War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression
(1931-1945)
Civil War and Founding of the PRC
(1945-1949)
Tales of Hong Kong
(1840-1949)
Tales of Macao
(1840-1949)
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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.

What is sovereignty? When did the modern concept of national sovereignty take shape?

See answer below.

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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.

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Most-favoured-nation treatment: typically, by mutually according to each other the most-favoured nation treatment, the two contracting parties involved would guarantee each other advantages, privileges, and immunities with respect to common regulations on navigation, trade, tariffs, and civilian legal status that are equal or superior to any that have been or would be granted to a third country. Normally, the most-favoured-nation treatment is granted on a reciprocal basis and under the principle of equality and mutual benefit. However, the agreements between Qing China and foreign countries unilaterally required China alone to grant the most-favoured-nation treatment to the foreign contracting parties, while China itself did not have the right to enjoy the reciprocal treatment. Thus, it was also known as the “unilateral most-favored-nation treatment”.

In 1843, Qing China and Britain signed the Treaty of the Bogue to supplement the previous Treaty of Nanking. The treaty contained a most-favored-nation clause that entitled Britain to any privileges to be granted to other powers by China. At that time, the Qing government was ignorant about foreign affairs and could not foresee the devastating effects of this clause. In 1845, China and the United States signed the Treaty of Wangxia (《望廈條約,Treaty of Wanghia》), which granted the unilateral most-favoured-nation treatment to the United States. The treaty also stipulated that it would be subject to a revision after 12 years. Later, citing the most-favoured-nation clause, Britain demanded a renegotiation of the Treaty of Nanking with China. The Qing government’s refusal became one of the key factors that led to the Second Opium War to China.

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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.

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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.

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Consular jurisdiction refers to a consulate in a foreign country having jurisdiction over its own nationals who have been accused of breaking local laws. Foreign nationals are thus exempted from the jurisdiction of local law.

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A joint trial in a mixed court within the foreign concessions in Shanghai.

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By the late Qing dynasty, most of the foreign powers that had obtained the right to consular jurisdiction from China established courthouses within their own concessions to try any of their nationals suspected of criminal offenses under their laws. Cases that involved both Chinese and foreign nationals (mixed cases) were tried by a mixed court presided over by both Chinese and foreign judges. An example of such an establishment was the Shanghai Mixed Court within the foreign concessions in Shanghai: a mixed Sino-foreign judicial institution jointly established by the Qing government and the Shanghai-based consulates of Britain, the United States, and France in 1864. It was known as the huishen gongxie (會審公廨) in Chinese. Gongxie (or guanxie) is the Chinese term for “government office” and huishen means “joint trial”. The mixed court was a courthouse within the concession where cases involving both Chinese and foreigners were tried by Chinese and foreign judges in the same sitting.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The right to navigate inland waterways refers to a country’s sovereign and inviolable right to conduct shipping on its rivers and lakes. The 1858 Sino-British Treaty of Tientsin opened various ports along the Yangtze River (such as Hankou in the middle reaches of the Yangtze) to British trade, meaning British vessels could sail into these ports. The Sino-Russian Treaty of Aigun (《璦琿條約》) concluded in the same year granted Russia the right to sail on the Heilongjiang River (黑龍江), the Songhua River (松花江), and the Ussuri River (烏蘇里江). The 1895 Sino-Japanese Treaty of Shimonoseki expanded the foreign vessels’ right to navigate the Yangtze’ tributaries as well. Granting the imperialist powers the right to navigate inland waterways was a violation of the Chinese sovereignty and a grave threat to the national defence.

What is sovereignty? When did the modern concept of national sovereignty take shape?

Sovereignty refers to a country’s exclusive and supreme authority over the management of legislative, judicial, and executive affairs in its domain; in other words, the absolute authority to remain independent and autonomous. In ancient times, when the concept of sovereignty was still ill-defined, it was common for travellers to enter another country without a “passport”. It was also common for large, power-hungry empires to annex smaller and weaker countries at will. In Europe, the Thirty Years’ War that began in 1618 finally ended in 1648 after the signing of the Peace of Westphalia, which recognised the numerous constituent states of the Holy Roman Empire as independent sovereign states. From then on, the concept of sovereignty became increasingly common, and laid the foundation for the gradual development of modern-day international law. Later, the Netherlands, Britain, the United States, France, Germany, and Italy all went through wars of independence, revolutions or unification movements that further consolidated their independence as nation states. Regrettably, after securing democracy and independence for themselves, the European countries and the United States failed to uphold their own original values, choosing to spur development in their own countries and better their own people’s welfare at the cost of the sovereignty of Asian, African, and Latin-American countries.

Sources of most photos used in this feature piece: Fotoe (pictures 1-9), Visual China Group (picture 10).