Treaty Port Chinese and the Emergence of New Classes
1. Treaty Ports:
a) Under the unequal treaties signed in the wake of the Opium
Wars, China was obliged to open various ports to Western trade.
b) Within these ports Westerners leased areas of land (known as
‘concessions’) which they then controlled. Because of extra
territoriality, Westerners also needed their own courts and police
forces. They also needed to levy taxes to pay for municipal
services. Certain parts of some Chinese coastal cities thus
became effectively Western controlled.
(The largest example of this was Shanghai. In 1863 the Shanghai
International Settlement was created, which included “two thousand
or more” foreigners. Those foreigners who rented land in the
Settlement were entitled to vote for the Shanghai Municipal Council
which gradually developed all the functions of a city government.
Chinese residents were taxed but not allowed representation.)
a) This new class emerged in the wake of Western economic
penetration and hence were largely based in the treaty ports.
b) The key difference between the compradors and traditional
Chinese merchants is that the compradors were employed by the
Western companies to look after the Chinese side of the
enterprise. In time, some compradors set up as independent
c) Even with independent traders, however, there remained a close
connection with the West. For example, Chinese merchants
trading between one treaty port and another preferred to use
foreign shipping, which was more reliable than Chinese shipping.
In 1865 the HongKong and Shanghai Banking Corporation (HSBC)
was founded and it and other foreign banks financed Chinese
merchants and Chinese banks.
There were many examples of co-operative enterprise. For
example, the “great era of steamboating on the Yangzi” was
started by an American firm – Russell and Company. But the
capital to finance the venture was obtained from – in roughly
i. US investors
ii. Foreigners in China
iii. Chinese merchants and compradors.
d) The significance of the compradors is the potential they held for
China. Fairbank and Reischauer say, “After 1870, economic
growth in the treaty ports was creating resources of investment
capital and entrepreneurial skill which, in favourable
circumstances and in due time, might have been used to bring
China through that critical phase of industrialization”. But it did not happen because of all the problems associated with Self-
e) Hsu puts the emergence of the compradors in the context of the
changing nature of Chinese society in the late nineteenth
century. He describes them as the “new rich” and says, “Their
association with influential foreign firms, their power to
manipulate, their connections and new wealth made them a new
social force compelling recognition.”
f) In Chinese historiography there has been much criticism of the
compradors because they worked for the foreigners and so could
be seen as helping to exploit China or as adopting a humiliating
subservience to their employers. The contrary view is that the
compradors did much to help develop the Chinese economy.
g) Jack Gray, looking at the later period of 1912-38, says modern
research suggests that coastal China had a very impressive
growth rate in this period and that a key group were the
compradors. “…it is the case that the de