Empire in Asia

A New Global History

The End of Extraterritoriality in China

Book Cover

Book Title

The End of Extraterritoriality in China. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1952


Fishel, Wesley R.


Wesley R. Fishel's doctorate dissertation The End of Extraterritoriality in China is a well-crafted and detailed analysis of the many twists and turns in China's road to the abolition of extraterritoriality. It fills out the scope of the topic it had set itself beautifully, namely a study of how extraterritoriality, heavily focused on the British and American example, in China came to be abolished after numerous detours and delays within the US and UK governments from 1917 to 1943. The entire process of terminating extraterritoriality in China can be summed up in one of Fishel's subheadings: “deadlock, renewal and suspension”. By 1917, Fishel makes the case that extraterritoriality had become quite the conundrum for the Western powers, on one hand necessary to protect Western interest in China, on the other an embarrassing, very visible violation of another country's sovereignty. It was something of a hot potato that needed to be handed carefully, and yet, in the post-WWI atmosphere, the UK and the US were left holding the metaphorical bag. By 1928 only the UK, US and France maintained extraterritoriality in China. In trying to explain why it took 26 years to terminate extraterritoriality, Fishel pointed to three main reasons, the lack of a unified government in China to hand authority and responsibility over to, what is referred to as the “exisiting conditions in China”, the reluctance of the Western countries, in a post-WWI atmosphere initially, then on the eve of WWII, to launch any kind of military interference in China, and the rising Chinese nationalism's eager vilification of extraterritoriality, and subsequent “unbending attitude” during negotiations. Fishel's apparent determination to believe in the altruism of American foreign policy with regards to China seems to have blinded him to another factor; that of Chinese weakness, and their inability to make any kind of demands upon the Western powers, which resulted in the long and drawn out process of terminating extraterritoriality. Fishel's writing is sharp and to the point. However, this same advantage becomes a weakness when one considers Fishel's failure to sufficiently and critically situate and contextualise the issue of the ending of extraterritoriality within larger world events of the period. While he does consider major events like WWI, WWII and the rise of nationalism within China, the effort was so brief as to be nearly irrelevant, which is a pity because Fishel quite possibly had honed in on an incident of great interest and significance to empire, imperialism, and decolonisation in modern history. Despite its shortcomings, the book will be enlightening to anyone looking for a detailed understanding of the tail end of extraterritoriality in China, and, read in the context of empire and imperialism, provokes some interesting questions about how extraterritoriality in China fits into the narrative of empire in Asia.

Scope (Topics Covered, Time Period)

The topical and chronological approach is put to effective use here, so that the narrative of a long and, even, convoluted issue is presented in a clear and concise manner. A key contribution made by Fishel is his extensive use of unpublished files of the Department of State on American policy with respect to extraterritoriality, which allowed him to chart the important roles played by key figures such as Frank B. Kellogg and Henry L. Stimson. The inclusion of private papers of the late Silas H. Strawn, American commissioner and chairman of the the Extraterritoriality Commission of 1925-26, is also invaluable. The book follows closely unfolding events which culminated in the abolition of extraterritoriality, with particular focus on, and insights into, the inner workings of the British and American governments as they attempted to navigate and balance national interests and the ideas of sovereignty and international law, which, uncomfortably, they themselves champion in the international arena. Opening with an introduction to the extraterritorial system in China, Fishel moves briskly towards the beginning of the end for extraterritoriality, from the troubled period at the end of China's dynastic history to the rise and strengthening of Chinese nationalism, which Fishel terms “The Era of Uncertainty”. After that, Fishel dealt almost exclusively with the British and American side of the story, from the Washington Conference on 1921 to the treaty revision in 1929 and the abolition in 1943.

Argument (Methodology, Significance)

The book would have benefited hugely from a wider consideration of extraterritoriality, and the motivations behind it, especially its origins. Fishel noted that the early period of extraterritoriality in China has been competently and comprehensively covered in numerous works, and he is right, particularly the Opium Wars. That does not take away from the fact that a study of its origins and development, leading to a broader understanding of the historical experience of extraterritoriality, would deepen any attempts to explain the how and the why of the end of extraterritoriality. Without denying the vast political, social and economic implications of extraterritoriality in China, Fishel sees extraterritoriality as first and foremost a juridical device, and scoped his book accordingly, with lengthy discussions on the legality of, revisions to, and fates (and ends) of the various 'unequal treaties' China was party to. While that may be true of its origins at the very beginning, that is a rather narrow way to approach the subject. Published only a few short years before Fishel embarked on what would be a successful career in foreign and international relations, the highlight of which was his role as advisor Ngo Dinh Diem, then Prime Minister of South Vietnam, as well as his appointment as chief advisor of the Michigan State University Vietnam Advisory Group (MSUG), his keen interest in foreign policy is clearly evident here. His argument that extraterritoriality's ultimate demise was caused by Japan's attack on Pearl Harbour on 9 December 1941 and its subsequent, official, entry into WWII, after 26 years of feet-dragging by the US and the UK, and that its demise possessed only political and propaganda value, all betray Fishel's almost unwavering focus on the foreign policy aspect of extraterritoriality.

Read in the context of empire and imperialism, the implications raised by the end of extraterritoriality seems pregnant with possibilities, even now, more than 60 years after the book's publication. Fishel acknowledges that extraterritoriality in China amounts to “semicolonialism”, and that extraterritoriality was “a ready vehicle for the expansion of their (Westerners) trade and influence”, all of which provides intriguing openings into examining the end of extraterritoriality in relation to empire and imperialism, and more temptingly, decolonisation, none of which Fishel followed up on. The fact that China was never colonised as a whole, but instead had major and minor empires claim chunks of the country as their own, spanning almost the entire period of Western imperialism, from early 19th century to mid 20th century, suggests that much can be made of China's experience of extraterritoriality in relation to the study of empire in Asia. As discussed above, Fishel attributed the eventual demise of extraterritoriality to Japan's entry into WWII, but that is only part of the story. Fishel neglected to account for the fact that while Japan's attack on Pearl Harbour took place on 9 December 1941, the British only opened extraterritoriality negotiations in April 1942, during which Japan attacked, and emerged victorious, British, American and Dutch colonies in Malaya, Singapore, the Philippines and Indonesia. It could certainly be argued that the success of Japan's campaign in Southeast Asia, more so than its attack on Pearl Harbour, pushed the British and the US into ending extraterritoriality in China. While the motivation would still center around such a move's political and propaganda value, it would be with an eye towards mitigating the damaging effects of the loss of the colonies, and perhaps even in anticipation of post-war pressures to decolonise. The link between extraterritoriality in China and the period of 'New Imperialism' is not new, as explored by Robert Bickers in his book The Scramble for China: Foreign Devils in the Qing Empire, 1832-1914. The title clearly co-relate events in China and events in Africa, the so-called 'Scramble for Africa', a pivotal period in the development of global Western imperialism. However, Bickers' analysis ends at 1914, and does not examine the end of extraterritoriality, which we know came in 1943. This is likely where scholars of imperialism in China can use Fishel's book as a stepping stone into further areas of research.

Annotated by Amelia Tan