Guangzhou (Canton), China’s major trading port, in the late nineteenth century. Guangzhou was the only port open to foreign trade until the end of the First Opium War. In the five designated “treaty ports” that opened in 1842 as a result of the war, foreign concessions operated under the laws of their own land.

Extraterritoriality, the principle that allows foreigners to be governed by the laws of their own land, was prevalent in China during the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Although the principle needed clarification through several treaties, both the Qing dynasty and the foreign countries with a presence in China kept the practice in place until the Nationalists came into power in 1927.

Extraterritoriality was the principle by which foreigners in China were governed by the laws of their own country, as enforced by their consuls, rather than by Chinese law. In the early nineteenth century Britain was reluctant to allow its subjects to be tried or punished under Chinese law (which allowed judicial torture), and exemption from Chinese justice was one of the British goals in fighting the First Opium War (1839–1842). Extraterritoriality was first included in the 1843 Supplementary Treaty of the Bogue between China and Britain and then expanded to other foreign powers in later treaties.

For both the Qing dynasty (1644–1912) and foreigners extraterritoriality was a familiar way of dealing with different legal systems. Europeans in the Ottoman Empire had long enjoyed immunity from Ottoman law under the Capitulations—a series of agreements that governed the treatment of foreigners in the Ottoman Empire. Chinese governments had a long history of encouraging foreign merchants in China to govern their own affairs, and treaties with the Russians had granted mutual extraterritoriality since the Treaty of Nerchinsk in 1689. Extraterritoriality was at first fairly uncontroversial, and later treaties expanded and clarified how it was to work.

But the Chinese became increasingly unhappy with extraterritoriality and the treaty system in general as nationalist sentiment grew in the twentieth century. Foreigners had worked to expand the authority of the Mixed Court, which handled cases involving both Chinese and foreigners, since its establishment, and after the 1911 revolution it became effectively autonomous. At the same time Chinese popular opinion was demanding the end of foreign privileges. After the Russian Revolution the new Soviet government renounced its treaty rights as a way of winning support in China.

Treaty revision, changing the basis of China’s relationship with foreign powers, was a major part of China’s diplomacy in the first part of the twentieth century. Extraterritoriality was one of the most offensive parts of the treaties for Chinese Nationalists because many Chinese came to see it as part of an assertion of cultural superiority of non-Chinese. Chinese governments made abolition of extraterritoriality one of their main goals in negotiations with foreign powers. Chinese legal reforms were driven in part by a desire to make extraterritoriality seem unnecessary to foreigners. Chinese governments drew attention to the many abuses of extraterritoriality, including Chinese gangsters’ fondness for taking Portuguese citizenship to avoid Chinese law and the widespread smuggling of opium and morphine by Japanese and Koreans protected by extraterritoriality.

After 1927 the new Nationalist government rapidly convinced the minor powers to give up extraterritoriality, and many of the smaller foreign concessions were returned. Although negotiations toward the end of extraterritoriality with Britain and the United States made progress, Japan’s unwillingness to relinquish its position made a general settlement impossible. Extraterritoriality was finally abolished in 1943 as part of the wartime alliance between China and the United States.

Further Reading

Cassel, P. (2003, December 2). Excavating extraterritoriality: The “judicial sub-prefect” as a prototype for the Mixed Court in Shanghai. Late Imperial China, 24(2), 156–182.

Chan, K. C. (1977). The abrogation of British extraterritoriality in China, 1942–43: A study of Anglo-American-Chinese relations. Modern Asian Studies, 11, 257–291.

Stevens, T. (1992). Order and discipline in China: The Shanghai Mixed Court 1911–27. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Source: Baumler, Alan. (2009). Extraterritoriality. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 791–792. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Extraterritoriality (Zhìwàif?quán ????)|Zhìwàif?quán ???? (Extraterritoriality)

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