Abolition of China's Unequal Treaties and the Search for Regional Stability in Asia, 1919-1943 Academic Article uri icon


  • Article Extract: On July 1, 1997, China will resume control over Hong Kong - territory ceded to Britain in 1842 following China's defeat in the Opium War. The settlement of the Hong Kong question and the scheduled 1999 reversion of Macao from Portugal to China will effectively remove the last traces of the restrictions and encroachments placed on China by treaty for 150 years following the 1842 Treaty of Nanking. The "unequal" treaty system began with the trading and residential privileges provided by the Treaty of Nanking. Britain was the premier trading power in China in the nineteenth century, and the treaty and trading system that developed there were largely of British design. The United States and France benefitted from this framework, and added to it. Russia added border issues and overland trade to the system. Germany and Japan, latecomers to the China trade, essentially had to confine their activities to the framework created by the earlier powers in China. The Treaty of Nanking with the United Kingdom and separate treaties concluded with the United States and France opened China to trade with the outside. The two basic elements of the treaty framework were the most favored nation clause and diplomatic relations on an equal footing. Some form of the most favored nation clause was used by all the treaty powers from the outset to ensure that they would receive no less in rights and privileges than their fellow treaty powers. China granted this freely. For the Chinese, it seemed only logical that what was granted to one "sea barbarian" should be granted to another. This liberal granting of most favored nation status would later work to China's disadvantage when it sought to revise its treaties. The clause bound all the treaty powers together, making it impossible for China to restructure its treaty relations with one without involving all the powers.

published proceedings

  • The Chinese (Taiwan) Yearbook of International Law and Affairs

author list (cited authors)

  • Ku, C.

complete list of authors

  • Ku, Charlotte

publication date

  • January 1994