2012 Conference

China and Inner Asia Session 80

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Treaty Ports, Loans, and Customs: Reconsidering the Narrative of Semi-Colonialism in Modern China - Sponsored by the Historical Society for Twentieth Century China

Organizer: Elya J. Zhang, University of Rochester, USA

Chair: William Kirby, Harvard University, USA

Discussant: Richard P. Madsen, University of California, San Diego, USA

Abstract: China’s 19th century was the century of imperialism, the 20th was the century of battling imperialism, and the 21st is the century of shedding the memory of imperialism. The term “semi-colonialism” is often used because China was never a colony, but the term itself masks conflicts and compromises that call for closer scrutiny. Just how incomplete a process was imperialism? Ultimately, defining the scope of semi-colonialism in China has everything to do with the construction of the modern Chinese nation. This panel addresses the hybridity of political economy in semicolonial China by engaging John Fairbank’s concept of synarchy. Fairbank used the term to describe the late Qing government as a joint administration shared by Chinese and Westerners. This panel carries this notion into the Republican period and discusses the major institutional embodiments of synarchy—treaty ports, foreign loans, and maritime customs. Ernest Young argues that treaty port administrations not only retained their political and fiscal coherence after 1911 but even acted as surrogate governments in turbulent times. Edward McCord testifies to this point through a story of how Yichang (Hubei) residents appealed to the foreign diplomatic community to turn their city into a foreign concession in 1921. Elya Zhang explores how Chinese authorities from 1910 to 1921 sought financial benefits in Japanese loans even under pressure from Japanese military expansion. Emily Hills explains how the exclusivity of Chinese-Western synarchy in the Maritime Customs agency induced massive Japanese-backed smuggling in the 1930s, and possibly contributed to full-scale war in 1937.

Synarchy: What Happened to It?
Ernest P. Young, University of Michigan, USA

Abstract: This paper suggests that our understanding of the treaty system in China from the middle of the nineteenth century well into the twentieth century might benefit from a reconsideration of John K. Fairbank’s concept of synarchy in the Qing period. The first purpose of the paper is to re-introduce Fairbank’s idea of synarchy, to trace his many expressions of the idea over his whole career, and to note its failure to gain traction in the China field. I argue that, in discussions about the impact or significance of imperialism in modern Chinese history, Fairbank’s approach might have something to teach us. A second part of the paper is devoted to exploring ways in which Fairbank’s notion of synarchy, if seen as constitutive of the Sino-foreign treaty system, had a longer life than Fairbank himself described for it. I argue that the treaty system, which survived into the twentieth century and past the 1911 Revolution, had become a part of China’s polity. Even as it was a humiliating and divisive burden for China’s leaders, it was a factor (usually unacknowledged) in holding political pieces together and providing zones of development and safety. If used as a justification of foreign impositions on Chinese sovereignty, Fairbank’s synarchy does not pass muster. But it has some value in drawing attention to the ways the treaty system was jointly administered and, in some of its aspects, had Chinese as well as foreign constituencies.

Synarchy Revisited: A Plea for Internationalization in Warlord China
Edward A. McCord, George Washington University, USA

Abstract: In the wake of a major mutiny by a warlord forces in 1921 that left much of the Yangzi port city of Yichang in ruins, a group of Chinese citizens appealed to the foreign diplomatic community to turn the city into a foreign concession under foreign protection. In a statement that seems shocking in the context of the burgeoning anti-imperialist sentiment that followed the May 4th incident of the previous year, the petitioners concluded that if their wish was granted, “they would make no complaint, even if we become slaves without nationality.” This paper will use this incident to question the conventional narrative, which emerged from the context of the May 4th movement, that has placed warlords and foreign imperialists on the same side of the barricade facing the ire of a united Chinese populace—and thus has also assumed a commonality of interests between warlords and the imperialist powers. This incident suggests that in at least some cases there may have been more common interest between foreigner residents in China in the warlord era and China’s own long-suffering population. The paper seeks to retrofit John King Fairbank’s concept of synarchy to explain how the Chinese people may have both perceived and negotiated the uneven and interpenetrated power relations of the central government, warlord authorities and foreign powers in the Republican era.

Bonds with Japan: Separating Foreign Loans from the Narrative of Colonialism in China, 1910-1921
Elya J. Zhang, University of Rochester, USA

Abstract: In the standard narrative of imperialism in Chinese history, foreign loans are often considered little more than the financial arms of foreign military powers. In other words, foreign banks imposed loans on China and demanded high interest and high collateral, with the intent of making China a client state that must borrow repeatedly to survive. Such debt bondage, and China’s inability to pay its debts, would give the military every pretext to seize more territory and assets, thus perpetuating the cycle. This logic implies a close coordination between bankers and generals. However, the uncritical link between financial activities and military invasion needs to be investigated more closely. This paper examines collectively more than forty loans that were made from Japanese banks to Chinese central and local governments over a decade that coincided with a rapid increase of Japanese imperialism in northern China. What were the terms of interest and collateral demanded in each case, and what were the outcomes? How were these outcomes related to the context of financial competition with the United States and Russia, and what connection (if any) did the loans have with Japanese military incursions? These loans, the Chinese government’s default in 1921, and various foreign responses will contribute to a deeper understanding of colonialism and its different faces in modern China.

Rival Imperialists and the Smuggling Crisis, 1935-1937: Japan confronts the West in China
Emily M. Hill, Queen's University, Canada

Abstract: The paper aims to expand the bilateral interpretive framework usually applied to the origins of full-scale war between China and Japan in 1937. Between 1931 and 1937, Japan’s China policy was increasingly directed against the Chinese-western synarchy that had become a well-established part of Chinese national affairs, most notably in the operations of the Maritime Customs agency. The rise of anti-Japanese sentiment in China caused frustrations for Japanese interests as they were marginalized in the synarchy’s activities after 1931. However the fact that Japan actually attacked the synarchy rather than China alone in events that led directly to full-scale war in 1937 has been forgotten in current narratives. The paper discusses the controversy of 1935 to 1937 over Japanese-backed smuggling in Hebei and elsewhere along the China coast to illuminate Japanese hostility toward China’s accommodation of western interests. Analysis of the internationally alarming smuggling crisis also reveals Chinese efforts to veil the role played by westerners in national fiscal administration. To this day, the accounts of Chinese nationalists have tended to simplify the prewar political situation, continuing to obscure the authority that westerners held and thus avoiding the sensitive notion of Chinese accommodation to that authority. Moreover, the entry of Britain and the United States into the war in 1941 further sanctioned a narrative placing blame solely on Japan and obscuring the complex origins of the East Asian conflict. These simplifications have permitted Euro-American imperialism to cast itself as a benign force that bowed out of China graciously after providing heroic assistance in defeating Japanese imperialism.