Research project: “One Belt, One River”: Maritime and Inland River Trade in Guangdong and Guangxi Provinces (1897–1926)


This project is funded by the Faculty Development Scheme (FDS) 2017/2018 of the Research Grants Council (RGC). The amount awarded is HK$417,626; funding period is 36 months.

Principle Investigator: Dr CHOI Sze-hang, Henry, Assistant Professor of the Department of History

Dr CHOI Sze-hang

Contrary to the present understanding that foreign dominance of China’s maritime and inland river trade was secured through various unequal treaties from 1842 to 1901, even Britain – the most important player in the world and China’s maritime trade –struggled with the fight for ‘equal’ terms for its merchants when competing with Chinese traders after the full establishment of treaty port and foreign-controlled maritime customs systems in China from 1860.Foreign-controlled maritime customs co-existed with Chinese-controlled maritime customs and likin administration throughout China. This enabled Chinese traders to adopt a flexible registration status to evade higher tax charges, requiring even the Mackay Treaty of 1902 to demand equal trading rights, as the British diplomats had in 1860: ‘China agrees that the duties and likin combined levied on goods carried by junks from Hong Kong to the treaty ports in the Canton [Guangdong] Province and vice versa, shall together not be less than the duties charged by the Imperial Maritime Customs on similar goods carried by steamers.’ Ultimately, this clause was not put into practice because not all of the governments involved in the Boxer Protocol of 1901 ratified the same treaty terms with China as the British did. Therefore, Chinese traders could still benefit from the differential taxation system over Chinese junks and foreign steamships. In particular, they could compete with the latter in inland river trade, for which the taxation rate was more important than the speed of transportation.

In this project, Dr. CHOI will address the conflict and cooperation between two aspects of private Chinese maritime trade on the coasts and inland rivers of Guangdong and Guangxi provinces: customs clearance and the registration of steamships under the treaty port and modern maritime customs systems; and vague regulations and flexible business models for Chinese junks and steam launches under the triple maritime zones (foreign colonies, treaty ports and non-treaty ports) and dual maritime customs system (foreign customs, native customs and likin administration). British and other foreign merchants enjoyed the privilege of transit passes that exempted them from further charges when transporting goods to inland China after they paid 2.5% of transit dues to foreign customs. However, the local Chinese authorities and Chinese tax farmers used every means to stop the efficient practice of transit passes in inland China to protect their interests of likin tax income from any ‘Chinese’ vessels and products. Chinese merchants made careful calculations of minimum taxation rates and chose either ‘Chinese’ or ‘foreign’ status accordingly. They borrowed ‘foreign’ status by obtaining foreign registration and a foreign origin for their vessels and cargoes respectively by either paying commission to foreign subjects to gain legal foreign registration papers or by adopting a trade route between the foreign colony of Hong Kong and non-treaty ports in Guangdong and Guangxi provinces.

Dr. CHOI will investigate the trade routes and business models of Chinese junks and steam launches across the porous Hong Kong–China border and the network of treaty and non-treaty ports on the Pearl River, and their significance to maritime trade and the efforts of Chinese players to defend domestic trade by including the Chinese local governments and private Chinese traders in the late Qing and early Republican periods.

Source: May Issue 2018

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