nanking (《南京條約》, Treaty of Nanjing). Aside from the 1842 Treaty of Nanking, Qiying also represented China to conclude the 1843 Treaty of the Bogue (《五口通商附粘善後條款》, also known as《虎門條約》) in Humen (虎門) with Sir Henry Pottinger, the British representative and the first Governor of Hong Kong. The treaty granted Britain the most-favoured-nation treatment.
A trial scene at the yamen (government office) during the Qing dynasty. Unable to stomach China’s archaic judicial system and practices, foreigners in China managed to procure the right to consular jurisdiction for themselves.
A modern-day photo of a courthouse located within the former German concession in Qingdao (青島), Shandong Province (山東). Foreigners with the right to consular jurisdiction were no longer bound by the Qing laws, which severely compromised China’s judicial sovereignty.
A joint trial in a mixed court within the foreign concessions in Shanghai.
A group photo of the concession police force that served the Shanghai International Settlement. In place of Chinese policemen, the law enforcement in foreign concessions was carried out by their own police force.
In this photo taken in the late 19th century, criminals convicted by the Shanghai Mixed Court can be seen performing hard labour while guarded by Indian policemen in the service of the British crown.
A modern-day photo of a barracks in the former French concession in Tianjin. Besides forming their own police force, some of the imperialist powers also maintained their own military within the concessions.
An 1887 photo of the customs checkpoint in Guangzhou (廣州). A steamship named Hankou (漢口) can be seen berthed at the harbour. After the First Opium War, China’s tariff autonomy was gradually stripped off. It could only levy a very low tariff rates on imports.
Pictured are the shops in Guangzhou during the late Qing dynasty. Most sold foreign goods. The low tariff rates encouraged the influx of foreign goods in China and made it hard for local products to compete.
Since the signing of the Sino-British Treaty of Tientsin (《天津條約》, Treaty of Tianjin) in 1858, foreign merchant vessels and warships were able to navigate China’s inland waterways. During March to May 1869, a British survey vessel sailed up the Yangtze River (長江) to explore China’s inland regions. Pictured is an illustration of the Three Gorges (三峽) by the surveyors.
Sources of most photos used in this feature piece: Fotoe (pictures 1-9), Visual China Group (picture 10).