Guest blog: Alex Thompson on British Law and Governance in Treaty Port China

Our latest blog comes from Dr Alex Thompson who studied Chinese at the University of Leeds and in Beijing. He has worked for the British government in China and also as a legal professional in the UK. He obtained his PhD in History from the University of Bristol in 2018. His book British Law and Governance in Treaty Port China 1842-1927:Consuls, Courts and Colonial Subjects will be published shortly by Amsterdam University Press.

Empire Day Parade, British Consulate General, Shanghai, 1926. Photograph Eugene Kobza, Archibald Lang Collection, HPC AL-s45

This photograph from the HPC collection, shown on the cover of my forthcoming book, was published in the North-China Herald (a Shanghai newspaper) in June 1926. We might wonder what a reader leafing through the paper would have made of the scene, which shows the British Consul-General for Shanghai, Sir Sidney Barton, inspecting a detachment from the Sikh Branch, Shanghai Municipal Police, at the combined Empire Day and King’s Birthday Parade held in the grounds of the British Consulate-General in Shanghai in 1926. The answer, I suspect, is not much: this was a very typical scene of British ceremonial, showing just one event from a calendar of celebrations and parades repeated year after year by the British at Shanghai in the period covered in my book.

But the photograph does show something that might surprise and interest us: we see an employee of the British state in China inspecting not a detachment of British marines, but a group of employees of the Shanghai Municipal Council (SMC), the ‘international’ body that governed the Shanghai International Settlement. The picture portrays quite neatly the particular way that power was exercised in Shanghai, by what I describe as a hybrid colonial state, in which the British state and the SMC were the key players. The SMC may have been the Shanghai International Settlement’s governing body in most areas, but it relied very heavily, as I show in my book, on the British state to perform its functions.

British consuls and British judges exercised jurisdiction in legal matters over British subjects in China, and British consuls also sat as assessors (effectively judges) in mixed courts, such as at Shanghai, which dealt with cases involving Chinese at the treaty ports. These British officials used their powers in a variety of ways to assist the SMC in governing Shanghai, ensuring that Sikh policemen were kept in line, that the Mixed Court handed down judgements supportive of SMC objectives and that a legal framework existed which facilitated the huge levels of investment of foreign and Chinese capital in Shanghai.

British officials and SMC leaders did not always agree on every issue. For example, the SMC wanted a Mixed Court over which it would effectively exercise judicial control, whereas the British Consul at Shanghai at the time the Court was created (Harry Parkes) insisted that a foreign consular official (usually British) play that role. There were also serious disagreements over whether the Chinese government should be able to tax Chinese residents of the International Settlement. But in the case of the latter question, while the Consul strenuously opposed the SMC having control over such matters, the British judge (Edmund Hornby) was supportive of the Council.

In return for its support of the SMC, the British state gained enormous influence over the way Shanghai was governed and British official and commercial interests alike benefitted from the infrastructure the SMC provided. And as the photo shows, both British officials and the SMC certainly appear to have been in agreement over the benefit of deploying their resources towards displays of British power and prestige at Shanghai.

‘Mr Barton inspecting the troops [sic] in the King’s Birthday parade at the Consulate’, North-China Herald, 12 June 1926, p. 468. As the accompanying article made clear, these were police, not soldiers.

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