Concessions in China

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Concessions in China were a group of ceded territories within China governed and occupied by foreign powers that are frequently associated with colonialism. Most had extraterritoriality and were enclaves inside key cities that became treaty ports. Other than other minor extraterritorial regions, these concessions no longer exist. The sovereignty of the last two European territories in China, Hong Kong and Macau, although not concessions but rather colonies, were transferred to the government of the People's Republic of China in 1997 and 1999 respectively.


China granted the majority of the concessions as a result of the Qing era (1644–1911) series of Unequal Treaties, which began with the 1842 Treaty of Nanking with Great Britain. Under each treaty, China was usually obligated to open more treaty ports for trade and lease out more territory as part of the concession, if not surrender it entirely. The one exception was Macau, which had been leased to Portugal during the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644).

There were a varying number of concessions in each city — Tianjin for example was home to a total of nine at the height of the era. Although the concessions were usually under the control of a single Western power or the Empire of Japan, in the case of the Shanghai International Settlement, Great Britain and the United States merged their concessions while the French maintained a separate jurisdiction.

In these concessions, the citizens of each foreign power were given the right to freely inhabit, trade, proselytise and travel. They developed their own cultures distinct from the rest of China, because each administration would try to make their concession look "like home". Churches, public houses, and various other western commercial institutions sprang up in the concessions. In the case of Japan, its own traditions and language naturally flourished. Ironically, some of these concessions eventually had more advanced architecture of each originating culture than most cities back in the countries of the foreign powers.

Chinese were originally forbidden from most of the concessions, but to improve commercial activity and services, by the 1860s most concessions permitted Chinese, but treated them like second-class citizens as they were not citizens of the foreign state administering the concession. They eventually became the majority of the residents inside the concessions. Non-Chinese in the concessions were generally subject to consular law, and some of these laws applied to the Chinese residents.

Each concession also had its own police force, and different legal jurisdictions with their own separate laws. Thus, an activity might be legal in one concession but illegal in another. Many of the concessions also maintained their own military garrison and standing army. Military and police forces of the Chinese government were sometimes present. Some police forces allowed Chinese; others did not. At the start of the Second Sino-Japanese War, the standing army in the Japanese concessions would be used against Chinese forces.

In major cities like Shanghai and Tianjin, because there were so many jurisdictions in one area criminals could commit a crime in one jurisdiction and easily escape to another. This became a major problem during the Republican era in the early 20th century, with the rise of Chinese warlordism and the collapse of central authority. Crime often flourished, especially organized crime. Some efforts were made by the foreign powers to have the different police forces cooperate and work together, but not with huge success. The image of gangsters and triads conjured up when the major cities and concessions of the era were mentioned is often precisely due to extraterritoriality within the cities.

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Further reading[edit]

  • Nield, Robert (2010). The China Coast: Trade and the First Treaty Ports. Hong Kong: Joint Publishing Company. ISBN 9789620429873.