Kouang Tchéou Wan: the French concession that wanted to compete with Hong Kong


The celebration of the sixtieth anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between France and the People's Republic of China (January 27, 1964) invites us to look back on the long history of the link between the two countries and, in particular, on a little-known episode: that of Kouang Tcheou Wan (KTW).

In 1899, France signed a 99-year lease with China for the acquisition of this 1 km territory.2, populated by approximately 200 people, located on the Leizhou Peninsula in southern mainland China. KTW should therefore have been returned in 000, shortly after the return of Hong Kong to the Chinese fold. But it was from 1946. This part of the history of the French presence in China is the symbol of a failure of French expansion on the Asian continent.

The establishment of a French concession in this region is the result of a Chinese policy of economic development: in the 19th centurye century, China decided to cede parts of its territory to foreign powers in order to facilitate its economic development through investment. This is how Russia (Lushunkou, 1897), Prussia (Qingdao, 1898) and the United Kingdom (Hong Kong, 1898) established themselves in China.

By the lease signed on November 16, 1899, Paris administratively attached this territory to Indochina, established in 1887, and named its capital Fort-Bayard (today Zhanjiang), a small coastal town. The Kouang Tchéou Wan concession was made through a exchange of letters and not via a treaty, demonstrating the great prudence of China, which specifies in these letters that "this rental will not affect China's sovereignty rights over the conceded territories", that is to say that Beijing will fully regain control 99 years later.

A concession to strategic issues

By obtaining this concession, France aimed to compete with the economic development of the British established in Hong Kong a year earlier. Paul Doumer, then governor general of Indochina, chose this bay where the rich subsoil had been prospected by a French explorer in 1896 but which had been described in British maps as a "hopeless bay".

Before Kouang Tchéou Wa, France already had concessions in China like Shanghai (1849-1946), Canton (1861-1946), Tianjin (1861-1946) or even Hankou/Wuhan (1886-1943). These previous concessions, however, prohibited the construction of a port intended for the French navy, so as not to compete with existing installations (in Canton or Shanghai), hence the choice of KTW, where there was no industrial port.

From this port, France could export mining products, control maritime traffic in the South China Sea to better export, avoid smuggling and eliminate pirates. (a few hundred according to the press of the time. The Fort-Bayard lighthouse, built in 1904, is emblematic of this strategy.

Postcard with the Nao Tchéou lighthouse. 1905. Wikimedia

A French chamber of commerce was opened in 1930. France administratively organized the territory by replacing local mandarins, by recording the population and weapons in circulation, by setting up a tax and customs system as well as a judicial system. and an intelligence service to prevent the risks of uprisings and learn about piracy. The French presence also takes on a military dimension with the installation of three marine infantry battalions, an artillery section, a battalion of Chinese riflemen and a Chinese militia.

Weak development and the end of the French presence

KTW will grow slowly and will not experience the same economic success as Hong Kong. The total population failed to exceed 200 inhabitants (including only a hundred French people). From the start, development was threatened by lack of funding and hostility from residents. Civil servants do not always receive their pay, and the supply of coal to passing ships is difficult while telegraph facilities are slow.

KTW thus passes for a "forgotten territory of the Navy"marked by a certain isolation and a gloomy daily life according to Charles Broquet, a Navy doctor stationed in Kouang Tchéou Wan. Epidemics of plague and dysentery make life there difficult, especially as pirates, who notably to kidnappings, remain a constant threat.

In terms of economic exchanges, exports are mainly oriented towards Hong Kong, which does not impose customs duties, to the detriment of Indochina. Distance also plays a role, with KTW being a 22-hour drive from Hong Kong and 48 hours from Haiphong, the nearest Indochinese coastal city. KTW thus simply becomes a satellite of Hong Kong. The trade turnover is however three times higher than that of La Rochelle but only corresponds to a quarter of the traffic of the Aquitaine port (the goods being more expensive and rarer).

According to the geographer Andrée Choveaux, agriculture nevertheless progressed significantly during the period. Before the arrival of France, local rice production was not sufficient for local consumption and had made the development of new rice fields essential to meet growing needs.

At the same time, the cultivation of potatoes and salt and fishing also experienced development, while cotton could not be developed due to the climate and in particular frequent typhoons. The establishment of sugar mills, tanneries and brickworks supplemented the local industry. However, the Bank of Indochina, which then had the monopoly on issuing currency in the French colonies of Asia and the Pacific, did not settle in KTW until 1925, a sign of an economic weak and uninteresting local area.

After the First World War, France wanted to end its presence in China and refocus on Indochina, realizing that KTW would not compete with Hong Kong, whose population had doubled, reaching more than 600 inhabitants. In 000, faced with Japanese imperialist pressure having had its sights set on the Chinese coasts for several decades, France considered transforming KTW into a war port. However, the credits did not follow, in particular because of the economic crisis of the 1925s, and the project never saw the light of day.

In 1943, the territory was occupied by Japan. On August 18, 1945, in Chongqing, France and Republic of China (the regime which preceded the PRC) sign an act of handover of the territory. The French flag was removed on November 20, 1945 and the town of Fort-Bayard changed its name to Zhanjiang. The idea of ​​retrocession had been mentioned as early as 1922, but France campaigned for a general retrocession of all foreign concessions, described in 1924 as "unequal treaties" by Sun Yat Sen, first president of the Republic of China, highlighting their discriminatory and unbalanced nature. A first British concession, Wei-Ha-Wei, ended up being handed over in 1930 after 7 years of negotiations.

French heritage

In 1940, France inaugurated a bronze monument in memory of the six-month stopover at KTW of the ship Amphitrite in 1701-1702 during its second voyage to China. Today, not much remains of the French presence, apart from a few Chinese monuments, some of which symbolize hostility to the former colonial power.

Monument to the anti-French resistance. Vmenkov/Wikimedia

The daily life of the French people there has left an image tarnished by the trafficking of absinthe and opium, of which KTW was a hub. For the historian specializing in the territory Antoine Vaniere, the concession was managed like a colony but with opacity and profiteering. France had locally trained executives and a French-speaking elite of a thousand people, with a French bilingual teaching high school. However, the Francophonie quickly declined in the 1960s, when speaking French was considered an imperialist attitude.

Conversely, for Alfred Bonnengue, a fervent defender of French colonialism, the French presence was a source of benefits with advances in the areas of health (hospitals), public education (Albert Sarraut college) or security (peace, justice with new courts and suppression corporal punishment). The author makes a comparison with the investments made in Niger which had a population five times larger, but where French investments were less than 40% of those made in KTW.

French heritage is still found today through the Catholic religion, practiced by approximately 5% of the population in Zhanjiang. Finally, in 2014, the city of Zhanjiang built a “French-style” street on the theme of travel and leisure to develop tourism. This renovation is part of a broader policy which promises to protect and renovate old French-style buildings (police, church, chamber of commerce, lighthouse), and to promote the development of the fashion sector.

Zhanjiang today

After the departure of the French, Zhanjiang developed rapidly: a naval base was built in 1956 by the Chinese government which housed a war fleet there. Its strategic location on the coast of the China Sea quickly made the city prosper, whose port allows it to trade with a hundred other cities in China and elsewhere in Asia and the rest of the world.

In 1984, China opened the Zhanjiang Economic and Technological Development Zone, thus allowing the city to receive foreign investors. This area also favors the establishment of biotechnology and IT companies. The shipyard, automobile, electrical and textile industries flourished, as did sugar refineries, flour mills and chemical factories. Tourism is also developing, with the inauguration of amusement parks. Today, Zhanjiang maintains close relations with Taiwan, particularly in the agricultural sector, thus strengthening its strategic role.

The French presence in Kouang Tchéou Wan of China remains a failure, not to mention fiasco. The parallel with Hong Kong is striking: almost comparable in size – each is now home to around 7 million inhabitants – the two sites have experienced completely different destinies and the more daring British economic policy has a lot to do with it.

Stephane Aymard, Research engineer, La Rochelle University

This article is republished from The Conversation under Creative Commons license. Read theoriginal article.

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of InfoChrétienne.

Image credit: flickr 

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