Unequal Treaty - Overview


The term "unequal treaty" did not come into use until early in the 20th century. These treaties were considered unequal in China "because they were not negotiated by nations treating each other as equals but were imposed on China after a war, and because they encroached upon China's sovereign rights ... which reduced her to semicolonial status". In many cases China was effectively forced to pay large amounts of reparations, open up ports for trade, cede or lease territories (such as Hong Kong to Great Britain and Macau to Portugal), and make various other concessions of sovereignty to foreign "spheres of influence", following military defeats.

The earliest attempt to settle a conflict between Western and Asian powers was the 1841 Convention of Chuenpee negotiations during the First Opium War. China and Great Britain signed the first unequal treaties under the Treaty of Nanjing in 1842. Following Qing China's defeat, treaties with Britain opened up five ports to foreign trade, while also allowing foreign missionaries, at least in theory, to reside within China. In addition, the administration of justice on foreign residents in the port cities were afforded trials by their own consular authorities rather than the Chinese legal system, a concept termed extraterritoriality.

Some countries failed to press unequal treaties upon China: the Chinese forced the Italians to give up on a demand to hand over Sanmen Bay to them.

When the United States Commodore Matthew Perry forced open Japan in 1854, Japan was soon prompted to sign the Convention of Kanagawa, which was similar to ones China had signed.

Korea's first unequal treaty was not with the West but with Japan. Taking a page from Western tactics, in 1875 Japan sent Captain Inoue Yoshika and the warship Un'yō to display military might over Korea in the Ganghwa Island incident. This forced Korea to open its doors to Japan by signing the Japan–Korea Treaty of 1876.

The unequal treaties ended at various times for the countries involved. Japan's victories in the 1894–95 First Sino-Japanese War convinced many in the West that unequal treaties could no longer be enforced on Japan. Korea's unequal treaties with European states became largely null and void in 1910, when it was annexed by Japan.

After World War I, patriotic consciousness in China focused on the treaties, which now became widely known as "unequal treaties." Nationalist Party and the Communist Party competed to convince the public that their approach would be more effective. Germany was forced to terminate its rights, the Soviet Union ostentatiously surrendered them, and the United States organized the Washington Conference to negotiate them. After Chiang Kai-shek declared a new national government in 1927, the western powers quickly offered diplomatic recognition, arousing anxiety in Japan. The new government declared to the Great Powers that China had been exploited for decades under unequal treaties, and that the time for such treaties was over, demanding they renegotiate all of them on equal terms. In the face of Japanese expansion in China, however, ending the system was postponed.

Most of China's unequal treaties were abrogated during the Second Sino-Japanese War, which started in 1937 and merged into the larger context of World War II. The United States Congress ended American extraterritoriality in December, 1943. Significant examples of unequal treaties on China did outlast World War II: unequal treaties regarding Hong Kong remained in place until Hong Kong's 1997 handover, and in 1969, to improve Sino-Russian relations, China reconfirmed the 1859 Treaty of Aigun.

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