Navigating Semi-Colonialism: Shipping, Sovereignty, and Nation-Building in China, 1860–1937, written by Anne Reinhardt. 2018

In: Diplomatica

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Cambridge MA, Harvard University Asia Center. Pp. 395. $49.95 Hardback, isbn 9780674983847.

Opening with the metaphor of the “ship of state,” Anne Reinhardt’s first book offers a fascinating study of the workings of Chinese steamship networks in the aftermath of the two Opium Wars. Introduced as a history of the Chinese experience of industrial imperialism conducted by Europeans, Americans and Japanese in the waning years of the Qing dynasty and the subsequent Chinese Republic, Reinhardt offers a thoughtful and multi-layered history of the steamship as a symbol of industrial imperialism and modernisation. Given the fact that steamships came to China with the onset of the “unequal treaties” and the opening of treaty ports and that these same ships represented the only modern transport network in operation in China until the 1890s (when railways were first introduced), her linkage between the ships as the “technology of industrial imperialism” and as representations of the “foreign” among the Chinese is all too fitting. Across seven chapters, an introduction and conclusion, Reinhardt unpicks the uses and abuses of steamships by local and foreign actors and agents to describe the workings of China’s system of “semi-colonialism” in the period 1860 to 1937.

Where Reinhardt’s study excels is in bringing together the complex web of interconnections that made China’s system of semi-colonial dependence work. By focussing on steamship operations, the book brings out the interplay of agents involved in developing and sustaining China’s semi-dependence on external imperial forces (both commercial and state-led). The book’s greatest contribution then is to acknowledging that neither the Qing dynasty nor the Chinese Republic was subservient to external forces. But neither was China a fully independent state. Utilizing the concept of “semi-colonialism” first introduced by John A. Hobson in the early 1900s, Reinhardt convincingly shows that semi-colonialism worked as a complex balancing act between competing interests and one in which the Chinese state and Chinese people (as consumers, investors and merchants) played key roles. Collaboration with the “foreign” as Reinhardt describes it aimed both at protecting and promoting local, national and indigenous interests and at managing the incursions by foreigners of Chinese sovereignty and political and cultural space.

While the book separates the Qing period from that of the Republic, it stresses continuities and, in so doing, makes a strong case for the importance of Chinese agency across a period that is traditionally cast as one in which the Chinese state failed to modernize effectively. To that end, Chapter 1 describes the opening up of the Yangzi River to steamships in 1861. The chapter describes the heightened demand for steamship services, the establishment of the Qing’s own China Merchant Steam Navigation Company and the constant diplomatic negotiation involved in managing foreign demands for greater commercial access. Above all, Reinhard makes a convincing case for the central importance the Qings placed on sustaining their sovereignty over China, which they managed by placing strict rules on the movement of steamships (including their own). Their success in doing so meant that by 1911, 90 percent of inland river traffic was carried by Chinese steamships.

Chapter 2 focuses on the establishment and activities of steamship businesses in China. While initially the Yangzi supported companies from all over the world, by the 1870s, British and Chinese firms dominated the steamship routes. By 1882, three steamship companies (two British, one Chinese) divided up these routes, so that they could thrive in support of each other, rather than as direct competition. The three companies dominated the steamship industry until the 1930s. Reinhard describes the nature of this inter-company collaboration and its role in “semi-colonialism” in Chapter 3 and focusses on the ‘shipping conference’ as a means of sustaining their collective dominance over the rest. She explains how the agreement between the “Three Companies” helped to guard against the expansion of other foreign companies, particularly from out of Japan, France and Germany.

Chapter 4 directs its focus slightly differently by analysing steamships as novel social spaces in which hierarchies of race, class and gender prevailed. The ships replicated not only the semi-colonial hierarchy of power and order but also the global “colour line” (as Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds might describe it). The social spaces of the steamships thus confirmed foreigners’ views of global hierarchies but not those of local Chinese, who were, in the words of Reinhard, “completely confounded” by the social world sustained on board (p. 135).

In Chapters 5 and 6, Reinhard returns to the commercial and state-led management of the steamship business after the onset of the Chinese Republic in 1911. She pays particular attention to the rise of the concept of Chinese nationalism and how the steamship played a key role in popular politics as a symbol of the “foreign” (and thus a target for rebellion, strikes and attack). The growth of national steamship companies also helped to solidify Chinese control over steamship operations in the 1920s. When the Nationalists came to power in 1927, they propelled the nationalisation of steamship operations as a clearly anti-imperial development. Chapter 7, then, returns to the theme of social spaces and highlights how the shift to nationalisation helped to redefine the ‘world’ onboard the steamships as well and the ultimate shift to decolonising the steamships, like China itself, after the Second World War.

Reinhardt offers us a well-written, well-researched and useful portrait of the complexities of China’s period of semi-colonialism. There is much to praise here, not least that the book is an engaging read. From my perspective, the book need not have included a comparison with India at the end of each chapter: while the comparison has some use, it also detracts from the cohesiveness of the Chinese story. This is a small quibble, for the book is excellent and highly recommended for anyone with interests in China, in imperialism, in shipping and in the multifarious impacts of technological and industrial change.

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