“Unequal Treaties” and Treaty Ports

Britain and the fading Qing Dynasty held conflicting views on diplomatic relations, trade and administration of justice, and control of the opium trade. When Chinese officials in Guangzhou confiscated and destroyed supplies of opium from British traders, Britain objected to the seizure and used its military might to retaliate.

Thus began the First Opium War (1839-42). During the Opium War’s Battle of Amoy in 1841, the British occupied Xiamen. Fighting continued for a year before the Qing government accepted defeat and signed the 1842 Treaty of Nanjing.

The treaty forced the Qing Dynasty to accept Britain’s trade-related demands of ceding the island of Hong Kong to the United Kingdom in perpetuity and establishing five “treaty ports”: Guangzhou (Canton), Fuzhou (now capital of Fujian Province), Ningbo (a port city near Shanghai), Shanghai, and Xiamen (Amoy). Soon afterward the Qing also granted similar “concessions” to France and the U.S. Before the 1912 fall of the Qing Dynasty, foreign governments secured more than 80 treaty ports.

These treaties placed no reciprocal obligations on foreign governments. To this day Chinese textbooks call these “unequal treaties”. The fact that Western governments forced these treaties on the Qing is still deeply humiliating to the Chinese government and to Chinese people. China is still seeking to recover “face” lost during the period and is struggling to resume its historic role as a powerful nation.

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