The British state at the margins of empire
: extraterritoriality and governance in treaty port China, 1842-1927

  • Alex Thompson

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Existing studies of British expansion in China have often limited their exploration of the role of the state mostly to diplomatic and military actions. This thesis provides the first comprehensive account and assessment of another important aspect of this expansion: the British state’s role in implementing a project of governance over British subjects at the treaty ports. The fact of extraterritoriality – the principle that the nationals of foreign powers were subject to their own government’s law rather than that of the state within the boundaries of which they were situated – is well known. But consular jurisdiction, the implementation in practice of the principle of extraterritoriality, has not been the subject of much research. This thesis describes the British state institutions and practices which were created to implement consular jurisdiction in China. It shows the factors that prompted and shaped the institutions and practices as they developed at the treaty ports, paying particular reference to the role played by the need to manage marginal British subjects, viewed as problem populations, in that process. It then demonstrates how the state’s response to such groups shaped the development of the treaty ports, especially Shanghai, both by means of the formation of connections within the treaty ports and beyond, and also in the way that the state’s actions had clear repercussions which shaped the nature of the treaty ports as distinctively colonial spaces. Previous studies of foreign involvement in the treaty ports, often working with the concept of informal empire, have overlooked the role of the British state in the development of colonialism in treaty port China, beyond diplomatic and military interventions. The thesis questions such approaches and suggests that it is essential to understand the role of the British state in any assessment of the nature and effects of colonialism in China.
Date of Award25 Sept 2018
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Bristol
SupervisorVictoria L Bates (Supervisor) & Robert Bickers (Supervisor)

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