At the start of the twentieth century Britain’s relationship with China was defined by the economic and political dominance Britain exerted in the country...

At the start of the twentieth century Britain’s relationship with China was defined by the economic and political dominance Britain exerted in the country as an imperial power, a dominance that would ebb over the next three decades. In Britain’s Imperial Retreat from China, 1900-1931 (Routledge, 2017), Phoebe Chow describes British views of China during this period and the role that they played in the declension of their imperial presence. Challenging traditional accounts of this process, Chow sees it originating not during the 1920s but earlier, with the burgeoning criticism at the end of the 19th century within Britain itself of her empire. Missionaries and other influential commentators asserted that China was undergoing an “awakening” that required a reconsideration of Britain’s role in the country, a claim that contributed to the decision to end its role in the opium trade there. The First World War accelerated this transformation in Britain’s involvement, as the economic damage caused by the conflict, coupled with the pressure increasingly levied by Chinese nationalists on Britain’s interests in China, forced policymakers to reassess Britain’s presence in the country. The May Thirtieth movement of anti-imperial strikes in 1925 served as confirmation for these imperial skeptics of the need to redefine Britain’s relationship with China, and facilitated the governments adoption of a policy of imperial disengagement there by the end of the decade.

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