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) and various European powers, such as the British Empire, France, the German Empire, and the Russian Empire, as well as Japan and the United States. The agreements, often reached after a military defeat, contained one-sided terms, requiring China to cede land, pay reparations, open treaty ports, or 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. Dong Wang (王栋), a professor of contemporary and modern Chinese history, noted 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'."
Historian 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".
In response, historian Elizabeth Cobbs writes in American Umpire, her argument that "democratic capitalism" has never engaged in imperialism: "Ironically, however, the treaties also resulted partly from China's initial reluctance to consider any treaties whatsoever, since it viewed all other nations as inferior. It did not wish to be equal."
In many cases, China was effectively forced to pay large amounts of financial reparations, open up ports for trade, cede or lease territories (such as Outer 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 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 started to reassess the policy approach towards China. In 1907 Germany suggested a 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. China declared war on Germany on August 17 1917.
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, China refused to sign the Peace Treaty of Versailles. On May 20, 1921, China secured with the German-Chinese peace treaty (Deutsch-chinesischer Vertrag zur Wiederherstellung des Friedenszustandes), 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. The United States Congress ended American extraterritoriality in December 1943. Significant examples outlasted World War II: treaties regarding Hong Kong remained in place until Hong Kong's 1997 handover, and in 1969, to improve Sino-Soviet relations in the wake of military skirmishes along their border, the People's Republic of China reconfirmed the 1858 Treaty of Aigun.
When the American Commodore Matthew Perry reached Japan in 1854, it signed the Convention of Kanagawa. Its importance was limited. Much more important was the Harris Treaty of 1858 negotiated by U.S. envoy Townsend Harris.
Korea's first unequal treaty was not with the West but instead with Japan. The Ganghwa Island incident, 1875, saw Japan send Captain Inoue Yoshika and the warship Un'yō with the implied threat of military action to coerce the Korean Kingdom of Joseon. 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.
Main article: Treaty of Kyakhta (1915)
|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|
|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 Protocol of August 1904||제1차 한일협약 (第一次韓日協約)||1904||Japan|
|Japan-Korea Protocol of April 1905||1905||Japan|
|Japan-Korea Protocol 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 compared Chinese Belt and Road Initiative infrastructure projects in Malaysia to unequal treaties. He said "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," and "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".