Unequal treaty is the name given by the Chinese to a series of treaties signed during the 19th and early 20th centuries, between China, (mostly referring to the Qing dynasty) various Western powers (specifically the British Empire, France, the German Empire, the United States, and the Russian Empire), and the Empire of Japan. The agreements, often reached after a military defeat or a threat of military invasion, contained one-sided terms, requiring China to cede land, pay reparations, open treaty ports, give up tariff autonomy, legalise opium import, and grant extraterritorial privileges to foreign citizens.
With the rise of Chinese nationalism and anti-imperialism in the 1920s, both the Kuomintang and the Chinese Communist Party used the concept to characterize the Chinese experience of losing sovereignty between roughly 1840 to 1950. The term "unequal treaty" became associated with the concept of China's "century of humiliation", especially the concessions to foreign powers and the loss of tariff autonomy through treaty ports.
Japanese and Koreans also use the term to refer to several treaties that resulted in the loss of their sovereignty, to varying degrees.
In China, the term "unequal treaty" first came into use in the early 1920s to describe the historical treaties, still imposed on the then-Republic of China, that were signed through the period of time which the American sinologist John K. Fairbank characterized as the "treaty century" which began in the 1840s.
In assessing the term's usage in rhetorical discourse since the early 20th century, American historian Dong Wang notes that "while the phrase has long been widely used, it nevertheless lacks a clear and unambiguous meaning" and that there is "no agreement about the actual number of treaties signed between China and foreign countries that should be counted as unequal." However, within the scope of Chinese historiographical scholarship, the phrase has typically been defined to refer to the many cases in which China was effectively forced to pay large amounts of financial reparations, open up ports for trade, cede or lease territories (such as Russian Manchuria and Outer Northwest China (including Zhetysu) to the Russian Empire, Hong Kong and Weihaiwei to the United Kingdom, Guangzhouwan to France, Kwantung Leased Territory and Taiwan to the Empire of Japan, the Jiaozhou Bay concession to the German Empire and concession territory in Tientsin, Shamian, Hankou, Shanghai etc.), and make various other concessions of sovereignty to foreign spheres of influence, following military threats.
The Chinese-American sinologist Immanuel Hsu states that the Chinese viewed the treaties they signed with Western powers and Russia as unequal "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".
The earliest treaty later referred to as "unequal" was the 1841 Convention of Chuenpi negotiations during the First Opium War. The first treaty between China and the United Kingdom termed "unequal" was 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. Foreign residents in the port cities were afforded trials by their own consular authorities rather than the Chinese legal system, a concept termed extraterritoriality. Under the treaties, the UK and the US established the British Supreme Court for China and Japan and United States Court for China in Shanghai.
After World War I, patriotic consciousness in China focused on the treaties, which now became widely known as "unequal treaties." The 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 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.
After the Boxer Rebellion and the signing of the Anglo-Japanese Alliance of 1902, Germany began to reassess its policy approach towards China. In 1907 Germany suggested a trilateral German-Chinese-American agreement that never materialised. Thus China entered the new era of ending unequal treaties on March 14, 1917 when it broke off diplomatic relations with Germany, thereby terminating the concessions it had given that country, with China declaring war on Germany on August 17, 1917.
As World War I commenced, these acts voided the unequal treaty of 1861, resulting in the reinstatement of Chinese control on the concessions of Tianjin and Hankou to China. In 1919, the post-war peace negotiations failed to return the territories in Shandong, previously under German colonial control, back to the Republic of China. After it was determined that the Japanese forces occupying those territories since 1914 would be allowed to retain them under the Treaty of Versailles, the Chinese delegate Wellington Koo refused to sign the peace agreement, with China being the only conference member to boycott the signing ceremony. Widely perceived in China as a betrayal of the country's wartime contributions by the other conference members, the domestic backlash following the failure to restore Shandong would cause the collapse of the cabinet of the Duan Qirui government and lead to the May 4th movement.
On May 20, 1921, China secured with the German-Chinese peace treaty (Deutsch-chinesischer Vertrag zur Wiederherstellung des Friedenszustandes) a diplomatic accord which was considered the first equal treaty between China and a European nation.
Many of the other treaties China considers unequal were repealed during the Second Sino-Japanese War, which started in 1937 and merged into the larger context of World War II. Entering the war with the attack on Pearl Harbour, China became a major ally in the war effort and the United States Congress was pressed to end American extraterritoriality in December 1943. Significant examples outlasted World War II: treaties regarding Hong Kong remained in place until Hong Kong's 1997 handover, though in 1969, to improve Sino-Soviet relations in the wake of military skirmishes along their border, the People's Republic of China was forced to reconfirm the 1858 Treaty of Aigun and 1860 Treaty of Peking.
When the US expeditionary fleet led by Matthew Perry reached Japan in 1854 to force open the island nation for American trade, the country was compelled to sign the Convention of Kanagawa under the threat of violence by the American warships. Although its historical importance has been argued by some to be limited,[who?] this event abruptly terminated Japan's 220 years of seclusion under the Sakoku policy of 1633 under unilateral foreign pressure and consequentially, the convention has been seen in a similar light as an unequal treaty.
Another significant incident was the Tokugawa Shogunate's capitulation to the Harris Treaty of 1858, negotiated by the eponymous U.S. envoy Townsend Harris, which, among other concessions, established a system of extraterritoriality for foreign residents. This agreement would then serve as a model for similar treaties to be further signed by Japan with other foreign Western powers in the weeks to follow.
The enforcement of these unequal treaties were a tremendous national shock for Japan's leadership as they both curtailed Japanese sovereignty for the first time in its history and also revealed the nation's growing weakness relative to the West through the latter's successful imposition of such agreements upon the island nation. An objective towards the recovery of national status and strength would become an overarching priority for Japan, with the treaty's domestic consequences being the end of the Bakufu, the 700 years of shogunate rule over Japan, and the establishment of a new imperial government.
The unequal treaties ended at various times for the countries involved and 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 first unequal treaty was not with the West, but instead with Japan. The Ganghwa Island incident in 1875 saw Japan send the warship Un'yō led by Captain Inoue Yoshika with the implied threat of military action to coerce the Korean kingdom of Joseon through the show of force. After an armed clash ensued around Ganghwa Island where the Japanese force was sent, which resulted in its victory, the incident subsequently forced Korea to open its doors to Japan by signing the Treaty of Ganghwa Island, also known as the Japan–Korea Treaty of 1876. As Japanese dominance over the Korean peninsula grew in the following decades, with respect to the unequal treaties imposed upon the kingdom by the European powers, Korea's diplomatic concessions with those states became largely null and void in 1910, when it was annexed by Japan.
|English name||Chinese name|
|Treaty of Nanking||南京條約||1842||United Kingdom||Qing dynasty|
|Treaty of the Bogue||虎門條約||1843||United Kingdom|
|Treaty of Wanghia||中美望廈條約||1844||United States|
|Treaty of Whampoa||黃埔條約||1844||France|
|Treaty of Canton||中瑞廣州條約||1847||Sweden-Norway|
|Treaty of Kulja||中俄伊犁塔爾巴哈臺通商章程||1851||Russia|
|Treaty of Aigun||璦琿條約||1858||Russia|
|Treaty of Tientsin (1858)||天津條約||1858||France|
|Convention of Peking||北京條約||1860||United Kingdom|
|Treaty of Tientsin (1861)||中德通商条约||1861||Prussia, also for Deutscher Zollverein|
|Chefoo Convention||煙臺條約||1876||United Kingdom|
|Treaty of Livadia||里瓦幾亞條約||1879||Russia|
|Treaty of Saint Petersburg||伊犁條約||1881||Russia|
|Treaty of Tientsin (1885)||中法新約||1885||France|
|Sino-Portuguese Treaty of Peking||中葡北京條約||1887||Portugal|
|Treaty of Shimonoseki (Treaty of Maguan)||馬關條約||1895||Japan|
|Convention for the Lease of the Liaotung Peninsula||旅大租地条约||1898||Russia|
|Convention for the Extension of Hong Kong Territory||展拓香港界址專條||1898||United Kingdom|
|Treaty of Kwangchow Wan||廣州灣租界條約||1899||France|
|Boxer Protocol||辛丑條約||1901||United Kingdom|
|Simla Convention||西姆拉條約||1914||United Kingdom||Republic of China|
|Sino-Japanese Joint Defence Agreement||中日共同防敵軍事協定||1918||Japan|
|English name||Japanese name|
|Convention of Kanagawa||日米和親条約||1854||United States||Tokugawa shogunate|
|Anglo-Japanese Friendship Treaty||日英和親条約||1854||United Kingdom|
|Treaty of Shimoda||下田条約||1855||Russia|
|Treaty of Amity and Commerce between the United States and Japan (Harris Treaty)||安政条約||1858||United States|
|Treaty of Amity and Commerce between the Kingdom of the Netherlands and Japan||Netherlands|
|Treaty of Amity and Commerce between the Russian Empire and Japan||Russia|
|Treaty of Amity and Commerce between British Empire and Japan||United Kingdom|
|Treaty of Amity and Commerce between France and Japan||France|
|Prussian-Japanese Treaty of Amity, Commerce and Navigation||日普修好通商条約||1861||Prussia|
|Treaty of Amity, Commerce and Navigation between Austria and Japan||日墺修好通商航海条約||1868||Austria-Hungary||Japan|
|Spanish-Japanese Treaty of Amity, Commerce and Navigation||日西修好通商航海条約||1868||Spain|
|Retrocession following the Triple Intervention
Convention of retrocession of the Liaodong Peninsula
|English name||Korean name|
|Japan–Korea Treaty of 1876
(Treaty of Ganghwa)
|강화도 조약 (江華島條約)||1876||Japan||Joseon dynasty|
|United States–Korea Treaty of 1882||조미수호통상조약 (朝美修好通商條約)||1882||United States|
|Japan–Korea Treaty of 1882
(Treaty of Chemulpo)
|제물포 조약 (濟物浦條約)||1882||Japan|
|China–Korea Treaty of 1882
(Joseon-Qing Communication and Commerce Rules)
|조청상민수륙무역장정 (朝淸商民水陸貿易章程)||1882||Qing dynasty|
|Germany–Korea Treaty of 1883||조독수호통상조약 (朝獨修好通商條約)||1883||Germany|
|United Kingdom–Korea Treaty of 1883||조영수호통상조약 (朝英修好通商條約)||1883||United Kingdom|
|Russia–Korea Treaty of 1884||조로수호통상조약 (朝露修好通商條約)||1884||Russia|
|Italy–Korea Treaty of 1884||조이수호통상조약 (朝伊修好通商條約)||1884||Italy|
|Japan–Korea Treaty of 1885
(Treaty of Hanseong)
|France–Korea Treaty of 1886||조불수호통상조약 (朝佛修好通商條約)||1886||France|
|Austria–Korea Treaty of 1892||조오수호통상조약 (朝奧修好通商條約)||1892||Austria-Hungary|
|Belgium–Korea Treaty of 1901||조벨수호통상조약 (朝白修好通商條約)||1901||Belgium||Korean Empire|
|Denmark–Korea Treaty of 1902||조덴수호통상조약 (朝丁修好通商條約)||1902||Denmark|
|Japan–Korea Treaty of 1904||한일의정서 (韓日議定書)||1904||Japan|
|Japan–Korea Agreement of August 1904||제1차 한일협약 (第一次韓日協約)||1904||Japan|
|Japan–Korea Agreement of April 1905||1905||Japan|
|Japan–Korea Agreement of August 1905||1905||Japan|
|Japan–Korea Treaty of 1905
||제2차 한일협약 (第二次韓日協約)
|Japan–Korea Treaty of 1907||제3차 한일협약 (第三次韓日協約)
|Japan–Korea Treaty of 1910||한일병합조약 (韓日倂合條約)||1910||Japan|
In 2018, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad criticized the terms of the bilateral infrastructure projects under the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative in Malaysia and urged the Chinese negotiators to reassess them through invoking the historical memory of China's unequal treaties. Stating that "they know that when they lend big sums of money to a poor country, in the end they may have to take the project for themselves," he appealed that "China knows very well that it had to deal with unequal treaties in the past imposed upon China by Western powers. So China should be sympathetic toward us. They know we cannot afford this".