Signing off on the ‘unequal treaties’

U.S. and U.K. representatives sign new equal treaties with the ROC in 1943. (CNA 05/20/1943)

It is seventy years ago this week that British and Chinese diplomats in China’s war-time capital Chongqing (Chungking), signed an agreement that abolished the privileges and rights in China that had been acquired by the British through and since the 1842 Treaty of Nanjing. The process of the securing of those privileges is the major theme of The Scramble for China.

The new treaty was ratified in a brief ceremony in Chongqing on 20 May 1943. It was partly academic at the time, for many of those British possessions and interests not already surrendered to the Chinese government since early 1927 — the international settlements at Shanghai and Xiamen (Amoy), and the British concession at Tianjni (Tientsin) — were largely under the control of the Japanese. But the new agreement was symbolically hugely important, and was accompanied by a similar US-China treaty. Such symbolism was also not lost on the Japanese occupiers, who also arranged for the Shanghai international settlement to be surrendered to China on 1 August 1943, although in that case to the collaborationst government of Wang Jingwei.

The 1943 Anglo-Chinese treaty is rather less well-known than the 1842 Nanjing Treaty, or the 1858 Treaty of Tianjin, the founding documents of the system of ‘treaty ports’ and concessions in China, not least because it was secured by the Nationalist Government of the Guomindang, and so sits awkwardly alongside narratives which accord the leading role in the rolling back of foreign imperialism in China to the Chinese Communist Party.

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