Reflections on times past and present (I)

One birthday present that has given me great pleasure this last while is the new book by Margaret MacMillan, The War that ended Peace. It is a very comprehensive account of the events that led up to the First World War, and is a useful reminder of attitudes that no longer exist. Or have they?

Take the notion of imperialism. On reading this book, it’s amazing to see how casually the Great Powers discussed carving up independent states such as Morocco, Siam (now Thailand) and China. As China’s history is of special importance to Jennifer and me, I’ve put together a short sketch of what’s been going on then and now.

China imperialism cartoon

It’s hard to believe these days that a nation such as the Qing Dynasty could be carved up like a pizza (as shown above) into various spheres of influence, together with their related concessions and treaty ports which were governed like colonies (even though they were never officially regarded as such).

KCRC China spheres of influence

An even more complicated arrangement was seen in Shanghai, where several concessions were merged into the Shanghai International Settlement, which can be seen in relation to the French Concession and the Old City of Shanghai.

Shanghai 1935 S1 AMS-WO

And let’s not forget Hong Kong and Macau, together with the rest of the Pearl River Delta. Even before the handover in 1997, Hong Kong was not a single colony: that was restricted to Hong Kong Island together with Kowloon (except for the Chinese enclave of Kowloon Walled City), and the New Territories and surrounding islands were leased from China.

It would be nice to think that all of this is now in the past, but you would be mistaken. Things are just as complex now, both inside China and beyond.

Hong Kong and Macau are now regarded as Special Administrative Regions that are governed separately, and Shenzen and Zhuhai also have separate status as Special Economic Zones. Shenzen and Guangzhou (which we used to call Canton) are also designated as sub-provincial cities that have special economic and legal status,¬† and Foshan is regarded as a prefecture-level city, which attracts a preferred status as well. At least, that’s the simplified framework for what’s going on now.

Pearl River Delta Area

There are some disputes as to how large China really is. The map below lists the territory claimed by the Republic of China (which we now call Taiwan, although the People’s Republic of China would argue that point). The PRC has settled the territorial issues with Mongolia and the former Soviet Union, but the other areas are still active:

ROC Administrative and Claims

The disputes are not just on land. Here is a map listing the overlapping areas claimed by the Mainland, Taiwan, Korea and Japan in the East China Sea:

JADIZ and CADIZ and KADIZ in East China Sea

And here are the issues in the South China Sea. The PRC claim is shown by the green “nine-dotted line“:

9 dotted line

And those are just the formal issues. Let’s not forget the informal extent of China, which was been referred to as the “Bamboo network“:


Perhaps we are now seeing imperialism from a different angle these days, and how far will this go? All of this is worth keeping in mind when you hear of what is happening there these days.